As you might guess, the We Shot J.R. Myspace page receives it's fair share of friend requests from relatively unknown local bands. Every once in a while, we get one that makes us feel like we struck gold-- something unique, interesting and exciting being produced right in our own backyard (Ghosthustler
, for example). Most of the time, however, the bands we encounter in this manner are young, inexperienced and predictable at best, providing very little for us to get excited about. When I first heard Matthew and the Arrogant Sea
via a Myspace friend request roughly six months ago, I quickly placed them in the latter category. What I found on their page was relatively traditional indie folkpop (the kind that kids in the suburbs seem to be producing in wholesale quantities these days), and in the short amount of time I spent with the music, I failed to find anything that struck me as particularly noteworthy. But ever since that first encounter, after months of seeing the band's name pop up again and again on local bills without much hype or media attention, things have dramatically changed with Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, and it's not just their music. In fact, they might be on a very fast track to becoming one of North Texas' biggest bands, even if many in the area have yet to hear their name.
Matthew and the Arrogant Sea consists of Bryce Isbell, Sarah Wilson and three members of the same family: brothers Matt Gray and Caleb Gray, and nephew Jacob Gray. Matt and Bryce first met at a show a little more than two years ago when they were both performing as separate solo acts, one of which was an early incarnation of Matthew and the Arrogant Sea featuring Matt playing solo. After the two began hanging out and casually collaborating on tracks for Matt's project (Matt on lead vocals and guitar and Bryce on drums, synths and effects), Gray's brother Caleb, a solo performer himself, started accompanying the duo on electric slide guitar, saw and bass, while Jacob joined shortly after on violin and Sarah came in to play lap harp and tambourine. Not surprisingly, this influx of new blood helped birth a drastic change in the sound and philosophy of what was now a full fledged band trying to find it's way.
"Things have changed in our hearts," says Bryce Isbell as he explains the band's evolution, "our views on life have really changed and we realized that we needed to quit trying to be what our mothers want to hear and make what we can listen to and dig."
While the band's older material certainly wasn't awful in any way, it seemed to be a bit too cute and obvious (if memory serves) to stand out in a sea of ambitious young local bands with developing record collections and Myspace accounts. But as Matthew and the Arrogant Sea continued to grow as a band, the members' collective interest in a darker, noisier and more abstract version of experimental psychedelic folk began to take hold, showcasing a flair for the literary and theatrical while maintaining the intimate appeal of more traditional solo acoustic guitar folk/pop.
The band's sound seems to fall somewhere between Nick Drake
and older Animal Collective
, drawing from strange, dramatic 70's folk acts such as Fairport Convention
and Pearls Before Swine
(whether intentionally or not) and dressing those influences up with the sounds of a variety of contemporary indie touchstones ranging from Espers
to Fruit Bats
to Devendra Banhart
to the experimental tribal avant folk of Sunburned Hand of the Man
. The result is a solid base of acoustic pop lying beneath layers of swirling noise, reverb and other textures that give much of their music a sense of loneliness, distance and detachment. Songs like "The Irony of Anigav..." buzz with tin can percussion, bits of white noise and a hypnotic use of repetition, while "Pancakes on Mars" treads on more traditional folk turf but remains interesting due to it's recording, which creates an artificial acoustic space reminiscent of hearing an old country song in a car on a long dark highway. And while the band hasn't exactly invented the particular styles they are working within, their take is unique and quickly rewarding, displaying a locally uncommon willingness to create experimental pop that is both experimental and, well, poppy.
Although the band's recent musical evolution has been quite noteworthy in it's own right, the sheer number of outside projects it's members are working on at this very moment makes the story even more interesting. Mixing and matching musicians and seemingly forming new bands at the drop of a hat, the core of Matthew and the Arrogant Sea literally has 13 current side projects that all seem to spawn from a singular musical vision and branch out organically. And of course, each one of them has it's own Myspace page. Gashcat
, one of the more immediately memorable of the bunch, heads in the darkest direction of all with hauntingly dramatic vocals and a dizzying mix of synth strings, noise and distorted vocals, while Koala Bees
embraces a slightly brighter, more electronic approach on songs like "Word Word Word," which sounds influenced by Panda Bear
's recent material. Elsewhere, Papa Viking
tackles bluesier, rough around the edges Americana with a hint of acid hangover, while the excellent Verulf
probably owes the biggest debt to groups like Espers
, Wooden Wand
and Animal Collective
, focusing on spacey, naturalistic atmospheres and tones that qualify as the most non-traditionally Western of the bunch (aside from Verulf's minimal noise influenced project Concrete Animals
). Some of the projects are more intriguing than others, of course, but the energy, emotion and attention to detail in each is admirable, and sometimes downright captivating. Flipping through their Myspace pages, which all link to one another, is sort of like running a gauntlet. Only with mostly pleasant surprises around the corners.
These various side projects are also tied to together by more than a common set of ambitious band members. Bryce Isbell and the others have formed their own record company, Magilum
, to release some of their recorded material and serve as an organizational mechanism for their prolific output. Aside from releasing Verulf's debut The Rattlesnake Tree
, the label's first major step into the public realm will be the upcoming New Sabbath Festival
, taking place on August 18th at J&Js in Denton. The festival boats a large, diverse bill that will feature Peter and the Wolf
, Jana Hunter
, and Brothers and Sisters
, as well as local favorites like Theater Fire
and Chris Garver
, and a few other non-local surprises that haven't been confirmed quite yet (at least one of them is a HUGE name).
So what did all this hard work and Elephant 6
style collaboration get these guys? The answer most local music cynics (including me) would expect is nothing, but again, Matthew and the Arrogant Sea have managed to surprise. According to Bryce Isbell, the band has recently entered into a $6 million recording contract with EMI
, the result of both luck and hard work. After beginning a relationship with a smaller locally based label that didn't exactly pan out, the band went on the road and played a series of what Matt Gray considers "some of the best shows [we've] ever played in the presence of the right people," providing them with an opportunity to shine musically and make the kind of connections they needed to garner the attention of potential suitors. And although a large sum of money offered by a very large record label might give some musicians pause, the members of Matthew and the Arrogant Sea seem quite comfortable with what they're doing.
"We've had nothing but a positive experience with this label," Isbell says, "they've been wonderful to us. They have given us 100% complete creative control." And furthermore, according to Isbell, the $6 million figure is not some major label recoupable advance that will keep the band in a hole forever, but more of a sign on bonus and an investment in the group's development. Again, pretty damn weird for an industry that has become comically clueless in recent years.
The whole thing seems like a large and surprising leap to the big time for a band that was hardly on anyone's radar even six months ago (especially considering the competing offers they received from Capitol Records and American Recordings), but unusual happenings and big changes just seem to be business as usual for Matthew and the Arrogant Sea these days. As the band prepares for it's major label career and a likely move to Sacramento within the next couple of months, the strangeness of the entire endeavor is striking. Matthew and the Arrogant Sea is experimental but digestible, easy to enjoy but hard to figure out. And as so many careerist bands in Dallas struggle to "play the game" and "make it" on anyone else term's but their own, the refreshing thing about Matthew and the Arrogant Sea is the way they've gone about their business on their own, creating a small but complicated world of music, art (thanks mostly to Sarah Wilson), and storytelling that seems to be largely insulated from the outside world.
"To those who wonder if our days of tribal folk and psychedelic pop are gone," Isbell says, "think again. We have only just begun." For some reason, I kind of believe him.