An Interview with Matt MacDonald of The Classic Crime/Vocal few
By: Brandon Jones
I first heard of this band with their first official release on Seattle label, Tooth & Nail Records when the label sent me their album back in 2006. I instantly fell in love with the guitar driven rock music and the powerful front and center vocals of their lead singer, Matt MacDonald. At the time the label had bands like Anberlin, Mae, The Fold, Emery, Far Less, etc. all with strong rock sensibilities and leading men who knew how to carry a band. However, there was just something uniquely individual about The Classic Crime that set them apart from their fellow label brethren. To say I have been a fan may be an understatement. “Vagabonds” even ended up on my best albums list of 2010 just because of how awesome it was. With this interview I am attempting to get better acquainted with the music of The Classic Crime and especially the mindset of Matt. I hope you enjoy this read.
Brandon/IVM: So tell me Matt a little bit about where you’ve been, where you are currently, and where you plan to go. Personally, musically, lyrically, etc.
Matt MacDonald: We recorded Albatross in 2005. It was a collection of songs written from 2003-2005 and reflected much of the popular alternative rock of that period. Since then we’ve branched out in hopes to create our own sound, or at least stay on par with the music we listen to and enjoy currently. My taste is always changing, and I’m always trying to challenge myself to write more thoughtfully and to not take shortcuts. Personally, I’d like to make music for the rest of my life, even if it is more of a hobby than a career, because it’s the only real creative outlet I have left. I’ve whittled away other creative desires from my periphery, and I hope to focus on writing songs that matter for years to come.
Brandon/IVM: You released your debut album “Albatross” to smashing success back in 2006. I remember hearing that it had the best new band debut of any band on T&N (at the time). How did that (success) feel and what do you think about the album looking back on it 5 years later?
Matt MacDonald: I think we were lucky to have great tours building up to the release. The label was incredibly supportive at that time, and we were lucky to have a good portion of their attention. There have been many great records on T&N that didn’t get the same attention and didn’t do nearly as well, so I definitely feel like we got dealt a good hand. As far as the success and how it felt, it felt like touring for 10 months out of the year, so I can’t really speak to any residual benefits other than it helped us legitimize ourselves as a national touring band.
Brandon/IVM: After the release of Albatross, “The Seattle Sessions” came out like a year later on T&N. Tell me a little bit about the creation of that album, which was acoustically based.
Matt MacDonald: We had songs that didn’t really fit on a full length. We felt it would be too much of a change for our sophomore release to be acoustic, so the EP was a perfect place to put those songs. When I write songs on the road I usually only have an acoustic guitar, and I think I was listening to a lot of acoustic music, so the songs reflected that. We recorded all 7 songs in a week in Seattle, and released the EP before entering the studio to record The Silver Cord.
Brandon/IVM: How much touring was done in between “Albatross” and “Seattle Sessions”? Was it tough being a “new” band on the partial major label? How do you feel that your music stacked up against other artists like Anberlin, Emery, Mae, etc. at the time? Did you feel a camaraderie with the artists there or was there a bit of rivalry?
Matt MacDonald: We toured about 10 months straight in 2006, at the end of which we recorded Seattle Sessions. It wasn’t really tough being a “new” band, because there was some buzz and excitement over our record at the time, so we were treated fairly well by the label folks. We were able to tour with bands like Anberlin and Emery and they were very gracious and patient with us. I never felt any competition because those bands were so advanced compared to us. I saw them more as mentors and inspirations. I’m not sure how our music stacked up against their music, I’m really too close to ours to know how good it is. I think thats a question for fans, perhaps.
Brandon/IVM: You waited another year and then you released your defining album, “The Silver Cord” which according to a lot of fans, is their favorite album of yours. This 15 track epic rock masterpiece inspired a new generation of music fan and grabbed my attention. How do you feel about the production, creation, and release of “The Silver Cord” looking back on it? Why do you think so many fans treasure this album and call it their “Favorite” TCC release? Could it have been the sheer number of tracks, like an overdose of music?
