Q&A With Matt Jaffe, Nineteen-Year-Old Rising Star

 

“I wanna be cruel / Before I get too polite
I wanna be a villain / Because I have not yet tried
But I don’t mean that I’ll be killing / My better-natured side”

One of the freshest new sounds of the year is coming out of San Francisco, by way of nineteen-year-old Matt Jaffe, and his band The Distractions. Discovered just last year by a true legend, Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads, Jaffe has impressed both his mentors and critics with his raw songwriting talent and grasp of rock genres like 1970’s New Wave. Jaffe recently released his debut EP Blast Off, led by his first single “Put Your Finger In The Socket.”

We caught up with Jaffe and asked him to help us get to know this rising star and the story of his life so far. Here are his answers.

Last.fm: Do you remember writing your first song? What was it about? How old were you?

Matt Jaffe: The first songs I wrote were really more akin to unorthodox nursery rhymes. They were mostly about animals, had very simplistic rhyme schemes, and were sung sans instruments to stolen melodies. The first song that I wrote that I still remember and recorded in a serious way was called “What The Birds Would Say.” It was about the avian reaction to human trashing of the environment. I wrote it when I was about eleven, just as I was starting perform at open mics. The first few times I performed, I did cover songs, so it was exciting to have something of my own. Some of the lyrics seem sort of silly to me in retrospect, but I love how unaware the chord progression is. Earlier in my songwriting, I wasn’t as conscious of how different chords fit together, so my progressions were very fluid and unique. It’s harder to do that now, although I’m working on recreating some of that unawareness, even if in an artificial way. I think hyper-awareness of craft can be really injurious to creativity.

LFM: Growing up, what was the first song or album you got totally obsessed with?

MJ: The first album that I got really excited about was The Joshua Tree by U2. My dad and I would listen to that on repeat in the car, with a lot of the listening concentrated on the song “One Tree Hill.” I remember learning the lyrics and melody to that song and, while singing along, trying to figure out if I actually knew the words and tune or if I was still just following Bono. I guess that’s why they invented karaoke. Anyhow, I have mixed feelings about U2’s overall career, but I think it requires a tremendous amount of cynicism to deny the greatness of The Joshua Tree. Certainly, the album frequently exhibits the bombast that hampers a lot of their later work, but it remained fresh on that record, and the song-craft is unimpeachable.

LFM: Where did the idea for “Put Your Finger In the Socket” come from?

MJ: In a Spanish class I was taking, I was assigned to write a poem, and the poem I ended up writing formed the basis for the verses of “Socket.” The verses are very repetitive, syntactically, which reflects my very amateur Spanish speaking. I think that repetition ultimately aided the songs antagonistic tone though, so I’m glad I didn’t try to alter the structure during the translation from Spanish to English. The idea behind the verses is that an individual is influenced in their dress, speech, action, behavior, etc. by attempting to do the opposite of another individual, someone he or she has deemed to be a bad role model. Essentially, this dogmatic contrarianism turns one’s behavior into a petty string of reactionary tendencies, rather than relying on any genuine guiding principles. But that’s the idea of the song. The singer isn’t supposed to be virtuous or intelligent, but rather tenacious. Doing the opposite of someone else becomes a doctrine.

LFM: Who are the grooviest, most badass artists or bands playing in your headphones these days?

MJ: My favorites right now are The Replacements and Johnny Cash. I don’t know that either is very groovy in the contemporary sense, but they’re both pretty badass. Sadly, both are also pretty renowned for intense substance abuse, entwined with their music and performance, but that doesn’t lessen the greatness of their music. I’ve become more aware of production lately, as we’ve been experimenting with production in our own work, and I’ve realized how important it is to not obscure the song with arrangement, effects and other tricks. These two artists are representative of two genres, early country/rockabilly and punk rock/new wave, in which many artists demonstrated renewed dedication to songs and veered away from obstructive production. The Replacements’ Let It Be and Cash’s At Folsom Prison are my two picks for albums right now.

LFM: What, if anything, scares you the most about performing in front of an audience?

MJ: I don’t think I necessarily feel scared, but my greatest anxiety about performing is getting too excited too early in a set. During rehearsals, it’s very easy to pace ourselves, to recognize that we have to play for an hour and that we need to ration our momentum. But on stage in front of an audience, I forget that I need to conserve energy and I often spend too much of it during the first few songs, leaving me exhausted for the second half of the set. Energy is intrinsic to our music, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it results in unwelcome fatigue. The balance between restraint and spontaneity is key. Not always an easy balance to find, though.

Find the Blast Off EP now on iTunes
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