“The day I get bored of hearing that my work means something to someone is the day that I shouldn’t be doing music anymore.”
For over twenty years now, MATT ELLIOTT has been not only creating deeply affecting music, but also redefining the boundaries of what it means to be a singer/songwriter. First creating eerie, very textural electronic music as The Third Eye Foundation and then finding a unique dark folk kind of voice under his own name, Matt has been putting together different currents of music, different atmospheres and different cultures to create something that is unmistakably his. His live shows, where he usually performs on his own with the use of a loop machine to create his characteristic enormous choruses and walls of wailing, are the stuff of legend, a perfect representation and augmentation of everything his records are able to do to your heart and your mind. With his latest album ‘The Calm Before’ almost a year old by now, The Devil’s Mouth caught Matt resting after a long tour and preparing to record a much-anticipated new The Third Eye Foundation album, a perfect moment to discuss a bit of his career, his thoughts and his inspirations.
You worked in a record shop from a very young age, but when did it hit you that you were going to be a musician yourself, when did music crawl under your skin for the first time?
It’s a tricky thing, because I don’t know exactly when it was… I have an older sister and she used to listen to classic stuff like Duran Duran and things like that, but she also liked The Smiths, for example. She had a Smiths cassette that I stole off her, so I started getting into music quite young. I’m really not a massive fan of The Smiths, and certainly not Morrissey, especially nowadays, but I remember walking home from school, I must have been around fifteen/sixteen, and it was very icy all over and very beautiful in this park that I was crossing. I had The Smiths on and I can’t remember which song it was, but I remember just being hit by how beautiful everything was in the park, and thinking that life is basically too short to do stuff you don’t want to do. At that point I decided to leave school, and I started working full-time in record shops, and that had a big effect on me. Also, I joined my first band, which was called Linda’s Strange Vacation, with some people I had met, Kate Wright and Rachel Brook from Movietone, and Rachel was from Flying Saucer Attack as well. We were just mucking around in a shed, but we took it all pretty seriously. I was simultaneously working in the record shop as I said, and I was getting into Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV and Coil and all that sort of stuff; also very early Current 93, like ‘Live At Bar Maldoror’ which I managed to find by chance on vinyl, that kind of music, which made me realise that you don’t actually have to learn music. I was actually thrown out of my music lessons at school, music notation would always bore me. You had to learn the theory which is very boring, unless you actually want to know it, because you need to progress to a certain level, so you need to decide that you need to understand it. Unfortunately I never bothered, because to me it represented some sort of hellish thing. I always assumed it was too complicated for me.
Of all those, Current 93 is probably the thing closest to what you do now, was it especially important?
I really like Current 93, but that particular album, there’s just one track on each side, and it put together these weird loops and stuff, and that really hit me, that you can do these sort of sound collages, using classical music especially. That definitely opened some kind of door inside myself, I started playing with tape machines… I didn’t really have money, but I bought a guitar, I sold my bike to get a guitar and an amplifier, some pedals and stuff. I was also trying to do indie band kind of stuff. For the ‘Semtex’ reissue I had a bag full of cassettes, old demos I made, some of them dated around 1993, so I would have been around nineteen. Each demo is different because I was doing something different every week, exploring a new idea. I knew I wanted to do music, but I didn’t know exactly what direction to go in. I was going down the Joy Division tribute band kind of thing, and then just trying on different things. Then I got into LSD and that flipped everything around too, and that’s more what ended up getting released with the ‘Semtex’ reissue, the extra material. It’s all very spacious, very ambient and weird sound collages and stuff. I think that’s the direction I wanted to go. But weirdly, also before I started doing that, there was also stuff that’s not a million miles away from what I’m doing now, the folky stuff. It’s a bit more miserable, and more like Joy Division or Disco Inferno which I was really into at that age.
“I found that that good music is good because it has some kind of emotion attached to it.”
Do you feel your work in a record shop inform your music taste decisively in those early years, and consequently the music you ended up doing yourself?
