Matt Mehlan has already eaten what must have been a very large and very greasy breakfast, and by the look on his face, he’s very happy about it. “Brooklyn is great, because you can find places like this,” the Chicago-raised singer tells me, gesturing contentedly at the walls of Aldo’s Diner, the run-down greasy spoon where we’ve met on a weekday at noon, and in which we are the only customers. Mehlan may have a friendly and laid-back Midwestern sensibility—he did grow up in the suburban jungles of Northern Illinois and attend college in Ohio at the Oberlin College Music Conservatory—but he fits in here, underneath the JMZ overpass and in the middle of Williamsburg/Greenpoint, where most of his band, Skeletons & the Girl-Faced Boys, relocated in the past year after finishing college. “There are four of us here now,” he tells me, “four out of five. But I moved here because this is where everybody kinda is—I don’t think any of us moved here with any sort of fluttering eyelids, Dreamsville USA.” Of course not, I remind him, “Dreamsville” is L.A. But New York hasn’t been so bad to him and his suburb-fleeing pals. This summer, with the release of their fourth album, Git, a number of Skeletons & the Girl-Faced Boys’ dreams are on the verge of becoming reality—if an overwhelmingly positive press response to the release and the opportunity to do a U.S.-tour in support of the album are any indication.
While his stomach struggles to digest, I forge ahead and ask Matt some questions about his band. I learn that Mehlan isn’t kidding when he says he’s in a “pop group”, that he doesn’t mind if his music serves only as background sound (sometimes), that he understands if journalists have trouble finding groups to compare Skeletons to and that, actually, he prefers it that way. Oh, and then I learn that Aldo’s Diner is the best place in Brooklyn to get a turkey melt.
PopMatters: Tell me about the genesis of “Skeletons”.
Matt Mehlan: OK. Well, when I was a sophomore in college I was working with Sevy (who plays the drum machine and the drums in the Girl-Faced Boys) and we were in a band, trying to work together, to make a record together. But we had the most insanely difficult time, and I had a song that I brought to him and he just said “no”—and I got really upset and just started working on a whole record based on that. At that stage I was “the Skeletons”, but I found out there already was a band by that name, and it changed to “Skeletons”.
PM: So do you consider yourself a solo artist, and Girl-Faced Boys your backing band?
MM: Well, that makes it seem very cut and dry. But I don’t really do the “one man band” thing. We’re just all part of the same crew, and we all work with each other on the same shit. They may play on a specific record, they may all not. But we’re always essentially the same musical community.
PM: But, on the next release, would it still be called Skeletons & the Girl-Faced Boys if the members weren’t the same?
MM: Maybe. Well, initially, I wanted Ghostly [Skeleton’s label] to change the name every record. But the problem is, it causes confusion in the marketplace…but it’s a good name.
PM: Definitely unusual, catchy…
MM: The album before Git, I recorded everything myself. But the album before that was a bigger group.
PM: A group that now calls itself “the Girl-Faced Boys”?
PM: So the Girl-Faced Boys and you all met in Oberlin, Ohio, five fateful years ago?
MM: That’s where we all met, at school. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but I went to school at Oberlin.
PM: And you all studied music there. Do you think having a music education has influenced the way that you approach your music and interact as a band?
MM: I think it does. I think that the biggest thing that it contributes is that we all have a really wide spectrum of reference points that really make it easy to say “this is what we’re trying to do”. And everybody’s is really gifted musically—not in the style of Yes, so much—but we can all play our shit. We’ve definitely gotten better playing “this type” of music, but we can play so many different kinds, that it enriches what we choose to play together as a group.
It was good studying at Oberlin; I can’t really think of many situations where the group of people I met there—friends and the people I work with musically—could have met each other, except in a place like that, where it’s about figuring stuff out. And I think we taught each other a lot more than school did. We got real competitive for a while, than real collaborative for a while. It really worked, really made us a cohesive group.
MM: You mention “figuring stuff out”—in your PR material, the phrase “collaboration, experimentation, unpredictability” is used to describe your “core ideals”. Is this a process you actively tried to carry into Skeletons & the Girl-Faced Boys’ music?
MM: That’s an easy motto because it doesn’t give in to anything. I would say I don’t have a motto. I don’t think of anything that way—“this is what I’m trying to do”. I don’t have any loyalty to anything—I’m not striving to create any certain kind of music.
