Interview by Tobias Carroll
Chad Matheny makes taut, erudite, impossibly catchy pop music under the name Emperor X, and has done so for many years. I first met him through the guys in Oxford Collapse, whose album Bits Matheny would later have a hand in recording. All the while, he’s been writing songs and releasing albums — whether on a number of independent labels or via cassettes that are later buried below the ground. Western Teleport (on Bar/None) is his latest; shortly after its release we caught up via email to talk books, songwriting, and more.
Was the process of writing and assembling Western Teleport any different from your previous albums?
Not more different than any of the other albums are to one another. They all come together in their own way. Western Teleport was the product of three years of half-written songs figuring out how they could finish themselves as songs and then assemble themselves into an album in about eight weeks. It was very frenetic and yet also very careful and paced. I missed a lot of deadlines for getting the record pressed and distributed because I kept delaying the thing until I finished a few last-minute major changes. I’m lucky it came out in 2011 at all. But I’d do all the delaying again — some very major changes happened in the last week of recording.
Has your geocaching project had any effects on how you write or distribute music?
It has not had an effect on how I write or record music — I think music should stand on its own merit. But it has profoundly changed how I look at the distribution and marketing and performance art aspects of the “album release.” The geocache project’s purpose at the outset was to preserve/update the album for the 21st century — not as a suggestion for where all artists needed to take the format, but as a way of keeping myself (and hopefully others) interested in the album as a relevant pop music form. The album remains threatened by single track MP3 downloads, and lots pop musicians, even indie/art-oriented ones, are responding by releasing mixtapes rather than albums. Even things touted as albums play like long collections of singles with no space for breathing, no “boring parts,” and I love the boring parts.
It is not at all clear how listeners will conceptualize pop music a decade or a century from now. It is not at all clear that the album will remain a relevant format, and its disappearance may be a fine thing for history. I don’t see anyone bemoaning the lack of Punch and Judy-style puppet theatre in modern slums. Things come and go, that’s natural and good. But we’re all fortunate to live on one of those interesting boundary condition times when old media formats are being replaced quickly by new ones, and I am attached in my creative process to the album. Burying and geocoding my album’s constituent parts reifies the work in a way that it cannot be reified if it only exists as cloud data or on a mixtape, and that is my response to making work in this transitional time. It seems to be the correct way to make the format in which I choose to work relevant and appropriate for our time.
You’ve been keeping a tour diary on your blog; have you been doing any other non-music writing lately?
Absolutely. I have been for years. I even have a writer pseudonym that I might or might not use if I ever get attention from a publisher. It’s all philosophical/poetical science fiction. I’m somewhat deliberately trying to be like Arthur C. Clarke meets P. K. Dick meets Henry Miller. I am years away from showing this stuff to anyone because it is years away from being any good at all. Right now I’m working on a story involving seven nearly-dead cybernetic dolphins found abandoned in the back of a wrecked U-Haul truck in rural Virginia, if that gives you any idea of the adolescent level of artistic development we’re dealing with here. But I’m getting better, or at least I hope so. If you ever see me on tour before the show scribbling in a notepad or squinting at a laptop that’s not on Facebook, I’m probably writing that stuff. Wish me luck. And pray for those poor dolphins. Their fate remains uncertain.
What have you been reading lately?
One book only: G. G. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, because reading that book takes all of the concentration I can muster. It’s not exactly a page turner, but I like how it makes me feel like I’m watching dirty movies about everyone’s secretly awesome grandparents. In other words, it flirts coyly with the eternal. It gives me that warm Forever feeling that all of my favorite books do.
What are some of the books that have stayed with you over the years?
The Bible. P. D. James’s The Children of Men and the loosely-corresponding Cuaron movie of similar name. The Dune series. Stranger in a Strange Land. The Man in the High Castle. Radio Free Albemuth. Actual Air. The Old Man and the Sea. The Sun Also Rises. Borges’s Ficciones. Too many others to name here, probably more appropriate and accurate ones, these are what came to mind immediately when I queried it for “favorite books that I think about a lot.”
(Photo: Stephanie Gonot)