The Combined Effects of Self-Deprecation and Genius
A Look At Matt Shupe's First Solo Album
Part 1: The Review
Matt Shupe's first solo album comes after years of contributing his multi-instrumental acumen to shore up local bands of various repute: Mr. Tree and the Wingnuts, the Denver Gentlemen, Sunsettler, the Rugburns in Mono, Twinein, and his latest project, Six Months to Live.
The Combined Effects of Caffeine and Alcohol , puts Matt Shupe's own music on center stage. The 12 originals on the disc may be submitted as exhibits A through L that Shupe has mastered the art of traditional song structure. Crafted as carefully as a piece of Shaker furniture, each song stands whole within its own character, foursquare, with a surprisingly easy comfort.
The old-style composition results in an impressive palette of moods: accordions and steel guitars swell in an ode to a nursery rhyme moon; banjos and organ grinders invite you to a diabolical circus; burlesque saxophone solos egg on chubby women to jitterbug. The forceful rock triads of “Last to Know” operate as a self-reprisal of Colbainian intensity; mandolins and violins riff at meteoritic speed in the jazzy instrumental “Django's Dead.” Crescendo trumpet blares punctuate the despairing coda of “I'm So Very Blue,” while a cowboy bass line stumbles across the saloon back to the root note, about to be kicked out, in ”Whiskey.”
The organic backing also provides cushiony support of Shupe's mellow, often heartbreaking, vocal deliveries. Even on upbeat numbers, the words eventually swirl back down to the same downspout of disillusionment. It is as if, in the world according to Shupe, all things, even the ridiculous and mundane, have tragic underpinnings. His protagonists convince themselves that one only need to wait, and the dark lining of the cloud will reveal itself.
Not to say that listening to The Combined Effects (henceforth, CECA ) is a dour exercise. In fact, the opposite is true. As the old songwriting adage goes, “if you're gonna make an omelet, you have to be really miserable.” The bleakness in CECA manages to come out tasting bittersweet because Shupe's themes are universal – the sunlight shining through the rusted-out undercarriage of youthful enthusiasms, the incredulousness raised when women in your life opt for the buffoon rather than the gentleman, or just the weariness of sailing an unknown course in a world that has lost its stars.
Part 2: The Interview
I met Matt on a perfect summer afternoon in Denver , outside St. Mark's Coffeehouse. We talked about his lyrics, the making of The Combined Effects, and about Lutheran repression.
BD: First thing, Matt, I've listened to your CD about eight times in my car. I always listen to lyrics. And it bugs me if I don't know all the words to the song, or if I get them wrong, it affects my understanding of the song for years...
For instance, it took me a decade, believing that “Rock n roll ain't no solution,” until I realized “rock n roll ain't noise pollution.” I don't want to operate under a false assumption like that ever again. So I have to take this opportunity, for my sake, and maybe some of the fans would benefit…
MS: So, you can't hear what I'm singing?
BD: No no no. I understood most of the album. There are only a couple words where I'm unclear. In the song “Pear-Shaped Girls” -- it's something like,
“They sit at home, waiting for someone to call
And tell them that their –blank-- /
they don't really mean it…”
I was thinking it sounds like “lives” as in “call and tell them that their lives have worthwhile meaning .” But that just wouldn't make sense. “Loved” makes sense – “tell them that they're loved ?”
MS: Nice .
BD: “Pear-Shaped Girls” really speaks the truth, but it's perhaps the most incendiary piece you've ever composed. “Pear-shaped girls are not having fun tonight/pear-shaped girls are all alone.” Have any pear-shaped girls taken offense to this? Any lawsuits?
MS: No, I don't think anybody pear-shaped girls have heard it yet. Really, I think it's been just friends who have heard the CD so far, and none of them are shaped like pears.
BD: Well, some.
MS: Yeah, I'm not naming names. [laughs] No, I don't know what'll happen if somebody gets offended at that. I'll probably get my ass kicked. [shrugs ambivalently]
BD: How about in “I'm so very blue,” you have a line that goes,
“Who says love is –blank-?” Who says time heals all wounds?”
