Sifting Through the Vanity Projects in the Festival's Fourth Year
This week Cary Clarke talked to Meth Teeth about all sorts of things, but to make room for the escort ads that pay for this paper to stay in business, we had to cut much of the lengthy interview.
But thanks to the limitless territory that is the internet, here is the interview in its entirety. Frontman Mattey Hunter candidly discusses the band's beginnings, the Sub Pop Loser scholarship, Woodsist, and all sorts of other interesting topics. It's a great read.
First of all, what are your names, ages, previous/other bands, and instrumental duties in Meth Teeth?
Mattey Hunter, guitar and vocals. Kyle Raquipisio, drums and vocals. Aaron Levy, guitar. Well, I have been in lots of bands. I was in a noise punk band called Night Wounds for a bit. I played bass and sang a little as well as played some guitar on the Aids Wolf/Night Wounds split 12-inch that they put out. There is also a seven-inch floating around that Night Wounds did with a Vancouver B.C. band called Mutators with me on it too. That one is way goth, I play a guitar detuned so low it sounds like I’m banging on metal. Kyle has a solo Project called Leper Print that he has put out a couple seven-inch’s with and also did a record with a band called Artificial Limbs. Also, these days he is playing with Muslim Delgado in Meercaz, who just put out their debut LP. Aaron has at one time or another been in every garage band that SE Portland has seen in the last five years: Reptilian Civilian, Eegos, Pity Fucks just to name a few.
How did Meth Teeth begin, and how much development or change has there been in the band's line-up or way of doing things since?
Meth Teeth started as just me playing weird folk songs I made up after the breakup of a couple of bands I was in. I was frustrated and debating whether playing music in bands was at all fun or worth it anymore. Then I just wrote songs to have something to do. I think the lack of ambition and pressure had a lot to do with how they came out. I just wrote them for me and my friends to hear. After playing a few shows in NE featuring different line up (some of which included a violin and/or piano) Kyle joined and we were a guitar/drums duo. We were way more into the abrasive noise part of it in the beginning. The concept of combining bummed-out, primitive folk with super abrasive lo-fi noise seemed like a magical one. As more songs came we needed to include another guitar to get the push and pull of melody versus noise right. So we had our friend Matt Nice from Seattle play second guitar. He went on the national tour and let us use his car (super nice guy). He was living in Seattle at the time and attending business school so the trips got too frequent. Next our friend Zach Fischmann joined the band for a minute. He was really into old folk and blues so that seemed like a good fit. The noise element totally weirded him out though. He helped record and played on the LP before moving back to the Bay Area. Now after all that we are looking to be more of a band and less of a recording project. We have never jammed out songs as a band. It was always me and Kyle writing and recording and then getting someone to fill in for the second guitar parts live. We are taking our time and just starting to get there with Aaron.
Am I correct in understanding that your drummer was the winner of the Sub Pop Loser Scholarship, and that his education brought him to Portland? How did he come to win, and what impact has that had in his life?
Yeah, Kyle won the Sub Pop Loser Scholarship [an annual college scholarship offered by the iconic label]. He’s the coolest kid in the world. He was putting out records from his bedroom at his parents’ house when he was 16. He was doing artwork for record covers for tons of people—including bands Jay Reatard was in—all by himself, out in eastern Washington. When he submitted his stuff to Sub Pop I don’t imagine there was much contest. He’s the golden boy. That was part of what got him down here and into PNCA. The second day he was here in Portland he came over with his eight-track and he told me we should record my folk songs electric, blow them out and see how it turned out. That recording we made the first week we were a band became our “Bus Rides” seven-inch that came out on Sweet Rot Records a few months later.
The Meth Teeth origin myth has it that you started writing these songs as solo acoustic numbers, and were only subsequently convinced of making them band pieces. Do you think of your music as coming from a folk tradition, or does the electric trio-setup ground it more in rock in your eyes?
I think it’s very much folk based. In the sense that I was just writing what came to me with no thought of trying to make it sound like anything else epically. The electric trio part is an afterthought. Plus, us all coming from punk backgrounds it’s really the only way we know how to present these ideas; at a punk show, for a crowd of people who would normally never give a folk record the time of day. It’s a strange band. Bummed-out folk songs presented for a sometimes-reluctant punk/garage crowd. But that’s just how it came out. We often talk about getting rid of the amps and going back to an acoustic sound like it was when I started it. And we might. But for now our current set up is the best way we know how to get it all across.
One of the signatures of your sound is the conspicuous tambourine. What about that instrument made you all want to feature it more prominently than as just a percussive flourish?
