Finishing What You Start: A Conversation with Musician Matt Kivel

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I was introduced to Matt Kivel in April 2014 at a literary reading at KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. In between readings, Matt and I bonded over our appreciation for Hamilton Leithauser, The Walkmen’s lead singer—and I learned about Matt’s own musical career in Los Angeles, and soon-to-be in Texas, where he is moving with his wife. Since our first encounter, Matt’s music—spanning four records under his own name and several others under his former bands, Princeton and Gap Dream—has played on an endless loop: his conscious instrumental arrangements and untiring melodies provide the foreground of his songwriting, while his graceful lyrics skirt around his falsetto, checking in here and there, dragging you under. While Matt’s output cannot be praised enough, his love of words is what inspired me to talk to him in-depth about creating music. His latest album, Fires on the Plain, is a testament to his literary cache: a seven-part album, it transverses moods and landscapes, and—as is typical for Kivel albums—culminates in a dreamy dissonance that drowns out everything around.

The Rumpus graciously decided to publish my interview with one of the most exciting West Coast musicians working today.

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The Rumpus: Thanks for doing this interview, Matt. And I’m glad The Rumpus decided to take it. It’s a little different than a typical author interview.

Matt Kivel: We can still talk about books and shit.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the names of your albums. Were they inspired by anything literary or otherwise? Janus, Fires on the Plain, Days of Being Wild… what are the inspirations there?

Kivel: I’ve done four records. Fires on the Plain is [the name of] a Japanese film that’s based on an eponymous Japanese book. The film, directed by Kon Ichikawa, is about the end of WWII in Japan, about this Japanese soldier who’s basically stranded—everything is getting blown up around him—the British are there—and he has nowhere to run to because his army has been decimated, so he’s just wandering through the countryside. It’s a beautiful film, and I felt that that narrative formed the basis of my idea for the record, along with Kon Ichikawa’s other film The Burmese Heart, which is about the exact same time period. They’re both metaphysical ruminations on mortality, and they’re just beautiful, elegant films that moved me. There’s actually a sample—a harp line—from The Burmese Heart on my record.

Rumpus: When did you first see these films?

Kivel: Within the last year. I was writing songs, and after seeing those movies back-to-back I had a better understanding of where I was going. So those two films inspired this record, and obviously the title is drawn from one of the movies directly.

And then for Janus—I learned about the Roman God Janus actually from Janus films, the distribution company.

Rumpus: I think they distributed a bunch of Fellini’s films.

Kivel: Yeah, and Bergman’s, too. They were big distributors and their rights were eventually purchased by Criterion. Criterion’s a running theme in a lot of my stuff, because I’ve watched so many Criterion movies—I actually have this ridiculous goal to see all of them. So those films inspired lots of things on my record.

Getting back to titles, though, the only one of my albums that has a direct literary connection to a book is Double Exposure, which was the title of this book of poems I bought on a whim, and the feel of that book really informed that whole record. It’s such a beautiful little book and very obscure—it almost felt self-produced. And when I read it I thought it was the most beautiful, romantic book. It had an ethereal, romantic quality that I like in art—open-ended and full of longing.

Rumpus: [After searching “Double Exposure” online] I was just brought to this page of the poet Greg Williamson, who is credited with inventing the Double Exposure form in poetry: “The Double Exposure is a form in which one poem can be read three different ways: solely the standard type, solely the bold type in alternating lines, or the combination of the two.” And I like that idea, that a poem or a line of lyrics could be read in different ways. I notice you have a lot of figurative language in your lyrics—how do you approach lyrics and comprehension?

Kivel: Well, the process is intuitive, most of the time. Like I don’t have often a specific aim when I start a song. Once I’ve written some melodic elements I try to find words that fit the mood, the music. Usually I get an image or I see some characters or something comes into focus for a second, and I try really hard to grab that initial moment and spin it outward and follow it. I don’t know where the songs are going until I’m about three-quarters of the way through or sometimes close to the very end, but I have this weird, intuitive understanding as I put every block of the song together. I know when they fit and know when don’t, but it’s not like I’m writing them to do something in particular. They just have to create this feeling of completeness in my head. It’s like putting a puzzle together—when the pieces lock in and feel right, I move on. I’ll usually have melodies pretty flushed out, and then I’ll sit down and write and break down the melodies and change them to fit words and ideas I want to include in the song, and I usually do it all in one sitting, however long it takes.

