Dark sider

The best singer-songwriter you (likely) haven't heard

This tall, bespectacled, Ypsilanti-based singer-songwriter has been warming up hearts around here for a half-dozen years. His songs, often stunning, folkish narratives and image-rich ballads, feature a voice that can croon with heartbreaking sincerity or pull you in like some pucker-lipped carnival barker, stroked by acoustic finger-picking, below-the-belt cellos and purring violins. 

After releasing what was one of the best albums of '09, here or anywhere, Matt Jones spent most of 2010 not eating, not sleeping, basically working on drinking, and doing well. He became a writer with no ideas, was headed straight from writer's block to burnout. ("I lost my mind for a year," he says.) 

But Jones isn't milking some Lost Weekend cliché: As booze often will lead you from character, Jones stopped focusing on his own work and wound up going electric! So this is about a songwriter falling, getting all loud, stopping, sobering up and then reappearing. 

Big deal, songwriters get drunk and give up all the time, right? But this Jones guy is one of those you wind up rooting for, because he's that good and personable, and you know the world is a lesser place without him writing and singing his ass off in it. 

Then, of course, there's the disarming delight of his childlike chuckle; his self-deprecation is authentic, earned. And Jones is funny as hell. 

And that marvelous album, his debut, The Black Path, is a devastating collection of beautiful baroque-rich folk rags, woozy laments and warm acoustic waltzes, fueled (if not haunted by) a kind of tangible nostalgia, disquieting memories and eerie, airy ambience. 

Even Jones' ancestry ties directly to Civil War battlefields and circus freakshows (on his mother's side: her grandfather and his father were circus performers, and the singer's great aunt was a sideshow attraction in the classic horror-show film Freaks, the armless one who played guitar with her feet. Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy was an occasional dinner guest in the family home). Though Jones, like any songwriter worth his salt, has had to work through heady personal problems, his tunes have never slipped into the goofy supernatural or the too sentimental. Jones is not one of those "Midwest beardo-sensitive types"; in fact, if the cello and upright bass creak out stark lullaby basics, it always is given a warm, just-barely jovial gloss by Jones' melodies, words and breathy delivery. 

The songwriter talks of his penchant for spooky-sounding music, and that which exists on the ominous side of life, and also his love for the low-end, all are things that cameo on his Black Path follow-up, titled Half Poison/Half Pure. The second album is out March 1, and it's every bit as worthy as its predecessor, if not a bit more rock 'n' roll. 

And Jones has been busy lately; On Feb. 1, he performed an intimate acoustic set inside Ann Arbor's Back Seat Studios (where he recorded his debut, with engineer Jim Roll). The concert was filmed by director-producer Scott Allen, along with Doug Coombe, Adam Nelson and Martin Thoburn, and will be released the same day, March 1, as his new album, Half Poison/Half Pure. Here Jones talks about the new album, his tour mates, and coming clean in a new reality that involves sobriety but not record labels (or much money). 

Metro Times: When I saw you at the Hamtramck Blowout last year, you had a full band; you were playing electric guitar, electric bass, a drum kit, the whole thing. But you brought it back to the basics for Mittenfest at New Year's ...

Matt Jones: The basics sound best to me. Somehow, somewhere, we started playing electrical instruments, even for acoustic-based stuff from Black Path. But I was out of steam, then, just sort of coasting. ... I spent most of 2010 doing nothing but drinking, not eating, not sleeping and getting laid. I wasn't making any music; I just lost my mind for a year. [He gestures to the mass gathered at the Ugly Mug coffee shop in Ypsilanti. ...]

Ask half of these people here if they know anything they saw me do or have heard a really funny story about me, but I won't remember it. 

But, seriously, everyone in that full-band [electric] stint, Misty Lyn Bergeron, Colette Alexander, Chad Pratt, Serge Vandervoo, Greg McIntosh, let's see, Lacy Lake and Carol Grey and [he points out a person sitting] Kendall Babl, all of them are fucking wonderful musicians and people who cared genuinely for the project. I just couldn't muster the strength to voice what was right for me because I was so flattened by what I was doing to myself. 


MT: Was this some kind of Lost Weekend? ... What was it like for you? 

Jones: My entire immune system broke down nutrition-wise, alcohol-wise, sleep-wise, work hours, stress levels — alright, already! You gotta quit this shit. 


MT: So much darkness as a [still] young man ... 

Jones: I don't know how much further I can go, but it's definitely time to go the opposite direction. So, last winter, I got things rolling. Got back into the studio, finished this new record, did a session at Daytrotter [a studio and online live music site based in Rock Island, Ill.]. Then, I started falling back into my patterns a bit. And then I got a D.U.I. 

MT: Ouch.

