[Cover photo credit to Emely Grisanty]
Matt Longo's first full-length album under the moniker Thin Lear is being released today, July 24th, as Wooden Cave and we were treated to a live performance of songs from the album by Matt on our Tower Instagram Live show recently, which you can check out here.
Wooden Cave is a very interesting album for many reasons. Sonically speaking, it's ambitious and has a lot of nerve in paring down sounds to their most resonant, and at times haunting, while preserving a solid folkish feel. In fact, it feels a lot like the hauntingly "antiquated" story that serves, at least partly, as the inspiration for the album, that of the mysterious death of Netta Fornario. Fornario went from her home among occult circles in London to a remote Scottish island to practice some personal magic and her death, posed alone in a field, remains unexplained to this day.
Matt Longo joins us today to talk about how he built up his personal songwriting voice, his gravitation toward all things "creepy" in culture, and of course, about the strange, sad, and fascinating tale of Netta Fornario.
Read on below, and make sure to check out Matt Longo's livestream for Wooden Cave today at 4:30PM EST on Facebook.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on your new album coming up. How are you holding up?
Matt Longo: It’s definitely hard to release an album throughout this. For the past couple of months, you almost feel bad talking about art. For me, art is soothing. And I imagine for most people make art, that’s one of the reasons that they do it, but we don’t necessarily know if that’s how most people digest music. It’s always tough to know, as an artist, or someone who is marketing, do people want to hear new music right now? It’s an internal struggle.
HMS: Yes, you’re definitely not the only person facing that question. My personal opinion is that yes, you should do it, because I’ve seen the positive effect in peoples’ lives to be able to listen to the streaming that many musicians are offering, to listen to the new music coming out. But I can see that because I work at Tower Records and I get to see the fan reactions.
But I’m so glad you managed to finish recording this album before things hit. How close was the timing on that?
ML: I had finished a little while before. And then I was talking to a few different labels, before I had signed for this record with Egghunt. I was well outside of the range of having to freak out about the end of studio time. I also do a lot of stuff on my own, so I think I probably could have finished things on my own, without other humans.
HMS: This is a time when that’s an incredible valuable skill. As a solo project, you do have that power, though I know that you worked with a number of musicians on this album.
ML: Yeah. There are certain sessions where you need that collective atmosphere. And also for my brain, if I’m sitting at the center of a group of people who I really respect and am inspired by, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. We had those sessions before any of this started. When you’re doing the groove of the track, like the drums, the bass, the guitar, and even sometimes the strings, it’s great to be in the room together. And then with the endless tinkering of mixing, then it’s fine to be on your own and pulling your hair out.
HMS: Almost the post-production side of things.
ML: Exactly. And the post-production takes me much longer than the actual session.
HMS: How did you get to a point where working with a bunch of people in that way is not an overwhelming experience? I read online that you had been in some bands before. Was that preparation for what you do now?
ML: When I was younger, we would just record ad hoc style. We’d all just get in a room and it was kind of a mess. That was around 2011. I used to release records under my own name, too. With recording, I think it was about needing to have a conversation in the midst of recording. I felt like there was too much of me, if that makes sense. I was playing a lot of the instruments. It started to get less exciting. I’d hear something in my head when I was younger, and think, “Wouldn’t it be great if that could burst through into reality?”
And then you’re able to do that, and the novelty of that wears off fairly quickly. Then you ask, “How could I bring it into reality in a way that I couldn’t have previously conceived of?” So then, that’s where other people come in. For a control freak like myself, that’s hard to learn to let go of your project a little bit and to listen to people. So that was a strenuous process, but now I feel like it’s the right balance. I have a vision for what I want, but I can definitely listen, and my eyes are open throughout the recording process.
HMS: That sounds like a really good balance between the personal time that you need in order to conceive of things and the more public time of working with others to bring it into reality. Every musician is different, and I’ve talked to some who started working with other musicians at a quite young age and they feel like they never found out what their own sound or voice was, so are having to do it now. If you never get that core, that starting point, you might have to go back and find it, but it sounds like you’ve built that up.
