By Juliana Russell
Inspired by eclectic and international influences, Moñecho (Matt Serra) brings us his introspective, self-produced record “Past Waters/Fever Lives”. Juliana Russell from Black on the Canvas had a thought-provoking conversation with the artist about his new album, where we discussed profoundly impactful moments in music, and the importance of creative rest.
How would you describe yourself as a musician, and the music you create and perform?
Matt: Let’s start with the music I create and perform; that’s a little bit easier. I strive to, whenever I can, just make something that really excites me and potentially something that doesn’t exist yet. So that doesn’t mean I’m not taking different bits and pieces of things that already are around. We all do that—everybody does that. But a lot of times the way in which people put things together, that specific eclectic mix, is what’s exciting. I kind of take whatever sounds, to me, to be catchy at the moment, and put that into my compositions. I’ve heard a number of avant-garde composers say this—to them, they’re composing pop songs. And that’s kinda how it is for me, it’s exactly what I want to hear. So the music I compose is just meant to be really satisfying immediately for me to hear, not meant to be like esoteric or obscure. That’s what I listen for, and that’s what I want. Does that make sense?
Matt: And as far as me… That’s a hard one. (laughs) I think… I am and always will be a student, of anything, any of my pursuits. I want to get better at doing things, at any craft that I’m studying. Apart from that, I don’t see myself as being particularly special in a way that I compose. I just put lots and lots and lots and lots of effort in. And over time, that just gradually grows into being more proficient, and putting that same effort into a piece of music grows over time into making that music more satisfying, more well rounded, more developed. So that would be my advice to anybody: be a student, and puts lots and lots of effort in.
Yeah, we’re always learning. So how did you get started with music?
Matt: That’s a good question! (laughs) I took classical piano lessons, starting when I was like 6 or 7 and continued that on. It’s kind of cliché, but when I really started to see music as something that was self-expressive, something that I wanted to pursue, something kind of intoxicating for me, was when I started to play the guitar. I remember playing an E-minor chord, just an open E-minor chord, which is super boring to me right now, but I remember how much that excited me the first time I played it. It was crazy and intoxicating, and from then on, that’s what I wanted to do. Also, what prompted me to start playing the guitar was actually, hilarious as it is to say, a Dave Matthews song, called “So Much to Say”. And I still love that song; the guitar parts in that are fantastic.
Awesome. So what are some of your main influences and inspirations? I guess those might be different, but either one, or both.
Matt: Sure. Influences change over the years. Obviously Dave Matthews doesn’t have a firm grasp on me now, but I think if you trace the chronology, you can gain glimpses into maybe different tendencies that my music, knowingly or unknowingly to myself, might have. So I listen to a lot of emo, post-hard core movements of the early 2000’s—Thursday was my favorite band for a while. And then I really liked a lot of metal, starting with the metal core that was going on at the time—Converge, Norma Jean… Some melodic death core as well, but not so much of that, more the metal core. And then getting into Isis and the post-metal scene as it was evolving in the early 2000’s era—that was really really influential to me, and that’s kind of like a good starting point for how I started to view music as I do now. I often say that my music is experimental folk rock for metal-heads. I think that I have a lot of compositional techniques that I’ve taken from the post-metal scene in many ways.
My favorite record ever, to this date, is Choirs of the Eye by Kayo Dot. It’s been my favorite for ten years. It does incredible things compositionally. But after that, I started to go deeper into the esoteric realm, and be kind of elitist and only listen to the weirdest things that change time signatures every other bar, stuff like that. And then I stepped back and I was like “Well maybe I should just enjoy music.” I started to get involved in listening to folk music; Jeff Buckley became one of my favorite artists, and still continues to be to this day.
Grizzly Bear became another focal point of what influenced me, because I started to see that the folk music that I kind of enjoyed tangentially could also be used in a way that was very interesting to me compositionally. I guess from then on it’s gone all over the place. On the record, I have a lot of influence from music that I was kind of superficially listening to from other cultures, like oud players (like an Arabic lute instrument). I got really into Bulgarian folk music; there’s a Bulgarian folk song that I made an arrangement of on the record.
Long-winded explanations aside… I guess post-metal, neo-folk, and Jeff Buckley, and music from other cultures.