We have a really thrashed drum set. It was stolen when I bought it. It has obviously been thrown off stages. The snare drum sounds like a trash can, it doesn’t even cut through the mix. But if you bang a tambourine on it, it becomes audible. That’s all there is to it.
When and where did you record your new album Everything Went Wrong? How long had you been working on these songs?
I think some of those songs have been around for about two years now. We spent about a year recording and re-recording the LP. It took three separate sessions until we had something we actually wanted to release. We went through two guitar players, equipment failures… it was a dark year in general. When we started recording the third time we were like, “If it doesn’t happen this time, then it doesn’t happen at all.” It’s called Everything Went Wrong for a reason. Seriously, it seemed like everything went wrong that possibly could while we recorded it. I don’t even like thinking about it.
Who made your album art?
Kyle made the album art. We both came up with the idea but he’s the one with all the art skills.
Everything Went Wrong is out on arguably the biggest "buzz" label of the year, Woodsist, one of the homes of the newest lo-fi revival with bands like Wavves, Real Estate, Ganglians and Kurt Vile on the roster. Given that your label has such a strong aesthetic identity and that your recording style—blown-out, highly compressed, trebly, grainy—to some extent fits the Woodsist mold, have you been concerned that people will hear your band in relation to your labelmates or your recording fidelity, rather than on its own merits?
I think about that sometimes. However it was not an overnight decision to go with Woodsist, and when the decision was finally made it came down to the fact that they were a smart label who seemed to be signing every band I had been excited about from around the country. And furthermore, they were very interested in not only putting out amazing bands, but weird ones and new ones that no one was even giving exposure to. It started as a tape label and grew up on its own merits. There are no contracts, just putting out rad bands for the world to hear and expanding minds.
I don’t worry about the lo-fi tag so much, Kyle hates it though. I have always enjoyed shitty sounding records with good tunes on them. If people are interested in that aesthetic quality only and not the music then let ‘em be. They are freaks and are missing out on a lot, but whatever. There has always been “lo-fi” in music but not until recently has that tag been used as an attractive marketing gimmick. Think back to the ‘90s, bands like Guided by Voices were all about lo-fi, but the sound was working against them. Now there is a greater interest in analog in the face of Pro-Tools and other “more real than reality” digital recording methods. Listeners seek out this kind of thing, and my personal preference is a well-done analog recording, sometimes you gotta turn it up to fill up all that space. By the way, a lot of those lo-fi recording you hear are digital recording with GarageBand filters over them. It’s a pretty simple formula if you want to make a fake lo-fi recording. I’m sure GarageBand will come with a preset filter for it soon.
How did you hook up with Woodsist in the first place? Were you on a hunt for a suitable label, were they friends of yours, was it an internet coincidence, or what? Seems unlikely, even in 2009, for a Portland house-show band that hasn't (I think) toured nationally to end up released on a Brooklyn label.
After we released the “Bus Rides” seven-inch we went on a self-booked national tour that took us from here to Vancouver B.C., to San Diego, to Austin, to New Orleans, up to Chicago, New York, Minnesota then back to Portland for PDX POP NOW!. It was 10,500 miles in 27 days, traveling in a Dodge Stratus. We borrowed drums in every town we went to since we couldn’t fit them in the car and when I booked the tour I didn’t really have a concept of how big the country was. There were lots of 12-plus hour drives on that trip, we went totally insane a few times over and now part of my brain is missing. It was really cool to meet everyone, sleep on their couches, and play with all the bands we had been watching from a far.
Then, this past summer we did a California tour down to San Diego and back. That one was originally set to be another National tour but we had a guitarist leave the band during planning and more car issues, so we kept it simple. We just went down the coast and played with friends we already knew and bands we already loved.
That “Bus Rides” single we put out in the beginning seemed to make it everywhere and sold out pretty quick. Then was re-pressed and that sold as well. When Zach King was booking over at the Twilight in SE he set up a show with Woods (Jeremy from Woodsist’s band) and us. Jeremy invited Meth Teeth to come play Seattle with them and Crystal Stilts, who are also from Brooklyn. During that trip he just simply leaned over and asked if Meth Teeth wanted to do a Woodsist record. It was the first time ever really meeting or talking to the guy. Woodsist is by far my favorite label going. So I said yes.
Speaking of which, how did you and your bandmates come to reside in Portland?
I came here five years ago for a girl. Moved here from Eastern Washington, a town called Richland. There is a nuclear waste dump there called the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, I went to Hanford High, which is like 5 miles from the waste. Kyle is from the town next door called Kennewick and he moved here about 2 years ago. We didn’t know each other really until he moved here. I had heard about some kid from my hometown that was putting out records from his bedroom and naturally that sparked my interest. Aaron Levy is actually from Portland and has been our buddy for a couple years, he can play any instrument he picks up. He’s a wunderkind as well.
