Prog, math-rock, jazz, fusion, and experimental electronica are all genres that can alienate an average listener used to short melodic pop tunes and/or rythmically simple dance beats. Yet, Matt Calvert’s primary musical projects, Three Trapped Tigers, and Strobes, manage to make a melange of these styles accessible through punk-like energy, recognizable themes, and military-style precision that somehow still swings.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the guitar?
I did a jazz degree at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. I got really into jazz, especially the compositional side. About halfway into the course I got more and more into FX pedals, collaborating with laptop/electronic performers, working with sound in improv, not so much chord-scale-relation-based solos. I was also more into composition than solos/improv, and different styles: rock and electronic stuff.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
It felt “legit” and valid in terms of taking the music forward. I was surrounded by musicians who revered alternative jazz and experimentation over anything mainstream. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking now. I have always liked plenty of pop and mainstream music, diatonic, “conventional” stuff. I think each end of the spectrum can inform the other and save either from being too inane or self-indulgent.
Luckily for me, I had adventurous listeners for friends. They turned me on to interesting improvisers, composers and producers. Often I’d get really into a label: within the jazz/improv field it was Screwgun/Thirsty Ear with Tim Berne and Craig Taborn, and Rune Grammofon. I loved Supersilent, Food, Humcrush, and Arve Henriksen’s solo records. Rock wise I was introduced to Lightning Bolt, the Locust, and Sigur Ros. Everyone I knew was getting into Ableton, Logic and making electronic music too, so everything on Warp Records got played to death, especially Squarepusher, Aphex, Authechre, Flying Lotus, and Hudson Mohawke.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
As well as the aforementioned artists, some contemporary albums that have made an impression on me are: Actress’ Splazsh, Portishead’s Third, Caribou’s Our Love, Hudson Mohawke’s Butter, Flying Lotus’ L.A., Grizzly Bear ‘s Yellow House, Final Fantasy’s (Owen Pallot) He Poos Clouds, Interpol’s Antics, Danny Brown’s XXX, Kendrick Lamar’s GOOD Kid, MAAD City, Death Grips’ Ex Military, and lots of other stuff. My favorite artists have an immediately identifiable sound, and do something interesting while moving you emotionally.
How did Three Trapped Tigers come about?
I met [keyboardist] Tom Rogerson through mutual friends. He wanted to make a ‘live electronica’ kind of thing. Adam Betts was obviously the right drummer to emulate the drill’n’bass style programming (indeed, he now plays with Squarepusher). I was more a dogsbody, covering guitar, synth, and laptop. My role became more defined as we went on. The first TTT EP we did sounds quite indie compared to everything that has come since, with a lot of piano and hardly any synth, jammed drum parts, and guitar just making a racket. From the second EP on it became heavier, more focused, more synthy and electronic, and I was writing more, including lots of the drum parts. I wrote most of the last album (Silent Earthling), as well as producing and mixing it.
Do feel the vocals add extra humanity among all the electronic sounds?
That’s the idea. It also helps when we have run out of hands. For a while I wasn’t really that into it, but I think it adds something cool. It’s a good texture for cutting through loads of synths and guitar noise too.
What do you think the guitar offers as a sound source that you can’t get from keyboards?
It has a little unpredictability and is organic, certainly in comparison to synths. Even if you use tons of pedals, the guitar (and the Rhodes actually) is still an acoustic sound to start with, which already makes it different to an electronically produced wave. Feedback and how you manipulate strings, or even just things like hitting the body or neck are things I can’t quite get from synths. And vice versa, there are synth things you can’t get on guitar, but I try to emulate them. In Strobes, Dan Nicholls’ keyboard playing is very clean and clipped. I’m often trying to provide the opposite effect: sloppy, noisy, and un-jazzy.
What is your TTT gear setup?
I used just a 2006 US Standard Tele until this year. Now I have a new 2014 Jazzmaster.
