MEET MATT JAFFE AND THE DISTRACTIONS
Vivid imagery stages the songs of Matt Jaffe and the Distractions on California’s Burning, their recent release. The Roots of Matt Jaffe is influenced by SoCal Punk Rock and Rockabilly giving the songs on California’s Burning a raw foundation. To fully understand the dark music edge beneath the sunshine of the Golden State, twenty-one year old native Californian Matt Jaffe discovered the musical past of the west coast and found himself haunted by the ghosts of its cinema while attending college in New England. He came back home to ‘make an album that sounds like the records we like. One that sounds like the music that turns us on’. Matt Jaffe called us from his Northern California home to talk about his music, his band, and the new album, California’s Burning.
The Alternate Root (TAR): Do you live in the city of San Francisco, Matt?
Matt Jaffe (MJ): I live just north of San Francisco, in Marin County, but definitely San Francisco is home. It’s a pretty, very lovely here, you get to go hiking, mountain biking, and then still within driving distance of a lot of clubs.
TAR: Where do you play in San Francisco?
MJ: Fortunately, there are still a lot of great rock clubs. We’ve gone to play The Independent a couple of times, Slim’s, Bottom of the Hill. We play The Rickshaw, though it’s not so much a rock club, more a hip spot. We’ve opened for bands twice at the Fillmore. That’s a more special occasion, although every gig is a special occasion, really.
TAR: I know, and love, the music scene in San Francisco, and the clubs probably have changed drastically since I lived there. I managed bands in San Francisco in the late ‘90s, and we played places like The Paradise on Folsom Street.
MJ: Yeah is was on Folsom. I know because we’ve been, our car was broken into on Folsom after a gig there.
TAR: Yeah, that would be the same place! How is the city treating you?
MJ: It’s great. I think right now it’s sort of embroiled in in culture wars, the legacy of that dot-come era and how it’s affected the homegrown artists and music scene. All things told, it’s a great place to be.
TAR: San Francisco was severely affected by the influx of technology in Silicon Valley. Before the dot-com invasion, artists could move there and share an apartment that they didn’t have to work 24/7 to be able to afford. Musicians could get a part-time job still work on your art. The dot-com era really wiped that possibility out. You had to work so much to be able to keep your apartment, that art suffered.
TAR: You went to school on the East Coast? Did you go for music?
MJ: I went to Yale. When I went there I didn’t know what I wanted to do. That’s more or less the point of a place like that, to do a little bit of everything. But I ended up studying film, trying to aggregate a number of employable skills.
TAR: Into one unemployable skill?
MJ: Yeah, exactly.
TAR: Were you playing music before you went there?
MJ: Oh yeah. I’ve been playing for a long time. I wasn’t even sure I was going to go out there until I did, and I’m very glad I did because it showed me a lot of the things I wouldn’t have discovered had I stayed here. But it also reinforced that music was what I really wanted to do.
TAR: Your playing is interesting. Were you influenced by rockabilly? Your sound has a power pop and punk rock base with rockabilly chops.
MJ: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of guitar players, it’s obvious to say Wayne Hancock, early rock ‘n’ roll players and early country players are a huge influence. Obviously, I’ve been watching a lot of Chuck Berry clips recently. People love to use superlatives, and it can be silly to do, but just about everything that I want to do on guitar can be traced pretty directly back to that. Another guy who I look to is Luther Perkins from the Tennessee Two with Johnny Cash. To me, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to electric guitar playing, but there’s not much beyond that sort of thing that I am trying to do.
TAR: Early country music can certainly riff as much as any guitarist and the playing is so clean.
MJ: Yeah, and I think the lead guitar in early Country has a responsibility to keep the rhythm section going, too. That’s something I love about Luther Perkins’ playing. He didn’t deviate from being that boom-chicka-boom-chicka thing. He had to fit his leads into that mold, and since we usually play as a power trio, that kind of playing has been a big inspiration. You know, how can you play something that clearly is a lead, clearly checking out, but not having the rhythm section get away from you.
TAR: Was that the inspiration behind doing a power trio?
MJ: It was an artistic decision. We played as a quartet for a while and a four-piece on our record. We tried a number of replacements when we lost a member, and found some great guitarists, but as anybody’s who’s been in a band knows, it’s not just about having great musicians, it’s about having people who know how to play, how to support the songs. We couldn’t quite find that, so we decided that the power trio could make it work. There were a few songs where it was sort of like, flirting with the need for a second guitar, but we did some reworking, some tinkering, and we found a way for everything to fit that form. And then the logistical side is very obvious. The difference between coordinating three schedules and four schedules is a pretty big deal when you want to be able to a gig on a moment’s notice.
TAR: If the trio gets it right playing live, there is nothing better.
MJ: I agree. Something that I have been thinking a lot as we gear up for our next studio recording is how do we make the recordings really pop out? How do we make them special, something that people can keep coming back to? It’s interesting thinking about because in the studio sometimes there is a desire to do these overdubs and stuff, but I really think there’s sort of a kinetic energy and chemistry that you get from just three people playing off each other on stage. The members you have, the more you dilute that kinetic energy.
