Matt Jaffe is getting ready to hit the road with Blues Traveler on a fall outing marking his first national tour. Pollstar talked to the 20-year-old vocalist/guitarist last week about his new EP and how The Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison impacted his career.
Jaffe is accompanied on the road and in the studio by his band the Distractions, featuring drummer Alex Coltharp, bassist Sammie Fischer, and guitarist Alex Newell. The act put out its debut EP, Blast Off, in April. The five-song collection includes the single “I Wanna be Cruel,” which was named as a finalist in the 2013 UnSigned Only Songwriting Competition.
While he’s earned attention for his power pop songs in the tradition of Elvis Costello like “Put Your Finger in the Socket,” Jaffe said he’s interested in working on “more rockabilly and country rock” tunes. For an idea of what he’s talking about, check out the track “Write A Song About Me.” One thing is for sure – he plans to keep experimenting with different style.
Of course we had to dive into Jaffe’s history a bit. After all, how many artists can say they’ve worked on demos with The Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison in their teens? But not too many 11-year-olds perform at open mics.
Jaffe & the Distractions support Blues Traveler beginning Sept. 8 in Boston.
You’re playing a hometown show in Mill Valley, Calif., tonight. Do you still call Mill Valley home?
Yeah, I lived here until about two years ago when I moved to the East Coast for a while and now I’m based back here. And for the foreseeable feature I will be in the Bay Area, although there are definitely other places I’d love to try living to see how they inspire me differently and just how they are socially, etc.
Do you have a lot of support in Mill Valley as far as friends and family?
Absolutely. I think we’ve been lucky to grow up both as individuals but also as a band in the San Francisco area because it’s a unique music scene. It has a strong, thriving scene but I don’t think it has some of the edge that Los Angeles or New York have. So in a way it allowed us to get started in a slightly more nurturing environment than we might have had in other places. I think as young kids that was really important. I definitely associate strongly with this area and it’s been a huge part of my outlook and yeah, it will always be home in a sense.
After moving to the East Coast to attend school, you left Yale last year. Was there a specific moment that convinced you to concentrate on music?
Sure, I would say there were things coming up that sort of compelled me to leave, including releasing both music and videos and the promises of some tours. Although, our first real big tour, which is coming up this fall, wasn’t locked in until more recently. There were specific things that sort of pushed it over the edge but honestly I would say the main thing that helped me make the decision was just sort of the knowledge that I’d sort of either have to commit to music or to school at some point. Even though I could sort of prolong the juggling act, I didn’t really want to balance the two. And that to be adequately devoted to either one, I’d have to choose. … For quite some time I’ve known that music is really where I want to be. Even though a lot of uncertainly remains I think I would much more likely regret not having taken this chance than regret taking it. Right now I’m definitely glad with where I am. Certainly we’ll see in the coming months and years how the decision pans out but right now, I’m definitely optimistic.
And you can always go back to school later. What were you studying?
I was studying film. Yeah, I wanted to have another unemployable skill set under my belt. (laughs)
You’ve called The Talking Heads the bedrock of your influence along with David Byrne’s solo stuff. It’s pretty amazing that you went to that open mic a few years ago and Jerry Harrison was there. You had previously interviewed him for a school project. Was it just a coincidence that he was at the open mic night?
Yeah, he actually lives very nearby, which unto itself is a coincidence. When I was doing the school project he was gracious enough to let me interview him. … And then as I was starting to perform around the area he saw me a couple of times and suggested we do some demos together, which led to our recording, which started almost four years ago now, which is sort of wild to think about.
What was the timeframe as far as doing the school project and then having Jerry offer to do the demos?
When I first interviewed him, I was actually in fifth grade, so would be, about 10 years ago. And then I started performing at open mics in the Bay Area when I was 11. I think it was a probably a good year or so between when he saw me actually perform and when we started actually collaborating. So yeah, I first interviewed him around 10, started performing around 11, he probably saw me perform when I was about 15 and we started working [together] when I was 16.
And what was the experience like working on the demos with Jerry Harrison?
Well, it was definitely life changing. And that is not an adjective I’d throw around loosely. But I think there was a huge learning curve for me being in a recording studio. I’d done some demos with a close friend, you know like recorded into the build-in microphone on my computer before that, which is obviously about as amateur as amateur gets. Which is fine, but being in a real studio … in a way there’s some culture shock about how seriously to take it. Not that I was overly flippant but I think it instilled in me sort of an idea that I could take it a little more seriously. I mean, I think primarily it’s about having fun. So it’s not like I tried to take music or myself or anything too seriously. But I think having someone who I really admired like Jerry, who had had a lot of success in music … tell me that there was something valuable and worth documenting about what I was doing, that helped me devote a more proactive approach to my own music.
