It took me some time to decide on who/what to talk about first. I seriously considered throwing out John Mayer with the first pitch (his new record is pretty damn sweet) but I thought that would ruin whatever little street cred I had in the first place. I’ll get to him later. Matt Duke is a kid (he’s 24! and working on his 3rd record!) I first saw up in Phoenixville at the Dogwood Festival, of all places, back in 2006. At first glance, he’s a typical acoustic singer-songwriter. He plays a lot of solo shows in coffeehouses. But there is nothing typical about Matt Duke. He’s a fucking genius.
He’s also a bit of a nutbar. The crazy ones are always the best. He was born in South Jersey somewhere and I’m pretty sure he still lives over there (last I heard, in his parents’ basement?!) – but he did spend part of his youth on the streets of Philadelphia and graduated from St. Joe Prep, and briefly attended St. Joseph’s University (I think). Plus, he plays a lot of shows in Philly, so we can fully claim him.
The story goes that he made a demo around 2004 that ended up in the hands of someone at Drexel University’s Music Industry program, and they just happened to be starting up a new, student-run label, MAD Dragon Records. They ended up releasing XYX in 2005, Matt’s compilation with two other artists (4 songs each), and also his debut record Winter Child in the fall of 2006, which was later picked up by Rykodisc for national distribution. Rykodisc then took over label duties completely for his 2nd album Kingdom Underground and its acoustic companion EP. His latest release is a digital-only (damnit!) EP compilation with a couple of other songwriters (Tony Lucca & Jay Nash) that Matt toured with in the summer of ’09. They each did one song of their own (though they played/sang together) and then covered a song by The Band. The EP, just released on November 23rd, is called TFDI, which naturally stands for “Totally Fuckin’ Doin’ It”. That’s kind of a long story, but you can delve deeper into that on YouTube if you like. Matt’s contribution is a smooth rendition of “Sex And Reruns”.
Oh yeah, I was talking about the crazy. I suppose that’s not the most accurate word to describe him. He’s not insane or anything, but he gets so into what he’s doing it can seem a bit out there – sometimes the look in his eye is a little scary. “Intense” is a good word but still doesn’t quite cover it. He is probably the most emotive performer I’ve ever seen. His intensity really draws you in and it’s hard to look away. And that’s even before you realize how good the songs are! He can scream with the best of them, but I’d never say he’s a screamer. He can reach blood-curdling heights in his range that make your skin crawl. At the same time, he has written some songs that are ridiculously delicate, and his voice can carry those just as well. It’s even easy to see how much he’s been able to develop as a singer and to be even more impressed with how he controls his voice. Vocally, on the songs on his first real release, XYX, he doesn’t sound nearly as clear and confident as he did when he made Winter Child, and then on Kingdom Underground I think you can hear him fully realize that command. But while his records are great, his presence on stage is where he truly shines. I’ve seen him play 20 times now, and I’ve taken pictures at 4 of them, trying to capture some of that intensity on film. Whenever I bring my camera to a show, that’s what I’m trying to catch – the embodiment of that connection between the writer and the song. I like trying to find those moments. I’m no master photographer, though, and Matt moves around so much physically that most of my shots end up more blurred than a Snoop Dog video. He beats the crap out of his guitar and sings with utter abandon. Kinda like this:
Incidentally, at that Milkboy show Matt actually broke his guitar in two – the neck completely snapped off. I missed the actual break (fumbling with my camera, I think) but it was totally unintentional and he was quite shocked. It wasn’t a clean break, thus unrepairable, so he laid it down on the ground and proceeded to stomp the crap out of it, repeatedly. Later, he handed out pieces of it to anyone who wanted one. I did not partake, but in hindsight it would have been a nice momento. Since then he’s been using a Taylor guitar almost exclusively (the broken one was a Martin, I think. Just a side note for the guitar fans – and I happen to own a Taylor). Also at that show I heard him play his original Christmas song for the first time. It’s called “Less Egg, More Nog (It’s a Deadbeat Christmas)” and it’s sad, angry, bitter and severely fantastic. Best holiday tune I ever heard. It ends with the drippingly sarcastic lyric “Merry fucking Christmas, everyone”. He gets lots of requests for that song every winter season and for some reason I don’t think he understands how amazing it is. He always seems a little befuddled by the audience’s interest in hearing it. I’ve heard him talk about how he pretty much hates Christmas songs [incidentally, I later saw him do “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on a local talk show, and I could see the contempt in his eyes] and that his record label asked him to record one, so he came up with that gem almost as a “fuck you”. It was only released on a promotional EP that I was supposed to receive at a show that I attended, but didn’t get one (long story), so now it only exists digitally. Feel free to let me know if you want the MP3. Ah hell, here it is, somewhat low-fi and unfortunately censored – we are approaching the holiday season!