Jones: I could see it coming. I knew it was gonna happen. And, for a few weeks after, I thought: I think music did this to me, or the way I presumed I had to approach a musician's lifestyle. The way I'd been living the past 10 years culminated in this. 


MT: What'd you take away from that? 

Jones: Thinking you have to subscribe to a lifestyle that ultimately kills you, or, God-forbid, kills someone else. It's ludicrous. And thinking you have some sort of free artist's pass to do so is really fucked up. So, yeah, I needed to slow down. And I had to stop everything, it couldn't just be drinking or just stopping going out, it had to be the whole package. I chilled, laid low and got involved with projects [with fellow Ypsi-area songwriters Misty Lyn Bergeron and Chris Bathgate]. And I haven't had a drink in several months now and things are rocking. Not rocking, it's just ... that my brain is working now. The fog is gone. 


MT: Sounds cleansing, with good friends in tow.

Jones: Definitely. The past paints everything you do, the way you see things. So, yeah, there was a dark side. But since I stopped drinking I can actually remember what things — music, writing, playing — were like before all that shit. I'd like to grab some of it back. 

I think of [cellist] Colette and Misty. And I think of Bathgate — the guy is fucking driven, just constantly preoccupied with the things he wants, musically, professionally, creatively, that's why he's going to crush everyone on a musical and professional level.


MT: Colette Alexander's worked with you many times, same with Misty Bergeron, what makes it work for you three. 

Jones: Really, with Colette on stage, I can do anything; I want her right there, she's my musical soul mate. And with her cello, she can tie in. And Misty's been responsible for saving my life more than a few times; I couldn't be more proud of her, she's shrugged more than a few demons from her back and has never told a lie, musically or personally. She doesn't get enough credit in my eyes.


MT: And you toured with Chris Bathgate behind his latest Salt Year LP, what was that like and how'd that come about? 

Jones: I can't remember why I wasn't on the original April tour; I've drifted in and out of his band, like most people who've been in it. He was so broke after that first spring tour that he'd be chasing me down streets of Ann Arbor, hunting me down for the $6.50 I'd owed him for a pack of smokes. So, he started painting houses with me as a day job through the summer. And in August he invited me for the autumn tour. It was a good trip ... we won more than we lost.


MT: What'd you take away from that tour?

Jones: When I do tours on my own, I hate downtime. I could care less, actually, about going to the ocean, seeing things. Fuck it, if I could be out on a college radio station, doing anything, I'll do it. I will whore it out. 


MT: That should be my lead for this piece. 

Jones: Go for it! But, yeah, on tours, sometimes I thought I was a freak, 'cause I will not take days off. After the Bathgate tour, with its downtimes, I'm assured I'm not such a freak. What could be better than getting home and saying: Damn, I really worked that as hard as I could. Even if it fails, you know you did everything you could. I'm gonna kick it up even more this year. And I hope Bathgate never comes on tour with me 'cause I'm gonna work his ass off. [laughs] 


MT: Record labels showed interest in Half Poison, but weren't fully committing; I'm sure you've talked to other bands about it — to just put it out yourself, whether you're Prussia or Danny Brown ...

Jones: Right. No point in holding back, I mean, if that's the last record you're ever gonna make in your life then that's a problem. Hopefully you'll keep going. Jamie Monger [of Great Lakes Myth Society] and I discussed this; the model of waiting for a label has become senseless. Just get shit out and make it free too, and do away with CD release parties, I'm against them — I have a job, I'm not going to be hurt. I can stroke my ego all day; I don't need my friends in one place paying to get in to do it for me. 

MT: The old system depended on a band's marketability. 

Jones: Maybe that's why [Bergeron] and I aren't more famous! She's a dark-sider too. But we're self-conscious about it, it isn't something you exploit, that'll always look fake and I want to punch those people in the face. I couldn't sing my shit in this weird, gravelly voice, that's too obvious. 


MT: But big labels, now, don't know [or they only have fleeting inklings] of what to sell, how to sell it or who to sell it to, because Danny Browns or Odd Futures change the game every two weeks, now ...

Jones: And it only takes five minutes to rid yourself of the 'old system' in uploading your album. 


MT: On the title song from the new album you sing, "Confessions confirmed, now confined" and about "fucking with your life ..." 

Jones: It's about being half-here, half-there and too scared to move. Being in a place presently that you have to move from, but you can't let yourself go backward and you're terrified of going forward. It's about being absolutely arrogantly bullheaded and sentimental. The line "the color was scraped out long ago" sums up this record to me. The narrator knows he's gotten off the black path alive and he can see the colors ahead. 


MT: Beyond labels vacillating over commitments, you seem unsure of that more electric aesthetic, that these new songs had a different quality, more rock 'n' roll than folk or baroque. They still sound dark, but maybe less spooky. 

Jones: I know! I don't know if I'm happy about that. 


