Let's Get Metaphysical: double cappuccinos all round with Matt Keating
Hearsay #19 / 1998 / Interview with Neil and Ewen


"There is a happiness in misery; there's something beautiful in it"

How exciting can a day be? More and more months pass us by and fewer and fewer great Hearsay-friendly musicians decide to grace these shores with a live performance. We were surprised and delighted when Matt Keating, long-time Hearsay favourite and much undervalued singer-songwriter of three fine LPs and two fine EPs announced a one-off visit to the UK to play a show at London's 12-Bar Club. We were even more delighted when he consented to join Neil and Ewen for cappuccinos (coz latte tastes basically like flask coffee, right?) between sound-check and performance to discuss, among other things, why Billy Bragg gets booed in America and how he (MK) found himself singing Phil Collins songs to the Boston Mafia.

After the interview we saw the Queen. Americans probably think that's the kind of thing that happens every day in London but, rest assured, that's not the case. The worst of it is, you normally have to go out of your way to stand any chance of seeing the Queen so to see her by accident feels fundamentally wrong. Not least because everyone will just assume we frantically rushed to see Her when, in fact, we would not do such a thing. And to top it all, the poor love was off to the premiere of Disney's new version of The Parent Trap. If She'd only come back to the 12-Bar with us I'm sure She would have had a much better time.

HEARSAY: How far 'between albums' are you at the moment?
I've got new stuff and I'm trying to get a deal — I'm not with Alias any more. Delight Jenkins, who runs the label, has great taste and they used to have a lot of money but I guess they don't have as much any more. They seem to me like they're too all over the place in their tastes so they couldn't really focus on one area and didn't really know how to spend their money well to make things happen, for me at least.

The Alias roster's very eclectic.
Yes, it's a good thing artistically but marketing-wise it can work against you. They tried to sell my first record to the alternative rock market but what I was doing didn't fit in with that — they tried to force it into that market and it kind of backlashed. I think what I do is very catchy music and accessible by people but it's more substance over style when a lot of what makes things sell is style. I don't pay much attention to my image - I guess I should!

One of the most distinctive aspects of your lyrics is your use of puns and word-play ('You wanted a man of substance, you got one with substance abuse'). It's an under-exploited area — only a few other contemporary names (Michael Penn, Peter Blegvad, Scott Miller) spring to mind. Do you approach writing like a game?
Yes, lyric writing is like a puzzle for me. It's always about trying to put a point across and say something but there have to be different ways of saying it. It's fun to make the lyrics that little bit more intricate. I loved the way The Beatles always did that, playing word games with their lyrics; it's what I grew up on. And different songwriters, the people I grew up listening to, like Elvis Costello, did that so I felt like you had to — you couldn't just say 'Baby, I love you' because it would be stupid!

You home in on the way people think and behave... do you find the act of songwriting helps you figure out relationships and personal problems?
I'm still as confused as ever, but I guess I initially got into writing to work out my personal dramas. It's kind of my own way of dealing with life. My version of therapy and it's a lot cheaper! I think doing it for other people is a by-product, secondary to doing it to work out my own life. I guess it'll work it out for the day but I never come to some ultimate conclusion where it's 'okay, I'm cool now.' I guess if it did that I wouldn't have to write any more songs!

You always include a couple of scabrous, anti-Republican songs on each album but with the resurgence of the consensus in the mid-90s, political songwriting seems almost out of fashion these days. All the great 80s exponents like Michael Stipe, Matt Johnson, Natalie Merchant and Billy Bragg now seem to be making more and more personal records!
Yeah, 'coz they got richer! They're rich now and part of the status quo. Except for Billy Bragg, I guess he's just as political as ever.