It sounds like you're singing, “who says love is a wheel?” That can't be it.
MS: [laughs] That's even better. “Who says love is a wheel?” I like that. Who does say that? It's actually, “Who says love isn't real .”
BD: “Isn't real”? Huh.
MS: Yeah. Isn't real. Not Israel .
BD: [laughs] Ooh. Who says love isn't Israel ?
MS: Yeah, who says? Palestinians?
BD: I found the subject matter in “I'm So Very Blue,” very mysterious. The guy's blue, obviously, then there's a line:
“I just don't know what to do about your friend /
Haven't you caused enough misery for me?”
And it makes you think somebody's coming to this guy who's got a friend who constantly needs bailing out, and, you know, that's why the guy's so very blue. But as the song goes on, it turns more into an admonishment from the speaker directly to whom he's speaking with:
“Why do you look at me that way? Why don't you look at me more like I want you to look at me, the way that I look at you?
Why can't you look at me that way?”
So it's ambiguous what's actually eating this guy…
MS: It basically boils down to: I don't want to hear about your sad story; I want to talk about mine. [laughs].
BD: How did this CD come about?
MS: Greg [Hill] bothered me until I broke down and did it.
BD: How long did it take to record?
MS: Too long. I think it took a shade under a year.
BD: And what was it like working with Soapy Argyle [Greg Hill] as producer?
MS: Greg's awesome. He's got good ideas. He's good at recording. And he's a visionary. Not just for himself, but for other people, too. So maybe he's more of a missionary than a visionary.
BD: Greg's a visionary in a missionary position, you could say?
MS: [laughs] Yeah. That's right.
BD: But Greg's also your friend. Did all the work on the album…create stress in the relationship?
MS: No. If anything, more stress for Greg. If a song wasn't the way I liked it, I just said, “I'm not gonna do this.” And not do anything for a while.
BD: You performed on a number of instruments on this CD – guitar, banjo, violin, vocals. But you also got great performances from many of the guest musicians. How did you achieve that?
MS: Well, Brett, all these people are people I've played with before. All I did was ask them to come in and they did. Surprisingly enough.
BD: My favorite song on CECA , after long consideration – and it's really tough because there's not one clunker on this album – is, for me, “The Carnival.” What's your favorite song?
MS: Probably number ten, “So Lovely.” That was the most fun.
BD: Yeah, that's great. It sounds like…
MS: The Kinks.
MS: Greg lent me a Kinks album and I was listening to it all day, and then I wrote the song, so I'm thinking I pretty much lifted the whole thing. I also really like the Django song, because Tom was so awesome on violin.
BD: The whole of CECA , at first blush, is lugubrious as all get out. But really at the same time there's a lot of humor in these songs. I wonder how intentional that is. For example, “Now I'm 30, and I'm gonna die.” If you say this in the course of conversation, the overstatement elicits laughter. In the musical context, the line is still funny, but there's a greater feeling of the very real existential situation.
MS: Is there a question in there?
BD: No, not really. I remember, one day I was over at Mr. Tree's house, and you were there, too, just by coincidence. We were talking out on the balcony, and you let it drop that it was your birthday. You were turning 30.
MS: Yes, I remember that.
BD: And you didn't let anybody know? Plan anything?
MS: [shrugs] Nah.
BD: But on the balcony, that got us talking about that situation. All three of us, we were talking about that sense where you realize your dreams maybe weren't all that – not realistic, or just not as cool as you once thought it would be. And you're left thinking, “now what?”
BD: Tree and I were joking about it, and hiding our pain like the emotional restrained Lutherans we are. Does that annoy you, as a sensitive artist? All the plastering over the truth in the course of conversation?
MS: Oh, Brett. I'm not a sensitive artist. Not at all. What gave you that idea?
--Brett Duesing, August, 2004