One thing that’s always fascinated me about musicians is “the hustle.” It’s not enough to be master of your instrument or a talented songwriter - you have to convert that talent into something tangible and then repeat it over and over. A good album might have a legacy that endures a long time, but the income stream ends with the tour cycle. You have to fill in the gaps doing other things. Both of you strike me as people who have mastered it, and you’ve both done a variety of things to sustain your music careers. Can you talk about how you approach “the hustle?” How do you stay organized and make it work for you?
Matt: Chris, that sounds like a really good “you” question [laughs].
Chris: I think you just have to keep a really good calendar. That’s the main thing. To me, it’s really a question of how do you make a living as a musician. It’s really hard to do. There are a few rules you can go by, and one of them is to be organized with your schedule. The other one is to return people’s phone calls and emails. And another one is to just generally be nice to people.
For me, I need to have a lot of different streams of income on the one hand and different streams of creative things going on to keep me engaged. Making a living is part of it, but we’re artists. We thrive on being inspired and engaged. Personally, if I’m working on one thing too long, I get kind of bored. I need a lot of things going on at one time.
Matt: The thing that Chris is leaving out, maybe out of humility, is that he’s really good at a bunch of different stuff. I think that helps. Chris is an insane guitar player but also a great writer and engineer. He can do all that stuff.
At some point you find yourself playing a bunch of jazz gigs and occasionally recording. And you say to yourself, I don’t want to do all these gigs anymore; I want to do more of that. So you end up weighting your work life towards doing more of the stuff you’re interested in.
I can also speak for Chris here: we’ve also both had long periods of time where we taught music lessons. I really like teaching, but I don’t like doing it six days a week. That was one thing I wanted to do a little less of. As other gigs started coming through, other recording projects, I said I wanted to do more of that and less of the other thing. We’re going to do more of the thing that is more inspiring and creative, and maybe a little less of the things we’re not as interested in. You start piecing it together based on what you’re feeling most inspired about. That ultimately helps get the bills paid because you’re more stoked to keep pushing.
It sounds like you have a good mix of doing what’s necessary to sustain your lifestyle and family life while also following your creative urge. It’s kind of choose-your-own-adventure approach to your career.
Matt: Totally. Over a long period of time, you can sift out some of the not-as-rewarding jobs.
Chris: I think the older I get, the less tolerance I have for stuff that I don’t want to do. Like Matt was saying, once you get a taste of making a living doing something that’s really cool and fun, it’s really hard to go back to doing something that’s not so much fun. Even if the guitar is in my hands and I’m playing in front of people, there are different scenarios that more rewarding than others. But different musicians have different approaches.
You’ve both experienced the “hustle” this year in the Merge Records orbit with The Mountain Goats and Hiss Golden Messenger. How has working with these bands changed you?
Matt: For me, The Mountain Goats has changed the weighting of my professional life. They now take up the biggest piece of the pie. In terms of time spent, especially last year and this year. It just takes up more of my life. It’s also given me a huge musical challenge to try and be the best multi-instrumentalist I can be. I haven’t always taken a lot of pride in my ability to play other instruments, but I’m starting to get better and better. So the creative challenge is there too. It’s been really good to me. The diversity of the travel has been really great over the last couple of years.
Chris: We have different experiences. My involvement is not as a touring member with Hiss Golden Messenger. I have toured with them a little bit, and I played a little on Heart Like a Levee. But I’m more heavily involved on the engineering the record. I have a good relationship with Mike [Taylor] and Brad [Cook]. Brad and I have worked on a lot of different records together. He’s been a doorway to so many different musical worlds that I wasn’t a part of before. A lot of opportunities get funneled through him because of all of his connections. So in terms of how it’s affected me, it’s made me a lot busier on the engineering side.
So on Hallelujah Anyhow, were you the primary engineer?
Chris: Scott Hirsch and I co-engineered it together. He lives in California and has been in and out a little from a logistical standpoint. We engineered it, but I mixed it with Brad. And I did the mastering. So I was involved in all stages.
I haven’t heard anything yet but am looking forward to its release.
Chris: It’s super different from the last one, which is crazy since the records were written so close together.
Switching gears to The Hot at Nights. What is it about this band that’s kept you going for seven years?
Chris: For me, The Hot at Nights is a really great home base for making music with two of my good friends. That’s the main factor. It will always be there, no matter what else we’re doing. It’s my creative outlet for writing music. It’s hard for us to get a lot done when we rehearse because it’s just three friends in a room trying to hang out [laughs].
Matt: On the creative front, Chris writes all of the music. It’s then the collective interpretation and arranging that we do as a group that drives the band creatively. In our other projects, there’s always a touch of wanting to make something just a little more…something. Make it more experimental or un-experimental? There’s always the next thing. That’s what everybody says [laughs].