Matt MacDonald: It was our most thoughtful release to date. The concept and the scope gave an added layer of depth and flow, I think, that may have been missing previously. It was long, and it showcased some different directions, but still paid tribute to a lot of the pop sensibility of Albatross. I think it was a natural next step, to grow up with our fans a bit. Regardless of what people say now, there was a bit of a backlash initially. A lot of people were expecting Albatross 2, which is basically a collection of 3:30 singles for radio. When they heard TSC, I think initially some folks were taken aback. But I think over time it’s grown on them, I like to think of it as a grower, not a show-er. I think the more people listened the more they heard and the more they liked it, it just took a little bit more time than Albatross. I’m completely okay with that.
Brandon/IVM: How much touring was done on this album? What are some of your favorite tour memories from this time period?
Matt MacDonald: We toured less, maybe about 6 months on this release. It was tougher touring, because we were headlining a lot, but my favorite tour memories would probably be from Warped Tour 2008, when TSC was released. We sold 5805 records the first week, which is the name of a track on the record, and the number on the house where our band used to live and practice. It was an uncanny coincidence, but it felt right. Warped Tour is like summer camp. It’s a lot of barbecuing and hanging out and having dance parties on the bus. Good memories.
Brandon/IVM: You guys only waited like 2 years and then hit us hard again with the release of “Vagabonds” (2010). It’s an excellent release and I think more credit should be given to you guys for it’s creation. How do you feel about “Vagabonds” and is it your favorite release or best work (so far)?
Matt MacDonald: I’m not sure. I think Vagabonds takes a bit of a different direction lyrically and musically. It has a simple, whimsical tone for the first 4 or so tracks on the album, something that we’ve never really launched headfirst into before. I think, again, people were a little weirded out by it, but over time I’ve received some messages from fans who are retracting their initial critiques that it was “Too simple” or “Too poppy.” They like it fine now, and it has its place in their collection of our CDs, I guess. We’ve never stuck to one musical aesthetic very well, like some do in order to please the narrow bent of their specific fan base. I love songs, and I love all the different aesthetics a song can use to convey different emotions. I also love change, and I can get restless with one sound or swagger or vibe. I think that at this point the people who have stuck with us have come to expect change from us. As far as Vagabonds goes I’m probably too close to make a judgement call on how good it is. Maybe it’s a question for the fans, perhaps? :)
Brandon/IVM: You guys toured a bit around the release of the album then it was announced you were departing your label home at T&N and going the independent route, after 4 releases. What led to this decision? Can you dig deep and tell me personal reasons for “jumping ship” so to say? Are you on good terms still with your prior label home? Did they ever offer you renewal of contract, or was it a mutual decision to part?
Matt MacDonald: We love everyone at the label. We didn’t leave with any bitterness in our hearts or anything like that. You hear a lot of horror stories, I’m sure, of bands on labels like T&N getting screwed over and yada yada. It was nothing like that. They had an opportunity to pick up the final option on our contract, they wanted to negotiate the price of that option, and we respectfully declined. I think it was just time for us to go DIY for a record. We love everything the label has done for us and we are extremely grateful, but deep down we wanted to go back to our roots, to make music for music’s sake. The business side of things can tend to complicate the writing process. Now, we’re enjoying the freedom of time and the joy of writing for no other reason than that it makes us feel good. We’re enjoying the low-pressure environment of the non-business approach.
Brandon/IVM: What have you guys been up to the past year or so? Side projects you might have individually or other bands your members have been playing in? How many guys are a part of The Classic Crime at this current time, names? I hear you are losing a guitarist soon, how important was his contributions to your “sound” and band as a whole? Will you be able to fill his position?
Matt MacDonald: Over the last year the guys in our band have been working and going to school. Justin just had a baby, and he’ll be playing his last official show with us December 16th at The Showbox in Seattle. He has been a huge part of TCC over the years, and it’s been hard to slowly fill the leadership void his departure has left, but over the last few months the guys have stepped up and we feel pretty good about continuing on without him. As far as his sound, he wrote the music to “The Fight,” “Blisters and Coffee,” “Abracadavers,” and most of “Salt In The Snow,” so he has been a huge part of our sound, especially on Albatross and the older more rock’n roll songs. There will be no replacement. I’ll play guitar and we’ll move forward as a four piece. There really isn’t any use looking for someone worthy of filling his shoes, and we feel it’s time for a change in the dynamic anyways.