Rumpus: Wow… so do you ever give up? I’ve heard two different schools of songwriting, one in which songs come very naturally and one in which they don’t, in which the writer might put in a lot of time and do a lot of fine sculpting but how that can often feel artificial. So, to that latter point, do you ever give up? Do you ever feel like “I can’t do any more work on this, it’s not coming out right,” or do you always think there’s more work to be done?

Kivel: I have definitely felt like giving up, as I think most people do in all areas of life, not just creative people. But I made rules for myself about songwriting a long, long time ago, probably when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I try to stick by them as much as I can and one of them is: “If you start a song, you have to finish the song,”—so even if halfway through you think it’s a piece of shit, you have to finish the thought, finish the exercise. It might not be worthy of release, but there’s always something you can tap into that you’ve been missing, there’s always something to draw out of it. Now if you’re writing a song sometimes you may know that it will not end up on a record, like this isn’t going to cut it, but there have been times when I thought that and it’s been essential to the record. That’s what makes me believe in that process. It shows you’re not necessarily a good judge of your own work, especially when you’re making it. You have no perspective.

Rumpus: So then who becomes the judge? Who are the people you show these songs to when you might be apprehensive at first, and do you need their feedback?

Kivel: I usually have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do and say with a record, and when I bring the songs to be recorded, I know that all of these songs have qualities worthy of potential release. It’s after I record the record that I start to second-guess myself, and that’s when I need friends to talk me off of a ledge. I always get lost at some point, and I need people to intervene at that point. Like with Janus—I think at different points after we finished recording, I wanted to remove every song from that album. After I heard it I would say, “No, this can’t be on the record.” And Alasdair [Roberts], who produced it, was forceful and believed that a few songs that he liked should be on, and Todd, the guy who ran my old record label, he was forceful, too, and they talked me off a ledge for a number of tunes.

Rumpus: And what was that process like? What did Alasdair in particular say to you that made you believe him?

Kivel: Well, I just love his music, and I need to respect the person to be even having that discussion. I’m not just going to play a song for my friend’s dad—you know, that’s not really helpful for me—but Alasdair is a person I deeply respect. I remember there were two songs—“No Return” and “Prime Meridian”—on the record, and I said, “What’s the deal with these songs? I think they’re definitely going to end up on the cutting room floor,” and he’s like, “See, I think you’re totally wrong. I think these two songs are the center of the record.” [Laughs]

Rumpus: That’s so funny. That song “No Return” is probably one of your most melodic songs, in the sense that you have some really great memorable melodies, but it also has a definite hook. Not to be presumptuous, but do you think you were afraid of that?

Kivel: Yeah, I’m pretty inherently self-destructive when it comes to releasing material. I think, as you can see based on how my music has been received or minimally received, I’m just not that great at understanding the outsider perspective. With “No Return,” when I first heard it I was like, “It just sounds too normal.” [Laughter] I don’t know. I’ve always liked the song, but something about it made me think we should’ve de-tuned the guitars or done something else differently, but maybe that was just a defense mechanism. Maybe I didn’t want to be heard so clearly. And on that song I’m heard pretty clearly. It’s weird to make music and want to connect to people and then to also have this intuitive desire to obscure that material. That’s something I always have to combat.

Rumpus: How did you and Alasdair hook up for Janus? Who produced the new record?

Kivel: For Janus, I was listening to a lot of traditional British and Celtic folk music—I think the songwriting and performances from some of the earlier recordings are just beautiful—Shirley Collins and there was this John Renbourn album of very minimally arranged medieval tunes called The Lady and the Unicorn that is based on the tapestries. So I was into these things and Alasdair’s music, which I was listening to a lot, and it felt like it had a direct connection back to that [medieval] tradition. I mean he plays a lot of those original, traditional songs, but he also, when he writes his own material, draws upon a melodic tradition. And that, to me, is what folk music is. I see a lot of people label my music as folk music, but I always try to make the distinction that it’s not, because folk music has to pull directly from a tradition—like there has to be an old melody, there has to be a direct correlation to something that has been passed on, and none of my music really has that. And Alasdair’s music has that in abundance and he’s such a special musician. So I had this fanciful idea of going to Scotland and recording with this guy I’d never met before. I basically sent Alasdair an email introducing myself and my music proposing that idea to him. And he liked it. After a few fits and starts, we set up a recording session. I stayed with him for about a week. We rehearsed, and then recorded and mixed for a second week, and that was the second record.

