Matthew E. White

Making his splash with his debut solo album, Big Inner, in 2012, Matthew E. White soon became in demand as a producer. As a co-owner and founder of Spacebomb, a label/studio/aesthetic concept out of Richmond, Virginia, he’s gathered people around him, like the brilliant arranger Trey Pollard and the fine-tuned Spacebomb House Band players, in order to bring the music to life. With his new album K Bay just released, Matthew and I caught up on Zoom for a little history and philosophy of recording.

It’s good to finally meet!

Yeah, it’s an honor, man! I’m a huge fan of the publication.

We’ve been hanging in there. You’ve been hanging in there.

Yeah. What a year.

You probably had a lot of shows and projects that were scheduled?

Yeah, yeah. I got lucky. I did have all that scheduled, but I also had a child in the beginning of March 2020. It was an odd time to have a kid, but, at the same time, it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise. I got to hang out with my baby for a year, which was nice.

You’ve got a new album out, K Bay. I understand you had a new process of trying different takes of songs?

Yeah. I recorded two versions of every song. One was more “normal” drums, bass, guitar, piano, and whatever. Standard instrumentation for the main vocals to be sung over. Then I did another version that was a distilled composition, like guided improvisation, that was based around certain pillars of the song, whether it was harmonic material or a rhythmic ostinato like a bass line. Sometimes it was just pure colors. All the sounds would be exactly the same, and the sound design would be similar. I tried to get at some of the essence of the song that wasn’t the lyrics and wasn’t the form. I sort of based this on [producer] Teo Macero and Miles [Davis’] work with Bitches Brew and On the Corner.

Cool.

I did it to the same BPM, creating different textures for me to sample from, cut in, and use in different ways. Part of that process was connecting different interests for me, both as a composer and a producer. A lot of my background is in the history of production outside of song-based production, as well as the history of composition outside of songs. I was trying to find a way to use that interest and use some of that skillset to intersect with more song-based music; to try to connect those dots for me. Then it was also to get out of the box of bringing up the song and getting from A to Z. I enjoy that process, but this was a way for me to try to use my full width of interests and skillsets, and to get something a little bit more unique to me.

A lot of your music and your productions involve performing in a room and focusing on arrangements. Do you need to expand, open up, and think of other ways in order to keep working?

So much about this record was maxing out the “house band” process. There were a lot of days in the studio circling that concept in a lot of different ways, from working really fast to taking a long time. I feel like it’s not the end of the road, but from the development as a beginner – on the first song-based records that I did – it’s like some records need to take a long time and need to be teased out. Then some records you need to make in a week.

Yeah, totally.

This record felt like it was an end to a lot of this work I’ve been doing with these guys for the past ten years. Knowing how to use their different instrumental personalities and what they’re good at to get new ways to approach that “house band” concept that we’ve been working on for a long time. The uniqueness of that is all the water under the bridge. That is important. I feel I would be doing myself a disservice if I moved on from that. The fact that I have been making music in a studio setting with those guys for ten plus years at this point, there’s a built-in language that we can get to. They trust me, and I trust them. There’s a lot more experimenting that I can do now that I couldn’t have done ten years ago, because we have a bigger studio vocabulary to pull from.

The path that you took is so similar to what was going on at Stax, Muscle Shoals, Motown, Royal, and a number of places across the country from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that were working that way. Was that an informed decision based on that history?

It was based off of that, intentionally; primarily because I love that music. When you get to the bottom of how that music exists – “Why does it work? Why does it sound the way it does?” – it has to do with the administrative format of the recording, for lack of a better way to say it. The fact that those guys were in there, in a blue-collar 9-to-5 way, doing it with so many different people over and over again; that’s how they got that sound. They weren’t changing up personnel. They weren’t changing up studios. They weren’t changing up the process. They weren’t changing up the gear. They did do all of those things over the course of a long period of time, but not session to session. They mic’d the drums the same way with small tweaks. For me, it was a lot of reading and research. Listening to the Otis Reddings of the world. Reading a lot about it. The note choices and whatnot are all important, but so much of the reason that they got to that is because of the way the label and label contracts were organized. The way the industry is set up has a lot to do with the music that comes out on the other side, which is an interesting thing to think about. In my case, it was a happy accident that I live in Richmond, and I live in an incredibly high-achieving musical community that has an incredible amount of talent in it. I don’t think I could put together a house band that is as good and as flexible as the band that I use regularly in most communities. I’m lucky to work with those guys. That was just timing. But the idea was definitely heavily informed by ‘50s and ‘60s labels; small Southern labels. Jamaican labels were also a big thing.

