To see Matthew Reveles kicking back in his Tempe home, dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and flip-flops, you might get the wrong idea. Reveles' long, black hair, flowing beard, and wire-rim specs seem to suggest he's in a neo-jam band on the order of Phish or maybe even drawing inspiration from a hippie-reggae outfit such as Michael Franti and Burning Spear.
The house is packed tight with a '60s-era Hammond organ and an array of 12- and 6-string acoustic guitars, the TV showing Ricardo Montalban having a bad day in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. But, talking with Reveles as he sips a tall whiskey and water on the rocks while sitting in an easy chair beneath a huge poster of Billie Holiday, the real picture emerges.
Matthew Reveles just may be the best singer-songwriter plying his trade in the Valley's increasingly strong traditional folk and country music scenes.
Yucca Tap Room in Tempe
Matthew Reveles is scheduled to perform on Saturday, June 6.
Although he played in a variety of local punk bands and even a synth-pop outfit, the 27-year-old Reveles knew from the time he was 3 years old what kind of music he wanted to sing.
"I remember just sitting in the backseat of the car singing along with Simon and Garfunkel, like 'America,'" says Reveles, who grew up with a drumming father and a guitar-playing mother. "I always went for Garfunkel's parts — they were higher and I had that little kid falsetto voice. I remember my dad turning around and saying, 'You're singing Garfunkel's parts! You're singing harmony!' My parents were really psyched about me when I was a kid, like every time I'd sing, they'd say, 'He has perfect tone,' so I knew that I could probably sing, and I eventually got into picking up instruments."
Reveles began playing drums at 5, then evolved into a guitar and keyboard player — writing his first songs at age 10 — and has become so adept at playing each instrument that he performed just about every track on his stellar debut CD, We'll Meet Halfway, himself — save for a banjo or drum part here and there.
"The band I was playing with was breaking up at the time, so out of obligation I went back and re-recorded the parts myself," Reveles says. "If it needed a stand-up bass part, I'd rent a stand-up bass and play it. It went faster, for sure, because I wrote all the parts, but I'd rather work with other musicians and get their ideas."
Reveles is equally at home onstage with his backing band, Fancy Cloud, or just himself, a mic, and a glass of whiskey. His two-week West Coast tour, which kicks off Saturday with a show at Tempe's Yucca Tap Room, will consist solely of Reveles and his guitar and harmonica, as he hits the road in true country troubadour fashion.
But Reveles stresses that becoming an Americana/traditional country artist was years in the making.
"I always say I fell backwards into punk through grunge," say Reveles, who was in fifth grade when Nirvana's cultural atom bomb Nevermind dropped. "I was still listening to my dad's record collection — jazz, classical, pop, rock — when (Nirvana) came out. Then, through them I got into Black Flag, Naked Aggression — bands that my friends started listening to.
"But after awhile of getting into punk, I got tired of it and went back to the old stuff," Reveles says. "Once I was, like, 18 or 19, what was left of punk started getting pretty lame. There was the pop punk and then there were the kids taking it the other way and starting screamo bands, and I didn't really dig any of that stuff. I started listening to the old Beatles albums I had laying around the house and I got way into Simon and Garfunkel's early stuff, which was really folky. And from folk, that's when I started listening to a lot more of the country stuff. It was always there when I was a kid, but I actually really got into it and jumped headfirst into Hank Williams and Buck Owens-type stuff, and my influences started to come through a lot more in my songwriting.
"I think one of the greatest songs ever written is 'Lost Highway,'" Reveles says of the Hank Williams standard. "I've never played it out, but I'll sit here and play it once in a while and I'll get choked up."
While some of Reveles' punk and stoner-rock friends thought he was losing his mind ("I remember some of my friends saying, 'You're missing the boat on alt-country. Ryan Adams was popular, like, four years ago and Wilco isn't even playing country anymore'"), the singer-songwriter forged ahead in his new direction and began piecing songs together that would constitute his acclaimed debut disc, which in this publication drew comparisons to the work of singer-songwriter boy wonder Conor Oberst.
"That's flattering," says Reveles, who admits he runs hot and cold on Oberst's material. "I met the guy and he's the nicest guy. He gave me a hug, and I gave him my CD and said, you know, 'Check it out,' and he called me later that night after his show at the Celebrity Theatre and he was like, 'You write really good songs. Thanks for giving me the CD.' He was just really, really nice."
The soft-spoken Reveles also shares a personality trait with Oberst, that of being humble and possessing a seeming unwillingness to blow his own horn. The singer-songwriter is uncomfortable with having his picture on the cover of We'll Meet Halfway ("For the next one, we're not doing that again," he says with a laugh), and Reveles jokingly points out a flier from a gig he played at defunct Tempe bar The Loft, where he opened for Tempe indie darlings What Laura Says.
"I got off stage and put my hood on and went outside for a cigarette, and everyone's outside smoking cigarettes, and this girl and this guy are out there," Reveles says. "The guy is like, 'Man, that guy in there was awesome! Did you see him playing guitar and singing and playing harmonica and guitar at the same time? That takes talent!' And the girl is like, 'That's bullshit, man. I've seen that a million times before. A lot of people do that.'
"The guy turns to me and didn't realize that it was me 'cause I had my hoodie on and it's raining. And he's like, 'That was great, right?'" Reveles laughs. "And I said, 'Man, that guy is overrated,' and the girl, who was drunk as fuck, says, 'That guy just sucked!' and I said, 'I'm with you, lady, that guy sucked.' And all of a sudden the guy looks at me and said, 'Hey, motherfucker, that's you!' and he got all embarrassed, and all of a sudden the girl just disappeared behind a bunch of people.
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"I was loving it, man," Reveles laughs. "As long as it's feedback, good or bad, it's stuff that I can learn from."
Reveles, who played a critically acclaimed unofficial showcase with Fancy Cloud at South by Southwest in March, admittedly has a little trouble with the "country singer" tag, what with contemporary country music washed out with a glossy, '80s pop-rock sheen.
"I can't stand that stuff," Reveles says. "That's why when people ask me if I'm a country singer I say, 'I'm not Toby Keith or Shania Twain.' I like old country, I like Western, back when 'country' and 'Western' were two different things. I mean, I love (Western swing pioneer) Bob Wills. He's got that old rockabilly, hillbilly thing. Like redneck jazz — and you can't beat that, man.
"I'm not writing songs because I'm following a trend. I'm writing songs because that's what's going on in my life," says Reveles, who is in the process of recording his follow-up to We'll Meet Halfway. "I drink a lot of whiskey and listen to a lot of sad-bastard songs, so that's what's gonna come out when I write music."