MATT MAYS & EL TORPEDO CD release party with the NOVAKS and THOMAS MATHESON at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (March 29), 9 pm. Free. 416-598-4753. Also opening for the SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES and AMERICAN MINOR at the Guvernment (1 Jarvis), Saturday (March 26), 6 pm. $25.75. All ages. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Just back from an Australian surfing expedition to Sydney's sun-soaked Bondi Beach, Matt Mays wakes up to a fresh blanket of snow covering his Halifax home. It's a briskly sobering reminder for Canada's most promising roots rock tunesmith that the fun and games are over. The telephone ring signals that the real work has begun.
That means heading out on the road for a non-stop tour blitz with his well-drilled El Torpedo strike force in support of his hugely anticipated new self-titled Sonic/Warner disc. From the distorted guitar crunch that kicks off the Big Star-style opener, Stand Down At Sundown, it's clear that Mays is no longer in the same sensitive singer/songwriter mode of his solo debut, and his twangy past with Nova Scotian alt-country crew the Guthries now seems like a distant memory. This is loud, raunchy rock 'n' roll played strictly for feel in a ragged-but-right way that recalls Neil Young's classic early work with Crazy Horse.
If you didn't know that a relatively big-name producer like Don Smith (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan,Tom Petty) was involved, you'd swear Mays and the El Torpedo boys broke into a boarded-up Halifax packing plant and cut the whole shebang themselves on a weekend bender. It all comes off more like a demo than some glossy major-label product designed to maximize drive-time commercial radio play. Say that to Mays and he's not the slightest bit insulted.
"I'm glad you picked up on it, because that's what we were going for," he laughs. "If we'd made a polished-sounding album it would've been weird - that's just not us. Having played with the El Torpedo guys for a while now, we've gotten to know each other well enough to be able to anticipate each other's moves. We're tight, yet there's still a raggedy aspect to what we do, and I think that's what rock 'n' roll is all about.
"If you listen to those classic records by the Who, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin or Neil Young and Crazy Horse, they share a certain roughness - a raw quality that's really appealing."
If capturing the group's enjoyably unruly onstage action is what Mays was after, a veteran producer like Smith, who specializes in live, off-the-floor analog recordings, was definitely the right man for the job. Because Smith's production style is more focused on the performances themselves than on the mixing phase, you'll get a truer document of what's being played, which can also mean that some mistakes will be left in.
That's fine by Mays, who isn't concerned about a slightly out-of-tune guitar part or an off-pitch vocal as long as the song connects.
"I love hearing mistakes on recordings. Some of my favourite albums have them, but that's part of the interest. Like when you put on an old Bob Dylan record and you hear the bass player miss a change because it was their first time through, but the vibe was right so they kept it in. You just can't beat those first takes sometimes. The great thing about working with Don is that he knows what mistakes to leave in.
"Most producers today think everything needs to be in perfect time and in perfect tune, and they use ProTools computer software to look at every little detail of the recording and correct anything that isn't perfect - essentially taking the human quality out of the music. That's how the majority of records are made today. But if you want to make a real rock 'n' roll record, you need to have a band playing together in a room and a producer like Don who knows how to record live, off the floor. He doesn't use any crazy gimmicks or unusual techniques. He just concentrates on getting good takes with the right energy. If we were really cookin' and something went a bit out of tune, he'd let us go. What really matters is the feel of the music."
So far, Mays is having no trouble connecting to Canadian audiences. He's built up an impressive following through persistent cross-country touring with El Torpedo in support of Sam Roberts and Blue Rodeo.
One dazzling set and you're a convert - that's how it works. But whether or not Mays will be able to parlay his magnetic stage presence, house-rockin' performances and kick-ass new recording into a U.S. label deal is far from a sure thing. Just ask anyone in the Tragically Hip.
"We've been together as a band for three years, and things are just starting to get going for us here in Canada," says Mays, "so we plan to get back in the van and do the same kind of touring in the U.S. I mean, there are more people in New York state alone than in all of Canada, so we're prepared to be out there for a while, but we're all really excited about playing smaller clubs and seeing some new faces.
"Hopefully, we can find a label with decent distribution and a bit of tour support. Until that happens, we'll play a few showcase gigs - like South By Southwest - to stir up some interest. The main thing we need to do right now is get in front of people, because performing is really our strength. I think things just make more sense to people once they've seen us."
A lengthy stint in the van won't be quite the ordeal for Mays and crew you might think it would be. Now that the home entertainment system has been installed, with a DVD player and PlayStation hookup, they'll have something other than the regular program of Blonde On Blonde and Tonight's The Night to keep them occupied. It's a Canrock dream machine.
"We actually pimped our own ride," chuckles Mays with a sense of pride. "Jarrett (guitarist Jarrett Murphy) is a serious handyman who can build anything. He built the stand for the TV that fits snugly between the seats without measuring the space - he just eyeballed it!
"He installed the cooler and the bed in the back and wired up the headphones through the ceiling so the whole band can watch a movie or listen to music while seated anywhere inside. We used to have the sound going through the van stereo, but at night, if somebody put on Star Wars, we'd all wake up scared shitless thinking the van was blowing up."