If You Go

He wants to give you goose bumps

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010


Appearing with Title Tracks and Typefighter on Saturday at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. Show starts at 9 p.m.

Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door. 202-667-4490. www.blackcatdc.com.

The Download: For a sampling of Matthew Hemerlein's music, check out:

From "Hot Nickels":

"One Thing on My Mind" "Gyllenhaal Sandwich" "Hot Nickels"

Matthew Hemerlein's new album, "Hot Nickels," is a little sexier and lonelier than his previous works. It incorporates layers of musical textures with stacked vocal harmonies, synthesizer pads and production choices that create a spacious, ethereal sound at once reminiscent of Jeff Buckley's haunting melodies and Prince's genre-mashing. But Hemerlein's goal for this album is still the same: goose bumps.

"I sort of write music from a place as me as a music fan first," he says from his home in Columbia. "If [a musician] could do some really amazing, theoretical things, like put in some amazing time signatures, or play some little tricks, that's awesome. But I just always want to get goose bumps, and if I can give myself goose bumps, then I'll probably give other people goose bumps. I'm after that visceral reaction."

It's the same visceral reaction he says he gets from listening to Dvorak or the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 2 as played and arranged by Edgar Meyer, or Paganini.

"I don't want to sound like that," Hemerlein says, "but there still has to be that thing where you feel like it takes your breath away and you get goose bumps and you're not sure if you want to laugh or cry. Listening to music can be very confusing emotionally."

Hemerlein, 27, is a classically trained musician who started playing the violin at age 5. "My mom and dad looked at music as being a very fundamental, basic skill as important as reading or math," he says. "They didn't treat it any differently, so all of us were trained to play music."

Those private lessons gave Hemerlein the backbone that today allows him to draw from a large musical palette, which may explain why his music doesn't fit easily into one category. Hemerlein, who plays six instruments, recorded and performed all the parts on his new album in his home studio, using a loop pedal. Hemerlein has the chops and is not afraid to play around with them, plucking here, strumming there, whatever he has to do to achieve the goose bumps - first his own, then his listeners.

It was his childhood cello teacher, Daniel Malkin, who inspired him to think about classical music differently. "In classical music there are a lot of people who are very evolved on a musical level but, on a creative level or interpersonal level, not very evolved," Hemerlein says. "Even though we were still doing Bartok and classical pieces and competitions, [Malkin] treated it in a different way. . . . He was a little more graceful."

After three years of lessons, Malkin died suddenly of cancer and Hemerlein stopped playing music for two years. But by the end of high school, Hemerlein says, he "needed" to play again and attended Loyola University in New Orleans, in part, to check out the music scene. In his junior year he contracted Lyme disease and came home to Maryland to recover. He then began teaching music and playing his own compositions.

"I wasn't even really trying to teach music. I just started working in and around D.C., and it sort of fit," he says.

Hemerlein is too busy to teach much these days, but he really enjoys it and has grand visions of opening his own music school someday, one that would be "centered around learning very valuable, practical traditional forms of music, learning Charlie Parker solos or Bach cello suites or Paganini or Rachmaninoff or Chopin, learning those very eternal pieces of music and then with the intention of creating something modern from that technique.

"That's been the thing for me. My music doesn't sound like any of those people at all, but from playing all that older stuff, it's definitely influenced the way that I evaluate modern music. I'm not blinded by bells and whistles and the dressing. It's more about the bone structure."

And, of course, the goose bumps.

"I connect with people, and I know how to channel sound and affect people," Hemerlein says. "Mainly it's about chilled goose bumps."

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