Cosmic coincidence or conspiration? Go figure... SIEBEN's last album, 2020 VISION, was recorded just before half of the world was in virus lockdown and sounds like the perfect soundtrack for it since the first track, with this surrealistic dialog between the artist and Kev, his new violin. Matt Howden talks to us about it and shares about his amazing free weekly online concerts that you absolutely must check on his youtube channel or via his live albums on bandcamp. The wonderful punk-chaman is generous, facetious and engaged as usual. We choose a few songs to go with this interview, don't hesitate to click on the players while reading.
How do you do Matt ? How do you cope with the current situation, after several weeks confined at home?
I’m good, thanks. I teach in a music technology college (teaching mixing, mastering, performance, arrangement etc) so that’s now all moved online. And I was about to play several European dates and release an album, so that’s moved online now. I’ve managed to self-isolate myself in my own studio, with the sheer weight of work I now have! I play online each Friday at 8pm via my SIEBEN fb page. And I’m now working on a series of ten albums in Lockdown – the LOCKDOWN SIEBEN series.
Let's talk about 2020 VISION. You must be a seer : its first track could be the perfect lockdown soundtrack, with this surrealist dialog between you and your violin ! What a "happy" coincidence!
Sadly so. If ‘seers’ these days simply look out the window, or occasionally check the news (back in the day incantations and visions were necessary prerequisites). It’s all so painfully obvious, from the way we are abusing the earth and environment. The crazy systems we have tied outselves in with. The endless ‘more’ of GPD and, well, everything…
When you released Crumbs, you told us that you couldn't get rid of what's happening in the real world and that's why it was so grounded in reality. Would you say the same thing about 2020 VISION, despite its extravaganza or even its madness?
Absolutely, though the difference here is one brought about by the self-preservation of my own sanity. Crumbs implored, questioned, got angry about the world. 2020 VISION has more the air of ‘really?’ ‘you’re really going to do that?’ ‘well, get on with it, then, the sooner the world is rid of us, the better’, with even more of a ‘tongue in cheek’ element sugaring the clusterfuck lazy-apocalypse vibe of the actual world.
The album is not really optimistic, but I felt some kind of resignation in it, as if everything is now too absurd to even care anymore. What is your current state of mind ? Are you still in a revolutionary mood or... are we really definitely fucked?
I absolutely still care. But when I reason with the world, or ‘put it too right’ in my head then the true absurdity of it all is ever present in my thoughts. And humour is a good way out of mild despair. And these things are always ‘abstracted’ by life- love my family, job, house, work, neighbourhood, city. They aren’t all falling apart. But at the edges we can see the beginnings of how we have tilted this world on its axis, with the greed of just a few people.
Your songs on Crumbs and 2020 Vision are shorter than the ones on The Old Magic. Is it because of their energy and their present-day vibe?
Yeah, I reckon. I always like to ‘mix it up’ with my album sounds. And these called for a more ‘punk’ ‘get in and get out’ style of arrangement. And my earlier stuff has often been more ‘ritual’, for want of a better term- a more hypnotic and dream-like vibe. They were stories to ‘fall into’- the new albums have stories aimed to slap you awake, in a pleasant way !
2020 VISION is apocalyptic but its melodies, its rythms and its humor also make it very pleasant to listen. Is the end of the world a good thing?
Seems a bit of shame after humanity’s put in all that effort for centuries, and done some pretty good stuff if you ignore all the ignorance, fear, divisions, schisms, slaughters, war and massacres, n’est pas? I mean, I wouldn’t have bothered putting up trellis and painting the front of my house if I was delighted by the prospect of apocalypse. There are indeed some elements of Lockdown and what we’ve had to do with Coronavirus that are positive- the world was slower and quieter, at least for a while. Nature had some chance to recover. The endless stream of everything being curtailed, in part. It may spark more thoughts of ‘why do we live like this?’, if nothing else.
If we don't mind the lyrics, many tracks are very catchy, danceable and unifying. How do you balance this entertaining side and its more depressive and scary substance?
Introducing Kev as the humour element certainly helped. Trying hard not to preach or rant, treading a fine line between the truly horrific and the absurd. And ‘mixing and matching’ songs in the album order, so that I’m not hitting you with heavy all the time.
How does it feel to make people dance to the sound of the Apocalypse?
It’s as valid as “ooh baby, I love/loath/want/need/got to get you”, and perhaps a less travelled path. As said, I simply look out of the window and find this stuff is happening. People are now starting to say I brought about Brexit with Crumbs, and Covid-19 with 2020 VISION – so the next album will definitely called “And then the world got a puppy each and managed to solve all inequity, discrimination, poverty, hunger, greed, nastiness, war, famine, environmental catastrophe, and they all lived happily ever after”.
It may have to only be on vinyl as the title won’t fit on a CD, though
I have a friend who uses the same looper as you. She told me that she recognized some presets she would never dare to use but was amazed to see how good they sound in your music. How do you end up using those elements that seem so unusual, offbeat or surprising?