[Fires on the Plain] was free-form in that regard. It was recorded by my friend Chris Votek, and we just worked on it with my friend Gilles and Pat, all of us chipped in together. There was no producer.

Rumpus: And what were Alasdair’s main suggestions? Were they about the songs themselves or how to record them or…?

Kivel: Sometimes it was about what songs were important on the record. With arrangements, Alasdair really produced that record—the arrangements and instrumentalists brought in were his choices. I really didn’t have anybody there. So, if we were going to have trombone and trumpet and acoustic bass, Alasdair arranged those things and they were his friends who came in. Honestly, it was the only recording I’ve ever done where I was just a performer. I’d share my two cents, but mainly I was trying to get good performances because we had such limited time.

Rumpus: Yeah, because you’re basically paying for studio time. Time is money.

Kivel: Yeah, and I had to go home, you know? [Laughs] There was a limited amount of money and a limited amount of time and an ambitious record to make. But it was a weirdly peaceful process. There was this little bar next door called The Ben Nevis that sells every type of scotch known to man, and I really like scotch. And it’s affordably priced in Glasgow.

Rumpus: That’s always good.

Kivel: And there were a few times where I was feeling stressed out—this is a common theme on this record—it was an anxious time—and Alasdair always seemed so calm and convinced it would come together well. He was right. I would just step out, have a little scotch or go get some lunch and I’d come back and he’d have done something or a few people would’ve recorded something, and then I’d be like, “Wow, this sounds great.” [Laughs] He was just this great balancing force, and then Sam, the engineer, had a very different demeanor. Alasdair is very quiet and contemplative and when he says something it’s with great intent and focus, and Sam is very funny and off-the-cuff and charismatic and a bit boisterous. He balanced the three of us out, so we could work consistently and tirelessly every day until it was done.

Rumpus: And for Fires on the Plain… well, one thing I’ve noticed in all of your records is that there are these complex and involved guitar parts, a lot of orchestration there. When you start the germ of a song, do you base it on these guitar lines and build lyrics from there? How do you get to these parts?

Kivel: Most of the time, when I write a song, I’ll sit down on guitar or a keyboard or something, and seventy-five percent of the time, the first thing I play on the guitar or keyboard becomes the song. I sit down and if I’m feeling a certain way, like really feeling full of energy that I want to put into something, the first thing I play will sound full of possibility, like a whole world I can open up. It doesn’t always feel that way, but if I hear that first chord or play a riff a few times, I go, “Oh there’s a whole song there,” and I keep playing it and try to mold it into something. The idea comes from just sitting by the instruments. I’ve also written songs to drum machines. The drum machine and its pulse will dictate how I sing or play the guitar.

 Rumpus: I see that. I think, especially on the new album, dynamics are big. And one of your signatures is using that falsetto, and you use it well. [Laughs] There’s like this thing with falsetto where it should never be used or it should always be used and I think your balance of it works, and it always augments the melody, I find.

Kivel: Thank you. I like signing like that. I realize the reason I started signing like that is because I used to write all my songs in falsetto for many, many years because, you know, other people would be in the next room, and when you’re singing falsetto you can be very quiet and still have a lot of melodic control, so I did that and then I guess I initially was really honing that part of my voice.

Rumpus: That’s so funny. I would’ve never thought it was that organic.

Kivel: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s practical.

Rumpus: What are your plans for the next album? Do you think you’re going to play with a full band again or strip it down?

Kivel: Well, this last record was a pretty ambitious and depleting experience. It was a great record and the making of it was really enjoyable, but the release and amount of time was just… there was a lot of weight on my mind that I’m still trying to get over. So, yeah, I feel like I need to make something a little lighter, something I can control on a smaller level. I really want to record at home.

