Matthew Dear talks Beams, Eno and the rhythm of life

As Ghostly founder Matthew Dear prepares to release the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Black City, we caught up with him to talk about Brian Eno, the tempo of 'real life,' love, and Elton John

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 07 Aug 2012

Ever since his breakthrough hit, 1999's Put Your Hands Up For Detroit, Matthew Dear has been on the cutting edge of electronic music. Co-founder of the Ghostly International label, whose roster boasts some of the finest electronic artists of the last ten years, including Com Truise and Gold Panda (to name but a few), his own musical journey has seen him progress from dancefloor-smashing, boundary-pushing techno, often under his aliases Audion, Jabberjaw and False, to wonderfully skewed electronic pop.

His songwriting abilities have continued to evolve and mutate, culminating in the critically acclaimed album Black City, a journey through a dystopian metropolis which Dear describes as like “slipping into a black hole.” The hotly-anticipated follow-up, Beams, is released this month on Ghostly, and it sees Dear heading in a contrasting but equally fascinating direction.

Speaking from his new home in upstate New York, Dear elaborates on the differences between his two most recent albums. Lyrically, Beams is a very different album to Black City – it feels more personal, almost confessional. What group of influences led to this evolution, and is there an overarching theme or story that binds the songs together? “I like to keep things cryptic and twisted when it comes to the narrative,” says Dear. “Beams is the outward momentum; the back end of a black hole, where all the light is rushing out the other side. But it's still a very twisted, hard-to-define experience. The album and the songs are inherently about the things that I experience – my loves, my relationships with my friends and family. My lyric writing is a way to take all of that in, but also keep it very exploratory and very subconscious.” 

The lyrics of Up & Out, a Talking Heads-esque punk funk workout, are full of oppositional imagery. One line that stands out is: “Like burning underwater” – Dear seems to enjoy playing with contradictions, asking questions, almost Zen-like parables. What intended effect is he trying to achieve with lyrics like these, if any? “It's funny, because when you quote me on the lyrics, it's like, 'Okay, yeah, that makes sense,'” says Dear. “I think love is always a very current theme in everything I write about. Up & Out is about love in a certain sense, and the drastic opposites that can be involved in love. Even successful love has very many ups and downs.”

The lyrics of lead single Her Fantasy contain references to machines and “good design,” all sung in a robotic tone. It conjures similar associations as the story of Michael Fassbender's character from Prometheus, asking questions about machine intelligence and the nature of consciousness. “Yeah, I mean, I could even take it a step further,” says Dear. “I'm always questioning 'Am I a grown man?' Am I: '..not a great design... Do I feel love like all of the others...' I could totally apply that to Fassbender's character. Does feeling love, buying into the idea of love, allowing yourself to feel love and to be loved – is that a conscious decision? Are each of us just androids of love? Are these things real, or are they just a pedigree, a program which has been instilled within you?”

It's the central question of consciousness – what is real? “It's just what I think about all the time,” says Dear. “My songs are just my anecdotes, my brutal way of dealing with those questions, which everybody asks themselves. I'm not special, everybody thinks about these kinds of things. I use my art and my music as a way to have fun with those ideas. I'm not looking for the golden truth, I don't think that they're going to tell you the answer, but I think it's a good way for me to experience some sort of release.”

Like the work of David Byrne, particularly with Talking Heads, Beams conveys the sense that each song contains a character, a different voice – how was Dear able to channel so many disparate and sometimes contradictory points of view? “I think that the songs just represent the different sides of a personality,” he says. “Some days you think about certain things a bit more, or a bit differently. There are different cures and coping mechanisms, and each song deals with a different part of the psyche.”

