Interview: Classic CrimePosted 05/27/2010 09:07AM by Jonathan as Interview
In the following phone interview, conducted May 20, the Classic Crime frontman Matt MacDonald shares about the band’s newest offering Vagabonds, finding joy in poverty and counting your blessings.
On the last record you had a little delay before you were able to fully tour behind it. What’s it like to tour right away this time when the album’s out?
Actually, the last time our record came out we were on Warped Tour, so we were already touring. But it’s always good to tour before to wipe the rust off, I guess, and get back into the swing of things. Sometimes it’s good to have time to practice the songs, which we didn’t have much time. We’ve been practicing them as we go at shows and we’re getting better at them. But, yeah, it’s always good to be able to play right away and jump into some new stuff. It makes it more exciting for us to play it.
One of the things I first noticed about this new album is it’s your shortest, clocking in at about 40 minutes. It’s pretty concise and moves at a pretty good clip. Was that something you wanted to do this time or just came out naturally?
It just came together circumstantially. We had more songs but we only had three weeks to do the record in the studio, as opposed to 6-7 weeks for our last two records. So we didn’t really have time to do the other ones, and we were most confident about these 11 that we picked. We’re a band that doesn’t want to put any filler on a record or anything like that, we’d rather just put out what we feel most confident in.
The songs are shorter and that’s just the style they were written. That’s sort of the vibe of the record, a little bit more punk influence, a little bit more pop, and more lighthearted and less epic and progressive. A lot of our last record, Silver Cord, was more progressive and we had longer tunes. It just sort of worked out that way that it was a short one. We definitely didn’t plan that.
Does it feel any different now to be on album number three at this point?
Yeah, it feels like we’ve been doing it for a while. It’s cool because I feel like we have a deeper relationship with our fans than we’ve ever had. We have three and a half bodies of work. Whenever you come out with a CD people who listen to it make memories to those songs, so the more CDs you have out the more memories you have and the more important you are to people listening to it. It definitely feels like our music is more important [laughs], as opposed to being a new band and having one CD and people thinking you’re cool. We’ve been on a journey for a while with the fans that we have and we’re growing up with them a little bit.
The title Vagabonds comes from the line, “Vagabonds and troubadours / We built this city on punk rock chords.” Can you talk about what that means and how you came up with that term?
It’s a song about Seattle. The Vagabond title of the record is a play on words. It’s sort of what we attribute to ourselves, being like vagabonds, being traveling musicians. Troubadour is another word for traveling musician. It’s about being poor and being happy and not worrying about all the things society tells us to worry about, doing things for the love of music.
That song is about Seattle and how music affects culture in such a strong way. Punk rock chords are like grunge chords, three-chord or four-chord songs, and that was a simplistic influence on our record, too. It’s a lot more simple punk rock chords, I guess you can say. So that song is a tribute to simplicity and to the effect music has on culture. If you have a local music scene it’s going to influence the city in general, and that song is kind of about the Seattle music scene.
You’ve been saying one of the main themes of this record is finding joy in poverty, which kind of goes along with what being a vagabond means. Can you elaborate on that?
We were in a place, and we’re still in a place, where we don’t make a lot of money for what we do. Basically, we came to a point where we accepted that role and stopped being discontent with it. You can always look to your left and right, to your peers and jealousy, and you can long for something more than what you have. That’s a condition that never ends, no matter what you get. It’s about being confident in what you’ve been giving and counting your blessings and enjoying life. It’s too short to just complain all the time.
You went to Haiti at the end of last year after the record was already finished. Do you find it weird or coincidental how that theme in a way paralleled that trip?
Yeah, it definitely drove that point home for us. The people we met were the true vagabonds, the true poor people. They really do have joy in poverty, beyond what any of us could ever imagine, because they actually are truly poor. We’re poor by our society’s standards but we’re rich by theirs, and they complain a lot less than us. It definitely was impacting in that sense.
How much were you able to raise for Haiti with your album pre-sale?
Close to $6,000.
So the first single you have chosen is “Solar Powered Life.” What does that term mean exactly?
It’s a joke song I wrote for my wife, actually. She claims to have seasonal affective disorder, which is when you’re sad when it’s raining and you’re happy when it’s sunny. That’s essentially what that song means, being solar powered.
You’ve also been doing a fan contest for the video. How’s that coming along?
Good. We actually announced the winners today. It’s been cool. We got a lot of awesome entries and we let the fans pick which one got the most plays. So they were able to play up the ones they liked the most and the prizes will be sent out soon.
I think my favorite line on the album is the pre-chorus of “Four Chords,” where you say, “After all man’s intellect and power / All you get is 650,000 hours / If you’re lucky then you’re dead.” That’s a pretty sobering thought and yet that song is very hopeful and uplifting. How are able to balance the two of those like that?
The song’s about seizing the moment and is very much in the theme of the record. It’s about being thankful for what you’ve been given because you’re not given an endless amount of time. I read in a science book somewhere that the average life span is 650,000 hours and then you’re dead. That’s all you have, so you might as well live for something worth living for and not for the things of this world, which are money, fame, fortune, power. Those things don’t leave a positive legacy. Usually the pursuit of them is at the expense of others. That song specifically is about pursuing music and how that’s going to end up blessing people.
Another interesting song I found is “The Happy Nihilist,” which is your response to postmodern relativism. What do you think is the most dangerous thing about that type of worldview?
I don’t necessarily consider it dangerous, I just think it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know that it’s dangerous.
A lot of people have been describing this record as fairly positive and optimistic, and it certainly is more so than Silver Cord. What is your take on that?
