The revved up, rock side of Matt's musical personality is on display with The Get Up Kids, but his solo artist persona is a different animal. He plays all the instruments and writes all the songs on his solo albums, which can mean a spare production that leaves a song naked. He plays these for his children and his wife, but ultimately, he's the final judge of song quality.
Financing these solo efforts is a challenge, and for his 2012 album May Day, he got help from fans through Kickstarter, where he was encouraged to learn that folks were willing to fork over some hard earned money to keep Matt making music.
That Matt chose a photo of him holding a chicken as his publicity photo says a lot about his priorities. An interview becomes a conversation, and the topics that come up the most are his songs and his family. Speaking with a productive and successful songwriter with no desire to enter a higher tax bracket can be quite refreshing.
Matt Pryor: I don't necessarily think it's important for musicians specifically. I think it's important as humans to try and take care of our fellow human beings as much as we can. I do a lot of charity work at home and I don't get a lot of opportunities to do it other places. I think it makes you a more well-rounded person.
Songfacts: I would think so, yeah. It certainly helps you to have a better perspective, and maybe it keeps the selfishness at bay. Well, I've been listening to May Day, your new solo album. And there's one song on there that I really like. Forgive me if I get the title wrong, but I think it's something to do with "unhappy is the only happy you'll ever know," or something like that?
Matt: Yeah. It's "Unhappy is the Only Happy That You'll Ever Be."
Songfacts: You know what it made me think of; it made me think of that old blues song, if I didn't have bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all.
Matt: Yeah, it's kind of like a bad country and western title, too. Crying in my beer or something.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about writing that song?
Matt: I've had that phrase; my friend, James Dewees, who plays keyboards in the Get Up Kids, said that one time. He was talking about somebody specifically, but I can't remember who it was at the time. But it's talking about how there's always people who are happiest when they're complaining about something, or can't ever stop and find the joy in anything - it's just always something. And so he said that, and I thought it was a good line. So I wrote it down on my phone (laughing) and it was there for a year. And I kept going, "Oh, yeah, that's a good name for a song." And then when I was finishing this record up, that was one of the last songs I wrote. And I wrote it more as a break-up song, so it wasn't really about what James had originally coined the term as. But it's not really self-reflection, because I think it's written to somebody. It's definitely taking stock of what's going on and realizing that sometimes you can get to a point where you're just like, Am I really even trying? (laughing) Or am I just being miserable?
Songfacts: I really like the song. The other thing I noticed about the album, there's a lot of harmonica on it and it reminded me of Neil Young and the Harvest era of his musical career. Was he at all an inspiration for some of the music that you made on this new album?
Matt: Not directly. I mean, I'm a fan of Neil Young. I perceive the harmonica stuff more with Dylan than with Neil Young, but that's just me. I played all the instruments on the record myself, and I'm not a very good harmonica player. I would go so far as to say I'm a bad harmonica player, but through the magic of ProTools, I can accomplish it on a record. But it's one of those things you can use to add texture to a song that you don't have to be any good at playing it necessarily. I'm not bagging on the instrument. People who can play it can play it really well, sort of the same thing with the piano. I can play chords on the piano, but I'm not a piano player, in the same way I'm not a harmonica player. The harmonica on this record that I really like that was a direct inspiration was the first song on the new Decemberists record, "Don't Carry It All," except this starts off with just one big wailing harmonica note. It's almost like a sax song or something, he's holding that note.
Songfacts: That's a good inspiration. I'll definitely affirm that. The Decemberists, they're one of my big favorites.
Matt: Mine, too. Have you read his book (Wildwood by Colin Meloy)?
Songfacts: No, I haven't. How is that?
Matt: I just finished it. It was good. I'm having my daughter read it now. She's almost 10 and she's like a big Harry Potter and Narnia fan, so it's kind of like in that sort of vein. I liked it. It's in that same sort of young adult kind of fantasy. He's just got a gift for words.
Songfacts: I'm just afraid that too many people would die in it for a little kid to read it.
Matt: No, no. It's not any worse than the Harry Potter books. I mean, more people die in those towards the end. There's a lot of fighting, but there's not a lot of death.
Songfacts: Good. I'll definitely look into that. Tell me, when you write songs for your band, The Get Up Kids, is it different than when you write songs for your solo albums? Do you get in a different frame of mind?
Songfacts: The way you answered that makes me wonder, was it not always that way with the band? Was it not always as democratic, maybe, as it is now?
Matt: No, it's always been pretty democratic. But it was more like one person - me or Jim or sometimes other guys - would bring a song to the band and be like, "Okay, here's a demo I did at home." If I took the songs that were on this record and then took them to the band, it would sound totally different, because it would get fleshed out and things would get rearranged and things would get edited and things would get added. But that was the way we wrote our second, third, and fourth records. Our first record and our most recent record were written in that more collaborative style.
Songfacts: The new album is titled May Day. Now, when I think of May Day, I think of a communist holiday or something.
Matt: A communist holiday?
Songfacts: Yeah, isn't that...
Matt: I always think of 'May Day' - well, I think of it in two meanings. One is a cry for help, and two as the first day of May, when you go around and give people presents. I don't know if you do that where you're from, but that's kind of traditional.
Songfacts: Really, you do that?
Songfacts: Now, what region is that?