PM:In the context of that catchy motto, I know you often defend the label of your music as “pop”. Taking into account that “pop” is so often another word for “conventional”, how do you see your music interacting with contemporary “pop music” while being “collaborative, experimental and unpredictable”?
MM: Well, because pop music hasn’t always been synonymous with conventionality. And I don’t think we’re interested, necessarily, in “retro”—like “hacking’’ or whatever, even though we are super inspired by certain things in the past 50 or so years in music. But I think that most of my favorite pop music is from a while ago, at least. The greatest pop music, of say the ‘80s, was pretty tight and concise, but it wasn’t where it is now. And before then—Steely Dan sounds like they beat-boxed in ProTools, but they didn’t. But then you listen to Stevie Wonder, the dude’s all over the place, like in Talking Book, dude played the drums on that and there are some places where he is all over the place. But you don’t notice because there is personality and there is soul in it. I think it’s too bad that pop music can’t be unpredictable. I think that’s why everyone flips out about groups like Timbaland—and I flip out about them, because they are awesome and they consistently do awesome shit. But it’s amazing to us when people do something that’s not the same old. And it shouldn’t be. We should expect originality from pop.
I think at the core, I just write songs. And that’s pop music to me—songs that are sung along to and enjoyed. Purely. If it’s with an acoustic guitar and some bearded dude singing, you could say it’s folk music. But that’s pop music. And that’s the weird thing about the independent music press—they don’t ever want to say that something is as normal as it is if they like it.
PM: Sure, so much of independent music is just pop music that only a select few people listen to. But how do you expect the press to interact with the music they cover?
MM: I don’t know. Its really weird, tricky stuff. Because it’s just like, I feel the way it works right now there are a lot of music journalists that believe themselves to be true music fans. I don’t really think they are necessarily. It’s a total catch-22, for sure. Every real music fan that I know is constantly looking for new things and constantly trying to expand their tastes. I was talking to my roommate about this the other day. I used to never listen to reggae, for whatever reason, and my roommate started to get into it and it’s always playing in my house. And he found the good shit—and it’s awesome. I never would have thought. I think that its gotta be tough as a reviewer, because you have to be held to your word, you have to solidify your opinions—but also, you don’t have to search for music anymore because you’re given a constant stream, and you lose an essential part of being a music lover, a music fan. I mean, the stream is like a sewer, and it’s only every once in a while a little piece of gold floats by, covered in shit…
PM: It’s tricky, making a hobby into a profession.
MM: I’ve never gotten such broad press for anything I have done until now, so I am interested in it. I’ve been looking up reviews to get the lowdown on who’s reviewing me. Of course, it’s real “rock” to say “I couldn’t give a shit”—and while I’d like to not give a shit, I do—I want to know these people’s opinions. Because I’ve read their opinions before and discovered some new things, so it’s tricky. The whole point of some of the music I make is to push certain buttons, even if it’s with the pop-iest song. And we’ve been getting some weird comparisons. Someone said we sound like “Boyz II Men in a bad way” and someone said Jamiroquai…
PM: Yeah, I think I read that one in Pitchfork.
MM: But that’s actually the thing—in those ten or 20 reviews they namedropped like a hundred bands that aren’t all the same band, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. So if some dude says Boyz II Men, even as a joke or meant to be negative, that’s pretty interesting to me. If I said it to describe myself, I’d mean it in a positive way. Take Jamiroquai. You can use that as another word for cheesy—as they probably were in Pitchfork—but Jamiroquai put out some sweet shit. He does something that’s his, and it just seems so petty to be compared to him pejoratively.
But that’s the thing: every band should sound like a list of 50 bands. Why are people interested in reviews that relate bands to the same old bands? Do we want new bands to be recycled sounds of old bands? Not I. So, it’s a compliment to be compared to everybody. Maybe that means we’re somebody.
PM: You definitely sound like your own “somebody”, you have a really spontaneous, motley sound. What’s the process of putting together a song for your band? Talk me through it.
MM: We don’t really write as a group just yet. Really when we first started playing “as a band” it was like, “Hey I got this show, you want to come help me play it?” I was just working on my record—on my little project. But now that we are all in one place and thinking of ourselves as a group, it will be interesting to see how it evolves as a group thing. I write most of the songs and bring them to the group, but there are also some all-out jams, that we pull things from—those songs tend to be really collaborative in the way we play them live, also. But we’ve done a few riff-based songs, too.
