Raven Matthews. Photo by Ivan Mršić.
There’s a lot of bullshit music floating around on the internet. The fact that any kid with a synthesizer and Soundcloud can produce and disseminate their work in an instant is incredible, but for every M. I. A. or Grimes that burst out of obscurity with groundbreaking sonic experimentalism, there is a veritable mountain of musical garbage to sort through.
Sifting through so much crappy DIY music means that discovering a singular artist can seem like some kind of divine revelation. Such was the case with Raven Matthews.
To be fair, I first saw Raven at a show that I wrote about for this publication, where his girlfriend/creative partner DoNormaal was performing. The recent critical success of Donormaal’s debut, Jump or Die, has helped highlight the work a number of Seattle artists whose shows and multi-platform events have contributed to the creation of a lush underground hi-hop scene. I left the show so struck by Matthew’s set that I immediately went home, got on the internet and listened to both of his albums.
Matthews’ music can be hard to pin down. He’s rooted in hip-hop, but his two releases, Cobain City and King Friday, free-wheel through a sonic landscape that defies easy classification. King Friday is a sticky piece of 8-bit nonsense, the title track off Cobain City is a thrumming funk-pop party jam, Champagne is crunk-rap banger teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and You Don’t Have to Leave is a glitchy, iced-over electro track that sounds like it’s being delivered half-drunk in a shower at 1AM.
The recent critical success of Donormaal’s debut, Jump or Die, has helped highlight the work a number of Seattle artists whose shows and multi-platform events have contributed to the creation of a lush underground hi-hop scene.
Shrugging off casual classifications, Raven Matthews is a testament to what happens when a singular artist is allowed to take their internal world seriously. I recently sat down with Raven in Ballard to talk about moms, his forthcoming album Disco Christ, and why he refuses to apologize for loving pop music.
Sam Chapman: Your music is pretty wide-ranging, how do you describe it to other people when you’re trying to explain what you do?
Raven Matthews: Every time that I have to explain it, it’s hard. I try to give them things to grab onto, like throwing out “experimental hip-hop” or “grunge-pop.” I just throw out all the different words that, if blended together, could label it. I guess what I want to do is try to find new sounds or things that would need to be named- that don’t have a name yet. I guess experimental is the easiest word for me to say because it captures my approach to music.
SC: That makes sense.
RM: I think every genre has experimental versions of itself, phases that are pushing the music to the next level. That’s the place that I want to exist in, at the forefront.
SC: Would you say that’s true of Disco Christ, your newest album?
RM: Yeah. One thing I’m playing with a lot on this next project is combining different sounds from across genres. It kind of moves from something mellow or melancholy, or vulnerable and soft, and it might suddenly go really pop-y or it might get really dark. I love music and I love all types of music, so as an artist I want to try and do it all. I don’t always know what I’m going to do next but even when it’s really new, I want to keep a unifying thread kind of going through all of it.
SC: I notice that a lot with your music. It’s super wide-ranging, but there are consistent sonic and narrative threads that keep it all together.
RM: Yeah, I think that’s definitely purposeful.
SC: You collaborate pretty often with the same group of people, and there’s definitely a sense of you coming out of a specific underground community. Could you talk about that a bit?
RM: DoNormaal and I started going to open mics and stuff, and meeting people there and building with them.
We met a kid named Woftone and started doing shows at his house (The Fortress). That sort of came from the fact that we didn’t have venues to play at, so house shows really became the basis for our movement and community. We call it 69/50. It’s about experimentation and vulnerability and reaching your full potential every time. Everywhere DoNormaal and I go we kind of bring that philosophy with us, which ends up attracting other likeminded artists. I feel like our community is sort of an open invitation, for anyone who wants to put themselves out there in a big way and try something different.
As far as production, my main collaborator is Mario Casalini, and our relationship goes back to kindergarten. We went to a school called AS1 which was a public alternative school that was K-8th, so we went to school there and then we went to the same high school. Our musical relationship started around fourth grade I think. That’s when we both started writing raps together. Eventually he got more into production so we kind of fell into that relationship. We’ve basically just bounced ideas off of each other for so long that it’s developed into an endless partnership.
SC: And you obviously collaborate with Donormaal pretty frequently.
RM: When I went to New York for school I met Christy [Karefa-Johnson, DoNormaal’s real name] and my friend Jay. We started making music together under the name Three Wise Kids and now we’re all doing our own thing, but there’s still that triangular relationship. I think DoNormal has a really wide-ranging sound and I have a really wide-ranging sound. Between the two of us, the 69/50 collective and that philosophy that we’ve built, in college and creating together over the years, we’ve created our own kind of world. And that world has brought me in contact with a lot of other worlds. The recent success of Jump or Die, the way that it has resonated with so many different people across communities and genres, is opening a lot of doors for what we do.
SC: Do you think that sense of community informs the music that you make?
