Matt Jencik is someone who has truly dedicated his life to music. While still in high school in Pittsburgh, he started playing in Hurl, and soon found himself involved with bands like Don Caballero, The Speaking Canaries, and The Karl Hendricks Rock Band, all before relocating to Chicago over 20 years ago. Since then, he's played in Taking Pictures, and even achieved the coveted status of being a touring member of the highly influential and mighty Slint. He has also toured with Papa M and Circuit Des Yeux, and his atmospheric and haunting project Implodes released a handful of incredible releases. Currently working as a solo artist, Matt spoke with us about his experiences, inspirations, writing process and the frequency zone he strives to exist in, and his new record Dream Character. Oh yeah, we also talked about coffee, of course.
Hi Matt, thanks for taking some time to talk. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I started playing music in high school, very much influenced by punk rock and alternative music that I liked at the time. I started playing shows around the end of my senior year in the band Hurl, and have played and toured in other bands like Don Caballero, The Speaking Canaries, Karl Hendricks Rock Band, Taking Pictures, Slint, Papa M, Implodes, and Circuit De Yeux. I released a solo record a couple of years ago, Weird Times, and have a new one out now called Dream Character.
Matt Jencik, photo by Melissa Grubbs
How did you get started playing music and doing what you are now?
Like I said, Hurl started playing pretty actively after graduating. I think that maybe the next year we put out a single, and then things kind of took off from there pretty quickly. Like a lot of young people that play music, we were super stoked to be doing it. From 19 to about 24 I toured a ton, and it was really great, definitely the time of my life. Hurl broke up (totally amicably) because Noah wanted to leave Pittsburgh, and everyone was like “All right, we did our thing.” He moved, and I did Karl Hendricks Rock Band, and was trying to write songs as well. Noah had originally moved to Austin after leaving Pittsburgh and didn’t like it, and then ended up here in Chicago. At that point Matt & I decided to come to Chicago as well and play more music with Noah, which is how I ended up here. We played in that band Taking Pictures for a couple of years until that fizzled out. I went back to school at that point, and finished all of that.
Then, through working at Reckless, knowing people like Kip McCabe from Louisville, and having played in Don Cab basically led to me trying out for Slint, which didn’t work out. I was told I was in the running but then they didn’t pick me, which was fine because honestly I never understood why they were even trying out Todd Cook. He was obviously who should have had the job, he’s great. The next time around, he couldn’t do it for some reason, so then they called me. I did that off and on for a year and a half or something like that. During that time, and after being finished with school, I was actually pretty reinvigorated to play music. After Taking Pictures had broken up, I actually stopped playing for about 6 months. I didn’t play at all, I was kind of disillusioned and didn’t know what to do. During the Slint stuff, I started playing and writing again, and it was all pretty different than what I had done in the past. Previous bands had been influenced by artists like Mission Of Burma, Government Issue, even Shellac and other Touch & Go type bands. When I started writing music again, I started writing much more sort of fuzzy noise rock type stuff? I remember thinking, even before I started writing the songs, that I wanted the guitar to have this sort of really fuzzy, warm frequency and I was thinking of Lo-Fi bands that I really liked. Flying Saucer Attack, for example. At the same time, I was getting really into Black Metal and stuff like that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of that music has that same kind of tone; a really fuzzed out, crackly, warm fire sort of sound. That is where I’ve been coming from the whole time since probably 2007. If I could break it down as simply as possible, that was just a world I decided I wanted to live in where the sound is just surrounding you. My preferred way to listen to music is headphones, and I like music to almost feel like you’re in an isolation tank or something like that.