Your sound also changed around that time. Was that influenced by working with Jerry?
Yeah, definitely. He thought that the best way to go about it would be by hiring studio musicians since at the time I was just performing solo. I’m not even sure why I hadn’t really done that more because most of the musicians that I like – even if as they’ve gotten older become a little more folksy, rootsy – most of them have been band leaders. But somehow it took that experience to get me to really focus on finding a band. And that also inherently changes the songwriting. … I don’t know if it can be as black and white as sort of a before and after, but I think if I had to generalize I think I would say that the before songs were much quirkier and had lots of little parts. I mean, in a way they were probably less conventional, which is a positive I would say, but not as digestible in a way, for either a band to play or for someone to listen to. That also relates to what I was writing about. Earlier in my life I wrote more about other media, in a way, like poetry or novels or art that I was into. Whereas after the song structure became a little more formalized and prone to a full band arrangement, I think the lyrical content also shifted towards a more personal, sort of experiential basis. And I think that’s probably a natural shift as one builds up actual life experience.
You’ve been writing songs since you were 10 so it makes sense that there would be that growth and natural shift.
Yeah, (laughs) there’s definitely some songs I look back at and it’s impossible not to cringe. And I’m sure that will be true of some of the songs I’m currently writing. So it’s not like the bad stuff ever goes away. I guess I just hope I improve my batting average of writing stuff that won’t make me cringe.
What about putting together your backing band – are the musicians that you tour with now the same ones that you first recruited for the band?
For about six months I was auditioning bass players and drummers. As anyone’s who’s been in a band knows, there’s plenty of reasons why things falls apart and they can be artistic differences or social tensions or oftentimes it’s just schedules don’t mesh well together. … But I was very lucky to find a drummer and I found him through a mutual friend of ours, Narada Michel Walden, who’s another local producer. And the drummer suggested the bass player and that was the trio for about, let’s see, two and a half years. And then at that point we added a lead guitar player and just recently we actually replaced our bass player. So yeah, actually it’s just me and drummer who have sort of always been there. And the other two guys are new, which can be unsettling, having that kind of upheaval, but I think there’s also a lot of opportunity in that kind of upheaval because it allows you to find the people who are … perhaps the best suited for what you’re doing. And I think it injects a new energy and life to have different people on stage. That being said, I love the idea of playing with the same people for an extended period … there’s a chemistry. Sometimes it’s natural and happens right off the bat but there’s nothing like shared experience to help build that.
Your first EP, Blast Off, came out in April. Did the EP include songs you had worked on with those initial demos?
Actually, no. All of these songs come from after those sessions. Most of them are from pretty much the past year. One of them, the ballad called “I Want To Be Cruel,” that one’s from almost two years ago. But the other ones are very recent.
How did you pick the tracks for the EP?
I sent our producer a bunch of demos, not the ones I had done with Jerry, but ones that I just did like in my dorm room. He waded through probably 50, 60 songs and picked the 11 that we ended up recording. So ultimately I think he picked based on what he thought would be the most immediate songs to a new ear. … We wanted [songs] that were relatively hook-y and attention grabbing. We always joke that we never want to do anything too tasteful. (laughs) I mean, we’re trying to do something more interesting than straight-up pop music but we also embrace the idea of creating something that may or may not (laughs) have mass appeal. And we don’t have any illusions about that. I would say my favorite of those five songs is probably “Write A Song About Me,” which is the second track. Largely because it just stylistically leans more towards rockabilly and country rock, in a way, which is sort of honestly a little bit where I’m going with my songwriting, or trying to. … I think the other songs are more rooted in sort of a power pop / pop punk sensibility, which is stuff I love, like Elvis Costello or Blondie, groups like that, but recently I’ve been on a huge sort of Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams binge. And I think that song best approximates that type of [music].
Do you think that when you put out your next release it will be primarily Americana?
Well, I definitely want to keep experimenting with styles because my favorite bands have all been fairly diverse in what they do [like] Talking Heads and The Clash and Elvis Costello. … I would say that as far as my own music goes, I definitely want to retain the full band electric sound because that’s something I really enjoy. I want to reconcile the more sort of storytelling and folk tradition songwriting of someone like Townes Van Zandt … with the rock ‘n’ roll footprint of the bands I’ve already mentioned. I don’t think I want to sort of betray where we’re coming from, in terms of more straight-up rock ’n’ roll, because that’s something I love too, but I … in subsequent releases I would love to do something with a slightly more sort of … Americana bent to it.
Do you plan on releasing a full-length record later this year?
I think next year is when we’re most likely to release a full-length. We’re going to do some more singles later this year to coincide with an upcoming tour. Even though I’m very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish, [I’m] still trying to figure out how to best get traction and want to sort of set up an infrastructure … before we put out the full thing.