RM: You know, in a way, yes. But in a way I feel a very private need as far as creating. I think when I was younger it made me feel comfortable to be working among other people and not necessarily be the captain of the ship. I was kind of doing my thing but letting other people control the direction of it. But now with my next project, I’m making an attempt to go more into myself and be more involved in everything. I’m trying to be more involved in making the music and I’m doing a lot of home recording by myself. I think I trust myself more than I trust other people’s artistic vision. A lot of the time there’s a slight compromise when collaborating with other people. I’ve noticed with every producer I’ve worked with, there’s always a point where they become a little bit fearful.
SC: How so?
RM: Well my process can be kind of chaotic, and there’s always that fear that exists of going too out there, or creating something that’s not tangible or viable. But that’s something I’m really interested in, pushing pop to that level of insane chaos. I’m very obsessed with myself to be honest, so I like to collaborate but I think my process is very self involved.
SC: You’re music isn’t always overtly political, but there’s definitely a social consciousness that seems to inform a lot of your work. Would you say that’s true?
RM: That’s definitely true. I always feel like I should be pushing more to convey what needs to be said in the world right now. But I’m very drawn to the idea of luxury or celebration so I’m always combining those ideas. I want to give people the freedom to be whatever they want to be, even if it’s something people are afraid of. I think my initial, immature response to everything was to just be like, “the world’s fucked up and I’m fucked up.” But with King Friday, the point was to bring some fun. The world’s not fun, the system isn’t providing joy and support to people, so that’s on us. The more joy you can have, the more you’re resisting, and the freer you are.
I also grew up with three sisters and my mom always talked to us about social justice and systemic oppression, so I think we all have that at our core as a value. Even if I’m not being intentionally political, those feelings are still always there.
SC: Was your family a big musical influence on you?
RM: Yeah. My mom is a singer-songwriter. She started when she was younger but she kind of put her career to the side when she had kids. She’s continued to perform and write though, here in Seattle. My dad is a painter and a percussionist. He’s really into West African drumming and he taught me about drums and stuff like that. My oldest sister is an opera singer, my second-oldest sister is an actress and a screenwriter and my youngest sister is a filmmaker. So music and the arts were my childhood. That was my way of connecting with my siblings and my parents, so music is emotionally tied to them in both cool and un-cool ways.
SC: Like what?
RM: Like my perfectionism. It’s helpful in my music but it can also be very self-destructive, and I think it comes from my desire to really show my parents my value. Obviously they were supportive, but they weren’t always the most complimentary. I think it’s hard for parents because your work can reflect on them in some way, or maybe they’re jealous, and emotions are scary.
SC: Shifting gears a little, tell me about Disco Christ, because it’s coming out really son, right?
RM: Well the name of it came to me in a dream and so I thought maybe it was gonna be kinda disco-y. I was listening to a bunch of stuff and doing my research [laughs].
SC: Like Donna Summer?
RM: Yeah! And then that just didn’t happen. It felt forced. What did come was more grunge-y, a little moody and soft. I had a lot of fun with King Friday, Cobain City was kinda like “fuck the world”, and this is a little more about what I’m feeling- there’s a sadness to it.
SC: Who are some local artists that you think everyone needs to go check out?
RM: Let me see… Ok, well I really like Ashtre Surfa
SC: I really like him!
RM: Yeah I like him a lot. I like Scribes the Verbalist. DoNormaal of course, Wolftone, Astro King Phoenix, Sendai Era. I like the Star Trek Crew. Munkey Do and Lil B Forza, they’re young kids that are the next wave of Seattle music. Also Planet 39 and Mario [Casalini]. Really everyone that I’ve been working with and doing shows with. If you see me doing shows with someone, those are the people I’m excited about.
SC: You draw a lot of inspiration from pop music too, don’t you?
RM: Yeah I love pop music. I like Drake and Kanye and Green Day and everybody. Michael Jackson. James Brown, Rihanna, everybody. I love it all. I’m getting older and not as good about knowing all the new names though. I’m like an old hippie.
SC: You just think everything’s great?
RM: [laughs] I mean not everything’s great but anything can be. I’ve never felt shut out of something because it was pop. I search for stuff that touches me. Pop is about stripping the music down to what’s most important, and I think that’s a skill that a lot of musicians could use. You don’t get caught up on the specifics in pop. It’s more like a spiritual text, like the bible. It doesn’t isolate you from other people with specifics. A lot of underground artists wonder why they’re not getting more popular and it’s like, you need to take a lesson from pop music. If you don’t take a lesson from pop you can’t complain that you’re not getting a wide reception. The fact that I listen to all that music that you thought you were too good for is why my music is good. There’s a reason why those legends are where they are. Obviously you need to speak to who you are though. It’s a balancing act.
SC: [Laughing] I appreciate that you’re honest about knowing that your music is good
RM: You know, I strive for greatness and I’ve noticed that most people don’t allow themselves to want it. I don’t know that many people that allow themselves to say “ I want to play at Coachella in front of 20,000 people, and I’m get there.” If I ever hear people talk like that I know that they’re my friend. You have to develop a shell around your brain so you can keep those thoughts safe and protected. Sometimes you have to be a selfish, egotistical maniac to keep yourself going. I allow myself to want all of it.