Remember back in high school when your science teacher was also an acclaimed avant-indie-folk artist who promoted his latest album by burying purple audio cassettes all across North America and leaving cryptic GPS coordinates online so that people could try and find them? Me too . . .
Chad Matheny (sometimes called C. R. Matheny) is the mastermind behind Emperor X, a wildly fluid, somewhat insane electronic/folk hybrid project that he’s been working on for years. While a lot of people discovered his unique lyrical bent and expressive production style through last year’s excellent Western Teleport, the success of that album has led Bar/None Records to re-release his back catalog digitally, which helps give full context to Matheny’s story. There were his early 1998 efforts (The Joytakers’ Rakes/Stars on the Ceiling, Pleasantly Kneeling), which he recorded in his college dorm, and paid for 300 12” pressings of his efforts. There was his 2004 effort Tectonic Membrane/Thin Strip on an Edgeless Platform which saw him maxing out numerous credit cards to record, later forcing him to declare bankruptcy. The upside, however, was his positive critical reception, which helped elevate his profile and made his subsequent albums and EPs find a niche audience, culminating in a large feature on NPR’s Weekend Edition for Western Teleport.
Now with his profile higher than ever before and his back catalog now being available for all to consume, Matheny sits down with PopMatters to answer 20 Questions for us, here revealing his heroic laptop-saving act on the 6-Train, who he owes a keyboard too, and why he wishes to time travel to 24th century Baghdad.
As a bonus, we are premiering the Emperor X tune “Raytracer” today.
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The planetary formation scenes in The Tree of Life really got me. I don’t really cry that much, but I definitely choked up a bit there.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez, this is hard! I think we all model ourselves on fictional characters, that’s part of why novels and films have utility. But usually it’s a mix, right? Like, half Batman, half Hester Prim, or something like that? (Wow, that’s hard to imagine . . .) Okay, so I have to pick one, huh? Okay, fine. Geordi LaForge [from Star Trek: The Next Generation].
3. The greatest album, ever?
Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
5. Your ideal brain food?
Going to a library and selecting a philosopher or poet at random, and trying to engage with her/his work.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I was on the 6-Train in Manhattan. The guy across from me got off, and just as the doors closed he realized he left his laptop case on the bench. He pounded on the glass, but the train was already pulling away. He chased the train. I grabbed the laptop case, ran to the end of the compartment, opened the door at the end of the car, leaned over the accordion grating, and tossed the case to him as the track accelerated by beneath me. He got it. I’m proud because it demonstrates potential for casual heroic behavior someday, or at least quick thinking. I felt like a real New Yorker at that moment. We’ll see. It’s not like I pulled a baby out of a burning building or anything. But I felt pretty cool about it.
7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?
I’m a musician. I want to be remembered for making pretty, activating sounds, of course. By that I mean I hope that the work I produce will have lasting, positive influence on people in the same way that the work of my heroes has had a lasting, positive influence on me. See below.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Sheila E., Henry Miller, Woody Guthrie, Arthur Russell, Fela Kuti, Claude Debussy.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Guided by Voices’ Alien Lanes.
10. Your hidden talents . . . ?
I can hear DTMF tones (the sounds your phone keypad makes) and tell you what numbers you dialed.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Joel Sternfeld, who is sort of like a combination of a close family member and a mentor to me, didn’t actually give me advice as much as he led by example. We were working on a project together, and every single day he would run three miles to clear his head. He’s not an exercise addict, but he’s disciplined, and it always had a beneficial effect on whatever task he was focused on. I’ve taken to doing this too, and to me it’s a practice like meditation. It clears my head, it circulates oxygen, it gives me a sense of well-being, and I can’t imagine engaging in anything creative without it. On a related note, my dad taught me to run when I was a little kid recovering from asthma. I could barely finish a mile, but he would always encourage me to go as fast and far as I could, and he would encourage me with one word, repeated over and over and over as he ran beside me: “DIG!” I still hear that in my head when I run and when I’m doing anything that’s difficult but beneficial.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I borrowed my friend Isaac Bear’s Casio MT-40 and it never made it back to him. I still owe him one, as a matter of fact. That keyboard triggered a hypnotic state in me, and that state was responsible for my learning how to write songs as I do today.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
15. Time travel: where, when, and why?
Twenty-fourth century Baghdad, because I predict a rebirth of the Islamic caliphate by then and am optimistic that by that time it will have mellowed into maturity, encouraging science and the arts and and showing tolerance to opposing, non-theist views. And we’ll probably have cheap space travel by then, and Baghdad should probably have its own spaceport if it’s the center of the caliphate, right?
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?
Spa vacation. In Iceland.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Mexico City, D.F.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Be tough, Obama!
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
A new record, and a 12” single of a song from that new record, and a science fiction short story that I’ll be submitting to various publications under a pseudonym, so don’t Google it. Yet.