Matt Drenik has guest edited Magnet Magazine online, performed at SXSW, released a successful debut album, and scored big with his music being featured on FX's hit drama Sons of Anarachy. The songwriter released his new effort, Future Runs Magnetic, earlier this year. A record that saw him trying something different from his debut, and giving him things to think about for his next record. Battleme, his stage name, will be playing at the Black Cat on July 21, and kindly agreed to answer a few questions. He discusses his new record, integrity in songwriting, the opening act struggle, making a living through merchandise, and some how Taylor Swift gets thrown in there.
[FO]: How does your new album, Future Runs Magnetic, compare to your debut album Big Score?
[MD]: [laughs] It’s a lot more full band, organic, kind of beefier rock songs in a way. The first one was more of, I was in a basement studio on my own, writing and recording, not really concerned how it sounded live. This one was definitely more of a band collaboration.
[FO]: Certain songs have more of an old 70s kind of a sound, and others more of a 90s. Was it a conscious effort of how you wanted the album to go?
[MD]: No, I think what happens is, you know I play guitar and when you write, I was just writing songs and then adding heavy guitar and then once we got the producer involved, Doug Boehm, who’s worked with Guided By Voices and Elliot Smith, then also Verbena and different 90s bands like that, you know they kind of shape it in a certain way, and essentially if you write pop songs with loud distorted guitars, everyone’s just going to slap the 90s thing on it and call it a day [laughs]. It’s kind of what just ends up happening, you know, it’s like when you put keys on something and you slap a dance beat on it, everyone says it’s the 80s. So it wasn’t a conscious effort, it was more just, you know, when you’re in a band, in a touring band, especially when you’re the opening band, you’ve got thirty minutes to prove yourself to an audience that is suspect at best. My natural inclination is to turn it up and to crank it out. So that was kind of where the record came from, being more in that mind frame.
[FO]: How was it for you to work with a full band this time?
[MD]: Umm, it was fun and also difficult. [laughs] I mean essentially, I came from a space where I was in bands for years, so working with different musicians was always something that came natural to me. But the liberty of doing it on your own without an audience to care about, is pretty cool. And I did miss that in a sense. But for the most part it’s a give and take, there are some things that are better and some things that are worse. But overall it was a lot of fun.
[FO]: Usually you hear people who are in bands, then they went solo, and they talk about the difference with that. Not the opposite way.
[MD]: [laughs] Well you know, it’s, I’m a moody person. My records reflect my mood. What ends up happening is, you write, as a songwriter, you write constantly. You write songs every week, or every day, however prolific you want to be. But when you make a record, for some reason a lot of those songs that you write throughout the year, they get ditched for songs that are the most current. So like the label says, oh we want you to go into the studio, and were going to book some time over the next couple of months. So your mind gets into the frame of I’ve got to write a record. And then you start to try writing these songs that will fit together. So the mood at the time was rock band.
[FO]: That reminds me of Sixpence None The Richer. They had the huge hit with “Kiss Me,” but the rest of the album sounded nothing like that. Is there a song on the album, that say people could only listen to one song before that bought it. Which song would you pick?
[MD]: “Just Weight.”
[FO]: I figured you would say that.
[MD]: It’s funny, that song in particular is one that I crafted entirely on my own. You know, as far as like the beats, a lot of the synth playing, and stuff like that. And I really had to fight for that one, to get it to the way that I wanted it to sound. In the beginning when we started doing rough mixes for that particular song, it was very guitar heavy, and there weren’t any synths in it at all. And then I had this whole moment during the mix down phase where I was like scratch it, I’ve got to redo this with the keys and I want the acoustic guitar in it. I just had this sound that I wanted it to be like. I think we got there, ninety percent of the way. I would say that one in particular is the most songy, the one that I’m most proud of. On the record, as far as the content goes and the way that the strong was structured. It’s probably why I led off with it first.
[FO]: Is it also the one you like playing the most live?
[MD]: Uhhhh, yeah, probably [laughs]. It’s one of my favorites, live for sure. It’s always like a good feeling in the set when it comes up.
[FO]: Writing versus singing, if you had to do one or the other for the rest of your life, which one would you prefer?
[MD]: The question is would I rather write songs or sing songs?
[FO]: Correct. So if you weren’t’ going to be able to do live shows anymore, you were just going to be a songwriter.
[MD]: Oh. [laughs] Tough question. I always wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. I never envisioned myself as a performer. I always felt that I wanted to write novels, and things like that. Songwriting was a different outlet. I think the answer to your question, would I rather sit in my basement and write records, absolutely. I would much rather do that than play live any day of the week. Because live nowadays feels more like entertainment. It feels like you’ve got to go out there, especially as a support band, and entertain the crowd. I think that any musician that says differently is a total fucking liar. You know what I mean. From what you do, to how you act on stage, to what you wear, it’s pretty calculated. There’s not a lot of Iggy Pops and Nick Cages anymore. So I try to be as uninhibited as I possibly can on stage. And that’s the reason why I like to freak out and dance around and sweat. But none of its rehearsed or choreographed or anything like that. I’m trying to come from a good point of view I think.
[FO]: The only people I think can kind of get away with that, is someone like Adele. Adele basically does nothing on stage, but obviously you aren’t really going there to see here do anything other than sing.
[MD]: No, right. I think it’s something that I’ve had to deal with a lot over this past year. I mean, shit, we all do it you know. A lot of times I don’t pay attention to the opening band either when I go to shows. I saw Guided By Voices a month ago. I grew up listening to them, I love them. And Bobby Barrett Jr. opened for them, and he was cool, he sounded cool, but I was there to see Guided By Voices. It’s rare that you go into a venue to see a headlining band, and the opening band gets the amount of attention that it really should deserve. [laughs] You know what I mean, it’s tough. You got to get out there and kick out the jams, you can’t be pulling the I’m an artist schtick.