Live, I use an Orange Rockerverb and a 2×12 cab, but I’ve used a different amp for every recording. On Silent Earthling I used Amp Sims (Waves GTR, Scuffham Amps S-Gear) and then re-amped into my Orange, but sometimes I thought the plugin sounded better so I left it. I don’t know what’s what on the album now.
I’ve used the same pedals for a while: a Digitech Whammy, a ProCo RAT/Big Muff; Boss’ OC3 octaver, DD5 delay, and RV5 reverb; EHX’s Ring Mod, an EHX Memory Man and a RE201 Roland Space Echo for delays, and a HEXE Revolver for some glitchy effects. I used the Moog Phaser for some bits. There was the occasional patch from a Line 6 M9; their Particle Verb on “Elsewhere” and some pitch stuff that’s more flexible than the Whammy for the detuned stuff on “Kraken.” The reverbs were mostly plugins: Max For Live Convolution Reverb and Magnetic, Waves RVerb, and even the native Ableton Reverb.
I never have the amp clean. As a result I think the sound has an old-school feel in spite of any digital effects.
I was concentrating so much on the synth arrangements for this album that I wasn’t as adventurous as I’d have liked to have been with the guitars. The guitar parts did become a bit more ambitious in terms of pedal combinations, which meant I needed a more flexible live setup, so now I have a Line 6 Helix with a few extra pedals on the FX Sends/Returns. It’s amazing what it can do, and the MIDI capability means I hardly have to touch my laptop on the gig. Even though I got it as a solution, I think the Helix will be great for creating new sounds and inspiring new parts.
For synths and keys we have predominantly used a Roland SH101, Roland Juno 6 and Rhodes until the last album, for which we added an old Korg MS20, Moog Rogue and Korg MonoPoly. Live, we now use 100% plugins: TAL Bassline 101 and UNO (both of which are very accurate Roland sims and cheap), and Korg MS20/MonoPoly sims.
What determines which guitar you use?
Laziness mostly, I’ve never done too much searching for the right thing. Laziness and what looks cool. I generally prefer single coils – they have a character I like that comes through when the effects are piled on. I try to avoid too jazzy a sound. A lot of the sound for TTT is from the amp and pedals. I added a Tune-o-matic Bridge and had some work done on my Jazzmaster so it stays in tune. It has hot Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder pickups and plays nice—and it looks cool.
Are you running your guitar through any synths?
No, but I’d like to get into MIDI Guitar by Jam Origin to start controlling MIDI stuff with guitar. I still have a spare send/return on the Helix so I could layer the guitar sound with synth/sampler instruments, or play synth sounds into my guitar amp, or just use a bunch of Ableton effects as part of the virtual chain into the amp. To be honest, I prefer fewer options, but I’m going to start exploring. Another thing I’d like to start doing is sequencing guitar effects from Ableton.
What are you using for looping?
I used to have just a Boss RC20. There’s a looper on the Helix, but I don’t use it in the TTT set currently. For short loops and glitches I use the Boss DD5 hold mode.
How did Strobes happen, and how does that band’s music differ from TTT?
I recorded and mixed an album of Dan Nicholls’ music (Ruins) that was very much in the Downtown NY jazz mold of Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, et al. We did some post production stuff on it, and during the process he decided that he wanted to make a more electronic, beats-driven, less jazzy band, so I said I was up for playing and it went from there.
Like TTT, Strobes’ music is also instrumental, mathy, electronic, but nowhere near as heavy. It is quite hectic—lots of fast tempos, brainy but strangely accessible in some ways. Compositionally I don’t really contribute, it’s pretty much all Dan’s material. His harmonic, rhythmic and melodic approach is very distinct and different from mine. It’s quirky, very interesting writing. A big factor is also the personnel; Dan is a totally different player than Tom Rogerson, and Joshua Blackmore is a totally different drummer than Adam Betts.
Compared to TTT it’s way more open, with more improvised passages and some solos, although I think we all want to start working towards an approach to improvising that isn’t reliant on soloistic lines/features and is more about sound and textures than melody and harmony, without descending into typical free crap—rhythm is a real signature of the band.
