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Listen Up: Jeremiah Matthews

Santa didn’t realize how boss he was when he brought Jeremiah Matthews a drum set for Christmas 21 years ago.

“I thought drums were the coolest things when I was a kid,” said Matthews, 27. “I still do to this day. I just think they dictate the whole song. They’re the ones just kind of guiding everything. If music’s a train, then the drums are the wheels. They’re the ones that are actually getting you from point A to B.”

Matthews, a graphic designer at the Memphis Flyer, also is an experimental singer/songwriter. He describes his performances as “a live show that’s just me and a guitar. I have a drum machine attached to my guitar that I run through loopers. So, it’s a lot of looping, a lot of ambient, weird stuff. I have several different loop pedals running at the same time. A lot of feedback. A lot of ambient reverb noise.”

Drums, which eventually led to keyboards, were “more like a foundation of music theory,” Matthews said.
“When I started with drums, it was like, ‘This is how rhythm works. Breaking down into fours or threes. This is how time signatures work.’ And that kind of thing. And then when I got to keyboards, it was like, ‘This is how a music scale works.’’’

His mother died when he was 10, said Matthews, who was born near Houston, Texas. “I was a really angry kid for a while. Everyone kind of had that impression of me.”

His dad, guitarist Freddie Matthews, who was in bands, kept music going around the house for Matthews and two of his brothers living at home. He played records by the Beatles, Bob Seger, and others.

“I was that really lame kid that always had his big old book of CDs on the school bus. That kind of thing. Eventually, I got an iPad and I was like, ‘This is amazing.’”

Matthews picked up the bass when he was 14. “I didn’t have a lot of really close friends or active friends so I would just stay home and practice all the time. Eventually, I just started playing bass with my dad. When I was like 15 or 16 my dad made me learn the bass line to ‘Something’ by the Beatles, which is still the hardest bass line.”

Matthews joined his dad on stage at times and played bass on “Johnny B. Goode.”

He joined his first band as lead guitarist after his family moved to San Angelo, Texas. “I had moved from bass to guitar because it’s a pretty natural slide.”

Asked the name of the band, Matthews said, “It might been like ‘Running on Empty’ or something lame like that.”

He remembered playing with the band at a festival. “People were cheering and stuff and I was like, ‘This is not cheer-worthy. I’m terrible.’”

Matthews joined a contemporary alternative band when he moved to Cleveland, Mississippi. He also became a nicer guy. “When I moved to Mississippi, nobody knew who I was, so I got to kind of reinvent myself and make some friends. I think overnight I went from being this angsty little teenager to this actually OK-to-be-around dude.”

His father bought him some recording hardware. “I had already downloaded Audacity, which is like a free recording software, and was messing with that. I had this old four-track tape recorder that I would run though as an interface into my computer through the audio input. I would just record all these songs myself. I was really into Mars Volta at the time, so I would make all these crazy, trippy songs. I’ve gone back and listened to them and they are terrible. They are super-trebly.”

Matthews, who double majored in graphic design and audio technology at Delta State, was more fascinated with recording music than playing it. If he wrote a riff, he would say, “This is a cool riff. I‘m going to record it into my computer.”

He began putting his compositions on MySpace and ReverbNation using the moniker “Winston the Crime-Fighting Office Manager.’”

Matthews, who played “real simple instrumentals, but with weird guitar solos,” began writing songs when he took a business of songwriting class. “I always overproduced my stuff. I would have MIDI drums all over it. I would have keyboards, guitar, bass, multiple vocals with harmonies. LIke everything.”

Overproducing was because of “a lack of self confidence. I wasn’t confident enough in my writing ability or my singing ability or one specific area to just let it rest on that. I was like, ‘If this guitar solo isn’t that good,’ or, ‘I don’t know if these lyrics are any good, I need to make everything else good enough to distract from that.’”

He joined his friend’s band, The Belts, as bass player. “I got comfortable enough with them to where I was like, ‘I have all these songs I’ve written and I have recorded and I have up online to listen to. Do you guys want to help me make a live band out of it?’”

The result was “The Ellie Badge,” which was his pseudonym. He got the name from “that Disney Pixar movie, ‘Up.’ I was like 20 at the time and thought it was super cool and romantic.”

When the band broke up, Matthews began performing his original songs, which he described as “sad and emotional,” in coffee houses.

He graduated with a degree in studio art with an emphasis on graphic design. He then moved to Memphis, where he got his masters degree in graphic design at University of Memphis. “I spent three years at U of M and kind of worked on an album in the background. It was a lot more super overproduced. I was just like, ‘I don’t have a band right now. I’m going to make the craziest conceptual record I can.’”

