Interview: Matt Jaffe Talks Songwriting, Distractions, Weed & Religion
19-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist Matt Jaffe did something most kids wouldn't dare do at his age -- drop out of Yale. However when you are hand picked by former Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and put in a studio with Nathan East and other prominent studio musicians, a bright future is in the cards. The decision was not done lightly, but as he told us on the phone recently that he "was more likely to regret not going for it than going for it."
The bar area native started his own band The Distractions, which is now up to three other members - a lead guitarist, a bass player and a drummer. The band released a five track EP in April, Blast Off, though that is only the beginning for them as Matt says there are plenty more projects on the way including a full-length record.
They will be heading out on their first national tour this fall in support of Blues Traveler that will take them to 23 different venues in five weeks starting in the beginning of September.
Read our complete chat with Matt where we talk his approach to songwriting, the connection between weed and religion and how The Distractions came together.
Music Times: How have you and Jerry Harrison been collaborating now, if you guys are still working together?
Matt Jaffe: Well, our most recent recording sessions were actually not with him. They were with Matthew Kaufmann, who is a producer who did-well, probably calling him a producer would be understating what he is. He's sort of a guru, really. His most famous productions were for Jonathan Richman from The Modern Lovers, Greg Kihn, The Rubens, people like that. So right now my relationship with Jerry is a little more informal and basically he's just become a really good friend and mentor. I expect that we will work together again in the future, but as my personal career path is developing, I think it's been important to explore different options for production and that means trying out different teams of people, both engineers and producers.
MT: You talked about branching out and some of your bands that you admire, like The Talking Heads, bring in an electronic component to their music. Would you ever consider that?
MJ: Yeah, I mean, I love the sound of-I mean, especially on a record like "Speaking in Tongues" like there's some great synth tones. I honestly think what we're trying to do right now is more in line with like a classic, sort of punk or rock band approach. I think we generally are trying to stick to more of, like, the classic Buddy Holly, two guitars, bass and drums sound.
That being said, I don't have any philosophical opposition to using more electronic elements. I mean, they are some bands I love that have introduced that sort of stuff. I do think my tendencies are probably in a modern sense sort of reactionary. But still, I think in terms of just sonic content- I do have a desire to remain, in a slightly more analog setting sonically. Right now I don't know envision definitely making guitar-based music for the foreseeable future. But I definitely don't want to rule anything out.
MT: You said your music is based, or at least somewhat based on academic literary or poetic themes. Could you give some of the examples or where the inspiration comes from?
MJ: Yeah, definitely. A couple poets I really love are Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and William Blake. Some authors I love are Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Moore and Dostoevsky. I will say that lately I think my focus has shifted a little more towards experiential, personal songwriting. I think a few years ago I had more of an approach of consuming a lot of media and then digesting it through songwriting. I still do make a point of consuming a lot of poetry, literature, graphic novels, etc. I think my intentions in terms of songwriting have shifted a little more towards digesting life experience rather than other people's output.
MT: You said in one interview that living in the San Francisco area gives you a unique perspective on the connection between marijuana and religion? What is that connection?
MJ: I think the Bay area does have a unique connection to 4/20. The holiday did start here, even though there are lots of conflicting accounts about that, it did actually start here. Well, maybe the connection isn't unique to here but the culture surrounding a more conservative approach to religion and a more liberal approach to drug use are often seen as polar ends of the spectrum in terms of social politics. Part of the idea of that song ["Stoned on Easter"] is that even though drug use and religion are, in theory very different, they manifest in sort of similar ways. People's devotion to them sometimes lines up in weird ways.
People have their own superstitions and rituals using relics whether it's like the sacrament at Communion or it's the bong you use to light up. Maybe historically religion and substances are not aligned, but modern practice they're not actually that different. Having lived the overwhelming majority of my life here I know that marijuana culture is sort of embedded in everything. Not always super prominently, but I mean, it's technically not legal outside of medical use, but it's sort of a status quo thing that it's a de facto acceptance of it. Tolerance.
MT: How did you meet your band?
MJ: So after working with Jerry and using studio musicians, I wanted to find musicians my own age to perform with live. So I found my drummer through another friend, I'd sort of been asking all around. We actually just replaced our bass player and the guy we found-it's one of those things where it's like through 4 or 5 connections, I asked a friend who asked someone else who asked someone else who suggested this guy Paul, who's actually from New York City, the Bronx.
We're doing a national tour this fall and he'll be joining us for that, and hopefully beyond that as well. We've just only in the past year been playing with lead guitarists and actually the same friend who I asked about bass players is a guitar instructor. One of his students, Steph Dan, is lead guitarist.
MT: Did it take a long time to gel as a unit?
MJ: It took a while to find the right people but I think once I found the right people it sort of jived very quickly, and that's how I knew they were the right people. Yeah, I mean, when I was looking for drummers there were probably 5 or 6 that didn't work in the span of 6 months. That's not even that bad, some people go forever without finding people they think are the right fit. There are plenty of reasons why it didn't work out, whether it was musical differences or social issues or scheduling issues.
There are so many reasons why things can go awry, but, Alex the drummer-it was pretty clear from the get go he was the right guy. I think I've gotten better at sort of knowing off the bat whether someone was going to be a good fit, but sometimes it takes a while. I think the type of music we play is sort of straightforward enough that it's more sort of like how it feels rather than any technical proficiency. I don't mean to downplay that. I think the people I play with, I'm super lucky that they're terrific musicians, but in a sense it's more about how it vibes together than being able to play super quickly or specific scales or anything like that.
MT: Did they help write the songs?
MJ: No, I'm the only songwriter but we arrange the songs together.
MT: How supportive were and have your parents, teachers, and friends been of your music career slash your decision to drop out?
MJ: I mean honestly, pretty much everyone is supportive.
MT: Even at the start, when you first told them?
M: Yeah, well you know, I think there's an anxiety there. I mean, especially with my parents. Any good parents would have anxiety about someone dropping out of college to pursue something as elusive as a career in music. So, it'd probably be more worrisome if they didn't have some anxiety about that.
I would say, though, that I was as cautious about it as anyone else. I needed there to be some legitimate opportunities moving forward before I take that step, because I knew that even at school I could be working on things like songwriting and networking. Networking, obviously being an extremely vague, blanket term. So, it only was when there was promise of touring and when we had our EP slated for release and when we had some music videos in the works. When that stuff started bubbling to the surface it became clear to me that so much remains uncertain and to be seen as to whether or not I can make this a legitimate career.
I think that I recognize this is what I love doing and I'm far more likely to regret not going for it than going for it. I'm extremely grateful that I come from a community that I think encourages that kind of individualism. So I haven't met with very much resistance. They're very well may be some hard realities to face in the future, but right now I'm being shamelessly optimistic about it I guess.
R: What is something people might not know about you?
M: Um let's see-I am a vegan. I don't know, that's something I guess I should be careful with that.
R: What do you guys have coming up musically?
M: Yeah, we're opening for Blues Traveler at 23 shows around the US which will be by far our most high profile touring yet, which is awesome so we're really excited about that. That's our big full band thing right now, we're also working on a lyric video for an upcoming single. We're planning to release a full record hopefully within the next few months, although the models of music release obviously becomes-I don't know, the traditional ways of doing it aren't really applicable anymore so we're sort of just playing it by ear, trying stuff out, what makes the most sense.
So, the tour, video release, full record release, along with some more singles leading up to that. Then on the side, I just try to continue writing songs as much as possible.