Matthew Dear, techno’s musical chameleon and one-man band
By Chris Richards,
Matthew Dear sings like he’s making a dirty phone call in the middle of the night.
But when he’s speaking about his music, that sometimes-creepy baritone connotes bedrock sincerity. “Music,” he says, “you can’t do it wrong. Whatever note you hit, whatever word you say, whatever sound you get out of the synthesizer, it doesn’t need to express a specific meaning. It is what it is. It’s paint on a canvas. It’s what happened. And that’s truth to me.”
Biding a few hours before a recent DJ gig at Washington’s U Street Music Hall, the 33-year-old is holed up at the Donovan House hotel on Thomas Circle, talking about his new pop album, “Beams,” which lands Aug. 27. It’s his fifth and finest solo disc, a sumptuous reconciliation between the clinical techno that launched his career and the glam-rock ghosts he’s been chasing ever since. Compared with the future-goth of Dear’s 2010 effort, “Black City,” the sticky electronic timbres of “Beams” feel prismatic, compact and mouth-watering, like hard candies left in a hot car.
And it’s all him. In the studio, Dear is the singer, the songwriter, the backing band, the engineer and the producer — one of those 21st century musical octopuses whose consolidated labors result in detail-oriented, hyper-realized albums like this one.
But nobody really sings like him. More sinister than Barry White, more colorful than Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, his vocals are deep, dark and dripping with sibilance. Dear says it’s the result of recording so close to the microphone, he practically swallows the thing. “I try to capture everything coming out of my mouth — the tongue on the teeth,” he says. “I love that intensity.”
He didn’t get his musical start moaning this way. As a kid, he liked fooling around on the family computer, using crude sound-editing programs to play with wave forms and slice pop songs into goofy remixes. “I would take Madonna songs and the ‘Beavis and Butthead’ soundtrack and change the words so it was like Beavis was singing,” Dear says.
Near the end of his adolescence in suburban Detroit, he heard the siren call of WJLB, an urban radio station that played ghettotech, a hyperventilating branch of Detroit techno. This chattering machine music made sense in Dear’s technical mind and he started venturing into the city for all-night dance parties at the abandoned Packard automobile plant. “You’d go home in the morning and blow your nose and it would just be black soot,” Dear says. “You’d think, ‘Where was I?’”
He started crafting his own tracks and in 2003 released “Leave Luck to Heaven,” an album of pristine, minimal techno that some critics championed with its own genre tag: “micro-house.” Dear says he never felt boxed in by the sound he was forging but was still young and eager to try other stuff. So he started making more riotous dance tracks under various aliases — Audion, False, Jabberjaw — changing his sound as if changing into a clean T-shirt.
Nearly a decade later, Dear says all that identity-jumping isn’t as necessary. Billed as “Matthew Dear,” he’ll climb into a DJ booth to spin techno records one night and perform onstage with his rock band the next. “The barriers have totally been blown apart and there are no rules anymore,” Dear says. “There are sounds in Black Eyed Peas songs now that I heard on a dance floor in Ibiza six years ago.”
Perhaps hoping to replicate that sense of freedom in the physical world, he and his wife recently moved to the fresh air of Sullivan County in upstate New York after eight years in Brooklyn. “No trains going overhead, no weird smells coming from the gutters,” Dear says, as he digs into his pocket. “This pretty much sums it up,” he says, zooming in on an iPhone photo of his bulldog flopped out on the deck.
Then he cues up some field recordings he’s made of the birds that chirp outside his window.
“To me, the iPhone is like that Jetsons device,” he says. “I wanted that thing in my hand where I could see somebody’s face. We thought it was going to be a watch – the Dick Tracy thing. But it’s here. It’s right here and there’s so much [stuff] we can do with it.”
He’s been using his iPhone to record new demos, too — uncharacteristic strums on an acoustic guitar and gutteral mumbles that let you know it’s actually him. Hard to imagine how these bluesy dirges will transform into shimmering Matthew Dear songs, but then again, maybe not. “Do the Right Thing,” one of the most evocative cuts on “Beams” seems to have channeled its strongest lyrics from the Mississippi Delta: “I feel hollow as a grave I have to dig every day.”
Because so many of the songs fall in his vocal register, “I’ ve always been drawn more to blues,” Dear says. “That’s the only stuff I can hit.”
Even when he’s chasing pop at the speed of techno, he’s still a creepy-voiced guy searching for the truth.