We’re moving to Texas, and we’re going to have a little place to live there and there’s a little bit more room, so my goal would be to record on my own as much as possible. I’m working on some ambient music as well. I’m interested in making something very moody and still and quiet and reflective next time out.

Rumpus: How many musicians played on Fires on the Plain?

Kivel: A lot. Like eighteen or twenty.

Rumpus: That’s a lot of personalities.

Kivel: And it was fun and mostly effortless, just a bunch of people showing up and playing. And I love hearing other people play, and I’m sure I’ll bring in people to play on the next one, because my limitations will definitely annoy me after a while. But I think it’s good to have the challenge. Maybe I had been relying on other people a little too much for the last record or two, and maybe now I want to rely on myself again more completely.

Rumpus: What’s the song you’re most proud of? You can have a few. You should have a few.

Kivel: On the new record? It’s hard to choose; it’s hard to pull one song out and highlight it because you don’t want to offend the other songs. But I really like the song “The Pool” that’s at the end of the record. There’s just this massive wall of guitar sound, but then there’s this very delicate, minor finger-picked falsetto guitar song that’s written over this bed of guitars feeding back and making tons of noise… like it’s abrasive but there’s also this warmth to it.

Rumpus: I feel that a lot on the record, that idea of warmth. I don’t want to say old-fashioned, but it has this feeling of a 60s or 70s record: there’s something really bright but not gaudy. You know?

Kivel: Yeah, I mean I don’t like loud records, loud sounds, but I like the record to feel contained… I just don’t like anything to sound artificial or blown out in a way that’s abrasive. Like if you’re going to be abrasive, make something that sounds abrasive but natural—a lot of records don’t sound natural to me, like the snare drum is trying to sound like a loud snare drum—it doesn’t sound like the actual snare drum that was recorded.

That’s a whole tangent there, but I think “The Pool” and the song “Blood River.” “Blood River” is probably my favorite written song on the record—lyrics and delivery and I just like how sparse it is. There’s almost nothing on the song.

Rumpus: Were you listening to any other musicians? Do you listen to any other musicians while you make a record?

Kivel: Yeah, I mean I listen to music. [Laughs] I’m a big music fan; I’m always looking.

Rumpus: Well, I guess I meant to the point of feeling really inspired by something and also not wanting to rip it off.

Kivel: Good point. I think, yeah, it’s hard to censor what you listen to in that way, like you don’t know how it’s going to influence you. If you’re enjoying something and it is really meaningful and inspiring, I guess you just have to keep indulging that. It’ll have a positive impact. I usually hear something or see something that invigorates me and makes me want to think of something on my own, but I’ll also learn certain things from people that I listen to and may take some things here or there. I’ve definitely taken some things from Alasdair Roberts, from Will Oldham, from Bill Callahan—I mean these guys are all on the same record label, but what I like is they all have very distinct approaches and careers that I admire. There is a serialized quality to their record making. It’s like watching a television show that spans ten seasons—some of the same characters come on and some of the characters die off. It’s not like [puts on stoner voice], “This is the record, man, it’s make or break.” For those guys it’s like we’ll do season 1, we’ll do season 2, and it just keeps going, like an endless conversation with their audience.

Rumpus: So you think someone like Bill Callahan, who’s really under the radar as far as songwriters go, do you think he writes songs so that his albums talk to each other? Is that what you mean—that they’re part of one continuous thread—or more that he’s playing in an aesthetic that matters most to him?

Kivel: Well, I can’t speak for him because I don’t know what his intentions are in making music. But as a fan, I’ve observed themes in his music that have run throughout the course of his career, and certain albums, especially the last two, really talk to each other: Apocalypse and Dream River, those records, to me, are companion records… and yeah, I can’t say what he’s going for intentionally and what he’s just doing intuitively, but there is this… Well, the best way to put it is that when the next record comes out, these guys aren’t like, “We’re going to get a whole new record, a whole new team, we’re breaking everything down and we gotta change our sound man to sell more records,” like there’s some impure motive. They drift, and they find new things because they’re curious people and they find these things they wanna say and when they’re ready they record those things and then share them with people. It’s that kind of record-making that I’m interested in.

Rumpus: You like the underdog, it seems.