Dear begins to sing the lyrics of Up & Out back to The Skinny: "“I'm not convinced, I'm a mistake / Floating through life, isn't it great / But she disagrees, she thinks I'm a fraud...” That is, clearly I think, just a song about being a vain, bloated musician. But then at the very end, the line is: “Where have I been, isn't it great.” So that is defintely me taking an aspect of my life – touring excessively, going up on stage, DJing parties in Ibiza. It's a glorification of that side of my personality. Am I that person in the song? No. It's a very magnified version: “Sleeping around, sucking my thumb, nothing gets done...” It's playing with an internal fear, asking what I could become if I let this get out of hand. So it's a little ditty, or a poem, about that side of my life, but at the end I resolve it by saying: 'Yeah, but I got to see the world, and it's been pretty awesome.'”

Dear has been working with a full band on the material from Beams, with an all-new lineup. Were any of them involved in the creation of the album? “The band came along after the music was written,” he explains. “I write all the music and perform it in my studio over the course of the creation of the album. I'm always working on music, so ideas are always going around, and eventually something sticks and that becomes a song for the album. What I do after the album is made is I give those songs to the guys and I say, 'Okay what do you want to do with this on stage.' When we start rehearsing, which we'll do in a couple of weeks for this tour, I start leaving out parts, so I take all the pieces apart and say to Ian [Chang] on drums, 'Okay, how would you play this drum beat? Which drum sounds should I remove from the song?' It grows from there. So there's a lot of creative process with the guys, and they write a lot, but more for the live show.”

Dear multitracks his vocals on Beams, giving a marvellous robotic feel, sometimes playing subtly with dissonant harmonies – how did he evolve this technique? “I've listened to music with a critical ear since my early teens; I've always been obsessed with figuring out the way they did something,” he explains. “With the vocal doubling, immediately I knew that it had just had such a huge impact. I was just in the car today, and an Elton John song came on, called Razor Face, which I wasn't really familiar with. He's got a very thin voice if you really think about it, but if you put two Elton Johns on top of each other, that's when you get that very thick, seventies, choral Elton. Then he goes up into those high runs that he does, and it's just like... woah. Nobody else sounds like that. If you have a voice like mine, where it wavers a bit – I'm not a trained singer by any means, I could barely sing a scale if you asked me to, but that's my way of fitting into my music, which I like to keep a bit off-kilter. So I usually do three takes, I do a low pass, a middle pass and then a falsetto high pass. If you listened to them alone, they might sound very strange, but together, they make all of me.”

In a recent video, Dear takes us into his studio, and out and about in Brooklyn to do some field recording, gathering found sounds. Did any of these recordings end up on Beams? “I did that video after Beams was done,” says Dear. “I didn't just want to sit there and do nothing in the studio, so that was my idea, to take the tape recorder that I had sitting around and do what I've always wanted to do with it. So unfortunately, no, none of those recordings made it onto the album, but I do use samples in a very similar way. I also have some old field recordings laying around – air noise, city street sounds. The rhythms of the world are so much better than rhythms which are intentionally created. There's a tempo in everything – you can just loop it.”

How does Dear's involvement with Ghostly overlap with his musical process, and is there any tension between the two? “I was co-founder of the label, so I've always kind of been the 'first artist' there; heavily involved more on the artistic side rather than the business side,” he explains. “Sam Valenti IV is the official owner and operator. We also have a wonderful label manager named Jeff Owens who is kind of the battle tank commander. He's manning the ship – all the logistical stuff, distribution chains. Back in the day, I was working in the office, doing a lot of that work as well, but this was back in my early twenties. Now I'm predominantly focused on touring and producing, and I still do some work on A&R for Ghostly. So there's a wonderful strong team that doesn't need my help.”

2011 was a big year for Ghostly, what have the label got planned for the rest of 2012? “I'm very happy with the success of the recent roster, such as Com Truise and Gold Panda,” says Dear. “A new artist to watch would be Beacon – two guys based in Brooklyn, who are just phenomenal. They're young, they're really hungry, and they're writing some very beautiful electronic pop music. I've seen them live, too, and vocally, they're just fantastic. I'm very envious, and impressed at the same time!”

