Music Interview: Matt Owens

Co-founder of Noah and the Whale on his solo career


Did you have all the songs for the album written before you went into the studio?

I was writing a lot, but I had January as my cut-off point for songs and then I went into ‘arranger/producer mode’.

I’ve been working on this record pretty much since the day after I finished my last one. In terms of my approach, I wanted it have better songs and a faster tempo, and to be more experimental. 

I think I’m at my best when I write songs that only I’d write. What do I mean by that? I’m a big Warren Zevon fan – only he could write ‘Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner’. There are tracks on this record, like ‘Cargo For The Road’, which are quite honest – they’re about reality, rather than talking up a myth. I like to demystify stuff and to be brutally honest about what things are like – I like to challenge myself.

Your first album was mostly acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica, but, this one has a bigger sound and is much more electric – and eclectic.

You’ve said that on the new record you’ve incorporated instruments that you distrusted in the past, including synths, stomp boxes, synthetic drums and turntables. How did that come about?

I knew that if I went into the studio with my drummer, Jimmy, I’d know what the record was going to sound like in my head – and I didn’t find that particularly exciting. As I was confident about the songs, because I’d been gigging them, and I was really chuffed about both my acoustic and my electric sound, which has been a constant obsession of mine for quite some time, I wanted to push the envelope sonically.

When I was younger, I was against synths because they weren’t guitars, but when I knew there was going to be guitars on this record, I thought we could rub synths and guitars up against each other, and, obviously, they work great together!

Some of my favourite albums by Tom Petty have synths on them. I’ve used synths to get a Hammond organ sound or an accordion one, but I also wanted to push it.

I met a guy who was a turntablist – I was thinking of those early Eels and Beck records that I’d enjoyed. I also had synthetic drums that sounded like real ones, or we’d get real drums and muck them up – we used loops made up of real percussion. 

The title track, ‘Scorched Earth’, has a Springsteen and Tom Petty feel. It’s a big-sounding song… Where did it come from?

I’m more than happy to take the Springsteen and Tom Petty comparisons. 

I used to live in London, I was born and raised there and never thought I’d leave, but I moved to Bath two years ago. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 

Scorched Earth’ is about how sometimes you’ve got to torch everything and start afresh – I had that caveat post-Noah and the Whale and when I left London. It gave me freedom and it was a very positive thing to do. A lot of people talk about doing something like that. 

When I wrote it, I was like ‘hmmm – is that a bit too honest?’ I can remember reading that Tom Petty said something similar when he wrote ‘I Won’t Back Down’. It’s a pretty brutal and honest assessment from me, but, thankfully, it has a big chorus. It’s all there.

‘Cargo For The Road’, which you talked about earlier, is one of my favourite songs on the album. It’s dark, moody and stripped-down – an ‘on the road’ song, which has a classic Neil Young sound. It even name-checks his track ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’. It’s an acoustic song, with organ and harmonica, and it sounds more like something from your first album…

Yes – you’re completely right. I wrote it when I was on tour with Noah and the Whale, being driven from Seattle to Fargo, which took 22 and a half hours. There was nothing but corn, and my girlfriend wasn’t very happy with me at the time, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. 

I rediscovered the piece of paper I’d written the song on two years later. By that time, I’d learnt how to finger pick [on guitar]. It’s one of the oldest songs that made the record. I kept returning to it and its time finally came. It’s probably one of the best songs I’ve written. It’s very direct and it says everything I needed to say at the time. Musicians don’t talk about how boring and tiring touring can be and what it’s like when no one’s at one of your gigs. Of course, now the pandemic’s here, I’d do it all over again – for free! 

‘Strip It Back’ has a groove to it – I’m guessing that’s the track with the turntables on? It sticks out on the album, as it has a funk feel. The lyric deals with the afterlife and it mentions famous dead musicians, like John Prine and Warren Zevon.

I used to play bass for about seven years. I’m obsessed with James Jamerson and all the Motown guys. I think the album needed some light relief, which, for me, is generally talking about death! 

I like the idea that when we go, we get to hang out with everyone who’s lived before.

In my head, it makes sense that John Prine and Warren Zevon are over at Orpheus’s house and then God turns up with some beers and a guitar, wanting to learn how to play, while Jesus is signing on. The record needed some escapism, as there are a lot of heavy songs on it subject matter-wise. It seemed right to put it to a kind of King Curtis groove. 

‘Another Song About The Devil’ starts like a ‘70s singer-songwriter piano ballad, then puts its foot on the gas and goes all rock, with a big guitar solo… 

Yeah – I thought I should kick out the jams on something! That song was made in Bath. I read an article about a family who travelled from El Salvador to try and cross the Rio Grande to get into America – a guy went across with his son, then he tried to go back for his wife. His son followed him and they got swept away. It’s heartbreaking – that was the starting point for the song. 

Around about that time, the whole Jeffrey Epstein thing was happening too. I liked the image of the devil hearing the headlines of the day, pulling over to the side of the road and saying, ‘I can’t compete with these.’ I don’t see myself as a political person, but I wanted to challenge myself to write about something that’s happening now.

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