Vain In Costume: Interview with Matt Korvette

Since hearing Pissed Jeans’ first EP early in 2005, I had seen photos and videos of their performances. Aside from the music being some of the moist poignant confrontation within punk and hardcore in the 2000’s, something about Matt Korvette’s stage presence had its own gravitas. As a performer, Korvette’s delivery warbles violently between Calvin Johnson’s passive murmur from the Black Candy era, and what Lux Interior would have sounded like if he ever found a New Kind of Kick. Nothing about a greasy, writhing, lanky man melodramatically lamenting about cum sounds like a visual experience to go out of your way for, but I did when they finally performed in Chicago in 2008. My expectations were exceeded.

Five years later, Pissed Jeans came to Chicago again on a tour promoting the release of Honeys, the latest of three LPs they’ve written since signing with Sup Pop in 2006.  Again, performing at the Empty Bottle, I briefly touched base with Matt before their set, to put a face with the interview I had started a few weeks before their tour launched. From what I gathered, Korvette enjoyed stopping through and playing in Chicago, though his motivation to tour isn’t what it used to be. To quote, “wake up, eat at a greasy diner, sit in a car for six hours, load gear and soundcheck, wait around, play, then go to bed at like 3 am and wake up five or six hours later. Very unhealthy, and a weird mix of constantly being surrounded by other people but also feeling isolated. I don’t know how some people do it for weeks on end.” Aside from that, the only things that had changed between 2008 and 2013 were the band’s collective cohesion and intensity.

Korvette is a well-documented man. The interest in interviewing him for Anobium was a coupling of my pre-existing respect for him as a performer, along with knowing that Honeys was soon to be released. A critical issue I had with most of what I read about Korvette before interviewing him was a consistently staged dichotomy—How could a guy who worked as a claims adjustor be such a wild performer too? AND he’s a dad?

What’s abundantly clear in reading the lyrics Korvette writes for Pissed Jeans is that his life isn’t as compartmentalized as most might perceive. Like any responsible artist, his lyrics focus on any and all experiences he’s encountered in life that are in some way remarkable to him. Peripherally, situations he addresses in songs like Cafeteria Food and The Jogger also represent a time and place in culture. It doesn’t matter if the experiences come from the office, or in an empty room with no lights on. I was able to discuss with him the all-encompassing impact music has had on his life as performer, critic, and publisher.

How did music and performance become such a large part of your life?

I’ve always been pretty obsessed with music, from as early as I can remember. It’s always been my main passion. I got into metal in elementary school, buying tapes and listening to them over and over again, then more alternative stuff by middle school, and eventually punk/hardcore in high school, which was the real eye-opener in my musical progression. I started playing in bands by 9th grade, either singing or playing bass, and have continued. I haven’t not been in a band since I was 14 or so, it’s just always something I’ve done. Just one of those things I just completely click with, and can’t imagine not having it in my life.

Pissed Jeans released Throbbing Organ/Night Minutes in 2004. How did it feel to come back as a vocalist after playing bass with The Gate Crashers for a few years prior?

I always felt like more of a vocalist than a bassist. I’m a bit of a ham, and not particularly musically talented. Playing bass in the Gatecrashers was a secondary thing for me, which was part of the fun. I think my bass playing peaked in 2001, when the Gatecrashers toured the West Coast, and it slowly declined since then. I actually am playing bass again now in another group though, fronted by the pro-wrestler Ultramantis Black. Hopefully we’ll be recording soon.

One of your earliest ventures into music performance was as the vocalist for The Ultimate Warriors, which kept no part of your wrestling patronage a secret. What’s it like to channel that directly once again?

Wrestling is just something that has always appealed to me, on some base level. Something about its larger-than-life quality, its goal of entertainment and showmanship, and its distorted reality I’ve always enjoyed. Ultramantis Black is probably the most important pro-wrestler of this decade, so it’s really quite an honor to be backing him up.

What initiated the slow, heavy style Pissed Jeans is known for? Aside from being completely different than anything you had been involved with prior, it was also distinct from other records being put out by Parts Unknown (and other punk labels) in the 00’s.

From the very start, we wanted to be different, and to not sound like the other bands we knew, and were playing shows with. We wanted to be bad, we wanted to suck. Not in a way that meant we were faking it, but just to be really loose, to write really simple songs that were beneath our presumed talent level, and just let personality and character shine through, more than anything else. We were also getting heavier into the slower, stupider punk/hardcore groups that didn’t fit the mold back in the day.

You’re frequently associated with a certain strand of the early 80’s punk canon, but have developed latent strands of influence with each new release. How do you feel about the music of Throbbing Organ Pissed Jeans, compared to the Honeys Pissed Jeans?

