Singer/Songwriter, Drummer, Matt North Releases New Album, Bullies In The Backyard
Originally from Champaign, Illinois, drummer and singer-songwriter Matt North, now Nashville based has been entertaining people for years, through television, film, comedy writing – songs and screenplays - and music as a drummer with Maria McKee, Peter Case, L.A. punks The Buxotics, Jesse DeNatale, Blondie Chaplin (Rolling Stones, Beach Boys), appeared on TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, opened for comedians Jimmy Fallon and Dave Chappelle, and while living in Haight-Ashbury, he roomed with Patton Oswalt and Mitch Hedberg. North also wrote an award-winning screenplay; quite a journey he’s been on. North just released his second solo album, Bullies in the Backyard. These ten songs are filled with angst, humor, and tenderness. The album was written during a seven-year court battle over violations against his son’s special needs by Nashville Public Schools. The Federal District Court verdict set precedents in Tennessee that now benefit families facing similar challenges nationwide.
AnaLee: Congratulations on releasing Bullies in the Backyard, Matt. Can you take us through a little bit of your journey? What music inspired you growing up, playing drums in Champaign, the impetus for your moves to San Francisco, Los Angeles and finally Nashville?
Matt: Kris Kristofferson inspired me growing up. I was a 1970s kid in the glory days of Hee Haw and Soul Train, and both shows equally built my DNA. I remember noticing how Kristofferson wrote songs, recorded albums, and showed up playing characters in films. He’s been my “north star” and inspired me to be a musician first and foremost, but after seeing Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Levon Helm show up in the movies, I just assumed I was allowed to try both. In my twenties, I explored curiosities beyond music and had some success, but for the last twenty years, it’s all been music.
Growing up in Champaign, MTV invaded our homes in 1980 and I played drums in bands trying to be like The Replacements, The Clash, and especially R.E.M. Champaign’s music scene was a treasure. Rolling Stone once called it “Little Nashville.” Before DJs took the work away from bands for private parties, my drum teachers passed down gigs to me and I began working professionally at thirteen. Allison Krauss was from Champaign, and I grew up playing with her brother, Viktor, who has been Lyle Lovett’s bassist since 1994. My biggest influence was the late Jay Bennett, Wilco’s guitarist on their first four albums. Before Wilco, Jay was in all the cool local bands and I’m fortunate I got to play with him growing up.
Music was my impetus for moving to San Francisco, but getting a job as a fact-checker for Mother Jones Magazine made it a smooth landing. Green Day and Cake were the upcoming local bands and I hunted for any songwriter needing a drummer. I spent my Sunday nights at the Punchline Comedy Club’s Open Mic, where I connected with Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, and Marc Maron too – who is a fantastic blues guitarist, by the way, and we’ve had great times jamming together. I moved to Los Angeles in 1997 after getting a writing deal with ABC. It was one of those crazy Hollywood deals that never took off, but the money afforded me two or three years to write all the time. I made it my day job. I wrote screenplays, read hundreds of screenplays, wrote songs, and played drums for bands until my wife and I moved to Nashville in 2010 just in time for our son to start kindergarten here.
AnaLee: A seven-year court battle sounds like a very tumultuous time for your family, but the results have had widespread benefits for families across the country. I’m sorry you had to go through that, do you feel a sense of accomplishment after the ruling that now benefits families across the country?
Matt: We do. Still, we mostly feel disbelief over what so many families nationwide go through just to get an appropriate education for kids with learning differences. This was the David and Goliath fight of our lives. Metro Nashville Public Schools and its attorneys wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars just to stop one kid, my kid, from getting an appropriate education and we somehow beat City Hall. When the winning verdict arrived, we weren’t “high-fiving” each other. There were no victory laps. I just remember collapsing on the floor. My son is an only child with severe learning differences, and when his mom and I aren’t here anymore, what will take care of him as an adult? One answer: his education. We were told he’d never go beyond fifth grade math or learn to read. He’s 17-years-old now and just got an A in geometry, he was inducted into the National Honor Society, and he’s planning for college. Imagine if Metro’s attorneys succeeded in stopping that.
AnaLee: In this collection of songs there is humor, angst, and a lot of tenderness too. You have so many creative outlets, including writing a screenplay that led to a gig as a story analyst. Talk a little about your songwriting process and how writing a screenplay, comedy and playing drums and guitars all come together in your songwriting?
