"We can't all be David Bazan."
It still doesn’t feel right when people call me “sir.” It has more to do with my perception of the word than it does the acceptance of my age. It’s like that display of respect should be reserved for people who are actual adults, people who have their crap together.
I used to set benchmarks for myself, “Oh, when I’m 25, 26, 28, 30, then I’ll have it figured out.” That number continues to go up each year, and though I’m okay with getting older, and my body serves as a constant reminder that I am, I still don’t feel that casual confidence that I always assumed came with age. I’ve started to accept that maybe it will never come and that’s okay.
It’s no coincidence that my favorite stories tend to center around the search for one’s place in the world. Because although I’m a (mostly) happy person and I’m thankful for the life I get to lead, I have never stopped searching for where I fit in. It’s not that I haven’t found plenty of people/places that accept me, it’s more that I’m aware that life is constantly changing and so are we. Each respite comes with an end date, some longer than others, and the fact remains that each time I find my place, I know that it’s only a matter of time before I’ll have to start the search again.
Coming-of-age stories offer comfort by letting me know that I am not alone.
The Dumb Muscles EP by Baby Ocho is an example of this. Throughout the course of its 8 tracks, we find the narrator repeatedly searching within themselves to discover who they truly are so that they can answer the next question of: how do I find a way to fit in here that also makes me happy?
Or at least that’s my interpretation of it.
I was lucky enough to exchange a few emails with Mateusz Serafin, the creative presence behind Baby Ocho, so that we could discuss the themes of the EP, the recording process, and how sometimes creating something for the personal journey of doing so can be its own reward.
Dane wrote on 12/29/16 at 9:53pm:
You mentioned earlier during our Facebook message exchange about this interview that you may not be able to reply back very quickly because you're working the next few days. What do you do for a day job? And do your coworkers know about the baby ocho?
Mat replied on 1/2/17 at 2:31pm:
Oh brother...I find it only a little ironic that your first question regards one of the few things I try to keep on the low-low, especially around my music-playing colleagues. I'm not sure why. Probably because I feel a little self-conscious about it or think it will shift others' perception of me. Maybe it's because it kinda warps the idea what a struggling singer-songwriter is supposed to be.
But simply put, I'm a doctor. More specifically, I am an Internal Medicine doctor. I graduated from residency this past summer and now work in a hospital on the south-side of Indianapolis. Probably one of the main reasons I chose this specific field of medicine (besides the fact that I get close contact with a wide variety of patients and many of my most influential mentors were internists) is the schedule. There is a subset of internists who work exclusively in the hospital setting (AKA hospitalists) on what is called a block schedule and though it can vary, they basically have as much time off as they spend working. I have a schedule where I work 7 days and get the following 7 days off. In theory, it sounds amazing and my plan was to work a full 7 days and then devote my off time to focus on projects like Baby Ocho. The reality, however has been a little jarring. The weeks I do work, I typically work close to 80 hrs/week (it was closer to 90-100hrs when I was initially getting acclimated; it was rare for me to leave work before 8pm and at times left the hospital after midnight). It's pretty grueling and is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. There are days (and I'll admit I can only blame myself) where I get so engrossed in my work I will forget to eat and my first (and only) meal of the day is whenever I get home (around the aforementioned 8pm). Also, I tend not to sleep well the weeks I do work. The time off is great, though it's not until Thursday or even Friday where I feel like I have recovered from the week before. Don't get me wrong—I'm not complaining or trying to sound ungrateful, because truthfully it's a good gig. I am fortunate to have a good job and my coworkers and family have been super supportive. So in answer to your question, you just happened to email me on one of my "on" weeks.
As far as sharing Baby Ocho with my co-workers, I've kinda held back, probably for the opposite reason I don't tell many people about my day job. I don't want my co-workers to think I'm super depressed or anything (truthfully, a lot of the B.O. stuff can be kind of emo) because for the most part I'm pretty happy and upbeat and Baby Ocho is just a vehicle for me to get out some feels. It's also super awkward to share something that's very personal with those you've worked with for less than 6 months and with whom you have to maintain a professional relationship. There are a couple of co-workers who've friended me on Facebook and around the time we were putting the finishing touches on "Dumb Muscles," they saw some pictures from a show I played and asked me about it. Nash had just just sent me one of the final edits of "Penny, Pebble" (with the bass and slide guitar parts) and was really excited about how it turned out, so I played it for them on my phone while we were on call together. It was like one of those things where it’s hard to listen to the sound of your own voice, but the feeling was amplified in front of my co-workers. That's about the extent of it, but I'll probably be more open about it in the future.