I feel like our most recent record is definitely more pro, as far as the recording and skill level of the songs and that sort of thing. I think it’s still pretty squarely Pissed Jeans, though. Something like Cafeteria Food would’ve made sense on our first demo, and a song like Night Minutes would’ve fit on Honeys, too. I think we established what we were all about pretty early on, there’s a lot of room to work within that frame.

Your lyrics reference acute personal experience or narrative.

From an outsider perspective, being direct and specific in my lyrics is a way to build a framework that people can relate to. That was never an intention of mine, though. When the band started, I wanted to write sour, depressed (and) sort of sexual-based songs. From there it branched out to anything that I find myself thinking about, things that affect my daily life, or things that I find interesting or frustrating. I think it’s a pretty great opportunity, singing in a band, and one that I wouldn’t want to waste by just writing generic stuff that no one will think twice about. “Life sucks, fuck the cops, the world is fucked” type of punk/hardcore gospel. I have a chance to actually speak my mind, so why waste it? Lyrics are fun, I love coming up with ideas.

Has your background in punk influenced how you receive musicians and groups outside of related genres?

Probably, but I’d like to think I can appreciate music and art outside of a punk mindset. Things like doing it yourself, and being true to yourself without compromise are somewhat rooted in punk, and I definitely look for those same attributes in all sorts of artists. Career musicians, or even worse, failed career musicians, always kind of boggle me. I can’t relate.

Showmanship is obviously something you give a lot of attention to, and seem to be critical of in others. Has an entertaining performance saved face for what was otherwise a horrible set?

Well, we’ve frequently had technical issues when playing live, be it a busted amp, busted guitar, stoned drummer who plays too slow or pukes, or microphone that stops working. It’s a common occurrence. I have come to appreciate it in a way, in that it disrupts the normal flow, and can lead to new opportunities. I love finding ways to be interesting or entertaining when other forces conspire against us.

I can’t help but also think of the time that our old bassist, Dave, went naked from the waist down at a show in DC. The power blew, and we had to stand there for about 15 minutes, waiting for it to be fixed. He must’ve been pretty uncomfortable, just letting it swing on stage without any music.

Are extreme emotions like sexuality, depression, and anxiety difficult to express without being generically sensual, angry, or violent?

I suppose. But at the same time, words eventually lose their meaning, and just become sounds. There was probably a point when you heard the band name Gorilla Biscuits and had to mentally deduce that it refers to gorilla poop, but at some point it becomes these two meaningless words that just flow together out of your mouth – the meaning is gone. I feel like lyrics can be the same way. You can still feel them if you want to think about it, but you can also just say them and ignore whatever deeper meaning they may have.

Is anything about music as a profession any more or less obtuse than pursuing a career within other forms of art?

I don’t know. I am not well versed in other forms of art, but as an outsider, I can say that it seems kind of crazy that artists can receive thousands of dollars for a single painting and be looked at as underground and subversive and cool, but musicians basically have to accept that everyone steals their shit, and just be thankful anyone is listening at all. Maybe there are just too many of us. Either way, I consider myself an artist, and would feel odd relying on it in order to survive. Don’t get me wrong, I love money, and want as much as I can possibly carry. I think it’s useful to toil in work that isn’t meaningful or thrilling in order to be able to freely create on my spare time.

How important is aesthetic to you as a performer?

Probably more important than most. Although I don’t think my performance aesthetic is particularly narrow. I’m down for it to be happy, sad, angry, thrilling, hilarious, painful, anything, so long as it’s somewhat entertaining. The last thing I want to do as a performer is lose the audience’s interest.

korvette_3

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Matt performing with Pissed Jeans at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 2013

With Pissed Jeans releases, the album art and promotional material seems thoroughly considered. All of the albums have their own visual feel. How satisfying is it to see such specific ideas realized?

I’ve personally come up with all the artwork concepts, more or less. As a band we discuss them, but the initial idea has come from me. I think it’s really important to come up with art that offers a new perspective to the music, a sort of visual unifier for a group of songs. I generally like scenes and images that are so close to being right, but are slightly off in some way as to make them provocative. I am proud of all the art we’ve had so far, at least on the albums. Even the art that wasn’t as special, I’m still glad it exists as it does.

PJ_LPs

Your record label White Denim has released twenty records in the past 12 years, the output being incredibly diverse. Collectively, what does the White Denim catalog realize?

Pretty much my own personal taste, and music that fascinates me. Pretty much every artist I’ve released isn’t just an artist I like, but one that intrigues me, one that I really wanted more of. I try to release records that wouldn’t have existed otherwise – I don’t want to just be the sixth label in line to work with a band, I want to do something that otherwise wouldn’t be.

