Interview with Mathew Lee Cothran of Elvis Depressedly/Coma Cinema
Back in March Steve got to interview Mat Cothran for our favourite Vancouver music magazine Beatroute. While appropriate for the format, soooooo much had to be cut! So now we’re going to the other extreme with an almost raw transcript of Steve and Mat’s chat. Edited for clarity and to get stammering Steve to the damn point quicker. Enjoy!
Steve: Sorry to hear about your grandfather passing. I know that really sucks.
Mat: He was a good guy. It’s pretty hard couple of days, but I’m just kinda living the way he wanted ya know? I didn’t really have parents, I only had one parent, and once your parents are gone you really if you haven’t grown up yet you really have to fucking grow up. Luckily I’ve been grown up a long time so it’s alright.
You’re finally coming to Vancouver and this past summer you’ve been to the UK – what has the effect of travelling to all these new places been to you in the last few years?
It’s nice to see different countries, it gives you a different perspective on your own. England was a really interesting time, because we were right there before the Brexit vote. It was interesting, because everyone we talked to was very sure they weren’t going to vote to leave. And it was eye opening to watch that situation play out, and then watch that play out in our own country very similarly. We’re actually going to be in Paris the day before their election or referendum (Presidential Election). I’m kinda out of the loop, Delaney is very clued into this stuff and I’m kinda an idiot.
It’s practically a referendum with the choices they have.
Right, so hopefully we’re not bad luck. But it’s interesting to see from the ground the birthing of the world in a way. I dunno, I like seeing new countries a lot, people have always wanted to see us play and we’ve finally found some people who believed in us enough to send us over there. I’m stoked to go to Vancouver, it’s the only major city in Canada I’ve never been. I love Canada too, I like being there a lot.
When you went back to re- release Holo Pleasures with the California Dreamin’ add on you got to go back to some old songs from around that era, and even refocus on Holopleasures. With the amount of songs you’ve written, between Coma Cinema, Elvis Depressedly and your self titled work what is the connection you feel to your old work?
I didn’t really have any. I thought I did. But going back to the songs they didn’t seem like they fit, they all seemed like the ideas were a little too strange for what I was going for.
When Holopleasures came out the shoegaze revival thing wasn’t really happening. It wasn’t as big as now, now it seems like every band that wants to pretends that they have an inclination to art suddenly they’re shoegaze. You’ve got a bunch of pop punk bands who don’t say anything and then suddenly they’re shoegaze and they think they’re saying something, but they still aren’t aren’t saying anything. Their songs are still about middle school breakups but now they have a fuzz pedal.
I grew up with a really cool uncle who would always make me mix tapes and I grew up with My Bloody Valentine, Blonde Redhead, and cool bands like that, Slowdive and stuff, and I wanted to touch on that in the music I was making, and to me all those shoegaze songs were highly sexualized. It was very sexual music, as much as R&B or something. And that was what I was trying to do, but the songs I was making along side of it didn’t really fit in. They were kind of political like the “Cop Poet“ song, or just weird like stories. So I left them off, but then I went back and saw how they all kinda tied in. So it was just about finishing stuff, cause most of them weren’t finished, and kinda like adding things I wanted to add back in 2013 but didn’t have time. So it was cool to see it fully realized as more than just these romantic love songs, by adding those less sexual songs, to add some nuance. It was cool to revisit that stuff, I usually don’t do that. Usually when I make something it’s done and I never touch it again. I’ve got a hard drive of songs I need to make sure I deleted before I die, because I don’t want them getting out, they’re not very good. But it’s cool to go back to stuff that does have potential for life and see it all the way through. That was really nice, that was a good opportunity or a fun one at least.
New Alahambra felt like such a progression of your sound, moving beyond the acoustic guitar and the flang voice effect elements that I’d say defined the Elvis Depressedly songs, adding samples and way more layers than previous records, and it felt like if not a new direction then a big next step. So going back to the California Dreaming songs did you have to fight the urge to continue with that next step?
There was definitely, I mean you can see on that song “Slip“ that you can see me going towards the sampling and beats that I’m drawn to now. But there were definitely some moments while touching them up and finishing them for the release in getting them ready for that, I would think, “I’m going to do this”, then I would think “You wouldn’t have done that in 2013 so don’t do it!” So I would actually have to do things the wrong way sometimes.
