Pursuing A Singular Vision: Songwriting & Spooky Photo-Shoots For Thin Lear's 'Wooden Cave'

Matt Longo released his first LP under his Thin Lear moniker in July, Wooden Cave, and we celebrated with him by having a discussion about the fascinatingly dark true story that served as an inspiration for the concepts on the album, and he also appeared on our Tower Instagram Live show, even debuting some new songs live!

Now we're back with the final portion of our discussion with Matt Longo, which takes in the awesomeness of the 60s and 70s for music, the process of songwriting, the fine line between the traditional and the modern in Folk music, and the awesome real-life story behind the album cover's spooky photo shoot.

But before you dive in, check out the sign-up for Matt Longo's online concert that will be held this Saturday, August 22nd at 8PM through the venue Baby TV, where tickets will be on a sliding-scale. You can find out more through the Facebook Event Page and also get tickets through Eventbrite.

HMS: What were some of your sound goals on the album Wooden Cave?

Matt Longo: I work with a really great engineer here in Astoria, named Aady Pandit, and we worked on the sound of the record a lot. We wanted to make it feel worn, and lived in, but also crisp. We wanted it to sound like people making a record who didn’t have a lot of resources, but you can’t tell they didn’t have a lot of resources. Those are my favorite records to listen to. Those dark Folk records that feel so lived in and magical, and yet you know that they didn’t have a ton of studio time to make it.

HMS: That’s really interesting. The acoustic side of things, and the wooden sound, made me think of old wooden floors and remote places. Even traveling by ship, as Netta Fornario did, would have these wooden sounds.

ML: Most definitely. Yes! These are the kinds of dreams that I have, so that kind of vibe steals into the music.

HMS: Is the influence of 60s and 70s music a stronger influence on you now than in the past, or has it always been there?

ML: I think it’s always been there. There’s just something about those records. There was a lot of money flowing around the industry at that time, so people would get one or two records done with a label and great players, then they’d just kind of disappear. It’s an era where even weirdos and people who were totally non-commercial had a lot of cash, so you get the full vision of someone like Shuggie Otis or Fairport Convention. All these outsiders. You get a lot of weirdos achieving perfection.

HMS: And doing things in weird ways, too, like in farmhouses and apartments.

ML: It’s ultimately my dream to one day do a Big Pink-style thing and live in a house with the musicians for like a month and only record the music.

HMS: You’re not that physically very far from there, either, where The Band recorded, in the New York area. [Laughs] That makes sense to me, having grown up in a musical family, that people do that kind of stuff. I try not to get too revisionist about the Golden Age of the 60s and 70s, but I hear what you’re saying. People did get fronted a lot of money to pursue their own methods, and it’s so hard not to idealize that.

ML: We don’t have the budgets now, but we do have the technological advances. So I feel like this is the first era where we could approximate the ideology of: “Everything is at my disposal in this studio and I can also pursue my own singular vision and not try to make it sound super-commercial.”

HMS: You’re pursuing this framework of a narrative about Netta on the album, but it’s not restrictive, it brings in modern elements, too. How do you find that line between something that would feel or sound too modern and things that would work?

ML: Most of the songs on the album have to do with possession, not necessarily in a paranormal way, but the idea that something else is in control of your thoughts and actions. I think that’s something that pervades the album. For anyone who has ever suffered with anxiety or depression, that is kind of what it feels like. You’re not in control of your brain. When I was a kid, I was absolutely terrified of the idea of possession. I think it’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward the art that I chose.

A song like “Maniacs” is kind of about the insane factions you find on the internet, and lonely people finding other lonely people and weaponizing their loneliness. That stuff terrifies me, because if I hadn’t gotten the love that I’ve gotten in my life, would I have been one of those people?

That’s the connection between Netta and the indoctrination songs: folks who are having trouble being in control of their own brains.

Sonically, it’s a little harder to explain. There were choices that I made if I thought I was getting too modern. Like the backwards guitar solos on “The Guesthouse”. The deluge of Mellotrons you hear on “Maniacs”. Those are things you wouldn’t necessarily hear in a 70s mix a lot, but they sat right. We did strip away a whole lot from the songs. A lot of them had elements that did feel out of places, maybe a little too modern, and they had to go. That’s kind of my process. I do too much, and then I edit down.

“Death in a Field” has the Pedal Steel guitar and I think it has 15 guitar tracks. It’s like some kind of “Born to Run” mania that I was working out. But in the recording process, it worked.

HMS: I haven’t really heard someone say this before about writing music, but I’m sure other people could relate: what you’re describing is similar to the ideal way to produce a rough draft as a writer. You produce as much as you can, then work with it. For a lot of people, the problem is getting enough out of themselves. So it sounds like you’re letting yourself over-compose, knowing you can then work with it.

ML: Yes. I’m so happy you brought that up. I’ve never really talked to anyone about this before on the industry side of things, but in my day job, I work with students on their writing. I did that for about 7 years, in a program working with students from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds in order to help them get into law school.

A lot of what we do to build their skills would mean that I heard wonderful stories from these people. It started to influence me. In my early 20s, I was also working on a novel. I did ultimately find writing to be too lonely of a process for me. I need the push and pull of musicians. It needs to be a communal thing.

HMS: [Laughs] It forces you into relationships with other people.

ML: Whether you like it or not. I think what I learned from the process of writing that novel is something that I took and jammed into my process for writing songs, so over the past ten years, I’ve been working my way towards writing these very narrative songs. And I have this editing process that is very similar, as you say, to the drafting process. You get everything out of your brain and then it’s a hell of a lot easier to whittle it down.