Now, Matt Duke the writer. If you go straight to his lyrics, you’ll end up thinking this guy is majorly messed up. That’s exactly what I thought – “dude has had it rough!” His songs are a laundry list of fucked-up: broken homes, stalkers, death, the evil of mankind, personal demons, excessive drinking, struggling, desperation, frustration; not to mention politics and religion. His songs are deep, often dark, and you might think he’s had a horrible life. The songs sound so personal and he delivers them with considerable conviction. What I’ve found out is that Matt has an uncanny ability to take someone else’s story and make it his own, or put himself squarely in that character’s shoes. Countless times I’ve heard him talk about songs at shows and explain that it was about a friend’s situation or experience. Even more impressive is that many of his tunes are inspired by books. Indeed, he even planned on his Kingdom Underground album entirely being based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (and while that didn’t end up happening, no less than 4 songs on that record (and 5 of the 6 on the acoustic EP) are based on or inspired by literary characters). Matt calls himself an avid reader and speaks about it often when talking about songs and writing. But don’t think he doesn’t interject his own personal experience into every song and hasn’t written countless songs directly related to his own life. He rarely writes “relationship” songs, but the ends of that spectrum are also explored on Kingdom Underground‘s “30 Some Days” and “Walk It Off” (both written from personal experience). The man is so sickeningly talented, it’s disgusting. And did I mention he’s only 24? And! He apparently self-taught himself to play guitar (and piano). He’s a deceptively good guitar player – you get glimpses of his skills in any particular song, but I’ve seen enough shows (some entirely on electric guitar) to know he can truly shred if he wants to. It’s his versatility that is most impressive, and he can go from intricate finger-picking to Mach 5 rock-strumming and everywhere in between. I’ve also been lucky enough to see him play so many times that I’ve heard a couple of albums worth of unreleased songs, sometimes deemed by him to be “lesser” tunes. Talk about frustration! I could probably name you 7 or 8 songs that could have easily been included on his 2nd record but just either weren’t recorded or considered to be a good fit for the album. Thankfully, he still breaks those out once in a while at shows. With all his stubbornness, he’s still willing to please, and if you ask him enough he’ll usually dust off what you want to hear. I have to admit that I find him to be such an interesting person that I would love to hang out with him and be his friend, cheesy as that sounds. I’ve had the pleasure to talk to him briefly before or after shows, and he’s one hell of a nice guy, too. But I’m no stalker (shut up!) and I don’t want to end up the subject of one of his angry songs, so I’m content to get to know him as much as I can through his music, and that’s fine with me.
Since I haven’t said it explicitly as of yet, I’ll be sure to make sure you know that he knows his way around a melody, as well. And his skills as a guitarist allow him ample room to stretch out vocally, so he can do totally different things with both at the same time. He’s also completely unafraid to be innovative with song structures, with some being simple and linear while others may be more adventurous and freeform, all the while retaining some note of pop familiarity. The fact that he can take the lyrical subjects that he does and turn them into pop musical gems is, frankly, remarkable. And his guitar riffs can become quite the groove. Aside from uber-aggressive strumming and complicated fingerpicking styles, the single-note progressions he comes up with are borderline funky; some are slightly sinister or even hypnotic. Most are head-nod inducing.
While his first record Winter Child is a lovely album, I find it a little… soft. It’s got great songs and is finely produced, but I don’t think his vision quite came all the way through in the finished product. Some of the tunes are still great – “Listen To Your Window”, “Tidal Waves”, and the title track, especially. But it can lean towards the mellow side. My wife initially told me she thought the CD was boring. Then she saw him play and asked to borrow it, and it’s been in her car ever since (usually in the CD player). I think he really found his stride on his 2nd album, and I highly recommend Kingdom Underground. It’s got propulsive drums and vocals, sharp lyrics, delicate acoustic tracks, raging electric guitar in spots, and a passion that is all Matt’s. It’s one of those rare albums where I like all the songs and can play it straight through; highlights, for me, include “Walk It Off”, “Sex and Reruns”, “Rose”, and then there’s this one:
I heard this song for the first time in May of 2007, a full 17 months before his 2nd CD came out… and right then and there I thought, “that’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard”. It’s feisty, angry, full of lament, and it’s got a wicked guitar part. Next time I saw him play, I made sure to bring my camera and set it to “video”. So there you go. I especially like the “God bless you” he threw in there after someone sneezed. Such a sweetie. The album version is actually a little more sterile than I would have liked, but it can still hang on a fantastic record. I bought my wife her own copy.
Funny story about the title track to that album… he did record it, even though it’s not listed in the CD tracklist. I had thought I read something somewhere about it being a hidden track, but there isn’t one after the last song on the record. Before it came out, I was on a website that was [legally] previewing the entire CD and it listed every song in order and then at the end it had a button marked “Kingdom Underground”, so I excitedly hit it thinking it was the title track… but it turned out to be the option of playing the entire album in one shot, instead of hitting the separate song buttons one at a time. I thought maybe that confusion somehow had something to do with the rumor about the hidden track. Yeah… then literally two months and about 200 album spins later, I’m at a show where he says that the hidden title track is buried in the space BEFORE the first track on the CD! I couldn’t believe it. My wife was sitting next to me and my shock seemed to amuse her. Great song, though kind of a pain in the ass to rewind it to hear it. I think that’s why he released an acoustic version of it on the companion EP, just so you didn’t have to hold the button down.
Matt’s currently working on his 3rd record, though he’s hit a bit of a snag… somehow he broke his right hand bad enough they had to put some pins in it, so he’s waiting for that to heal before he can fully get into recording. Last time I saw him play he broke out a few new tunes, and they sound pretty damn good. Can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.
All of the above website links have clips to songs or complete MP3s or videos, so go listen for yourself. Hell, I think his ning.com website has the entire Kingdom Underground record to listen to. And if you like it, BUY IT. Damnit. Even better – check out his tour dates (after his hand heals!) and go to a show, so you can witness his genius and then buy it directly from him. You shan’t regret it.