“In Nashville, this shirt is the fastest way to make the right people hate me.” Matt North said with a smile and a wink. He’s referencing the new t-shirt on his website (“Death Before Bro Country”), a phrase I co-opted for the title of this interview. North is fine with me using it, with a bit of direction. “If you run with it as the title, I’m pretty sure the genre’s ‘hyphenated’ … but a hyphen would’ve just ruined the look of the shirt, wouldn’t want to offend the bro-country genre with a misspell.”
Matt North is an interesting breed. A musician primarily, his talent extends across many genres, bro-country notwithstanding, affording him varying levels of success across a rich and interesting career. He describes it as “35 years of music with a sabbatical into comedy and film.” His first solo album (‘Above Ground Fools’) comes out this month. The engaging album is smart, witty and, at times, cutting. It features 10 original tracks that address doomed romance, the death of newsworthy news, male jealousy, legal battles, and other upbeat tales of personal failure. North was joined in the studio by Nashville A-listers including bassist Chris Donohue (Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris), guitarist Stuart Mathis (Lucinda Williams, Wallflowers), keyboardist Michael Webb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton), Michael McAdam (Steve Earle), Billy Livsey (Brendan Benson), Christopher Wild, and The Nashville Horns.
“The album wouldn’t exist if I stayed in Los Angeles,” North said. “My wife (actress Laurel Green) kept encouraging me. The idea sounded silly in my mind, but she has a way of saying the same ideas and making them sound better. The thing is we all make investments in our 20s and 30s that we hope pay off in our 40s and 50s and, for me; the investments just weren’t working out. I tore it all down and moved here (Nashville) after 14 years in L.A. I shut the world out for a while. I went into my studio every day for hours and didn’t come out until I’d written something. I was getting session work here recording drums, but recording my own songs was the best thing I could do to manage my anxiety. I kept thinking, ‘Just turn this whole mess into music and get on with your fucking life’ so here’s my puddle in the ocean of iTunes. I started recording in 2012 then turned around one day and had six songs. I didn’t know I was making a record. It didn’t happen quickly because I insisted on writing everything myself. I wanted the album to be exactly what I am right now – the drummer’s a veteran, but the songwriter’s a rookie. I hit gridlock with every song. I could’ve called up a slew of pro songwriters to get me out of trouble in a matter of minutes, but digging myself out of holes without anyone holding my hand was the only way I’d develop my own mindset for songwriting.”
Born in Michigan, North spent his formative years in Champaign-Urbana, IL. His childhood was filled with music and he took full advantage of what that magical community had to offer.
“I started drumming in fourth grade to Cheap Trick and Kiss records and the heavens opened up,” North said. “Champaign-Urbana was full of indie bands — great ones like Poster Children, Hum and Titanic Love Affair. Every band I was in tried to be The Replacements, R.E.M. or Robyn Hitchcock. That was my ‘Champaign’ side, but my ‘Urbana’ side grew up watching John Garvey’s University of Illinois Jazz Band at this incredible little jazz club called Nature’s Table. I began drumming there in middle school for Guido Sinclair’s ‘Happy Blues Band’ with Rafael Garrett on bass. Rafael had played for John Coltrane and appeared on four Coltrane recordings. My big regret is turning down an offer to join the Poster Children. I was fifteen and Rose (Marshack, bassist) called my house after their first drummer quit. My mom was by the phone shaking her head, ‘Who is this college girl calling? You still can’t drive.’ Poster Children were signed to Sire Records a year later.”
Recognized as a top notch drummer, North attended the highly acclaimed University of North Texas School of Music on full scholarship. He toured Russia and the Ukraine with the 1991 University of Illinois Jazz Band. As his musical tastes developed, North found himself exploring the outlaw culture; artists with the ability to push the mainstream envelope into the uncomfortable. As many who were raised in the Midwest in the 1970s and 80s can attest, the hunger for musical stimuli was compelling and, once found, defined a generation. Back then, friendships were made and battles were waged based on who and what you listened to.
