Matt Duke: On the Rise

We first took a listen to Matt Duke a couple years ago when Mad Dragon released his EP, “Winter Child.”  On 23 September, Rykodisc releases his follow-up disc, “Kingdom Underground.”  We shot him a few questions to get to know him a little bit.  And look, he likes the Lizard Lounge in Boston!

JoyHog: For folks who are just getting to know you, how would you describe your sound?

Matt Duke: Something in the vein of alternative-folk/pop. I’m not even entirely sure if that’s a legitimate style or makes sense for that matter, but the lyrics definitely have a folk quality and intensity that I try to evoke through my vocal performance. The overall musicality, though, is derivative of the music I grew up listening to – influences from Procol Harum and Elvis Costello to Soundgarden and Silverchair to Deftones and Ani Difranco.

JH: We’ve got your first CD, “Winter Child” which Mad Dragon released two years ago.  “Kingdom Underground” has got more rock and less coffeehouse, no?

MD: “Kingdom Underground” definitely has a lot more teeth than “Winter Child” did.  Since the release of the first record, people would come out to shows and comment that the performances were very, very intense and dynamic, but that anything I had recorded felt restrained almost.  Live shows will always have a magic that you sometimes can’t capture in the studio, but on “Kingdom Underground” we tried our best to showcase some of that intensity and took a lot more risks sonically.

JH: How is the digital revolution treating you as a new act trying to sell albums?

MD: Well it certainly doesn’t hurt!  The internet has opened the door for so many musicians and songwriters that might never have been discovered.  On the one hand, it’s hurt physical sales of albums in mom & pop shops and other retailers – what with anything and everything being at your disposal through the click of a bottom.  But on the other hand, had it not been for myspace and purevolume, I might not have quite the fan base that I do today.  People love it that artists have made themselves available online – with streaming tracks from upcoming records, blogs about the road, updated photos that you took out in Altoona, PA – and the more accessible you are the more likely someone is to buy your record.

JH: You’ve been playing some of our favourite venues like Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles and Union Hall in Brooklyn.  Where is your favourite place to play?

MD: There are still so many places I’ve yet to play, but I think at this point I’ve got two venues tied for first on my list.  The first is the World Café in Philadelphia.  The World Café works in cahoots with WXPN (our kickass, local radio station) and out of donations from listeners and members they were able to build a really incredible facility.  The downstairs room has amazing sound – and with standing room only you can have people keeping close to the edge of the stage.  I’ve played there many times and I’ve never once been disappointed; they have a great staff, good food, good drinks, and they go above and beyond to take care of their performers.  The second is the Lizard Lounge in Boston, MA.  Aside from the fact that I love hanging out in the Boston area, the Lizard Lounge was a spot that really surprised.  Initially, I didn’t know what to make of it – it was a smaller space, peppered with a few tables and chairs, and the stage area was simply an area rug that edged out towards two of the many columns supporting a really low ceiling.  All that said, the sound guy was amazing and the energy in the place was great.  The audience was so tightly packed around me that had I whipped my sweaty head any which way I might have pelted a couple of unlucky people trying to enjoy the show.  Come to think of it, I probably did.  Gross.

JH: Marshall Altman (who has produced Matt Nathanson, Kate Voegele and Marc Broussard) did this album with you.  What kind of wisdom did he impart?

MD: I was very fortunate that Marshall and I not only got along in the business sense, but also on a personal level.  He was always willing to give me advice pertaining to anything music related and any other sort of issue I might have been going through at the time.  He’s kept a relatively positive outlook on the music business though I know he’s been through some pretty rough bullshit through the years and I think that was the most inspiring thing I’ve taken away from getting to know Marshall.  You’ve got to make sacrifices in order to achieve success – whether it’s creatively or financially – and even when things start to get a bit rough you need stay optimistic about the future and never jeopardize your integrity as a human being.  He and I also connected on the idea that as a songwriter and performer you need to be fearless.  Otherwise, you’re likely to stew over the past and live a meaningless life of regret.

JH: Have you gotten used to the on-the-road life yet?

MD: I’ve never had a hard time amusing myself – something I think I picked up from my Dad.  Being a solo musician on the road isn’t exactly easy, but I’ve enjoyed every second of meeting new people, seeing new places and living day-to-day.  Aside from the fact the traffic jams and foul weather can usually put me in a sour mood, the good outweighs the bad tenfold and I’m always pretty stoked to go from one place to the next.

JH: You’re 23, right?  So did this all happen straight out of college, or did you have to suck it up and work at Applebees while getting your ducks in a row? (Please say, Applebees, please!)

MD: My college experience lasted for just about a nanosecond.  I came back home to stay with my parents and from there I began pursuing a musical career – playing out, jamming with friends, recording here and there.  I never worked at an Applebee’s, but I did work a brief stint at a sandwich shop called Roly Poly.  I got to don this pretty sweet uniform and I really loved the people I worked with even when I was forced to do prep work for the better part of 4 hours.  I probably could have had a successful career as a sandwich/wrap maker, but I had a somewhat cathartic experience when my old high school Spanish teacher walked into the shop and we got to talking.  When she asked what I was doing with myself, my heart sort of sank when I said, “Uh, ya know…making sandwiches and stuff.”  I think it was that moment when I realized I needed to try being a bit more ambitious and get my shit together.  I’ve worked other odd jobs over time to facilitate getting around to gigs and stuff, but I will always fondly look back on a time when I worked at a place called Roly Poly and could recite the ingredients to 80 different sandwich combinations.

JH: You’re the first artist to take part in this Ryko Greenhouse business.  What’s that all about?

MD: The Ryko Greenhouse cd was the brainchild of the wonderful people over at Rykodisc.  It seems that standard protocol these days is that when you’ve got an album release date on the way, you start sending advance copies of the record out to radio stations, other music business types about three months before the record drops.  But then everyone thought, “We’ve got his tunes now – why not send out some samplers early to anyone and everyone if we can?”  I’m lucky and flattered that I got to be the first artist they used for the Greenhouse idea, not only because it shows that I have their support and that they dig the record, but because I was getting antsy to share some of the new material with friends and fans.  All in all, it’s a great idea and anyone I’ve seen that has gotten a copy of the cd seems really happy to have some of the new material so far in advance of the release.

JH: And now, what comes next?  Music videos?  Another album?  Will you appear in “Step Up 3” with your guitar?

MD: Who knows!  I’m trying to keep myself busy by writing for the next record and catch up on some books I’ve accumulated from friends and family over the last year or two.  Our main focus is trying to book as many shows as humanly possible and, yes, I’m sure we’re going to start talks about when we might make a music video and for what song.  I think I’m most looking forward to getting back on the road and using a video camera to document some of the goings-ons and whatnot.  We’ll see how successful that is, however – I’m an idiot when it comes to even working my cell phone so I’m interested to see how I do with a digital camera.

JH: And finally, the most important inquiry of all!  What are the last three songs you listened to on the iPod?

MD: Yea, so speaking of being technologically inept and not all with the 21st century – I don’t even own an iPod.  For some reason, I’ve just been without one all this time and have relied solely on my skip-protected, portable cd player.  Do I get a complimentary iPod having answered all of these questions?  PLEASE??????!!!

I think the last three songs I listened to were Silverchair’s “Those Thieving Birds Pt. 1/Strange Behaviour/Those Thieving Birds Pt. 2”, Cursive’s “So-So Gigolo” and City and Colour’s “Bring Me Your Love”.

Be well, JoyHog.