Embarking on a journey with people varies in so many ways compared to doing things on your own. Matthew Spreen knows about that all too well as he spent many years in them, but since then has embraced his solo adventure – but it’s not been easy. He admits there was a struggle, and we talked about that as well as the scenery of his soundscapes, and more like his latest release, ‘Decentralized Living.’ All of that and then some in this back-and-forth exchange.
Kendra: Music has been such a part of your life for so long now, but when did you first sort of know that you wanted to dedicate your life to creating art?
Matthew Spreen: I think that epiphany was inspired by my surroundings growing up. As a kid, I was a visual artist and a crafter but I didn’t grow up learning instruments or music. It wasn’t until my middle school friends started playing guitar (and getting really good) that I realized it was even possible to play an instrument. I think around that age I was filming and editing silly movies with my other friends for fun when I realized it might be fun to write some original songs to go with the film.
So I learned guitar as a joke kind of at first. The point I started taking music (and art) seriously was when I decided to take myself seriously when it was all of a sudden important for me to reflect a meaningful and deep version of my emotions and my philosophies. As incredibly embarrassing as that was, and as far away from achieving any flattering goal, I kept trying and evolving alongside my art with the chronic need to express and define my ephemeral truth. Honestly though, the whole time, I neglected professionalism completely.
Kendra: You’re no stranger to being part of a band. You’ve been in a few to date. With that, do you feel that every time you move onto a new venture, you’ve been able to take a piece of every band with you on your next musical venture?
Matthew Spreen: Yes and no. I used to be stuck on this mindset that every project had to represent its own sound and identity. Almost like a character foil to the other projects. I made a deliberate effort to avoid taking pieces into new projects but my performances and experiences with my past collaborators are the brunts of my musical education. I’ve learned so much from everyone I’ve got to know and I take that with me and it definitely comes through in my newest rhythms and melodies and tones.
Kendra: For you, music is about connection so when you decided it was time to try your hand as a solo artist – was there an adjustment period you went through not having bandmates, or did you keep the connection alive with collaborations?
Matthew Spreen: Yes, a big adjustment period. There were a lot of things that I never had to be good at. I didn’t have to sing before, I didn’t have to play bass, or make drum patterns. It was always this quick “oh yeah do that again!” or “try something different” among the old bandmates.
So really, my appreciation of what makes a song full has been both humbling and awe-inspiring. Every single note and harmony and rhythm and texture, layer upon layer, harmonizing impacting the song for better or worse. The amount of creative energy it takes for a three to four-minute song is insane. And honestly, there’s only so much one brain can do. Collaboration allows for different perspectives and it really gave a boost to the tracks I collaborated on (Decentralized, Hot Air, and Levee Broke).
Kendra: You’ve also noted that music is about perspective. When you look at 2021’s ‘Lefty’ and your most recent, ‘Decentralized Living,’ back to back – what do you feel was the biggest factor in how your perspective may’ve changed between writing and recording each?
Matthew Spreen: Truthfully, at the time of ‘Lefty’ I was not taking my solo project seriously at all. It was just excess creativity in frayed directions that didn’t suit the music of my other projects. My ex and I were co-writers and I found my success as her guitarist in whatever project we were doing. I really didn’t plan on that ending either.
So ‘Decentralized Living’ is the first real album and its statement is, “Woah, okay, life is insane and unexpected, and I really have to just do this music thing on my own, here we go!” It’s the first self-aware and serious solo effort I have. Technically the second. The first one I shelved because it was just too personal and messy. I don’t believe in sharing at the expense of others.
Kendra: With “Decentralized Living” you create one of many soundscapes found on the record. For this song in particular though, if it were an actual landscape – what sort of greenery and plant life do you think we’d find and why?
Matthew Spreen: I love this question. Every sound in this song is meant to invoke the movement at the core of a metropolis. I feel like, between the buses and the buildings are trees through the grates in the sidewalks and bushes on the median strips. Resilient greenery that manages to survive millions of people. Grass and weeds breaking through the cracked cement and (if it’s the right climate) moss at the feet of monuments and benches.
Kendra: ‘Decentralized Living’ also features “Had a Dream.” As a musician in a time where the internet and social media can take someone from obscurity to the spotlight presumably overnight, do you think the dream of most artists has shifted from wanting to be the next great musician to wanting to be the next great influencer/brand/ celebrity?
Matthew Spreen: Art in the current state of free media and capitalism influences people to obsess over self-promotion and personal branding and it often sacrifices their individual voice for the sake of catching the next trend. It’s a really confusing time for creatives in general and they will either struggle financially or compromise fully. Today, every independent artist has every opportunity to publish their work online but they also have to be their own promoter. I don’t think it’s healthy to let those two worlds contaminate each other.
When I wrote the song “Had A Dream,” I was struck by the heavy awareness that anybody who is going to choose a path of art and philosophy will struggle deeply but how important it is as well. I think when someone’s ultimate idea of success is to create the most sincere feeling possible they’re bound to sacrifice other forms of success. And it really hurts sometimes.
Kendra: Time for a side note – We’d love to know when you perform, do you have any sort of lucky charms you take with you on stage, or do you have any sort of pre-show traditions you do to ensure you have a great show?
Matthew Spreen: Oh wow. Umm. My tradition is to get really nervous and introverted before a show. For the hour leading up to the performance I completely disappear. I go for a walk outside. I tune my guitar three to ten times. I have a drink (but not five) and I adjust my guitar strap twenty times. And then I somehow level out a few minutes into the first song. I could use a charm or two though. I like the idea of something familiar to center myself.
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘Decentralized Living’ out now, what else can the world expect as we focus on spring and soon enough, summer?
Matthew Spreen: You can expect more music releases and some local shows in Montreal. First one will be at Les Sans Taverne in the Batiment 7. There will be a full-length album for a duo project in the works called KASM which will be more jazz and hip-hop influenced. Plus a few singles under my solo project coming up as well. And I’ll be starring in a short film that should be out around Halloween plus doing the soundtrack for it. It’ll be Directed by Cameron Crane who also did the ‘Dennis Is Lonely’ short film which I scored with my friend Matt Damron. And I’ll be co-writing some material with my friend Dan Beasy’s band ‘Bluebird.’