HMS: You might also end up with extra material that way, too, which is great. I’ve spoken to a few musicians lately who describe themselves as “writers who can sing” and that shows how related all these forms are.

Are genre terms useful or not to you? You bounce around, intentionally, between a lot of these categories. Of course, that’s really happening a lot now, and it seems to be increasingly the norm.

ML: There is a kind of “mono-genre” that’s happening. There’s good parts to it and bad to it. With commercial Pop, the mono-genre makes it sound like a mess. It can turn into a homogenous thing. I don’t know if streaming services help that, with their categories. People like Arcade Fire are in the “indie” section, and I love those guys, but I don’t think they are indie anymore.

HMS: I would definitely say they are mainstream now, not in their sound, but in their popularity.

ML: Right. So, then, how do we categorize these things? I struggle with the marketing I do. I think it can change song by song, hopefully not to the point that the listener is thrown off. I’m trying to do justice to the sound in my mind. The song “Death in the Field” had a Country sound, so I brought in Pedal Steel Guitar. Then that’s sitting next to something propulsive like “The Guesthouse”. Maybe that’s okay.

I’m having faith in the listener not to have to be told, “I am listening to Indie Rock” or “I am listening to Neo-Folk”. I hope they can enjoy what the vibe of the song is, and that will be enough.

HMS: I guess that’s where building a personal brand comes in, so moving to the Thin Lear moniker could be helpful with that. So that even if someone’s sounds shift, people can learn to trust the directions a musician might take. It becomes more a way of looking at the world, musically speaking. I’m sure you don’t want to limit yourself musically, since the next record could be wildly different, but the brand stays the same.

ML: Exactly. It’s funny that you mention the next record and what that is. The song “Netta” is my favorite song on the record since it’s truly a story song in every sense. I took that song and have been writing exclusively in that realm for the next record. The quarantine helped me in the writing process. I’ve written about 20 songs and they are headed in that direction. They are bulky narratives, and I’m having to narrow them down into Pop songs, which is a great challenge.

HMS: It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to use this time to create stuff. The situation has affected everyone differently.

ML: It’s been productive in that way, but that work has been interspersed by periods of anxiety, not knowing what to do with the instrument, and inundated by what’s happening.

HMS: Did you ever manage to go to a Tower Records?

ML: Oh, yes, I used to wander around. I have a lot of fond memories of thumbing through the shelves, and not necessarily always buying something, but it was like being in a music library. It felt special to find something weird there that you could physically touch. That was one of the reasons that we absolutely wanted to do vinyl for this record.

HMS: That’s awesome. Yes, it’s not always about buying stuff, like with bookstores. It’s about learning about things. Are you a physical media collector?

ML: I do. My vinyl record collection is not impressive, but it’s getting there. It’s getting to the point where it’s going to be difficult to move. I think that’s a good place to be.

HMS: You qualify.

ML: I remember as a kid, wandering around a store, imagining what something sounded like by looking at the cover, and you don’t really do that now. Often that would be more helpful for me, in my development, to have to imagine what something would sound like.

HMS: What about your cover for Wooden Cave? What went into choosing that?

ML: The singer Karen Dalton has a voice that sounds like an open heart, it’ll just crush you. She had a nightmarish life, and you can hear it. There’s a song called “Something on Your Mind” that I’d recommend listening to. She had a record cover that I loved, brown and washed out and desolate.

I wanted to emulate something like that, so I had a Polaroid camera, but wasn’t using it. So my wife and I drove up to the woods, and drove around, looking for an album cover shot. We found this cool Bed & Breakfast that we weren’t actually staying at, but it looked kind of cool and haunted. We asked them if we could hang out for a little bit. There was a room that we found in there that looked like a Stanley Kubrick shot. There was a red, red room, a deep, Dario Argento red.

HMS: I’m getting scared just hearing this description.

ML: It felt like a fever dream. We spent the money to spend the night in this room hoping that we wouldn’t be axe murdered in the night. Basically, we didn’t sleep, but spent the whole night rearranging the room, and tried to do it quietly, hoping not to wake anyone up. We moved this big antique furniture. We got a couple that we liked.

In one that that my wife took, which was the last shot that we took, I was looking at this radio that my grandfather had given me, who was very influential to me. That picture meant so much to me because it showed me that I’m still the same person after all these years. I’m still sentimental. It felt right to me for that to be the cover, and hopefully it’s interesting enough to people to feel like, “I wonder what this person has to say.”

HMS: That is a great story. I’m so glad that I asked you about that. It was nice of those people to let you take pictures, too.

ML: I think the kind of person who would set up a blood-red room might be looking for that kind of attention.

HMS: That’s true! You’re going to have a hard time topping that experience to find the next cover. No pressure.

Our Tower Records motto is “No Music, No Life”, also written, “Know Music, Know Life”. How do you think that applies to your life?

ML: I think that couldn’t be more true for me. When I go through periods when I’m not listening to music, not playing my instrument, I am at my worst. It’s not just a natural thing to me to play music, it’s easy to get caught up in the routine and forget about the things that do fill you up with life. I’ve had to consciously say, “I am going to play for these two hours today and I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that.” In the periods that I’m furthest from the record player and guitar, I’m furthest from myself.

Hearing David Bowie in middle school was like encountering a technicolor world, Wizard of Oz situation. I didn’t realize that you could change in front of people, and go through this growth, and you could do it publicly and unapologetically. It showed me that if I have music as a medium, I can evolve however I want to evolve, and I can make mistakes, but that’ll be fine. Changing between genres and following the Muse is what gives me life. The Muse is Life. Really thinking about it, that is my own motto.

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