TAR: Do you record in San Francisco?
MJ: We’ve never recorded in the city itself. We’ve usually record in Berkeley. And that’s the thing -- for us, we don’t really want to deviate from what we do live in the studio. That was a big part of our most recent session was trying to communicate exactly like we do on stage. You know, when you’re on stage, there are different dimensions for communicating. It really is a show, so I think you can -- you don’t sacrifice the music, but you can add so many things, just in terms of performance and visuals. I’m not talking about pyrotechnics or projections or light shows, I’m just talking body movement and musician interactions.
TAR: One of the things fascinating about California’s Burning is it’s such a wide path between the more literary side of the lyrics and a raw musical attack, which as the three-piece really works.
MJ: Yeah, I think the rawness was really a reaction to some of the slickness in other recordings. I certainly don’t say “slick” with any negative connotations. We just wanted something that really sounded like you were in the room. It’s come from a lot of the bands that I’ve really loved. One of my favorite bands is X. Their records have no sort of smoke and mirrors or wizardry to them, the production only serves to not obscure the band. Which is great production unto itself, I think. In terms of rockabilly, I would say X and The Blasters and even The Clash are really great interpreters of rockabilly.
TAR: The ability to make a song out of chaos, which is what X and The Blasters and The Clash do, creates such a musical force. I can hear that in the music of The Distractions, certainly. California’s Burning seems to have the California-centric theme to it. Is that an idea or did it just turn out the songs all fit?
MJ: These songs are collected from the span of a few years, and are culled from a big repertoire, so we decided to do songs that had sort of a conceptual coherence to them. You know, I definitely would shy away from the term “concept album” because I don’t think, they don’t really form such a strong narrative, they’re not like Tommy or something. But I think we wanted songs that really played off one another, and did deal with a lot of the same themes. And it sort of coincided with my discovering a lot of these California songwriters and sort of California-based narratives that I really loved. We’ve already talked about some of them, but certainly X and The Blasters and Social Distortion, and other bands like that who I saw doing the same thing as bands like The Clash and Elvis Costello and Talking Heads, but putting a distinctively West Coast spin on it. Of course, those guys are from a while back, when they were really making their records, but to me it’s all very fresh, all very current, and we wanted to carry on that.
TAR: There’s a timelessness to all the artists you mention. Were they influences you brought back from college or discovered when you came back to California.
MJ: A lot of these bands are a part of the Southern California early-‘80s scene. I really just discovered in the couple of years leading up to the recording, and you know, I think it comes down to the cliché of needing to leave a place to understand what it means. But you know, I think the basis of wanting to make the record and wanting to hone in on one place as being the root of the album’s meaning.
TAR: Will you be touring behind the album?
MJ: We’ve played extensively in the Bay since the release. We’re starting to book dates beyond the Bay Area to support it. And yes, still working on that, still figuring out our touring logistics and routing, but we’re looking forward to sharing it with places beyond. We are planning to do another sort of more official music video. Something we’ve been doing in the last couple of months are these “Song of the Week” videos, which are just acoustic, down-to-earth, DIY videos. Part of what I’ve found with social media is that it becomes tempting to project a version of yourself, sort of an advertisement of who you are as a person, as a musician. I saw these more stripped down, intimate, acoustic videos afforded us a chance to show like a very genuine window onto how we play and who we are right now. We release new videos every Sunday on YouTube. You can find them through Facebook and Instagram and Twitter as well. I think it speaks to trends, and the mainstream becomes so glossy, so polished, that it really allows a splinter group to crystallize. For those that don’t want everything to be perfectly aligned, auto-tuned, and perfectly produced and slick. I think that people who do want to see, the cracks and the rough-hewn edges. I think that sort of group is emerging as the mainstream becomes more and more polished and really inaccessible.
TAR: Is that the feedback you get from live shows?
MJ: Yeah. There is a reason I still use the word “mainstream” for the people who have a more polished sound because it is a big chunk of the population who are falling in line with that, but I have seen in the Bay Area, especially in the East Bay, where I think the cost of living is just more reasonable, a group of musicians are deliberately doing something different, something that really eschews the industry standards of how like something ‘should’ sound. Music became too bombastic, too produced, and now some sort of underdog counterculture has emerged. In the past, it’s produced these champions in underground scenes. I would say The Clash and Nirvana and Green Day are examples of that. That sort of underground breaking through.
TAR: Green Day and Nirvana broke relatively quickly, but some of those early bands you mentioned, like The Blasters and X and The Clash, time has made them superstars. They certainly weren’t like that when they were recording their first albums.
MJ: Both Nirvana and Green Day capitulated a little bit to the production and style of the day, but I still think they represent a scene that incubated for a while, then was able to break through. I think that is still a possibility.