Before the genre tag EDM existed, there was IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music. Granted, it's a pretty pretentious name for a genre, but it fits incredibly well for Matthew Dear. His experimental, rhythm-driven pop is both energetic and introspective, a form of exploring multiple identities and his own, ever-shifting persona.
And Dear does have a lot of varied identities, working as producer, songwriter, engineer, and vocalist. He's released records under at least three different monikers and played an integral part in the founding of both Ghostly International and Spectral Sound, two of the most important record imprints in electronic music today.
We spoke to Matthew Dear over the phone about quitting drinking, the authors that inspire his ambiguous lyrics, and the nature of identity and ego.
Up On The Sun: What was your involvement in co-founding Ghostly International?
Matthew Dear: I met Sam Valenti who's definitely the true founder of the label. I met him a year before the label started. He saw me playing live at a party, I was doing a live set outside because it was very rare to run into people that were into the same thing. We were in Ann Arbor, [Michigan] on campus and he was like, "Oh man, I like what this guy's doing," and we set up a meeting, a coffee meeting, a week after.
It was a natural match, I think. Sam had this veracity for gathering creative minds and allowing output to be seen. He really just provided an outlet. I think I was needing an outlet ... it was just a really good fit so we decided to embark on the journey together.
That's cool. And then you did Spectral Sound.
Yeah, Spectral was a year after we started Ghostly. We decided we wanted to take Ghostly into more avant, obscure listening direction, whereas Spectral we still wanted a very dancefloor-based imprint. It was more something DJs could rely on time and time again.
What was the hardest part about co-founding two labels? I think drawing the lines of separation so close to each other. They were confusing a lot of people. I remember somebody came up to me, I think it was after Winking Makes A Face came out, which was the second release on Ghostly by Tadd Mullinix and it was such a far turn left from what the first record had been. A friend came up to me and said "Hey man, I'm really sorry Ghostly's going in this direction, you probably don't have a future releasing music on that label."
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Coming from a friend who couldn't see the clear lines we were setting up, that was kind of a low. People were really unhappy or it was too over their heads to understand what we were going for. I don't think it became super clear to our audience or even us, the true direction of the label until about five years later.
Your remixes really give new life to almost every track you touch. Are you always working on remixing for other people or just when people approach you?
Really just when people approach me. I like to spend as much time as I can working on my own music in the studio. Remixes now have become projects that really speak to me, guys I really wanna do remixes for and vice versa.
Do you get a lot of offers for remixes? It goes up and down. I'd say I'd get about four or five substantial offers every year.Your lyrics are definitely a highlight for me. I find that when lyrics are ambiguous like yours are, I can make more personal connections to the music than a straightforward message. So I really appreciate that, but do you read a lot of books?
I appreciate you saying that because it's exactly what I'm going for. I really like to keep it open-ended because I do think that it applies to a lot more people. It's not me or I'm feeling this way. I can say that, but it doesn't always reflect me. It's a character, you know? It's a character we can all embody, I think. That's how I like to look at the ambiguity.
So what inspires these lyrics? Daily life. You asked if I read books. I do, not as much as I used to. But a lot of my earlier albums were drawn from some of my favorite authors like Kurt Vonnegut or Cormac McCarthy or Philip K. Dick. I think there's a fantasy in all three of those that I really appreciate. There's a very real sense of escapism. Especially with Philip K. Dick, you are immediately thrust into this alternate reality, this alternate universe, but he does it so personally and so confidentially you don't feel like you're being tricked.
It feels very natural and that's what I try to go for in my lyric writing. You can talk about very obscure trains of thought and go deep inside of yourself and ask other people to go deep. You don't really need to make them feel like you're going that deep.
And Philip K. Dick writes a lot of stuff about identity. Yeah, identity theft, you're not sure of your identity, transferring your identity, totally.
I think my favorite thing about you is your struggle with identity on your albums. Sometimes you're Audion, Jabberjaw, False, sometimes you're just you, and even then you exhibit so many different personas. Do you think you'll ever be certain of who you are?
I hope not. I think that uncertainty helps a lot. If I do, then maybe I'll have a totally different sense of a writing style. Maybe I'll write completely different songs. I dunno, I like to question a lot in life. I like to continually ask those questions about who you are. I think we're always changing, so you'll never fully get a grasp. As soon as you figure out who you are, you've already moved onto being somebody else. Do you feel a temptation to change it up again, maybe start releasing albums under a completely different moniker? Yeah, absolutely. I have one this one alias, before I actually released any music, called Fran. It was just me and acoustic guitar and I'd show up and ad lip sets, just make up music on the spot. I did a few shows like that and hope to return to that. There's just a really, really crazy open-heartedness when you do that kind of thing, but it takes a lot to get there, you know?
I was talking with my band member about how we used to have this place we could go to as young musicians that was very free and it doesn't feel like you're really attached to the psyche or soul at the point. You're just throwing everything to the wind. I really think to hold onto that [feeling] is very important.
Your change-ups actually remind me of David Bowie with Ziggy Stardust. I don't know if I would ever do a full-on character like that. I don't know what was fueling that. There was a lot going on in that time, the '70s, lots of different energies pushing people to be alter-egos and stuff. But maybe one day. But it could backfire and then you have that like, Garth Brooks alter-ego thing, Chris Gaines. [laughs]. It just doesn't work. You can't force something like that, it has to be a natural byproduct of your ego, yourself.
What do you think of your music being labeled as microhouse and glitch? I think in the beginning of my career, 2000, 2001, a lot of people were looking for genre tags. To me, that sound and those titles represent that era. 2000 to 2003. I don't really think I sound like that anymore. I think if you listen to my first albums you'll definitely hear it, like Leave Luck to Heaven, there's definitely a lot of influence from those tags. But I don't use genre markers, personally.
Are you a fan of witch house? No, I don't know it so much. I've heard the term, but I haven't really delved into that. We try to play horror blues now and then when we're in the rehearsals just for fun, but I think that's as close as we can get, I think.
What made you decide to quit drinking? Oh, wow. [Pause] Just a long, long road of touring from the first release to right before Black City. It was just a constant grind and it can get very easy to continue certain methods and styles of living. I think I wanted to look at it like a project to see if I could uproot certain permanent fixtures in my life. And that was one of them.
Was it difficult? Absolutely. We're in an industry that's fueled by excess and it's all about liberating yourself. I think it comes to a point when you really have to take a look at what are you really liberating yourself from? Or are you actually trapped in this idea of liberation? And that's where I was at.
I'm totally dry now. I think it's just a routine and any routine you break is difficult.
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How do you feel about the prevalence of drug culture in the EDM scene? I live a life of philosophy "to each their own." So I act on my own desires and whatever I wanna do, I do it. I just want people to be safe. I don't like seeing anybody get hurt. If people choose to do something on their own accord, by all means, but don't hurt anybody else. Please don't hurt yourself.
Matthew Dear is scheduled to perform Monday, October 29, at the Rhythm Room.