Whisky Club & the Nomad Called Matt Pond PA

by Jon Bosworth
The first time I went to Whiskey Club, I thought it was a trick. Ryan Dettra sent me an email inviting me to join an elite club; a secret society of St. Augustine’s young and influential that got together on a certain night of the week on the front porch of a whiskey bar Dettra plans to open next year. The stated purpose is to taste, understand, and critique the wide world of whiskey.
I rode by bicycle to Lincolnville and sat on the barren porch of the building. Flagler College freshmen and middle-aged black men rode their bicycles past, looking at me with pity and concern wondering what I was doing there. I thought it myself. Dettra had said the club convened at 8:30, it was 9:15 and he was not responding to texts.
My text: “Is this some sort of trick?”
Then Dettra and a couple others arrived, set a cork board on trash cans to make a table and dragged a random array of chairs pilfered from the building out onto the porch. We sat and poured some rye bourbon. A white van rolled up. This was Matt Pond. I didn’t recognize the name.
He was clever, not self-insistence, and funny. I looked around Whiskey Club and wondered “who the hell are these people and where did Ryan find them?” When Dettra started giving me hell about not writing about Matt Pond PA shows when Matt would come to town from his home in Brooklyn to play at Cafe 11 (the venue Dettra owned), I realized that this Matt Pond fellow was not just another aging St. Augustine hipster or up-and-coming townie. He has actually released eight full length albums to moderate commercial success. His music has been featured in television and movies. His songs are ubiquitous on Pandora’s indie stations.
Suddenly I was intrigued. This would be a different sort of interview for me, not a phoner with some rocker on the road in a rush to get the interview over with; I could sit down and speak with a national act in the same way I could with a local musician.
“Today I went to buy a typewriter and the guy knew who I was. That’s computers. People know who you are. And that’s cool. I don’t like it until we are playing a show, I don’t want anyone to know who I am. I like being anonymous”
I point out the irony in that statement considering the name of his group is Matt Pond PA. He laughs.
“I know, it sounds like a flirtatious sorority girl: ‘I hate you… don’t go!’ I did that because I’ve been in bands where I did all of the work and had the least amount of the say and I was just sick of it. I didn’t want anyone to be confused about who was in charge.”
And he does do the work. He writes the songs, deals with the record labels, deals with management, publicity, and all of the business.
“I’ve been working on the way to put out this album, which is so clinical. Dealing with the business side of something sucks the life out of it. We are finishing the album on the musical side and working out the details of the record deal on the business side.”
Matt Pond PA has released a couple of records on Polyvinyl and the rest on various indies. Even considering the presence of his music on TV shows, commercials, and films, the support of BMG for this new release was a necessary element to bring his music to the next level of visibility.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had anyone put anything behind an album of ours, so it’s kind of exciting. There are a lot of people working with us now. It’s weird. I put out my own records. It’s amazing, but it’s also depressing at the same time. You are just fighting against a lot of noise.”
Matt Pond writes and performs primarily with Chris Hansen. The rest of the band is in perpetual flux. For this tour, he has brought all Florida musicians to be their backing band on the road.
“Chris Hansen. He’s the recording guy, he’s my best friend, he’s the lead guitar player. He’s been in the Matt Pond for about four years. He’s the tour manager, he’s the everything. He’s the band and I’m the puppet. He’s the hand inside the puppet. Crazy, I know. I know.”
And here Matt’s quirky personality comes out and you can see how Brooklyn hipsters would find him their equal, and yet he can manage to fit in with a group of whiskey drinkers around a makeshift table in St. Augustine, Florida.
“I think that all of the bands I’ve had that played out of New York, they are all cynical from birth. Everyone in New York is looking for something, but they really just don’t realize they are extras in rich peoples’ dreams. [New York] doesn’t have that much more than what you have here. It takes a little more effort to get to the arts or a good show, but it’s all here. But you aren’t stuck in a subway. You aren’t stuck in a four by five room for thousands of dollars a month rent. I like that. Music is really competitive and it just gets weird. I’d rather know people apart from that. That’s why I like Whiskey Club, because it’s not really about that. It’s just Ryan Dettra teasing me about shit.”
Where Matt Pond is from is confusing. Let’s talk through it. Matt Pond is from New Hampshire, but the band Matt Pond PA is from Philadelphia. Yet he bills himself as a New York musician. Also, he lives in St. Augustine.
“You can’t stay in one place for too long. It’s easier to write when you move around. I moved to Philly to play music as a joke. But I started to take it seriously because nothing about my degree or anything I studied did anything for me,” Matt laughs as he lights a cigarette.