At one point all my friends moved on, the Movietone guys and others, to the university, and I was just in Bristol in the record shop. I was there for ten years, a bit more, and that was pretty much my education… for everything, really. So it was even more than that. The guy that ran is was a great character, still is in fact, and he was a massive authority in recorded music. He taught me about life as well, he wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly, and obviously taught me a lot about music. There was a lot of music around me too that I was obliged to listen to, and that was good, because I was quite narrow-minded at that age, I really liked the stuff that I liked, which was quite diverse, but for example, the minute Rog (the record store guy) would put on some reggae or something like that I’d switch off. Which is weird now, because I really love rocksteady, I’m doing local nights, doing DJ rocksteady. So yeah, it was a really great experience and I was exposed to so many different kinds of music there. Rog didn’t like pop music, but he liked anything else that was good, and if anyone asks me to classify what makes good music and bad music – and I can remember having an argument with my art teacher about this particular subject, and I couldn’t put my finger on what makes the two things differ –, I finally think I found that that good music is good because it has some kind of emotion attached to it. Some kind of genuine, proper emotion, it doesn’t have to be sadness, necessarily. I love rocksteady as I said, I also love Funkadelic which is really great for dancing and stuff. If there’s some authentic feeling there, that’s good music, and everything else is rubbish. It doesn’t really matter what genre you pick, I think it’s the same everywhere you go. Music is just communicating an emotion, even if it’s just “I wanna get drunk and dance“. That’s the important thing for me.
You’ve pretty much worked alone for most of your career, with the exception of a few collaborations. Is there a specific reason for that?
I think that, from working with lots of different bands when I was younger, that left me with some bitter experiences. I don’t care about any of it now, and I’m only talking about it to describe the person I was then, but I was miffed that I didn’t receive the credit I considered I was due for some of the Flying Saucer Attack stuff, for instance. So that opened a big schism in me, and left me a bit bitter. At the same time Movietone was disappearing in some kind of different direction, so at that point I just wanted to do things by myself. Having said that, and this is not always pointed out, by my first album was actually done in collaboration with Deb Parsons, who was Foehn. She brought a lot to the album, she did the vocals and some additional guitars and stuff. She appears on ‘Ghost’, on just one tune where she does everything. After that, yeah, I became more of a control freak, up until ‘Failing Songs’, when I realised that actually I can’t do everything myself. I’m not a brilliant sound engineer. I thought I was, I thought I could do everything like a cocky prick, but I’m not good at that. So I started to work with engineers at different studios. For ‘Howling Songs’ I worked with a guy called Nico [Nicolas Dick] in Marseille, and that was a great experience, it was my first real “studio” album. Nico is a great guy, extremely talented, but it was obvious that it was too much of an intense experience for both of us to carry on. For the next one [‘The Broken Man’] I worked with Gwen Roujanski, we recorded in Yann Tiersen‘s place in Paris (she was his girlfriend at the time) when I wasn’t touring. That was a really great experience, because we had lots of times to do it, we had all different kinds of sessions. It was a great experience, but it was also a hard album to record. Anyway, I think the main point is that, as I get older, I’m working with more and more people. On ‘Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart’ there’s five other musicians. Actually even on ‘Howling Songs’, there’s three other musicians if youu include Nico, because he plays there as well. The last two albums have been pretty much a team, which is me and Jeff Hallam on double bass, Raphaël Séguinier who plays the drums and David Chalmin who is the co-producer. We are actually a band, and we have played as a band in a few shows. But it’s very expensive to do that, plus the guys are super busy, everybody’s got millions of projects and it’s hard to get them together. So doing shows on my own has a kind of practical aspect to it too.
Your latest albums, from ‘The Broken Man’ on in my opinion, have become more and more… sparse, if you know what I mean. With less of those huge choruses that were typical, less electronic chaos, and more a kind of sombre man-and-a-guitar thing. Is that an age thing too?
