Zeltzer talks about his new album “Desert Tortoise,” his writing process, and his philanthropic endeavor with this album
Matthew Zeltzer is a 25-year old singer/songwriter, but don’t tell him that. He doesn’t like getting pigeonholed. He has worked on an organic farm in France, he’s toured the country, visited musical Meccas like Nashville, and all the while has gathered experiences to fuel the fire in his belly for music. Showing modern day trailblazer wisdom, he writes and performs what he loves and gets his fulfillment from just the joy of performing. On his second album, Desert Tortoise, this comes out more than ever.
Check out our interview (below) to get to know Matthew and his brand of music a little better. Don’t forget to visit mattzeltzer.bandcamp.com to listen to some tracks and to download the album, or just buy it from him at a show on his tour coming to a town near you, like in LA at Genghis Cohen, October 13th.
DM: Desert Tortoise is your second release after “Scrapwood Balladry.” Where have you come as an artist since your first release? What does this album have that you love or are particularly proud of?
Matt: Pedal Steel! (Laughs). Scrapwood Balladry was my first experience producing an album with a full band sound. Before that, I recorded a few acoustic demos, which I have since buried. I think less than 50 people have those early demos. With Scrapwood, I was hell bent on using old recording tricks to create a vibe. I had been gigging as a songwriter for less than a year at the time, and I didn’t even have a band. I just had some friends get together and we recorded it in a home studio in Portland. Since Scrapwood, I have put together a few bands, gigged constantly, and made a effort to listen to a ton of music- whether on CD, vinyl, or on trips to Nashville, Memphis, and Mississippi. For me, it has been a matter of osmosis. The more I play, the more I know I can do, and the more music I listen to, the more musicians I talk to- whether they make jump blues in Holly Springs Mississippi, or play percussion in France- the more I take in and try to absorb. As far as genres, I feel like this album is really different. Scrapwood was really rooted in a folk and blues idiom, and I sort of burned out on that. I’m trying to work on bringing together a lot of genres in a way that the listener doesn’t know what they are listening to.
DM: In your EPK you mention that “Grecian Isle” ‘revealed itself’ to you? Is that how songs come? Do you sit and create or do they come on like a dream and you just go with the flow of the inspiration?
Matt: That’s a good question. Songs like Grecian Isle, Murder Pays It Forward, and Delilah came to me in a matter of minutes, while others like Run Me Over and Portrait developed over time. Every song needs inspiration to be written- sometimes I don’t know what that is. I could be walking, and start humming a tune, at which point I pull out my cell phone and sing the song into the recorder. It’s really a great way to appear crazy. With Portrait, I wrote most of the lyrics one evening last summer, while I was on tour as a guitarist for a country singer. I kept reworking the words and adding parts through the fall and winter. I ended up rewriting the second and thirds verses, and I was still tightening up lines the day before we recorded vocals.
(If I’m in a better location, I will just write the song in a matter of minutes. In the case of Grecian Isle, I was on a flight (window seat) leaving Barcelona, heading to Tel Aviv. The flight left at 5:30 in the morning, and being that I was leaving Barcelona, I had been up all night. My hope was that I would finally be able to get some shut eye, but...)
DM: You’ve got some heavy hitters associated with this album: Joe Baugh, Sam Bolle, Bill Flores, and Chris Stites. With a project like this, do you know these guys personally and just call them up? How did you assemble such a top-tier crew to make Desert Tortoise happen?
Matt: I’ve known Joe for years, and we have always talked about our favorite records. For the past three years we have tried to find the time to work on a project, but each time it seemed like it wasn’t right- either I didn’t have the songs I wanted to record, or Joe was busy recording. I finally realized I had to book the guy 6 months in advance and bombard him with text messages. Once we got going, Joe and I worked out the songs with acoustic guitars and talked about instrumentation. He and Sam both work with Bill in another band, so the three of them were an obvious fit. Sam and Joe have worked together in at least 5 bands over just the last four years, so they lock in really well.
Chris and I went to elementary school together, and recently reconnected and began jamming. He has literally been playing drums since before 4th grade. We started playing music together a couple of years ago. He’s off at Berkley studying jazz percussion and creative writing, so we only get to play a few times a year.
DM: Give us a little background to Matthew Zeltzer? Where did you grow up? I know you’ve made frequent trips to Memphis, Nashville, the Mississippi Delta, and spent five years in the Pacific NW (my old stomping grounds). What has being in these places left on you? Do you take a little bit of a place with ya when you leave?
Matt: I was born in Santa Monica, but mostly grew up in Ventura County. I left for Portland in 2005 to go to school, and ended up taking time off to play music. I graduated from Reed College in 2010, moved back to Ventura planning on spending the summer at home, and I haven’t left since. I’ve also done a lot of travelling- I call it musical tourism. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to music in bars and juke joints in Nashville, Memphis, and Mississippi. Those trips have really helped me find my musical community, seeing where I fit in this long tradition of songwriters. I grew up isolated from any musical tradition. For me, music was something you listened to on a tape or heard on the radio. Living in Portland and traveling through the South made me see how important music is in people’s lives. In Tennessee and Mississippi, music is in integral part of culture. I feel like the west coast represents change. People moved here to escape their past, and the consequence of that is we have lost a lot of our tradition. In Mississippi and Tennessee, music is still a living breathing aspect of culture. Everyone plays music. What I experienced was that people want to hear your voice, not you pretending to be someone else. In other words, because making music is so common place there, the boundaries of it are fluid. People don’t get bogged down by genres and other limitations.