ML: Sure. Well, I’m a pretty antisocial person to begin with, so I think that when I first started the writing process, in my teens, it was so insular from the very start, that for me, there was no other way that it could have been. I would record songs on a little four track cassette thing and sing very quietly. I would literally go into the closet of my room to sing and write because I was terrified that someone in the house would hear me.
And it was like that for a little while until I thought I was decent enough to play in front of someone else. I do think that time was helpful for me so that I could figure out why I was doing this, what my actual sound was before anyone even heard what my voice sounded like, much less before working with other musicians.
HMS: I totally get that. I grew up with musicians and putting up foam on the walls because “no one must hear me”, even though it ruined the walls, was a real thing.
Can you explain to me the continuum of your work released under your own name and the dawn of releasing under Thin Lear?
ML: I struggled with it. Releasing music under my own name seemed like the right thing before. I was coming out of another band. I was very tired of sparring with people creatively and it just felt right to really own everything. Then I started to write songs that were a little bit out of the real of the typical singer/songwriter fare. I’m very interested in writing story songs and having some kind of narrative. And I like not being the center of the song. Even on this record, Matt Longo is not the speaker.
HMS: Yes, you use narrator voices, don’t you?
ML: Yes. If you look at Randy Newman, he’s singing as characters. And often he’d get into trouble because he’d be misconstrued as being the owner of those opinions. I wanted to write songs like that, so I needed to divorce myself from my own name. The reason it’s “Thin Lear” is that I was initially going to go by the name “Tin Ear” since I liked the sound of the name. But it turns out Tin Ear is a Prog Rock band from the 70s.
I dreamed of a Thin Lear kind of character, like the cover of those old Creepy Magazines. I like to read them before I go to sleep because they give me weird dreams. When I was thinking of what the name would be, I was doing that, and I had the image of a Frank Frazetta style person, someone whose name would be Thin Lear. And when I woke up, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to use that name.” I had a clear image of what a cover of something like that would look like. I contacted an illustrator, Jenny Fine. I had her working on the album cover that turned out to be the Thin Lear EP cover.
In terms of how it connects to the music, I can’t really say. I think I just love animation, so I keep gravitating toward those things. I’ve done a video for a song called “Second Nature” from that EP with this group of puppeteers from Russia called Face Heads. I’m working on a video for a song right now an illustrator from the UK. Animation inspired me so much, particularly that sort of Gothic, older style.
HMS: This is all great stuff.
ML: Going back to the moniker versus non-moniker, I wanted to write songs without being misinterpreted as the owner of every opinion in the songs. I have a song called “Maniacs” on the new album, and there’s a song called “Wooden Cave”, and it’s either about or spoken from the perspective of people who are sort of indoctrinated. I hope that I myself am not indoctrinated, but I really wanted characters who were potentially under someone else’s control, and it really felt right to take on a moniker at that point. I don’t want people to get confused and think, “This is what Matt feels.”
HMS: Yes, for sure. Some of this might come together under the idea of a concept album, though you might disagree. You do have a really strong concept for this album, Wooden Cave, that centers on a character called Netta Fornario, right?
HMS: At first, I felt like I really had to look this person up, because the name sounded so perfect for this type of story that I assumed it was a fictional invention. But no, she was real!
I’ve traveled in some of the areas of Scotland that are part of the story of Netta, and I know a little bit about the occult scene in the UK during her time, featuring William Sharp, Dion Fortune, and The Golden Dawn, but I had never come across this story before. It’s a really eerie story, of course!
ML: It’s terrifying.
HMS: How did you come across this? What made you pick it up?
ML: I don’t remember where I came across it. But I know that as soon as I read it, that it struck my heart, and I wasn’t sure why. It captured me in a way. It wasn’t just, “Oh, this is some kind of crazy true crime story.” It wasn’t like one of those boiled down podcasts. It just haunted me. I think it’s one of those stories that’s kind of like a Rorschach test. You can see, in the story, whatever it is that you’re bringing to the table.
What I saw was someone with mental illness, and also I saw an artist. I saw someone escaping the people closest to them to go find something ephemeral. And that is mostly what artists are doing. When you’re making a record, it really does feel like you’re rowing away from the mainland. I’m just a humble dude from Queens, and the resources I have are the resources I get from a day job. Financially, it’s crazy. Emotionally, it’s crazy, because you have to throw yourself into it. I don’t have engineers and producers. There are people I collaborate with, but it’s mostly just on me.