Part of the accepted model for making music that sounds like it comes from a garage is to match it with lyrics celebrating a debauched, young dude party lifestyle. Mirroring the ways in which your music broadens the garage sonic palette by incorporating folk textures and dark, art school chords, your lyrics also deviate from the expected, chronicling feelings of regret and failure rather than dive bar nihilism (e.g. songs titled like "I Was Wrong", "Failures Selected by God" and "A Thousand Regrets). Are you writing about your own experiences, or trying to cultivate a sort of air of poetic inadequacy?
That’s just me. I’m a negative creep. I try not to be in person but it’s got to go somewhere I guess. Garage rock lyrics are super boring too. That shit is awful, emulating some dudes lyrics that were his joke 30 years ago, dressing like him, and trying to act like him: It’s a bit like being an Elvis impersonator in a way. Except you try to write sub par versions of his songs too? I don’t know, some people can pull it off, but that’s pretty rare. I thought maybe I should just write down my own ideas. And I don’t know how to write lyrics so it would at least be honest even if it was bad.
What artists or bands do the three of you agree upon as influences? Beyond the Pussy Galore sonics, I hear bits and pieces that remind me particularly of The Pixies, John Fahey and Sonic Youth. Would you agree with any of those references?
You just named some of my favorites! I really love early Sonic Youth, Kill Yr Idols era. As far as Pixies I still catch myself listening to “Velouria” on repeat for hours at a time and Bossanova is a heartbreaker in general. Fahey I wasn’t exposed to until fairly recently. When I really try to de-construct us—Cowboy Junkies, Jesus and Mary Chain, Pussy Galore, Country Teasers, One Foot in the Grave Beck, all mixed up with a lot of early 80’s New York no-fi noise and tons of simple folk—are the things that come to mind. That’s what I was really into when the project was conceived and still love to this day.
Following the thread of failure and regret, how did you pick the name Meth Teeth? Not exactly an appealing image, but you're also not exactly a gross-out band.
I didn’t give it much thought at the time, except that it made me laugh. I thought it would be a really funny/perfect name for a one man acoustic, bummer folk band. When I thought about changing it I got a lot of crap from friends. So here we are. Be careful how you choose your band name. People ask if it has to do with our hometown, there certainly was meth everywhere, so maybe.
You guys have played a few shows recently, including the one coming up this week at The Doug Fir, with The Dutchess and The Duke. On first thought, this seems like an odd pairing to me, but when I listen for the folk roots in your music, it makes a bit more sense to me. What's Meth Teeth's relationship with TD&TD?
We are huge Dutchess and the Duke fans. When I first heard about them, like even the idea of them, I looked them up and invited them to play in my basement in NE. That was such an awesome show. I think they come from similar backgrounds, musically, playing in weird NW punk/garage bands forever and us being fans of all those bands. We are both shooting for a similar goal—more stripped down, more personal and honest. To me, it makes total sense and they are one of the best bands going. Practice space rent in Seattle has forced out a bunch of acoustic projects there. Here in Portland I still pay $25 bucks a month for our space, we can afford to be loud. Kim and Jesse are rad. The first time I met Jesse he was screaming at the intern for MTV calling him a “whore” when they were filming that Portland segment for MTV news. That kid was terrified! Haha.
Now that your album is out, what's next on the Meth Teeth docket? Any plans for the coming year, as a band or individuals? Developing Trenchmouth or lockjaw or anything?
Tour in spring, or summer, for the Woodsist LP for sure. Like I said, Kyle is playing a bunch with Meercaz these days. It would be cool to do a new record next year if the songs come. I really love this band but I don’t want to put out a second record that sounds like a boring version of the first one, so we might do things a little differently. Our two ideas thus far: More instruments and members, or just saying fuck it and totally go acoustic. We’ll see. I think and hope ultimately that we can become more fluid and more of a band when we play, rather than, as I said before, a recording project first, and a live show second. We’ve been jamming a lot lately at practice and have even started to include Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in the set just to try to loosen it up a bit. There’s a fine line between a band who can pull that sort of thing off and one that can’t. We’re trying to be cautious. Sophomore LPs are a tricky thing, if it’s not good then it’s not worth doing. There are already way too many shitty records out there in the world. We’ll try our best.
Who are your favorite new local acts?
Orca Team (PDX), Asss (PDX) ,The Whines (PDX), Nucular Aminals (PDX) and Eel-Eater (SEA).
