Matt Christensen is an artist and musician native to Chicago. He has been playing with Zelienople (named after the small town in Pennsylvania where George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead was filmed) for 20 years, prolifically releases solo recordings on his bandcamp page and has also collaborated with several other musicians in various projects such as Good Stuff House (with Scott Tuma and Mike Weis), the Chevrons (a Twin Peaks inspired roadhouse band), and countless others. Matt spoke with us about his music, growing up in Chicago, and coffee, of course.
Hey Matt, thanks for agreeing to do this. Why don’t we start off with you telling me a bit about what yourself?
No problem! I’m Matt, I’ve been in the band Zelienople for over 20 years, and I’ve been doing solo work for a little under 20 years. I work in social services. I drink coffee every day, whether I need it or not.
You’ve been actively creating music in a series of projects in Chicago for some time now, some spanning decades. Could you tell me about these?
Mike Weis, Brian Harding and I started the band Zelienople over 20 years ago, and we released a lot of records on various labels around the world. We’ve had various 4th members, but Donn Ha has stuck for the past few records. We tend to dwell in the “drone” genre, although I wouldn’t really consider us drone. I know that most musicians don’t like to label themselves, but I really don’t think about it much anymore, so I’m kind of fine with whatever people want to call it. I’ve released music with Scott Tuma and Mike Weis under the name Good Stuff House, and under my own name. I’ve also played with Mind Over Mirrors once or twice (maybe once?). It’s hard to remember, because we were playing a lot of shows together a while back. I don’t play out as much as I’d like to. I also recently released an album with John Kolodij (High Aura’d) under the name Gemini Sisters.
Zelienople, (L-R Matt Christensen, Brian Harding, Mike Weis, Donn Ha) 2014.
You prolifically release music digitally under your own name on bandcamp. What freedoms do you feel this platform offers you in comparison to other ones you’ve been involved in (both bandcamp as well as your solo work)?
From the time you finish a record, to it being online takes minutes, vs. releasing an album through a label, on vinyl, which can take forever. In the past, I would remix and rework songs for way too long, lose perspective, and not even enjoy it anymore. When I signed up with bandcamp, I started off the same way. But then I started to realize that the stakes were so low in just getting something out of your system and into the world. Some people have said that I release too much music, and I understand where they’re coming from. It’s hard to keep up with every record. I’m sure that some subscribers to my catalog can get Matt Christensen-ed out. I also realize that it’s not good for marketing & record sales. But, I don’t think that concerning myself with marketing & money helps anything. I have to play, I have to write songs, I’m not getting any younger, and I have to get the music out there and move on to the next thing.
Wait, you’re not getting any younger?
No, I am not.
a younger Matt Christensen, at Elastic Arts.
You’re a Chicago native, correct?
Yep. I grew up in Rogers Park/ Edgewater, on the northern city limits. It’s a super ethnically diverse area. One of the most diverse communities in the country. I love that about where I live. I took it for granted for most of my life, but now that I have a kid, and I see that she is not going to have to unlearn some weird racial beliefs, I’m really proud of my neighborhood.
How have you experienced the music and art culture in the city, and how has it changed over time?
That’s another thing that I’ve taken for granted. Chicago has, for my entire life, had a lot going on. When I was in grade school, house music was on the radio, when I was in high school, we had Wax Trax! Records and that whole scene. In my 20s, post rock was really big here. It seemed like everything was Tortoise, or a Tortoise spin-off. There’s also something happening every night of the week in Chicago. I mean, you may not be interested in what’s happening all the time, but you still have options to go out and see music that isn’t mainstream. I realized in my adult years that this isn’t the case in most towns. You can be a big fish in a small pond in other places. Here, it’s a bit tough to stand out. I don’t really take advantage of the scene like I used to. Musically, I have a tendency to stay to myself. I don’t feel as guilty about that as much as I used to. But, on the other hand, I saw Mind Over Mirrors last a few months ago, and GAS the week before, both at the Museum Of Contemporary Art. So again, it’s easy to get spoiled and jaded with the options.
At the Goethe Institute, Boston MA.
How about coffee culture?
Small cafes used to be everywhere here. Like most big cities, we have the big chains, but we also have big local roasters and coffee shops. Before I was of drinking age, I went to a lot of cafes and would hang out for hours drawing, philosophizing, playing chess, walking outside to smoke dope, etc. I stopped smoking weed years ago, but I have really fond memories of being “bohemian”. Back then, the cafes were pretty much how they looked in movies from the 70s- darker, less people, you could smoke, disaffected staff. It was great.
So, let’s talk about coffee now. You like that stuff, right?
I very much do.
What brew methods are you a fan of?
For the first cup of the day, I will drink pretty much any coffee that’s put in front of me. I mean, I really like good coffee, but I’m pretty lazy about making that first cup. My wife gets up before me and makes the coffee, so I’m spoiled. I have hot coffee waiting for me pretty much every morning. Note that she doesn’t get up before me just to make me coffee, we just need to leave at different times for work. It’s not like she’s a coffee slave. She does a french press and uses locally roasted beans. It’s my favorite coffee.
French Press, photo by Kristan Lieb.
Are there coffees from certain regions you are particularly fond of?
Oh man. I don’t know. That’s too advanced for me.
How do you feel that coffee plays into your creativity?
My Saturday morning coffee and guitar/ recording ritual is mandatory. So much so that I’ll often take my guitar with me on vacations. I tend to drink too much coffee on these Saturdays, so I’m really trying to limit it to 2-3 cups, and then switch to decaf. I know a lot of coffee drinkers look down on decaf, but I think that if you’re really into the flavor of coffee, you’ll drink decaf on occasion. This is especially true when you get older, and your sleep cycles start to get more jacked-up. I used to drink a lot of coffee and have marathon music sessions. I can’t do that anymore.
Thanks again, Matt. Have you heard any good jokes lately?
(Sigh) Who's there?
(Long pause) Interrupting cow who?
Oh, I'm sorry. It looks like you're in the middle of something. I'll come back later.
Matt has compiled a retrospective of his work for your listening pleasure. You can check it out here, as well as other releases of his.