I think my role is more in shaping the compositions and arrangements, often via production. Technically demanding music has the potential to be quite clinical so I’m always trying to bring a noisier, messier, raw edge to it with my guitar playing and live sampling. For example, on the Strobes album the solos at the end of “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “World GB” aren’t typical jazz solos.
What is your Strobes set up?
Similar to TTT, either the Tele or Jazzmaster, whatever amp is going, and whatever pedals, often a Line 6 M9, but I’ll start using the Helix soon.
How are you using the Laptop in Strobes?
The guitar isn’t connected (yet). I have a mic that points at the drum kit, and can occasionally grab exposed bits of keyboard, and manipulate the audio through a big chain of Ableton effects and plugins that I have mapped to a controller. It’s pretty raw, sometimes it works really well, sometimes not so much. I’m quite keen to develop this role. On the Strobes album, this is what you hear at the end of “Winder,” throughout “BRKSPK,” and on ‘“Guns, Germs and Steel.”
I started doing this kind of thing years ago, and did quite a lot of it with the band MA, who made some cool records: a studio album called The Last, and a live album too. The setup has remained very similar and could do with a reboot.
How are you chopping the guitar in the Strobes Brokespeak video?
That’s the Hexe Revolver.
How have you built up an audience for your music? Who do you think your fans are?
It’s very early days for Strobes, but the reaction we’ve had so far is really encouraging, so I’m excited to get our album out. We have attracted a decent following for TTT. We never wanted to appeal purely (if at all) to jazz audiences, or the “musician culture” audience. I think our manager Simon, who until recently released all our music on his label Blood & Biscuits, has been great for broadening our fan base. It is still very niche music, which in some ways makes it easier to reach our target audience than if we were a pop band. It helps that there are also now some festivals dedicated to our kind of thing, like the amazing ArcTanGent.
We haven’t added lyrics or more straightforward beats which would’ve definitely increased our appeal, so we know the fans are real, dedicated, nerdy fans of alternative music, people who like post rock, math rock, electronica, some indie, jazz/improv, prog. I’m sure many are musicians. I think a lot of people like a wide range of stuff these days, as everything is so easily accessed.
Who else would you like to collaborate with and why?
As I write, I’m in Kristiansand, Norway for Punkt Festival. TTT played back in 2012 and it’s an honor to be here again. I’d love to work with the organizers Jan Bang and Erik Honore, who inspired me to get into live sampling. I saw Erik do an amazing live remix last night, and earlier this year saw Jan in London with Arve Henriksen and Eivind Aarset (all four of them did the amazing live remix of our 2012 concert. Both were really inspirational sets, and made me want to get into doing more improvisation. In 2013, we were fortunate enough to play with Ståle Storlokken, the amazing keyboard player from Supersilent and Humcrush, and will play again with him in Feb 2017 at Punkt London. I would happily do a more formal project with him; he’s my favorite synth player. To be honest I’m lucky to have met so many great musicians in London whom I’ve become friends with and want to work with more.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
The Strobes album Brokespeak will be out on Blood & Biscuits in November, hopefully. With TTT we’re still touring our latest album Silent Earthling.
I have a few other projects in various stages of development. The one that really I’m excited about is going to be an almost classically-tinged instrumental record with lots of acoustic instruments—cello, piano, vibraphone, percussion—contrasted with programmed elements, dark synths, and some guitar. I want it to be lighter than TTT, and largely beautiful, but still edgy. It might be released as Evil Ex, under which I put out an EP called Bygones a while back.
A mix tape of slightly dark and melancholic funk tracks that I’ve been gradually putting together for years should be done soon. I also want to complete a batch of songs, with actual lyrics. I really want to get an improv-heavy project going. Usually I’m trying to cement things—composition, arrangements, a “band sound”—so it would be great to take away some control. I don’t want to give my ideas away before I do them, but I think it will involve lots of live sampling, percussion and sequenced synths. I have l too many ideas for bands and projects; I just need to actually DO some of them now!