The first time I saw Emperor X performing, in the backroom of a small bar in Berlin, he handed the audience open-tuned guitars that were lying around for them to strum randomly as he sang about “approximately nine billion tigers”. The second time, in a bigger venue, he ignored the elevated stage and performed in the middle of the crowd instead: waving a synthesizer that was spitting beats, and practically barking at the audience to sing and dance along to a song about filling out health insurance forms.
Chad Matheny, who has been releasing music and performing as Emperor X since the late 90s, exudes an infectious enthusiasm and seems to contain an endless supply of creative energy. A DIY musician par excellence, his musical output feels like the insides of his heart, guts and brain Jackson Pollocked against the nearest surface. Matheny sings with a yelpy preternaturally-young voice about anything that crosses his omnivorous mind: references to history, sci-fi, or philosophy sit next to musings on love, politics and technology. Scrappy synthesisers, garage-rock drums and wiry guitars next to electronic beats and acoustic lullabies.
I sat with the US-born Berlin transplant ahead of his concert at Beirut Open Stage on the 25th of May to discuss his latest album Oversleepers International, what he plans to do in Beirut and why he sounds like David Cross.
Oversleepers International came out exactly a year ago. So it’s been well over a year that we’ve been trying to set up this concert in Beirut! In the meantime, you’ve toured all over the US, Europe and Australia. How has this particular album+tour cycle gone so far?
I continue to be astounded by my luck. I know that may sound naive for someone so unknown and yet who has been doing this for close to two decades, but it’s true: every release of music feels like a rebirth, and a new discovery process for me and for new listeners. I have years of momentum behind anything I do now, so a lot of the things that are usually sources of anxiety when one puts out a record — manufacturing/distribution, publicity, setting up tours — fall together much more easily than they did in the past. I’ve also been quite lucky in working with Tiny Engines, who are the best possible combination of world class pro music business operators and DIY-style tolerant of my odd, irritating, artist-y idiosyncrasies. I do not have any expectations when I release a record of anyone in the blogosphere understanding what I do or seeing its worth, not in my lifetime. But I do look for signs that I’m making music that some people consider worthwhile. This release has been appreciated perhaps less broadly than some of my other releases, but those who do get it seem to resonate with it deeply, in a sharp way. I’ll take that deep, focused response over a widely-dispersed semi-positive yawn any day. “Nice album, bro!” is my nightmare response, and I never get that with Oversleepers. People are either bored with it or fall for it really hard.
The album features other musicians (a drummer and a bassist) and from my understanding this is somewhat of a first? Which seems odd since there’s always a lot going on in your albums. Do you usually play and record everything yourself? What (else) did you do differently with this new album?
Rudi (from whom I ripped the title off, check out his excellent Supersadness International) and Sebastian (drums and bass), and Berndt and Ryland (knobs), had profound effects on this record. All four of them are first-order talents, and the record would not be the same without them.
And yeah, you’re right: this was a departure for me. I approach the recording of an album, from writing to mastering, as if I’m a writer crafting a novel. All songwriters now have technology to do this, so in my solo practice I tend to view ceding that authority as avoidant behaviour, an excuse to delay, or capitulation to bourgeoisie indulgence, a shirking of duty, as if a writer were dictating a novel instead of typing it out because they can’t be bothered. My opinion about that generally hasn’t changed, but making Oversleepers helped me see the hidden cost of working, too. I reduce the number of other voices in the process to an absolute minimum; I see myself as responsible for every aspect of what hits the listener’s ear. That has many advantages, but it is obviously an approach prone to many dangerous flaws, so I always disrupt these negative solipsistic aspects by sending a small group of trusted collaborators tracks at various stages of development. That’s not new, I’ve always done that, and occasionally friends appear on disc, but not often. This time I placed a lot more trust in others, and I think I grew a lot as a human being as a result. I wound up making all of the final mixing decisions and did quite lot of isolated tweaking. But the results of collaboration here were undeniable, and I’m very grateful to the four humans who helped break me out of a bit of a rut.
You’ve been creative with physical releases and merchandise: the new album includes sheet music, and you made hybrid T-shirts/download codes with song lyrics on them. Not to mention the buried tapes thing back in 2010. Are these reactions to digitalisation at all?
