A conversation with Mat Brooke
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Renee McMahon
Mat Brooke's moment may have come at last. After toiling in relative obscurity (at least outside Seattle city limits) as the heartrending frontman of Carissa's Wierd, and then helping to set Band of Horses off to the races, Brooke now returns with Grand Archives - a sunny-sounding quartet that dares to make you feel good. It's a perfect pop record for the springtime - or for any season, including stubborn winters.
After parting ways with Band of Horses, Brooke focused on the Seattle bar he co-owns [Redwood], but news also surfaced that he was working on a new project - first called Archives, then Grand Archives. They played a show and got signed to Sub Pop. They played another show opening for some local pals in a band called Modest Mouse. Now they'll be bringing the warmth to your town - eventually. After some kickoff shows to celebrate the release of their self-titled debut [released Feb. 19th], they're taking a quick jaunt down the California coast, hitting some Midwestern hot spots, and then settling into Austin for what should be a buzz-building few days at SXSW.
Prior to all of that, Brooke caught up with The Red Alert to talk about his new band and songwriting philosophy, his kinda-new bar, and the old days of drunkenness, drama, and depression.
Your new album is my favorite of the young year. But before we go into that, let’s start with the really big question: now that you’re back in a band and heading back out on the road, what becomes of your bar? Is it in good hands?
It’s funny, yeah, I actually just had a full staff meeting with my bar yesterday to address the issue that I’d be gone for a portion of the summer. I have a great staff and me and my girlfriend run the bar together; she works super hard. We delegated a lot of responsibilities and I think the bar will be just fine.
In my head, your bar is like an indie rock Cheers.
[Laughs] Yeah, you nailed it right on the head. Seattle is a small, small town if you really think about it, and it’s definitely got a small town mentality in that way. Indie rock Cheers, I like that.
So once you set up shop as a happy barkeep, how did you get drawn back into the band lifestyle? How did Grand Archives take shape?
Grand Archives just kind of came about. Me and one of my bartenders and his friend just started playing music. You’ve read all the stuff - everything happened in a real whirlwind for us.
Yeah, you had those first couple shows and got signed to Sub Pop right away.
Exactly. We just put out a demo to see if anyone would think it was interesting, and it took off a lot faster than we thought it would. We kind of just jumped on the ride and now here we are, about ready to go on tour for the entire summer.
It must not have been a complete surprise, though, since Sub Pop had even been sniffing around Carissa’s Wierd - and then Band of Horses was on Sub Pop, of course. Even when you weren’t playing, people must have been coming around saying “Hey, are you in a new band yet?”
Yeah, sure. I’ve been playing music in this town for almost ten years now, so whenever I’m not in a band, people assume that I’m probably going to do something, because that’s all I’ve ever done. But it wasn't necessarily a silver spoon in my mouth. I’ve been at it in this particular town and Sub Pop just happened to be located here, and I’ve known those Modest Mouse guys forever just because I’ve been playing music in this town for so long. So it wasn’t really that shocking that these things happened.
I was going to ask kind of the inverse of the silver spoon question - which I’m sure will get played up in the press, especially by people who maybe didn’t know Carissa’s Wierd.
Yeah, it’s getting played up quite a lot.
But for someone who has busted his ass and toured around and been in some bands that maybe had a little band drama occasionally… does it feel like all the hard work is paying off? That you’re on the cusp of something bigger?
I think so. If you talk about paying your dues, I don’t think anybody could pay more dues than Carissa’s Wierd had to. We spent three years touring relentlessly and playing basements the whole time. We never had much luck and no one really ever gave us a helping hand. So, yeah, maybe it would be a nice way to think of it - that finally hard work pays off.
After Carissa’s Wierd was done, you took a little time off before joining up with Band of Horses. Were you doing stuff in the meantime or did you actually take a step back from music altogether for a while?
A little bit of both. I took a step back, but I did a benefit show where I got up with an acoustic guitar and sang some songs. But I was never driving toward becoming a guitar guy, a troubadour solo artist. That was more about getting up on stage and getting some free beers in the dressing room or whatever. [Laughs] There was a little time off between Carissa’s Wierd and Band of Horses, and then again a little time off between Band of Horses and Grand Archives - but for the most part it feels like it’s all been streamlined, one into the other.
The common expectation after Carissa’s Wierd was probably that you would start your own thing. You played a big part in that first Band of Horses album, but it wasn’t a frontman role. What made you go that route?
Carissa’s Wierd was definitely super-duper collaborative, and I guess that’s just the way I prefer it. I don’t know why I prefer it that way, but it just makes things more fun - there’s a little less ego and everyone has a say. When you get a collaboration going, it tends to be a little less stressful, too.