The album, “The Ellie Badge vs. all Your Problems,” was based on a “really bad breakup” that had taken place before Matthews moved to Memphis. “There’s a song called ‘500 Days of Bummer’ that I thought was really good. I’m really proud of that song. That’s the one everybody kind of latched onto.”

The album, he said, is “very pop-punk energetic kind of stuff. There’s a lot of indie influence, a lot of mallcore mid 2000s influence. But then there’s a lot of 8-bit stuff on there, too. I did a lot of really bit-crushed drums and video game theme stuff. All the art is very nerd-culture based.”

“...Again,” his latest album, is a “time-based concept about repetition. I tried to make one song for each season.”

Describing his one-man-show, Matthews, who performs about once a week at various venues, said, “I have a drum machine attached to my guitar. I start a loop and make the drumbeat on my guitar. I have a lot of kill switches and stuff to turn the signals off and on and just start and change the signal afterward. My guitar goes through my pedal board, splits into three signals, goes through a bunch of delays and reverbs and then to my amp.

“There is also a second and third pickup on my guitar that only picks up the bottom E and A string and goes through a kill switch and then goes straight to a bass amp. Basically, I can lay down a guitar lead, lay down a drum thing on two different loops. And then I can kill the signal post loop to kind of change the way it sounds. And then run a distortion after on the drums. Stuff like that. When I need it, I can turn the bass on and just have this really deep big sound for choruses and things like that.”

As far as he knows, Matthews say, “I’m the only person that has the duophonic pickup around here. People have been using loops forever, but I think I’m the only person who thought of doing it this way. I like to think I have my own little niche, but I probably don’t.”

Matthews recently bought a Thinline telecaster body. “I’m building another guitar with the same set up.”

He usually plays “a weird hybrid” Squire guitar. “It’s Frankensteined with a new neck, new parts and everything, but the intonation is off because that specific guitar was made with a conversion neck. The intonation is messed up permanently. I’m building one that’s going to have better intonation.”

Matthews constantly searches for just the right sound. “I buy new pedals a lot. I’m probably going to buy a new amp eventually. I have way too much gear.”

Jeremiah Matthews will perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 12 at the HI-Tone. Also appearing are Alex Fraser, Kake and the 0.* and Sequoia. Tickets: $5.

Greely Myatt on trees and conversation bubbles.

Artist Greely Myatt doesn't let his past life events go to waste.

Take the pine tree he planted decades ago in his mother's yard.

"When I was in the third grade, my teacher — Mrs. Davis — gave all the kids in the class a little pine sapling, and we were supposed to take it home and plant it," says Myatt, who is 65 and a professor of art at the University of Memphis. "Well, I was a reasonably good student, and I did. Fifty-five years later, my sister called me up and said, 'Hey, I cut your tree. Do you want any of it?'"

Their mother had the pine tree cut down because she was afraid it would fall on her house. Myatt said he wanted all 60 feet of it.

Part of that tree is included in some of Myatt's works in "Making Marks," his new show at David Lusk Gallery. Indicating his giant Saul Steinberg-looking steel piece depicting a man contemplating a question mark, Myatt said the man's cuff links, the block he's sitting on, and the question mark as well as the ball on his exclamation mark sculpture and the shelf holding building blocks are "all wood I grew."

The aluminum quilts in Tablecloths are another story. "I guess some of that's kind of trying to purge a guilt. When I went to college, my grandmother gave me this beautiful quilt. And I was a kid. I didn't have respect for anything. Not that I didn't like the quilt. I was appreciative."

But he used the quilt to wrap up some sharp plaster pieces he had made. "These worthless things. To protect them. And tore the quilt up."

Cartoon or speaking balloons, which show up in his piece, Remarks, made of colorful steel gas cylinder caps, often reappear in his work. "The balloons started when I was making this piece for the old Memphis Center for Contemporary Art years and years ago."

Gathering wood in a dump, Myatt found "this title page of a little novel. And it was called The Lady. On the other side was a handwritten note that said, 'Grandpa's sick. I'll see you at the hospital.' I thought, 'Wow. This is really powerful. What do you do with it?'"

He made a steel speaking balloon and stuck the page sideways into it, so the viewer could read both sides of the page.

Later, he placed wooden quilt-pattern speaking balloons next to some old box spring mattresses. "It was kind of like trying to give inanimate objects a voice, in a way."