Matt: I have no idea if it's a regional thing. Well, I'll Google it real quick if you want.
Songfacts: Well, because you know, I want to get more presents, so if I can convince my family...
Matt: Well, it's mostly like leaving flowers... you ever heard of a Mayday basket, where someone makes a basket and puts flowers in it and hangs it anonymously on your door?
Matt: You've never heard of that?
Songfacts: I have not. I guess I haven't really lived, have I?
Matt: Well, I wouldn't go that far. But when I was working on the record, it was kind of like, Just finish the damn thing already. And it was like okay, I have to finish it by the end of May, because it was just putting a final point on it. But also, that was when The Get Up Kids were going to start the rest of the touring cycle, so I had this month off to just be home and work on the record.
Songfacts: I do get what you say about the whole thing about watching old black and white movies. "Mayday! Mayday!" it's like a guy needs to be bailed out. So I can see that reference, too. But which of it do you think it leans more towards? Is it more towards leaving flower baskets on somebody's house?
Songfacts: Or is it more like "bail me out"?
Matt: It's both. It's both of those things, as well as the actual pragmatic - it got finished in the month of May.
Songfacts: Well, I told you that the song that really stuck out to me that I like. This is at the risk of having a father pick his favorite child, but what songs do you, at this point, at least today, like best from it?
Songfacts: How important is your kids' opinions of your songs? Do you take their opinions seriously when you play stuff for them?
Matt: Yeah. I mean, they're pretty accurate as far as critics go. (laughs) My daughter's getting old enough now that she can start to appreciate quieter, slower stuff. But it's mostly up-tempo things. It's not terribly often that they throw me a curve ball like that, where I didn't even know I liked that song. But usually, if I think something's good and catchy, then they'll either confirm or deny that.
Songfacts: Do they ever give you advice on how to change things?
Matt: No, they're not to that point yet. It's probably coming soon. They're critical in the sense that they'll tell me what they like and what they don't like. But they don't necessarily tell me they don't like something, they just don't listen to it as often, and I can tell.
Songfacts: Well, let me ask you this question, then. Are there people who when you write songs, before you really get serious about recording them, that you say, "Hey, am I onto something here? Can you give me your honest opinion?"
Matt: I do that with my wife, but she has a hard time answering me about it. Because I think it's kind of an uncomfortable thing.
Songfacts: She doesn't want to tell you the truth, if it's really bad, she's not going to say...
Matt: No, most of the things that I get hung up on are like recording things. Because, like, this record sounds very raw, and it's supposed to sound very raw.
Songfacts: It does. You're right.
Matt: It's supposed to sound like what it is, which is a very cathartic and very frustrated sort of thing for me. So I want it to sound like how I felt when I was writing it, and some of it is the first take of the song right after I wrote it. But then once it was done, I started to question that, and I'm kind of like, Well, Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen album) sounds worse than this does. And those songs are amazing, but it's recorded on a 4-track. And then my wife, she just hears the song. She doesn't care about the recording. The fidelity, if you will. She's like, "I don't know. It sounds good. The song's good." Or if she doesn't like the song, she's like, "Well, that's not one of my favorites." So in that sense, she's not the best barometer, because she's not a recording engineer.
Songfacts: She has different ears than maybe an engineer would have. I can see that.
Matt: I'll say something like, "This song doesn't sound very good." And she listens to words more than anything, so she'll disagree.
Songfacts: I was listening to it on my way to work today. Nebraska didn't really come to mind, but I can sort of sense that. Don't take this the wrong way, but it's not really a pretty sounding record in a lot of places. It's kind of harsh.
Matt: Yeah. It can be. I mean, it's a home recording written and recorded by someone who was very, very frustrated and somewhat angry. So I think that it was better to convey that. I'm not going to get hung up on what kind of microphones and pre-amps we're using to make the record. I just wanted to be raw, and I wanted it to convey the feelings that I was having. And I think I did that. I certainly am not trying to draw correlations between it and Nebraska. I mean, Nebraska is like a classic of American rock music. But some of my favorite records aren't recorded very well. Between punk rock and - hell, old field recordings of old folk musicians aren't recorded very well by today's standards.
Songfacts: It's like that saying lipstick on a pig. If it's not good, it doesn't matter how you try to pretty it up. But if it's good, it's still going to be good, even though it may not be pretty.
Matt: Yeah. A great sounding recording cannot save a shitty song. But a great song can come through regardless of what the recording sounds like. So I was operating under that opinion.
Songfacts: You talk about it expressing how you were feeling at the time. Did it help?
Matt: Yes. That helped - making the record helped. I did a Kickstarter campaign to finance the record, and got overwhelming support. I was going through a period of wondering if anybody likes what I do - I don't really know if I see the point in doing this, I feel like I'm just constantly having to fight people. And that was just an overwhelming show of support, and it was kind of like, all right. I'm glad I'm touching somebody. That sounded weird, didn't it?
Songfacts: That sounded like that Penn State coach.
Matt: Ooooohhhh, you went there with it. (laughs)
Songfacts: I'm sorry. Maybe it's your Sally Field moment, in the Academy Awards.
Matt: "You like me, you really like me!" Oh, well.
We spoke with Matt Pryor on December 7, 2011.
More Songwriter Interviews