“I swore today I wouldn’t smoke. It’s getting to be that time when I’m practicing on my own, but these cigarettes and these whiskey clubs? The weird thing is that some cigarette smoke makes you sing a little bit better, but there’s a threshold. It’s probably like two puffs, or half a night of second hand smoke, but you have this weird control over your voice. You feel like you have a bluesy swagger, but a person like me doesn’t really want a bluesy swagger.”
Although Matt Pond PA albums have wildly different styles of instrumentation and songwriting, one constant is definitely Matt’s somewhat faltering and broken vocal melodies. They aren’t struggling to hit the notes; they are reluctant and contain a psychology that is a sort of window into the world of Matt Pond. He grew up the son of a minister, then his parents divorced and his family went through various iterations of step-parents and siblings entering and leaving his life. He was forced to understand how things are uncertain, and that not only comes through in his lyrics, which are often guarded, poignant, and self-effacing, but also in that deliberately faltering vocal quality.
“[The songwriting is] about being out in the world against who I am. Constantly asking if this is in contradiction to myself or complement? Do I understand this or do I not understand this? Bringing your upbringing against what you’re experiencing. You need those experiences.”
While on the road for his last album, The Dark Leaves (2010), with Rocky Votolato, he broke his leg just three dates into a three month tour. Nevertheless they maintained their rigorous touring schedule.
“My left leg was twice the size of my other leg. It was pretty crazy. But in the end it was fun. It was such a crazy tour. We were touring with two bands playing as one. I think if I hadn’t broken my leg we would’ve quit the tour. Having a broken leg brought everyone together.”
Over a common impediment.
“Yeah, me. I was the common impediment.”
That difficult tour brought him to St. Augustine. To Cafe 11.
“The week after I broke it, we came here and I fell in love. I’ve always liked Florida.”
And, of course, there is a girl. So he settled into life in St. Augustine, in his own nomadic way, and got to work on his new album: The Lives inside the Lines in Your Hand, to be released on BMG in February.
“Yeah, it’s hard to say. The more bourbon you’ve had the harder it is to say.”
This new record perhaps will represent the nomadic and fragmented Matt Pond as well as any of his previous records. The songs were recorded over three years in upstate New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Austin, and St. Augustine.
“It’s a disjointed thing and it’s like Frankensteining a body back together; a body of music. I like this album. It’s hard to drop your personal criticism from mixing it. You kind of have to hate something when mixing it because you have to find what’s wrong with it and make it better. But I like it now. I mean, I don’t listen to it, but I have to practice the songs and they don’t make me sick.”
Part of Matt’s process seems to be abandonment. Although his writing has obviously found success and a stable fan base, he refuses to settle into a formula.
“Once you understand how something works, it stops working. I thought I knew what I was doing in Philadelphia when I had a formula and a band, and then the weight of it got hard. People have expectations. They want more as something goes along. People start families and playing music is not conducive to a stable life. You have to enjoy that kind of instability. And I do. There is nothing like living in the moment on tour.”
So the fragmentation of Matt Pond is an instability that he insists on maintaining. And it is not only reflected in his nomadic life, but it is likely the aspect of his music that Matt Pond fans identify with most. Life is unstable.
“Every Matt Pond fan likes a different album and they can’t just get together and like the same album.”
However, there is a unity to the discord on which Matt Pond PA thrives, and that unity is Matt Pond himself.
“What songs work together, if you write them all at the same time, they are too much of the same thing. It has to be both broad and connected, in my mind, especially if you’re going to deal with a subject matter, which I try to in each album. Sometimes you stray and go off in different directions, but you want it to be about something.”
Although you cannot hear the new album until its release in February, you can get an early glimpse into the work if you are a Floridian. The first performance of the new set will occur on Friday December 7th at Anchor Boutique on St. George Street. It is an intimate, acoustic show in a really cool spot – the alleyway behind the boutique, which is reminiscent of the old Underbelly in Five Points (for you Jax hipsters). The venue seems an odd one for a performer of Pond’s caliber, but he’s a local right now and Anchor Boutique is the local’s local shop. Fashion designer Laurel Baker makes the jewelry and curates a shop full of exquisite, stylish, and contemporary fashion accessories.
“I think it’s really cool. I’ve seen people play back there and it has a cool feeling. And I love Laurel. She has a great store. It’s a great place in town. It’s going to be strange because it’s people shopping on First Friday. I don’t know if they will be expecting us to play Jimmy Buffet covers, because we will not be playing Jimmy Buffet covers.”
“It’s going to be weird. One of the things we believe in is orchestration. You can do more if you can play your songs in different ways. You can kind of figure them out. [Acoustic] is the way I have to practice them, so it’s cool to force myself to re-acquaint with the songs and get really familiar with them before taking them on tour and just blasting through a set. That is just chaos. This is different. A little exposed.”
Join the club. Make the trek to downtown St. Augustine to marvel at the world-famous Nights of Lights, get in some Christmas shopping, and hear Matt Pond.