I use only the effects built in the RC300 (pretty much only delay, octave down, and the ‘stutter’ effect) mainly for practical live reasons- not having the space in my bag to take more stuff, for European concerts, for instance – my bag is already stuffed full with looper, double distortion pedal (the only other pedal I have, aside from a controller switch that feeds my mic into the loop, or not. And in-ear monitors, clothes and merch! I also use the built in high-hats on some tracks, just to stick to the rhythm and nail the loop right. They also cut through better than any sound I can make on the violin- the closest I get is with my mouth into the mic, making the hi-hat and snare sounds.
Building your tracks loops after loops must be something special. How do you deal with the anxiety of doing too much and end up being "boring"?
Often I aim shorter so as not to bore people – maybe at a concert where people don’t really know me etc. But as with my weekly online concerts it’s a ‘home crowd’ and people have actually been urging me to do lengthier versions. I did this, very much so on my Summer Solstice concert. I’m putting all these online for anyone to see after, too, on my Youtube channel.
Do you try to keep each layer earable and intelligible?
Sometimes I want that. And it may mean re-playing in a certain line to bring it up to volume. I manage this ‘on the fly’ in the background, without actually consciously thinking about it, I think. Other times I want the new line to over-write the old line, so use a combination of different drives and volumes on my input signal to make things louder or more dominant in the loop.
When you compose your songs, do you have in mind the fact that you'll have to play them live, in front of an audience ? Do you worry about keeping people's attention when you're on stage?
Yes, I like them to be played live. About six from each album actually make it to live concerts. And it used to be that when I wrote a new album I’d forget how to play some older material, live! Like my brain didn’t have enough storage capacity. All the work online at home has changed that, though, and I’m now up to knowing around 56 of my songs for performing live. I’m aiming for 72, and currently re-learning some of my material from Sex & Wildflowers and other albums, so that I have enough for 8 volumes of LOCKDOWN SIEBEN.
I guess many artists took advantage of this lockdown to create . Is it your case ? Do you already have your next album in mind?
He he, yes, see above. Actually, LOCKDOWN SIEBEN will be ten digital (and eventually CD boxset) albums, 8 volumes of songs re-worked with Kev, live from my home in socks, and a set akin to the Summer Solstice set where I extend the loops and play a bit more ritually with it.
Will you keep talking about the real world so explicitly in your music or has it become too depressing?
Dunno! A million miles from my thoughts currently. I shall start work on another album in 2021, perhaps. But with 2020 VISION, 10 LOCKDOWN SIEBEN volumes to record, 10 online concerts already recorded, and 19 individual song videos added to my youtube already, I should probably take some time off... But I won’t!
You played live several times form your home during this lockdown. I was really surprised because it was paradoxically very friendly, communicative and warmhearted. Not only you're alone on "stage" but you litterally invite people in your intimacy. How did it feel for you to play in front of your camera?
The first concert was the only one where I felt the divide- I hadn’t even considered the fact that when you end a song with a big ‘tah-dah’ there is only complete silence and a ‘tumbleweed’ moment. Even within that first concert I thought ‘fuck this’ and have been working hard to devise ways that capture that togetherness of a concert. Some elements are far better than in the real world: I can sing through a sensitive studio mic, which you can’t at most live venues. People can type-talk without disturbing the artist. A fabulous, warm and lovely community has sprung up around LOCKDOWN SIEBEN that is so heart-warming and nourishing for me. People have said that I’ve been a lifeline to them during Lockdown, which is lovely, but in truth they’ve been a lifeline for me and my creative output, which is such an integral part of who I am.
Many people liked your "shirt of the apocalypse". When will you sell it?
Ha ha, my wife made it and I wouldn’t sell it!
On a more serious note, filming yourself at home can lead people to notice things they don't usually see. How much did you care about the frame, the decoration or how you dressed?
Over the weeks of doing it I’ve tried to improve it visually. I bought a web cam, then a second, better one. Bought some stage lights. Bought some new boxes that improve the sound. Got my head around broadcasting software. Had to move the odd beer can- or merch with address showing – from the background, occasionally, but nothing too revealing about me. And built an odd looking music stand with its own Ogham script on, place for beer bottle, ashtray, mini synth, loop book, lyric sheet, second cam and handy shelf All from old bits of wood from the garden or cellar!
We could see that your wife seems to enjoy your home-concerts. What about your neighboors ? They must have been delighted!
He he, you can only hear my voic. Kev is pretty quiet, acoustically and the loops are in my ears. One side, at least, comes to the concert. The other must wonder why I’m yelling in the evening!
We started this interview by saying that you're a seer. What are your predictions for our close future?
Sadly, more disruption and a very bad second wave. We are showing all signs of government (here, at last) just wanting to get the economy going. And many people just ignoring social distancing.
Thank you very much. Would you like to add anything?
Come and see me online each Friday! And each LOCKDOWN SIEBEN album on my Bandcamp is ‘pay what you like’ so if you don’t have the means to buy it, please come have it as a gift from me.
This interview was made with help from Maxine and Léa Jacta Est.