Stifling heat, Beyonce, sprawl, oil, oil money, labyrinthine hospitals—Houston conjures all these images for me. I associate muchness with Houston, much as the world does Texas at large.
When I think of Texas, I don’t think of music that suggests soft-focus elegance or nourishing inner lives. Yes, Austin produced Balmorhea, Explosions in the Sky and Stars of the Lid. But Houston and Austin, in my mind at least, have as much in common as Tupac and James Taylor. So I perked up when Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson of the Nashville duo Hammock debuted Slow Meadow on their label last year.
The alias of 32-year-old Matt Kidd, who grew up an hour south of Houston, in Angleton, Slow Meadow is, as the name implies, centered on calm, textural beauty. The palette is micro in practice, but grand in scope: Kidd uses little more than crawling piano motifs, light programming and minimal string accompaniment to convey vast expanses of feeling.
Though produced by a relative newcomer, Slow Meadow’s self-titled debut earned Kidd an appearance on John Dilibreto’s PRI show Echoes, as well as commissions for short film and modern dance. On my shelf, Slow Meadow quickly gained the stature of records by A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Nils Frahm and Bing & Ruth, and no doubt that will increasingly be true for others who follow the ambient/modern classical scene closely.
Kidd is scheduled to begin recording a follow-up in September, but, as he told me on the phone last week, he never really stops writing. Much of this work will likely remain unheard, he says, but fans will be glad to know he released a fine new single on Friday: “Lachrymosia” and the b-side “Some Familiar.”
I caught Kidd on the phone in Seattle and, despite being on vacation with his wife, the gracious Texan seemed happy to discuss his new work, the distinction between an artist and his art, killer bees, and much more.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What compels you toward making slow, wordless, minimalistic music?
Primarily my own experiences with it. I’d listen to bands like Hammock while having a melancholy or quiet moment, and there was something about this music that made me feel that I was connected to something bigger. I don’t claim that means anything more than just an experience, but we’ve all had those moments in music where the stars seem to align, when you gain clarity or calm.
I’d been touring and playing as a hired gun for a decade, and in 2012 I began making my own music. I don’t know exactly where the desire came from, but this music was so powerful to me that I suppose I wanted to give back to it somehow.
What type of music were you playing as a hired gun?
I got my start playing Christian music, and branched out to Texas country and playing with singer-songwriters. I’m from Houston, so those were the main types of music around. When I was younger, I was into Metallica and Tool and other heavy, guitar-centric bands. I was into Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, stuff like that. The guys I saw playing at the music shops around town, guys who were small-town heroes, were playing churches, and I began doing the same. Eventually I got connected to studios around Houston, and that allowed me to work outside Christian music. But, starting out, church was an easy place to play nervously and terribly in front of people and have it be O.K.
Hypothetically the worshipers are focused on something else other than your guitar playing.
Were you trained in composition, or did Slow Meadow branch out of toying around by ear? Is your family musical?
I’m not formally trained, no. But I’ve worked with a lot of people who compose and read and really understand music. I’ve picked up a lot of those principles along the way.
As far as my family, no, not really. My dad had a banjo and an acoustic guitar that he usually kept hung to the wall. Every once in awhile he’d take one down and kind of pick it and strum it. He would sing like a folk song or something. But performance wasn’t a big part of my upbringing.
I did take piano lessons for two years. I’m sure some of those things stuck with me, but back then I didn’t really connect with it. I did perform a recital and, funny enough, I played the whole thing an octave too high. I realized that as I was walking off stage.
But, yeah, I didn’t pick up guitar until I was like 16. There was long hiatus of not doing anything musical. I was more into, like, computer gaming.
I come from a heavy music background too, and also gravitated to ambient, modern classical and slow, experimental music as I got older. It seems counterintuitive, but I think there’s a strong link between really really aggressive music and really, really soft music.
I’m fascinated by that connection as well. I’ve talked with Marc [Byrd, of Hammock] about it, and he thinks the common thread is a heavy emotionally or a weightiness. Also, both styles are, for most people anyway, acquired tastes. You’re not gonna just dive into, say, doom music, and, conversely, even though ambient or slow music is easier to listen to, it’s also easier to overlook. But, yeah, think about metal and classical music: they can look almost the same transposed on the page.
Tell me about your new work. Do you view “Lachrymosia” as a progression of your sound? I hear a subtle evolution in your use of programming. I noticed you were toying with electronic textures in a more pronounced way when I saw you live last month too.
I intentionally shied away from using much rhythm on the first record. Live drums were recorded for a couple of pieces, but I could never get them to sit right, so I scrapped them. “Lachrymosia,” the name of the single, isn’t a real word, but it’s a play on the Latin word for weeping, so I wanted to give the song a heaviness, and make the rhythm sort of push you along. I wanted it to feel like you don’t really have a choice about how you feel in the face of strong emotions or grief.
What can you tell me about the next full-length?