I think it’s just a gradual move in that direction. I think it’s because I can be bothered less and less with electronic stuff. The reason I started doing it is because I got really bored with programming, and that’s the kind of problem that I have with doing new The Third Eye Foundation stuff. I just get so bored programming, and I feel that every good idea that can be explored, anything great that can be done, has pretty much already been done. Anyone who’s moving in new directions in that field are so way ahead from me right now, because I dropped it… Flying Lotus for example, he’s like the epitome of what is brilliant in electronic music and there’s no way I can catch him. He’s done everything I could possibly want to do and more, and anything else I’d want to do is also basically covered by other stuff. That said, I had quite some fun with the new The Third Eye Foundation I’m working on now, I did it in the studio, with David Chalmin again, and that brought a whole new side to things. I get so lost in the details with that project. Like for ‘The Dark’, for instance, the laying down of the initial idea, which was just to make one massive long track, but then just cut into five pieces, that took me about two weeks tops. But then I had a good eight months, spread over a period of three years, where I just got so into the detail and tidying up and trying to make sense of it, that it was really exhausting. With this new album I had none of that, I actually can’t because David has all the masters and I can’t just go in there and start editing them, which is frustrating in a way, because I don’t get things exactly how I would do them, but in another way it’s brought something really new to the whole process and it’s definitely better. I haven’t been frustrated or bored at all with it.
It’s funny that ‘The Broken Man’ is seen as a sort of barebones album, because it really isn’t, it’s the last record where I put a lot of electronics, ‘Only Myocardial Infarction…’ is a more traditional album in that sense. There is some wizardry, but ironically it’s all analog, we used reel-to-reel tape machines and stuff, exactly how I started doing stuff back in the day. But yeah, I do agree, I think I’m generally walking in that direction and then every so often I do a The Third Eye Foundation record so I’m not bored and repeating the same thing. [laughs] Especially if I do the next Matt Elliott album with David, which I hope I do because really I love working with him, I’m just a little bit concerned because when I get into a pattern I feel like I’m repeating myself too much. I get very bored and the whole creative bit of my brain just shuts down and says “fuck this”. That’s how I ended up doing more classical-based guitar music. It was after ‘Little Lost Soul’ that I had just started recording the stuff that ended up being the ‘Borderline Schizophrenic’ 10″. That was going to be the follow-up, and after I got three tracks into it I got so bored with programming and I decided I never wanted to do that sort of thing again. Particularly the drum programming. The noise bits are fine, that’s how I ended up doing ‘The Mess We Made’, by basically trying to do songs on a sampler and a sequencer, which is why it’s got that really weird sound to it, it’s all samples and sequencing as opposed to recording stuff on tape or a hard drive or whatever. It’s something that I really like. I hated it at the time, but now after almost fifteen years the very rare times I listen to it, I think that’s it’s quite nice. It’s got this sweet little sound that’s quite unlike everything else.
Has your method of writing songs also changed in parallel with that gradual evolution in your approach?
Yeah, these days when I’m at home I have a guitar less than a meter away from me at pretty much all times. That’s the thing that I reach to. Before I really played an instrument, because that was it, when I was doing The Third Eye Foundation stuff I was playing guitar, but I was playing this classic indie boy with a pick and an electric guitar playing chords, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t something that inspired me massively. That’s what drove me to do the more electronic stuff, and as I’ve learned to play guitar properly, that’s kind of taken away the other side. I used to love inviting the chaos, and that’s something hard to get back into. When I started recording the guitar, I’m much more picky about what should be where. With The Third Eye Foundation I’d just let these weird coincidences happen, and they still do happen, including in this new album. I’ll open an old session, and I won’t remember what the hell I was doing, or trying to do, I’ll press a couple of buttons and something will happen that is not supposed to happen but it’ll be so great that I think, okay, I’ll have to use this at some point. These things are great, because it feels like something’s guiding you in a way. It’s almost a communication, the more you let that stuff happen, the more it happens, it’s this amazing relationship. You also have to really trust it, it’s one of those things. As I’ve got older, I rely less on that, except on specific things, like building up choirs on the Matt Elliott stuff, I quite embrace a bit of chaos here and there.
I have to do it all the time for my “day job”, but I find it really pointless to ask musicians what they think of a record they just finished yesterday. So now’s the perfect time to ask you: what do you think of ‘The Calm Before’, now that a year has gone by?
