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Matthew E. White Talks International Upbringing, New ‘Outer Face Edition’ of His Debut Album

Shawn Brackbill

Part jazz aficionado, part folk-tinged gospel crooner, Matthew E. White lays out expansive arrangements of soulful rock with avant-garde infusions. The native of Richmond, Virginia, has a résumé that boasts collaborations with Sharon Van Etten, the Mountain Goats and Justin Vernon, and his sprawling 2012 debut record, ‘Big Inner,’ introduced him as a powerful musician in his own right. It also got him signed to Domino Records, and earlier this week, the renowned indie label issued ‘Big Inner: Outer Face Edition,’ an expanded set complete with five brand-new songs.

‘Big Inner’ initially arrived via White’s own Spacebomb, a label and studio space that features the singer and his friends as a literal house band in a Richmond attic. The new version is more than just a reissue of year-old work. It allowed White to enhance the production with five additional tracks that prove just as smart and richly pieced together as the originals.

Touring under his own name for the first time, White chatted with Diffuser.fm while en route to El Paso as the opening act for Okkervil River. He talked about how his dynamic family background and international upbringing have influenced his music and shared some memories on the road.

Having grown up in both Virginia and in the Philippines, what are some your earliest musical memories?

Growing up, my dad was the principal of the school I was attending, so I had access to the band room. I started playing drums a little bit and guitar, then I started to work out from there. I really started all this in sixth grade, though, just playing around on drums and guitar at home and in school in Virginia.

You have a lot of religious themes in your music, which isn’t surprising, since your parents were Evangelical Christian missionaries in Manila. How do you think your religious background fits into your songwriting? 

We lived there when I was three until about age eight. And I think just being a songwriter, everything is a collage of your past mixed with your imagination. There’s a language and subject matter there that I’m comfortable talking about in my music. But I had a great time over there, and it was a great way to grow up. My experience growing up oversees is more of an example of how serious it was to my parents, especially since my dad was a principal and most of what he did there was teaching kids U.S. history.

Those are crucial years of development for any kid, so splitting time in those two places probably gave you a better sense of world than most kids.

The way your life is set up plays a huge part in those first childhood memories, and I was just happy to get to spend my life in places like that, regardless of any religious elements that came along with it.

What made you finally start writing your first album at the age of 29?

I had always been working on other projects, starting in 1999, then another in 2003 or 2004. It’s funny how it works, but some things just stick and others don’t. I spent a lot of that time learning, so to the outside world, it probably seems like a real first record, but it never felt that way for me. But those years of learning what I wanted to say were what lead me to make something that was more specifically mine.

Did starting your label Spacebomb give you the platform to do that?

Yeah, I think more than anything else it gave me a way to put that music out. Spending all that time playing in Richmond — which is such a wonderful town — has made me realize that there’s something special going on there. I’ve traveled around a bit, but I really feel like the music in Richmond is different, and I wanted to acknowledge that, encourage that, and organize that. It gives us a way to create what we want over and over again within this brain trust, and it empowers us to make ambitious music. I thought that, if we were going to try this thing, why not work on some of these ideas and some of these projects that I had been working on. It’s sort of my baby in way, so making this album under Spacebomb was a way of seeing if we could get some traction.

What do you thinks makes the music and the artists in that area so unique? 

I think a lot of it comes down to the jazz school at the University of Richmond turning out a lot of good musicians. There are so many people that get out of there and go right to New York or L.A. and work in commercial jobs. But in tandem with the music industry collapsing, the jobs are drying up in a serious way. Then there’s my generation of kids from the early 2000s who make it a point to stay there, making for a really strong pool of musicians.

Aside from that, there’s a history of outsider-type music in the area. Avail is from Richmond, and so is GWAR. There are these great metal and punk bands that come out of there with this really strong DIY attitude. That’s kind of how the Spacebomb world works, where we want to do everything ourselves, but at the same time make big-sounding records. Aesthetically, it might not be the same, but it’s the same feel, where you have punk rock and classically trained musicians all in the same place.

What was the idea behind releasing ‘Outer Face’ as an expansion of ‘Big Inner,’ as opposed to releasing it as its own record?

The record came out in the U.S. a year ago, and then we signed with Domino. They felt like it deserved a bigger audience, and that there would be more people to listen to it who hadn’t heard it yet. They offered me the opportunity of adding to it and releasing it altogether. I felt like I had a lot of ideas that would be fresh and make sense. I feel like that can be such danger in releasing an expansion or extra material, or whatever you want to call it. That’s why it was important to me to add something that would be worthwhile, and that I was saying something and not just filling space.

Having never done any touring under your own name, how did you adapt to life on the road?

I hadn’t really set out to “make it” when I first started making my own music, so my goal wasn’t really to be on the road. Once the record finally came out, it started to become more like, ”Oh, s—. I need to put a band together and start playing shows.” The band is guys I’ve been playing with forever and the guys who played on the record, but there wasn’t prior history to us touring.

I had done a lot of touring with my old band the Great White Jenkins, but that was only about 40 shows. And I had played with some other bands before, but this was definitely a new experience.

What have been more memorable moments so far?

I think on the U.S. on our last winter tour, coming home from Seattle was a lot like ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.’ We literally drove from Seattle to Richmond through a bunch of blizzards, getting snowed in a bunch of places, and it was terrifying. We left the van and took flights to different places. Nothing too terrible happened, though, other than being afraid for our lives a few times.

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