After nearly two years, my interview with Matthew Tavares has finally been rescheduled. I was initially supposed to speak with the now 27-year-old Toronto musician in June 2016 as part of a package announcing a leave of absence from touring with BADBADNOTGOOD, the experimental jazz group he co-founded and plays keys in. At the time we were getting the interview set up, BADBADNOTGOOD had improbably become part of hip-hop’s most eye-catching fabric – outside of BBNG’s four studio albums, there was a steady flow of high-profile production work for artists like Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown, and Sour Soul, a full-length project with Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah.
Tavares was feeling the effects of the stacked workload. “It’s not a good combination if you’re going through anything in life and you’re on the road for eight months of the year,” Tavares tells me at a sunny coffee shop steps away from BBNG’s garage-sized home studio. Ultimately, Tavares was able to step away from touring with his relationships in BBNG more solid than ever. The time off allowed him to collaborate with his longtime friend, producer Frank Dukes, on songs like Post Malone and Justin Bieber’s “Deja Vu,” and with his BBNG bandmates on Kendrick Lamar's "LUST" and Khalid and Swae Lee's "The Way" from the Black Panther soundtrack. “I never had aspirations to be in a band, necessarily,” Tavares tells me. “I just wanted to create stuff constantly. Even with this record, I just want to put it out and share with the world.”
“This record” is Déjàvu, nine tender songs all composed, engineered, mixed, and mostly performed by Matty, with executive producer Frank Dukes. The term “psychedelic rock” is acceptable for the project – there are prominent hues of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper – but it's not an entirely comfortable fit: Déjàvu’s dazed vocals and sublime electronic components have a heavenliness akin to Air’s Talkie Walkie. The cascade of memorable, detailed melodies contributes to a kind of world-building: Déjàvu is intimate but never self-absorbed, focused instead at some grander picture: “When the feeling’s faded, where does it go when it’s not here?” Matty wonders amongst a dreamland of synths on “Clear,” an album standout that you can hear below.
In person, Tavares lives up to the deep sensitivity and prodigious talent he displays in his music. He speaks with humble-yet-informed passion, whether it’s about dreams and psychotherapy, photography (yes, he snapped the album cover as well), or his upcoming projects, which include the soundtrack for a documentary about early video game music, more work with BADBADNOTGOOD, and a summer course at the Jung institute in Zurich. It’s all part of a simple mandate, Tavares reveals: “I rarely think about any kind of success or fame, ever,” he says before we step into BADBAD’s studio, its walls lined with tapes and a thick trace of incense still lingering from a previous session. “I just like my apartment, seeing my friends, and making music with people I love.”
I wrote each song about someone specifically, but then I realized very quickly afterwards that every song is about myself
Let’s start with the genesis of this project.
I’ve always worked on my own stuff outside of BADBAD, and I’ve made music that sounds like this since I was 16. But when BADBAD started taking off, it was like “Ok, I can’t really make rock-y songwriter music anymore.” I wanted to do [BADBAD] and I wanted to do it to the fullest and make it my artistic output. And it sounds really dramatic to say, but I had a mental breakdown. I had to stop touring and move back in with my parents. It was a really intense year, but that’s why I started doing this again.
My parents live really close to one of my best friends growing up, Frank Dukes. I started writing songs and would just go hang out with him. He’s been a sort of father figure in my life. He’s mentored me and shown me a lot of stuff and helped me develop my own sense of production,-and just kept encouraging me to write more stuff. We worked on it together but ultimately it was a record I made front to back. All my favorite songs were written in my old apartment when I was all alone and had just stopped touring with the band.
Who were some of your influences?
The Zombies are amazing, they’re a huge influence. What I like about The Zombies, and also the Beatles, is that their records at the time were a pastiche of all the things that were happening 20 or 30 years before then, and also what was happening around then. You had “When I’m 64,” but also “Within, Without You,” and then an avant-garde classical thing on “A Day In The Life.” With my record I wanted to look at the past 20 or 30 years of stuff that I like. Shoegaze music, krautrock, Guided By Voices, and also The Beatles, but I wanted to have some kind of contemporary thing in there.
Are the songs each vignettes, or does the record have an overarching narrative?
Each one is a vignette. I wrote each song about someone specifically, but then I realized very quickly afterwards that every song is about myself. The only one I wrote about myself initially was “Embarrassed,” which is about feeling self conscious, that inner awareness you have that goes astray sometimes. But then all the other songs, even if they were written about someone who I was super upset with at the time, I realized that all the things I was criticizing about the person was in me. Why else would it upset me? Maybe it’s obvious, but it was a big fucking eureka moment for me.
It’s not obvious at all. Everybody projects to a degree, but it’s a hard thing to reckon with.
There have been a zillion times in my life where I’ve ended something thinking it was about the other person, then four months later I’m in the exact same situation I was before with a new set of things filling in the blanks. I had a lot of anger towards the band, because I thought that if it wasn’t for the band I wouldn’t be so depressed and upset and anxious touring all the time, but it had nothing to do with them. I accepted that tour and those shows. So, the record is just me working through my own shit.
How much did finishing the record help you work through it?
I don’t know if any specific thing that I can say I’ve worked through 100%. Sure, maybe specific neurotic tendencies, but I still feel jealous and insecure about certain situations. I still often place myself below certain people and give them power. Maybe less so now.
Was the song “I’ll Gladly Place Myself Below You” on the album about that?
Exactly. That song was about being in a relationship with someone that was the best relationship I ever had, but I fucked it up by constantly diminishing myself, which I think a lot of people do in relationships. I just couldn’t help doing it, and it drove me nuts. It had nothing to do with her. But I only became aware of these kinds of things when I started making the record. I think awareness is the first step, and the rest of your life you work on it. But when I was aware of it, it felt like there was no hope for my life to change.
Do you think creating solo records is still going to require these seismic changes in your life?
I don’t know. I think in terms of songwriting, it will always be that way. I certainly wrote a lot of songs when I was feeling good or when I wasn’t thinking that much, and they kinda sound like that, you know? Those songs didn’t really make the record because I want to ideally make music that is vulnerable and deeply personal. I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best a lot of things, so if I’m going to do something I want it to be personal, so that way someone has something to attach themselves to and there’s a connection and intimacy there. If someone really likes one of my songs, that’s great. We’re connected now. Whereas with something that’s really [polished], not that that kind of music’s bad, but it’s not what I want to make. I want to make a solo, really intense jazz record, I want to more stuff based around my classical piano stuff, and also stuff with BADBAD, and I’m working on pop stuff with Dukes. But in terms of my own stuff? Probably going to need another serious life change.
What’s your future in BBNG looking like?
It’s great. We were in the studio for the past five days in a row basically, for ten hours a day. I love those guys more than ever, and recently we’ve been very open with each other. They’re like my literal brothers. I’ve spent more time with them than anyone except for my family. I think everyone else wants to also explore their own creativity, kind of find their own identity and do their own thing, which is really exciting.