I tend to not really listen to the albums again, but in my mind I really love it and I’m really happy with it. If I was to listen to it again I’d probably be horrified, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it became in my mind. The thing is, I’m always going to hate everything I’ve ever done, and that’s healthy. It pushes me to move on a bit. But as I get older I’m no longer such a perfectionist even in hindsight and I think I can forgive myself just a little bit for a few of the many glaring errors. For me, if I listen back to any of my albums, I think how can anyone else listen to that without hearing the errors and the terrible mistakes and the things I left out that I shouldn’t have, and the things I left in that I shouldn’t have either. It depends on my mood as well. What I’d like one day, if I lost my memory completely – hopefully temporarily –, like if I was to fall off my bike or something, I’d like someone to just play me all my music and just record my reaction, just so I know if I’d like it. Maybe I wouldn’t, maybe I’d go “ooof, this is a bit pretentious.” I don’t know what I’d think of it, and that’s frustrating in a way, because it’s something very close to me. Normally, in a session, when you’re recording an album, you sometimes get a moment… I remember when I was recording ‘I Only Wanted To Give You Everything’, and it wasn’t anywhere close to being finished, but there was this moment when we just played it back, me and David just looked at each other, and we went “wow, yeah. That’s great. That’s just amazing!” But that’s it. Then every time you listen to it, it seemed to be much more amazing that first time. You peak quite early when you’re doing something like this, when you feel everything is just working. Then you have the whole rest of the album to record and mix, and you’re always trying to chase that feeling when you thought it was a great song, but never quite getting there. David is really great to work with in that aspect, I’ll get lost in the details and he’s very practical, he’s great to have beside me.
First of all, I hope you don’t fall off your bike! Also, do you ever feel like getting a couple of people to hang around you in a more permanent manner, to alleviate that feeling?
Thank you! [laughs] And yeah, bands like Autechre, I’m a little bit jealous of that, when you got a two-piece, it’s a lot easier to get stuff done. The other person can just tell you no, that’s great, you don’t need to add or change anything. Or if there is anything that needs to be done, you sort it out quicker between the two of you. I have a bit of that with David now, because we really work as a partnership, and that helps a lot.
“It’s that thing with being an artist – you’re full of your own ability on one side, but you’re also crippled with self-doubt on the other.”
In all my years of experience, I find that the musicians and artists in general with the greatest amount of self-doubt and questioning spirit are often the ones that produce the best, deepest kind of work.
There’s a quote by one of the great American authors I think… basically it says that all the problems of the world exist because the idiots are super confident, they’re like “yeah, that’s where I’m going”, and all the people who have the good ideas are going “actually I’m not sure…”. It’s actually a psychological concept, the Dunning-Kruger effect. I mean, obviously you do need some kind of self-belief. If I didn’t have any self-belief at all, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere close to where I am now. So I think that’s that thing with being an artist – you’re full of your own ability on one side, but you’re also crippled with self-doubt on the other. That’s why often artists of all disciplines get to this point where they sabotage their own work. They can’t do it, so they don’t do it, or they deliberatly sabotage themselves, because they’re afraid that if they try, if they really try, it’ll be harder to take it if they fail. There’s a lot of this in people, and not only that, it’s circumstances too. Life. I mean, paying rent, that’s something we all need to do. People say, I’ll just take this full-time job and I’ll carry on doing my music, but of course you’re not going to do that. If you’re spending all your energy in a job that you hate, you’re not going to be a great artists. Of course it’s different when you’re young, I was full of energy when I was younger, and I was working and doing the music and stuff, but you can’t sustain that forever, it’ll kill you. I’m 43 years old now, and my biggest fear is if I’ll have to get a proper job. My god, I don’t know how I’d do that.
I hear you there. I’ve given up on a regular job about a decade ago and I’d personally go on a killing spree after two days if I had to go back to that, I believe. But this side of the grass isn’t always the greener one either, is it?