But do you sometimes feel like a lone voice?
I'm glad you asked that because it's funny — you're the only person ever to ask me about politics! I do have that element in my writing but they're never the songs people are drawn to. I think they're some of my best, but in
America politics makes everyone uncomfortable. In fact, that's what they never liked about Billy Bragg. He never really went over big in America because people would start booing him when he would go into his political stuff. I feel that a song is about expressing individuality and individuality is constantly faced with the forces of politics so how can that not be an element in your writing? I grew up listening to The Clash and even though they got all their politics from Marxism For Beginners it still was exciting to be a 13-year-old kid and going 'Wow! I'm so bored with the USA!' No one was saying that where I grew up. I feel like you've got to say something because life is about other kinds of relationships — not just romantic ones.

And of course any relationship takes place in a particular political system which has a trickle-down effect upon the ways people relate to each other...
Exactly. So if you're writing about human nature you've got to address that, I think.

Artists can sometimes exist on the fringes of or outside capitalism — especially when capitalism doesn't seem to value art in its own right. Do you think this gives you a privileged critical perspective on society? Does it bring a certain responsibility ‘when you don't have to work’?
Yes, I think it does because you're affected by politics anyway. The music industry is actually very political — I have people saying 'that wouldn't be a very good political move' but, it's like, 'I'm not a politician, I'm a musician!' But politics is all about protecting the status quo so any industry that makes a lot of money, like the music industry, is going to have a stake in keeping that going. But the responsibility of an artist is to buck the system, not just milk the world for as much cash as you can!

Your songs often come across like a catalogue of the challenges and pitfalls we all face but Boxed Inn stresses the importance of getting out into the world and squaring up these problems. Is life a challenge you relish?
Sometimes it's depressing and sometimes it's exciting, you know? Everyone in modern day society is faced with trying to be themselves in a world that tries to make people conform. You learn from putting yourself into situations and seeing what you get. That particular song came out as a very happy pop song but initially it was almost like Morrissey — a very quiet, introspective, moody song. I think I like it better that way. It was about when I first moved to
New York and all the apartments were like shoe boxes and everyone was in these little boxes on top of one another. I remember thinking about what my life consisted of at that time — we can hear sirens going by right now and there it was car alarms and message machines and all these noises and people not communicating with each other, just separate. A kind of Orwellian world. But I knew I had a responsibility to myself to get out and not just die in that situation but to force myself out. I think that song is telling myself to get out of the house!

But you enjoy New York despite the chaos?
I enjoy it now, but I wrote that song when I first moved there and felt kind of lonely because I didn't really know that many people. But since then I've married and I have a baby and now I have a community of people I'm friends with and, you know, I guess a lot of my isolation was my own creation when I first got there. Anybody who moves to a big city from a smaller city you can feel alien, but now I realise there's a lot more to New York. And New York's a much happier place now than it was in the early 90s. A little happier for me, anyway.

Has fatherhood changed your view of the world?
Yes. I now see the world through sleep-deprived eyes.

Happy Again captures, both musically and lyrically, the strange inter-dependence of happiness and sadness. Your songs often suggest that life tends naturally towards sadness and good luck or happiness is something that has to be fought for...
That's my favourite song off that record [Killjoy] and I think it came from me always defining my identity through sadness, which is a common young person's approach. And it's redundant because when you're young you have your health and you have a lot going for you so enjoy it, you know? Then, suddenly, my life got so much better. I finally got together with a woman who was actually nice to me and I seemed to be getting some appreciation for the work I do. It's human nature that we're always seeking a state of security where we feel okay with ourselves but the problem with that is you're setting yourself up because life keeps changing and the only thing constant is change, so it was more facing that reality. Even when you're going through a happy time in life you couldn't have got there if it weren't for all the sad times and you're probably going to get to some sad times again later and it's just taking a snapshot of this moment of happiness and knowing that it's just part of the continuum... I'm getting metaphysical but it was kind of a metaphysical question! Life is just changing and anybody, when things are going well, carries a seed of doubt going 'this isn't going to last' and waiting —'what's it going to be that ruins everything?' You know when you're watching a movie and everything's going great? You're like, oh no! Something's going to happen now, man. It's too good! And the next minute the mudslide comes and destroys your home.