The plan is to approach it differently than I’ve approached prior recordings. I’ll be heading to Sonic Ranch, in El Paso, for five days. Beach House recorded Bloom there. We’ll be there in September, and I’m going to bring a quartet. I’m going to score and record as much music as I can. I’m hoping to plug into some old AC30s from the ’60s and bang away at the 1929 Steinway piano they have, and just do something that’s…I want the process to be more immersive, like I want the experience of listening to it to be.
Let’s talk Houston. I haven’t been there since I was a kid, so forgive my naïveté. But it’s not easy for me to think of ambient or modern classical music when it comes to mind. I think of sprawl. I think of oil. I think of traffic. I think of films about killer bee invasions.
When I think of, say, Sigur Ros or Bjork, I think of pastoral Reykjavik. When I listen to Radiohead’s new album, I think of pastoral England. When I listen to Hammock, I think of lush Tennessee hillsides. I’m sure there are beautiful areas of Houston, but I don’t know them. I only know the cliches, but they’re cliches for a reason, even if they’re not totally or even mostly accurate. So I’m curious if you feel, even on a subconscious level, like what you’re doing with slowness and beauty is pushing against that hot capitalist energy?
Yeah, Houston. There’s oil everywhere. There’s oil in the ground, oil in the air. There’s traffic and sprawl. But it’s a good place to live because there are so many good people. There’s a lot of talent too. There’s not really a music scene for what I’m doing, as far as playing live and having a community. I’m definitely not writing against the idea of Houston with Slow Meadow, though.
I grew up religious, but I don’t consider myself religious anymore. If I’ve focused on a theme, it’s disillusion. I don’t have lyrics, but that theme is entwined with my first record.
But there’s never been this moment of consciously working against your surroundings.
I might be oblivious that people identify me by the fact that I’m from Houston. [Laughs] I’m just like, “Oh, I’m just a guy doing music.” We could talk about how we get too busy and distracted, and the music is definitely going against that. It’s saying, “Let’s slow down and listen and say less, and just pay attention to our inner experiences.” Hopefully, in some small way, it’s putting something serene back into the cosmos.
It’s a good question, though. The older I get the more I’m fascinated by little details: where people are from, where they decide to live, that sort of thing. Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid comes to mind. He’s from Austin, right?
I think he went to college there. I interviewed Adam and Dustin O’Halloran when they were touring on the last Winged Victory record, and we discussed their individual moves to Europe. It seemed like they both intended to stay. I sensed that, beyond Adam and Dustin simply enjoying Belgium and Italy, the choice of living abroad suggested a rejection of mainstream American values.
I’d probably commiserate with those views on some level. I don’t know. It seems like maturity or deep thinking about the world are very important in this scene, and I haven’t always experienced that in other scenes. That’s not always true, of course, but sometimes it feels that way.
I think there’s something to that. On one hand, this scene can take itself very seriously. That can be a turnoff, but there’s also a maturity involved in delineating between someone’s art and who they are as individuals. I’m also thinking about the literal sound of this stuff. You’re dealing with such a limited palette, which exaggerates the importance of each choice you make. There’s a maturity that has to go into making records and thinking about how to push the sound forward.
Exactly. Every little detail matters. That’s the key. That’s the maturity I’m talking about. Marc and I talked about this, too, because the records people tend to make in Nashville, where Hammock is based, are often bigger productions featuring endless layers of sound. Layers can be cool—Hammock uses them really well—but they can create a big mess.
Great details get ruined because someone felt the sound needed to be “fuller” or whatever. I don’t want to make that type of stuff anymore. I want to make something quiet, where one thing is the focus. If you don’t pay attention to it, you’ll miss it, but if you do hear it, then you’ll feel like it was very intentional.
You said something else that triggered a thought, and now I’ve lost it because I’m ADD. It was something I wanted to say. I’ll shoot you a text or something.
Let me know before Friday if you think of anything else you want to add.
I’m just going to keep calling you and be like, “You know what I should have said?”
It’ll be our version of the Kanye record. We’ll just keep making edits to it.
You did say something about taking the music too seriously. There can be this persona that exists in the heads of listeners of experimental work that’s like, “These people are probably just weighty, heavy, brooding people all the time.”
‘There was something about this music that made me feel that I was connected to something bigger…Hopefully, in some small way, it’s putting something serene back into the cosmos.’
It’s an assumption of a cloud weighing over you. I don’t live my life weighty and heavy all the time. I have a lighthearted side. I imagine most composers or ambient artists do. You know what I mean?
I want Slow Meadow to look and sound and feel a certain way, but at a certain point I have to say, “Come on, we’re just making music here. We’re sharing it, and we’re having experiences together. After that we can go have a drink and laugh and act like assholes.” But of course we can also experience heavy moments together and alone.
I get it. I recently wrote about why I’m into heavy music, or music that suggests melancholy. Sometimes my fear as a writer is that essays like that can strike people as too raw. Not that writing is the same thing as music composition, but there’s a similarity in how they can be received, and a danger in linking the person to the work. Catharsis in this music allows me to feel those heavy things, but once I’m released from them, then I’m sort of like, “Cool, let’s go to the beach.”
Yeah, “Let’s listen to Beyonce.”