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Mike Mattison: The Gritz Interview

by Derek Halsey

As the Derek Trucks Band (DTB) walked out to perform in Cincinnati, Ohio, this past February, there is a chair unexpectedly sitting on the front of the stage. Derek Trucks, the former prodigy and slide guitar phenom who is finally on the brink of turning 30, saunters out and picks up his guitar while his bass player, Todd Smallie, grabs his axe and stands to his left as Yonrico Scott slides in behind his drum kit. Percussionist Count M’Butu surrounds himself with his many instruments and Kofi Burbridge assumes his position behind the keyboards.

Then, out walks Mike Mattison on crutches heading for the empty chair with a broken foot, injured while working out the day before. Yet, as is always the case with Mattison, he has a smile on his face because he loves what he does for a living, and that is singing lead vocals for one of the hottest rock bands in the world.

The DTB run through an impressive series of instrumentals and vocal-led grooves before a packed house, concentrating on new songs from their brand new album called Already Free. While the former DTB album Songlines was more on the funky side, Already Free brings a blues rock groove that is deceptive at first listening. Many expect guitar histrionics from Trucks these days, given his reputation and musical talent. Yet, on this record he chooses to check his ego at the door and instead service the fine array of original and expertly chosen cover songs selected for the album and makes the project a true group effort.

A review of the album could be called “a tale of three listenings” because once you get past the fact that the disc isn’t about Trucks showing off on guitar, the next couple of times you listen to it will bring out the depth of the collection. It is one of those rare CDs that will grow on you, and when you crank up the volume you will find that Trucks' trademark guitar licks are in there as well.

As the concert progresses, Mattison soulfully belts out songs from the new album including the title track, “Down In The Flood,” “Get What You Deserve” and “Down Don’t Bother Me.” A few days later, he will be in Charleston, West Virginia performing on the Mountain Stage radio and TV program. He will not only perform with the DTB on the show, but he will also sing with the other band he fronts, Scrapomatic, a group he formed with old friend Paul Olsen. The performance will be broadcast on the week of May 8th (check www.mountainstage.org for stations carrying the show). And, as many around the world heard and saw at the Beacon Theater one month later in March, Mattison was brought out as a guest singer during the 40th anniversary run of concerts in New York City in 2009 by Trucks’ other band, the Allman Brothers.

Mattison’s musical journey has taken him from Minnesota to New York City to Atlanta, where he now resides. Music was always a part of his life while growing up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The idea of taking a music career to the next level, however, was influenced by the example set by the local bands in his hometown that achieved worldwide success when he was a teenager.

“Musically, it was kind of an interesting time when I was in junior high and high school in the 80’s in Minneapolis,” says Mattison. “There was a lot of music going on, from Prince to more of the punk rock scene with The Replacements and Soul Asylum and Husker Du. It was an interesting time to be involved in music as a kid and have the national spotlight on your city. It kind of made you feel like things were possible for you, which it probably didn’t feel like before those groups were on the scene. I lived there again after college and it seemed like the smart thing to do, if you wanted to be in music, was to go where the music industry was. So, I moved to New York in the mid-90’s and lived there for nine years.

“Yeah, I saw Prince a bunch, and the Replacements are still one of my favorite bands. It was a good time to feel inspired by what was going on, being kind of proud of your city. Minneapolis is a great city, but it is kind of a slow Midwestern town so the idea that these guys could do their own thing and people would take notice on a national level is pretty

Mattison began playing music long before he watched the local bands reach the next level.

“I’ve always sang,” says Mattison. “My Mom played piano and sang. I’ve done it from an early age. Back in the 1970’s, when people cared about education, growing up in the Minneapolis public schools, if you did your minimum requirements and learned to play recorder and do some rudimentary music reading you could play any instrument you wanted. So, between the third and sixth grade I played tenor saxophone, French horn, trombone and stuck with the string bass and played that through high school. It was a great opportunity for free to play whatever you wanted. It was pretty amazing. It’s definitely not that way anymore. It is good to see every part of the orchestra to see where you might want to go. I can play a little piano and guitar and bass, but I had to get out of the instrumental business because everybody got too good and I stopped progressing and I said, ‘Forget it.’”

