Track by Track is a recurring new music feature that asks an artist to break down each song on their latest record, one by one.
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It’s early on a Monday morning when Consequence of Sound catches up with Matthew Dear to talk about his new record Bunny, but the veteran DJ and electronic artist has already been busy on his latest project: digging holes in the yard with his kids.
“I’m into a rocks phase, and not musical,” he says over the phone from his home in Ann Arbor. “I’m digging up rocks in my yard, and finding very strange ones, and trying to identify them on the internet. Now that I have an album out, I’m looking for other random things to do.”
It’s been awhile since we last heard from Dear, at least under his own name. That’s not to say that he’s been taking things easy; since the release of Beams in 2012, he’s recorded as Audion, remixed Kylie Minogue, and contributed a mix to the DJ-Kicks series. He’s also welcomed two more kids to the family, which may be one of the best excuses for taking a little time off from the rigors of the road.
“It’s funny how people say ‘Great to hear from you again!’ It’s like I disappeared,” he says.
Still, even though Dear’s been on the scene in some form or another, there’s something about Bunny that feels like a much-anticipated return. Part of that has to do with the record’s triumphs; with the help of sympathetic collaborators ranging from Greg Ahee of Protomartyr and Simian Mobile Disco to Ricardo Villalobos and Tegan and Sara, Dear’s created a sonic landscape filled with weird, vibrant life, one where acid house jams and Velvet Underground swagger collide with piano ballads and some of the purest pop work of his 19-year career.
The songs here come from all points of the last six years, and find Dear applying his tinker’s intuition to evocations of of age and emotion, from the acceptance of your own past demons to the vulnerabilities at the heart of every long-term relationship. It’s a record that feels both worth the wait, and like the beginning of something busy, fruitful, and present. Something tells me we won’t have to wait six years to find out.
For the latest Track by Track, Dear sheds some light on the process that brought us Bunny. Above, listen to our full audio interview with the musician for his thoughts on what Lou Reed has in common with the teens of upstate New York, how a narcolepsy drug inspired one of the record’s best tracks, and why he spent four nights in a basement searching for the perfect bass line. A condescend, text-based version is below.
Honestly, I never even thought to put it in the very beginning, but Sam Valenti of the label, one day in an email, was like “What if we do ‘Bunny’s Dream’ first?” We were playing with the order back and forth, and I kinda thought about it, and I was like “Oh wow, that’s great.” And he’s like “Yeah. Single. Let’s just release it.” It just all made sense. In a way it kind of always works out that way.The last album we had “Her Fantasy,” which I think was eight minutes, and then before that “Little People, Black City” was the first single from Black City, which was also this crazy three-part opus thing. For some reason, we just don’t really learn our lesson, and just put out extremely long singles as the lead single. […] I put a lot of pressure on this song. “Bunny’s Dream has to – if I put that out, it gives me so much more clearance on everything else. It’s like “Oh, I don’t really get ‘Echo,’ but he did ‘Bunny’s Dream,’ so I kinda understand where he’s coming from!”
I grew up playing guitar, never super super good, but I know the basics. For piano, I was always interested, and always very mediocrely adept at playing basic chords and stuff. I knew the structure of how you’re supposed to do it, but I couldn’t go further than – it’s like juggling, you can get two or three balls going, and then they all fall on the floor. That’s how I was with piano, and I still basically am, but at least I know the names of the balls before I drop them. […] “Calling” came out of that new obsession with piano. It’s a pretty rudimentary, simple chord progression, nothing drastic, but the second you start playing piano and singing, there’s a more – I don’t know if it’s the vertical nature of the hands, but it does something different to your brain. Immediately, I turn into like, a Randy Newman wannabe or something. […] There’s something about the piano and words. You think about LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” It just brings that out of you, like “I gotta sing a song about something in particular.”
“Can You Rush Them?”:
It’s actually one of the older ones. I think I started writing it shortly after Beams, so that would’ve been 2013. I was in upstate New York, and I remember I was testing out some new EQ modules that I had gotten on loan. I was just doing some mic stuff through it, just to see what it sounded like. […] I started layering it, and it just becomes this wall of my voice. So I always had that loop, I had that forever, and the drums were kind of there, maybe a little more digital, but that was it. […] And then the lyrics come out a few years later. It’s like “ok, let’s make this a song.” […] It became this protest battle cry song, or something. I don’t want to say it’s about now but I don’t want to say it’s not about now. […] Really, it was the heaviness of the loop and the drums that drove me to have this aggressive, fighting mentality. Or self-defense, I should say.