When I was on tour with Circuit Des Yeux, Rob Frye had brought along this Casio keyboard with him, and we started sampling stuff from our iPods and trying to make songs out of them when we were in the van. It was a really fun thing to do because it was so random and you never knew what you were going to get. I had one of those keyboards, so when I got home from that tour I decided to start sampling my own music and trying to make these songs. I’d sample demos that I hadn’t used for anything, I had hours of guitar demos on my laptop. The next thing I knew, I had like an hour’s worth of these sample songs and I sent it to Hands In The Dark. One of those guys, Antoine, had managed a Papa M tour. While we were on tour, he’d play the records they were putting out, and I thought they were great. When I got back, I ordered some for the record store. So I sent it to them and they liked it and agreed to put it out. I thought it was crazy, because I had never even thought of making a solo record. It was never an aspiration of mine at all. It’s funny, because Ken Camden had been putting out all of these solo records while we were in Implodes and it had never crossed my mind as something I could do.
What are some experiences that stand out to you from bands you’ve been involved with?
Beyond what I already mentioned about Hurl, I think the experience I’ll always remember is that it was the band that I learned to play music in, how to play with other people, and how to write democratically. We would just jam until we had ideas. I mean, there were definitely parts that people would bring in and we would expand upon, but that was my biggest take away from that band. You know, collaborating, being excited about playing music. We rehearsed like crazy, we worked really hard, and it was what we all wanted to do.
I’d say with Don Cab, the thing I remember is those guys calling me out of the blue because they were in a bind and needed a bass player for this really big show. They’d been asked to play with Helmet and Rage Against The Machine in Detroit on New Year’s Eve, and they called me less than two weeks before that asking if I thought I could get it together in time. I had no idea if I could do it or not. I don’t remember why, but at the time I was in between apartments and living at my parents’ house briefly. I remember putting For Respect on the turntable in my childhood bedroom and trying to learn the bass parts. Knowing that music, you’d understand how almost impossible that was. I’d see them play a bunch of times, so I kind of knew the gist of what he was doing, but in retrospect I think that was hilarious. I was 19 years old, they wanted me to go play this show with these fucking massive bands, and I did. I don’t think that it was probably very good. The show was really big, like in a medium sized basketball arena. I think we played to 7,000 people or something like that. I only practiced with them a handful of times.
Matt performing with Don Caballero
With Slint, the weirdest thing for me will always be trying out. I had never done anything like that before. I had met Brian because Hurl had played with For Carnation a couple of times, but I had never met Britt or David until I walked out on to the stage at the Metro (where auditions were held). They were one of my favorite bands. Hurl actively, unashamedly ripped off Slint, so you can imagine how bizarre that was for me. There were people out in the seats, literally taking notes, and I was among maybe 10 people trying out. They had given me a CD with the bass lines isolated, so it was sort of like the Don Cab thing but in a much more friendly way. Some of those bass lines are pretty weird, and it was kind of hard to figure out what I was doing. I’ve never really tried out for anything else but I’ll never forget how it felt. It was kind of like when you’re watching a movie and someone is trying out for a dance troupe or something. People in the back taking notes, and when you’re done they just say “Ok, Thanks! We’ll be in touch!” Even after having played a ton of shows with them, knowing them personally, and having all of that behind me, that is still the weirdest thing. It wasn’t them being weird or anything, it was just me and what I put on it, and what it represented.
Slint, photo by Mira Shemeikka
When you say that several people were watching you, do you mean the other people auditioning, or who was it?
It was just people in their crew, I would imagine people from the label were there. I don’t really know. The anticipation for a Slint tour was really high, and nobody had ever really seen them except their friends and bands they had played with and a few lucky people, you know. Even before they started playing shows, the hype was pretty intense.
The thing that struck me the most about Papa M was that Dave has built such a legacy for himself, playing with Slint, Stereolab, Tortoise, Zwan, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and all these bands. He’s so respected. When I started playing with him, the whole point of it was his wanting to play the Live From A Shark Cage stuff, a favorite record of mine, which was also surreal even after doing the Slint stuff. With Slint, there wasn’t much room for interpretation, but the thing that was cool about the Papa M stuff was that Dave gave me a certain level of freedom with the songs. I could add my own parts, and he actually let me improvise quite a bit. It meant a lot to me that he thought I could do that. Again, we’re talking about something I was a fan of, and I didn’t want to ruin this music, but he was like “Who cares? Let’s try it a different way.” That honestly gave me a lot of confidence in starting Implodes. I was like 35 when that band started, and by that time a lot of people are already checked out of playing music! I still had the desire.
