matty day | nathan mathes | august 2015
Green Bay's music scene has had some significant developments this summer. Underappreciated punk club Crunchy Frog unfortunately closed its doors, as did Swobey's and Sympatico prior. Meanwhile, 50,000 "country" "music" fans attended an arrest fest at Lambeau Field. These signs indicate a declining local music scene, and do not bode especially well for fans or creators of independent music in Green Bay.
A half-baked appraisal of music's disappearing middle class may have been in order. Instead, I've interviewed a local musician who is all but unaffected by such events.
You may not have heard of Nathan Mathes — he rarely plays live — yet with over 200 songs to his name, he's arguably the area's most prolific songwriter. If you watch TV there's a decent chance you've heard his music on TBS, MTV and Netflix, via music licensing.
But Mathes didn't pick up a guitar as a teenager with the goal of one day licensing his songs. More typically, he started off playing in punk bands — one of which opened for the Blue Meanies. He quickly realized, though, that songwriting excited him much more than just playing guitar.
"I've been writing songs since I was 16," says Mathes, now in his thirties. He adds with a wry smile, "I've been writing good songs since about three months ago."
In his twenties, punk gave way to indie rock, and Mathes performed in local bands Waiting for May, the Brunswicks and Aintree. But it was writing and recording, more than playing music live, that really interested Mathes. It was around this time that his peers' drive to create music was waning, where his own had only intensified.
“To me it's always been difficult to find others with that same enthusiasm,” says Mathes. “I learned how to play drums because I was impatient waiting for my drummer to be able to play. And once you teach yourself drums, what else can you teach yourself?”
Indeed, his arsenal features an impressive array of instruments and equipment, the result of “years and years of working a day job and not buying nice cars,” says Mathes. “I've got a day job so I can come down here and do what I want musically.”
He graciously invited me to his home studio to chat for this article. Mathes struck me as thoughtful, clever and humbly confident, traits that all shine through his music.
He's deeply influenced by the classics — The Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan — and is also a fan of more modern artists like The Walkmen, The National and Angel Olson. But he's certainly not out to cop anyone's style.
“In my mind, the greatest moment for any artist is when they start to find their own voice,” says Mathes. “And that's kind of how I think about it. When I was 16, my goal was to write a song like the most recent Jawbreaker song. I thought it was my own, but it wasn't, of course.”
Now, going it alone, writing, performing and recording everything himself, the pursuit is seemingly endless.
“I feel compelled to do it. Maybe I'm compulsive or something,” says Mathes. “I love being a husband, and I love being a father, and those things come before being a musician these days. But if I weren't a musician, I don't know if I'd be able to be a good husband or a good father. I don't know why. But I know that I do have this need to be a musician.”
Songs can take shape via any number of paths, but Mathes' typically start with the lyrics. From there he'll simply work at one until it feels finished. “Does it sound like me? No? Then I need to keep going.”
By now Mathes seems to accept that he may not find collaborators who share his ambition. But what if they somehow turned up?
“That's interesting — I thought about that recently. It got me thinking about the times of driving up to the drummer's house with the bass player, and I miss those times,” says Mathes. “I'd love to find like-minded people that I could play with, and to share that with. But I also know that I'm very controlling, and I have a very specific vision quite often, and it changes, but at my own pace.”
While aspects of it may change, his overall vision remains consistent.
“I love melody, and to me something has to be melodic, have some sort of sense of movement,” explains Mathes. “But it also has to be memorable. It can't just be melodic and ambient; it's got to have some sort of structure. Memorable, but not trite or contrived. But I want there to be some progressive element to it, whether it's a noise you're not expecting, or a bit of space you wouldn't be expecting.”
While Mathes has continued to write and record, he's grown less and less interested in playing live, which doesn't exactly help a musician's exposure. It was a family friend who tipped him off and introduced him to the music licensing industry. Once he got into it, he quickly realized it was a good fit for him.
“I would be content down here making music for myself. But I also want to see what the reaction would be, where there's a place for it,” says Mathes. He adds, “The music licensing thing for me has become the one route for me to not to have to deal with the pressure, the social nuance of playing with a band and playing out.”
And when his music's been featured on shows or independent films, it lends a somewhat tangible credibility to all the hard work. Mathes notes with good humor, “Grandma sees it as something legitimate if she hears Nathan's music on TV.”
Discussing how it works, Mathes says, “That's kind of the nice thing about it: the process doesn't require a ton of work.
“The easiest way is to find some music libraries, which host a whole bunch of music. One that's been pretty good to me so far is Crucial Music — they'll listen to anybody's music. You upload a song, and you have to classify it, and list the beats per minute, the relative speed of the track, your style, who you sound like. They try to make their system friendly for music supervisors — people who work for a TV producer or movie.”
Mathes explains the purpose of music libraries with an example of a bar scene on “CSI” where the producer wants blues-rock playing in the background. If the producer doesn't want to pay $80,000 for the rights to a Black Keys song, he or she can seek out a similar sound from a music library.
“It's one of the rare ways for musicians, especially indie musicians, to make money these days,” says Mathes. “I've been doing this for five years. I've made more than playing live or selling albums. And I'm just piecing all this together from my basement in Green Bay.”
At this point, he isn't too choosy about where his music may end up.
“As terrible of a show as it is, three million people watch '16 and Pregnant' in a week,” says Mathes. “Wherever it goes, it goes, but it's nice knowing that it's out there.”
Currently his efforts are focused on “making something that's a creative statement more than an MTV song.” He's whittling down the 25 songs he's written for his upcoming album, which will soon be mixed by Andy Thiele in Milwaukee. The yet-untitled album will be available later this year at NathanMathes.com, where his other albums can be streamed for free.
Do check him out, and continue to support original local music!
Matty's written about the Green Bay music scene for YEARS, I tell ya. He currently performs with Muddy Udders, The Foamers?, the Gung Hoes, and most recently The Priggs. He fancies Twitter; find him @PollutedMindset. Musicians: e-mail him – like Nathan Mathes did – at Events@FranklyGreenBay.com, and he'll do his darndest to help!