Are you writing the new singles or do you already have some completed that you have in mind?
When we recorded last year we did [enough songs for a] full-length record … [but] decided to do an EP to sort of suss out how to best release our music, but we do have the full thing prepared. It’s definitely weird though because I’m pretty much constantly writing new stuff and sometimes there is a sort of stop-gap between what we’ve released and what’s been recorded and what’s just been written and usually there’s a pretty big delay between those things. That being said, I’ve definitely been practicing patience is a virtue because this stuff always happens slower than I want but that’s just a fact of life (laughs) and it’s something to be at peace with, rather than to stress out about.
How long ago did you start working with your agent and manager? How did putting together your team come about?
This group has been together a little over a year now. There’s definitely parts of it that are still a DIY effort. I found my manager … well, ironically enough I was living in New Haven, going to school and my manager lives in West Haven … they’re adjacent towns. However, we were connected by someone from the Bay Area, so it seemed like an almost fated meeting. Especially because I met him literally days before I left Connecticut to go back home after my first year of school. And through him we found our agency. So yeah, that’s how this team came together. We’re still figuring out our best sort of plans of attack but I think we have good people who are giving us good advice and helping us take it in the direction we want.
It seems like you’ve really benefited from being in the right place in the right time, as far as running into Jerry Harrison at the open mic and meeting your manager. Do you think it’s about paying attention and taking those opportunities? What sort of advice would you give an aspiring musician?
Yeah, I would say luck is (laughs) really, really important. I would be the first to admit that I’ve had some incredible good fortune in the years I’ve being doing this. That being said … well, I’m certainly not the first person to say this, I’ll paraphrase someone else’s quote – people who work hard seem to get luckier. Because even though I’ve been really fortuitous to have some of these connections made … I’ve played probably a good, I don’t know, maybe a thousand open mics, I would put it in that ballpark. And at one of those open mics there was one of my heroes, who I ended up working with. For him to be at any one of those open mics is an incredible coincidence and wonderful twist of fate [but] it took a lot of tireless work playing [open mics] where nothing really came of them to get that one connection. So I think even though anyone who has success in a field like this is lucky, putting in the time is absolutely worthwhile.
Maybe it’s about making your own luck.
And the other big thing I think that a lot of people, a lot of younger musicians I know, don’t seem to embrace is that there really has to be a business side of it. I mean, I personally hate that side, I wish I could focus just on rehearsing with my band and writing songs and doing all the fun, creative stuff. But unless someone is unfathomably lucky, it really takes some devotion to actually building a career to get a career. I think a lot of people, including me at times, sort of have this strange vision that if you focus enough on the art itself then the rest sort of takes care of itself, and sadly I don’t think that’s really the case. So in addition to working hard to increase chances of luck (laughs), I would say, even if it’s begrudgingly, embracing the more career-minded elements of it is very worthwhile.
Upcoming dates for Matt Jaffe & the Distractions:
Aug. 23 – Mill Valley, Calif., Sweetwater Music Hall
Aug. 29 – Santa Clara, Calif., Westfield Valley Fair (Matt Jaffe solo show)
Sept. 8 – Boston, Mass., Paradise Rock Club
Sept. 9 – New York, N.Y., Irving Plaza
Sept. 11 – Silver Spring, Md., The Fillmore Silver Spring
Sept. 22 – New Orleans, La., The Civic Theatre
Sept. 24 – Austin, Texas, Emo’s
Sept. 25 – Houston, Texas, House Of Blues
Sept. 26 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
Sept. 28 – Tulsa, Okla., Cain’s Ballroom
Sept. 29 – Columbia, Mo., The Blue Note
Oct. 1 – Minneapolis, Minn., Mill City Nights
Oct. 2 – Milwaukee, Wis., Turner Hall Ballroom
Oct. 3 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues
Oct. 6 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The Depot
Oct. 7 – Boise, Idaho, Knitting Factory Concert House
Oct. 8 – Spokane, Wash., Knitting Factory Concert House
Oct. 10 – Seattle, Wash., The Showbox
Oct. 11 – Portland, Ore., Revolution Hall
Oct. 15 – San Francisco, Calif., The Fillmore
Oct. 17 – Temecula, Calif., Monte De Oro Winery
Oct. 18 – West Hollywood, Calif., Troubadour
Oct. 19 – Anaheim, Calif., House Of Blues
Oct. 21 – Scottsdale, Ariz., Livewire
Oct. 22 – Las Vegas, Nev., Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas
Matt Jaffe & The Distractions appears with Blues Traveler Sept. 8 through Oct. 22.
Visit MattJaffeMusic.com for more information and be sure to check out his Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.
For more information