Some of the artists you’ve put albums out for have had interesting trajectories since then. How does that impact you as a music publisher?

There’s been a number of bands I’ve done records with that have gone on to bigger success: Eddy Current went on to Goner, Mi Ami went on to Thrill Jockey, Nice Nice went to Warp, Daughn Gibson went to Sub Pop, Air Conditioning went on to Load… I think my tastes are sometimes ahead of the curve, when it comes to weirder music, and the stuff I really enjoy. Perhaps surprisingly, I’d say it has done little to increase White Denim’s profile as a label, and that’s probably because I don’t cater to any one specific audience. I’m not a minimal techno label, or a crust punk label, or a no-wave label. Generally, people have such narrow views, which sucks. I also spend essentially zero dollars on promotion – either word of mouth will spread around a record I release, or it won’t.

What has owning a label taught you about the dynamic of the music/record industry over the past 12 years?

Very little, because I feel like I don’t really operate within the music industry. Maybe it has taught me that good taste is probably the last thing that matters in being successful. For my own sanity, I just go into any new record I’m releasing with the thought that I won’t see a dollar back on it, which gives me the mental freedom to just enjoy having put out a record. It’s definitely a labor of love, but I really do love it.

Aesthetic is something you pay a lot of attention to in other areas, specifically fashion. What about a particular designer or collection first drew you into that realm?

I have always been interested in how I look and dress. I found out about some designers that were pushing things pretty far, but also unique and not just falling into a generic stereotype, and I just got into it and went from there. My tastes in fashion and clothes are always slowly changing.

Matt on stage at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 2013. Pant: Surface to Air, Boot: Carol Christian Poell

Matt on stage at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 2013. Pant: Surface to Air, Boot: Carol Christian Poell

You have been a contributor to Spin for just over a year now, and your articles make associations between fashion and music. Historically, music has impacted fashion in distinct ways, and through popular culture, music has become a target platform for some of the fashion industry. Why do you think that connection is so strong?

I think people just always look up to rock star celebrities or whatever for some sort of cultural guidance, or styles to emulate. It’s all about being larger-than-life, or pushing forward, establishing a trend. I can’t imagine Guns n’ Roses getting big if they were wearing Izod shirts and khaki pants, you know? The image is a big part of the fantasy, and the fun.

You have been writing critical reviews of music and interviews with musicians at your blog Yellow Green Red for just over four years now. What do you take away from some of the exchanges you’ve had with musicians, labels and readers from YGR?

Well, mostly I get pretty good feedback, which is great. I just really enjoy being able to write in a very honest, genuine voice. I don’t dumb down my reviews, and generally go with a lot of assumptions of the readers’ knowledge, which is fine, because those are the reviews I like reading the most myself, even if I don’t get every reference the writer makes. I feel like music is one form of art I am pretty well versed in, and have a good basis to offer my own criticism. Plus, I just love records, and they’re fun to talk about and celebrate and get excited over.

It’s still pretty early, but how is the 2013 Year In Review shaping up?

I know it’s May, but it seems like the year just arrived. I’m excited for the release of Daughn Gibson‘s second album, looking forward to visiting Sweden for the first time, hoping to buy some new leather pants and go to the beach more than just once…

Pissed Jeans being picked up by Sub Pop has opened up opportunities for the band, including an overseas tour, and more recently an official show at this year’s SXSW. What are some observations you had concerning the festival dynamic, the crowd, and the industry presence?

Well, SXSW is a disgusting industry shit-show, but anyone who doesn’t already know that by now is either super naive or a fool. Our deal is basically that we will play any show we are offered that involves free flights and hotel, so we take the opportunity to enjoy a free short vacation, play music, try a restaurant or two and just visit new places. To try to participate in SXSW as some sort of effort to “make it” is pretty gross, but bands acting gross in hopes of getting popular is nothing new. And yeah, I think Sub Pop signing us did more to legitimize us to the world than anything else. It was like, suddenly we had to be taken seriously, because we had their stamp of approval. I can’t thank them enough for that, because we probably would’ve just broken up and done some other new band by now if it wasn’t for them.

Pissed Jean’s rapid momentum with the release of Honeys this year hasn’t dissuaded Matt from making some new (and currently unreleased) recordings with Ultramantis Black. My guess on what it sounds like is as good or worse than yours.

Matt at White Denim
Matt at Yellow Green Red
Matt at Spin
Pissed Jeans at Sup Pop

Photography provided by (and interview conducted by) Jacob van Loon

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