Oh, sure. Studio One [record label and studio].

Yeah. A huge influence, how they worked and made records.

When you have an adept house band and people you work with regularly, then the focus becomes the songs and the performance.

Yeah, definitely. You can get down the line a little bit faster. It’s kind of cold, but so much of recording is about time management.

Yeah, tell me!

Obviously, budget informs that a ton, but then, at the end of the day, for me, there is this intangible magic that can happen in the studio that’s unrepeatable and hard to find. It’s difficult, and everyone wants to get there in their studio experience. But there’s also a whole chunk of things that need to happen before you’re getting to that level. When you have accomplished musicians, or people who are on the same page, and who are good at their instruments, you can get to that ecosystem where unplanned magic can happen. You have to know how the songs go. You have to know the chords and the parts. You have to be able to play together. You have to know what the BPM is. You have to know all the riffs in the song, if there are any. All of that. With those guys, we can get places pretty fast and get all of that out of the way. Then we’re at a place to start dealing with the “dark arts” side that’s hard to pin down.

Spacebomb was initially a studio in your attic? Is that true?

Yeah. It started in my attic. Then we moved to another location downtown that was smaller. We had to get out of my attic. It was great, but it wasn’t professional. As soon as we found ourselves on the precipice of being actual professionals, it was like, “We’ve gotta get somewhere that we can bring someone to that’s not my house.” We went and moved to another small spot downtown, but we would do some work other places. There’s a studio called Montrose Recording in Richmond. It’s an excellent studio, and it’s important to mention in this interview because it is such a special studio. When we were in the smaller studio, we would often use Montrose for our bigger projects. Then for my record, when we were building out what is now the more “official” space in our studio – which is bigger and can take on all of our projects – I used Montrose to record almost the entirety of this new record. It’s a special place. Adrian [Olsen], the owner and engineer, is a great friend and wonderful collaborator. Things that were recorded at Montrose will get said to be recorded at Spacebomb, but they’re not. They were recorded at Montrose. I’m sure you know how that goes.

I know the frustration very well.

Spacebomb is sort of an idea and can be anywhere. Currently Spacebomb is a specific studio, at 106 South Robinson in Richmond, but because it was under construction while I was working on this record, and because I love working at Montrose, we did this record out there. For K Bay, my home studio [also known as K Bay] was actually on that property in another building. It’s like a sprawling farm with a bunch of old buildings. Montrose is one of them and K Bay’s another. It’s only been pretty recently that Spacebomb has opened up and been public, in a way. It’s hard for us to get that word out locally. You can rent Spacebomb. The reputation of the 9-to-5 house band, working in there every day, is not necessarily the case all the time. But it didn’t start off as a public-facing business. I went to school for jazz and for arranging. Halfway through that experience, I was like, “If I want my music to be heard, I need to understand recording.” I had a 4-track growing up, but I wasn’t good at it. I’m still not particularly gifted on the engineer front. It is shocking how much more that I know now than I did, but it’s a trial by fire because I’m not particularly a natural at it. I wanted to get my music out there. I wanted people to hear it. Recording is important. I can’t just know how to write and play. I have to know how to record. I lived in this place with an attic. I went to a recording friend of mine and asked, “Can I buy all of your old shit? Can you give me enough so that I can plug a mic into a preamp and into something that will record it, so that I can start off?” Just yesterday I got back the first little board that was in the original Spacebomb. It’s a Kelsey 16-channel live console. It looks amazing; black with candy-colored knobs. It was that into an [Alesis] HD24. It was a pretty gnarly setup.

Has the acquisition of gear been a slow process of outgrowing equipment and trying to expand your capabilities?