It started out that way. In the mid-2000s I put a lot of thought into the ontological consequences of reifying music on a physical object, inspired by taking Goethe’s/Schiller’s idea, “Architecture is frozen music,” and the Ruskin corollary that “music is liquid architecture,” in a very slanted context. Example: I wasted weeks writing about what it meant to encode audio as binary data rather than as nonmediated, continuous form like dubbing a tape cassette onto a vinyl record. At the end of this long rumination, I decided to focus on the fact that all sounds are ultimately re-analogued (for lack of a much better term) the instant they hit the D/A converter and travel as smooth, continuous voltage to the amp and speaker cone, and interpreted by the auditory nerves and the far more poorly-understood processes of the mind recognizing tone. I decided that I wanted to focus on effect, rather than the manner in which it was produced. My intention with “Western Teleport Nodes”, it seems to me now years later, was an early attempt at addressing that fight in my mind. Releasing the songbooks — which I actually spent more time on than recording the album! — is definitely a continuation of this process. I thought a lot about what the fundamental unit of a song is. Do we define it as the recording, as the rock aesthetic asks us? Do we rather define it as a lead sheet, as jazz and classical ontology suggest? We’re dealing with at least two different art objects when we talk about tracks. The first is the audio, which is a rendering of a Platonic form of the song itself. Each has distinct properties. For more on this, check out Theodore Gracyk’s excellent “Rhythm and Noise“.
I found the album distilled your lyrical interests pretty well: there’s politics, philosophy, technology and science intertwined with personal stories. There’s also a lot of traveling (flights, bus rides, highways, subway trains) and a whole lot of bureaucracy (forms, visas, tax returns, notices, registration documents). But mostly there’s this sense of empathy and defiance and solidarity against the cold cruelty of the times. This has always existed in your music but I found it really pronounced here. Warmth Perimeter is the purest example of that. And I understood the album’s title within that whole context. Was the record conceived as this sort of dual balm-plus-call-to-arms? Was it conceived at all?
It was not conceived as such at first. I rarely start a project with an intention about what it’s going to be at the end. I write, I record, I see what comes out, and then I shuffle it around until it begins to seem like a coherent form. In the case of Oversleepers, all of these things you mention were very much on my mind. If that comes through to the listener, I’m ecstatic — it’s certainly what I hear when I go back and listen to it. But I find it very difficult to declare this at the outset. “I will now write an album about compassion!” and then proceed to actually do it? Some really talented humans are capable of that. I’m not, at least I haven’t been so far, nor have I wanted to be. I do of course always have some intention at the outset, but it always mutates in the process, usually to the point of unrecognizability, so a song that starts with a line about compassion might become a historical dramatization of Charlemagne or a description of the Bhopal disaster, or, more likely some other complete nonsense that speaks to me at the time and presents itself as a challenge: “Ascribe meaning to me, I dare you!” This is what makes it interesting for me. I don’t want to cheat myself out of being blindsided by revelations. That’s what makes listening fun, and if writing doesn’t have a part of that too I have a lot less fun with it.
There’s a few older songs that were reworked for this album. Brown Recluse, Low Orbit Ion Cannon, Wasted On The Senate Floor have all somewhat been released in different forms. What made you revisit those?
They seemed to fit in. See above re. audio instances of a song vs. the song itself. None of them were ever fully realized, and indeed a song is never really fully realized, thank goodness. The audio on the track exists, it is frozen. The underlying composition, as a noumenal object if you’ll allow me to play fast and loose with some heady philosophical term that I’m certain doesn’t quite map here, is a recipe for creating new instances, either as tracks or performances or other hybrid forms. A song is a seed, a recording is a fruit. That’s part of what lead me to release the songbook along with the album. New versions are always possible. Music is alive, moreso on a page than in a recording. John Cage notoriously compared recordings of music to postcards depicting a landscape: nice, but no replacement for being there. I don’t mean to claim that live music is better than recorded, but rather that a song can exist an infinite number of times in infinite variety, and that makes things a lot more fun.
Your songs can be very dense lyrically and often contain obscure references. Do you ever worry about alienating the listener? Or let me put it this way: how do you balance communicating vs the purely artistic impulses and aesthetic choices that can get in the way of clarity? I understand the pull towards the evocative but are you concerned about getting ideas across? Or do you not see these as mutually exclusive?
