October 7th, 2010 / 6:15 pm
Craft Notes

SINGSONGS: An Interview With Mat Sweet/Boduf Songs

New feature? Maybe. I have been thinking about doing some interviews with musicians about the way they approach what they do, informed by my approach to writing.

A few years ago, I managed to score a brief gig as a record reviewer for a now defunct print magazine. Which meant for me a few free records. Not much else. Some of them were okay. Many were dull. A record called Lion Devours the Sun by a English singer-songwriter named Mat Sweet remains a regular part of my music rotation. I very likely listen to it—or one of the two follow-up records, How Shadows Chase the Balance and the newest This Alone Above All Else in Spite of Everything—or some of it every week. Which is to say I listen to Boduf Songs every week.

Sweet’s music is quiet, dark, intimate. Alchemical. Occult. Not overly serious, but serious when it needs to be. Pretty. Pretty creepy.

And most of all, really damn good. Mat extends his vision for Boduf Songs to some of the visual elements—the videos, for example—that make up what we understand about the band. (Note the homage’s to not just the creepier side of fairy tales in the images, but also the nods to my beloved black metal aesthetic.)

I contacted Mat—who now lives here in the States—and asked him some questions about tone, process, instruments. Hope you enjoy it. Hope it helps.

I wanted to talk about tone. I wonder, though, if tone means the same thing to a songwriter that it does to a fiction writer. Tone is the way a text approaches its subject and its audience, and while tone helps to set mood, it’s not simply mood. Do you have a similar consideration when you write—or probably more accurately, record—a song?

There are elements of tone that come out in what I do regardless of how I feel about it, it’s like a part of my brain and voice and way of doing things that I couldn’t shake if I wanted to. I see that in other people’s work also—I suppose it’s an aspect of what might be called someone’s style. The conscious approach to tone is pretty much paramount to what I’m trying to do—create a place or an atmosphere or whatever you want to call it… something that I visualize and try to make “real”, or at least communicable to some strange extent. Listening to other people talk about a dream they had is often not very interesting—a series of unrelated weirdnesses. If we could tell each other the “feel” of a dream, even if it lacked the details of what actually transpired – I think that would be astonishing and great.

It seems to me that as a musician, you have a couple of extra options when it comes to creating tone in your work. We both have words. We both have the way we choose to structure a piece of writing. We have empty space or sustained notes in music, white space in a story. We both have titles that we can use to work for or against the mood of a piece of work. You, for example, will often employ a sly humor or contrast in a songs title. (I’m thinking, for example, of “That Angel was Pretty Lame,” which combines a contemporary idiom, and a familiar, nonspecific Biblical complaint. It was not lame that Jesus healed the lame.)

But you have your voice, too. And though some writers are now creating compelling videos of their work read aloud and paired with interesting visual presentations, the music video has a history and a series of tropes that can be embraced or rejected.

Do you consider all these factors from the outset when writing a song? Do you think, “I will sing this one very quietly, right up next to a very live microphone. I will sing these dark works like a lullaby”? Do you think, “The album cover will look like this, and it will inform the music in a particular way”? Do you think, “This song sounds a little like Elias Merhige’s Begotten. I should blow out the contrast on the video”?

Love that film, and any influence spotted in film work I’ve done is intended as tasteful homage, by which i mean shamefaced and half-arsed thievery.

It’s true that I sometimes offset the earnestness of the songs with somewhat ridiculous titles—whilst the output is by and large heartfelt and “seriuz business”, I don’t want it to come off as overly poe-faced. maybe the titles go some small way to alleviating the heavy, I’m not sure. I guess I’m conscious of that with the lyrics too—most of what’s written in the throes of emotional circumstances tends to be total gash—I need time to filter it through and calm the fuck down lest it turns into some sort of “craaaawwling iiiiin my skiiiiiiiiiin,” type melodramatic spew-fest.

I sing the way I sing and have a certain way of recording that works well enough, there’s not a whole lot of conscious planning that goes into that. Likewise with fitting words to music—sometimes one comes first, sometimes the other, sometimes both pretty much at once. Sometimes things come out almost fully-formed, sometimes there are a hundred drafts before it seems ok, but I don’t really apply any kind of analysis—just what feels ok and seems to work as well as it can within the very narrow boundaries of my abilities.

“Two Across the Mouth” from Lion Devours the Sun

Do you worry that the less serious titles might take away from the impact of the songs? Add too much light to the darkness? That maybe the impulse to defuse the seriousness might be a reactive impulse?

