Many bands talk about wanting their music to take you to another place. Few mean it quite as literally as London painter and songwriter Mathew Sawyer, who wanted his third album, Sleep Dreamt a Brother, to feel like “an actual place you can visit and look around, like another planet or a dream.”
The album was written following the death of three friends a few months apart in 2011, and evokes a world between sleep and wakefulness, life and death, full of ghosts, memories and shadows. “After someone dies, it’s almost like you can dream them into being again,” says Sawyer, who deliberately left background noises — footsteps, ringing phones, traffic — on his haunting guitar and string arrangements. The result is an album that creaks and sighs like an old house, bringing the idea that “death is like slipping into another room” to vivid life.
Amber Cowan caught up with the 36-year-old, who finished the album two weeks before the birth of his first child, Hektor, to talk about death, dreams and why “songs are like houses.”
Music is often used as a safe place to put difficult emotions. Was that the case with Sleep Dreamt A Brother?
It’s always the case. Whatever I do, music or art, I’m trying create a portal to the subconscious part of my mind where I can exorcise ghosts, and have them articulate what’s bothering them, good or bad. I used to do a lot of Ouija boards when I was younger, and it’s a bit like that. It’s a way to get in touch with some deeper part of you.
Three of your friends died shortly before you started writing it. Did it help to process your grief?
I suppose it was cathartic, but more than that, I wanted to describe my feelings as closely as possible, to capture and record death and loss. It was a very strange, horrible time. An old flatmate of mine, Ferris, died on the same day as an old friend of my girlfriend’s. Then a few months later, a really close pal died: Graeme Wilson from The Projects. He was too special a person to describe in words. I went to hang out with him the day he died, and he told me about a book I should read, called “Haunted Air.” This record is dedicated to him.
One track is called “Death is Like a Dream We’ll Have.” Did that idea comfort you?
It made a lot of sense to me. I don’t want to say the album’s about this or that, because it’s quite abstract, but I suppose that track’s about the dream world and the waking world having equal value.
Where does the title Sleep Dreamt a Brother come from?
I spend a lot of time in Greece, as my girlfriend, Vasso, is Greek, and in Greek mythology, Sleep and Death are brothers. I’m imagining Sleep dreaming Death into existence. In the months after Graeme died, I’d regularly see him in dreams and we’d talk. I’d hear the tone of his voice clearly. It’s like your mind can materialize someone though countless hours of experiencing them; it creates holograms. The sad part is that they fade with time.
You’ve described the album as an actual place. What do you mean?
I started it with a clear understanding of somewhere I wanted to materialize. I wanted it to be an actual place I can visit and look around, like another planet or a dream. The best songs are like houses, you can enter, you can explore. And there’s a very specific sense of place on this record too: I recorded it at home and you can hear doorbells, telephones, cars outside.
Why did you leave those imperfections on it?
I don’t see them as imperfections. They’re just sounds, like any other — like a guitar. It’s like in painting: If you don’t paint over something, it’s because you choose not to, it’s not because it’s a mistake.
There’s a very strange, deep voice singing alongside you on a few tracks. Who is it?
It’s me, pitched an octave lower. I wanted it to sound like an ogre in the room. Like I’m dueting with the dark, sad giant part of myself.
You’re a painter as well as a songwriter. Do you have ground rules you apply to both?
Don’t over-think things. Keep it simple. Try to think of yourself as a tourist, and your brush or instrument as an ugly souvenir. What I mean by that is don’t be precious: You’re just passing through, so who cares about whether you’re using a nice guitar, or hitting the right notes? It’s the message, the place, that’s important.
Your son, Hektor, was born two months ago. Will having a baby change the sort of music you make?
Any external force changes your output. It’ll probably make me have a lot of very quick, short songs, where I sound very tired.