31 October 2010
For a while there, we thought we had lost Matt Hill. Despite the fact that he would pop up on the UK americana circuit every now and then, often seen in the company of luminaries such as Chris Mills and Manchester country noir gloomers Anna Kashfi, Matt Hill’s own record, Secret Ruler Of The World was a fine, but perhaps forgotten album with six years to its name. But then all of a sudden rumors started spreading that Matt was once again writing songs under his nom de plume of Quiet Loner, and before we knew it Spectrology was released, an album which Americana UK’s David Cowling described as the perfect companion for the approaching winter. In this interview, we speak to Matt Hill/Quiet Loner about why the hell it took him so long to come back to us.
Secret Ruler of the World came out seven six ago. Ryan Adams would have put out 27 records in that time. What took you so long?
Ryan might well make 27 albums but would they be any good? Since Secret Ruler came out in 2004 a lot happened in my life, I moved away from Manchester, I had some fairly major surgery to deal with and I've just been happily making a living working for a charity that I care a great deal about. For a musician at my level, fairly low down the rung, it takes a tremendous amount of effort not to mention money to put a project like this together so I never thought it would happen again. But then one night I was having this very inspiring conversation with my friend Fiona and I very calmly made the decision to make another record. Once I got Mat Martin on board as producer it all fell into place very quickly.
How did it feel during this break, knowing that Secret Ruler... might have been a one-off and that you would perhaps never make music on that level again?
It felt fine. You have to be pragmatic. I am extremely proud of my songwriting, my live performances and my recordings. I like what I've done and what I've achieved but I also know how difficult it is to keep music going at the level where you are releasing commercially available albums. So I was at peace with that.
Once the ball got rolling again, was it in any way like putting out your debut again? Don't get me wrong, Secret Ruler was a fine album, but one suspects that some of your old fans might have forgotten everything about Quiet Loner?
That's made me laugh. Are you saying I'm forgettable? You're right that it's like a debut again. So yes the work starts again on trying to get people to hear what I'm doing. I also think this new album is quiet different to the first so again that changes who your potential audience might be.
No, I'm not saying that, Matt. Quite the contrary actually. So in your own words, how is this album different?
This album is much more stripped back and bare. It is a solo performer album where Secret ruler was much more of a band album. Mat Martin did a great job as producer and with his guidance we decided we wanted to make a real intimate album warts and all. We wanted the record to sound like I was playing live in your living room and singing right into your ear.
Since the last album I've learnt fingerpicking style of guitar playing so we made the focus of this album the solo guitar and voice. Another example is we decided not to use bass guitar at all but to let other instruments like accordion fill out the bottom end. The result is a stark and fragile sounding record.
We also let this emphasis on intimacy affect the song choice. I put forward nearly 30 songs for this album, and we ended up going for 10-12 songs that fit together emotionally. That's why there is none of my shouty political songs on this album.
What do you thing brought on this change in, not only direction, but also general approach to songwriting? Did you surround yourself with different people, did you start listening to different kinds of music? One might also come to the conclusion that you've reached an age where you're confident enough letting your songs stand alone, so to say?
t’s all of those things – certainly my age and the company I keep. I think confidence is a big part of it, as you say, I am letting the songs speak for themselves.
By keeping them very basic and recording in such an intrusive and intimate way you really are laying yourself bare. So confidence becomes hugely important and Mat Martin was great as a producer in giving me structure, making me rehearse and getting my skills as a player and singer up to scratch.
I also draw a great deal from the community of musicians around me. In Manchester I have friends who are amazing musicians like Kirsty McGee, Garron Frith, Anna Kashfi, Last Harbour and when I moved South I really missed them. Then about 18 months ago I started playing regularly at this great venue in London called the Gladstone and that really helped rebuild my confidence.
I have found myself in the company of some astoundingly good songwriters - Dan Raza, Greg Rees, Trent Miller, Ben Thomas and several others all gravitate around this south London scene. They are just producing this amazing body of work and being around them is really inspiring. It also gave me the push I needed to start playing finger picking style and as I toned down my playing I noticed people responding more to these emotional songs. I found myself making strangers cry on a semi-regular basis. So I wanted to do what I could to keep the record close to that live intimacy.
Yeah, the Little Red Rabbit Records crowd - or whatever you may call them - sound like they've been a big influence on you. Where do you see bands like Anna Kashfi and Last Harbour taking UK Americana these days?
Little Red Rabbit is an amazing label. I'm certainly inspired by their approach to being creative and their work ethic. They produce so many great records and I love the artwork, design, video and the whole approach - inspired by a DIY ethic but has really high standards. Their roster is so varied and interesting and I'm so pleased to be part of it. They have a free label sampler download album on their website - I'd urge everyone to have a listen
But I don't think either of those two bands fit the genre "UK americana". But then I'm not sure I really know what it is anymore. In the late 90's, the days of alt dot country it was a lot clearer what it meant and it felt more of a movement, but now everything is a lot more mixed up. But if I had to try and pin it down I'd say the Clubhouse records compilation was a really great summary of UK americana and that was a lot more bands that have a definite country sound to them.
And...the title? Spectrology? What the hell is that?
Spectrology is the study of spectres. I had a few possible titles but I wanted a word that meant the trapping or containing of ghostly presences and I came up with spectralysis but in the end it looks weird written down so spectrology won the day as the closest thing.
I thought it had something to do with glasses! Anyway, the Americana UK review mentions that "eventually you notice that it isn’t actually the voice that is important, it’s the words. They are placed with care, taut and spectral somewhere between Raymond Carver and Alan Sillitoe." What is your approach to poetry or lyricism, and what are you saying on this record? What's Matt Hill's message to the world?
I don't have a message. Other than "buy my album". But I love words. I love word play. I love the power of language. Good writing is as powerful as smell for evoking memory and experience. So when I write songs I do take care over words.
I don't have an overall lyrical message on this record. Some of my songs are overtly message driven and political but they aren't on this album. The lyrical themes on this album are much quieter and human. We're flesh and bone, we fall in love, we all die. Simple stuff really.
This question might be a bit stupid, but the name Quiet Loner sort of associates with the classic lonesome troubadour/cry in your beer kinda country music, if you know what I mean? Can you tell me why you chose that name in the first place, and do you still think it "fits" your musical output?
The name came into my brain via Bill Hicks who was making comment on how the serial killers and assassination patsys are always reported as being "quiet loners"
At first it was going to be a band called The Quiet Loners. But at the time I went with it, the fashion was for singer songwriters to have a nom du plume like Bright Eyes, Bonnie Prince Billy, Iron And Wine, so I guess I was going with the thing of the moment.
Actually a few people have said I should've dropped the name for this album and gone back to being Matt Hill. I don't know how I feel about quiet loner really, I'm not especially attached to it, but I also think it kind of still fits. To me it fits with the live show, where I'm more of a lone nut job railing against the government putting microchips in our brains.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Danny Schmidt. I love his songwriting. I was listening earlier to a playlist mix of Kirsty McGee - another songwriter I admire hugely. And the new Liam Dullaghan (from The Havenots – ed) album which is astonishingly brilliant.
Chips or Mash?
And your epitaph, should you decide yourself?
He were alright him.
Matt Hill’s acclaimed Spectrology is out now on Little Red Rabbit Records. For more on Quiet Loner, go to Quietloner.com and Myspace.com/quietloner