Yeah, it’s been in direct correlation to how much I understand the art of recording. For me, it’s been figuring out that there’s not a “right” way to do it. That the way that one wants to make music needs a certain kind of gear. You don’t really know what that is until you run into problems. Like, “I need a fader for this!” A fader does a thing; I want to “play” it in. There are so many effects where I want to fly a fader up. To do what I need to do, I need a certain amount of channels, or a certain amount of buses. Or I’m listening to some music, and it’s like, “How’d they do that?” I start asking questions. I remember when we got a [Lexicon] Prime Time delay in the studio, and we started messing around with that. I was like, “Holy shit! This is the sound of so much stuff!” It’s been a slow build for me, regarding where my interests go. I try really hard to not get things that are in vogue. I’ve purposefully stayed away from the [Teenage Engineering] OP-1 [keyboard] because everyone used it. That’s not recording gear, but it kind of is. I try pretty hard to keep it practical. Honestly, I try not to spend a lot of money. I recommend trying to understand what you’re buying and dig into what you get and understand it as much as possible. Use the things you have. So much about recording for me is the process that a certain piece of equipment will force you into. Like tape does sound a certain way, but, more importantly, it forces you to record a certain way. It makes you make decisions early on. That’s an important thing to me for the process; to not delay decision-making. Don’t leave backups or extra mics up that you may or may not use. Get rid of them. The process is informed by the gear you use, and the process decides the sound as much as a piece of gear might decide the sound. Again, once you get into that world, it is a dark art of trying to swim and find your way to the top.

Totally.

It’s fun, too. That’s what’s so magnetic about it. It’s a very difficult thing to solve. It’s a never-ending journey. Try to keep having fun with it.

 Matthew E. White
Cameron Lewis

When you’re producing someone, how soon do you start formulating a vision for how it’s going to come across at the end?

For one thing, it depends on what people want from a producer. I try to talk about that early on. A producer is a pretty open job description, and depending on what music people listen to, and what process they’ve used, people are bringing their expectations of what a producer is into a session. A lot of times they don’t know there are other ways of doing it. I try to tease that out almost immediately. “What are you actually looking for? Do you want me to be a heavy-handed collaborator? Do you want me to do this music and you sing? Do you want this to be a completely collaborative work? Do you want me to just be someone to bounce ideas off of? Do you want me to be an administrator that makes sessions start on time, end on time, hand it in on time, and give you the freedom to work?” When I’m creatively involved, which is my preference – to be as involved as an artist would like, the first thing I do is I ask them to share a playlist with me that’s what they want the record to sound like so we can get on the same page as far as vocabulary. When someone says “groovy” or “funky” or “dark” or “distorted” or “fuzzy,” those mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I try to get their aesthetic background. It’s nice to know if their primary listening experience is from the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, or now. That informs a lot of the decisions. What do they want it to sound like? If they want to sound like Prince, then that’s different than if they want it to sound like James Brown.

Very true.

There are practical decisions I make based on that. Then I try to get demos. I generally will make a text document and write out thoughts for them before we get in the studio of, “This is where I think this song could go. Here are some ideas.” I try to get the idea of what the initial instruments that everybody’s going to play are, so that if we have four band members in the studio I don’t want to be thinking about, “Oh, is Alan [Parker] playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or 12-string guitar?”

Yeah.

If I take care of that, then it can be more like, “This is how I want to start. Cameron [Ralston] plays DI P Bass. Alan plays Strat with amp in the room. Pinson [Chanselle]’s playing close-mic’d drums. Mic the toms with overheads way off.” I’ll have an idea. And it can all change, but at least we’re not talking about it when we walk in. When we walk in, I want it to say, “You do this, you do this, you do this, you do this.” We’ll see how it sounds. If it sounds like garbage, then we’ll change. I feel you can spend a lot of wasted time in the start-up process. I try to keep a list of overdubs that I want to do, or that the artist wants to do, or that are on the demo. That way when we get to overdub time, it’s not a free-for-all.

Oh, I know what you mean.

That’s one of my least favorite seasons of recording. “All right, overdubs. What are we going to do?” “Hey, we could do this!” If you want an overdub, tell me. I put it on the list, and, as the producer, I get to prioritize the list. Then we check it off. When we run out of time, we move on. If we come back, then we know. It is so important to leave room for improvisation and to leave room to pivot. But it’s like you have to start somewhere to even get to the place where you want to pivot, or where you have those ideas. I’m like foot on the gas when we get in the studio. “Let’s start getting stuff down and start playing.” If we don’t like an idea, we can change. I’m very comfortable with that. For this last record, I’m obviously way more heavy-handed on my own records than I can be on anyone else’s.

You can be!