Dane on 1/2/17 at 3:49pm:
Haha, that was meant to be my warm-up question, but thank you for the honest response. I always find it interesting what artists do for day jobs. The "struggling artist" narrative doesn't always have to pertain to the lack of a paycheck, in my mind at least, I think it can also apply to creating something that you put your whole self into and then having that maybe go unnoticed or under-appreciated. I'm fascinated by people that create things simply for the personal journey of creating them. It feels like that's what you did with the Dumb Muscles EP, which is part of why it resonates with me.
I totally understand being apprehensive about sharing your music/creative endeavors with your co-workers. I asked that question, because I feel the same way. I like my co-workers, but I often put such personal things in my music/writing that it can be a little uncomfortable to share that with people who only know me on a professional level. But then I end up becoming friends with them on Facebook or whatever and it becomes, "Oh, you play in a band?" or "You write?" and then yes, it's a lot like hearing your voice on a recording for the first time.
Like I mentioned, part of why I connect so well with the Dumb Muscles EP is that through the course of its 8 tracks, it feels like the narrator is trying to figure some things out about their place in the world as they get older. You accomplish this in a few different ways, but right now I want to focus on the songs "Most of It" and "A Few Things I Remember." Both of these songs see the narrator looking back at a younger version of himself, but in different ways.
"Most of It" comes first, here the narrator seems to pick apart his teenage self by highlighting some of his adolescent insecurities leading into the chorus of: "Always such a good kid/Feeling like a dumb shit/trying to make the most of it."
When "A Few Things I Remember" comes in a track later, the narrator seems to offer some encouragement to his younger self saying, "Don't be so hard on yourself" building into "every quiet song/you've kept inside your head/oh, just sing it out/just sing it out."
I love that both these songs compliment each other so well despite one being the antithesis of the other. Was this an intentional effort or did this occur naturally as these songs took shape? And do you find that there are parts of yourself now that still identify with the young protagonist in those lyrics?
Mat on 1/3/17 at 9:04am:
I wish I could claim that there was some sort of intentional link between "Most of It" and "Few Things I Remember" because I love the idea of someone speaking to themselves from different time points in their life with new knowledge and experiences to give encouragement to their younger selves—like some sort of ghost from the future. But that would not be true. It's more likely it was a serendipitous connection that simply occurred by describing two different periods in my life.
"Most of It" is heavily inspired by Elliott Smith and came together literally hours after watching the documentary "Heaven Adores You." I got into Elliott Smith in high school after watching "The Royal Tenenbaums." There is that scene where Richie Tenenbaum cuts off all his hair while "Needle in the Hay" plays in the background. I just remember being utterly floored by that scene, but it's really the song that makes it so impactful. I learned it was an Elliot Smith song by watching the director commentaries with Wes Anderson who was talking about the film's music. Ironically he talks about how Elliott Smith is one of the few living artists on the soundtrack and Smith died about a year later. The "pictures in my locker" line refers to pictures of Elliott Smith I kept in my high school locker, so it naturally led me back to those years.
There are millions of people who will identify with high school being a very awkward and confusing time, but for me it felt even more weird because I was not born in America. I moved the United States when I was in the 8th grade and everything I knew about America was informed by American movies and television, which tends to be a caricature of what America is really like. So there was always this disconnect between what I thought was expected and reality. It didn't help that around that time a lot of my friends started experimenting with pot which instantly isolated me because I grew up with super Christian/conservative values and I had this obligation to keep my nose clean and do well in school because my parents sacrificed so much to bring us here. So that's where the "good kid" line comes from. And yah, I still totally relate to that kid. I probably always will.
"Few Things I Remember," like most of the songs from "Dumb Muscles" came from my experiences in residency. Taking all night calls, physical exhaustion, self-doubt, assuming responsibility for the health of others—just the weight of all these expectations was difficult to carry all the time. As my wife can attest to, I have this horrible habit of beating myself up over my mistakes, no matter how small or large and regardless of if I had control over the situation or not. So the stress of residency and my personality type just created an environment where it was difficult for me not to get down on myself from time to time. I remember wishing I could go back to when things weren't so stressful. It just felt like so long ago where things were a lot simpler and easier that I could barely muster those memories. But mostly, it’s about forgiving yourself and letting go of self-criticism.
