Hailing from Sheffield (UK) Matt Howden claims ‘providing the soundtrack to your apocalypse experience’! Matt Howden set up Sieben in 1999 as a solo-work, but it also is a very specific project where he is singing and playing a Kevlar violin. The way of playing is something unique, definitely experimental, but still sensitive. Sieben has released multiple productions and collaborative albums. We this year welcome the new album “2020 Vision” released on Howden’s own Redroom label. It’s a reflection about the world we’re living in, but still a truly artistic creation accomplished by a passionate artist. I think you’ll feel Matt’s passion in this interview.
(Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)
Q: I think the lockdown also has its good sides; you never have been that prolific –releasing the “Lockdown Sieben”-series and creative -referring to your lockdown streaming concerts where you played in your socks! Tell us a bit more about both concepts and the experiences properly speaking?
Matt: 2020 started normally enough. I was writing an album about the impending apocalypse (as usual, of course) ready for European dates, tour and release later in the year. Then Covid 19 changed all that. All concerts, including my two-night ‘live DVD Recording Concerts celebrating 20 years of Sieben’ got cancelled, and the release of the new album “2020 Vision” seemed somehow pointless.
I moved to online, with the Music Technology teaching I do with my learners in a local college here in Sheffield. I made a lot of extra content for them, and in the process learned some new video and broadcasting skills. It seemed natural, therefore, to think of ways to still play music, perform and express myself, with the four days I don’t teach. That was kick-started by a very kind music reviewer/fan in Finland, Tuomas, offering to pay me to produce some video content of his favourite Sieben songs, as a way of supporting artists he liked. Once up and running, this became a concert online and some videos of songs. And people suggested I play the next week. And then the same the next. And another suggested I record my songs again, in Lockdown, revisiting them with the new sound of Kev, my new Kevlar five-string violin I now use. This became “Lockdown Sieben”; a concert each Friday at 8pm (UK time, my Sieben Facebook page); a series of individual videos of me performing a song from home, in my studio, in my socks; and a series of 10 albums. The concerts and 24 videos, are all added to my Youtube channel; and 3 of the 10 “Lockdown Sieben”-albums are now released via my Bandcamp.
Q: The Covid 19 pandemic and the lockdown is something we probably would never have expected. So did you –as musician and human being, discover some aspects from yourself you never could have imagined? What’s your perception of the situation?
Matt: Initially I was in absolute Zombie-apocalypse hyper-mania 😉 My ability to teach my students was compromised, by moving online and lack of access to studios etc- and all my music work and plans were sunk in an instant! As well as creating lots of extra content for my learners, I did a lot of DIY round the house and garden, trying to occupy myself.
As a musician, one of the first things I noticed was that I was not having to work so hard subconsciously to block out the endless noise of the world. I was making a front gate, next to the road, where normally cars would pass by regularly. I hear a ‘really’ loud noise behind me- which turned out to be dry leaves blowing up the road. I realized the master volume control in my head had been turned up, because the world had been turned down.
But to go back to your question directly, I don’t think I have particularly discovered new aspects about myself, I think I have affirmed things I pretty much already knew: that I’m happy in my own company. That I love my work, my music. That I really need an outlet! That I work really hard, and work a lot smarter these days.
Revisiting and re-working my old songs has been a beautiful chore- each time, I find it tiresome to find the notes, find the lyrics, only to feel that the old arrangements are clunky and vague – and then suddenly I’m playing a song I haven’t played for twenty years and loving it, and wonder why the hell I stopped playing it! Mostly it felt to me like this new weird ‘normal’ of the world was no more weird or stupid than the daftness of ‘normal life’, its endless ‘more’, it’s endless rush and consumption of resource and ourselves. We have made dreadful systems that we are chained to, that are eating up everything around us. Aside from the dreadful tragedies, the deaths playing out and totting up, nature seemed to be at least getting a chance to recover from us.
Q: You earlier this year released your newest studio album “2020 Vision”, which is a critical- and somewhat cynical perception of the world we’re living in, which you shared with your fetish instrument, the violin (Kev)! What did you try to exorcise or simply share with your audience? And how do you transpose the themes into music?
Matt: The album I released before “2020 Vision” was my first real foray into anything directly political in my music. What I would say is that “Crumbs” tried to reason with the world without preaching. “2020 Vision” decided to ‘take the piss’, humour is the last resort, both for my own personal sanity, and as a positive weapon to question things. Again, I didn’t wish to preach. Any song or lyrics that started to sound like ‘I think this, you should too’ would be vetoed, and in fact never really entered the picture. I have no wish to ram my views down other people’s throats. These were personal-political, these were my open letter to the world. “Crumbs” tried to cajole, occasionally, but was more a mixture of my anger at, and hope for the world. “2020 Vision” need to sound upbeat, and with the distance of awry look at the world. Imagine me and Kev (my violin) sat on a fence watching the world trying to make a wall out of leaves, standing on bricks to do so.
As for transposing themes into music, it is something only experience has enabled within me. I could never ‘write to order’ as a younger artist. Stuff just came out. Then I shaped it to have form, and went with the direction the music suggested to me. With “2020 Vision”, I wanted upbeat, a comic lilt and a heavy undertone to it. So I kept writing and shaping until I had sculpted that.
Q: I’m always a bit reticent when artists are transposing political themes into their work, but at the other side musicians can be also a kind of gatekeepers to protect human values! How does it feel for you and how did you see yourself evolving over the years?
Matt: I’ve always had an interest in politics, in current affairs, in the way we live our lives and treat others. From the beginning of my musical career there have been threads of this; stories of people who inspired me with their cleverness, their altruism, kindness, their strength; people’s endeavor, our enquiring, beautiful, and sadly destructive nature. I never wanted to bring politics, party politics, preaching of any kind into my music. I went to my studio, shut the door, and with each new album tried to make my own perfect little world in miniature, where every strand was beautifully and intricately connected to another, where there was beauty and harmony and a ‘fuck the world outside’ shrug, just for those moments.