“I loved Kris Kristofferson’s songs,” North said, “I loved his politics, and I loved when he showed up in movies like “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Semi-Tough.” No doubt Kristofferson gave me the notion that I could be a musician and experiment with acting when I was kissing frogs in Los Angeles’ music scene. Going deeper, it’s Levon Helm, Stevie Wonder, Iggy Pop, MC5, and my Sears clock radio listening to Larry Lujack on Chicago’s WLS. I watched “Soul Train” in the morning and “Hee-Haw” at night. I love country music, but “Soul Train” made me get up out of my chair.”
North mined Champaign-Urbana and the Midwest for all it was worth. Eventually he decided to move to California, a trek which North categorizes as inevitable.
“Honestly, I can’t remember when I didn’t want to move west,” North pondered. “It probably came from Tatum O’Neill in “The Bad News Bears.” I figured if California had whip-smart, gorgeous, trucker-mouthed tomboys who can throw a curve ball, smoke cigarettes, and steal scenes from Walter Matheau, then I’ll go find that girl. I’m pretty sure I married her. The image of California in the 70s was the landscape of my imagination and I’ll still stop whatever I’m doing to watch “Columbo.” Finishing college, I was reading Mother Jones Magazine and saw an ad for internships. I sent them my essays, they hired me as a fact checker, and I moved to San Francisco right before Silicon Valley did its alpha-dog-piss around the whole peninsula.”
As can happen, growing pains hit shortly after he hit the Baghdad by the Bay and, as can happen, when one door closes, another opens.
“When I got to San Francisco, I unexpectedly hit a bad case of burnout after 15 years of music. I hung out at The Punchline Comedy Club open-mic every Sunday night and, in a few months, they started hiring me. After years of carting drums I was getting paid to show up alone with a notebook and it was irresistible. At the open-mic scene, I waited to go up next to Marc Maron, Mitch Hedberg, Arj Barker, Margaret Cho, Greg Behrendt, Robert Hawkins and Patton Oswalt, who was also my roommate. You know when you realize in hindsight how special something was? I knew exactly how special all of that was when it was happening. What I didn’t know then, but what’s clear now is that stand-up was my way of rebelling against music. Different than most rebellions ending in drug abuse or addiction, I ended up on television. Same thing actually…”
What an image. North’s candidness is refreshing and, whether we know it or not, his story surely rings true for many others. A survivor, North forged ahead pursuing his new form of self-expression, developing his new craft while keeping his bass drum foot at the ready.
“I toured a lot with Mitch Hedberg and we did the Montreal Comedy Festival together. Networks gave us both development deals and we moved down to L.A. In under a month, my deal went belly up and my manager moved to New York, but I’d signed a one-year exclusive contract not to work anywhere else so it left me marking time for 11 months. I just wrote all the time and tried to meet musicians. My best friends were comedians and they all played guitar or wrote songs. Marc Maron’s a fantastic guitarist and we used to meet up and jam for a brief period. I’ve always been a George Martin fan and knew that his career began producing comedy records for Peter Sellers before The Beatles so I got this idea to ask comedians who wrote songs if I could play drums and produce just for experience. When other L.A. musicians were hitting the music scene, I was much more interested in all the musical talent I was finding in the comedy world. I’ve never met a musician who didn’t say, ‘I always wanted to try stand-up,’ and I’ve never met a comedian without an extraordinary record collection.”
Talent finds talent. I’ve said it before and I’ve found it to be true in so many situations. Sometimes, that talent is rewarded. As North slugged it out and made connections he found things started to happen. He starred opposite James Woods in “Dirty Pictures,” directed by Frank Pierson (writer of “Cool Hand Luke,” “Dog Day Afternoon”), appeared in bit parts on television and was cast as a recurring character for a full season on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as Jason Alexander’s William Morris agent. Unfortunately, life happens and after one episode Jason Alexander left the series for his own and North was written out of the season.
“A year later I was a custodian at City Hall in Beverly Hills. I feel that’s WAY MORE interesting and depressing for readers,” North laughs.
