Features | Interviews

Emperor X

By Peter Hepburn | 1 May 2005

Chad Matheny (aka Emperor X) doesn't make "Great Music." There are not great orchestral structures to be found on his latest album, Central Hug/Fractaldunes/Friend Army, no technical training, no state of the art recording techniques and no high-brow pretension. Instead, he makes music that is not only easy to relate to, but often carries more emotional weight than the Great Musicians of today.

Central Hug is one of those albums you find yourself flipping back to time and again just because it's a great listen. Yeah, it's simple, sounds awful occasionally, and has its weak moments, but the same could be said of Slanted and Enchanted. CMG's Peter Hepburn caught up with Matheny a few weeks back while he was still on tour. Here's how it went down.

CMG's Peter Hepburn (CMG): Where are you guys on the road at this point?
Emperor X's Chad Matheny (CM) : We’re in Reno.

CMG: Well, how about you just go ahead and introduce yourself and explain what Emperor X is.
CM: Well, I’m Chad and Emperor X is my solo stuff that I write, and when I go on tour it’s my friends and me. Basically it’s just me and whatever random recording equipment and instruments I can pull together.

CMG: How did you get started doing these solo recordings?
CM: My granddad taught me to play a couple of guitar chords, and I’ve been playing piano since I was a little kid. My mom put my highchair up at an organ and let me bang at it when I was three. Anyways, my friend Patrick let me borrow his karaoke machine and I figured out how to make one recording on the karaoke machine and then record over it, so I was using the karaoke machine sort of like a four-track. This is before I knew what a four-track was. Then I heard Sebadoh and went crazy and figured out what four-tracks were and my dad and I found one at a pawn shop. He taught me how to bargain that day too, it was pretty fun. Then, that was it. Once I had a four-track that was it. I spent almost every summer in high school in my room, either watching TV, which is what everyone does during the summer in high school, which sucks, or like in my room doing four-track stuff. Then I just graduated up to getting more stuff when I had jobs that allowed me to get more stuff.

CMG: What did you record Fractaldunes on?
CM: It was a Tascam 388 that I’m really glad I got all the songs done, because right after I finished, the thing completely stopped working. I always work on equipment that’s kind of about to break. I’d like to change that some day. Finding old analog stuff that still works is kinda hard, and when you do it’s really expensive, so I like to get stuff that still sorta works but almost doesn’t. So yeah, that was mostly recorded on a Tascam 388, which is an analog tape machine. It’s a quarter inch, reel-to-reel, and then I did some other stuff on the laptop with it. I did some post-editing and some recording on a Toshiba laptop.

CMG: Do you see going to a bit more of a hi-fi sound at some point?
CM: I put out a CD prior to this [Tectonic Membrane], and I’d like to think that this one sounds a bit better as far as the recording quality, and I’m always trying to get it to sound better. I just think that high fidelity vs. low fidelity is really something that’s going to fall by the way-side because now recording technology… There was an evolutionary process for awhile. As the technology got better, the fashionable sound was the most high fidelity sound, which was a term that came about in the ‘50s or ‘60s to talk about speaker response. But as far as when you record, nowadays there are so many different technologies and we’ve arrived at how good it’s going to get. We can record a sound and reproduce it almost exactly as the human ear hears it. It’s just scientific limits. We have speakers and equipment that can reproduce at between 50 and 22,000 Hz, and anything above or below that, the human ear really isn’t going to hear. Our sampling rate is so high that you can’t hear any discreet changes in tone because we sample faster than the brain even comprehends now. So basically we’ve arrived at as hi-fi as we’re gonna get. The point of all this is that there are basically just a bunch of colors now that people can pick from. If you want to sound like the ‘50s you can chop off the high end. If you want to sound like now you can make it all compressed and put some of that Cher evener thing on the vocals. It’s all color from here on out.

To answer your question: I don’t know.

CMG: Who would you say are some of the big influences on your sound? You mentioned Sebadoh, but what are some of the others?
CM: I was laid up in the hospital once, when I was like 15 or 16 and my good friend bought me a walkman and my grandma bought me Sebadoh and Pavement tapes, which makes her probably the raddest grandma ever. So, that kinda was a huge pivotal time for me, and it was a good time to get into them cause it was still very active. I got really psyched on them. My friends played me all the good traditional stuff that people say, like the Velvet Underground. I also had this habit of going to this record store near my house and they had this tape bargain bin which was tapes from anywhere from a dollar to as low as 10 cents when they were in a good mood. I was always sifting through that, and I got a bunch of crap, but I found a Gang of Four tape in there, I found this guy named Fad Gadget who I really don’t know that much about still, and most of his late albums are really bad, but it he one of Mute Records first big guys. He was like this visceral synth-pop guy from the early ‘80s. I got into a bunch of weird stuff from the tape bargain bin. I got into a bunch of reject ‘80s stuff that the music store couldn’t sell.

CMG: What have you been listening to out on the road?
CM: Our friend made us this tape of dance music, and it’s funny because it seems like a lot of the creative energy that was in punk has kind of drifted over into IDM. We’ve been listening to some of that. Also a bunch of sound effects tapes and this Neil Hamburger’s Great Phone Calls tape, which is about a half hour long and we’ve memorized it, every prank phone call. Pretty much just bands that we play with, if they have tapes. There’s this awesome band from Bloomington, Indiana called Dust from a Thousand Years, and we’ve listened to that tape at least four times. There’s a lot of good music being made today that no one’s ever going to hear, which is kinda sad and kinda exciting.

CMG: How big is the band that you’re touring with?
CM: It’s three of us, and we all fit into a Subaru, which is something that we’re quite proud of. On the stage it’s pretty standard till the end, when it explodes. I’ll play keyboard and guitar, Adam plays drums and Mark plays bass. On the last song we all trade up and we play different things and I pick up two guitars and start grinding them against each other. We try to make the last song like an explosion. We have a lot of fun when we play live.