One of those elements was finishing vocals on those songs. When I would do scratch tracks, I would just kind of mumble and ad-lib on stuff, and going back and adding a final vocal track I had to tell myself ,“Ok you know you’re supposed to do it this way now, but you gotta not do it that way, because you wouldn’t have done it that way then.”
I wanted to keep it as honest as possible, because I was taking songs that were 90% done and finishing them for that. It was definitely kinda weird to go back, because I do see Elvis Depressedly as being a band with, I want clarity and I want digitalism… our goal is top 40! That’s our goal and I think that’s possible. I think people, especially now, with the internet and stuff you can be a top 40 band, like a one-hit wonder isn’t too hard of a dream to realize I don’t think. That’s our goal anyway. So going back to that fuzz and the mystery was strange, but still fun.
I and others lump you in with #lofi, which I know is more about making due with what you had. So with those top 40 dreams in mind is there a big shiny studio record in your head?
Oh yeah, I look around at things on the top 40 and some of the best music being made is there. Like, not just from a writing perspective, but from a production and even the ideas and creativity. You look at a lot of indie rock and stuff, and a lot of the lo-fi that’s made purposefully, like, you know with lo fidelity; it’s this music that has this huge budget, you know, it’s marketed as indie music but it has publicists and a $50,000 PR budget. You can listen to records, like you can listen to an old Guided by Voices record or something, and you can hear that’s the equipment they had, and some bands I hear now it’s like “You wanted to sound this way?”, and to me that’s a waste of talent and a waste of privilege having this equipment.
We’re lucky enough that we have such great support from people who listen to us and appreciate us and come to our shows that we have been able to upgrade our equipment over the years and yeah, I don’t think I’m going to go into a studio because I don’t think it’s necessary, but I want to get as clean as possible. I want to get to like what I think pop music should be. I want to make it and see if it can chart. If it doesn’t it’s not a big deal, cuz it’s a pipe dream anyway, but if it does it’ll be like anything else I thought would never happen but happened anyway.
That leads into another question, at this point in your life you are subsisting off of revenue from your music. Have you found being in this position has changed the way you are approaching your future?
It’s a crazy blessing. I didn’t grow up in a situation where I had access to much. So just being able to do a job that I can do is pretty incredible to me and I’m really grateful for that. I think the main thing that it allows is my mental health is a little bit better as I get older and as this becomes more of a job because I can rely on it, and I don’t have to turn to things like trying to numb my mind through alcohol or something like that, I can be more free of that. Just that clarity has helped a lot, and that’s something that would be harder to do if I was still sort of doing a job I hate to support something I love. Now it’s like I’m doing a job that for the most part I love.
There will always be days when you don’t feel you are up to it. But those days are fewer and further between, I think I’m ageing into it in a way that’s beneficial for both my brain and the things I do and the things I want to make. I don’t think I’m going to go into that period of making terrible music yet. Maybe like 5 years and then I’ll be putting out terrible records and everyone will be like “Ah man, what happened?” but right now I think I’m about to hit the real shit you know? The real music that I could have been making for a long time but now I’ll be able to make it and I think that has a lot to do with being more full time or whatever, so I’m really grateful for that.
How much of that do you think will be reflected in your upcoming self titled release (Judas Hung Himself in America)
A lot of it. That’ll be the last record I make on some old equipment. I wanted to send it off in the most viking funeral way. I wanted to display all the things I learned on that equipment, because that’s the stuff I’ve been using since I’ve been 15 – just using the same equipment for years. There’s a huge reflection in that music I think of where I’m headed, and they are also songs I had to get rid of so I can take the next step. It’s going to be interesting I think; that’ll be like the first swing at the plate, and then the next thing I’m hoping for the home run, but if not I’ll get it on the third swing for sure. I get three you know!
It’s great as someone who has been following you for some time to hear so much optimism and forward thinking. Not even just in this conversation but on New Alahambra with “No More Sad Songs” and you making the point of, “No seriously, this song is literal, not all of my songs have to be sad” and also the clarity of final track “Wastes of Time”.
Yeah, sucking out all of the masks and just having a one on one conversation at the end. I wanted to sum it up.
I ran through the catalogue earlier and I wanted to ask, is that the only track you’ve recorded when it’s only just you and a single guitar on a track?
I’d have to go back, as I think there’s others where it’s only one track but there’s always an effect on the vocal.