Yeah, cool! I usually ask what kinds of programs or equipment people use, but I think you had a whole bunch of different instruments, right? Do you want to talk about that?
Matt: Yeah, a lot of them are actually samples of different instrument libraries that I’ve collected over the years, similar to what a lot of composers use for film scoring. I can only play… I’m only an instrumentalist in terms of the keyboard, guitar, bass, vocals…
Well those were some really good samples! I was envisioning you with like ALL of these instruments in a studio. I was like, “Wow this all sounds so cool!” (laughs)
Matt: Thank you! See, that’s… The worst thing in the world to me would be if somebody heard it and they were like “Well this sounds sh***y, and superficial, and conventional and fake.” So my goal was… I was searching and searching for things that actually were able to manifest what I wanted to hear, and what I wanted to make the music to sound like.
Yeah, it sounded pretty authentic, I think.
Matt: Great! That’s good to hear. So I used a lot of samples, programmed instruments. I recorded everything in Logic. Now I use Ableton Live a lot. I think it’s pretty interesting, and pretty stream-lined. The electronic music performers tend towards Ableton Live or Digital Performer.
That’s about it. Just a whole bunch of different guitars, too. Sometimes my friends’ guitars.
Okay. What’s your creative process like? How do you go about writing a new song, or a new piece of music?
Matt: I think it all starts with some sort of creative spark. It doesn’t necessarily… That comes up in a variety in different ways—there’s no one set way that that arises. On the record, a lot of times it could’ve been the guitar, sometimes the vocals—in one case, a whole folk song, the Bulgarian one. Sometimes it’s piano. It starts there, and then I expand on that idea, and fool around with it, see if there are different ways I can feel it, see what other things I hear on top of it. That’s kind of what I think of as expanding that same idea. You start with some idea that just hooks you for whatever reason, and then expand it, then refine it after that.
So then you take all those parts that you expanded, and then say “Okay, well what do I want this song to do?” To me what’s really important is that I have some kind of firm flow… I think about it in terms of the flow of energy in a piece of music. Where do I want the highs to be? Where do I want the lows to be? Do I want a part that is sinister, low, ominous… How do I figure out and fit all the other parts so that they serve the greater whole of the piece, so that every part has its own function to bring you into something, or bring you out of something, to lull you, to build it up…
Okay, awesome. So talk about some of the tracks from your new album. Is it Past Waters and Fever Lives (“lih-vs”) or Fever Lives (“lah-eevs”)?
Matt: I like that ambiguity. (laughs) I’m not gonna answer that.
(laughs) All right! So do any of them have a particularly compelling back story, or lyrics?
Matt: Well, yeah they all do.
(laughs) Yeah I figured they would.
Matt: (laughs) That’s the best way to answer that. I’m somewhat shy about my lyrics—a little bit.
Matt: I will say I wrote Past Waters… All of the songs were written a while ago; I just never did anything with them. That has to do with the name of it. Everything… Water is metaphorically pretty important, in that song body. To me, completing that part of the record was, in many ways, looking at a snap-shot of myself, from like eight or nine years ago, which is when I wrote a lot of those songs. So a pretty good emotional experience, kind of like an exorcism of sorts.
Ah, I have to say it now! Fever Lives [for the artist’s sake, the pronunciation will still be left ambiguous 😉 ] (laughs) is similar but more recent. Some of those things are still things that I’m working through, I guess. Can I talk about the song that I didn’t write the lyrics to, the folk song?
Yeah, of course! Anything you want to talk about.
Matt: My feeling is that those lyrics are the best on the record. Those lyrics are from an ancient folk song. I found somebody on Yahoo! answers to translate it for me, from Bulgarian. It tells the story of a young maiden that is telling her mother that she wished she hadn’t married her off so soon, so that she could enjoy all of these different things. And the ending is very final, “But you didn’t listen, and found me a bridegroom, too soon, mother”. That really really affected me—I tried to paint those pictures with the music, in that arrangement, as best as I could. You hear at the end it’s kind of angry, then accepting, like surrendering to the reality of what has happened. You should listen to the original version that I heard, if you haven’t heard it yet.
This thing drives me insane. I’ve listened to this arrangement so many times. I love my version, but this is my favorite version. (laughs)
How did you find this song?
