Matt Fishbeck Talks Visual Art, New Music, and More
Matt Fishbeck, known to many for his music under the Holy Shit moniker as well as his visual art, holds a special place in our hearts here at WMF. Songs like "My Whole Life Story" and "You Made My Dreams Come True" are long-standing favorites, and 2017's Solid Rain leaves no doubt that Matt Fishbeck's songwriting and recordings are as thoughtful, engaging, and important as ever.
The following interview with Mr. Fishbeck is the result of a a mini-odyssey that started in a cramped "green-room" space in Southern California, continued in the High Desert of Joshua Tree, and finally concluded at a beach just north of San Diego. The effort was a pleasure and privilege that resulted in a rewarding discussion that covered the topics of visual art, Ariel Pink collaborations, Jean Baudrillard, John Maus intersections, David Hockney, the Omnichord, and much more.
Bobby Weirdo: There's a recurring motif of rain in your music. Does rain mean something significant to you?
Matt Fishbeck: It’s funny - I noticed that the other day. I moved to the Bay Area for six years, and I hated rain. I always hated rain. Then I moved back to L.A., and there was a rain storm. I loved it, and I said to Ariel [Pink], “I don’t know what’s going on, because I’ve always hated rain.” He said, “Yeah, it’s because you lived in San Francisco.” I think rain is never just rain, and I also think that I’m obsessed with water.
BW: You bring up living in the Bay Area. I heard a rumor that you worked as a gondolier up there. Is that true?
MF: [Sings in Italian] Yes. They called me Matteo.
BW: Is the photo of Fags in the Alley the artwork, or is it the alley itself that was the artwork?
MF: Great question. Take Christo’s umbrellas [as an example] - things are not lasting. It’s the artifact that endures. In the case of Fags, I might say the lasting artifact would be the photo, if the photo were better. I think the experience of it was the best part about it. It was me, Courtney Garvin, and Derek Martin, and we finished it in twenty minutes. Everybody said, “Do you think it’ll last the weekend?” and I said that it would be here forever. I think it was up for about two and a half years.
BW: You, your art, and music are mentioned several times in Where Art Belongs. What significance did Tiny Creatures have for your work, and the art/music scene in general?
MF: Tiny Creatures was really something. It was a fertile epoch - totally madcap, creative, fun (and funny) - everything you could ask for in an "art collective". It was a very Los Angeles thing, like it couldn't have happened anywhere else. It happened at a time in Los Angeles when every circumstance was just so, and together they (and we) conspired to make it all possible.
BW: I saw you play the Omnichord in San Diego last night, and now you’ve got it here again with you in Joshua Tree.
MF: I’ve played Omnichord since the morning after the night I met Ariel in October of 2001. I met Ariel, and he handed me this [Omnichord] when we went back to the ashram where he was living. This isn’t the same Omnichord. I played Ariel’s and then I bought my own, which disappeared on an Ariel Pink tour. I bought another one that died, and then I panicked.
On my way down from San Francisco to L.A. for a show at Spaceland, I purchased this one with a lockable case and all the original brochures, paperwork, and the receipt. I bought it for $150, which is an unheard-of price for an Omnichord. And this is the right year for an Omnichord –’82. This has plastic keys, and after ‘82 they started making them with rubber keys. Plastic just has better action; you have to really press the rubber ones. These are all details for the trainspotters, but that’s what we deal with, right? We’re trainspotters.
BW: Did this Omnichord make an appearance on Solid Rain?
MF: Subtly, on about five of the songs. Apart from “The Notice”, I don’t know that it’s ever been a feature. But it certainly is in my live performances. It was all mouth drums with Ariel in the beginning, but [you can heart it on] “The Notice”.
You know [it's] a good guitar when you pick it up and immediately write a song with it. You know that’s the guitar you need. And I guess the same goes for other instruments too, because Ariel handed me this thing, and it was like, “OK, here’s a song”, and “here’s another song.” It’s a simple machine, and it really does make songwriting easy.
BW: So it’s a strong composition tool for you?
MF: Well, look [motions to buttons on the Omnichord]. Here’s all the chords – but not all of them. There’s no F#, which means no F# minor. It’s a rare Holy Shit song that doesn’t have F# minor, so sometimes I have to substitute an A for that.
BW: Where do you get that harmonic vocabulary? You’ve got a lot of those smart chords in your songs.
MF: I’m not literate, as they say.
BW: It’s just intuitive?
MF: To answer the question exactly, the harmonic vocabulary just comes from being in bands for so long. When I was in college, I was in a group playing bass. They knew the names of the chords, but for me at that point, it was like, “that’s seventh fret.”
BW: So shapes on the instrument?
MF: Yes – shapes and numbers.
BW: “My Whole Life Story” sounds like a classic, lost song.
MF: Ray Davies told me he wished he wrote that song. Kevin Junior from Chamber Strings told me he wished he wrote that song. But any songwriter worth his or her salt would tell you that there are songs they didn’t write. It’s cliché to say it just happened through me, but “My Whole Life Story” is – for me – proof that it’s true.
I was on a walk when that song started to occur to me, and I started to walk faster because I knew I could not forget the song. So I was walking up the avenue, hearing the bells when the second verse happened. The first verse and chorus had already happened, and the second verse was just what I was doing to the same melody. But I wasn’t composing it – I was hearing it as I walked.