That was probably the most naked track. It’s funny I tried to do the Plastic Ono version and the big version of that song but it just never worked. At the time it felt like a risk but I’m glad I did it. I’ll hear it today and think “Aw man you sound like such a goof!” when I’m having a bad day. But it’s important to sound like a goof because your audience, sometimes they’re goofs, and they want to relate and see something that’s a part of their existence too. You can always listen to Bowie and get a fabulous persona but sometimes you want to see something real you know?
You’ve always been really open and real with your audience, taking questions and offering advice. You’ve been around for some time now and I’ve seen you take musicians under your wing; where in the life of “Wise Matt” are you at?
I’ve got a lot of friends in music and seen a lot of approaches and I’ve seen a lot of people become very different people by success. Even like small levels of success, and it’s weird to see how that twists someone. Like people who are afraid of themselves and who they really are, and that’s a shame. So I remember at some point I thought like, I gotta be real honest all the time as best I can, and I don’t always do that right, sometimes I lie and don’t even know why I’m lying, which I think is a human trait. But the more honest you are the less you gotta keep track of your own back story.
And sometimes people will come up to me and say, “You said this a few years ago”, and I’ll say, “Yeah that’s what I thought at the time.” People are changing things, I think that’s ok to be. You gotta be unafraid to be a work in progress at all times. So I like to be real and like maybe be a bit in my own sort of persona that comes out in songs sometimes. If you’re the one questioning it, then you’re not really going to have someone come and punch holes in it. You avoid a lot of Trolls I guess. They don’t want to mess with the guy who’s already in on the joke.
You met your tour mate Erik (Phillips fka Cat Be Damned) via the internet?
Yeah they covered one of my songs, and I was like “This is a really good cover,” and I hit them up and I was like, This is great, we just have a lot in common with our sense of humour. And now we’re really good friends, and I really love their music, I’m actually on their new record, I’m singing which is cool! I haven’t really done a lot of guest spots, and I really like the idea of guest spots. And that’s something I want to do too with our music, which is have guest vocalists and performers and stuff. I love that I have a platform that I can use to turn people on to music that I think is important. I think it’s really sad when I see bands that have like the kind of notoriety we have, which is like a small reach but it is somewhat significant as far as underground music, and they don’t use it. They don’t use it at all. They don’t shout out anything, and it’s like “What are you doing? Why not? Don’t you want people to listen to cool music?” Why keep it a secret? I’ve never understood that at all.
Call got cut off here so we finished things off via email.
To get to this point you had to go through a number of negative experiences in the “music industry”; what do you want to see change? Or perhaps, how do you see yourselves innovating as you continue to forge your own path?
I want to see more opportunities for poor people in general. I don’t personally see much value in the lives of rich people and the glorification of rich lives hasn’t done anything to make art better. The framework is there, we just have to convince the media to not always choose the rich artist over the poor artist regardless of talent.
In your Tiny Mix Tapes conversation you and Delaney seemed to unanimously put forth “comfort” as a defining characteristic of Elvis Depressedly songs. Does this carry over into your other projects, or do they have different core focuses?
Because I see Elvis as a pop band, comfort is the main thing for me. that’s why originally much of california dreaming was left off the album, i felt some of those songs were uncomfortable. with my other work there isn’t as much of a filter, it’s thought to tape without trying to mitigate the more animal ideas.
You’ve been releasing music since you were 15 (I think?). Is there anything you’d say to 15 year old Mat if you had the chance?
If I could speak to myself at 15 i’d simply say “keep going. you’re right and they’re wrong and you are going to win”. I don’t think i’d listen to anything else at that point in my life regardless.
What’s the best gift you ever received?
Probably my guitar, in the sense it’s the gift that gave back. I haven’t used a different one since my first.
What’s it like to sit next to Bill Murray?
Bill Murray seemed cool, but Delaney’s accurate description of him was “A Big Sock”.
Thanks to much for Mat the chat, and for Delaney for presumably keeping them both alive in the midst of the long drive they were on. Last I saw her she had turned a OP-1 synth into a keytar and won the day! Elvis Depressedly just finished a tour and are soon to go back into hiding to prepare big swing #2 and hit some dingers! Luckily the a lot of music for you to enjoy so click here, here, and here for all the relevant bandcamps. Or if you’re feeling like a lighter snack here’s our Best of Mathew Lee Cothran playlist on Spotify.