I like to do a three-song triangulation of what we’re going for. For the first single that just came out, “Genuine Hesitation,” it was ESG [Emerald, Sapphire & Gold], Kraftwerk, and Berlin-era Iggy Pop. I’ll listen to three songs and be like, “This is the vibe.” It’s not a sampling thing, or like, “Play this exact drum part,” but ESG has a certain way that they approach rhythm section parts and how much space there is. It’s that communication to the band of, “This is the language that we’re using.” Those guys are so flexible. At this point, we have so much listening time together. I lived with those guys. It was my 20s, where I was listening to music all the time, as well as partying with other people listening to music with those guys. Our language is deep. Sometimes with other peoples’ records, I’ll do that too. It’s a little bit harder. The game of telephone gets a little bit longer.

Like ESG might be a reference that some people don’t have.

Yeah.

I love the idea of a parallel universe with the songs on K Bay. Are you bringing in elements from the secondary takes or second takes?

It doesn’t happen all over the record. But the first thing you hear on the record, the first 30 seconds of the first song, is the totally alternate universe. With Trey, there’s actually less arranging on the record, but more moments when the arranging is by itself. It reads as orchestral, even though the main bodies of the songs are stripped down and direct band tracks. On the first tune, it was like, “Here’re some things I like about the tune harmonically. Can you write an orchestral gesture based on that?” It gives me the ability to be a little bit more of a collage artist, along with being a songwriter and more of a composer-producer, as well as with being a lyricist and a singer. Production is about bringing out this hard-to-get three-dimensionality of when the sounds and the words make a thing that is bigger than they are separately. The first song is stacked with that. Then it happens a couple of other times on the record. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I had another record come out six months ago that was a collaboration with Lonnie Holley [Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection].

That record’s wild! I love it.

That record is all those other takes. It’s all the alternate shit that didn’t get used. I had so much of it. I was like, “What am I going to do with this?” I chopped it up Teo [Macero]-style, and then built little compositions out of it and asked Lonnie to sing over it. It is on the record; however, the not-so-secret but less-covered narrative is that it also turned into a whole other record.

That record reminded me of the group Can. Experimenting and letting the overdubs be pretty free.

There are no overdubs on that record. Yeah, the playing is wild. That’s an example. There are songs on this new record, that if you listened to the new record and then listened to the Lonnie Holley record, you’d be like, “Oh!” They’ve been released in backwards order. Trey had more arrangements cut on this record [K Bay] than he’s comfortable with, I’ll tell you that much. That’s not usual for him. Trey and I have a great relationship, but there were different concepts competing for space. And there were far more arrangements written on the record than that made it to the final project. Somewhere I’ve got beautiful orchestral writing just sitting there.

It’s so hard with any overdub, especially when you’re doing something like that which is more involved. It’s so hard to relegate them to the dustbin, so to speak.

I know. But you’ve got to. You can’t be swayed by how much you spent on something. That’s such a recording lesson. If you pay for a player, pay for studio time, or an arrangement, if you don’t like it, you have to feel free to get rid of it. You’ve gotta get past that.

Nadia Reid’s album, Out of My Province, which you co-produced with Trey, is a completely different world from Lonnie’s record.

Yeah! Definitely. Nadia’s great. It was special to have her over here. We did that record the week before I started recording my new record. We ended on a Friday, and the next Monday I started K Bay. That record has Trey’s fingerprints all over it. I was there, and I was involved, but Trey was running the show. Some of the decisions are Trey-style decisions. Not that I wasn’t present or involved. Because we were starting K Bay the next week, it was fun to be there and help make decisions and move things along. But, in terms of the prep for that record, that was Trey’s work for sure.

Is it handy to be able to be that fresh ear?

I think so. Hopefully for her sake it was helpful! It’s not too often where I am in that position. That was unique. She’s extra special. She was one of those artists where I’d have a certain expectation of maybe what they’re going to be like, or how they’re going to approach things, and then we got into it and it was significantly different than I was expecting. Not in a better or worse way. It’s like the rhythm of this was pretty unique. I learned a lot from being around her, about how she approaches things, which is not down the middle at all. There are a handful of tunes on that record that are just the scratch vocal. She’s an incredible vocalist. Some people’s vocals, with the way you can comp stuff now, it’s hard to tell who can sing and who can’t really sing. But with her, it was pretty jaw-dropping, vocally.

I know you’ve mixed with my pal Pat Dillett [Tape Op #79] a bit.

Oh, yeah. I love Pat. He mixed the second record I did [Fresh Blood].

How did that come about?

The first record [Big Inner] was such an odd recording experience and was mixed by Karl Blau, which was great. You can’t beat Karl; he’s incredible. But when I made the second record, the label was like, “Would you mind if we got a more traditional engineer to mix it?” If you’re reading this, Karl is incredible, but he’s about as eccentric as you can get in terms of his approach to mixing and recording. It’s magic, but it’s definitely left-of-center.

