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An interview with roots rocker Jimbo Mathus

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Jimbo Mathus has stated that the songs from his latest release, “Dark Night of the Soul,” were designed to “fall right off the bone” rather than come across as an attempt to flaunt his underrated versatility as a musician, and, when you listen to them, you hear exactly what he’s talking about. Instead of sounding as if they were pre-prepared selections found on a menu from any chain restaurant where the flavors remain the same regardless of your coordinates, these meaty tracks are dripping with the kind of emotion and in-the-cut realism only whipped up at a one-of-a-kind establishment.

Mathus and his cohorts, The Tri-State Coalition, sing and play their collective heart out on every inch of this record in a way that can’t be duplicated. The production is live, the vocals seething, and I’d be willing to bet that no two shows on the tour materialize in quite the same fashion. If modern pop music has veered unwisely toward a corporate philosophy predicated on stenciled arrangements and marginal ability, “Dark Night of the Soul” is the grinning antithesis of everything we’re conditioned to love about mainstream artists in 2014.

“White Angel” is a greasy, Allman-esque blues run that hearkens back to better days, “Burn the Ships” puts sixteenth-century preacher Jonathan Edwards’s fire-and-brimstone theology through an apocalyptic Neil Young filter, and “Medicine” comes off as a gut-wrenching final gasp from the gutter by a junkie whose opiate cloud is about to roll in.

Expect to hear them all when Mathus hits the Sportsmen’s Tavern stage tonight, because, as he told me directly, these songs were made for the spontaneous give-and-take of the live setting.

As for what else we talked about, well, you’ll just have to read on and get the story from the man himself.

Question: How does working at Dial Back Sound allow you to get the most out of your sound?

Mathus: Well, it’s a great studio. I’ve been making records the same way for 20 years and I love having everything sound live right off of the floor. It provides a mix I can be comfortable with, because what you hear on the record is exactly what you hear when we play in front of a live audience. It’s not as if we’re going to painstaking lengths to perfect every little detail in the studio. The sound is raw and captures the emotion of the music beautifully.

Question: “Dark Night of the Soul” has been called your most personal album yet. How easy is it for you to really let yourself go during the writing process?

Mathus: Pretty easy. I come from a rural area full of honesty and inspiration, so my imagination just takes over. As far as the darkness goes, I have a habit of writing in which I’m drawn to a variety of topics I can generate passionate about.

Question: The production of the album comes off as much more authentic and stripped-down than anything heard on mainstream radio at the moment. How important is it for you to maintain the integrity of the music when laying it down?

Mathus: My approach has always been that making a record is about capturing the emotion and immediacy of the material rather than hitting every note perfectly. I wanted my voice to sound as unfiltered as possible. When we all get into the same room, the band and I let everything out and hope that the finished product is representative of the lightning exuded by our collective effort. Mainstream radio wouldn’t play my music anyway, but I’ve never cared much about that aspect of the industry.

Question: Now that you’ve been playing with the same bandmates for a while now, do you feel as if that collective effort really came together on this album?

Mathus: Definitely. I think the familiarity we have with each other combined with our driving force for success makes the chemistry come alive. They believe in me and I believe in them. We’ve spent hours recording together and I recognize the need to cater to their strengths when constructing a song. We always bring the best out in each other.

Question: “Burn the Ships” jumped out at me for its brutal guitar riffs and chaotic vocal attack. How did that track come about?

Mathus: It’s about Spanish conquistadors colonizing and burning villages in the name of imperialism. There are also some biblical references thrown into the mix, which amp up the apocalyptic tone of the music. It’s a fiery statement that definitely comes alive on stage and I can’t wait to bring it to Buffalo.

Question: What is it about the South that makes it such a breeding ground for musical inspiration?

Mathus: For me, it’s my home, my land, my roots, and my origin, so everything about it resonates within me. If you think about how much greatness came out of a relatively small area, it’s pretty amazing. You had Stax, Sun, and essentially the birth of American music all happening around the same time, so I couldn’t imagine wanting to live and work anywhere else.

Question: Who were your greatest influences when assembling material for the current record?

Mathus: I’m always influenced by world events, but, for this record especially, I had some friends experiencing hard times and wanted to put those feelings to music. Anything can inspire me, really. Whether I’m reacting to a billboard on the side of the road, recalling a conversation I once overheard, or simply commenting on life as it happens, I always make sure that the best songs end up making the album. What you hear on “Dark Night of the Soul” is just a sampling of what I’d been dealing with over a year of the process.

Question: How have audiences connected to the material thus far?

Mathus: It’s been a good response. While I had some early success with Squirrel Nut Zippers during the ‘90s, I think I’m still trying to find my audience in terms of my solo material. My sound is based on honesty and I believe that my label has done a great job of putting things together. We’ve been out on the road developing a following and I’m dedicated to making it as genuine as possible.

Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition play Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern tonight. Showtime is 7:00 p.m.

See http://www.sportsmenstavern.com for details.

http://www.jimbomathus.com

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