MATT THE ELECTRICIAN: It’s kind of a boring story: basically I was an electrician for I guess about seven years here in town professionally. It was the first job that I got when I moved to town, which was in ’96. It was really long days, like 12 or 14-hour days. I came here because I wanted to play music, so I was trying to do the open mic nights and little gigs at coffee shops and stuff, but because I was also an apprentice to an electrician, I didn’t have a whole lot of say when I got off of work. The guy that I worked for would occasionally let me– if I had gotten a really good gig–he would let me get off a little bit early. But for the most part we would get back to the shop at like 7 or 8 o’clock at night and if I was going to do an open mic that started around then I just had to kind of haul down there as fast as I could. So I didn’t usually have time to shower or change. I was working out in like, 100-degree weather and just looked like hell. And so, I don’t remember, maybe the first open mic I did– one of the first couple that I did– I just said, “Hi, my name is Matt and I’m an electrician”–so as to explain my appearance–like I came straight from work.
Not long after, a friend of mine said, “You ought to use that as a stage name.” And I said, “No, that’s a horrible idea–that’s really cornball”. And while we were talking about it at a restaurant this guy came up and said, “Hey you’re that electrician guy”. And I said, “Yeah”. And he said, “My son and I saw you at this open mic and we really liked you”. And I said, “Oh thanks”. And I thought, wow, you know, that’s funny, he didn’t remember my name, he didn’t remember “Matt”, he just remembered the electrician. I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s not such a bad idea”.
AD: Tell us about your songwriting process.
MTE: Well, it’s top secret.
It’s different every time that I write. More often than not, I sit down to write. Every once in awhile I’ll get struck by something–a word, or a melody–and I’ll go in and record it really quick. I’ll put something down and maybe come back to it. But more often than not I sit down just feeling in a mood to write. Not necessarily that I’ve been struck by any great inspiration, but I just feel like I want to write so I’ll sit down with my guitar. I kind of do it at the same time. So generally I don’t write the lyrics first or write the music first. I’ll pretty much just sit down and be noodling and often that will evolve into a song but it’s all kind of simultaneous.
AD: What instruments do you play?
MTE: Well I play the guitar. I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 15. I’ve played the trumpet since I was 5. A couple of years ago I bought a ukulele so I guess you could say I play the ukulele, not really well, but I do. And lately I’ve been playing a lot of percussion on other people’s shows but I think I’m just a guitar player playing percussion. I did play bass on a tour one time but I’m not a very good bass player. I’m fully willing to make a fool of myself on a lot of different instruments but there is only really guitar and trumpet that I play.
AD: You’ve been in Austin awhile, what has gotten better for musicians in town and what has gotten worse?
MTE: Better and worse. Gosh, that is so hard because I know that there are a lot of things that have gotten worse probably for people that have been here for a long time. Whether it’s just more musicians in town or clubs getting torn down or I’m sure someone would say the smoking band. There are probably a lot of things that I’m just not aware of. But the longer I’ve been in town things have gotten better for me. So it’s hard to be objective about that. It’s easier for me to get the gigs that I want. I have a booking agent now that I didn’t have 10 years ago, so she does the work for me. You know, I did a lot of work for a lot of years trying to create those gigs but now she takes care of them so that’s a really good thing for me.
But as far as in the town and overall, I found that the longer I was here, the more people I met. There were a lot of years where I just worked. I did my day job and then would try and go out and play but then I would go home and go to bed. On the weekends I didn’t really see other music–I was just working. I was working all the time and I didn’t ever really meet anybody in the scene. I met a few people at open mics here and there but it wasn’t until I quit my day job that I actually made a point of going out. Going out just to work. Not to work, but to network. I hate putting words to it, but it’s really true. It taught me that there is this great community of musicians in this town that were really nice. And when you are just sitting at home trying to get gigs and looking in the Chronicle it’s not nice–It’s scary. You just see all these names and you’re just like, “Who is this Kacy Crowley? Who is Jon Dee Graham? Who are these people? They are playing all the time. What are they doing that I’m not doing?” And then you go out and you kind of just meet people and you realize that there are a lot of really nice people in this town. There are a lot of really incredible musicians. So I’ve been just blown away by the community in the four or five years since I kind of let myself go out and experience that.
So it is networking in a sense but it’s really taking advantage of the live music scene.
AD: What’s special about this town to you?
