Sweet Awkwardness: Musician Matt Pond On Songwriting, Literature, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Matt Pond (Photo credit: Derek Cascio)

Matt Pond (Photo credit: Derek Cascio)

By Daniel Ford

There’s a song titled “Take Me With You” on Matt Pond PA’s recent album “State of Gold” that has begun to haunt my writing playlist. The driving, angsty beat boils over each time the band’s front man, Matt Pond, exclaims, “It feels good to be gone.”

You don’t have to tell a creative person much more than “take me with you” with that kind of vibe.

Pond graciously talked to me before the start of his upcoming tour about songwriting, literature, and his love of rock ‘n’ roll. (Bonus points were awarded for his bourbon selection and his discussion of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs A Maid.”)

Daniel Ford: First things first: What’s your favorite bourbon and how do you drink it (on the rocks, neat, one ice cube, etc.)?

Matt Pond: I once had a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle in Bed-Stuy that was mind-blowing. I didn’t almost take it all in until it was done, until days had passed and the experience and the taste still stuck with me.

So I can’t tell you the age or the batch. But I can tell you that it was the stuff of dreams.

Recently we had a house party record release show. It was intense, with all these semi-strangers coming to my place to see me play. Almost everyone brought a gift—a bottle of Eagle Rare really got to me and since then, that’s been my go-to.

I enjoy bourbon any way it’s served. In the summer, ice. In the winter, neat. A cocktail or two in the fall and spring. (Reverse all these seasons and restrictions and I’ll probably be fine.)

I have no hifalutin pretenses with any of this baloney. If someone serves me a Miller High Life, I will drink a Miller High Life. As much as I want to cultivate my senses, respect for my guests or hosts soar above the needs of my palate.

DF: When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician and who were some of the artists that influenced you early on?

MP: I still haven’t totally realized that I want to be a musician. There isn’t a morning that I wake up and wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life.

The day I moved to New York was when it seemed like a reality. I knew no one, I was girlfriend-less. My only purpose and point was to finish our album “Emblems.”

The people that I look up to were so over my head that it’s hard to think of them as human. So they’re influences, yes. They also make me and my life look minuscule from on high. John Lennon, Jeff Lynne, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. These were, and still are, my heroes.

DF: How would you define your sound? How did you go about developing it?

MP: My sound originates from my love of rock ‘n’ roll combined with a similar love of classical music. When those two lines of thought met inside Jeff Lynne, I was awestruck.

I can’t even approximate his production or his talent or songs. But I can shoot in the general direction and hope for the best.

I like layers. I like finding more within every listen. When music is truly great, it blocks out the rest of the world and creates a three-dimensional feeling inside me.

It’s orchestration and arrangement that speak to me. The interplay between what’s being said and what’s not being said. That’s when I’m floored.

DF: I’ve heard from a reliable source that you’re a big reader. Your lyrics, as well as your superbly written blog posts, have a real literary quality to them. How has your love of reading and literature shaped your music?

MP: I honestly appreciate the complimentary portion of your paragraph. Thank you.

I don’t know, I think repetition is actually the key. With both writing and even reading. (My figurative forehead suffers greatly from the repeated symbolic blows.)

It requires focus, time, and energy. Which all happen to be my weakest attributes. So for me, this whole life is like coming from behind. Perhaps something close to the main character in the terrible movie “Meatballs?” Or maybe like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling?

I’m trying. That’s all I can gasp and grasp.

As far as literature and how it relates to my music, I think that I think about it too much sometimes. Because it’s not only the word choices, it’s meaning and larger metaphorical meanings—but it’s the sound of the word itself. The word has to sound right to me as a guttural iteration.

I apologize if I’m coming off slightly mad. All these processes are thrown out the window when a better idea comes along and sits in your lap.

DF: Being a literary website, we’re always looking for worthy additions to our bookshelf. What are some of the books currently cluttering your nightstand?

MP: I’m wrapping up Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which I loved. Stories woven into stories, she has the ability to go from the seemingly mundane to full-on fantastical action in a short breath.

Kingston: City On The Hudson by Alf Evers is next. It’s history wrapped in anecdotes.

I love my new town. I believe in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve become a better person. I’d like to repay the favor by knowing what’s what.

DF: There’s real honesty in your lyrics that is sorely lacking in today’s music scene. What were some of the themes you wanted to explore with the group of songs that make up your new album, “State of Gold?”

MP: After months of the listlessness of trying to live in Oakland, I reacquainted myself with Chris and upstate New York.

The album began composing itself by hurdling a huge case of writer’s block and how that miniature triumph spread like a fracture through the rest of my life.

The general theme digs deep and hard into the idea that everything great is found through loss. “A Second Lasts A Second” is where I boil that idea down to the core. Because if there’s only one second of greatness, then I’ll take it.

I’m constantly trying to convince myself that I’m valuable to myself. Strangely, I do it through singing songs. Like a constant rock ‘n’ roll lullaby.