Brandon/IVM: As you may be aware, The Classic Crime was a part and has been a part all along of the Christian music scene, however you may define that faith/music connection. How do you feel about artists/songwriters who have a Faith in God, expressing their beliefs through the creation of rock music? Do you think “Faith” limits the potential for getting exposure for your band or other bands out there? Is it difficult shaking the tag when touring with bands that may not necessarily share your world view? Do you embrace or reject the “Christian” tag when describing your music and/or songwriting contributions?
Matt MacDonald: I could probably write a book on this question. You may have gathered that I don’t really like the business side of music and how it can interfere with the integrity of it. Initially, we felt the same way about the Christian Music Industry – a term that is kind of an oxymoron in itself. We fought the title because we believed that the profiteering, manipulation, and overall insincerity of the Christian Music Industry is something that we didn’t want to be associated with. As far as faith and music go, I think they go hand in hand. Music transcends the tangible, much like faith does, and it has the ability to speak to the soul. My faith is part of my music because they come from the same place deep within me. I don’t have to try to think about putting it into songs, it’s not a head thing. It comes from the heart, and as an artist – if I really believe it – it will naturally work it’s way into my art. One of my favorite bands, Thrice, is a band that somehow managed to avoid the “Christian” music tag while singing about many different Biblical truths in artful and prophetic ways. I really look up to them, because in a sense they’re the best kind of music ministry – one that ministers in action, not in title. They donate proceeds of every record to various charities, and to me, they exude the type of integrity that Jesus called Christians to have, both in the art they create and the services they provide to the less fortunate.
One very popular misconception is that bands with Christian members try to avoid the “Christian” title because they want to have success in the mainstream. This couldn’t be any more false. Well over half of Americans say they are Christian. If you have a potential audience that big, and you’re in it for the money, you don’t try to run the other way. In fact and to the contrary, playing churches and Christian festivals and Christian events pays at least TRIPLE what we make playing in clubs and dives across the country. If one were to sell out, they’d sell the other way, to the Christian Music Industry, because it’s blindly loyal and fairly flush with cash. All you have to do is switch the word “Baby” out with “Jesus” and you’re set for life! (Okay, I’m being a little facetious here, but you get the point)
As far as touring with secular bands, we usually hear things like, “Man, when we heard you guys were Christians we were thinking you were going to be weird, but you guys are great.” In fact 99% of the criticism we face as openly Christian people in a band is from other Christians who feel we aren’t labeling ourselves with enough bumper sticker titles and thus we are not properly serving Jesus.
Nowadays we take a less rigid stance when it comes to the “Christian” tag. We believe that for some people it’s a good thing. There are a lot of sweet and earnest music fans who wish to only listen to Christian Music for convictions sake, and I can totally respect that. Also, there are a lot of sincere Christian Musicians I’ve met who feel a particular calling in that direction, and I respect that. So we no longer take offense to the tag. We just try not to have the title be the focus. It’s just a title, and it doesn’t dictate whether or not something is good. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need titles, people would be critical thinkers and could make judgement calls for themselves and their families based on their own convictions, but it’s not a perfect world, and I can totally respect that.
Brandon/IVM: How difficult is it to live your life as a Christian while on the road or just hanging out with people who strongly reject that lifestyle? Anything you’d like to share?
Matt MacDonald: I’ve had incredible conversations on the road with guys that have no faith but would like to. They’re usually really open and earnest and willing to seek the answers to the tough questions. I’ve believe that Christians are rarely persecuted by non-Christians in our culture, and if they are, it’s because of people who aren’t real Christians (Westboro Baptist nuts and the like) who are messing with the title. If they were to spend a few minutes with a real Christian who is in a real relationship with Jesus, I believe most Americans would come to appreciate the grace, love, and acceptance they receive. It’s hard to hate that.
Matt MacDonald: As far as it being difficult, it’s not the people, but the touring itself that can be a hindrance to ones spiritual life. There’s no consistency, no church community, and a growing lack of conviction that can come from hopping from town to town for months on end. I haven’t really figured that part out, yet, but I will say it’s difficult to maintain any sort of lifestyle in the midst of so much constant change, however, the heart of what I believe never leaves me, and neither does God, so that’s comforting.
Brandon/IVM: Do you have any horror stories from your life on the road or just being in a band period?
Matt MacDonald: We’ve done a few 180’s and 360’s in a van and trailer on black ice in the wilderness. That’s pretty horrific. To be honest, the horrors on the road are as frequent as the joys, and I could probably write a book on those as well.