Matt: That’s an interesting question. I worked in a factory with… (laughs) All right, start over. The summer before I went to live in Spain—I lived in Spain for a year, which was a terrific and fantastic experience I was really luck to have. But the summer before that, I was working my a** off in a furniture factory, and I came in contact with my former girlfriend’s older brother. I was scared to death of him when we were dating, but when we came in contact again, we got along really really well. We were interested in the same things, same kinds of music—we would talk about music in down time, and like 90’s Super Nintendo RPGs, and other things that people central Pennsylvania don’t really talk about. (laughs) So I found out that I had more in common with him than with his sister, which is really funny. We became really good friends.
I was leaving to go live in Spain for a year, and I remember telling him, “Hey tomorrow is my last day.” And he was like “Oh s**t, I gotta get my a** busy!” I was like, I don’t know what that means! But he came back the next day with a stack of CDs, that was about 3” thick, that he had burnt for me. There was a lot of great stuff on there—a lot of ridiculous stuff. He burnt this entire range of CDs for me. The one thing that I remember the most… Well, I remember Lightning Bolt a lot, because Lightning Bolt really influenced me. He burned me several of their albums, and I loved those. In addition to Lightning Bolt, one of the discs I listened to the most was Jeff Mangum’s Orange Twin Field Works, Volume 1.
So this was my first foray into Bulgarian music. Apparently Jeff Mangum went to a music festival in Bulgaria, and he went around recording things. He released this record, a little bit over a half an hour of that music that’s melded together in a way that it feels like you’re walking through these streets. I just had never heard anything like it… The severity and intensity of the music, as well as the complexity of the harmonies, and the rhythms just killed me. This was really really influential to me, and was very influential on the second half of my album, Fever Lives. That kind of started my descent into Bulgarian folk music madness. I just kept looking up more and more Bulgarian anthologies and albums and compilations—anything I could find. Among them was “A Harvest, a Shepherd, a Bride: Village Music of Bulgaria”, which is what “Molih ta” was on. So that’s how I found it.
Okay, awesome. So what were some creative or technical challenges that you faced while producing this album?
Matt: I think creatively, I didn’t understand the concept, when I was doing it a lot, of how important creative rest is. I’ve more recently started to understand that for everything you put out, you need to take something in. A lot of that philosophy comes from Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way”, which I think is pretty cool. I think it’s a pretty practical and useful and effective philosophy for revitalizing creativity.
I would just work and work and work on these songs and exhaust myself. I remember one specific time for a period of about maybe a month and a half, maybe less—hopefully less. I was working a full-time job at that time. I would wake up, eat breakfast while I worked on a recording, then I would go to my home office and work—I worked at home at the time. Over my lunch break, I would go into my studio section of my house, and keep recording, then go back to my office until the workday was over. Then, immediately, I’d go back to the studio and work on recording, for like eight hours, until it was time to go to bed; then I’d go to sleep, wake up, and repeat the whole entire routine. (laughs) Yeah, it was exhausting! Sometimes it works to do that, like you’re just wired, almost manic.
Yeah like if you’re on a roll.
Matt: Sometimes it works to do that, but sometimes when it doesn’t happen, it can be really frustrating. It was kind of a relief to discover that there’s a reason that happens. The reason is you need to rest, you need to intake things, you need to consume what you’re putting out, so that you have energy to do it.
Yeah, let it sink in a little bit.
Matt: So I think that would probably be what I would point to as the primary creative issue.
Right. Okay, so what are some of your future plans? Like what are you working on now?
Matt: I’m working on a new group of songs now. I really want to… So right now, it’s just me. You know, that record was all me. I want to experience the thrill of playing it live. A lot of these songs I wrote with an excitement about being able to play them live, and feeling that energy. And I haven’t been able to do that, because I don’t have the people at hand to do that yet. But that’s why I’m here! That’s why I’m in the place that I am, and actively trying to pursue that. I’m writing these songs with the intention of having a group that is able to play them live.
All right, well that’s all I have. Do you have any final comments, parting thoughts?
Matt: Thanks for taking an interest in my music. I’m really glad that you’ve enjoyed it. And thanks for a great conversation! It was wonderful to talk with you.
Same here, thank you!
Listen to Moñecho’s inventive new album on bandcamp:
Photos by Michael Fox Serra