20 Years of ‘Heavy’: An Interview with Eric Matthews

In 1995, there was an “adult alternative” radio station in Bellingham, Washington – just south of the Canadian border – that played pretty much everything and anything. One day when I was listening to this station on my car radio, I heard a song called ‘Fanfare’. The song was so distinctive and powerful that I knew I had to get the record – but I missed the name of the artist.

I went to the largest record store in downtown Vancouver and asked one of the staff, “Do you know a song called ‘Fanfare’?” His face absolutely lit up, and he said, “Do we ever. We love that song!” And he handed me a copy of It’s Heavy In Here by someone named Eric Matthews. The album was on Seattle’s Sub Pop label, but the cover photo showed a neatly groomed and stylishly dressed young man – the complete opposite of the beard-and-dirty-flannel grunge that Sub Pop was famous for. It was then that I knew I had found something very different and very special.

After writing about music for nearly 30 years, I can’t really clearly articulate why I love It’s Heavy in Here and ‘Fanfare’ so much. It’s Heavy in Here is an unconventional album in many ways, with its non-linear lyrics and ornate instrumentation. But instead of coming off as self-indulgent, it’s a grandly confident and fully realized individual vision. ‘Fanfare’ is both intimate and epic at the same time, and its emotional vulnerability and honesty are profoundly moving.

Matthews released one other album on Sub Pop, and then seemed to pop up every few years with a new project, in addition to guesting with other artists such as the Dandy Warhols – that’s him playing the trumpet on ‘Godless’ – and Pugwash. A couple of months ago, on a whim, I searched Matthews’ name on Google to see what he was up to. Much to my delight, I found that It’s Heavy in Here was being re-released for its 20th anniversary, and that Matthews had joined a band named SheLoom that was just releasing a new record. And not only did Matthews have a Facebook account, but he also responded to messages through that account. I was thrilled when he agreed to be interviewed about the process of creating the It’s Heavy in Here re-release.

IHIHcover

The cover of “It’s Heavy In Here”. (credit: Lo-Fidelity Records)

Fiona: How did this re-release project get started?

Eric: Earlier last year, the beginning of summer I think it was, I was contacted by Jeffrey Kotthoff at Lo-Fidelity Records. Not that I had totally forgot, but 2015 did in fact mark the 20-year anniversary of my debut on Sub Pop. Jeffrey looked me up using Facebook and asked what I thought about taking part in a reissue. I informed him that it wasn’t in any way up to me, that Sub Pop owns the recording for another 35 years. I gave him some Sub Pop contacts and said “good luck” with a wink and a smile.

Fiona: The original record was issued by Sub Pop and the re-release is on Lo-Fidelity Records, and of course you’re involved as the songwriter, producer and artist. What’s involved in getting all those parties to work together for a project like this to happen?

Eric: Well, I don’t have much contact with Sub Pop staffers at this point; everybody is pretty much gone from my days. I think I just put Jeff and Jon Poneman together, and hoped for the best. Shockingly, Sub Pop got right on board for the reissue and I didn’t have to do any begging or anything. We all signed the agreement and got to work.

Fiona: Who are the target audiences for the re-release? People who bought the original record, people who heard about the record but couldn’t find a copy of it, or new listeners? Or…

Eric: It’s Heavy In Here has been way out of print, for 18 years or so.  The only real way for decades to have the album in your hands is on the used market.  So, given the at least perceived impact of that album in 1995, and how ‘Fanfare’ was on radio and MTV, and now, how that album still gets referenced on websites and other music publications, we think there is a demand – an old audience and even young people who end up getting into my records in the various ways. There are college kids who become Jellyfish fans and then get turned onto Jason Falkner‘s records, then seek my stuff out. There’s an audience.

Fiona: The re-release comes in different shades of vinyl, and CD/download buyers can also get five bonus tracks and a different edit of the ‘Fanfare’ video. Why did you choose these particular extras? Were there any other extras you considered but decided not to include?

Eric: The first three bonus tracks – ‘Lids…’, ‘A Certain Kind’, and ‘Distant Mother…(S.H. Remix)’ – were bonus tracks in Japan and on the ‘Fanfare’ CD-5 in the UK. So, those were sort of automatic, perhaps a first chance for a wider audience to hear these tracks. For the final two, I basically went through some of my archives in search for a couple of 4-track demos that I made when I wrote the album. I left plenty of meat on the bone and still have a great archive of rarities for some other future exploits. Greedy me.

