Forming an 8-person band with members in two states whose music blends pop, folk and contemporary concert music may not sound like the most logical road to successful, but so far, the nontraditional approach has been working in favor for Matthäus. The band, with members in both Chicago and St.Paul, started as a small project from composer Ben Montalbano, adding bold horn sections, piano lines and other intricate instrumentations to a variety of folk-rock tunes. The group has since grown into a collaborative chamber collective made up of Ben Montalbano, Joe Meland, Justin Peters, Lars-Erik Larson, Samuel Peters, Alex Blomarz, Hugo Seda and Chris Shuttleworth.
With a new music in the works and a December 14 show at Schubas just days away, Montalbano, Peters and Meland gathered in a cozy window seat at Wicker Park’s Wormhole to discuss the band’s plans for the rest of the winter and the new year.
Listen Live and Local: Earlier this year, Matthäus released a 4-song debut EP. Can you talk a bit about this record and the connections between the songs?
Ben Montalbano: For the most part, I would call it a concept album in that it has a little bit of a narrative arc. It starts very simply by asking a question and throughout the course of the EP, we attempt to answer it, especially with the last song [“Letters”]. It’s the most declarative song in terms of lyrical material. For the actual music material, they all kind of bring something different to the table, but where they’re similar is the form and the arc. Maybe Joe and Justin can talk a bit more about the music itself. We all worked on those songs for a really long time. The first song we did was the last on the EP, which is “Letters”. We set up a little studio in my apartment and they came over and recorded it. That wasn’t even close to what the finished product was.
Justin Peters: I think [“Letters”] took the least amount of changes. The demo that we have is not that different. It’s just kind of more layers and some lyric changes, but it’s pretty similar structurally. Some, like “To The Years”, went through a lot of changes. We had the idea of the keyboard part, but in the studio, we did a lot of work like adding the horns and workshopping the horn parts in the studio. It eventually changed to me playing the marimba and Joe on acoustic piano. I think that is at the heart of what the band does. Ben will have these ideas and take them to the band and because there are so many great minds in the group thinking different ways, we get a lot of different ideas coming from different backgrounds in the writing process.
Joseph Meland: I was going to say about the EP, I don’t really think of it as a concept so much as the songs show different textures or atmospheres. [The songs] are cohesive in that they mix a lot of the same influences. We want a sound that prevails and is different between each of the songs.
LLL: Which songs on the album stand out to each of you?
Montalbano: I really like “To The Years”. That’s the second track on the record. That’s the banger. There are some subtle references, well depends on your definition of subtle, but definitely quoting or taking an idea from contemporary concert music and putting it in more of a pop field, which is not new, but it was fun to do for us.
Peters: I think, “Wake”, which is a tune that we’re working on, is really cool. It’s one we have a lot of really big ideas for and we’ve tried a lot of different ways to do it. We’ve run into problems with it and it’s been one that’s been kind of a challenge, but we’ve slowly picked at it. I don’t know if we’re done yet, but we’re getting it to a point where we feel like we have a finished product. It’s been really cool to work on that over such a long period of time. We get to perform it and workshop it in a sense every time we play a show, which is great.
Meland: I would say the newer songs are more exciting to me. When Ben first approached us about the band it was like, “I have these ideas and this vision. Here are some songs I’ve been writing.” Now we’ve played together so long we sort of have the collective vision and are more collaborative in a sense.
LLL: So you guys are working on new music then?
Montalbano: Actually, we’re going to be in the studio the day after our Schubas show tracking a single. That’s going to be released probably in the winter. It’s actually an old song I wrote back in college. It’s called “Before You Said Goodbye”. [We] kind of changed up the tune and the approach to it, but I think it will come across really nicely. In addition to that, we are working on a full-length record. I think it will be fairly ambitious. There’s a lot of ideas that are connected and last night, for instance, we worked hard on the first song that’s going to be on the record and I think we got to a really good place with it. It’s a lot of writing and we’re really taking our time. I know a lot of bands are under pressure from labels or whatever to release stuff quickly, but we don’t have any of that pressure, so we take our time. I would love for it to be out next year, but my big picture plan is to demo it all and then look and see if there are any record labels that are interested. If they are interested, we’re probably looking at the summer of next year. I hope it comes sooner rather than later, but sometime next year it will happen.
