Matthew E. White, whose band opens for each of the Mountain Goats’ four consecutive New York City shows this weekend (and who composed the horn arrangements for the new Goats album, Transcendental Youth), wrote a letter and slipped it into each vinyl copy of his debut album. “It is regional music,” he writes about Big Inner, co-released in August by Hometapes and White’s label, Spacebomb. He’s referring to the fact that, of the 30-plus musicians who put their hands on Big Inner, all but four of those hands belong to musicians who, like him, are from Richmond, Virginia. “There may be 35 people playing at one time,” says White, “but I know who’s playing every note. This record sounds like Richmond, and it could’ve only been made in Richmond.”
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For at least the past decade, when people think of Richmond music, they tend to think of metal-jokers Gwar and punk/hardcore bands like Avail and Strike Anywhere. Big Inner is a completely different beast; it is an album of painstakingly composed Southern pop music filled with elegant horns, colorful strings, uplifting choir crescendos and White’s hushed, soulful and beatific singing. When I ask about the album’s influences, White’s quick to give props to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and the music of Brazilian Tropicália artists like Jorge Ben (the ecstatic final track, “Brazos,” borrows lyrics from a Ben tune). Also evident on Big Inner are traces of Dr. John, the Band, Brian Wilson, Allen Toussaint, Randy Newman and Curtis Mayfield. Of the song “Steady Pace,” which has a laid-back, cool and rascally bounce like Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime,” White says, “It’s like a Meters thing, and then after the chorus it becomes a Jackson 5 thing.” The numerous historical reference points are clear, but even clearer is that Big Inner‘s a Matthew E. White thing, and a Richmond thing–there’s really nothing else in recent memory that sounds anything like it.
Though recorded in a two week period last year at Spacebomb Studios (A/K/A White’s attic), Big Inner is a decade in the making. It’s a product of multiple music scenes in Richmond coming together, in part because of the Patchwork Collective, a concert promoting organization White co-founded in the mid-2000s with the aim of building a united front from the city’s disparate jazz, rock, folk and experimental music corners. While studying music at Virginia Commonwealth University, White and some fellow students started a band called the Great White Jenkins as an outlet for their more rock-oriented urges. White refers to that band, whose members all contributed in some way to the making of Big Inner, as the “skeleton” for the music he’s making now.
When the Great White Jenkins dissolved around 2008, White created Fight The Big Bull, a large free-jazz ensemble that released a solid album called All is Gladness in the Kingdom on the venerable avant-jazz label Clean Feed in 2010. This band brought together some of the finest musicians from Richmond’s small, but vibrant, jazz scene; all of them play on Big Inner–an album, White says, that he didn’t initially intend to be the first Spacebomb release. White sees Spacebomb as a label/studio-hybrid that includes string and horn arrangers, engineers, producers and a house band (with horn, string and choir sections). Like Stax, Philadelphia International, and many labels of yore, the idea is that artists will come to Richmond to work on their records with the Spacebomb team. “We wanted to create a record-making process that could become a stable enterprise,” says White. “Trained musicians, and a studio group, can still be beneficial and exciting to use, though it’s rare these days. When talented people bring their own special skill sets to the table, I think it adds so much to the creative process. There can be a lot of efficiency and excitement when you’re working with actual musicians who can read and write music.”
Employing this model, the first Spacebomb album was supposed to be one by Karl Blau (Microphones, Earth, D+, et al). Blau came to White’s studio to work for two weeks with the full Richmond ensemble, and since White had everyone under one roof, they also recorded the tracks for Big Inner. “Everyone was in the studio already, so I figured we’d try to make my record, too,” says White. “I had all the arrangements worked out, and by the end of the session, we had two records. I thought of mine as a demo that maybe we’d release at some point, but then people seemed to really like it, so we put my album out first.”
Considering how focused, singular and impressive Big Inner is, it’s absurd to think it was an afterthought. Though White’s songwriting has deep roots in diverse American music traditions–soul, Southern rock, jazz, gospel, country–he adds his own modern flourishes so his songs don’t sound derivative or nostalgic. “I’m appreciating regional music history,” he says, “but viewing it through this weird, avant-garde kaleidoscope. There is some complexity to the music, but I took that complexity and made it so that it’s rewarding for any listener. When you’re in a free-jazz band for awhile, you get tired of playing critically-acclaimed music that nobody wants to listen to. I love playing really crazy stuff, but there’s also a place for a well-crafted, well-arranged four minute song. It’s very smooth music, really. So much of what’s considered indie music comes out of punk rock, and there’s absolutely no punk rock influence on Big Inner.”
Big Inner is definitely not punk. And it’s way too good to be indie. Working within popular contemporary music categories, it’s not easy to place Big Inner into one, or many, of the available options. Even when White played the astoundingly diverse Hopscotch Festival a few weeks ago in Raleigh, N.C., there was nothing on the bill quite like the 30-piece ensemble White brought down from Richmond for its big debut. (For the four New York shows, White’s working with a 9-piece touring group, but he hopes to get the big band on stage again one of these days.) Based solely on the music’s glacial beauty, intricate grandeur and religiosity, the only comparable act at Hopscotch, I think, would’ve been the doom metal band Sunn O))). But, as Kanye once said, that’s “fuckin’ ridiculous.”
What White says makes more sense. “It is regional music.”
Matthew E. White plays Music Hall Of Williamsburg Saturday and Sunday nights (9 p.m., $25), and The Bowery Ballroom Monday and Tuesday nights (9 p.m., $25).