Matthew Dear came up in the murky, mesmerizing underground of electronic dance music before venturing out to start playing songs smeared with impressions of moody new-wave pop and rock. His debut Leave Luck to Heaven was instrumental in popularizing the timely sound of minimal-techno when it came out in 2003, and it helped establish the label Ghostly International as a rare American force in a scene that had migrated mostly to Europe and beyond. While he still plays and produces techno, especially under his alias Audion, in recent years Dear has drifted increasingly toward crafting certifiable songs that feature vocals of his own and riffs played by band members who join him for live spectacles on stage.
The results of his evolution find fine form on Beams, a collection of bewitching songs that rub up against dance music and art-rock while taking up a new sort of station in between. Sometimes it sounds like futuristic David Bowie in a sullen mood; other times it evokes notions of vintage disco dressed up in sleek and ecstatic new clothes. Through it all, Dear creeps out of various corners to present himself as a genuine talent still curious about where he yet stands to go. Dear talked to eMusic’s Andy Battaglia about connecting different kinds of dots, watching electronic music blow up big all around him, and a past-time he retains from growing up in Texas.
The portrait cover-art for Beams is really striking. Who painted it?
That’s by Michael Cina, who’s a longtime Ghostly contributor. He’s done a lot of covers and one-off art pieces, but it’s the first time he’s ever done anything for my music. We tried to come up with a cool concept and talked over ideas about colors and themes and overall direction. But then, at the end of our conversation, I said, “After this is done, I’d like you to do a portrait of me that I could have for my own personal enjoyment.” He said, “Well, I think you just changed everything — that needs to be the album cover!” The idea kind of ballooned and we did a video piece around it. I said, “You have to come out to New York and I’ll sit for a real portrait painting — it has to be a real thing. And if we do that, we have to film it.” Then I started thinking we should have a musician play around us, and a poet read between us. Then we decided to get a dancer. We turned the whole painting process into an installation of sorts. He tried to paint me while he was being affected by the dancer’s movement, the poet’s words, and the musician’s music. It took a 10-hour day to paint and shoot everything. It turned out to be a whole project in and of itself. It was definitely the most elaborate album-cover I’ve ever done. I love bringing other artists in. Creating art like that is great, because you’re doing something just for the sake of creation. It made for the album cover in the end, but, really, it was a way to let four other people get a shot at what they do. I love being able to connect dots that wouldn’t have connected before.
You’ve been recording with a more song-oriented approach and playing live with a band and for a solid several years now. Looking back, what was your main motivation for that change?
The band is constantly evolving, and the performance is constantly evolving. There’s no final golden key to make it all work the right way, so I approach it all very open-ended and I’m always tweaking things. It’s way more open-ended than DJing or playing a live techno set, which is a lot more linear. But it’s changed over the past six or seven years, when I first started playing with a band, as everyone gets better with repetition and gets more comfortable on stage. That only comes with time. I hope it’s just as different six or seven years from now, when I’m looking back at this time. I like things to happen by accident.
Have your performances with a live band changed the way you record?
The band only exists in the live element. All the stuff I make is just myself at home, playing around in the studio. I play guitar and stuff. There’s never really any live drums — I can’t play drums, or at least not that well. When the songs are done, the rest of the guys come on board and are given this template of a song as it stands on the album. Then I say, “I’m going to take out this part and that part, and you guys tell me what you want to play there to fill it in.” You get this sort of hybridization that makes for a far more interesting experience.
Going from the DJ booth to center stage with a microphone, how do you feel you have evolved and progressed as a “frontman”?
I’ve definitely grown into some sort of stature on stage that I did not have in the beginning. I was always very careful not to force anything and act like somebody I wasn’t. I didn’t want to come up with a persona and tell myself, “Okay, this is what you’re supposed to be like on-stage.” In that sense, I think I was a little lost at the beginning. I was figuring it out as I went along. Toward the end of my first band lineup, I started getting my footing and was starting to feel like, “Okay, this is what I do, and I am meant to be here.” With my band now, it’s all cool. Thinking about what I’m doing up there has gone away. I really just try to disconnect entirely. I’m not trying to be myself on stage; I’m not trying to be a caricature of myself. I’m just trying to be the music, to let it come through the instruments and myself and my voice. That’s the goal, and I feel like I’ve kind of reached it finally.
As you’ve ventured farther away from dance tracks and into the art of songcraft in the past few years, club-oriented electronic dance music has exploded in popularity in the U.S. Do you feel like you’re going against the current?
I guess you could say I pretty much chose the wrong path. [Laughs.] I just do what I’m drawn to do. I’ve always made weirder music and vocal musicÂ¬, non-electronic music. For me, song-building has always been fun. But I got sucked into Detroit warehouse parties and techno and records and DJing. I got completely obsessed and fell in love with it. That was in my mid to late 20s, I had so much fun in this roaring whirlwind of techno and house music. Then I started shifting back toward songcraft, and of course electronic music is a lot bigger now in the States. I definitely have a desire to return to Audion, my techno alias — it’s just a matter of time and how much energy I can put into it. It’s not like I’m never going to go back to techno. It’s totally different and totally fun.
As a veteran of the scene, what do you make of the meteoric rise of scalable acts like Skrillex, Deadmau5, and others in the realm of “EDM”?
There are a lot of similarities to a time before that got all of us into techno, the mid- to late-’90s surge of Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers, and all this other stuff that was huge in the U.S. during the first rave explosion. Even then you had purists and people who had been around for 10 years prior saying, “This is crap — this is just a crass commercialization of the music.” But it got me into it, and it strengthened my love for electronic music and sound. I may not listen to a lot of the big festival stuff now, but I think it’s amazing for the fact that it’s reaching so many people. In a social sense, you have hundreds of thousands of people repeatedly getting together and experiencing electronic music in some form. They’re getting sucked up into it, and they’re going to get bit with the bug that I was bit with. If they in turn dig deeper two or three years from now and start finding out about the lineage — Aphex Twin or Autechre, all this obscure old music — to me that’s awesome. That’s what the whole cycle is about.
It’s been said you’re a fan of fishing. True?
I’m in upstate New York now, a little town called Barryville on the Delaware River. I grew up fishing. My father just sent me a fly rod and a fly reel. I haven’t used it up here yet, but there’s a lot of work being done on the house I bought and our plumber’s son was just here yesterday giving us the whole skinny on which flies would work in the area and where we need to go. I can’t get a clear answer from anybody here about the pollution factor. Some people say the farther north you go, it’s totally fine. But other people say there are certain areas where the government has ratings that say you can eat one fish a year. That just makes you think, “Okay, if I’m limited to one fish a year, do I really want to eat that kind of fish?” [Laughs.]
What was your best fishing trip ever?
The most fun I ever had was when I went bonefishing in the Riviera Maya south of Tulum in Mexico, in the Yucatan peninsula. Bonefish are silver, about the size of a big trout. When they’re eating, they “tail” — their tails and fins stick out of the water. So you’re wading in the shallows and you see all these little breaks in the water. You have to get as close as you can without spooking it, and you have to cast your fly right over the nose. It’s really fun and high-energy: you’re freaked out and everybody’s really quiet because you don’t want to scare the fish, and as soon as you hook one it’s amazing because they run so quickly. Your line starts to rooster-tail and water is spraying up everywhere. It’s intense. When I go fishing, I go out to escape from thought. I go to zone out and not think about work, or anything really.