What makes you happy?
If I write a good song then I'm happy about that; if I have a good show where I've connected with the audience then I'm happy about that. When I've taken my daughter to the swings... being with her is making me happy. When I get over a hurdle with my wife and actually connect with her — that's happy. That's about it.

Stephin Merritt once said that the best pop songs have upbeat tunes and melancholy lyrics because we listen to the music when we're happy and the lyrics when we're sad. Do you agree?
I totally agree with that. That's the John Lennon approach to songwriting. Help is a song that's screaming in desperation and it's a happy song! People say to me that my lyrics are so depressing and, it's like, what about 'I'm A Loser' and stuff like that? Nirvana. Or the Smiths — happy, pretty pop music about being miserable. Sometimes it's good to put it to a happy beat because there is a happiness in misery, there's something beautiful in it. The Japanese have one word that means 'happy-sad'. When you really reach a moment of self-pity there's a certain satisfaction to that. Or I happen to think so — I could just be a masochist!

Your albums have always had an intimate, almost-live guitar/bass/drums feel to them. Have you ever been tempted to go off on a bonkers Jon Brion-style production flourish?
I would like to do that If he were to call me up and want to work with me I'd definitely do it! But I started off doing it simply because I felt there wasn't enough attention given to songs. I wanted to write songs that were strong enough, that would stand with even the most minimal amount of flourish on them. Neil Young always just had a band playing and did his songs and I wanted to be able to pull it off with just the song because then I would know that if people were listening they were listening to the song. But I've come to the point where I'm bored with that. I appreciate orchestrated records and I'd like to do it if I found the right person; I just haven't met the right partnership for that. Also, the budgets for my records were so low that if I had tried to do orchestrated records they would have come out really lame!

Do you listen to people who make the same kind of music as you do?
I have eclectic tastes, although my favourite record right now is probably the Elliott Smith record. His previous records were pretty bare bones, but now this new one is a lot more orchestrated. I really respect his work — the songs stand alone. But I listen to all sorts of music from all different eras and of all different styles: soul music and a lot of lush pop and country music and 70s punk. If it's good, I like it. Under my definition of 'good'!

What literature influences and inspires you? You're obviously very fond of language.
I'm a little self-conscious about that because I once got accused of writing 'sixth-form poetry' by the Melody Maker which is a joke among the guys I'm staying with here, because I remember thinking it was a compliment! I read a lot and I appreciate poetry but I guess that's the kind of thing you try not to make too evident in your songs. I try to keep the language simple.

If you weren't a singer-songwriter, what profession do you think you'd be following now?
Oh, I guess I'd run a haberdashery. 'I think this hat would look nice on you.' I kind of always knew I was going to do music. At first I didn't know I was going to be a singer-songwriter, I thought I was just going to be a musician. But then I realised I wasn't good enough so I figured I'd better write my own songs if I wanted to play music. Then I started seeing songwriters and really being moved by them and thought if I could ever do that it would be a great, great thing. Now I realise I've spent so much time doing it that I'm not really good at doing anything else.

Did you learn anything useful from your time playing music for the Boston Mafia which has helped you survive in the cut-throat world of the music industry?
It was so cheesy! And, you know, as much as the music industry thinks it's hip, it's not very different from a Mafia club. It was so cliche. It was run by this guy named Rocky who had a big cigar and every week he got the 45s from the Top 40 and he'd decide what song the band was going to do. I just played keyboards. He'd come in and he'd go 'I want you to do this, this and this' and he'd pick who was going to sing what. He called me the Kid and he'd go 'let's have the Kid sing the Phil Collins song' and my stomach would turn! I got paid just to do crap because some guy ran this club and he wanted it the way he wanted it, and there was probably some kind of thing to do with Mafia involvement with payola and the Top 40 and all that stuff. It was the ultimate in degrading sell out but, hey, sell out is sell out. It made me learn not to take it seriously, although I do take myself quite seriously which is one of my biggest drawbacks!

What is your philosophy on life?
To have no philosophy on life.

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