A lot of people think it’s easy. That we just go through life and it throws opportunities at us. And it’s true, sometimes, I have been in the right place at the right time to do exactly what I want, which is exactly what I’m doing, because I don’t want to be Yann Tiersen-famous or anything like that, because that’s too much for me, you don’t have any private life when you reach a certain point. But obviously I want to be well-known enough to be able to continue doing what I do, and that’s exactly where I am, and I’m super happy being here. But it’s pretty hard work. It took lots of risks, too. I was homeless for a year at one point. And then I’ve been also homeless, more romantically and more practically, for most of my early 30s, I just didn’t have a home because it was pointless, I was touring so much. It was a great life, because obviously I wasn’t living under bridges, I was staying at friends’ houses, having a great time with just a suitcase and a guitar, and it was a great way of spending time. But you take risks, all the time. That’s the thing that drives me up the wall, when every so often you hear musicians talking about Spotify and that sort of thing, Thom Yorke was talking about it recently, and people go like “fucking musicians should get a proper job!” And you just think…
Of everything you’ve sacrificed to be a musician?
This is a great job, and I’ll never ever complain about it, I love it and I feel guilty – like right now I’m not on tour, I finished a six-week tour recently that was very exhausting, it was every day, every day, every day. Then you get back and you have a month off, like I do now, until I have to do recordings, which is also really a fun way to spend your time by the way… [laughs] So now I’m riding my bike, and I have time off, and I’m not at the point of feeling guilty yet because it’s only been a week, but in a couple of days I know I will. When I’m riding my bike in the morning and no one else is because everyone else is stuck in a job they hate, and they’re struggling, they’re really struggling. But at the same time, I hate flying and I’ve had to do that a lot, it’s something that fills me with dread and fear whenever I have a ticket booked, I cherish the times when I don’t have a flight book, and it’s becoming rarer and rarer. The tour was amazing, Portugal, Spain and Greece were amazing, but the day I got back from Greece was such a long day, and I was just destroyed when I returned, I was completely spent from being on tour and doing things every single day for those weeks. A lot of people see this as a long holiday, but it’s very far from it, plus all the insecurity that goes with it. It’s only relatively recently, in the last five years, that I have actually thought that this is nice, this is a living and I can actually be secure and not panic about what happens in the next six months, because everything seems to be going the way I want it to.
Are there any records in your discography that are a bit more special to you? Does any of them mean something a little more, when you see past your self-doubt?
They all do, in their own sweet way, and that’s the thing. Of course they do. I’m aware that I put everything I had into the albums. Obviously, deep down, I’m at least proud of most of my work. There’s albums that I’m really unhappy with now, and I probably wouldn’t be at all glad to listen to them. ‘Ghost’ is one of them. I’m not happy with ‘Failing Songs’ either because I don’t like how it’s mixed, I did it myself and I don’t think I did such a great job. And then the rest, of course they’re deeply flawed works for me, but I still can appreciate them. ‘The Broken Man’ I like, because I can recognise it’s something that comes from really inside me, even if it’s a fucking bleak record…
That one is my favourite, I have to confess. That album means a hell of a lot to me.
Ah, so I put you in my good team then. If someone says to me their favourite album is ‘Ghost’, I just go like, oh, okay, so I’ve wasted the last twenty years of my life. [laughs] I also like the last one, ‘The Calm Before’, it’s probably my best. ‘You Guys Kill Me’ and ‘Little Lost Soul’, I like those two as well, and as I said, ‘The Mess We Made’, I think it’s got its own little place in the universe. I also like it when I read something really nice about the records, something that’s genuine, when you see someone on the internet or something saying that some album has had an effect on them, and that it sounds like nothing else, that’s when I think it’s worth it just for that. Because if that one guy that uploaded it to fucking YouTube or whatever loved it that much, then it’s worth the effort. I’m very lucky in that aspect, a lot of people write to me all the time telling me how much they love my work, and something about that still touches me. People tell me “I’m sure you’re really bored of hearing this”, but the day I get bored of hearing that my work means something to someone, is the day that I shouldn’t be doing music anymore. I don’t do it for that, but it’s very nice, it means a lot to me. And in a way, you also do it for that, don’t you? It’s a communication, as we talked before. You’re throwing your soul out and you’re saying, there you go, that’s what my soul is like, for anyone that wants it. And when someone reaches out to you, you feel that a little loop has been completed, there’s this other person that you don’t know in any other way that was touched by some work I did some years ago. That’s a beautiful and very intimate relationship you can have with someone you don’t know, that’s the great thing about it.
And it’s amplified when you play live.