Myatt currently is using speaking balloons in his UrbanArts project, "Everybody's Talking," a series of five steel sculptures that "increasingly get larger" in Audubon Park.

The first segment is an empty speaking balloon and a platform, the second is two balloons and two chairs, and so on. The final segment has a small 15-foot stage with five balloons. "It was an opportunity to give the viewer the chance to say something."

A native of Aberdeen, Mississippi, Myatt read Beetle Bailey and other comic strips. "I tried to draw a few cartoons for our little school paper, and I wasn't very good at it."'

He grew up "in the South away from art, but in a big visual culture. We put stuff in our yards, and we'll call it art because if you don't, you get beat up or something."

He remembered the tree stump made to look like a bear in a yard down the street from him when he was a kid. "It's got two branches coming up that are his arms. And he's holding two mailboxes. That's the kind of thing I grew up around. Not only was it art, I knew what it was. It did something."

So, later when he was shown a box made out of steel in art class at Delta State and told, "This is art," he was confused. But not for long.

Myatt, who wants viewers to come up with their own take on his art work, considers his pieces to be "about talking, which is not communication necessarily. It's more about confusion and misleading and double reads and all those things than it is about clarity. My job is to confuse."

"Making Marks" is on view through September 30th at David Lusk Gallery.

Paa Kow - Echoes of Africa

Countless scholars write of the African traditions behind the blues, music that defines the Mid-South. Samuel Charters' The Roots of the Blues: An African Search is just the tip of the iceberg, exploring in depth what has become a cliché of music history. While few would dispute the truth of this, it's rare that we in the home of the blues can experience the sounds of Africa. Aside from occasional recording projects that bring the two worlds together, like Otha Turner and the Afrossippi Allstars or Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, what can we hear of the continent that is mother to us all?

This is beginning to change, with the Memphis-based African Jazz Ensemble gaining notoriety and the ongoing presence of African drumming and dance in performances by the New Ballet Ensemble. And soon we'll have a chance to hear more of it, with the return of Paa Kow, a trap set master from Ghana who has assembled a unique ensemble appearing next Wednesday at the Hi-Tone.

Kow grew up in a small village in Ghana, making his first drum set from assembled odds and ends, including a drum pedal made with a sandal and a door hinge. "I started when I was, like, 5," Kow says. "I played with my uncles, and was in a band with my mom. From there, it just took off. I moved to the city — all the best artists were in Accra." Under the wing of Ghanaian pop star Amakye Dede, Kow quickly made a name for himself and was touring in other parts of Africa and in Europe.

By 2007, after befriending a traveling student from the University of Colorado, Kow was invited to teach there as a guest artist. Ultimately, he ended up settling in the Denver area, assembling a band of Nigerian and American players to perform his unique hybrid compositions. "I call it Afro Fusion, because I'm not really doing traditional highlife music. I'm an explorer — so it's pretty original, you know?"

Kow is also prolific: His 2012 debut, Hand Go Hand Come, was a double CD. Since then, he's released 2014's Ask, and next Wednesday, he'll be promoting a new album, Cookpot. Over the past 10 years, with these releases under his belt, he's built up a fan base in unexpected places. "I have a good foundation in Lincoln, Nebraksa. Omaha, it's great. Iowa. It keeps getting better and better. I've been here a while, and people start realizing what I do. The fan base is getting better."

His eclecticism may be a key to that. While Ghanaian highlife, with its extended jams over polyrhythmic grooves, underpins much of the music, there are more diverse flavors in the mix. "I like Weather Report; Earth, Wind and Fire; Herbie Hancock; Buddy Rich. So, it's a lot of influences," he notes. Such musical touchstones demand excellent players. "I like the jazz background of the musicians. Because it's very complicated stuff, you know? When they know what they're doing already, it makes it easier."

Kow's band now typically includes organ, multiple percussionists, guitar, bass, and several horn players, but this wasn't always the case. For a time, he and a much smaller ensemble relocated to Memphis. "I moved my band I started in Colorado, and it was only a four-piece then. It was just drum set, trumpet, percussion, and bass. That's what I had at that time. But we made a good thing out of it." The group was a notable presence on the local scene. "We played at the Cooper-Young Festival. I played a night at the Levitt Shell, and at the Hi-Tone, I played a couple times, before I moved back to Colorado. So I know Memphis. Yeah, I lived there before, I love Memphis."