Once music is recorded and released, it’s about relation and distance. This whole operation is supposed convince the listener that we’re valuable to one another. Maybe I understand you. And maybe you understand me.

DF: “Don't Look Down” features a lyric that I’ve fallen in love with: “You showed me how sleepless dreamers come together.” Sums up so much about life, love, and the creative process. Was your writing process any different with this album and how do you summon the muse during those sleepless dreams?

MP: I’ve actually written music in my sleep and woken up singing it. A part of the song “New Hampshire” came to me that way. (It is vital to have recording devices, guitars and pens and paper wherever you rest your head. Songs are sneaky, there’s no direct way to the answer or ending. You just have to keep unwrapping unraveling it all with your mind. Because it’s “there”—it just needs a little cognitive archaeological love.)

Songs are so elusive and so easy. I’m glad that they come at crazy times. They almost seem like animals unto themselves.

DF: There’s a line in your first blog post that was published in May that I think a lot of creative types can relate to: “My problem hasn't been about desire or gumption—it's always been about the platform.” Is it harder to connect to an audience with so many different channels available or has it given you more exposure to fans that you might not have found otherwise?

MP: I honestly like the communication when it can happen on the open plane. I’ve now embraced all the conventional manners of media in which I can stay true to my voice and my thoughts.

Still. I do bite my virtual tongue a few times a day. Criticism, derogations are everywhere and it’s not always easy to navigate.

The negatives are that there are some diminished ethics on the Web. There’s a separation and an invisibility that almost encourages evil. I wish there were a way of upping the ante on the way we virtually treat one another.

Perhaps worse in it’s small, simple way. It’s hard to be lost in a moment when you’re looking at a phone or screen.

All I’m looking for in this lifetime is to be happily lost.

DF: Your upcoming tour starts in Lancaster, Pa. on Sept. 17. What can your fans expect (besides “sipping whiskey in the early autumn and singing together in an unfamiliar host's house”)?

MP: There’s a sweet awkwardness to playing in someone’s home.

Let me clear, I’m a fan of sweet awkwardness. It’s a condition that runs parallel to honesty. Chris and I’ll be playing as a duo, trying to interpret our songs in a way that works best in your home.

Surprisingly, we bring a lot of amps. But they’re all at a low, low volume. Think of the quietest, heavy show you’ve ever seen. That’s us.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming musicians?

MP: This is work. And it never stops. You have to be both humble and believe in yourself and your songs more than anything.

That balance is mostly beyond me. Maybe sometimes I’ll see it peaking in the window and run outside to chase it down. I’ll never give up on trying.

For me, there are questions about how to move forward. I’m not sure if I’m going to submit to the classic tour-release-tour grind anymore. It’s rough.

DF: Normally we ask our guests for a random fact, but musicians get special treatment. If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would it be and why?

MP: Okay, so I initially read this as what song would you want to define you forever. And of course, I chose someone else. But both answers follow:

From my music, I’d probably pick “New Hampshire.”

I’d moved New York to Philly. I didn’t know a soul. I would wake up in the middle of night, missing everyone and everything I knew. I slept with my acoustic guitar in between bursts of writing.

“New Hampshire” is about when I first left the state and the simultaneous breakup with my high school girlfriend. We were a horrible match. We fought over every single breath. But in between the battles, we used to babysit for a couple who had bona fide mafia friends. They once told me that they liked how I knew when not to speak. That’s one of the only compliments that actually made me proud.

Can I also pick “Bring On The Ending,” which was composed at the same time?

At first, the move to New York seemed like a terrible idea. Philly’s geographically close. But they couldn’t be more different. The high energy and style of the city made me embarrassed to be in my own skin.

At a certain point while writing the song, I realized that I was supposed to love and accept my own stupidity. “Don’t get caught dancing, even if you’re drinking.”

I mean if you love me, I always want to get caught dancing and drinking. Please and thank you.

But I honestly prefer the songs of those outside my mind. Neil Young seldom goes the wrong way. “A Man Needs Maid” moves me massively.

“My life is changing in so many ways/I don’t know who to trust anymore/There’s a shadow running through my days/Like a beggar going from door to door.”

People may talk and balk at my response. I can take it.

Some will always interpret “A Man Needs Maid” as sexist. I don’t. In fact, I believe it’s the complete opposite. The song exposes loneliness and helplessness in such a strange and beautiful way—a subjugated maid isn’t what he seeks, he’s just looking for a way to survive himself.

I love how the metaphor is divisive because it allows people to see what they want to see. Even so, the orchestration and arc of the song are undeniable.

I feel like I’m always my worst enemy. While I’ve written and performed songs I love, I’ve push myself into a frenzy over this lifetime. My next pursuit should find me making whiskey and serving food in an equitably based establishment.

I need to find a balance. That could come from loosening my grip on reins. I love it when I give myself a break. 

To learn more about Matt Pond, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @mattpondpa.