Because of the way I write — allowing phonetic utterance to pass through unedited, editing meaning into it, making another cycle until a song forms or falls apart — I have little control over or concern for the density. I follow the urge, and if it leads me to list off the ingredients of Windex translated into Swahili backwards, that’s what I’m going to do. The editing process is where the balance comes in. And even there, I think about it less as balance and more as, “Does this piece of audio assert itself well, does it distinguish itself equally from Pavlovian pleasure-triggering and from noise?” This is definitely on my mind when mixing, doing vocal overdubs, etc. I often combine very conversational turns of phrase with highly technical detail, and my hope is that this gives the listener access to a wider thought, and joyful confidence to do research if the topic interests them. My heroes are mostly science fiction writers, so I think somewhere deep down I see myself as having the same intentions as a science fiction writer in that respect: captivate, try to be exciting, sure, but also widen the thought domain of the audience. But I do always want to do it in a way that seems, for lack of a better term right now, friendly. “Come on in, learn about the ingredients of Windex, and also learn Swahili, and also maybe feel something that resonates with your own experience of love or terror. Isn’t that crazy?” That’s the effect I aim for, and this has always been both deliberate and semi-automatic.
I think you’ll find this funny. I googled “Emperor X David Cross” to reread that article where David Cross lampoons overwrought Pitchfork reviews, and came across – and this is completely unrelated to the article – not one but two bloggers who seem to think your voice sounds exactly like David Cross’. What’s the conspiracy here?
Wild! I didn’t know that was something a blog said, but it’s definitely true that our voices sound a lot alike. Part of it’s just pitch/timbral accident, just random genetics, but now that I think about it it makes sense. He’s a weird nerd from the south who grew up mostly in Georgia. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida which culturally is much more like Deep South Georgia than it is Florida. I think the way we speak may have evolved out of aggressively asserting our desire for non-redneckness. He has some great thoughts about the universal redneck accent. I also think we’re both excitable in similar ways (and both prone to putting our foot in our mouth when given the chance). I love that guy, hope I get to meet him one day and give him a hard time about that Pitchfork article. That was wild to read.
I know you’ve been reading up on Lebanon before coming here. Is that something you normally do with places you visit on tour?
Absolutely, partly to lower the possibility that I’ll say something dumb or offensive while I’m there but primarily out of a rabid curiosity about how the world works. It’s a thrilling place to think about visiting, particularly for anyone who writes for a living, or uses text in any form. The Latin unicode text we’re using to communicate in this interview was, as far as archaeologists can tell, probably invented somewhere in Lebanese territory back when it was part of the Phoenician Empire. Your country is the root of the Arabic and Hebrew abjad, the Greek/Latin alphabets, the works. It’s a thrilling null point in history, an intersect of timelines. The Word originated on your shores! The Greek concept of the Logos, loosely paraphrased as the word of God/the fundamental structure of being, is really important to me, not theologically (I’m a staunch agnostic)) but rather as an enshrined reverence for the power of text and speech and its relationship to the meaning of self-organizing consciousness in the universe as a whole. In that sense Lebanon is something of a sacred place for writers, or should be anyway, in the same way Germany is a sacred place for classical/Romantic composers. So my hope is to visit some cool text history-y Phoenician sites when I’m there.
Ah, another fun fact about Lebanon that you probably all know but that I was shocked to discover: the government hasn’t had an official census for decades out of fear of destabilizing the confessionalist arrangement in the 1943 National Pact! This complicates my data hunting. Of course, reams and reams of unofficial data exists, but I bring that up because it is one indicator of how Lebanon is so uniquely, harmoniously, beautifully multi-ethnic and yet prone to the cycles of tragic conflict that make up this century’s chapter in Lebanese history. You live at a crossroads in regional and global geopolitical power, both temporally and physically. So many factors are at play there. Day to day life, I expect, is just like here, except with the usual Mediterranean vs. Northern European climate/cultural differences. From what I can tell on the outside and having talked to many friends who have been there, Beirut is a lot more like Berlin than anyone in Berlin thinks, I suspect. But it’s different, too — it has to be, all places are. I’m certain I’ll meet a lot of really interesting, open-minded people to talk to about this stuff. That exchange is what I value so much about visiting other places to share music with people.
You talked to me about bringing your portable recording set-up along. Do you do a lot of writing/recording when you’re traveling?
I always write and record while traveling, but I have some specific plans to attempt while in Lebanon. We’ll see what comes out. I don’t want to say anything else about this right now but…yeah, there are going to be some things showing up on the Internet while I’m a guest in your country. Stand by for more information.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Absolutely not, I have typed far too much. See you at Beirut Open Space on May 25th, y’all!
Check out the facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/2074556359479119/
Explore Emperor X’s discography: https://emperorx.bandcamp.com/
Pay Emperor X’s internet-home a visit: http://emperorx.tumblr.com/