But you’re billed as the sole songwriter on most of the Grand Archives songs - “Setting Sun” [written by Ron Lewis] is obviously an exception. How does that collaboration come into play and impact the direction the songs take?
I would say that I show up with a few lyrics and a verse and a chorus - a skeleton that I’ve brought to rehearsal. Then that’s where things like bridges and tempo changes and of course the vocal harmonies [are added] and the song really becomes an actual song.
Did you know from the outset of writing these songs that they would be a conscious break from the sound of Carissa’s Wierd?
I think we were trying to go for a little less drama, a little more fun, yeah. You know, young angst and things like that are great for a certain point in your life, and then writing super depressed or sad songs starts to feel a little trite after a little while. It’s like wallowing in self-misery for no apparent reason - when, if you think about, you could be singing more upbeat happy songs and probably having a lot more fun. And not boring your audience to death. [Laughs]
Well, in one of the interviews that we did with Ben [Bridwell], we talked about how people may have been surprised that Carissa’s Wierd, despite the sad music, was a fun bunch of people - and kind of a party band.
Oh my god, yeah, I don’t even know how we survived. [Laughs]
I don’t want to belabor the old days, but did you find that playing sad music was cathartic? It’s cathartic to listen to - is it cathartic to write, and then to play night after night?
Yeah. I think when you first write a sad song, you’re really getting a lot off your chest, but then to play it every night on a tour, you do start to feel a little goofy about it. It starts to seem a little more dramatic than it should be.
Were the songs on the Grand Archives record written with an album in mind? Were they meant to be a connected set?
No, I don’t think there’s any kind of stream of consciousness that flows through the record, and there’s no underlying themes. Mainly, we’re really such a young band that the album is comprised of everything we’ve written up to this point. I think there are three songs that didn’t make it to the final cut, and we probably intend to release those as B-sides or on an EP format or something like that down the road.
How did the songs evolve from the early demos to the finished versions?
When it came time to re-record the songs from the demo, we thought it seemed like kind of a boring project to re-record a song verbatim. So we definitely changed them up. On one of the songs, we took out all the drums and bass and everything and made it just an acoustic guitar and vocals. It was part of a theory we were trying out while recording - that if you were ever frustrated with a song or a part, don’t sit and be frustrated with it - just rewrite it completely. And don’t put anything down to tape unless you’re actually having fun doing it. I don’t know if it came through in the finished project, but that’s how a lot of the demo stuff got reworked.
It seems to lend itself pretty well to the transition to stage.
Oh, yeah, exactly. Playing this stuff on stage, there’s something to do every second - around the corner, there’s some whistling and harmonica, or there’s always something exciting for us to be able to do.
How about those first live shows? You have the first show and you’re just seeing if there’s any interest, but then you jump right into the Modest Mouse opening slot and you know there are going to be a lot of eyeballs on you. Was that nervewracking? It must have been.
Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. It was a crazy move - obviously one that we couldn’t turn down, whether we were ready for it or now. It was a sink or swim opportunity.
How did it go from your perspective?
I think we were obviously thrown in so early, and we were just happy if we weren’t booed off stage. We were happy that no one threw anything at us. Just to get on stage and off without completely crapping the bed, we were happy with that.
A coworker of mine looked at the album and said he could tell he’d like the album just by looking at it. How did the album artwork come about?
Oh, that’s great. I had my kid sister - she lives in Arizona, she’s a photography major - I had her fly up and we took her around town and took twenty rolls of films, took pictures of everything we saw. Then we sat down and looked at it all, put some stuff on computer and cropped it, and finally we just decided the old, beat-up white piano had kind of an iconic look to it, and that’s how that became the cover.
A few of your old bandmates make guest appearances on the record, including Sera Cahoone, who has a new album coming out in about a month. Did you reciprocate and guest on that record?
I guested on her first record, which she released herself here in Seattle. I did not play on the one that she’s releasing on Sub Pop in a month. But she’s going to be opening up our CD release show next week, which will be fun - she’ll come on stage and sing a couple of the songs that she did on our record. Jenn [Ghetto] from Carissa’s Wierd is also opening with her project S.
We’re talking on Valentine’s Day, so I have to ask you what failsafe songs you’d stick on a Valentine’s mix.
That’s a good one. I guess you have to think about the audience - people who hate Valentine’s Day or people who love it?
I’ll leave that up to you. Any way you want it.
[Laughs] I don’t know. Besides the obvious Palace song where the opening line is “It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m catatonic” - that’s one that I think gets thrown on every Valentine’s Day mix. Maybe for people who hate Valentine’s Day, track one off Shellac’s 1000 Hurts [“Prayer to God”]. It’s a great song where he writes about how he wants his ex-wife and her new lover to be killed. [Laughs] So that would be a pretty good anti-Valentine’s Day song.