It's notable that the Levitt Shell hosted one of his shows at the time: They have become perhaps the most reliable curator of world music artists in the Mid-South. Many recall an electric (and controversial) show there in 2015 by Seun Kuti, son of the outspoken pioneer of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti. With this in mind, I asked Kow if his songwriting reflected the same combination of politics and jazz as Kuti's music.

"No," he said. "I'm not trying to do political at all. I just wanna be happy. I want everybody to be happy. And it's not really spiritual, no. When the music comes, I give it out. It's a personal thing. The music always comes, and then I give it out, you know?"

Paa Kow performs with the Obruni Dance Band Wednesday, September 13th at the Hi-Tone, $10 cover.

A new live release from Valerie June
(image) Though Valerie June has moved on from Memphis, the city was and will always be the place where she cut her teeth as a performer. And her fans here are legion, often left wondering when her next 'hometown' show will be. While June is in the area, playing St. Louis tomorrow night and Nashville on September 12th for Americana Fest, she won't be stopping in the Bluff City. The good news is that fans can enjoy a live performance anyway, released today via Spotify, Apple Music, and GooglePlay.

Most Los Angelenos have a soft spot in their hearts for the KCRW program, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Living up to its name, it's full of musical surprises. This past June, appropriately enough, the program hosted Memphis' own June as she ran through eight songs from her latest album, The Order of Time. Her appearance was recorded beautifully by KCRW, and as of today anyone can hear her crack band lay down choice selections from the album with fresh energy.

“To me it's kinda similar to a trance, a meditation of sorts,” June drawls to introduce the song “If And.” And it's in her drawl that so much of the charm lies. Somehow evoking a cross between a New Age Jessie Mae Hemphill and a long gone mountain woman from Appalachia, June's singing is perfectly suited to the simple drones of her compositions. Her voice wouldn't sound out of place on the classic Anthology of American Folk Music. (Perhaps that's why Bob Dylan name checked her as one of his favorite recent artists in an interview this year).

Her singing makes ventures out of the folk genre especially unique, such as the swaying soul of “Slip Slide on By”. Once you're in June's world of countrified caterwauling, the precision of the pitch is irrelevant. The heartfelt delivery carries it, and it's a welcome contrast to the acrobatic melisma that plagues so much contemporary soul.

Midway through the set, there's an interview with June that offers a glimpse into what makes her tick. All in all, it's a charming gift to the fans out there who may not see as much of her as they'd like. Here's a sample of it on YouTube:
Bob Dowell slides into Mississippi
(image) Jazz releases are few and far between from Memphis, let alone Mississippi, so Bob Dowell's Mississippi Slide!, arriving for general consumption on September 12th, immediately caught my eye. Even better, one listen made it clear that this was no jam band claiming to be fusion with a jumble of lightning runs over looping grooves. This is music steeped in the classic sounds of hard bop of the 1960s, combining the harmonic innovations of bebop with a groovier, earthier sound rooted in blues, soul, and R&B. It is a sound that has aged very well.

Trombonist Dowell is an interesting cat. Hailing from the United Kingdom, he plied his trade for years as a session man, arranger, and composer in and around London. Accruing a list of credits as long as your arm, including performances at the Royal Albert Hall and Jools Holland's Later, he worked the scene there, chiefly playing ska, reggae, salsa, and African music. But jazz was always his first love. And when he relocated to Greenville, Mississippi two years ago, that's what he wanted to focus on.

Dowell wasted no time in finding kindred spirits. For this record, he assembled the cream of the Memphis crop: Tony Thomas on Hammond B3, Art Edmaiston on tenor sax, Tim Goodwin on bass, and Tom Lonardo on drums. All of them sound right at home in the original compositions. Dowell's touchstones are Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, and trombone master J.J. Johnson, and the band does these forerunners justice. The playing is inventive, ensemble-based, and musical. Following the traditions of hard bop, the melodic head of each tune is clear as a bell, with solos grooving and breathing over Dowell's intriguing changes.

Dowell says he's right at home in Greenville, and these soulful, swinging compositions make that clear. The title track rides moodily over Thomas' deep organ chords, with especially fluid soloing from Dowell. "Crawdaddy Blues" could be the product of Jimmy Smith going fishing down south. But it may be the heartfelt ballad “Southern Skies” that expresses his new roots the most. With broad, open brush strokes, it paints a lazy expanse of Delta landscape.

If only there were more venues to hear this classic jazz in our city...but never fear, lovers of live jazz: Dowell will be leading a quintet in a week's time, at the E.E. Bass Auditorium in Greenville at 7:30 pm – well worth the trip.
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