As he grew older, Mattison went on to pursue higher education while playing music at the same time. He graduated from Harvard University in 1991 with an English and American Literature degree and eventually returned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area where he soon met Olsen. The two hit it off musically with both having an appreciation for roots music of all kinds, and collaboration was inevitable.

“We met in the early 90’s,” says Mattison. “He is from St. Paul originally and I’m from Minneapolis. We were in a group and I actually got a job in New York and had a moving budget, so I just said, ‘Hey, why don’t we all move out there together.’ So, we did. Yeah, well, (laughing), we were young men with not much to our names, so there was nothing to lose. I think like a lot of Midwestern kids, you always have a secret dream of going to the big city, whether it is Chicago or New York, and see if you can make it. I had a lot of friends in New York so the transition wasn’t that strange. I’m glad I did it. It was good for my musical confidence. You get to New York and you realize, ‘Oh wait, there’s a lot more musicians here but it doesn’t mean they’re that much better.’ So, it’s good to cut your teeth in a more competitive environment, maybe.”

Mattison’s music career didn’t exactly take off right away in New York City, which is usually the case. Yet, with a day job to keep him afloat, he and Olsen paid their dues and did not give up.

“I was teaching high school for a year in Brooklyn and then I realized I didn’t really have a knack for that so I went to work doing some editing at a PR firm for a day job,” says Mattison. “We started out at the bottom of the ladder. The group I was with at the time was more of a funk group, I guess you could call it. And, you know, you just play at weird places on Bleecker Street and try to meet people and get yourself into venues that are maybe a little more, for a lack of a better word, respectable. (Paul and me) were roommates and played in the same band. That kind of ran its course and he and I were a little more into branching out into American roots music. Sometimes you get into bands and they can be rather doctrinaire in terms of what you are allowed to play and what you’re not. We broke off and started Scrapomatic because we liked playing the blues and we like country music and we wanted to chart our own course. So, we started doing that as a duo.”

For a singer that is known for producing funky and rocking sounds, the music that Mattison enjoys might surprise you.

 “Hank Williams,” says Mattison, when asked about who are his favorite musicians. “Willie Nelson is a big hero of mine, especially his voice and the way he phrases stuff, the jazz influence in country. I like the songwriters. I think one of the all time greatest American songwriters is Kris Kristofferson, for example. I really like, even though it can get a little cutesy sometimes, I think an amazing songwriter is Tom T. Hall.”

With that many influences, the focus when making a Scrapomatic album, according to Mattison, is to not be so overtly diverse as to lose the flow of the project. The latest CD by the group is called Sidewalk Caesars.

“We try not to spread our self too thin,’ says Mattison. “We try not to be a hodge-podge, but try to chart a course through our influences and try to make something that resonates with other people and that makes sense and isn’t too terribly confusing to the listener. We had little windows of time (to record ), about three three-day sessions. It was more of getting ourselves together in rehearsals when we could because Paul lives in  Brooklyn and I live in Atlanta, and the other guys in the band live in Atlanta, too. So, we
rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and then go in and record quickly and hope that something stuck. It was really kind of by the seat of the pants. But, it was fun that way, too. There is not time to sit around and get ‘genius syndrome’ and start tweaking things and worrying about stuff. It is what it is, and just keep going. I’m real proud of it and I think it is our best record, by far, to date. Hopefully, we are going to do something like that again this spring. But, hopefully we’ll get a little more time for ourselves. At least we know that we can do it on the fly, on the cheap, and its a great bunch of guys that we have playing with us that are very good about making themselves available and being super professional and enthusiastic. That’s half the battle right there.”

As the reputation of Mattison’s musical talent continued to grow in New York City as the new century began, it was a fluke set of circumstances that led him to Derek Trucks.

“Somebody had called me up because the (DTB’s) singer had left when they were recording the Joyful Noise album and they were kind of desperate and I was recommended by John Snyder, who had produced some of the first Derek Trucks Band records,” remembers Mattison. “Craig Street was producing ‘Joyful Noise.’ Mark Anthony Thompson, who calls himself Chocolate Genius, was a friend of Craig Street and he recommended me. Derek was in New York doing some label business and he got these two discs delivered to his hotel room on the same day from different people and they were both Scrapomatic. He’s like, ‘That’s weird.’ He didn’t really have time to listen to them. But, I was on the train, I was working in mid-town, and I was on the subway platform on 53rd street and I hear, ‘Hey, are you Mike Mattison?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’m Derek Trucks. I recognized you from the disc. We should play sometime.’ I said, ‘Sure!’ It was kind of a weird little convergence. We only talked briefly, the train was coming. (laughing) I had big hair then. I was pretty recognizable.”