Maybe you’re not always 100% satisfied?
Matt: Yeah. I think that’s fair to say.
Chris: The thing about The Hot at Nights is there’s no pressure to do a million gigs. We do everything in house. We don’t spend a ton of money on our production. We’re able to make our money back, which at this point, is really good for what we’re doing. It’s music that I get to write and play for people. In a lot of ways, I should be paying to do that, not getting paid [laughs]. Right now, with our families and everything, we’re in a really good place. I have a million ideas about what we can do over the next ten years.
How did the band get its start?
Chris: I was making music with Matt. We were doing a lot of improvised jazz in the early 2000s when he moved to this area. The band got started when I got an eight-string guitar. Personally, I was kind of stuck from a creative and writing standpoint. I needed something different, and that instrument brought out a new approach to things. Pretty quickly, we got together with Nick [Baglio] and started the band. He’s an amazing drummer, and we’re lucky to have someone with his abilities. He’s world class. There aren’t any limitations.
When you’re young, you want to play really complicated stuff and play a lot of notes. All this stuff that’s really hard to do. But now, we’re asking ourselves, “How do we play less? How do we play with more space?” We’re lucky. It’s a unique trio of musicians.
This year saw the release of Three Kids, the fifth release from The Hot at Nights since 2011. How did the record come together?
Chris: We did an EP last year and the last full length was released in 2013. But we’ve all been super busy since then. Matt had his first child. I got really busy playing and touring with Aaron Freeman. But I found myself with some time to do some writing. My wife and I were expecting our first child. I really, truly believe that injects a lot of creativity into the process. I was able to write a lot of music over a short period of time. Got into some synths and stuff like that. This record is different sounding and we wanted to put it on vinyl. As we were recording, we wanted to make it sound good on vinyl.
So did you have your baby this year?
Chris: Yes. In February. And Matt had twins in January. Those are the three kids referenced in the album title. And also us, the three kids on stage [laughs].
I was hoping you’d humor me and talk about genre for a minute. I know musicians typically hate categorization, but I think one of the intriguing things about The Hot at Nights is that you cross into genres that some of your contemporaries (say, Hiss Golden Messenger or The Mountain Goats) don’t touch. First, hip hop. Chris, you’ve played extensively with The Foreign Exchange, and The Hot at Nights toured with Nicolay in 2012. Hip hop beats find their way into your music. Is it because hip hop represents a natural step in the evolution of jazz or something else?
Chris: I’ve had one foot in that world ever since I got involved with The Foreign Exchange. Phonte and Nicolay. That’s a whole other world I’ve lived in. And not to mention that I’ve been a hip hop fan my whole adult life. During my youth too. Hip hop is influential on me as a writer, especially rhythmically. Nick is the drummer in The Foreign Exchange too, so that’s been heavily influential on how he plays and approaches music. There are things rhythmically and sonically in that style of music that you don’t get in other types of music.
I’ve also mixed a lot of hip hop as an engineer. I mixed Phonte’s last solo record, so I got to see under the hood for some songs and beats produced by really great producers. It’s always there. I’m always listening to hip hop records that come out.
Matt: The first band that I had in and after college was an organ trio. One of the first regular gigs we ever got was playing these hip hop parties in New York and Philly. We would be the backing band for MC’s. Some of those gigs were the first professional shows that I played. I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty. It really informed my playing. It came in addition to listening to the “go-to” saxophone players, like Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane in high school and college. I was also listening to a lot of Maceo Parker, a lot of James Brown. Music with horn sections. The instrument and my experience with music in those days was really informed by hip hop and soul and funk music. It’s all connected.
When you were the backing band for MC’s in college, did you ever play with any rappers we might have heard of?
Matt: Talib Kweli was one of the regulars, which was pretty cool. The Spank Rock guys grew out of this Drexel party we used to play in Philly too. Our drummer was Alex Epton, and he went on to produce the first Spank Rock record. Those were some fun days.
Going back to your question about genre, though, I think it’s interesting what people like Mike Taylor and John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats listen to. John listens mostly to metal, ambient, and a lot of classical music. He doesn’t really listen to a lot of indie rock or indie folk songwriters. He doesn’t listen to people who are doing something similar to what he’s doing. So for me, I don’t spend a lot of time listening to other jazz trios. It’s not just about what you listen to, but I think you play the music you are called to play, whether that’s literally or spiritually. Genre is not really who you are in all aspects. I don’t really lose a lot of sleep wondering how “jazz” we sound. Or how “un-jazz” this jazz sounds [laughs].
What we do think about, on the “hustle” end of it, we do have a conversation about who we think would enjoy hearing us play. That can sometimes bring up a conversation about genre regarding to whom or where you play music. If you go to a record store and it’s not organized by genre, it’s exhausting to find the record you’re looking for. It’s not like humans invented music theory, then Bach figured it out, then people started writing a bunch of cool stuff. People started writing a bunch of cool stuff first, and then we figured out a way to box it in. So genre is more of a business question. It’s about marketing.