Papa M performing in Catania, Sicily 2012, photo by Antoine Richard
One cool thing about Implodes is that Ken and I are both from Pittsburgh, but we didn’t really know each other, he’s a few years younger than me. I had seen some of his bands play before I moved, but he was like in high school at that point. I didn’t really know who he was or anything. Then, he moved to Chicago and started working at the record store. Obviously, we grew up in the same city, had some similar interests and whatnot, and we decided that we wanted to start playing music together. It’s kind of funny, but I still remember I was really into British folk stuff like Roy Harper and Bert Jansch at the time, and he also really liked that kind of stuff, and simultaneously we were both really getting into Ethiopian music. The original intent and discussions were about trying to play around with both styles and see what we could come up with. We started jamming, and obviously it didn’t go that way at all. It was much more drone oriented and sounded kind of like Spacemen 3 or something. This was right around that time that I had come out of that funk and started writing those songs, so I asked if he wanted to try to do those. It really kind of snowballed quickly. Next thing I knew, we had a bass player, and we were playing with a drum machine for a while. I was thinking that we should get a drummer to play that isn’t a drummer. For some reason I thought that would be a good way to go; get someone that sounds like Moe Tucker or something. Basically, caveman drumming, you know? So, I asked Justin. I knew he was a good musician, and had drums, but he’s not a drummer. It was totally appropriate. He kind of wasn’t that good, but it was good for what the songs needed. In a lot of ways, that band never really ended, we still talk about doing it. It’s weird, and I don’t know if it will ever happen, but we’ve had discussions as recently as within the last couple of months about doing it. It’s just hard with half of us living in California and half of us living in Chicago.
What would you consider the biggest influences on your music, and how have you seen these evolve over time?
I know we both know a lot of people that have dedicated a significant part of their lives to working in the music industry, whether it be a record label or like for me, pretty much my entire adult life working in record stores. Honestly, I’m just a big music fan in general, and I know that sounds funny to say. It’s something that’s in the back of my mind 24 hours a day. Like a lot of people, as I’ve gotten older the things that I’m interested in now are different than 10 or even 2 years ago in some ways. There are also these static things that have always been there.
You know, I’ve been a Beatles fan since I knew about music. I was talking about this with someone the other day, but one of the reasons that I still like them is that as I get older and my perspective on life changes, my view of their music is different. I mean many, many months will go by where I don’t want to hear the Beatles at all, but then I’ll listen to them again and it will be like I’ve never heard it before, or I’ll hear things that I never noticed, or songs that I never really cared for will become my new favorites.
Another example of something static like that would be Neil Young. I love Neil Young, he’s one of my favorite artists in general. But I don’t feel like my view of his records changes over time, really. I like After The Gold Rush for the same reasons now as I did when I was 16.