BW: I’ve seen a picture of you sitting next to David Hockney. How did you end up sitting next to him?
MF: And looking sneaky! Anyone who knows me knows that David Hockney and I are somehow cut from a very similar cloth. He is a total hero of mine. I love his paintings, I love the way he dresses, I love his humor, I love the fact that he’s English and obsessed with California, and I’m a Californian obsessed with England.
The picture on Instagram looks like we’re buddies – and maybe we were buddies for that moment – but it was just a moment. I should thank Betty Nguyen, because she set that up for me, and knows how much he means to me. That was the second time I met David Hockney, and she arranged both times.
BW: You’re the “MF” who wrote the liner notes included in Ariel Pink’s “Another Weekend” single, right?
MF: I am the “MF”, and it's always in caps.
BW: Did Ariel give you any guidance or parameters for the liner notes?
MF: No. He said to do the artwork for the single and – in my mind – a proper single for a song that good has a good cover, a good back cover, good labels, runout etchings on the records, and liner notes.
BW: So you did the notes and the artwork?
MF: He asked me to do the package, so I did.
BW: You also did the cover art for Ariel Pink’s Pom Pom album. How did that come about? Was it a similar situation where he just asked you to do something?
MF: That was a little different. He told me that his next album was going to be called Ariel Pink, and [the cover] was just going to be pink. I understood what he meant by that, and what he was referencing. I asked, “Who’s going to do the pink?” and he said, “What do you mean? It’s just going to be pink.” I said, “Do you think the Beatles did the white?”
BW: So this was an actual conversation the two of you had?
MF: He was like, “Oh my God! Will you please take care of the pink?” So I did. It’s 50% a photograph of a pink wall, and 50% painting that was mostly pink, so it’s a composite. It's an infinity of pinks. When I submitted it to 4AD, they got back to me, telling me that the pink was really uneven, and asked if they should just assign a Pantone to it.
I almost lost it, because I thought they’d already done it. I told them that from then on, everything I submitted was correct. If it seemed idiosyncratic, it was. This was 4AD after all, and it was Ariel Pink. So that’s how that happened.
BW: What prompted your decision to release Solid Rain only on vinyl?
MF: If I had my druthers, everything would be vinyl only, or vinyl and cassette. And maybe CDs, but CDs are kind of icky and no one really wants them. You look at them wrong and they scratch; they’re really hard to take care of. Stranded at Two Harbors was supposed to be on vinyl first. That still hasn’t happened, but it will. And the digital release of Solid Rain just hasn’t happened yet, so it’s just a limited Semiotext(e) vinyl release. It’ll be released worldwide with more fanfare, hopefully with a really great label. The most perfect label that is has expressed interest and offered to do it, so we’re working it out.
BW: The most perfect label that is?
MF: Yes. It could be a perfect union.
BW: You mention the band Felt a lot in conversation, and it’s a comparatively obscure reference. What is it about Felt that resonates with you so strongly?
MF: Felt is its own universe; it’s broken. Up is down, and gravity is sideways. Is he singing on-key? Is he not singing on-key? By the time you’ve heard it enough to figure it out, your brain has done the work for you, you forget that it ever sounded strange in the first place, and it’s in you. It’s not under your skin, but it’s in your blood stream. I don’t know anyone who casually likes Felt. Anyone I know who likes Felt is devoted to Felt, and couldn’t do without them.
I just think Lawrence has done everything right. All of his eccentricities and all of the ways he’s made it impossible for himself to get what he claims he wants have cemented for him what we know to be the thing that he truly wants, which is to be a legend. I don’t think he’s equipped to be Jarvis Cocker.
BW: Was there a discussion between you and John Maus before he revisited the Holy Shit track “Bombs Away” for Screen Memories?
MF: Yes. There’s a song of his that I always wanted to cover, “Forever and Ever and Ever”, and he’s always said he wanted to cover “Bombs Away”. So when he was making Screen Memories, he said it was time to do “Bombs Away”. The only recording he had was the one that’s the B-side of “You Made My Dreams Come True”, but he knew that there was a recording that was fleshed out with singing, so I sent him that, the lyrics, and the chord chart, and that was that.
BW: And when Holy Shit has opened for John Maus on his tour, sometimes you play the song live, and sometimes he does, right?
MF: We do it every night; they do it every other night. And the last time they did it, I helped on vocals. I feel like theirs could use a guitar. I wonder what they could bring to ours…maybe some angst!
BW: Your art piece “We Never Close” is on the cover of Semiotext(e)’s edition of Jean Baudrillard’s Fatal Strategies. Is there a connection between your work and Baudrillard?
MF: I studied French Theory in college, and I learned about Semiotext(e) while I was at Harvard. My introduction to Baudrillard – who was my favorite in the Semiotext(e) stable – was Fatal Strategies. Years later, I had a solo art show, and the only thing in the gallery was that cash register. It’s called “We Never Close”, and the cash register is welded shut. I floated it on the plexi and borrowed a spotlight from the Paramount lot for it. That was that, and it was a perfect show.
Then Baudrillard died, and Semiotext[e] was going to be reissuing his titles with new introductions, afterwards, and covers. They asked me if they could use an image of that sculpture for Fatal Strategies. There’s a connection that Hedi [El Khotli] saw, and that I see. The relationship is uncanny. I don’t know if I made “We Never Close” with Baudrillard in mind, but Baudrillard would probably say that I couldn’t possibly know.