Matt: It’s all storytelling. I haven’t been near screenwriting, acting, or comedy in years, but the deep focus I gave each skill is paying off big since not many songwriters come at it with that background. Screenplays use techniques so the reader can see the movie in their mind. A movie’s number one job is to make people feel. That’s a song’s number one job. I feel songs that reach people are the ones that put little movies in our minds, so I sneak in all those cinematic techniques when I’m editing lyrics. By virtue of rooming with comedians like Patton Oswalt and Mitch Hedberg, I learned that I was “a musician capable of doing comedy professionally” because I saw firsthand that comedy was all they thought about while music dominated my imagination. Still, I did comedy among the best in the business for ten years and it shaped me as a writer. Comedy has just always been my way of being dead serious. The more a song makes listeners laugh or smile, the more listeners will accept the darker places.
Drumming makes me a little different as a songwriter. Once I have lyrics, I play my drums and sing the song like Levon Helm until I find the right groove for the vocals. Most songwriters start with guitar, but that’s the last place I go. The drummer puts the frame around the song like a frame around a painting. So, drummers are often every song’s first producer even if songwriters might disagree. The drummer inside of me and the songwriter inside of me argue about that a lot.
AnaLee: You assembled an all-star crew for Bullies in the Backyard. Tell us about recording the album here in Nashville, who you worked with producing and mixing and the musicians on this record.
Matt: There’s no such thing as “solo albums.” I produced it, but if I have one talent, it’s that I know who to hire. This is a full band album, the same guys on each track, and I feel that cohesiveness comes through song to song. Stuart Mathis is in Lucinda Williams’ band. If David Bowie was alive and hunting for a guitarist in the spirit of Mick Ronson or Earl Slick, Bowie would love Stuart Mathis. Chris Donohue is the bassist in Emmylou Harris’ band. He’s also worked with Elvis Costello and Robert Plant, but Chris and I connect through our love of old Kiss records and The Velvet Underground. I discovered keyboardist, Michael Webb, on records Dave Cobb produced like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Keyboardists are often classically trained, and it’s difficult to find the ones who understand “rock and roll piano,” but that’s where Michael Webb lives. I don’t hire musicians to play what’s in my imagination as the writer. I hire them to give what’s inside their imaginations. With these guys, my one rule as a producer was “it’s a big mistake to put a saddle on a mustang.”
Jim Scott mixed the record. He won the Grammy for mixing Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” so lucky me, no? Jim’s been in the business since the late 70s and, once again, my superpower is that I know who to hire. He mixed a lot of Wilco’s records, Los Lobos, Rolling Stones, Kathleen Edwards, and I still pinch myself that I sat next to him for seven days witnessing how he does what he does. Jim’s brilliance is that he becomes the final member to join the band and his studio is his instrument. When you listen to Jim’s body of work, you notice the music – you don’t notice “the mix.”
AnaLee: I love the drums that start the song, “The Last Angry Man”. I’m assuming that’s you on the album but you’re playing acoustic guitar in the video and electric in the video for “Plan B”. Tell us about the group you assembled for these performance music videos.
Matt: I record my own drums, and I play guitar just well enough to write songs. I’m no different than a fifteen-year-old kid in a garage band and I try to approach everything with that mindset. We shot these videos in L.A. at Jim Scott’s PLYRZ Studios. My wife and I were filming the “Hollywood Forever” video, and it just made sense to see if I could assemble a west coast band – Butch Norton on drums and David Sutton on bass are in Lucinda Williams’ band. I almost had Lucinda’s full band, Buick 6, in the video, but Stuart Mathis’ flight out of Nashville was cancelled at the last minute due to Omicron and I had less than fifteen hours to find a replacement guitarist. Fighting off a panic attack, I called every musician I knew and most everyone said, “You gotta get this guy, Eli Wulfmeier,” and thank heavens he was willing to do it. Turns out he’s toured with Shelby Lynne and has his own band in L.A., Leroy from the North. Without Eli, I doubt we’d have these videos.
AnaLee: Do you have any shows around town, and will you be hitting the road with these songs anytime soon?
Matt: Live shows are in my future, and nothing’s booked now due to Covid. Every time I turn my head, concerts are getting cancelled so it’s a risky investment. Frankly, this record wasn’t inexpensive and I’m recovering from that. I’m proud that I never ask musicians to work for free. The last thing I could stomach is a resentful band working pro bono for a crowd of 30 in a room that seats 300, but if I need to, I’ll drag a karaoke machine of my own songs to City Winery and we can all sing and share an Artisanal Cheese Board. One guarantee though, the next album is already underway.
“The Last Angry Man”