MTE: To me it is that sense of community. I remember sitting out in the back of the Continental with a local writer for one of the papers. It was during the benefit for Jon Dee’s son Willie, and there are just all of these people there and all of these musicians–it was a great night. There were so many people and he was just sitting talking to me and asked me, “When you are on the road are there other towns that are like this?” And I said, “Well I’m sure there are. I’m sure every town has its community and has its support network. But in my traveling around and living in other towns, I’ve never seen it quite at the level that it is in Austin.” There is something insular about Austin, on one hand, where there is a scene that kind of seems like it exists here and doesn’t really leave. And even if people go on the road–you hear a lot of these bands go to Europe, there is a big scene in Europe for the type of music that is big here, whether it’s Americana or Roots rock or what have you–you get a feeling there is a lot of people that play for here. They play their music for other people here. Whether it’s other musicians or their fan base. And yes they might go out on the road and tour, but they write and play for here. And when I go to other towns I get the impression they are playing for someone else. There’s not the same sense of community. And again, that’s hard to generalize because everywhere, I’m sure if you stay there long enough, has its own community. But to me that’s the one thing that draws me back to Austin when I’m on the road. That’s the thing that I miss.
There was a while, maybe 2 or 3 years ago when I was having a singer songwriter night at my house. Just on a Tuesday night. And I would have 5 or 6 of my singer songwriter friends come over and we’d just sit around and drink and play songs. And then we started this thing where we were writing a song once a week. It was a title game thing. So we’d have the title and we’d write the song and then we’d come back the next week and play it. Then people started inviting their friends. And it was this really cool thing. I remember telling somebody about it who was in New York–I was on the road somewhere–how I had a lot of these local Austin musicians come over to my house and we would just sit around and play guitars. And they were so jealous. They were like, “Here, everyone is so separated that people don’t do that.” That’s what you do when you are in high school and college when you are first starting to play the guitar. People get together and jam, for lack of a better word. I don’t like that word. This person was just really amazed and just jealous that we got to do that here. Here, I know people that work six nights a week and on the 7th night they want to sit around and play guitar.
AD: One of the things that you do at Cafe Mundi with a group of people is come up with a subject and then write a song. I was just wondering if any of those songs become things that you record?
MTE: You know, just for the record, I stole that idea from Bob Schneider. I heard him talking on the radio about it. And then a couple of days later, I heard Steve Brooks talking about it and I thought, wow, what a brilliant idea that you come up with this title. And that’s what it is, more so than a subject. They pick a title. And the title could be, “Sitting on the Couch”–that’s the title. And then you have x amount of time to write a song using that title. When I heard these guys talking about it on the radio I thought this is a great idea because I was going through a dry spell where I wasn’t writing at all and I thought this is a good way to kick start it. So I started doing it with a friend in California where it was just the two of us. We had to write the song and we had a week to do it and record it and we’d put it up on the Internet so each other could see it. We did that for awhile and then I started having the guys coming over on Tuesday nights and playing guitar and sitting around and we started doing it in that kind of arena. And then at Cafe Mundi, when we started doing it we were doing it with Bruce Hughes and Southpaw and myself. And Bruce had done this game with Bob Schnieder on his bus and so he was like, “Yeah, let’s do it at Mundi and we’ll do it live. We’ll announce what the title is going to be the week before and then the next week we’ll come back and play the song for them”. So I had three of these games going on at once and of my last two records, the third record that came out I had 5 songs out of 11 or 5 out of 12 that were from the game, and this last one there was 7 or 8 out of 12. And the record that I’m getting ready to do now is I think all but one. Like 13 or 14 songs are from the game. At times, psychologically, it feels like a crutch. Every once in awhile, because you know that’s the only way that you are writing. But it’s good because it keeps me writing.
AD: What advice would you give to a new musician now in town?
MTE: Probably just the same stuff that I learned. You just have to work. It is a job. You have to work really hard and you have to talk to booking people at clubs a lot. You can’t be discouraged if the first time you try to get a gig, they are like, “No way”. Or if the first gig you get is at 1 in the morning on a Tuesday. Because it will be. And it’s hard to get your friends or anybody to come out and see you then. In the 10 years it really took a lot. It took five or six of those years at least to get to a point where I was even drawing more than 10 people. So you just have to stick to it. And do treat it as a job but also, as I said before, go out and see music. Cause you can’t be in this city and not take advantage of that.
AD: One last thing, a few years ago we were on a plane going somewhere, where we read an article about you. I was wondering if it helped your career.
MTE: Well I did get a couple of offers to be a flight attendant after that. I think I can proclaim, pretty safely, that I am the king of bizarre media. Just random publicity. I never get the regular mainstream stuff. I end up on the in-flight magazine. I think that just kind of describes me.
AD: Is there anything else that you want to add?
MTE: Yeah, I just wanted to say, “Hey to the Living School”.