Yeah, but the thing is, I’m always afraid. I love all the songs that I’m doing in my latest set, in this latest tour I did. Well, I actually don’t really like playing ‘The Calm Before’, but I do like the song, which is why I play it, if that makes sense. The same thing happens with ‘The Right To Cry’, I don’t really like to play it but it’s probably the best song I’ve written, so… I really enjoy playing ‘The Kursk’. The ones I enjoy the most are the ones where I do lots of different vocals, the ones that hopefully get a bigger kind of “wow” reaction from the audience.
On all your shows that I’ve been to, the audience is a big mix of very different people. Teenagers, old people, indie kids, metalheads, goths…
Not enough goths, actually! I’d like to be bigger in that scene. I am a goth. [laughs] I’d love to play in a goth festival or something like that, but I’m also aware that a lot of that scene is very narrow-minded, everything has to be very fixed in a kind of framework. When I was a goth, I was the most goth, exactly because I listened to Throbbing Gristle and stuff. I was like [mocks an exaggerated accent] “yeah mate, this is full-on Manchester factory stuff“. But anyway, I’m really amazed with my audience. Most of them are the most respectful, nicest people you could possibly meet. I’m always happy to hang around after the end of the show because they’re just so sweet, I’m very lucky to have this niche place with all the nice people! [laughs] Apart from that there’s no other real connection of people, it’s all ages, all kinds of people. I played a gig once near Lille, and when I got there it started to fill up with really old people, and I thought that there had been some kind of mix up and that those people were there for something else. I thought something was wrong and there’d be a mass exodus after the first song… but not at all. They were there, they knew what they wanted, and they stayed to the end. I went back there a year or so later, it was the same thing again and I was just really amazed. To be honest, when I see older people in the audience, the first time it spooked me. I thought they were going to hate it, and they might even make a fuss when they left, but now I feel really honoured when I see them there. People of a certain age now, they lived through great music and they have a very discerning taste. I think that these guys are the ones who are looking for good new music.
Do you feel that your music could be really well accepted in certain circles and audiences where it’s not really being exposed in the best way, or at all?
Yeah, I’m not big on marketing. I’m happy to do Facebook because I’m completely in control of it there. But for example, I didn’t have a manager until recently, and I don’t have one now, because of a tragedy and not through any political reasons or anything. But I don’t really chase the dollar that much. I don’t do advertising and neither would I want to, only if I get completely desperate. I actually haven’t been offered any adverts lately, because once you turn down three or four you’re on the “list” and they just don’t bother anymore. Which is good, because I don’t want to be tempted. From time to time, when you’re an artist, you do hit points when you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to eat for the next month. It hasn’t happened to me for a while, but they do happen. And I don’t want my music to be linked to any commercial products, for me advertising is the worst possible thing an artist can be associated with, it’s something that turns great art and turns it into shit. It turns it into product-selling shit.
I was very lucky when I was sixteen/seventeen, it was around the time Bill Hicks was famous in England, so it was good to be a formative age in a country where Bill Hicks was famous. He wasn’t famous in America, no one gave a shit about him. He came to England and I remember watching him and he was really the one who made me think that advertising is really shit, you shouldn’t do it and you shouldn’t be involved with it. Also, when I was a bit older, I remember a well-known jeans company used a Tom Waits song sung by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Tom Waits sued the company and won. I was very impressed reading this, I was just starting to do music. I didn’t really know Tom Waits very well, or like him, at that stage – now of course I really love him, especially his latter work – but I was very struck that he went to these measures to sue a company that used his music for that end. Not only that, but he actually got more money than if he’d agreed to do it, which is a good little coup de gras. That really reaffirmed my will that I don’t want to do any advertising. When The Third Eye Foundation got a little more well known, especially around the time of ‘You Guys Kill Me’, they did start sniffing around, the advertising companies. A couple of phone companies and stuff, and I just said no, no, no, and that was it. Now I think my music is not commercial enough to sell anything. In fact, there’s a Parisian clothes line, they did play my music in their stores and they were analysing it, and the conclusions were that people stayed longer in the shops, but they no longer bought clothes. So my music is specifically and scientifically proven to be anti-commercial, which is great! As Tony Wilson says in ’24 Hour Party People’, “it’s never been possible for me to sell out.” [laughs]