LLL: The three of you are classically trained musicians. How does that background play into the development of your music?
Montalbano: Joe [and I] both have music composition degrees. I think that really informs a lot of things for us. I think it allows us to take a different approach toward these pop songs and the way we think about what it is we’re making. It also helps to have a really good music knowledge base and a really broad musical awareness.
Peters: We all studied at the University of Illinois. That’s how the three of us met. I studied percussion performance there, so playing in orchestras but also a lot of contemporary music like commissioning and composing. I still do a little bit of that now.
Montalbano: Also, Justin works for Eighth Blackbird.
Peters: Yeah. They’re a chamber music sextet [and] 4-time Grammy winners. Total badasses. I’ve kind of always straddled that line of loving contemporary classical music and also really loving rock music. It’s pretty thrilling to me to be able to find a place that puts those together. I am a drumset player, but I play vibraphone in the group, so it’s using my classical training in a different environment that scratches all the itches. It’s really fun.
Meland: Like Ben said, I studied composition with him at U of I, which is kind of funny because he was an upperclassman and I was an incoming freshman and the head of the department hooked us up and I shadowed him for a day and was like “Oh my God, he’s so cool!”
Montalbano: He still thinks that. Not only is Joe a brilliant composer, but he’s also an incredible pianist. I know he won’t say it, but he’s really good. Everyone is such a huge asset in this band, and that’s what’s really great about the music. Everyone’s great at their instrument and they’re great at collectively bringing a lot to the table.
LLL: How would you describe the band’s dynamic?
Peters: We’re all really great friends. We get along super well and share the same sense of humor. We’ve gone on tour a couple times and it’s the most fun I can have.
Montalbano: I think one benefit for us is we don’t see each other all the time, so when we get together, it’s like “This is awesome!” Just a small story, we played in Davenport, Iowa. This hotel we stayed at was also a casino, so after our gig, we went back to the casino, stayed up all night and actually won a lot of money.
Meland: We definitely made way more money at the casino than we did for the gig. That was the first time I had ever been to a casino. I was trying to figure out when it closed so we could leave on time so I asked one of the employees “How late is the casino open?” and they had to stop and stare like “It never closes,” I was like, “Okay, I got to get out of here.”
Montalbano: They did stop serving booze though at like 2 o’clock. We were bummed because we thought we were just going to stay up forever and drink into oblivion.
LLL: In a music scene as large and diverse as Chicago, what do you think makes Matthäus unique?
Montalbano: Our instrumentation is pretty different. As I’ve said before, I strongly encourage any band to be super economic and really do as much with as little as you can, but we’ve kind of said, “fuck that”, and so we have eight people in the band. It can be difficult, but everybody has the mentality that we’re just going to roll with it. We don’t like not playing with everyone if that makes sense. We really try as often as possible if there’s an opportunity to have everyone play.
Peters: One thing that we kind of benefit from is that, while the tunes exist in the form of the full band, we also are able to change that to fit different combinations of players in the group. I’ve done a show with just Ben. Ben’s done a performance with just our saxophone player. The makeup of the group is very modulated, [which] is really an asset in that we can do a SoFar show where we don’t need a drummer and a bassist and it can be smaller and quieter. We can do a little coffee shop show with just Ben. We can also do the bigger stage and take it on tour. It allows us to be kind of fit any bill within a range.
LLL: In addition to the new music, are there any other projects in the works?
Montalbano: We’ll probably do a video in conjunction with this tune that we’re doing, “Before You Said Goodbye.” Then I got some really light touring that will be taking us to New York in the spring, possibly, Nashville. There are some other cool things that are in the works that I can’t really say yet because they haven’t been officially confirmed.
Matthäus next show will be on Thursday, December 14th at Schubas. The night will also include performances by New Holland, Wrong Numbers and Walkingshoe.
Photo Credit: Sam Fuehring