Kivel: I always have, in every sense.

Rumpus: Well, talk about Will Oldham and Robin Pecknold on your new record. How did you get in touch with them?

Kivel: Will, I’m pen pals with, basically. We talked to each other and have been friendly for the last two years. His brother, Paul, kind of facilitated that friendship, because Paul worked on most of my records in some capacity, whether it’s through recording, engineering, mixing, or mastering, so I think through my friendship with Paul I got in touch with Will, and me and him speak from time to time via email—we’ll write each other notes and things—so when I wrote the song “Forgiveness,” the second half of it, I wrote it with the intention of Will singing it, but never having spoken to him about it, I had no idea how receptive he would be. But he was into doing it, and he ended up recording that vocal just at home on his own and sending it to me, because he’s in Louisville.

Rumpus: It came out great. It sounded like you two were in the room together.

Kivel: He’s such a great singer, and it was really just a dream come true. I wanted to have a couple short, different narrators take over the record for a little bit… that was something I learned from the storytelling of those Ichikawa movies. There’s this lead character, but every now and then there’s a new narrator—not really a narrator, but a new character who diverts this guy from his path—and then he gets back to his journey, and I liked that, So that was Will.

And Robin [Pecknold], I had been talking to a little bit. He had mentioned that he had been listening to Janus, and he had also mentioned that he was moving to California, so I was trying to help him find a place to live, but it didn’t work out. [Laughs] I think it was a burning hot few weeks when he was out here and he was like, “I can’t handle it.” And I can’t blame him because it’s brutal. For that brief time, I had written this song called “Permanence,” and in the middle of the song there’s this melody that, to me, sounded like a Fleet Foxes melody, so when I started talking to him I was like, “Maybe he should just sing that part.” So I asked him and he was like, “Sure,” so he came over and recorded that and then sang on another song too, and he’s just the sweetest guy and incredibly talented and a very thoughtful musician. He’s like these guys I’ve been talking about, in his care and process for making records, and it was just fun to have him sing on those songs.

Rumpus: I like how you structured this album. What was your visualization for it? Did it come in post-production or did you conceptualize a structure from the start?

Kivel: I can show you. I actually drew this map of the record, with pictures and things, and I wanted it [the album] to be divided topographically, because I was imagining it as a physical journey, like in the Ichikawa film. The first half was supposed to be the water portion of it, and there’s this coastal, verdant dense quality; then there’s this desert potion; the third portion is this hybrid swampy, a bit murkier terrain; and then it gets to this cold metallic part, and that’s the end of the record. And that’s the way I divided it in my head and the way the songs are grouped.

Rumpus: I want to see that map.

Kivel: Things changed on it, but a lot of things stayed the same. But that’s the thing I had out at my house, trying to figure out how certain songs fit into those worlds. I just wanted this solitary odyssey to be documented. That’s why the record is so long. I wanted it to be movie-length.

Rumpus: You’re a movie and history buff. Where do those references factor in?

Kivel: I’m trying to think of cornerstone examples of things that have impacted me. There’s this book by Ted Hughes called Gaudette that I’ve literally had open on my desk for like two years, so when I’m working on songs I will open up that book to take a word or a short phrase and start writing something new.

Rumpus: What about Hughes do you like?

Kivel: There’s just this bloodiness. Very blunt and grotesque. I like the way he puts words together and creates visuals, like everything he writes has this visual that you can pull from instantly. You don’t have to work to create something in your mind. To me that is the definition of powerful writing.

Rumpus: There’s this line in the song “The Water” where you say, “The thickness of the heat stayed in the water.” It’s such a simple line that stayed with me. You write with this landscape language, but there is something claustrophobic about it, if that makes sense.

Kivel: Yeah, there’s an eerie quality. It’s not escapist music: like it’s transformative, but it doesn’t help you escape into a joyful state of reverie… Yeah, there is a claustrophobic quality to that song, that’s a good way of putting it. Because it feels like the heat is going to suppress or swallow everything.

Rumpus: Right, and there are these arpeggios and this movement from major to minor, and the song goes to places I didn’t expect it to go. That song actually reminded me of the first time we met in New York, when we were talking about The Walkmen: this song has that crooner quality.

