Mattson’s playing approach is to “turn the guitar into an orchestra.”
Southern California guitar-and-drum duo, the Mattson 2, is not another White Stripes/Black Keys knockoff. Not even close. Their music is modal, spacious, hypnotic, instrumental, and oozes the laid-back, endless summer vibe of those beach towns south of L.A. The Mattson 2 creates music to get lost in, and the group’s new album, Agar, is a potpourri of sonic colors and trance-inducing grooves.
And what’s more, the Mattson 2’s music exudes the duo’s telepathic, otherworldly, connection. Jared (guitar) and Jonathan (drums) Mattson are identical twins. That inexplicable-mind-reading-twin-thing is essential to their sound. The mysterious bond informs their sense of groove and phrasing, and allows them to express their intrinsic, yet subtle, idiosyncrasies.
Jared started playing guitar in the 7th grade. “We had a guitar in our house from our uncle. Our mom didn’t want us home with our skate-rat friends getting into trouble, so she signed us up for guitar lessons after school.” It blossomed from there. “The music I was listening to at the time was super guitar heavy—bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica—so I just started loving the guitar.” His brother didn’t click with the guitar in the same way, but he did with the drums. “When Jonathan started playing the drums it was insane,” says Jared. “He had real natural ability.”
The lack of a permanent bass player forced the twins to incorporate live loops into their music early on. Jared looped bass lines and rhythm guitar parts, and those loops created a need for more sonic options—and hence more effects—and ultimately more (and more) gear.
The Mattson twins earned bachelor’s degrees in music from the University of California at San Diego, and then went to UC Irvine for master’s degrees in Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology (ICIT). The latter experience was transformative. “The improvisation focus of UC Irvine helped us in our compositional method,” says Jared. “We realized that there is a really interesting thing you can do musically by mixing unfamiliar sounds with familiar sounds. I think our studies brought us to that realization.”
Agar, the Mattson 2’s fourth album, does just that. Combining natural guitar tones with loops, luscious soundscapes, pedal-steel drones (played by friend and collaborator Farmer Dave Scher), the album features unorthodox song forms and countless sonic surprises. We caught up with Jared Mattson on the heels of a massive tour the twins had just finished to support Agar, and asked him to describe his guitars, loops, outrageous effects, and innovative approach to recording.
Photo by Yuichi Yoshida.
You do a lot of looping and improvising. Do you find live looping constraining—does it feel like you’re playing to a click track?
That’s an interesting word—constraint—because I think in all good music there is constraint. Constraint breathes the most interesting music. Our initial constraint was that every bass player we had when we were around 17 or 18 kept leaving the band. Not because they didn’t like the music, I hope, but mainly because they pursued other opportunities and moved away from the area. When that happened we had to figure out a way to create a full sound with only two people. I didn’t want to sacrifice my melodic sense or my soloistic approach with having to play chords and solos at the same time. So when I saw my friend [skate legend and guitarist] Ray Barbee play with a looper pedal, I thought, “Wow, that’s what I need to do.”
But we use loops in a different way than most people do. I create all my loops live with no click track and we work with our own natural, internal rhythm. When you play with the loop there are a lot of imperfections rhythmically, because it’s never going to be in perfect rhythm. As humans, we’re not in perfect rhythm. But I think what really makes that work for us is our twin connection. Being identical twins allows us to play with those imperfections and respond to those imperfections in a natural way.
I also like to loop a lot of overdubs, and I make sure each overdub is not a repeated sound. For example, if I start the loop with a bass line, maybe I’ll support that bass line with a rhythm guitar playing that same line with a phaser on, or something subtle so it adds texture to the bass groove. After that I’ll add some sustaining chords with a tremolo pedal, or I’ll find one note from the chord and let it ring out, or I’ll do a volume swell with the fuzz pedal. So every sound has its own distinct identity, and that comes from my desire to turn the guitar into an orchestra.
When you play the same song night after night, do you lay down those loops fresh every time? You don’t have banks of pre-programmed loops?
Most of it is fresh. But I don’t see any harm in using prerecorded stuff either. I actually really enjoy it. While I was at UC Irvine, one of my professors, Michael Dessen, offered something really interesting. He said, “What if you create a loop and it doesn’t sound good?” I thought, “Well, that happens, right?” But he suggested contrasting view. The excitement of creating a live loop is cool, but what happens if you spend three days creating a very perfect, honed, beautiful loop that’s meant to be there as support for the live performance? So I go both ways. I’ll spend a lot of time orchestrating and perfecting a prerecorded loop for live performance, and I also see the value in spontaneously recording something in real time and playing it back in real time.
What looper pedal do you use?
My favorite one is the Boss RC-20XL Loop Station. I also pair it with the Boss RC-30, which I’m not a huge fan of, but it does the trick.