Brandon/IVM: Tell me a little bit about Vocal Few, the new side project you have with your wife. Is it acoustic based? Worship oriented or just simple rock songs? I haven’t heard any of these songs so I am interested to hear more about this project. Fill us in. Maybe drop some lyrics on us ;)
Matt MacDonald: It’s mostly me on acoustic and singing, and Kristie on piano and singing. But we have some strings in there too for effect. It’s poppy, folky, singer-songwritery. They aren’t worship songs, although one of them you could probably play in church and people might like it. Its a song called “The Fountain” here are the lyrics:
Give me a drink of water
To cool my tongue
It’s been far too long to be thirsty and
Far too short to be numb
Give me your shame
I will breathe it all into my lungs
And when I exhale
You will know what it’s like to be loved
So come, come drink from the fountain
Feel the cool water rush in
Come, come drink from the fountain
You’ll never be thirsty again
Give me the peace
That’s missing inside my soul
‘Cause I’ve been waiting for years holding on
Just to find that I’ve got to let go
You drink all you can but you cant get enough
You hold on to promises that were promised without love
So when you’ve decided that you’ve had enough
I will be hear at the well
Waiting to fill you up
Brandon/IVM: We are all dying to know, when will the next Classic Crime album come out? Will it be available on CD/Vinyl/Digital? What is the title of the album if you have one? Do you have any song titles and/or lyrics that you’d like share from this new release?
Matt MacDonald: We are planning to record the new TCC record starting in January. We’re in no hurry, per the DIY comment earlier, so we’re going to take our sweet time and make it as good as we can. Nothing to share yet, but we’re hoping for a release in early summer 2012.
Brandon/IVM: Any upcoming tours that you are a part of or would like to be a part of? What bands do you really want to travel with?
Matt MacDonald: We aren’t planning to tour until we get music taken care of, unless of course some big bands came along and asked us. I like to tour with Thrice.
Brandon/IVM: What do you think the future holds for your band? Do you guys plan on sticking together for years to come? What happens if the independent album doesn’t sell as many copies as you’d like, will you guys still continue making awesome music? I hope so.
Matt MacDonald: I plan on making music in whatever form for the rest of my life. As of right now TCC is fully committed to making more music, so we’ll continue to do so as long as we can.
Brandon/IVM: Tell me what your last 5 music purchases were, album wise? Are there any favorite current bands that you’re into? What was your favorite release of 2011 (name more than one if you can’t decide)?
Matt MacDonald: I honestly can’t remember 5. I did buy the new Thrice. My favorite recent record has been Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs… I’m in love with the layers and the lyrics and the concept and the rhythms and everything about that band and that album. They turned me in to a fan of music again. Their record came out in 2010, but it’s still better than anything I’ve heard this year.
Brandon/IVM: Are there any favorite books you’ve been reading lately? Is there any author that you specifically “dig” lately?
Matt MacDonald: I’m reading Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In The Woods” because I was really blown away by a book he wrote called “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” I like science and nature and British prose, so he’s entertaining for me. Recently I read “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” by Donald Miller. I’m a huge fan of his, and I loved that book. It was an incredible inspiration and I recommend it.
Brandon/IVM: Favorite food location? Go!
Matt MacDonald: Umi Sake House in Seattle for sushi.
Brandon/IVM: What was the last movie you saw and what did you think?
Matt MacDonald: I watched a documentary called Forks vs. Knives… I thought it was interesting, and although I’m a carnivore, I do believe we could all stand to eat a few less double cheeseburgers.
Brandon/IVM: What is your favorite spot to play a show as a band across the country (and globally)?
Matt MacDonald: The Showbox at the Market in Seattle, WA. Hometown crowd and our favorite venue.
Brandon/IVM: Any bar/club/Church that stands out to you as an ideal place for a band to play a gig?
Matt MacDonald: Any house of blues is a pretty good choice.
Well that about concludes my interview with you Matt. I hope all of our readers will enjoy this passionate read.
Hopefully you’ll all check out The Classic Crime if you haven’t given them a chance before. Remember, all their albums are available on iTunes/Amazon if you’re into digital music or on CD from most stores. Look for the band’s new album available summer of 2012. You’ll also be able to purchase the new ep from Vocal Few in January. That’s all folks, enjoy!