So, when I read that story of someone going to find magic, I recognized myself. I do see that as the album writing and recording process. You do need to separate yourself from people you love to complete it. Then there’s the danger: what if you don’t come back home? It terrified me on that level. I also fell in love a little bit with this person. There’s a picture of her online, where she’s looking directly into the camera, and it’s a really unnerving picture to exist, particularly for that time period. It’s like she knows something that you don’t. I think that’s probably part of the whole Golden Dawn thing.
Then also, regarding mental illness, I know a lot of people would look at the story and see the idea of deadly magical arts. But the first time I read it, I thought, “That was someone who was having some kind of an episode.” So, on multiple levels it struck my heart. It got to the point where I was dreaming of this person as I imagined them to be.
Out of that came one of the first tracks for the record, which is the actual first track on the record, called “Netta”. It is my reimagined telling of what I think happened to her and what she was looking for, and where things ended up. The image that was in my head was, as I mentioned before, all these artists rowing away from the mainland to go find this person, to go out to this island, to go and make something, and some of them are going to make it back, and some of them won’t. So many of the songs I wrote, even after that, were very influenced by her.
There’s a song that’s called “I Thought I Was Alone” that’s a little bit about going kind of crazy as you get older. You’re comfortable being by yourself when you’re younger, but especially as you get older, with technology, it becomes uncomfortable to be alone in public and not be on your phone. It didn’t used to be like that. I used to love the solitude. It’s a song about that. There’s a line in it where I say, “Once I dreamt I saw a face/Couldn’t name and couldn’t place/Calling sweetly out to me/From the rocks beside the sea.”
So it almost turns the Netta character into a siren. It’s like, “Why am I investing so much into this person who I never met who had a very dangerous life? And what does that mean about me and where my mindset is right now?” There were a lot of weird connections that I saw between myself and her and I’m so glad I found that story. Even though it made me doubt myself in many ways, ultimately finding her story enriched my life across the board.
HMS: Wow. So much of that is really fascinating. I think when a story feels unfinished, it can have this timeless feeling. Her story kind of hangs there.
ML: It does!
HMS: Because so much is unexplained about her untimely death. But like you, when I was looking at the information, I instantly took kind of a psychological approach, and I felt like this was an internal drama of big proportions for her. What was really freaky to me was that she got her stuff and tried to leave the Scottish island, and then got turned back.
It’s almost like she knew that she was getting into dangerous territory of some kind. Like she knew how far down the rabbit hole she was going, and she had an instinct to stop that process, but for whatever reason, she didn’t. In this case, she tried to get a ferry, and couldn’t. That, for me, is eerie and dramatic when someone seems to have a presentiment. It’s a very poignant story. And she was young, of course, so any time someone young passes away, it raises questions.
It’s a great choice for an album. What’s cool to me, also, about settling on this story for the album is that I’m sure there are lots of people who know this story. But I didn’t. There are probably a lot of people who don’t. It’s new territory for many.
ML: That has to be positive. I did feel compelled to do it. I won’t say how much I believe in any of the magical elements of this. There are things I want to believe more than I actually do, with the paranormal and the occult. I am 100% always drawn to it. I started reading Creepy Magazine when I was six years old and started to figure out who I was. With this, it was more about finding the human element within a paranormal story. That’s my wheelhouse.
HMS: That’s a great summing up. That’s so cool. You can see a lot of humanity and physicality in the artwork on that magazine. I think maybe they were going for the same thing.
Where does the title of the album come from, Wooden Cave?
ML: My explanation is really basic. I was trying to come up with the title and I was looking at my guitar, the hole in the guitar.
HMS: Oh wow!
ML: So much of the album is acoustic, not just with the guitar, but with strings. And it has a really antiquated feel, hopefully not in a way that makes it sound dull. A rich antiquated sound was what I was going for. There are many F-holes within the instruments on the record. So I started thinking, “What if I want the listener to actually be inside of the instrument when they are hearing the record? That would be the ideal imagery for the title.” So, “Wooden Cave” is reminiscent of sitting inside an instrument.
HMS: That is really cool. That did not immediately occur to me at all, but it’s so perfect.