When you talk about your musical background, you mention having mostly played in punk and noise bands, but when you talk about the music that influences you in writing Meth Teeth songs, you refer to simple folk and country. Are the folk and country traditions things you grew up listening to alongside the punk and simply reconnected with when starting Meth Teeth, or is Meth Teeth really you sort of imagining what folk and country music could be like, and not actually having a deep familiarity with it? I guess what I’m asking is: Is Meth Teeth you interpreting or imagining folk and country tunes?
I think there is some truth to that. To some degree I am interpreting what my idea of folk is. However, Meth Teeth definitely has obvious literal folk influences—finger picking and country chords—but it’s more folk in an ideological sense. That might be over thinking it a bit, but when this band started it was kind of a reaction to all those formulaic things I can’t stand about modern garage rock—the costumes, the fake lyrics, the tired songs structures and recycled melodies. Modern garage is a meaningless genre exercise. It lacks all the things that made it special in the first place when it was conceived—originality and experimentation.
As far as actual country and folk influences, I got really into the old Smithsonian Folkways compilations when this project was conceived, as well as Bob Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan. I don’t really connect with too many other Dylan records, but that one is amazing. Woody Guthrie is a big deal as well as Lead Belly—the really stripped-down, minimalistic stuff, super honest, and very simple. It is so cheesy to say but that stuff really is punk rock to me in a way. It’s very to the point. Around the time this all started I gained a great respect for the folk arts in general after living in Portland for a bit and being exposed to really creepy Pearl District gallery art culture and certain factions of the music scene that, in my eyes, were really missing the point. In a phony world of photographer/DJ’s you have have to keep it simple and make it yours, or it’s just not worth it. I think it’s totally worth mentioning that when I lived in NE Portland it was like everywhere I went was playing the new Mississippi records comp that just came out that month. I literally went to three different punk houses one day and they were all playing the I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore folk comp. So cool! I love that label to death, I listen to those tapes they put out like crazy. I’m stuck on the House Of Broken Hearts, Part Two cassette right now.
Do you plan to put out your second LP with Woodsist, too, or is that up in the air? Have you been pleased with the relationship so far?
We will pick the label that is true to itself, forward thinking and smart. If that’s a no-name, brand new, upstart label, so be it. But for now, Woodsist is that label. I’m am very happy with what they’ve done so far and am so glad we got to put out our debut LP with them. In my eyes it is a perfect fit.
What are your guys' ages and day jobs (assuming you have them)?
Kyle works with kids and goes to PNCA. Aaron sells Cigars downtown and I am a history major at PSU. I need a job real bad.
Given your roots in Eastern Washington, do you guys do anything to try and stay connected with the music community out there? For example, do you stay on the lookout for other bands from your hometowns, or try and play shows out there in spite of their being out of the way?
You know, when I grew up there the music scene was very vibrant and creative. As I got older, it got smaller and smaller until my band was one of the only ones around. The shows were huge at that time, kids had nothing to do and punk bands were a thing they hadn’t seen before. Richland isn’t on the way anywhere, that’s why it was selected for arms development in WWII. It’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s not a tour stop for bands unless you are heading to Spokane, and why would you do that? There is a venue but now it’s just over run with rap rock shit that was cool to Gresham kids like four years ago. I don’t even count that stuff. That’s not a music scene and those bands aren’t local. There is a whole small town tour circuit that people in big cities don’t even know about. Really shitty played out bands that seem like they are self-parodies tour around the NW small town to small town and are really popular in that scene. They get paid tons of money too! It’s so weird that Kyle came from there. So weird. When I was growing up I had some cool examples to follow but him, he just figured it out on his own.
I wanted to clarify - the album is just Kyle and you, overdubbing the second guitar part, which you also wrote?
I wrote all the songs, guitar parts and lyrics except for two songs. Kyle wrote “I was Wrong” and “People Will Say Anything.” Both are amazing songs. We had a guitarist named Zach Fischmann for a short time who played second guitar on the LP as well, but he didn't do any writing. Kyle even played a little guitar overdub stuff on there. It was a collaborative recording effort. Like I said, we have very much been a recording project first up to this point.
How does your guys' writing process work? It sounds like it's in a transitional phase on the way to something more collaborative, but as far as the tracks on Everything Went Wrong go, did you and Kyle create them collaboratively, or were you effectively calling the shots?
Up until now the way it’s gone has been: I write songs and record them alone when they are finished; just myself, an acoustic, and maybe some piano or something. Then I bring those songs to Kyle and he throws out ideas and writes drum parts to them. When he writes stuff it’s been the same way. The entire song is conceived personally, first, and then presented to the other members. Small changes are made but they are pretty much set before the rest of the band even sees them. Kyle doesn’t write songs very often but when he does they are so good I don’t argue with him.