CMG: Going into this record, how did your ideas of writing and recording change?
CM: They really didn’t. If you listen to the two albums they sound kinda similar. I guess I was a little better about recording quality this time, and I was a little more conscious about album flow. This one guy who writes for Copper Press, his name is Jedd Beaudoin, I guess he sort of liked it, but he dissed the first CD because he said it was scattershot and all over the place. I thought about that and that’s kinda what I do anyway, and why would I change that just cause that guy says it. Instead of making an aesthetic out of trying to fix it so he’d like it, I was sorta like, “screw it.” The aesthtic is scattershot and randomness, which is sorta cliche, people have done that before.

How I look at it is that whenever I write, how I do it is that the words flow out of my mouth based on what’s happening in my life at the time. Whenever you do that, over five or 10 or 20 songs, and then you select the songs, you can kinda see a picture of what was happening in your life at that time. It’s like a pointillist painting or underexposing a photograph. The longer you expose it to light, the more clarity comes out in the picture. The more songs that you do, even if it sounds random, if you do enough songs over time you begin to see patterns of what’s happening in your life. I was consciously doing this on the second one as opposed to unconsciously doing it on the first one.

CMG: Why all the titles for the album?
CM: Similar reasons. They all have meanings to various degrees, but not necessarily linear. The title is more about the cover of the album than anything. It’s basically this messed up SimCity grid, the terra former, and on the top are three silhouettes of guys wearing what looks like a wing, which is exactly what it is. It’s three of my friends and we basically made a wing out of a tarp from Wal-Mart and a bunch of junk we found and when Hurrican Frances was bearing down on Florida we went to the dunes and tried to fly each other. We roped some mountain climbing gear onto the wing and tried to jump off the dunes and catch some air. It didn’t really work at all, but it was a lot of fun.

One of the currents that runs through the CD is the fun things we do together. It’s about experiencing a place and being able to shake yourself out of the everyday way of thinking. If you’re in DC, instead of going to the monuments, going and taking a bike ride out to the reservoir out on canal trail.

How that relates, hmm, let’s see. Central Hug is something among friends. Friendarmy/Fractaldunes, that’s pretty obvious.

CMG: I really like the song “Citizens of Wichita” and I was wondering where the line, “is there no community college in your county?” comes from.
CM: That’s about Lawrence, Kansas, and about a friend of mine that lives there, and she has wanted to go to college forever and I think, if I’m not mistaken, that she lives in Douglas County in Kansas. As far as she and I know, there’s no community college there. The closest one is in Oberlin Park, which is a pretty big drive. That whole song is about this song that I took from Wichita to its airport, which is only about five or six miles, but it was late of night, and I had just finished visiting her and I was pretty emotional, and I basically walked around Wichita and saw these kids playing in the mountains and it was more hard-to-describe and beautiful experiences of my life so far.

CMG: I’m sure you’ve gotten this plenty, but what’s your favorite song on Either/Or?
CM: I really don’t remember much about Either/Or. That’s the one with “Speed Trials,” right? That’s a great song. They had a 7” single for that which had a rad b-side. I’m not a super-huge Elliott Smith fan, but that line is more supposed to be a cliche. Yeah, everyone has had that experience, everyone has been pissed at the world and lay crying on their bed listening to their favorite album, and Either/Or happened to come to mind.

CMG: What is the song “Ainseley” about?
CM: Oh god, you want me to talk about this one? I’ll do it as unashamed as I can. I was a substitute teacher and there was this girl and…anyways, this song shouldn’t imply anything about actions that I think are right. I don’t think it’s cool for a teacher to do something with one of their students. I’m 26, that’s messed up. What it’s about is me and also a friend of mine, who had a similar experience as a youth pastor. It’s basically just a sort of resigned sadness, and it could be any sort, but in this case it’s age. It could be that someone lives in Iceland and you live in Sri Lanka. You can kinda just feel when two people like each other and it just doesn’t work out. It’s a just reason, and a fine reason, but there’s a sadness and, not to sound cheesy, a beauty about it. As long as you know nothing can happen, it’s just sort of cool.

CMG: Where does your interest in public transportation come from?
CM: when I went to school in DC, the main reason I was psyched about it was because of the metro. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida and I can’t drive ‘cause I was in an accident that messed up my vision. I can still bike and stuff, but I just barely can’t pass the test and I’ve always been ticked about that. I’ve been grateful for other reasons. Even before that I was obsessed with modernist, futurist versions of cities and all the cool things you can do when you plan a city centrally. Part of that is subways as moving platforms; it was always inspiring to me. That’s the “Right to the Rails” thing.

On the last tour I made a video. I’d drag my friends to the mass transit. We’d go to Detroit and ride the dinky little loop around the city. We’d go to New Orleans and it’s this free little thing downtown. If there’s anything I’m a nerd about, well in high school it was Star Trek, and it still is to some degree, but now it’s really [mass transit]. We don’t all have to have cars that suck massive amounts of insurance money from our wallets every month and deplete non-renewable resources. There are just so many more interesting ways of organizing the world than how we have it now. Pick any city without a public transportation city, like Wichita or Reno, and then divide it and pretend that it’s New York and drop a subway line in and name all the stops and it’s really cool. Start thinking about what your city would be like with a subway system and it starts to have this new sense to it.

CMG: Do you have plans for the next record?
CM: The new CD that I’m going to be working on-I’ve got a bunch of stuff done for it-but I’m gonna try and do it all live instead of doing multi-tracking. I’m trying to reject the multi-tracking for an album and see how it comes out. Tom Waits does that-pretty much everything on a Tom Waits CD is live.