MT: I love spooky. 

Jones: I think it's going to be love-hate for a while. I have my one love, that's gone now, that was Black Path. 

MT: There were a lot of ominous elements in Black Path — which was a Metro Times year-end favorite — those low, booming basses and sawing strings, but you've talked before about offsetting it by playful melodies, your Scott-Joplin-loving prance through the murk. 

Jones: And, judged by [Path's] darkest moments, Half Poison is definitely brighter. So much of me has depended on me being ominous for a long time though. It just comes with me. I'm huge. I'm a tall dude!

I'm always gonna be the most ominous-looking dude in the room just because I tower over people. I sorta depend on it a bit. If I don't have ominous, I don't know what I have. 


MT: Those cellos on Black Path songs such as "Jugulars, Bones and Blisters" growl at you; you've made my favorite instrument, the most beautiful sound to me, sound menacing. 

Jones: Maybe that's a reason why this new record is still a bit weird for me; you don't feel like somebody's standing over you with a club, waiting to randomly smack you in the head with it. 

I kinda like being that guy. 


MT: A new standout song is "Special Forces." It's a rousing anthem! It's kind of Americana-ish, but those locomotive drums and mandolins are much less spooky than Path's bass-heavy elements or low-humming accordions. And then the lyrics, that closing ensemble chorus: "What's it say? What's it mean? I don't know, you tell me!" 

Jones: I was watching this old '60s movie about an English explorer stumbling onto a Zulu tribe in sub-Saharan Africa and they're all chanting and the melody was so cool. I didn't steal that, but I said, "I want a chant too!" The whole thing was supposed to be for a crowd of people, preferably Zulu warriors, chanting and singing; so I tried to write a chant, but, it wasn't working because it was just me. I needed a thousand other people, preferably. 

But those lyrics are about how some songwriters — sometimes we know we just write total nonsense, total shit, that sounds poetic, you know it's gonna hook you, but you don't know what you're talking about. ["Forces"] has some meaning, "You'll win back all their fluttering eyes" that, if you sing this nonsense, you'll probably win somebody. But, at the end, what does it say? So, that song is me becoming sick of nonsense. 


MT: Sounds like a resolution ... is it a catharsis of sorts?

Jones: I've gone from writing songs about me, to writing songs that make fun of me. "The Darkness" ain't a sad one. Any slow song of mine is, yes, slow ... but it's ripping someone with the same force as the faster songs. 


MT: You rip yourself on these songs, like in "Hammer Falls," singing about being "prepared to lose." Is this your, um, "growing record?"

Jones: I think I've just been waiting this whole year for it to feel grown. With Path, I knew what it was, who it was for, knew all about it. 


MT: This record's raw, in that sense; sometimes people prefer nibbling on raw cookie dough; they don't need a perfectly decorated dessert.

Jones: You can make whatever kind of fuckin' cookies with it that you'd want — heh — I hadn't thought about it that way. I've been looking for a way to do that with an album, for it to be able to grow into something else after I put it out. Even if it grows into something that sucks, it'll be moving something, someone.


MT: And, after going electric, it wound up not fitting you. 

Jones: Electric literally doesn't fit me; a guitar is like a ukulele on me. I play a Telecaster, which is so unfortunate, it's like a fucking toy. It feels weird, it's too small, it's not heavy! Not ominous enough. 


MT: Do you feel the urge to get back to those earthier tones, those rich, wooden acoustics?

Jones: It's nothing to do with being earthy. It's the feeling those big instruments give me; cello and upright bass. My guitar is a tank. Super deep, super heavy. Something about that weight, the tone, the way that tone ... I just need it. [I'm] all about the low end. If I don't have that pressing down on me, thumping down on me, it just feels weak. The tone of electric bass is not enough.


MT: You talked about feeling that you've worked yourself, on the road, and now this talk about thumping and clubbing listeners. I work in a library, I can't resist the metaphor of smashing down an ink-soaked stamp — you must have this urge to really leave your mark.

Jones: Josh Malerman [of the High Strung] told Misty this, "At the end of the day, you want to be on the books, leaving your mark somehow, that you made an effect." [It's] not for money or attention, but being in company with a list of people, Monger, Malerman, Misty, Bathgate, Colette, Doug Coombe ... selfless people with beliefs running beyond what jeans to wear with what scarf. 

But, yes, instrumentally too I have to feel it. If I don't have that anchor, the anchor's got to be there, the instruments that carry the low load, it just kills me. I can't relate to electric guitar or synthesizers very well; cellos, the way you hold them, it's like part of you — you can't find that with other instruments.


Matt Jones & the Reconstruction perform Wednesday, Feb. 29 at this year's Metro Times Blowout pre-party, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave.; Detroit; blowout.metrotimes.com.

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