DM: Ventura is lovingly known as Ventucky to those in the know. Does this place support the alt-country, roots-folk kind of sound you have? Is this the right place for you at the right time in your career?
Matt: To me, Ventura is a great base. I can get a burrito without having to worry about what I’m wearing. I couldn’t do that in New York. I’d have to look cool to get pizza. Ventura is a great place to record. It costs less than LA, but we have real top notch studio musicians. As for performing, with a town as small as Ventura, you really can’t make a living as a songwriter. You have to be playing in LA, in San Diego, and San Francisco, etc, if you want to make a living. Either that or consign yourself to playing covers in restaurants. It is like that in pretty much any town. If you aren’t playing out of town, you are going to have to keep your day job. It is different for people like Joe and Sam, because they can play in 4 or 5 bands. But Sam is out of town half the year on tour, and Joe is busy recording and teaching as well. So you really have to be multitasking.
As for the venues, I think Ventura is blessed with a few venues and bookers that really know how to put great shows together. I think a lot of people underestimate music fans. People these days listen to music of all genres. You see the same kids dancing whether Emy Reynolds is playing [local indie folk songwriter] or its The Fucking Wrath. People are versatile. But I really don’t think there is much of a scene for roots rock- I tend to get pigeonholed into the singer/songwriter group as a solo act, or I get called blues- neither of which I’m comfortable with.
DM: You have toured as a solo act. When it is just you and a guitar, do you think the album is done justice compared to when it is just you on a stage?
Matt: I really enjoy playing solo. It gives me the freedom to do whatever I want, and not worry about anybody else following along. I also like traveling solo because it gives me lots of time to think. I know that the album can’t really be done when I am playing as a solo act, but when I play the songs in that order as I have been doing lately, it still feels like the same trajectory of emotion is there. Playing solo is a totally different feeling than playing with a band. Aside from just being louder and being able to work out arrangements and feed off one another, there really is a camaraderie that happens with a good band, in knowing that you are all in it together. At the CD release show this Friday at Zoey’s, I will be playing with a full band.
DM: With all the years you’ve been grinding out your music and developing your skills as a songwriter and performer, how have you been able to break through those moments where maybe you question whether you’re just spinning your wheels? What has comforted you when you might have been down in the dumps along your journey?
Matt: I think I used to get really down, when putting a band together proved difficult, or I wasn’t getting the gigs I wanted. And I still get down. Sometimes, I go for months and can’t even write a song. But now I try not to dwell on it. If I’m not writing, I try to focus on gigging, or discovering more music. Having good friends really helps. I recently got an email from a fan in Seattle who told me how much some of my songs have helped him cope with difficulties in his life. This has happened a few times, and at first it tripped me out, but for me, the creative process is mostly a healing process, so if I am healing myself by writing music, I can see how others would get a similar feeling from listening to it. It is amazing how the human spirit works in that way.
DM: You mentioned that after you write a song, that there is a small tinge of fear that it might be your last. Where do these songs come from? Do you really fear that you might eventually find the bottom of the bag and turn it inside out to find no more words?
Matt: This happens pretty much every time I write a song. There is both a feeling of satisfaction and total loss, if I think it is a good song. It really comes down to input and output. Songs come from experience for me, and if my life gets boring I have nothing to write about. I need to be traveling, having interesting conversations, and unique experiences. It can be like a looking glass. The more I work on taking in experiences, the more details I notice, and that all goes into writing. It is sad that a lot of people are on autopilot these days, just getting in their car, going to work, coming home, watching TV or sitting on facebook, and really missing out on the joys and sorrows of life. I really don’t think they are reading this.
DM: For my curiosity: I have always wanted to ask a musician if your love of music has changed over the years? As a person who can’t play even a slide whistle, when I listen to music, it is on par with watching a magician pull a rabbit from a hat. For you, a magician in your own right, do you still have that magical love for music you listen to, or are you analyzing and judging the trick from a more mechanical direction? Is it still magic to you?
Matt: I’m really glad you asked me this. Over the years I’ve met a ton of musicians and songwriters. Some of them seem tired all the time, like they’ve been working too hard. I get it. It is a constant struggle to make a living. I decided a long time ago that I am going to play exactly what I want and record songs the way I want to, and people can like it, or press the skip button. The whole point of playing music is to do what you love. In the words of Levon Helm, “I ain’t in it for my health.” Once you start compromising your integrity or playing things for the wrong reasons, you might as well quit and get a day job. I find that a lot of these tired musicians are putting the cart before the horse. They start writing a song and immediately edit it for commercial appeal. There is a lot of pressure as a songwriter to write a hit, but my philosophy is to write first and market it later. I want to be doing this when I am 60, and what is a pop hit today, probably won’t be cool in 40 years. I’m better off focusing on making the music I want to, and hoping some people catch on.