Yeah, there are tracks that are a little out of phase but so interesting on your first record.

It’s crazy and it’s great. When I listen to that record, I’m like, “I cannot believe that this launched a career.” But it’s also magic. I’d never be able to get it again. Karl had a lot to do with that. When I was a beginner, I didn’t have a record label. Karl mixed it, because he was the one there engineering it. We mixed it at his friend’s house. Now the label wanted to pay for a mixing engineer. A professional, credited, known engineer. I’d never had the budget to do that before. I didn’t know anything about that world of mixing engineers. Domino Records had a budget. Pat’s name came up and I looked at the credits. I loved that he had worked on a lot of OG hip-hop in New York. That was a big draw for me. He had just mixed a record with a lot of strings on it. It was the fact that he had dealt with lo-fi, low-end recordings and then also orchestral. People will absolutely do garbage mixes of orchestral music if you’re not careful. From a panning point of view and compression, it gets bad fast if people don’t have some experience. I went up to New York and sat on his couch for a couple of weeks. Mixed a song a day. It was great. He’s a pleasant guy to be around, and I like what he did with the record. It was a good experience.

With work these days, who’s doing engineering and mixing?

Adrian Olsen, who owns Montrose Recording, does all of that. Adrian was an important collaborator for the record. By no means am I a producer/engineer type of guy. I am aware of the sounds, and there are certain sounds that I’m going for. But Adrian connects the dots for me, for sure. We have long conversations about the approach, conceptual sound design, and what we’re looking for. He’s as important a collaborator as anyone on the record in terms of getting the sound, and on that Lonnie record too. The first time I worked with him was when Flo Morrissey and I did the duets record [Gentlewoman, Ruby Man].

 Matthew E. White
Cameron Lewis

That record’s cool.

That was the first time I’d ever recorded at Montrose and the first time I’d ever used Adrian. The Spacebomb team is really good, but we’ve never had an “engineer.” On Big Inner and Natalie Prass’ first record, it’s all us. We know what we like, we have good taste, and we know enough to not do certain things. But I would say those early Spacebomb records lucked into success, from an engineering front. You can listen to Natalie’s first record [Natalie Prass] and then listen to her second record [The Future and the Past]. One’s recorded by me in Spacebomb’s attic, and one was recorded by Adrian at Montrose. I produced both of them. There’s a night-and-day difference to how they hit. That has everything to do with Adrian. He’s got an old Flickinger console we used the shit out of. Not that it’s always about the gear, but sometimes it is! His studio’s stacked, man. It’s good shit and a good vibe. He mixed the new record too. We’re getting great results. When I say I want thumpy, tubby, close-mic’d drums, he’s like, “Okay, I get it!” He knows what that means. I don’t have to play a thousand examples. We just did a record for this band Gently Tender in Wales at Rockfield Studios.

I just reviewed the documentary [Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm, Tape Op #144].

That was the first time we’d traveled together to do something. That was really fun.

Are you getting hammered with requests to produce people at this point in time? Do you have to be selective?

I feel it goes in waves with the records. I haven’t released a record of mine in five years. Right after each record I get waves of requests, and then it tails off a little bit. The best work that I do is my records and Natalie’s records. Natalie and I go back so far; we grew up in Virginia Beach together. When I put a record out, that’s the best version of me, currently where I am. It tends to attract people, and then there’s a feedback loop from that. Like the farther from my records it gets, the more that I get people who are coming to me for things that are farther and farther from what I am good at. I don’t necessarily end up making the best thing that I can make. As a producer, I’m a better match for some people than others. There’s no way around that. I’m the best match for myself. When I’m making the records, I have to turn down work. I can’t do both.

Yeah. You can’t be making your own record, jump into someone else’s for a week, and then back into yours.

Writing songs is not natural for me. I really enjoy it, but it’s like going to war a little bit with myself. Psychologically it’s hard. Obviously, I’m digging into myself; but also it’s not easy. Production is way more natural. I can walk into the room tomorrow and do a pretty good job at producing someone’s record, even if I’ve never heard anything before. I feel comfortable in that environment. But if I have to walk into a studio and record a song tomorrow that I wrote on the spot, it would be a dumpster fire. It would be trash. When I’m in the season of writing, I can’t do anything else.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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