On the subject of humor: I listened to Lion Devours the Sun and How Shadows Chase the Balance back to back this weekend, and noticed that the sudden eruption of drums in the song “Mission Creep” kind of made me laugh a little. Not that I thought the crash of cymbals and bang of drums was laughable, but that the previous record was free of that type of percussion and its inclusion at the mid-point of the first song on the follow-up was some sort of tension release—as if the drums had been sitting quietly throughout Lion Devours the Sun, waiting for their opportunity. Was there a conscious decision to put that song at the beginning of How Shadows Chase the Balance? Do you feel like a part of the evolution of yourself as a songwriter includes the opportunity to communicate to your listeners not simply what appears on the surface of the song, but also a message like: “Look at the way I’m changing”?

“Mission Creep” was always destined to be the opener on that record—a song’s place in the flow of a record usually comes built-in to the song itself. I think the reason things opened up a little on that album was in part due to the exhaustion encountered at live shows—all the previous songs are tension and then some more tension, and no sign of relief. That can be extremely tiring for performer and audience alike. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting in some way, and truth be told I like the fact that the audience is often as uncomfortable as I am—having to shift ones weight very carefully for fear that an undue creak in the chair might rouse surly looks from other fellows, all whilst listening to stupidly moribund outpourings from some tragic sad sack on the stage. How could that not be fun? But it’s nice to get a little release in there, a little relief.

Quiet When Group from How the Shadows Chase the Balance

There’s, uh, quite a lot more of that on the newest record This Alone Above All Else in Spite of Everything. It’s fun to explore and experiment with sounds and dynamics. I do see each consecutive record as a development of some sort, and in that way I guess if I’m thinking about the listener at all, I’m thinking about those that are familiar with the previous output.

Something I noticed about the lyrics: more often than not the person that they are directed to is referred to only as “you.” There are “I”s scattered here and there. There are names now and then (Astaroth, Oberron)—occult names, mythic names. But more than anyone else, you sing to “you.” There’s another level of intimacy in that. The quiet singing. The clear enunciation. The whispered “you.” Do you imagine a particular “you” when you write? Is there just something compelling about the open syllable, the rolling endless “ewwww” that can be sung when one sings “you”?

“You” has been the pronoun of choice for lyricists since forever. It’s an interesting question as to why this should be. I think there are several reasons, perhaps chief among them the illusion of directing the words towards a specific entity, rather than using names and thereby effectively telling the listener about something/someone. By using “you,” the line of communication is suggested to be immediate and intimate. It also allows for a personal interpretation—the listener can direct the song towards their own lover, betrayer, object of hatred, or whatever.

I don’t often have a specific person in mind. Sometimes. Sometimes the “you” is something other than a single person, some abstract concept or other. I remember being impressed by an interview with Henry Rollins many moons ago wherein he explained that all the “you”s he wrote about were actually directed at himself, and that he wouldn’t have the audacity to point such words at anyone else in full knowledge of how flawed he himself was as a person.

There are keyboards on the new records. So, a writer may discover a new formal constraint for, say, a poem, and find a new voice within them. Does something similar happen when you, say, sit down in a room with a piano? Does access to new equipment with new boundaries create new approaches to moods and tones?

Absolutely. My guitar chops are extremely limited and my fingers tend to find their way to the same places all the time. Keyboards are fairly alien to me, so the fingers are confused, they stumble around, they hit things too hard, then too soft, they know not how to behave. This can sound terrible, but occasionally the stumbling leads to something workable. A lot of the time, the “central” instrument is just a core for the atmosphere and feeling of a song to spring from. A lot of the stuff on the latest record was started on bass guitar, with everything else worked around that. I think the way brains connect with means of expression completely changes the outcome—even if its the seemingly subtle difference of writing with a pen or a pencil, speaking into a dictaphone or typing. Unless the idea is already completely concrete, the means of expression will find a way to alter it and have it’s own say in the matter.

“I Am Going Away and Never Coming Back” from This Alone Above All Else In Spite of Everything

Some links:

BODUF SONG on Kranky Records

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  1. Matthew Simmons


  2. Michael

      Very nice! I hope this series continues.

      Also wanted to point out that in addition to the three albums you mentioned, there’s his first (self-titled) LP and the “There Is Something Hanging Above You” EP, both of which are worth a listen.

  3. Der-lok

      too short! We want more!

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