PM: In terms of the live show versus the album, I found your live show to be very true to the album. Of course I saw you live before I heard any of the album tracks…
MM: Well that’s great to hear. We try to do something different. To do many different things on each song. I mean, people have criticized us, some people find it too “jammy”.
PM: There does seem to be a strong anti-jamming sentiment in independent music today.
MM: Yeah, but I’m into that because no one really does that today. Even Radiohead, the biggest band today, they could play a 15-minute version of, say “Morning Bell”, and it would be awesome—but they never would. Why are you standing in line for hours next to some beefy, sweaty dude, to hear the songs played pretty well, just like on the album?
PM: Yet a sloppier version.
MM: Yeah, there’s no spontaneity. So when we play, we like it to be alive. It makes it fun for us to have it open, to not have to repeat ourselves.
PM: When I saw you play live I was disappointed that the audience just stood still. Sure, they were New York indie rockers, but what do you prefer the audience to do?
MM: Dance! I think in New York people just like standing. We played a show in Boise, Idaho and there were just 10-15 people there but they were going crazy and it was great. But the line I’d like to keep is that someone could be dancing and then hear the words simultaneously and then it could mean something different than just dancing. It’s difficult to get there—people don’t have the brain and the body working separately always—but who knows.
PM: Speaking of the brain, and of how we interpret and react to music, your lyrics seem very abstract. How do you want people to interpret them? What role do you want your lyrics play in your songs?
MM: I mean, lyrics are really important to me. I hope that people inspect them; I want them to. I’d like to have both layers. I’d like the music to be totally enjoyable and basic in some respects, and totally complex and enjoyable for different reasons. But the lyrics always stay the same. There’s no difference lyrically between my noisy complex songs and my sweeter pop songs; I try to keep the lyrics the same in both. And I’d like listeners to have something stuck in their head and not at first be thinking about what they’re singing and then have that second layer that they could peel off if they wanted to. That’s another thing that’s disappointing about the press. If it’s a first album or something, it’s very superficial the way that they inspect it. They don’t give you any credit as a person. They only give you credit as an entity. It’s just about the music—this sounds like this and this sounds like that. And oh, there are some lyrics. Later. But I don’t think that’s how people actually listen to music. Sure, you need the music first to suck people in—you need the music, always—but the lyrics are often the breaking point. You could love a song, and after you figure out the lyrics, it just breaks the song. At least for me. Lyrics have that kind of power.
PM: You seem to feel very passionately that music has “power”. How do you see this manifesting itself in the listening experience?
MM: I had this professor at Oberlin, a German-Austrian composer who studied with Schönberg—insane and amazing—Richard Hofmann. In his class he would just talk at you for an hour, he often said the most powerful quote: “Music is something that makes you stop thinking for a moment.” I want my music to do that. All art, the point of it, is to make you stop thinking in your rational mind. If it really has it. And what’s nice about music is that it can be that in your face, but you can also turn it on and tune out. It can be a tool—for working out or cleaning the house, or whatever—but it can also offer you an exultant experience. You can go deep into music. It’s not like when you put on your headphones, you’re in a CGI dreamland world, but you still want to enter it, when it’s really good. You want to get it. What you want is, for a moment, to feel like you relate to the person whose making the music and also to experience a deep feeling. That’s music, that’s what it’s for. And sometimes you want your brain to be moved, in an intellectual way.
PM: That’s quite lofty—but I can feel a pull toward that loftiness on your new album. How often do you think your music achieves that kind of power?
MM: Well, not always. But hopefully some people will have that experience with Git! I think people have a habit of shutting their tastes and their brains off to a lot of things because of very superficial things, and that’s what I think is a shame with people’s interaction with music. And that’s unique to music right now in contemporary culture. The cultish, hipster bullshit. I’m a culprit too. I hear something on a “hot shit” label, or when I read 50 reviews that say something’s the best shit ever—I say “yeah, right”. And it’s too bad for those bands that get tagged that way, that get caught in the tides of popular opinion. We’re all swayed by it, positively or negatively. But it bugs me, that it’s part of musical fandom. Good music does not always have to be obscure, right? But neither does press always have to be hype.