Fiona: Recording technology was very different in the mid-90s than it is now. Were there technology issues that you had to deal with when working on the re-release?

Eric: Not really. I mean, the album only gets recorded once. There were a few modern specifications now long observed on record releases that we did incorporate into our new masters.   The biggest difference is that music is now printed louder than it was in the 80’s and 90’s. But there are pitfalls. Simply increasing the db levels does require some changes in EQ in order to preserve some of the warmth of the original. There weren’t really any issues. At this point, these updates are common to the better mastering studios.

Fiona: People who bought this record when it first came out absolutely loved its distinctive sound. When you were remastering the record, how did you balance the challenge of maintaining that sound while updating the mix?

Eric: I kind of covered that in my answer above, but this is a good question. We really did have to take care to “not screw it up”. It actually happens sometimes that the wrong guy gets into the mix and makes an old album sound like crap. On a few of the songs, we did have to reject the direction and help guide the mastering engineer back on path, back to the heart and shape of the original sound waves. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ setting to mastering an old recording for today. For me, what was most helpful was having my SheLoom pals on board, helping to listen and judge the mastering session results. They were very helpful, being long-time fans who really listened to the original album, hundreds of times probably. And both those guys being top engineers themselves, I had really great guidance from their studied input.

Fiona: Was there anything in the original recording that had been bugging you for 20 years and that you finally got to change?

Eric: No, that album was perfect as recorded. Over the years there were musical elements that I think are missing, but it’s probably only me who would want to monkey with it.   I could have got into a studio and George Lucas’d the shit out of it, destroy the historical document, but I really don’t think about it like that. When you run out of money and time, the album is done. Over and out.

The different vinyl versions of the "It's Heavy In Here" re-release". (credit: Lo-Fidelity Records)

The different vinyl versions of the “It’s Heavy In Here” re-release. (credit: Lo-Fidelity Records)

Fiona: Are there differences between remastering for vinyl, CD and download?

Eric: Yes, this was actually new to me for some reason. There are considerations for vinyl that require a separate level of mastering, after the CD is mastered. You take that new master and then lower the overall level a bit, and then do some tweaking with low and low-mids so that the vinyl sounds good on a turntable. It’s a matter of what the physical equipment does when translating the sound to the speakers. It’s tricky stuff, and again, I am told that labels do vinyl pressings without making the changes – the result being crappy, even distorted sounding, pressings. Thank God I have people on my team that know all this stuff.

Fiona: Tell us about the five bonus tracks. Why were they left off the original album?

Eric: An album can only be so long. The original was 13 tracks in length, 43 minutes or so, so that was all we could do.   For the last 30 years it’s been more or less normal for Japan releases to have 2 or so extra exclusive songs. Donald Trump is putting that trend to an end if he becomes president. “They’re ripping us off.” But for real, for most of the albums on CD I’ve purchased over the last 20 years, I only buy the Japanese version. It’s always more money but you get more songs.  So the other thing that I should point out is that none of these bonuses were recorded during the album sessions. The original album, you have always just heard the whole thing. The rest, the five extras, were recorded either before, or just after the album.

Fiona: Is there any more unreleased material from the It’s Heavy In Here sessions?

Eric: No.

Fiona: Tell us about the different version of the ‘Fanfare’ video that’s part of the re-release package. Was this made in 1995, or was it created specifically for the re-release?

Eric: That item is actually just a different version – a set of edit points that predate the finished version that aired on television.

Fiona: There isn’t a lot of information out there about the original ‘Fanfare’ video. Where was it filmed, and who was involved in making it? Any stories to tell about its production?

Eric: The director was Tryan George, a brilliant film and commercial guy who’s still in the business.  Sub Pop gave me a huge budget and set me up with the director. We had a couple of meetings in Hollywood and came up with this strange treatment, something about a delusional king singing a song in the desert. We set up in the Mojave, can’t recall the town name. It was hot, windy, dusty, and frankly horrible. I wasn’t cut out for show business. There were suggestions at the time, some offers about getting me into the movies. I wanted none of it.

Fiona: Any plans for a re-release of The Lateness of the Hour when it has its 20-year anniversary in 2017?

Eric: Nothing specific, but the machinery is certainly in place.

 

The 20th anniversary re-release of It’s Heavy In Here is available through the Lo-Fidelity Records website. SheLoom’s The Baron of the Fjord is available on iTunes and Bandcamp.

 

 

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