Tina Fey had a very funny joke on SNL once: “why does everyone in upstate New York act like they’re in on a murder?” That’s kind of the vibe. […] There’s just this sense of like, “what the fuck happened?” And then you see these young kids going around that reminded me of me when I was in Michigan, just kids doing nitrous and drinking 40s and driving beat-up cars, but they spent like $500 on the sound system so they’re pretty happy with it. […] I was like “wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote a musical all about the burnt-out youth of Monticello and upstate New York?” I think (“Echo”) was my only attempt at it. […] I found out that night that Lou Reed died. I listened to it the next day, and I was like “woah, this sounds a lot like a song about Lou Reed!” Lou Reed could be Echo.
Being a traveling musician, especially a traveling musician who likes to be home as much as possible, I do a lot of flying back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Sometimes, in my insane method, I go to places like Japan and Australia for like a weekend. […] I asked a friend, or a guy who was watching us there, “hey, do you have something that maybe is not illegal that could maye just give me an extra boost?” He said, “oh, my girlfriend actually has modafinil.” […] Myself and my visuals guy, we decided to take it, and it was like instantaneously, jetlag was gone.[…] I’ve done more research on it since and found out that a lot of people swear by it, they really love it, they think it’s a wonder drug.
[…] I wrote with this guy Troy Nōka from LA, who’s done some stuff with Frank Ocean in the past. We were out in Topanga Canyon at this really cool studio. It was like midnight, and the fog – you couldn’t see past your fingertips. Uber wouldn’t even go there. The song just kind of came out of us. I think, in the beginning, he was trying to write a song for me, and I was trying to ask him to write more of song he would normally write, and we met right in the middle. The vocals just streamed out. I think I did the vocals in like 30 minutes. I’ve tried to sing like that again. I’ve tried to capture – if I could do the whole album in this tone and this style, I would. It was just one of those magic moments.
[…] I didn’t write it about modafinil, but it was the idea of this world where you kind of realize that something like modafinil, while it works once or twice, is not a cure-all. It’s not going to fix everything. So, that’s the blues part of it.
“What You Don’t Know”:
I did like five songs with Simian Mobile Disco in like four days in their studio outside of London in Kent, and that was one of them that stuck. It felt like we were doing a live jam session. The first day was all gear, me singing little ideas here and there, just jamming, and then the rest of the trip was me and them sorting through these jams and seeing which ones we could turn into songs. […] It was post-election, pre-inauguration for Trump, so there were definitely a few songs in that group that were more angry, or frustrated, but this one didn’t have to do with that. It’s funny how those songs work too, because I know a lot of friends, like, “we gotta write a Trump protest record!” And then you work on maybe one or two songs, and a month later, you’re like “Oh God. This is so annoying.”
This is the one that took the most time. […] I think I had 12 or 14 mix-downs of this one by the end . Like, way too much. Credit to Greg Ahee from Protomartyr for coming in at the last second and kind of slapping me in the face and saying “this is a really good song! Let’s bring it back to normal!”
I told [Tegan and Sara’s] management that I really liked their last album, to which they replied “We love Matt! We’d love a remix!” I was like “Ah! They know who I am!” I did not expect that, but found out later that Sara really likes my music. She really thinks about it, and is just one of the people who get what I’m doing and love going in those little sonic worlds that I take people to. […] For “Horses,” I had the idea ready, and I sent it to her saying “hey, I think this is one that would be great if you guys worked on.” She loved it, and said yes, and I think in about four or five days, just sent back everything: all the parts, the lyrics, vocals, harmonies, so meticulously organized. I was so impressed.
This is very autobiographical, actually. It’s me going out thinking I’m going in search of something, like I’m looking for answers, or looking for things to point me in the right direction. Things to change me, things to make me a better man. […] You realize that […] yes, you can make changes, you can be a good person […] but your core concept, your core values, a lot of them are just burned into you. You can harness those, or put bridles on them and keep them in check, but they’re always kind of there. They’re lurking, and you’re aware of them. […] Maybe it is a little bit about getting older, too. In your 20s, you’re out there trying to become something, and in your 30s, as those reach your 40s, you’re kind of like “eh, yeah. I am who I am.”