Through the years, he has recorded and performed with Maria McKee, Jay Bennett, Peter Case, Jesse DeNatale, Blondie Chaplin, Andy Prieboy, and Mink Stole of John Waters fame. A student of life, North learned from his elders, as well as his peers.
“Maybe the more interesting lessons are the ones that no one explicitly tried to teach. I mentioned Patton Oswalt and I were roommates in San Francisco. As a writer, I was in my ‘sophomore year’ trying to find my voice while Patton was finishing up his Ph.D. in comedy, per se. The lucky thing was getting near that level of talent. I saw what San Francisco comics never saw: I saw how hard he worked. It woke me up because, at the time, I wasn’t putting in the honest hours to get anywhere. My strongest memory rooming with Patton was hearing the sound of his keyboard while he was in his room writing – every single day. Years later in Los Angeles, I was drumming in a punk band called The Buxotics and Patton came out to our shows. One night, he gave me a CD called ‘Exitos A Go Go: 60’s Teenbeat South Of The Border.’ When I imagine Patton finding an album of Mexican teenage garage rock thinking, ‘That’s what Matt needs,’ it just makes me happy. The record changed me forever because I’d been through so much formal training in music. I fell in love with garage rock and began thinking more like a teenager instead of trying to sound like ‘a professional drummer.’ Patton always gave the best compliment, ‘Man, your drumming’s totally meat and potatoes.’ When I record now, I say to myself before every take, ‘Just stick to meat and potatoes’ to keep my nerves in check. It’s small gestures like giving someone an album that become monolithic over time … I probably just sold more copies of ‘Exitos A Go Go’ than my own album.”
North found himself partnered with Charles Ezell in the crowd pleasing band Hail the Size. Their 2009 album ‘I Can’t Die in LA’ featured Lone Justice’s Maria McKee and was heralded by critics and music fans alike. Steve Earle labeled it “a good record.” Still, the need to create on his own seemed clouded by his own assumption that it wasn’t a drummer’s role.
“I played some shows in L.A. with singer/songwriter, Peter Case, and told him once that I wanted to get deeper into songwriting, but I’m no good on guitar. He just laughed at me, ‘Who needs a guitar to write a song? You don’t even need an instrument to write a song. Why not just get your drums and make stuff up?’ That was the watershed moment. Since then, I’ve been behind my drums making stuff up.”
North also took advice from songwriter Bobby Braddock (“D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” “Unwed Fathers,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”) after he and his family relocated to Nashville. Braddock is North’s neighbor and his son has been pals with Braddock’s grandson for years. As their friendship developed Braddock confided that part of his songwriting process is to write down five events of his day, every day before going to bed.
“I do that now too and it’s had an uncanny impact. Bob Dylan said ‘kids are the great equalizer,’ but in Nashville they’re the best way to comfortably meet songwriting legends like Bobby.”
Speaking of North’s son Foley, he’s the center of his and Laurel’s universe. He’s opened their eyes, given new purpose and a new form of self-expression for North has emerged as of late.
“The unexpected passion I developed is disability rights. He was born with a rare genetic deletion. Technically, it’s autism spectrum. If you think of your DNA as the ‘instruction manual’ so your body knows what to do while it’s developing — my son was born with several pages missing in his instruction manual. Like most families in our shoes, it’s been hell getting him services he’s entitled to for educational support so I threw myself into the laws. He’s been letting me teach him the drums so we jam to the White Stripes and the Stooges.”
Through it all, Matt North has remained grounded with his sense of humor intact. When asked what he would be doing if he wasn’t involved in music he quips, “something with animals, I’m not so sure about people lately.” When pressed about future plans he lays out a well thought out business plan.
“If it’s true the music business is dead then I see no reason not to record a second album. I have a small pile of new songs and just recorded three. There’s no tour because I’m not dumb enough to put a bunch of grown-ups in a van. If I were self-centered enough to convince five guys to follow me into the sun for 50 bucks a night I could Kenny-Rogers the shit out of this town then go open a chicken restaurant.”