MATT MAYS & El Torpedo with SHAKER and BOY at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Saturday (September 25). $8. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Like many musicians, Halifax hot-shot Matt Mays is in the market for a sweet international deal with a supportive label.
What distinguishes Mays from every other promising young singer/songwriter - apart from winning the best-new-artist trophy at the 2004 East Coast Music Awards - is that he's got an album's worth of kick-ass tunes recorded and ready for release.
From the guitar-heavy songs I've been allowed to preview, it could be a killer. Any rootsy twang leftover from his days with the Guthries appears to be gone, and it's cut loose Crazy Horse-style rock and roll full speed ahead.
In fact, the storming Cocaine Cowgirl sounds like it was ripped right from the pages of Neil Young's songbook, but Mays has never been overly guarded about keeping his inspirational secrets hid, as you'll hear when he's backed by El Torpedo on Saturday (September 25) at Lee's Palace.
"Any similarities to other people's songs is purely subliminal," Mays sheepishly chuckles over the phone from Kingston.
"Sometimes I'll come up with a song idea that I think is really great until someone in the band points out that it's actually one of Neil's. I've listened to so much Neil Young stuff that I don't always know when it's happening."
The choice of long-time Tom Petty engineer Don Smith to produce the sessions turned out to be a shrewd move, since Smith is a proven expert at capturing a live combo sound in a studio setting. Fortunately, Mays's management, the Halifax-based Sonic Entertainment - which handles Great Big Sea, Crush and Nathan Wiley - has deep enough pockets and its own Sonic Temple recording complex to make the project possible without major-label involvement.
"We recorded just about everything live off the floor, which worked out great considering this was the first major session we'd ever tried anything like that. But I felt we really had to do it that way because El Torpedo is such a 'feel' type band. We all just knew this was the only way to go, and that's why we wanted Don Smith to be involved."
Smith flew up to Halifax to see the band, and at a meeting post-show they hit it off right away. They immediately set a date, and completed the whole thing in a month. Bing, bang, boom.
It seems awfully simple, and Mays assures me that working with Smith was just as quick and painless as he makes it sound. He even let Mays record his vocals lying on a couch.
"Don was always open to trying different things, and he didn't mind sacrificing a bit of fidelity if it meant getting a better performance. That's his whole thing.
"While we were having lunch one day, I mentioned to Don that I was still trying to get used to singing in the studio standing alone in front of this huge microphone with headphones on. So he said, 'Why don't you come into the control room and we'll record you singing through one of your stage microphones?'
"So a lot of the vocal takes were done while I was sitting or lying on a couch using an SM-58. We even kept some of the vocals I did live with the band, because they just felt right."
The question that remains, however, is when the as-yet-untitled album will appear. When pressed for a drop date, Mays can only narrow it down to sometime early in the new year, but of course that depends on who will be releasing it.
For the moment, Mays doesn't seem overly concerned about the situation. He's already started work on two side projects, an acoustic solo album and a roots reggae instrumental set involving El Torpedo drummer Tim Baker, who shares Mays's love for old-school Studio One jams.
"We've definitely had some label interest, but we're going to be patient and wait for the right deal. A key issue is having our record released outside Canada. That's very important to me.
"Obviously, we love playing in this country, but there's no reason why we should confine ourselves to Canada when we could be playing to many more people in the States and Europe.
"But right now I'm just having a great time playing guitar with this band every night."