Yeah, it definitely is. It’s not as dark. It’s not as epic or metaphorical, it’s more autobiographical. It’s about my life and our lives as a band. It comes from a place where we’re pretty happy and content, so essentially the songs are going to reflect more of an upbeat and positive vibe, for the most part.
I did notice there are a few darker moments, and you go into something of an attack mode a couple times on “Cheap Shot” and “The Count.” Who are you addressing in those songs?
Usually if I’m addressing anybody it’s probably judgmental, critical, narrow-minded people who don’t understand our lives or the lives of the laymen. The most criticism we get is probably from the Christian right, the ultra religious and super legalistic. That’s where we get our criticism and we’re where attacked the most, so I use music to fight back.
Almost like the Pharisees of modern day.
True, exactly. Those are the people that I have the biggest problem with.
Are you ever influenced by politics when you’re writing lyrics?
No, we’re not a political band at all. I don’t ever want to sing about politics. Politics are boring, man made institutions that don’t deserve to be graced with music.
The last song on the album, “Broken Mess,” is a pretty tragic tale which you wrote about your brother. Can you share anything about how that one came out?
Well, I’d heard some pretty disturbing news about a family member. How I deal with grieving or tough things or struggles is I put it in a song. That’s sort of my therapy. That was one of those nights where I couldn’t sleep and I wrote that. Then I figured it out a couple days later on guitar. That’s usually how those songs come out, they flow out with no real agenda or plan or anything like that.
Do you often end up having the words before you have the melodies and the guitar?
Sometimes. It’s never always one way. A lot of times I’ll be playing guitar and come up with a guitar part, and then record that and sing over it. Sometimes I’ll be doing both at the same time where I’ll come up with a line in my head and write down a lyric and then that’ll turn into a song or I’ll write down a melody. I don’t think there’s any one way to do it. Maybe other people have structures. I’ve never had a specific structure to write a song. I’m either inspired by an instrument or a melody or a collection of words, and it goes from there.
Are you influenced by books and films and that kind of stuff, too?
Yeah. I think you can only write as well as you read, so I do like to read a lot. I do like to take time to process other people’s ideas, and that definitely has an influence.
One of the bonus tracks is the beautiful acoustic song “Walk With Me.” Did that not make it because it didn’t fit stylistically on the album?
That’s not a Classic Crime song.
I heard it’s from your side project or something like that.
Yeah. I sing on it but I didn’t have anything to do with the music. It’s funny because kids message me and go, “Can you please give me the tabs?” and I don’t even know how to play it. It’s Chad Crawford from Scary Kids and Erick Serna from the Dear Hunter. They got together and wrote that instrumentally, then they gave it to me and I sang on it. I had my wife sing backup vocals and then we sent it back. We thought it was a fitting song for some of the Haiti footage that we shot, so we put that to the Haiti footage. Then the label liked it so much that they wanted to put it as a bonus track because the pre-orders were going to help the earthquake relief in Haiti. It sort of became the theme of that whole experience, so we added it on the deluxe version.
Are you going to be doing more of that collaboration with those two guys?
I don’t know. Chad and I have talked about doing some more writing and I would love to. If I get time to do anything this summer I’m always hoping to write. It’s something I love doing and if given the opportunity I’d definitely take it, for sure.
For this album you worked with producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette again, who has now done all three of your full-lengths. What is it about him that you keep going back to and how does that relationship work?
Whenever you have a relationship like that where it’s over a period of years you build trust with that person, creatively and just as a friend. I think we can work really quickly and work really well because we have that trust and we have that experience. He takes us where we want to go each time and for that reason we keep coming back. He’s just really talented and really passionate. He loves our band and we love him, so it works out.
You record them all in Virginia, right?
Do you think not recording in Seattle has any influence at all?
Yeah, it’s always good to get away. He has a studio on a private beach. The commute is, like, 30 minutes from town and there’s nothing around. We really like that because it’s good for all the guys in the band who have ADD. I can’t imagine doing a record at home. I imagine we could get it done, there would just be a lot of distractions. It’s good to get away and eat, sleep and drink the music because we live in the studio. We wake up, we go to work, and when we’re done we’re still there and talking about it. It’s the best way to experience a record when you’re recording it, I think. You’re stuck there stranded with the music and it’s a cool experience every time for us.
Tooth & Nail’s go-to producer is Aaron Sprinkle, who’s based out of Seattle. Is that why you’ve never worked with him before?
I’ve actually talked to him about working with him. We were talking about actually doing half of Vagabonds with him but his schedule didn’t work out. Recently, we’ve felt like maybe we could do a record in Seattle. Originally, we didn’t. Circumstances have it now that we feel like we’re pretty confident in getting things done. We’re a little bit more mature, a little older. But, yeah, I’ve always wanted to work with him and I’m sure I’ll get the opportunity at some point. I hope I do.
You have kind of managed to become one of the bigger bands on Tooth & Nail now. What does that feel like and what do you think the next step is?
I certainly don’t consider us a big band. We’re touring with our friends Ivoryline from Tooth & Nail right now. We see eye to eye with them, and I don’t feel like we’re any bigger or any more deserved of anything we get than they are. I just feel blessed to be where we are. We’re all in the same boat. Bands are all struggling to stay alive, to stay afloat and keep creating. I definitely don’t feel like I’m ahead of the game in any way.
This tour is winding down to a close right now. Are you going to be touring over the summer?
We’re going to do a lot of festivals and one-off shows during the summer, which will be nice. Usually we’re touring nonstop through the summer, but I think we’re going to wait to tour until the fall again. We’re just going to do a bunch of fly dates in the summer. We’ll play few shows but for lots of people.