The guitar part came from Greg Ahee just kind of noodling around in one of those sessions that we were doing. It was just a combination of effects and weird vibe coming from these little boxes, and him just doing something while I was setting up another channel. I just looked back at him and was like “keep playing that! Don’t stop! I’ve got to record this! It’s really good” So he just kept going with that kind of arpeggiated guitar line, and I started messing with the Eventide H8000, […] the Brian-Eno-famous effects system. I started moving stuff around while he was playing, and then at the very end it just goes “woooo,” like up in pitch, and that was just a cool ending. He was like, “woah! How’d you do that?!” And I was like “…I don’t know!”
“Duke of Dens”:
In retrospect, [the song’s title] came out from just “I need a title!” I’m sitting at the computer, and I’m like “uhhhh… ‘Duke of Dens!'” Later, I was like “huh. I’m a father of three. Am I a duke of the den? Am I king of a little world now?” There’s nothing really overt or obvious about it. That’s just what I’ve hung my hat on post-.
I had the beat, and then the whole thing was a Korg PolySix synthesizer. I was jamming on it, and in the end it just kind of all fit. ” […] I tried to do some lyrics to it, I sent it out to some people to maybe do some lyrics, but in the end, it’s like “let’s just keep this instrumental.” […] When I do it live I usually add some lyrics to it, but it’s just a nice, big, crazy, synth-y party song.
I told my wife, during the final quarter of the process of getting the album together, “I need a good, groovy song.” […] So, I disappear, like post-10pm until 2 in morning in the studio, then come up. “Did you get anything?” “No.” It’s just me sitting on bass guitar with a drum beat for two or three hours. Same thing next night, same thing next night. […] I had this drive. I was like “I gotta get this bass line. There’s a bass line out there that just needs to… happen!” When I played it for them in the morning, when I finally had it, she was like “oh! Where’d you come up with that?” And I was like “that’s why I’ve been going downstairs for the last four days!”
[…] [Now] if you asked me to play the bassline from “Electricity,” I’d be like “what? I have no idea how to do that.” It’s immediately learned muscle memory and immediately forgotten muscles memory. […] I take things that are supposed to be pretty difficult and I simplify them and find cheats. I find shortcuts in music.
“Kiss Me Forever”:
There’s a lot in there. It’s about me and my wife, and long-term relationship. It’s about me dealing with excessive usage in the past, and not doing that anymore but being ok with it. […] You talk about this stuff with people in real life, but I think being a musician, being me, it’s a lot easier for me to just like say it in a song. My wife will never listen to that song and be like “let’s talk about the lyrics of ‘Kiss Me Forever!'” She understands that it’s not always so blatantly about us I’m sure she hears stuff and takes it as little nods to our relationship. […] It’s a weird form of communication.
[After “Horses] I was like “ok, well, that went really well. Let me press my luck here.” I said [to Tegan and Sara] “I know you guys have a little bit more time before you go back on the road – would you want to take a stab at another one before I finish this one?” That’s when I sent her the “Bad Ones” loop. […] She said “yeah, sure,” and in I think half the time, like a day later, she sent back everything for that. That was no lyrics – I didn’t send her any melodies or anything, and all of a sudden I was like “holy shit! This is a song!”
[…] What’s fun is when I bring other people’s voices into my world of voices. I’ll apply a lot of the layering tricks and […] the compression and the EQ boosting and the dynamics that I do on mine to theirs, and that’s always cool. It’s like Play-Doh or clay, where you’re like “ah, cool! I’ve got some new clay that I haven’t worked with before. I’m real sick of my clay. It’s all dingy and used over here, so I get to use somebody else’s stuff.”
“Before I Go”:
I’d always wanted to work with Ricardo Villalobos. […] I was in Berlin, and he’s got a studio right outside Panorama Bar, the legendary Berghain. It’s like the epicenter of techno. We jammed for a little bit, and I came home with this song. […] He did basically the rhythm and the drums and I added […] more like Sade, island-y, very cool ’90s electronica on top of it. The lyrics came at the very end. I needed some vocal line, and that worked. I don’t think I knew it was going to be the last song on the album, but it just kind of worked.[…] It’s a little message to my kids. Like, no matter how long this all lasts, I will have wished it was longer.