I'm not sure how you did it Mr. Johns (probably because you've had similar experiences with the joy/heartbreak of writing music and trying to be heard, or maybe you were just staring directly into my soul), but frankly, it's eerie how you almost exactly described my experiences with Baby Ocho and writing "Dumb Muscles." For me, putting together the EP was really just a challenge to myself—can I write some songs I'm not totally embarrassed about and commit them to some sort of permanent record, because frankly I don't consider myself "an artist" or "musician" or whatever. I've never recorded any music before but having a lot of friends who were legitimate touring musicians with legitimate recordings (like David Curtis and Run Kid Run), I just wanted to have that experience. It was much more challenging than I ever imagined but I was incredibly lucky to have a good friend (Nash Bruce) guiding me through the process and in doing so, I learned a lot about writing and recording music. And while I'm not under any delusion that "Dumb Muscles" is like the greatest record of all time or anything (it's not), I'm pretty happy with how it came together and can't help but feel a little bit proud. The feedback from the handful of friends I've made here in Indy playing open mics (and a handful of shows here and there) and old friends such as yourself has been really incredible, but it is hard sometimes not to wonder if anyone outside of my immediate circle of friends and family have heard even heard or like it. So yeah, it's been bitter/sweet.
Dane on 1/3/17 at 9:49pm:
I think you should definitely be proud with how this EP came together. Also, with this being your first release you're literally the only musician I know who doesn't have one or two embarrassing recordings out there. I have at least one, maybe two, maybe three...
You touched on it briefly, but I'm interested in the recording of this EP. What were the days like in the studio? The challenges? The small victories? What were the things you discovered about yourself or this project through that process?
Mat on 1/4/17 at 3:12pm:
Fortunately, the recording process was fairly straightforward. Prior to recording I had demoed all the songs as best I could and sent them over to Nash Bruce who I was recording with. Nash lives in Lowell IN about 2 hours north of Indy where he runs an organic farm called Five Hands Farm (veggies for CSAs, farmers markets, local restaurants, etc) and was just finishing up for the year. He also has a legit recording setup and a ton of experience in music from playing in touring bands, recording, managing tours and ultimately we just have very similar taste in music and musical influences. So he was the perfect person to help guide me through the process, especially since I was essentially green when it came to recording. We arranged a weekend where we could get together and pretty much track all the guitars and vocals. Nash and his brother would record drums and bass later and he was going to just send me the edits for approval.
But while driving up, Nash shot me a text saying our old friend (and Nash's old bandmate) Daniel Bishop who I had not seen in probably over 6 or 7 years was gonna come over and basically record all the drums, which was awesome for reasons other than he's a rad dude and a really freaking good drummer. So we just kinda drank some beers, caught up on the last 7 years and recorded some tunes. We basically knocked out most of the recording in a weekend. It was great because it really didn't feel like I was going to "the studio" or anything like that so it was a pretty informal affair. After that weekend, Nash recorded the bass parts for all the tracks (along with slide guitars on "Penny, Pebble" and background vocals on "Most of It"). Over the next couple weeks/months he would send me updated edits and I'd give him feedback on things did and didn't like and he'd fix it. For example, he did these really amazing harmonizing bass parts, but occasionally there'd be a note here or there that didn't seem to fit, so it took a couple weeks to get them dialed in just right. That being said, I honestly think the bass work on some of those tracks is some of the most interesting work on the EP and really gives the songs a unique bend—that little something extra for your ear to latch onto. Nash also did some killer work on the post processing stuff.
Probably the thing I learned the most about recording was how, despite my best efforts, underprepared I was. For example, Daniel would ask me what I wanted for drums on a particular track I was like "I don't know, just drums I guess". I honestly didn't give it too much thought, so I wasn't able to give much direction in terms of what I wanted. But we were able to remedy it by recording the vocals tracks along with the main guitars before recording the drums to give the tracks some context for what the drums were supposed to do and Daniel just knew how to fill in the rest (usually in 1 or 2 takes).