[FO]: Sometimes I don’t think they pick the right opening bands. Maybe the two bands know each other, but they don’t have similar enough music to where the audience that’s coming for the headliner would even like the opening act.
[MD]: I couldn’t even tell you, I agree with you so much. It’s quite the conundrum that people get in to. It’s tough. You’re there to pick up people’s audience, that’s essentially why you’re opening up these shows. And if there is a two percent chance of you even breaking their audience, it’s almost a wash on why you would go. Cause you’re definitely not going for the money. The money’s tough, so you’ve got to make it work in other ways. We make up our back end on merchandise sales, which are always really good for us.
[FO]: That’s what I’ve heard for even the Beyonces and the Madonnas. A lot of these big acts do make a lot of their money from merchandise. Because a forty dollar tank top will add up after a while.
[MD]: Yeah, it’ll go a long way. You kind of have to you know. There’s not a lot of information of how support bands get paid and what they make. It’s funny cause my brother was in a very like skuzzy cow punk band in the 90s, he used to play with Jesus Lizard all the time. The support pay was the same amount you get now, and it’s twenty years later. The cost of living is four times that. There’s just a lot of things where merchandise is really everything. For the support band, you’ve got to have good merch, you’ve got to be back there trying to sell it, cause it will really help you make a living.
[FO]: Before selling out was a big thing, now you hear almost every band’s song in a TV show or a movie. Where before, people didn’t license their music for anything. Is that a part of it now?
[MD]: That’s interesting, the idea of what a sellout is anymore, because I had a very different view point of it when I was in my teens than I do now. To answer your question, I do think licensing and sync is a big part of any band’s survival nowadays, especially if you want to make a living at it. This is what I’ve been doing for five years now without a job. One of the reasons why I can do it, is because of my Sons of Anarchy tie in, the residuals that I get off all those songs. Also working different sync opportunities. It is kind of where everyone wants to go now, cause no one buys records. I feel like the people took the power back from the labels. They were like fuck you, were not going to buy records anymore because they’re just too expensive. And then they had all the power, and then they blew it. And now every band is in a McDonald’s commercial, it sucks. No one likes it, man. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. If more people would buy records, I’m sure more bands would stop selling their songs to things that they don’t really need to sell them to.
[FO]: Then would you as a writer, write a song for a Taylor Swift or One Direction? Writing a song for one of them would probably pay your rent for the year.
[MD]: I’ve got to say I wouldn’t. I probably wouldn’t. As far as I’m concerned, there’s has to be a line in the sand. I have nothing against those big pop acts, but at some point it’s like come on. When you talk about bands with other people, you’ll be in a conversation and they’ll say “oh that band sucks.” And then you’re like really though man. There are a lot of man, you know what I mean, that are really not good. That are not tasteful at all. And there are other bands that you might just not like, but they’re coming from a good place. We’re all kids that are into cool music, you want to like good stuff. I don’t know if I answered your question, I’m kind of rambling.
[FO]: No, you did. There is someone like Sia, who’s written songs for major pop stars for awhile now, but no one really knew who she was. And now she is sort of breaking out. I’m assuming it was kind of necessary for her to do that or she probably wouldn’t be in the place that she is now if she hadn’t been writing for Britney Spears or whoever else she was writing for.
[MD]: Yeah, no you’re right. The guy that’s in my band, that plays guitar with me now, he was in a band called Marvelous Three back in the early 2000s, and Butch Walker is one of those guys. He’ll write songs for Pink, and Kelly Clarkson, and all that stuff. And unfortunately that stuff just isn’t my cup of tea. It’s not something that I really like, that I would listen to.
[FO]: I don’t think there is any shame in saying that you wouldn’t write it, and any shame in saying that you would. I think people sometimes think that you are naïve or stupid because you don’t want to do it, but it’s just not your think like you said. There is a lot of integrity in saying that’s just not my thing, I’m not going to do it. Versus here is ten thousand dollars, oh okay, now I’m going to do it.
[MD]: Yeah. Music is such a beautiful thing because it’s so subjective. It’s like, the same people who walk down the street, you have no idea what they listen to, but they all do listen to music. The fact that someone is going to be really struck with Adele, and she really moves them in a certain way, is totally cool. And they should feel like that because that’s what it’s there for. The last thing anyone wants to feel is judged; being an artist or being a fan. So yeah, I agree with you. You just got to do whatever’s in your heart. Whatever your heart tells you to do, that’s what you should do. For me, I can’t write that stuff [laughs].
[FO]: It’s not in your heart.
[MD]: But you know, I’ll write a song for a biker show. People might think that’s not their cup of tea, so.
[FO]: Are you working on new stuff for your next album?
[MD]: Yes, I am. Like actively, right now. I’m about half way through a new record. Working out the material, and I’m supposed to go in and cut in September. It would be a new full length, which I’m excited about. The songs are cool, and I’m excited about the direction that it’s heading.
[FO]: Is it with the band again?
[MD]: Uhhh, yeah, kind of. This time around I’m going to pick up people. So I’m going to have different people play different things on it. I’ll probably do a lot of the guitar stuff and some other stuff. I’ll probably have Chad, who’s playing with me right now, play the bass. I’ll have a slew of different drummers play on different songs. But I’ll be mainly in control of it this time, it’ll be a nice combo between the first and second record I think.