But the bad smell of rising populism, the idiocy and tiny-island thinking (to my mind) of the UK with Brexit, of the chancers taking power offering all but unable (and disinterested) to deliver anything positive to the world, simply asset-strippers of rights, wealth and power, with the new Wild-West of the digital age, I could not block it from my music. I didn’t choose to let it in. It overwhelmed me. My music turned more punk and angry, because to me it felt like massive alarms were going off all around the world, with people impervious. Like the sickest of silent discos.
Q: It remains nearly impossible to label your music, which according to me rather sounds as the offspring between multiple influences. But your way of playing the violin also remains a very unique experience. What are your main sources of inspiration and eventually references?
Matt: My main asset appears to have come from the teenage stubborn me. At fifteen, at school, I would play football EVERY dinner time, every break etc etc. When the field was mud-pit and the rain heavy and we weren’t allowed, I would sit in the music room with a couple of mates. They’d play stuff on bass and keyboards. I’d join in a bit, eventually. It seemed quite easy to find the notes and the notes that went, but almost impossible to do it at the right time! Occasional attempts at this turned into practicing round at someone’s house, with someone’s brother’s friend, because they had an amplifier. This culminated in my first ever ‘concert’ – fifteen minutes of badly played Stranglers covers, out of a bedroom window to ten grannies, queuing on the street for a Jumble Sale. I loved the playing, the experience. But somehow vowed to myself that I was going to learn music entirely myself, without learning other people’s songs, or the way you are ‘supposed’ to do it. No teacher, no coping of things I liked to work out how they did it. Just play, and improve what I can in my playing and composition, and see where I could go from there. I suppose the thing I was most drawn to in other people’s music was where I liked dexterity and creativity in the words. And music with a darker edge.
Q: And can you give us an idea about the different stages to compose a song?
Matt: It used to be a really painful process, as a younger artist. Now it seems more ‘matter of fact’, with the same passion, but without the labour pains of giving birth. The same frustrations, of course. Sometimes you work for hours, excited you have found a new path for the song, a new angle. Only to take a break and discover you have done the obvious or the ‘same as before’, gone to the same physical and metaphorical ‘muscle memory’. In practical terms, I generally sit, loop on, studio ready to record, violin in lap, pen and paper on the desk in front. I might write some words, a line that I like the way the words trip off the tongue and start to form a rhythm in my mind. And think of what I am trying to say, to express. I may start with riff, or quite often bassline that compliments the idea. Or I might just get up and beat fuck out of my violin and loop and loop and loop until I go slightly insane. But not insane enough that I forget to press ‘record’ beforehand. Listen back, scan, re-do, re-record. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Time dilates. A simple thing takes hours. Everything shifts massively, all in one go. You learn to let it, or restrict it, where appropriate. More frustration, occasional despair. Always a ‘this is shit, why did I even bother wasting any time on it / starting it / actually existing?’ (*note to younger song writers reading: ‘This is entirely normal and necessary to the process. Don’t just start something new. Just take a break from it. And learn when to be cruel and kind with it.’) Then all’s good, and all’s right with the world. Sure, your family might have gone or holiday without you, or left you entirely without you noticing. But you got the song finished, at least. Easy-peasy 😉
Q: After such a dystopian or prophetic album like “2020 Vision” what will come next? And what are your personal, artistic goals and dreams for the further years?
Matt: My initial thought after Austerity, Brexit, and Coronavirus, was possibly Disco. This may have been beer-induced in a lighter moment, I concede. Earlier that evening I might have gone with Death or Destruction.
I’ll probably go with ‘more general fucking of the Earth, it’s resources, its general population for the sake of a few psychopathic narcissists who seek baubles and control, and pretty soon drive our species to extinction and the general greater good of the planet and other species if it actually survives them’. It’s not that catchy a slogan, I concede.
They, at least, will have some fun this year telling certain parts of the planet to despise and disregard other parts of the planet, so that they can continue stripping without distraction. And we all shall continue to breed, consume, beautifully create and wreck the fabric we drape around us. And I shall write a catchy little song about it, I suppose. It’s a tough ask. And possibly an opera. I may just have to return to my ‘happy place’, making my own Doll’s-house intricate little world, removed from the actual monstrously-beautiful one.
“Lockdown Sieben” has most certainly been my happy place for the last four months. A beautiful outlet for me. A most beautiful bringing together of the ‘disparate tribes of Sieben’. In that world where you left your house and got on a plane, arrived somewhere, played to a great audience, and then were gone from there for a year. And the same many other places. The people rarely ‘come together’, except for some, together at the bigger festivals. Online, all come together, and enjoy the fact they are there together as much as the concert itself. A lovely tribe has formed. I’m loving this- and many aspects of online performing, despite the apparent ‘divide’ of being ‘virtual’. I don’t feel this anymore, not since my very first online concert in May. People can merrily chat-type without it being over the music; I’m getting sound I could only dream of at a live concert; fantastic to sing through a sensitive studio mic, and get the dynamics I truly intended in the music. All through beautiful analogue processors that I wouldn’t take (or get) out on the road. In the “Lockdown Sieben”-Facebook group (come join it!), people discuss their evenings, what they’re drinking, what songs they’d like to hear, and whatever they like- for an artist this is a true blessing. That people care about, and get something from your music. All that work, all that frustration, that search for a chord that doesn’t exist, or an emotion that truly does, but is indescribable, dissipates in an instant 😀 Come join me online, on a Friday evening 😉
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