After spending a lot of time in the studio, you start to notice all the little details in music- how the acoustic guitar player is linking up with the drummer and where the bass player is laying his line, how high up the vocals are in the mix. For me, this really just increases the magic, because I’ve started to notice what goes into making a great record great. For me, listening to Buddy Holly on tape as a kid was magic. I’ve had times when I’m playing- either in a concert or just writing a song- where I feel completely in tune with what is happening. I feel like I am totally isolated from everything around me, and honed in on exactly what I am doing, and at the same time I know exactly what is happening in every corner of the room. I think those transcendent moments are the reason why musicians keep playing, despite all the odds of making a living and the difficulty of leading a normal life.
DM: How long has Desert Tortoise been rolling around in your head? Why now? Are you one to create and just wait until you have the best material for an album, no matter the timeline? Or was it just time to put out a new album?
Matt: I’m not really a songwriting machine. I have friends who can turn out 50 or more songs per year. I would love to get to that point, but only if the songs were good. I might even get burned out on writing and just get bored if I wrote that much, but some of these guys can turn out good song after good song, and it kills me. I’m more of an incubator. I stew on something for months and it just builds up until one day, bam, a song pops out. For me, it was really time to put out a new album. I’ve wanted to make a new record ever since I finished “Scrapwood Balladry.” By the time I finished that I already had another group of songs. What it really comes down to is just that— a group of songs. I could write 5 or 10 songs, but only a few of them fit together. “Run Me Over” is really the exception on Desert Tortoise, but I feel like the rest all fit together really well. I guess that is the trick- making songs that fit, but don’t all sound the same.
DM: Is Desert Tortoise everything you hoped it would be when it came together in your mind?
Matt: Every time I put a band together, write a song, or record an album or a song, there is always a specific sound I am looking for. By the time I finish, the final product is always a little different from what I am trying to capture. I think that is part of the magic— when you give 5 or 6 people a chance to add their character to your song, they each put a new spin on it, and it doesn’t matter how much direction you give them, their personality will shine through in some way.
I’m really proud of the work that we did on Desert Tortoise. I really can’t give enough thanks to Joe Baugh, Miles Ferrell (who engineered it), Sam Bolle, Chris Stites, Bill Flores, and all my friends who sang backup- Cindy Kalmenson, Laura Jean Binkley, Mark Iris, and Hunter Paye. They are all fantastic songwriters and I’m glad they were able to help. This album really couldn’t have been what it is without the work that everyone, especially Joe, put into it.
DM: I also see that you’re a philanthropist this early in your career. At 25, you’re donating a portion of the proceeds from the album to establish a scholarship fund to promote education in agriculture. Tell us about this and why you’d do such a thing so early in your career? Most musicians and artists wait until they are millionaires to do such a thing?
Matt: Right around when I started to do solo gigs, I began to make friends with a lot of people in the real food movement. It began with a meal at a friend’s farm that had been in the family for over 100 years. When I moved to Ventura, I made friends with some folks who turned me on to permaculture. Last fall, I spent a month working on an organic farm in France. Being on the farm, and miles away from any village, without transportation really helped me to slow down my thinking and rediscover my creative process. That experience helped me writing some of the songs on this album, but more than that, it helped me congeal how I wanted the album to sound, and made me realize how I wanted to structure it. One of the things I did on the farm was turn off my iPod. I decided not to listen to any music. Within a day, songs started pouring out of me, and it kept up that way until I returned to the states. That is part of why I’m getting involved with agricultural education.
When I was in school, I felt like the classes I was taking didn’t relate to my life. I loved reading, but not for classes, and I have always enjoyed history, but the history taught in school is dry and biased. I think the primary failure of the public school system is that it has lost contact with what kids are interested in. I’m hoping that there are a couple of kids out there who want to learn about where our food comes from.
With part of the profits from this album, I am creating a scholarship at Rio Mesa High School, my alma mater, that will fund underprivileged students so that they can work in unpaid internships on organic farms. There are many students that spend their summer breaks working to help their families, and this leaves them without the chance to take advantage of career boosting opportunities. By engaging students in hands on activities, I hope to help them rediscover a love of learning.
DM: So what is next for Matthew Zeltzer? Where can your fans see you soon? LA? Ventura? Anywhere else?
Matt: I am releasing “Desert Tortoise” at Zoey’s Café in Ventura on Friday, September 30th. We will be performing Desert Tortoise, as a full band, from start to stop with no breaks between songs. My next gig after that is on October 13th at Genghis Cohen in L.A. This show will be a kickoff to a national tour that will go until Thanksgiving.
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About the Author
Wesley Bauman, author of Doggy Paddling in the Deep End, is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He's contributed to the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (http://projectpoppycock.com/) where he writes on political and social satire regularly. Follow Wesley on Twitter @myownfalseidol