So, I don’t know if what I’m trying to say makes sense, but there are some things that remain a constant, while others, even though you might think “How many more times can I hear this fucking song?!?”, suddenly hit you in a different way. It’s bizarre. There is stuff that I always go back to. Nostalgia is really big for me. Another band that has always been really big for me is Hüsker Dü. I’ve never not liked them since I first heard them. I still like them a lot, and I don’t think it’s too surprising that they’re a fuzzy frequency band. In fact, the guitar pedal that I used in Implodes is the same pedal that Bob Mould used, and I bought it purposely to have a similar sound. I don’t think that people would listen to my solo music and hear things like Hüsker Dü, Flying Saucer Attack, or things like that, but it’s all in the background. What I mean by that is that the sounds I’m trying to get, in my mind, aren’t that different.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I easily spent the first half of my “career” in music playing loud rock, and while a lot of people that listen to my solo music may not realize it I am coming at this from a rock perspective. I was really into the Aphex Twin record Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2. when I was in school for photography and would have to sit in front of a computer doing this mind numbing retouching in Photoshop for hours and hours, and I discovered records that would help me through that. That record was really, really big for me because it was ambient music, but it felt like I was listening to pop songs. There was a lot to grasp on to. A lot of ambient music is this like expanded, drawn out stuff, which is fine. I love bands like Stars Of The Lid, whose whole deal is stretched time or whatever. When I started working on Weird Times, my whole perspective was the opposite. I wanted to make ambient pop songs, and that’s why they’re all so short. So, when I was recording I’d usually be improvising and whenever I’d get to three minutes, I’d just stop. The idea behind that was the concept of the 3 minute pop song. Some of them may even be shorter, but that’s where I was coming from. I thought it would be cool, instead of having 4 or 5 longer ideas, to have these little snippets, based on pop or rock structures. So, I wanted to make something that people could listen to while working, or having to do annoying tasks. Something they could grasp onto, but that wasn’t super distracting like pop music or something.
I have my recording set up going all the time, and a lot of the songs are written, recorded, and finished at the same time. I don’t put a ton of effort into the songs, but there are some that I may sleep on and then make improvements to.
The songs I like the most that I’ve written are the ones that are completely spontaneous, ones I’ve had no sort of precognition about. I just sit down and start playing, and then a couple of hours later I have a song. It’s just inspiration and random luck, I guess. Some artists make comments about how you’re just plucking something out of the air that is already there, and you’re just lucky enough to find it. I definitely kind of feel that way sometimes. You can wake up in the morning and something doesn’t exist, and then a little while later it just does.
Ok, Let’s talk about your new record, Dream Character.
Well, I’d say that it’s kind of an extension from the first one. Some of it’s done the same way, I’m still going for that frequency zone that I was talking about. I make most of my music in headphones, which I think helps me get into that space. I think the biggest change I made with this one was that I recorded a lot of it on four-track cassette, which I found allowed me to get those frequencies in ways that I hadn’t before. I did a lot of stuff like manipulating the tape speed, overdubs with different tape speeds, stuff like that. I really love the half speed fuzzy frequencies, where it’s all slowed down and you get a totally different fuzz. When you combine that with overdubs, you can get this super thick layer. For me, it always goes back to the fuzz. It’s always on my mind when I’m making music. It’s almost like the sound of it is more important than the melody. Like I said, before Implodes started, I knew what the guitar sounds would be like before I had songs, and I kind of feel the same way about this four-track stuff.
Dream Character, by Matt Jencik
With Dream Character, I didn’t structure myself as much. There are a couple of long songs, I stopped timing myself and just let it go. There’s a guitar piece on side 2 that’s fully improvised. The only time I ever played it is when I recorded it, I don’t even know if I could play it again. I liked it, I had never done that before and put the song on a record. I was really proud of that. It ended up being a song that the label kind of fought for.
Same thing as before, all of a sudden I had like an hour worth of music and sent it off. I thought it was like in demo stage personally, but the label responded saying “Yeah, we’ll put this out”, and I was kind of surprised.
When I was working on this record, Johann Johannsson died and I was really into his music at that moment. I had always known his music, but I was in a fucking deep dive, so at that time it was really shocking. This was something I thought I was going to get to keep experiencing for years. He wasn’t that much older than me, I think he was still in his 40’s. Anyway, there’s a song on my record that I think kind of sounds like him, and I can tell that he seeped into what I was doing at the time. At the same time, when I hear that song I can hear all the stuff that influences me all the time. Shoegaze, 90’s Britpop, bands like Ride, Slowdive, Swervedriver, My Bloody Valentine. You know, that whole era of guitar music. I don’t think that would be surprising to anyone who has heard Implodes. I feel like it all sort of connects back to that kind of noise, all that sort of pitch bent stuff. Because I am a fan of so many different types of music and I absorb so much of it (whether it be jazz, folk, rock, or whatever,) like any artist, I think all of those weird experiences combine in your head, so when I listen to Dream Character, I can hear all of that stuff in there.
