The Tallest Man on Earth is about five-foot-nine. Maybe; wearing the right shoes. Narrowly built, spindly legged, and quietly spoken, the loftiest thing about him is actually his haircut, a swept-way-up look which evokes early Dylan just as helplessly as his songs. Like Dylan, Kristian Mattson is a walking contradiction: a 27 year old Swede whose music takes its signifiers from Harry Smith, its fine-spun guitar-work from Leadbelly and Nick Drake, and who sings in a bent growl that can go sweet or slack, pierced through with a back-porch American twang. Paradoxically, he also may be one of our strangest young lyricists–an idiom-twisting blues scholar whose faltering command of the English language partially accounts for the weird, refracted beauty of his lyrics.
Before his first show at Bowery Ballroom this spring, Mattson spoke to us about his quietly arresting debut Shallow Grave, his poor interview skills, and his deep admiration of Leslie Feist.
The first show I saw you play was at Town Hall opening for Bon Iver. What was that tour like for you?
I’d been here before a number of times, but this was definitely something new. You can’t say enough about Bon Iver. They’re amazing musicians and really wonderful people, and that tour was a great experience for me–so many great rooms, cities, the people, everything. Town Hall is a beautiful room. It was good to go out west and do some shows by myself too. I played a lot at South by Southwest, which was…
Kind of a meat market?
Yeah [laughs]. And a bit like a circus too, I think. There’s a lot going on. I also played so many times there it was hard to know what was happening. It was fun, though.
I’m sure you got to hear some music out there as well. What current bands have you excited or inspired by?
Well, here obviously Bon Iver. Feist is the biggest one right now. I know I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m kind of obsessed with that album. I think I listen to it every day. I can’t even drive my car without listening to it [laughs]. It’s weird. Okkervil River too–Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names, I’ve been listening to those all the time. Another band I really love is The Avett Brothers.
Who would you like to tour with or collaborate with? This is the biggest paper in the United States. Not sure if you knew that. Now is the time to reach out.
Oh, really? Cool. [laughs]. Feist, definitely. That would be great.
One of the songs I loved at Town Hall was “King of Spain.” Will that be on the new record?
I think so [laughs]. You like that song? I’ve been going through a few versions of that song during the tour and I think I finally have a pretty good feel for it. I’ve actually been writing a lot of new songs. I have a few that I’ve been trying out in these shows, and I’ll play a few new ones tonight [editor’s note: “King of Spain,” “The Wild Hunt,” “A Thousand Ways,” “Troubles Will be Gone”]. We’ll see how it goes. I can’t really talk about a good part of it yet. A lot of it is already recorded, though. I think you’ll be able to hear some of it soon. We’re hoping for the beginning of next year.
I couldn’t help but notice that the two most linear songs I’ve heard you play in terms of storytelling–“The Gardener” and “King of Spain”–both have these highly unreliable narrators. A cynical way of looking at this would be that anyone who tells a story is unreliable by definition. Is there a part of you that just distrusts linear storytelling?
I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it like that [laughs]. I don’t know if I think about writing songs in that way. I probably try not to think about it, there are no regular rules I make or anything like that. The songs happen in so many ways–sometimes an image, which is a way I like, sometimes a melody, or whatever–that I just want to give myself enough freedom to let it happen. I don’t want to close myself off to any of those ways. Also, there are different ways to make a story. I like to think that all of the songs are telling a story, and that the music is telling a story in its own way. I find it hard to talk about.
It’s hard to talk about process when you’re still figuring it out.
Yeah, it really is. The music also happens in so many different ways that it’s hard to….I’m not a very good interview person [laughs]. It’s like my head is trying to do two different things at once [Mattson strung and tuned two different guitars during the course of this interview]. But I really like meeting people, talking to people. It’s funny. I’ve been playing so many shows, traveling, talking, writing songs, you’d think I’d get tired of it at this point. But it’s been opening up a lot of things. I want to play more and more, I want to write, and I’m having a good time. I feel better about that than anything else.
I read in an interview with The Knife once that musical education is a lot more widespread in Sweden than in the United States. Was that something you took advantage of? What were some of the big influences earlier on?
As far as the playing goes, you learn in school early on, just getting a feel for gripping the hard chords. It’s the usual thing–a lot of what they teach you is jazz and classical, which I actually really like, and it helps you down the line. Later I played in a lot of rock and punk bands. But one of the more famous people for me early on, I guess, that I liked, would be Robert Johnson. Then I was pretty obsessed with Dylan for a while. It was a bit backwards you know, like it is for younger people now–he introduced me into so much, all that early American roots music. I discovered a lot of those early bluesmen I love through him.
I’ve heard you do covers of Son House’s “Death Letter” and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Old Stepstone,” and there are so many others people bouncing around on this record–Booker White, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt…..
Yeah, all of those. It all branches off, and things change over time, obviously. I get a little wary of talking about it, because I don’t really want to be part of this one tradition or to be put into one thing.
Character songs–like “The Gardener”–are also very much a part of the Blues tradition. Not to mention the whole idea of creating and adopting a character as a performer. There’s you, Kristian, then the Tallest Man on Earth, then the character in the song.
Well, obviously I’m not the crazy killer in “The Gardener” [laughs]. It’s not “me.” But there is some part of you being played out in every song, even in those characters. Hopefully. Maybe that’s what makes you believe the character. We all have something violent in us, something dark or worried– jealousy, for example, like in “The Gardener.” Standing up there singing all about you isn’t all that interesting, I don’t want to just do that. It’s not very fun, and it may be dishonest. It gives people the idea you think “you know who you are,” which you don’t at this point, if ever. So really that’s just another character you’re talking about. Really, I just want to have freedom. You want to be able to make music in a number of different ways. But it’s all “you” one way or another.
With Dylan–and I think this is true for most artists of any kind, but particularly the ones rooted in the blues–the seemed to be a long period of imitation and acting that preceded any real personal breakthrough or “innovation.” Then some consistent quality that’s personally useful to you becomes apparent.
I think that what you’re talking about makes a lot of sense. You learn. It’s a good thing, whether you call it imitation or something else. Dylan is a good example: You have to live in the music you love for a while. At a certain point, I knew I was never going to be able to play the guitar like Son House or any of those guys [laughs]. But until you fail like that maybe you don’t know what you’ve been doing that’s yours. I realized I had kind of figured out how to write songs in my own way–that used certain parts of that music but made sense to me–and things became easier after that: faster and a lot more fun.
One of the major discoveries Dylan seemed to make was that since those forms and melodies are so familiar to listeners, the songwriter is actually granted a different kind of freedom in how to use images.
That actually helped me a lot, I think. I’m actually still learning with my English, so…. In a way, this was its own language that everyone knows. And these words and images and sounds have a lot of meaning, more meaning than we understand. Musicians can communicate this way, not just the music itself but the words that go along with it.
No matter where you live, everyone has an idea what a “High and Lonesome Sound” is.
[Laughs]. Right, they do.