Kivel: Thanks, I appreciate that. That’s a great band, so to be compared to them is always a great thing.

Rumpus: Well, because I’ve compared you to a lot of things already, what is your general attitude toward reviews of your music? Do you, for instance, shy away from reading them?

Kivel: No. I’ll read a review. I’ll have an opinion. I think it’s human nature to be pretty cautious when reading something that is a direct critique of something you feel strongly about. It’s not an easy thing to sit and read a review. I try to give it a day or two. I’ll try to read something twice to give the author the benefit of the doubt because my knee-jerk reaction is that a review is pretty far off base. I’m pretty opinionated and territorial and I need to get over that, but there are things I’ve agreed with and then there are things I’ve read where I felt like the author had missed the point or seemed distracted or it weren’t in a state to properly take in the record.

Well, if I’m just being blunt about it: the first two [Pitchfork] reviews were written by Jayson Green. I think he’s a wonderful writer, one of the most thoughtful writers to ever have written for that site, and he wrote beautifully about those two records in a way that I was honored to read. It wasn’t just that they were positive reviews, it was the thoughtfulness. He was pulling things out of the music that I hadn’t even noticed. But then, I felt like the review for Fires on the Plain kinda missed it; it was as if whoever wrote it hadn’t taken the time to understand the album. It’s a very long record, and it’s something that you need to sit with for a while if you’re going to write intelligently about it—and I think this guy did write intelligently about it—but to write something that at least matches the depth of ambition on the record you need to spend more time with it, and I don’t know if that time was spent. I felt like the analogies that were drawn, the comparisons to other musicians, were off-base. And so while there were a lot of nice things in there—he listened to it in a way that I didn’t listen to it—I didn’t fully understand that review.

Rumpus: I sort of agree with you. That reviewer seems to think that Fires on the Plain is supposed to be this breakthrough record for you, and I don’t think music should be looked at in that way, in terms of a career. I think an album is its own thing, and I think it’s an album that you need to sit with. Personally, I’ve listened to your album on the train, which is not the best way to listen to music, but I got to these points on the train where the journey of your songwriting got me through this weird hellhole that is being on a New York City subway. I found the beginning really soothing, and then it gets to this point in the album where “Blood River” or “Rock Gods” plays and these hard riffs and bass lines hit, and it carried this journey effect that I think is hard to convey in an album, and it’s the reason I liked it.

Kivel: Yeah, I also felt there was this weird double standard where like “Matt has written a shitload of music and it’s so quiet, like why is he doing it? It’s crazy.” And I don’t see it that way. I felt that making the record so long would have a liberating effect because it allows people to listen to it however they want. There’s no pretense that you had to listen to it start to finish, and the fact of the matter is, look, to listen to this record all the way through, you have to take eighty minutes out of your life. That is a huge ask for anyone! And if you’re a busy writer, or whatever, what are the chances you’re going to sit and listen to that six times? So, I don’t know, maybe I don’t blame him. [Laughs] But there was something he said that I really liked, something like “Maybe the way he listens to music is not the way other people listen to music,” and I think that’s definitely true.

Rumpus: Do you seek out alternative music because it’s “alternative?”

Kivel: I’ve just been curious to hear a lot of different things, so it takes you down that path, but I don’t think it’s to be willfully obtuse or anything. I’m just trying to learn and find exciting new things. Sometimes I listen to experimental records and I can’t stand them. I own them but I never listen to them again. But every once in a while, I find one of those records that really matters, so seeking out that kind of music is worthwhile to me. But I also listen to a lot of pop music—I guess not radio pop because I find the sound of that music to be very unsettling and music, to me, needs to have some healing quality—but a record that I’ve loved from the past year is that Frankie Cosmos album. That album was fantastic. And that’s kind of a twee, pop record. The songwriting is beautiful, the performances are beautiful…so, I don’t know, I’m not trying to sit down and listen to records of guys bashing their heads on a rock and recording it through a filter. I’ve heard that record.


Matthew Daddona is a writer, editor, and reviewer residing in Brooklyn. His most recent writings have appeared in Outside Magazine, Lit Hub, and Decider.com. He is an editor at The Scofield and has been a part of numerous spoken-word and poetry ensembles. More from this author →