Dear has mentioned elsewhere that Brian Eno's production for the likes of Talking Heads and Bowie was an influence – what is it about Eno's approach that inspires him? “With Eno, it was like... I was fourteen, and I was collecting multi-track tape recorders and drum machines and effects pedals, and just slowly working my way out, and wanting to just mess with sound; play with sound, just record anything,” he says. “There was no judgement on myself, there was no fear of doing anything wrong. I wasn't trying to be perfect – I was just trying to be. So I did this for years, and it evolved into what I'm doing now. So, I was always a bit late when it came to discovering certain kinds of music, or trends, until the internet finally hit me over the head like a sledgehammer, and I figured out: 'Okay, I should probably use this thing to my advantage.'

“So that's when the floodgates opened, and that's when I found Brian Eno's work. It was like finding something that was just so validating... I mean, I love the sound of the music, and I love the music itself, but it was also just a moment where I realised: 'Holy shit, this is what I do. This guy is doing exactly what I've been doing since I was fourteen, and he made a whole life out of this.' So I think it was that idea – the one-man studio, using the studio as an instrument, treating music as this all-encompassing blanket... all the different ways you can use it; whether it was the ambient works, producing for a band like James or Talking Heads, doing collaborations with other artists, doing soundtracks... All of a sudden I was just hit with the realisation that this guy was very much the creator of this model of working. It was a flash of brilliance – I was just like: 'Yes! This is it. I totally understand.' It was just this perfect blend of science and art."

Dear moved from Texas to Detroit as a teenager – it seems prudent to ask what part Detroit played in his musical evolution. “Before I moved to Detroit, I already had really good influences from my elder brother, so I had electronic music, I had new wave and industrial from a very young age; say, like, eight or nine years old,” he says. “But I was surrounded by Texas, and that was rock, folk and country. That was all there was on the airwaves, and there was no culture for dance music, or even hip-hop. It was a very guitar-based culture. So at sixteen, when I moved to the Detroit area, that's when I got the electronic injection, you know? I'd hear everything on the radio, listening to WJLB in Detroit, which is all ghettotech and booty, real Detroit club music. All of a sudden, being inundated with that culture, it was a great juxtaposition to the rock that I came from, and it opened up a whole new world. This was the late nineties, so it was also the first big rush of UK and European dance music artists – Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, that was all happening in the States for the first time. So, all of a sudden, I'm in Detroit, I start hearing about these parties in warehouses... It was the perfect time to have the left side already full, and now the right side opens up to all this electronic stuff.”

He reveals that plans are in the words to make more dancefloor-oriented music, using his Audion alias: “I've been touring so much with the band that even in the downtime, I need to be working on re-structuring and mixing the band music, which is all related to the albums Black City and Beams,” he explains. “I do really want to get an Audion album out by the end of 2013, and tour it as well, but I want to do it the right way. It needs all the attention I can give it.”

The Beams tour is shaping up to be a big event, with Dear planning to introduce more theatricality into the live shows: “We're tight,” says Dear of his band. “We got tight on this last tour, and now I'm thinking some theatrics would be fun. I don't like doing things in haste, and I don't like doing things just for show. They have to mean something. I mean, performance is for show, it's creative entertainment, but I feel like there's a necessity and an urgency to give people something more than just five guys on stage playing instruments. So I'm not quite sure what it'll be, but I think theatre is good, and I think opening people's imaginations is good, making people think while they're watching the show is good, making them question, 'What did I just see?' So whether it's visuals, or stage design, lighting, or a combination of everything – costumes, whatever... I want to give people their money's worth. We'll be in the UK in December.”

This is Dear's fifth album under the moniker – is he afraid of running out of ideas anytime soon? “I am literally hearing the sounds of hammering and sawing in the background here – they are putting up the walls of my first real recording studio, with soundproofing, a recording window with a live room on one side and control room on the other... so for me, it's like I'm fourteen all over again,” enthuses Dear. “It's going to be interesting. I think I'll be busy for the next ten years. This is just the beginning.”

Beams is released on 27 Aug via Ghostly International.