That’s a good segue into my next question. The other genre I’m curious about is “jam band.” It’s obviously a trite description – perhaps we should call it “funk fusion” or “jazz prog?” Regardless, jam bands can be polarizing, but you guys seem to have at least partially embraced that scene. What is your position on jam bands?
Chris: I could talk to you for the rest of the day about this [laughs]. I’ll try not to offend anyone here. I was and still am a massive Grateful Dead fan. That’s a big difference between me and Matt and Nick. They’re not really into the Dead. I was also a massive Phish fan when I was younger. But I began to look for something that was a little more serious, music that was a little bit deeper.
Everyone – bands and fans – have a different relationship with music. And you see that with jam band music. That’s what they’re into. It tickles something that other music doesn’t. A lot of my friends and the folks I grew up with – I’ll play them something like Hiss Golden Messenger, and it’s like it’s in one ear out the other. It just doesn’t register with them.
But then they’ll put on a twenty-minute Phish song, and you’re like “I can’t handle this anymore.”
Chris: When I was eighteen, I thought that was really cool. But as a musician, I’m always looking for stuff to help me evolve. It’s kind of like our approach to food. If you eat at the same place every day, it’s not good for you. If you just listen to Phish all day long, it’s not good for you as a musician. They’re an incredible band and hugely influential to me – up to a point. But there’s other stuff out there.
The Hot at Nights have played with artists like Charlie Hunter and Marco Benevento. What is it that makes them stand out from other jam-oriented musicians?
Matt: Part of it has to do with an incredible mastery of their instrument. That’s why their music is so good. It’s also constantly evolving. They always seem to exploring a new thing.
Chris: Charlie, as an example, is a freak-of-nature musician. We’ve become friends through playing the eight-string guitar. He’s a huge influence and mentor. But he’s very specific about what music means to him and what he wants to get out of it. He’s super opinionated about it. And he’s dedicated. He practices that instrument every day. He’s gotten continually better. If you compare his early records to his later stuff, he’s gotten better. He will continue to get better. The idiosyncrasies of the eight-string guitar – playing bass and lead at the same time – dictate the limitations of that music. But his playing has influenced a lot of The Hot at Nights material, especially the earlier stuff.
We’re excited for your set opening for The Mountain Goats at Neighborhood Theatre. Have you ever played there before? What is your impression of Charlotte based on the times you’ve played here in the past?
Matt: We play Charlotte a couple of times a year. I’ve had an ever-growing appreciation of Charlotte since I met my wife. When we started dating, she was living in Charlotte. That was almost ten years ago. I’ve been going there a lot more. I don’t have really have an understanding of whether the music scene there is growing or flourishing, but we’ve had some good times there.
Your most recent Charlotte show was earlier this year at Snug Harbor. Where else have you played?
Matt: We’ve played The Evening Muse. And The Neighborhood Theatre with other bands. We also played at my wife’s uncle’s restaurant downtown. I’m excited to play Charlotte again.
What kind of set do you have planned this time around? I assume you’ll focus on the new record?
Chris: Yeah. We’ll play from the new one and maybe a little bit from the last EP [Cool It, released in 2016]. That’s where our heads are right now. We’ll play about a 45-minute set. It’s really fun for us to play some bigger stages that we don’t normally get to play. The new material sounds really nice through a big PA. It lets us open it up. One of our goals is to sound like more than three people on stage. We do that pretty well, and it’s amplified on these bigger stages.
I’ll wrap it up by asking for some record recommendations. What are you listening to these days – new or old? Is there anything that’s getting you fired up?
Matt: I saw Chicano Batman in Minneapolis while I was on tour, and they were really good. My family totally digs listening to the new Chicano Batman record, so that’s a big one for us right now. I really like the new This Is The Kit record. I think it’s called Moonshine Freeze. The new Andy Shauf record. This Canadian guy who uses a lot of woodwinds. It’s kind of all over the place, but it’s really good.
Chris: I’m so involved in all this music I’m working on, I’m constantly listening to mixes and masters. Everything is going to vinyl these days, and it’s really been a challenge to get things to sound good on vinyl. It’s not the same thing as a digital record or a CD. So I’ve been trying to find things that sound really good on vinyl. The ECM pressings from the 1970s and 1980s sound really good. The jazz records. I’ve been trying to buy as many of those as I can. The music really explodes off the record. Most people aren’t properly preparing their music to go on vinyl. It sounds inferior, but it doesn’t have to. I think some of that is due to the plants not being as good now, people not knowing what they’re doing. But those ECM pressings are great. It’s music with a lot of space in it.