Artists and Bands

‘I just wanted to distill and distill until there was almost nothing left’: Ra Ra Riot’s Mathieu Santos on his solo LP

Mathieu Santos’s new album, Massachusetts 2010, is a ten-song debut LP for the Brooklyn-based composer. One of the founding members and bass player in the chamber pop quintet Ra Ra Riot, he takes a step away from this style to explore more stripped down, sonorous landscapes in an album written, composed and played almost solely by himself.

Here, Mathieu gets candid and offers some interesting insight into the creative process that shaped his album, how the songs originated and why “the treatment of just one distilled idea” is so important for his songwriting style.

Q: Before this LP, was creating music a more collective process for you? Like, for example, in Ra Ra Riot, or were you always interested in creating your own compositions?

A: Music was always a collaborative process for me. Since I’ve never taken any lessons or anything, everything I’ve learned about making and playing music has come from that. The reason I finally got around to buying my first bass was because my friends and I were starting a band and the first moment I had it in my hands, we were making music together, and that’s basically how it’s always been for me.

Over the years, though, I’d slowly become interested with the concept of writing songs, and I received a lot of encouragement and inspiration from my peers and from everything I was listening to. Still, the thought of writing my own songs was never something I really seriously considered until recently, but once I really allowed myself to try it, I just had a blast. It was a whole new experience for me.

Q: How did it feel to have complete control over the direction of the project, musically and lyrically? 

A: That was probably the most attractive aspect of the whole project for me, specifically because of all the collaboration I had been so used to. I had learned so much from all the years of collaborating, all of the collective processes, and I wanted to do something different where I could just make all the decisions and follow whatever instincts I was having at a specific moment. I wanted to take as much as I could away and see what was left when I only had myself to rely on. As rewarding as a good collaborative environment can be, it was incredibly refreshing to work completely alone on something.

Q: Do you play any instruments on the album other than bass?

A: I actually played all of the instruments on the album – aside from the saxophone parts, which were played by Wes – which was another exciting part of the whole thing, though the bass was basically the only thing I felt qualified and comfortable to be playing. But an important part of the project, for me, was about trying to get the most out of my limited skill set, both in terms of the songwriting and the actual performances of the parts. I just wanted everything to be as honest and raw as possible and, more importantly, I wanted to have fun doing new things. I love messing around on drums and guitar and singing at home and all that, but to actually get to explore those things within the context of the album was really exciting.

Q: Your compositions sound more like sonorous landscapes in which a feeling is built around a musical idea rather than conventional songs with typical structures. What inspires this compositional style?

A: Well, a lot of that probably has to do with those limitations I was talking about! But I am also drawn to songs like that for reasons I’m not totally aware of. A song with a great structure and interesting chord patterns is a beautiful thing, but for me, I’m always more moved by songs that are dictated more by a mood and a feel. A lot of my favorite songs and albums are like that – some of the Beach Boys’ more experimental stuff, a lot of The Police and especially The Fall, who I can listen to endlessly. I think it’s fun to see how much feeling you can get from the treatment of just one distilled idea.

Q: When listening to the album, certain influences like Brian Wilson seem to be highlighted. Were there any specific figures or ideas that might not be directly reflected in the music that were very influential while writing this album? 

A: I was listening to a lot of albums that were made similarly – albums with just one person doing mostly everything with results that were personal and idiosyncratic and unfiltered. So aside from the more obvious influences, I was thinking a lot about Paul McCartney’s McCartney and McCartney II, Stewart Copeland’s recordings under the alias Klark Kent and some of Robert Palmer’s more adventurous, self-produced work.

Q: The album has a minimalistic harmonic structure which creates an interesting vibe -did you consciously take this approach or did the songs just feel right with these arrangements?

A: It was pretty conscious; I just wanted to distill and distill until there was almost nothing left. I wanted to see how economic I could be with the arrangements without sacrificing any of the greater meaning of the songs.

Q: Much like the harmony, the lyrics are sparse and minimalistic. Are they meant to be a secondary aspect of the songs, supporting the main musical idea?

A: It’s basically a part of the same idea: If I started with a lyric that I felt was good, or exactly what I wanted to say, then I didn’t see any sense in adding more to it and clouding it. And I tried to! I tried and tried to add more to most of the lyrics, but I always felt like I was getting away from the point and I could never convince myself that what I was adding was making anything better. So most times, it just came back to the original line or two.

Q: How did ‘The Bay’ materialize? Was this a jam done outside of the studio and kept in its original form?

A: I think I wrote that song in the same manner as most of the songs, which was sitting on my sofa very late at night, playing my bass without it being plugged into anything while watching TV or something. It was just a little pattern that evolved and I felt like it was a nice little story. It was kind of melancholic and moody, but also kind of a soothing lullaby at the same time, and I felt like it captured something I was trying to get at with the album as a whole. I only ever recorded it twice, both times in a single take without any editing; once to demo it, and once again for the final album.

Q: For every song the tones seem very precise and well placed – was finding the perfect tone a very important part of the creative process, and do you find that the tone itself inspired what was played on the instrument?

A: Thanks! When recording the album we had very little time and had to make decisions really quickly, and that was very exciting to me. The tones were very important to me, but I didn’t want to labor over them and painstakingly craft them. It was really important that they felt natural and I hoped that that would in turn influence the overall mood of the album.

Q: As a bass player, it makes sense that the songs on the LP have very distinct and melodic bass lines. Does the inspiration for a new song usually come from these bass lines?

A: I think most of the songs started as a bass part, which was so much fun. I feel like you can get everything right from there; a good bass part gets to dictate both the color and the feel of the song and that’s why I love playing bass so much. It holds everything together and has tons of control over the music for being somewhat of a background instrument.

A couple of the songs came from messing around on a keyboard, which I do not know how to play at all. I’m a bass player at heart and that’s what the album was based on.

Q: Is this album more of a studio experimentation or are you planning on touring and playing live shows as well? 

A: At the time I was making it, it was purely a studio exercise. I wasn’t even sure if it would ever be released in any official manner – I just wanted to have some fun and make it! Likewise, the thought of touring behind it had never really occurred to me, but I think someday, if time and fate allow, I imagine that would be a blast as well!

Check out the album yourself here!

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