Mattison soon became a member of the DTB in 2002, capable of providing lead vocals that could handle blues, rock and funk. While the natural sound of his voice lends itself to those genres, he wasn’t forced to sing that way because of the tone and timbre of his vocal chops.

“I think it was kind of the reverse,” explains Mattison. “I was emulating artists from all different genres that I was into, and from that process of copying people you hopefully find your own voice. I’m not comparing myself, but to say that I stole from Ray Charles and the Nina Simones and Curtis Mayfields and the Bobby Womacks of the world and started there, and in the process you kind of figure out what your voice is capable of and then what you really sound like.”

As with many top artists on big music labels, there are times when label executives behind the scenes come up with specific plans for a particular musician. Sometimes, and it has happened with many in the business, there is a move to separate the artist from the group they’re playing with at the time and bring in higher profile musicians. Derek Trucks is one star who has stood by his band.

“Oh, it’s definitely been suggested by certain parties,” says Mattison. “Not only is (Trucks) very loyal, I think he gets certain things from the kind of telepathy that you develop with guys you’ve played with for so long. I think he’s played with Rico for about 14 years, and maybe 15 years with Todd. So, they know each other inside and out. Everybody helps everybody else. We are very lucky that Derek is a loyal guy and he is in it for the right reasons. He wants to make great music and adventurous music and he is in no rush to get to the tabloids.”

The Already Free album was recorded at Trucks’ home in Jacksonville, Florida, and that led to a more open process.

“Oh yeah, it was a ball to do,” says Mattison. “We had a ton of time. Not a ton, but Derek built his studio in Jacksonville and it was kind of fun to have that luxury of not worrying about the clock running and be able to do things at our own pace. It is a real luxury and doesn’t happen much. It was real fun to do.”

To end the interview, Mattison talks about recording some of the songs on the new Derek Trucks Band album, “Already Free.”

On “Something To Make You Happy,” a song that has a groove similar to the famous album from 1972, Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles Live

“Yeah, there’s that element there, for sure. It is a Paul Pena song and I know that he was very (Jimi) Hendrix influenced so there is definitely that flavor in there, for sure.”

On the upbeat rocker “Sweet Inspiration;”

 “Yeah, Dan Penn, man, is another one of my favorite songwriters. Actually, (Carlos) Santana suggested that we do that tune. I’m glad he did because I love Dan Penn’s writing.”

On “Days Is Almost Gone,” a soul singer’s song;

 “Yeah, it really is. That is mainly a Kofi song. He wrote it as kind of a joke. Music just kind of flies off of him. A joke for him is a masterpiece for the rest of us. He was at a Holiday Inn and he went down to catch the buffet and it was closing up and he started singing the song, ‘These eggs is almost gone.’ He was playing it for us and all of us were like, ‘That is really a catchy tune.’ (laughing) So, we kind of changed it from hotel buffet to something a little more meaningful.”

On “I Know,” a positive and rolling blues romp;

“That’s a beautiful song. We found that on a Big Maybelle record. She was kind of a blues belter who, in the 1960’s, moved like most people had to into the soul realm, and it is a great song. It is deceptive. It seems like it is very simple, but there is a lot going on in it. Those lyrics really speak to me, too. A very universal message.”

On the jazzy “Get What You Deserve;”

 “Yeah, there’s a little jazz element in it. I think with that we were playing around with trying to do a Hound Dog Taylor thing. It’s just Derek and Doyle (Bramhall II, who guests on the album along with Susan Tedeschi and many others) doing kind of a complimentary guitar with Doyle playing the role of the baritone guitar on there. There was a bass on it, and they just decided that it doesn’t even need it. Kind of makes it real house rocking music.”

On “Down In The Flood,” a blues belter that gradually builds up in a layered way;

“Yeah, that’s interesting. We actually recorded it with just Derek and I and an acoustic guitar and singing and built up the song around it. The vocal there is actually the original vocal that was done, and then the rest of the song was filled in around it. We did it in the control room to a little shaker track (percussion) or something like that. Slowly but surely, it became bigger and bigger.”

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