Any plans to play live shows in the near future?
I would like to. I like performing, I like preparing for it, that whole process. Maybe it’s just that I’m a bad self-promoter, but I often find playing shows to be frustrating. I don’t know if it’s just bad luck. Long story short, I’m not in a position right now where I feel like actively pursuing it. Whenever I put a ton of effort into it and then it doesn’t really go anywhere, I get really frustrated, so I’d rather wait around until someone asks me to play, (laughs) but you know how that goes, sometimes people stop asking. I am hopeful about doing some stuff early next year.
Aside from music, do you feel there are movies, books, etc. that inspire your work?
Yeah, a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading over the past few years has been pretty influential. Some horror stuff like Laird Barron and, not to sound cheesy, but when Implodes was going on I was going through a pretty big Lovecraft phase. That definitely influenced a lot of things. I guess I sometimes think about stories I read in similar ways as music, something about reading and interpreting words, which everyone does differently.
The first song on the new record is named after a Laird Barron story, Hallucigenia. The reason I called it that is because I was reading the story and I got so obsessed with it, I was completely in it, in a way that I also feel when I get really into music. His writing has this depth to it, and is just super musical. I decided to call the song that because something about it gave me a similar sensation. Also, I feel that short stories are kind of song-like, and a collection of them is kind of like an album in some ways. His stories tend to connect in ways, not necessarily narratively or thematically even, but there’s this connecting thread. I think the best albums have sort of an album aesthetic, but the songs also stand up individually. I’m definitely a believer in the album as a format, even though some people see that as an outdated concept. I believe in the concept album, or the themed album, and this record is definitely the headspace I was in during that time.
Hallucigenia, video by Yannick Mosimann
The last couple of years have been sort of rough for me, for emotional reasons. I definitely think that out of all the albums I’ve made, this one has the most mental anguish in it. I was definitely experiencing some mental health stuff while I was working on it, and I don’t doubt that’s in there. I can look back and see it better now than I could while it was happening.
I’m always thinking about movies in regards to music, and I’m a big film soundtrack nerd. I feel like some of this could be good in the background of something. When I’m making music, I’m definitely always thinking about visual stuff.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been one of those people that listens to a lot of metal when it’s cold. I like the new Blood Incantation record quite a bit. There’s a band called Tomb Mold that I like. I really like the new Arthur Russell record Iowa Dream that just came out and is not metal at all. I was describing it to someone the other day saying it almost sounds like one of those Jim O’Rourke records on Drag City, just really ornate pop music. I’ve been listening to this for years, but they just reissued No Other by Gene Clark and I’ve been listening to that a lot lately. The remaster sounds really good.
Ok, it’s coffee time. Do you like that stuff?
You know, I like coffee. Yes. I drank a bunch of coffee this morning.
What do you look for in a good cup of coffee?
I’m certainly not an expert, but I don’t really like dark roast very much. I find that to be kind of acidic and burnt. I’ve much more into like medium roast Guatemalan coffee and things like that. I don’t like really acidic coffee, either. It’s good when there are notes of chocolate and things like that.
How do you make coffee at home?
We’ve been using a Chemex for a couple years. I don’t know if I’m right or not, but I just find it to be a much more satisfying cup. It has a much more balanced flavor to it, and I feel like I have more control over the things I like and don’t like in coffee. Whenever I get coffee out, even if it’s a pour over, I usually don’t like it as much.
How do you feel that coffee intersects with your creativity?
I’m not sure. I don’t know that I could say that it does for me. I’m not an all day coffee drinker like some people. I pretty much drink coffee in the morning, getting started with my day. But, I guess that a lot of times when I’m making music, it’s during the time that I normally would be working, so maybe it is pretty important to the process? It’s part of me getting into a certain headspace.
Dead Comet Return, video by Ben Chlapek
Check out Matt's work on his Bandcamp page.
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