There were a few other things that conceptually are simple, but when you hit that record button, it just seems like everything you know about playing music goes out the window. Stupid stuff, like playing to a click track—there were times when I would speed up on different parts of songs. It's just tougher when the pressure's on and you have to play on time whereas when you are playing by yourself or live things tend to be a little more organic and you have a little more leeway. But Nash really helped me focus and kept things tight and on-point without seeming like he was being harsh or critical, which is a fine line to walk. He also helped dial in some killer tones, like the tremolo on some the lead stuff. He had a lot of great gear at his disposal, so I also learned I *need* a Dr. Z amp, but I'm a couple of begging sessions in front of my wife before that happens.
Dane wrote on 1/6/17 at 10:26pm:
Man, each time you reply back to me with a little more insight about the EP, it makes me go back and listen to the songs again. Like honestly, I didn’t notice those subtle bass parts before even though I’ve probably listened through ten times since we started this correspondence.
From talking with you, it’s clear that some of my interpretations of these songs are likely different than what you intended, which isn’t to say that diminishes my connection to them in any way, it’s quite the opposite actually.
As a writer, I don’t have much of an audience yet or anything, but I often imagine that I have one, and sometimes that can make writing difficult. There’s always this fear that I’m going to unintentionally offend someone if they interpret my writing a certain way. Then sometimes this fear joins up with the one that says that I'm a fraud, or delusional, or both, and it can really make it hard to get any work done. But then I remind myself that no one really cares, and even if they did, listening to those fears isn't really productive either way.
You mentioned that you started writing these songs as an exploration and a challenge to yourself, but now you’ve got people, like myself, that are going to be looking out for new music from you.
Do you find now that you have an audience for this project that it changes how you approach writing songs for your next release?
Mat on 1/7/17 at 12:36pm:
Yah, I mean with "Dumb Muscles" I was just trying to put some songs together with the hopes that someone/anyone will listen to them. I don't think there was an audience in mind, but I still had many of those same thoughts/anxieties. There were moments where I definitely edited myself, probably out of fear of offending someone or having someone unintentionally read into the songs in a negative way. I think it partially stems from the fact that I have a huge responsibility to my career (and I'm sure you can probably relate, though for you it probably comes from your career as well as being a father) and maintaining a certain level of professionalism in all aspects of my life (language, social media, etc). And that responsibility just seems to influence the types of things you can write about in your music. We can't all be David Bazan. It's definitely limiting, but in a way it sort of gives you a challenge to write within those confines. It's hard to admit, because it's like the least "punk rock" thing you can do—being unwilling to fully commit to your art. Like Bazan totally did the opposite of what his audience expected and fully committed to his "message" or whatever. But for him it worked because a lot of people related to a struggle that really arcs across his whole career. It's like when you write a song, you want it to be edgy or impactful and sometimes that means exploring difficult or controversial topics—to get under your listener's skin just a little to make a lasting impression. It's like Bazan does that so well, but if you listen to TW Walsh stuff (I know, it's only like 1 degree of separation, but bear with me), he has an ability to write songs that are similarly impactful but without overtly tackling religion or other topics where you can easily step on a million toes. And just to clarify, I'm not comparing myself to Bazan or Walsh, because I'm not. They are just something to aspire towards, but for now I just have to walk that line between safe and provocative as closely as I can.
I've been blessed by many things in 2016, but overall it was a difficult year for a variety of reasons as I'm sure many people can probably relate to. For example, the outcome of the election is something that I feel really impacted me and have complicated feelings over. One of the things that kinda bugged me about "Dumb Muscles" was that I was trying to write songs with a folky kinda bend, but it just came out a little too emo. I'm not sure if it's a good trade, but I'm thinking future songs may be a little less emo and a little more objective and more pessimistic. I hope the songs have more conversational tone and are a little less rigid. Musically I want it to be a little more interesting, but I imagine a little more uptempo and rocking grove. More major and 7th chords. I love how older rock and doo-wop songs use interesting chord progressions, so I want to do some of that kinda stuff. But mostly I'm just gonna try to write songs I like and hope others get something out of them—similar to how you did. We'll see if it plays out that way.
Thanks for listening to the EP and listening to it as thoughtfully as you did; it made the effort put into it really feel worth it. Thanks for this interview and big-upping "Dumb Muscles" on Facebook and Twitter. Trying to promote this recording has been difficult (and by "promote" I mean "get people to listen to"), so it has truly meant a lot. Thanks again :)