Matt DeMello
Photo: Jeanette D. Moses

Matt DeMello “Carries That Weight” of an Ambitious Beatles Tribute

New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Matt DeMello talks about his new Abbey Road covers album, as well as his own idiosyncratic compositions.

Jennifer's Appendix, Vol. 7: Reimagining Abbey Road
Matt DeMello & The Significant Looks (featuring the Anti-Matter Horns)
Salieri Records
17 November 2023

“Shouldn’t there be a place that’s as approachable and beautiful and sonorous and complex as West Side Story, but also as noisy and dangerous and threatening as Lightning Bolt?”

Those are the words of Matt DeMello, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist whose polymath-like musical tastes have led him to compose and perform music that touches on show tunes, progressive rock, emo, hardcore punk, classical, and everything in between. The Rhode Island-raised, New York-based musician has released a string of genuinely odd, unclassifiable, and undeniably delightful music over the years, and his latest project – a song-for-song cover of the Beatles‘ Abbey Road – meshes his many musical interests while remaining faithful to what he calls “the album that made me a musician – hook or by crook – forever when I heard it as a 15-year-old”.

DeMello’s music is – like the best music – utterly unclassifiable. His 2022 album Confetti in a Coalmine sounds like Frank Zappa, They Might Be Giants, and Ben Folds joining forces to create a rock opera. There’s No Place Like Nowhere, released in 2014, combines DeMello’s longstanding love of show tunes with heavy doses of classic rock and pop. His musical mind always seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, which may be because he was exposed to a great deal of music while growing up. His father loved classic rock, and his mother had a penchant for show tunes. At age eight, he explains, “All my cousins were into (Green Day’s) Dookie and the Beastie Boys, and my sister was listening to pop music. But the artist I resonated with the most at that age was Elvis Presley. I was absolutely obsessed.”

A disinterest in sports led DeMello to sign up for community theater and eventually piano lessons at the age of 11. “My piano teacher handed me off to a jazz theory teacher and took it to a whole other level,” he said. Despite that love of theory and a penchant for artists as disparate as Zappa and Leonard Bernstein, the music his high school peers were into – Taking Back Sunday, Brand New – still resonated with him. The band he formed in high school, Stalemate, contained elements of emo with psychedelic tendencies, even adding bits of DeMello’s piano concerto. “I was an 18-year-old kid in 2004 listening to the reissue of the Beach Boys’ Smile. My best friend in the band was more metal; I was more punk; we couldn’t agree on anything. That’s where the band name came from.”

DeMello’s first solo album, To the Edge and Back, was recorded in 2003 at the age of 16, during Stalemate’s existence. DeMello describes the record recently reissued on Bandcamp as “the 16-year-old super-sheltered Catholic kid who definitely turned The Prodigal Son into a single LP version of The Wall, with MIDI instruments”. It’s not easy to combine the twin influences of Lightning Bolt and the Great American Songbook, but DeMello’s done just that, and his music completely bears that out.

Which brings us to the Abbey Road project. The album, credited to Matt DeMello and the Significant Looks, is technically titled Jennifer’s Appendix, Vol. 7: Reimagining Abbey Road. The “Jennifer’s Appendix” part of the title, which has been applied to many of DeMello’s works, is a reference to both William Faulkner’s “Appendix” in The Sound and the Fury, which DeMello calls “the skeleton key to understanding the whole novel”, and his wife’s abdominal issues, making the series title, like so much of DeMello’s work, a bit of an inside joke.

The sessions for the Abbey Road album were recorded with the Significant Looks shortly before the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. “To make money, we were just playing the album in bars from beginning to end,” DeMello explains. The recording ended up being what DeMello calls “this last burp of being a band”. The original Abbey Road, which had just celebrated its 50th anniversary the previous year, was in need, in DeMello’s and the group’s opinion, of something of a rewrite, at least from an arrangement standpoint. “We felt like people were probably sick of hearing some of these songs the same way after 50 years,” he said.

DeMello refers to Abbey Road as “a very Classic Rock 101 album, like Black in Black or Appetite for Destruction“, but its relative lack of complexity is deceiving. “Nothing on Abbey Road is musically more complex than maybe a minor seventh chord,” DeMello said. “Apart from some of the harmonies, nobody really needed to go home and ‘learn the album’. While it does touch on musical virtuosity and having an acute relationship with your instrument, it’s really a tour de force of songwriting and structure.”

Contrary to the somewhat refined state of Abbey Road‘s original recording, DeMello said that “about 90 percent of (our version) is performed live in the room. There are audible mistakes; it’s a little haphazard, but it complements the exact opposite energy of the original. We wanted it to feel like a cover band down the street just playing it from muscle memory.” Furthermore, there was an understanding that any mistakes could be cleaned up months down the road, which was proven wrong by COVID lockdowns. The most blatant example of this is “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, which ended up not being performed during these full band sessions, leading DeMello to record the track all by himself, giving it a truly eccentric feel and perhaps the furthest step away from the original version than any of the other tracks on the tribute album.

Matt DeMello
Photo: Jeanette D. Moses

The irreverent-but-still-faithful take on Abbey Road is apparent from the very beginning, as “Come Together” adopts a looser, less sinister arrangement from the original, with Amanda O’Keefe – one of several rotating vocalists on this project – belting out John Lennon‘s words with funky, torch song abandon, especially as the band unleashes a gospel-flavored outro that DeMello likens to “a funeral march”. On the other hand, George Harrison‘s timeless ballad “Something” is lovingly rougher around the edges but retains some similarities, including a note-for-note version of Harrison’s guitar solo, welcoming the listener like an old friend.

At the same time, Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” has a wobbly, lo-fi charm that endears itself to the original without even coming close to being a carbon copy. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, Lennon’s proto-metal bruiser, allows DeMello and his band to assay the many different musical personalities that crop up all over the original, including blues, jazz, and elements of stoner rock. Liz Wagner Biro’s vocals are a cathartic shout across the rooftops – DeMello’s version underscores the fact that the Beatles had outgrown the universe of the three-minute pop single.

And then there’s the medley – perhaps the most famous medley in the history of rock and roll, which takes up an enormous chunk of side two, beginning with “You Never Give Me Your Money” (which almost sounds like a test run for Paul McCartney‘s later band, Wings) and ending, fittingly, with “The End” (the album’s brief final track, “Her Majesty”, is – in DeMello’s infernal logic – given a full band treatment, in direct contrast to the solo acoustic original). “The medley stays largely intact and unmolested because something about that felt sacrilegious,” DeMello explains. “Honestly, the point of an Abbey Road tribute as a songwriting, self-educational exercise was living in those moments where they turned dinky little half-written shit bits into a tapestry/song-cycle as memorable and emotionally devastating as any long-form composition in any century.”

In summing up his take on Abbey Road, DeMello says, “I fully anticipate hardcore Beatles fans will complain and call this a mediocre attempt that’s missing crucial solos, notes, nuances, etc. If you’re a big fan of the Flaming Lips or Beck cover album projects, then I’m sure my versions aren’t divergent and interesting enough for you. But I accept it all and do not give a shit because all the flaws of these recordings remind me of people I love more than anyone I’ve ever made music with and how we parted ways amid the world falling apart.”

It’s certainly not lost on DeMello that the original Abbey Road was the last album recorded by the Beatles before they officially parted ways in 1970, and DeMello’s tribute was essentially the last gasp of the Significant Looks. “That much, anyway, is a commonality this tribute shares with the original album. There’s a crack in everything and such.”