INTERVIEW: MATT PETERS

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“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t really like the feeling of getting too comfortable with the process … You never want to have the sensation that you’ve found something concrete. All art forms should always have a certain amount of mystery to them. You don’t really know why things work … It’s always been a process of discovery. What excites me is not knowing the process. So if something gets a little too easy, I get very suspicious that maybe things are getting a little stale.”

Matt Peters at length about Royal Canoe’s forthcoming transnational ventures, taking the risk of NOT having 100 things happening at once and the state of the Waking Eyes’ “open relationship.” Oh, and also why Winnipeggers need to find time to travel.

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PS: Well first off I want to thank you for your time today. I’m not interrupting any last-minute packing, am I?

Matt: Oh no. Oh no.

PS: When do you guys take off for Europe?

Matt: Actually, tomorrow at 8 o’clock in the morning.

PS: Oh, wow. OK.

Matt: Yeah. Pretty excited.

PS: Is this going to be your first trip over there?

Matt: No, not me personally. But it’s gonna be the first trip with Royal Canoe. We’re really stoked.

PS: So how did that come up? What brought you to the European engagements?

Matt: Well, we always kind of wanted to. We always thought that people in Europe might dig what we’re doing, and I mean, honestly, any excuse to go to Europe to play music, you’ve gotta take it. To me, that’s kind of like the definition of success. To be in the music business and to travel to places that you wouldn’t get to go normally and play with people. So, any chance you have, you take it. An opportunity came up and we’re gonna have our released out there as well in the fall and so we figured, “Why not head out this summer and see how it goes?”

PS: Absolutely. Very cool. Well I have plenty to ask you about with regards to Royal Canoe, but before we get to that, I was hoping to talk to you about a few different aspects of your career. I’ve actually known your music since back in 2003 since I was at Marquette University in Milwaukee. One day I’m walking down the hall and my roommate was just blaring this new tune. I walk into his room and he’s doing air piano and singing at the top of his lungs, and it’s “Forget About All the Rest” from the Waking Eyes’ Combing the Clouds album.

Matt: Right! Oh, wow. [Laughter]

PS: I go, “What is this?!” He goes, “ISN’T IT GREAT!”

Matt: That’s amazing.

PS: So yeah, been a fan since then. Now I think it was 2009 or so, you guys announced that the Waking Eyes “weren’t getting a divorce.” It was “an open relationship.” So is that still the case, or has the focus moved entirely to Royal Canoe now?

Matt: Well, you know, Rusty [Matyas] has a project called Imaginary Cities that he’s quite focused on. I have Royal Canoe and I’m focused on that. I think Joey [Penner] has his own thing that he’s working on. You know what? I don’t know if it’s officially a divorce, but I don’t know if we’d officially say, 100 percent, “We’re never gonna play together again.” At this point, I feel like I don’t know when it would happen. It’s not to say it would never happen, but I think for us, it’s like, we’re all quite happy in what we’ve moved on to. I don’t think anyone’s resentful. We’re all on really good terms with each other, so I wish the other guys all the success and we help each other out when we can. I think we’re all quite content with the current situation.

PS: OK. With the buildup that came through the Waking Eyes career—obviously with Video Sound you got some major-label experience. And then with Holding On To Whatever It Is, that increased your profile a bit more. How did that set the stage for what you’ve come into with Royal Canoe?

Matt: Well, I think at the very least, it taught me a little bit more about the industry. It’s a strange industry. [Laughter] There’s a lot of people who work in this industry and I think when you get started, it’s odd. So the more you know about it, the more experience you have in it, the more prepared you are to make good decisions right off the hop. You know, hopefully, you don’t make the same mistakes again—whatever they are, small mistakes, big mistakes. If anything, it prepared me for that. And so starting Royal Canoe, it was a pretty deliberate process. Finding the right people to play with and then just how we’ve approached this—it’s been about a three-year project now.

PS: Right.

Matt: So, it was figuring out what’s the best way to approach this thing. The thing we didn’t want to do is rush anything. We definitely haven’t done that. [Laughter] It’s been a long time that we’ve been working on these songs, so we’re really excited that the record’s finally finished and that it should be coming out really soon.

PS: And given the fact that you have that previous experience, do the other members of Royal Canoe—have they come up in the music scene the same way, or are you kind of the “Godfather” in terms of experience?

Matt: Well, maybe as far as age goes and maybe a little bit in terms of experience, I’m kind of the quote-unquote “Godfather.” Oh that’s great. I love that. I’m gonna tell the other guys that’s my new position in the band. You know, to be honest with you, everyone has had quite extensive experience with other projects. Going through the whole thing, touring, traveling the country, putting out records, going through that whole process, making mistakes, having various amounts of success and failures. So, I think from everyone’s perspective, Royal Canoe has been where we’re being the most deliberate and the most prepared. And I think everyone in the band can attest to that.

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PS: OK. When it started, I know the idea at the time—at least from what I was hearing—the first Royal Canoe project just came out of hanging out with friends and fleshing out a few ideas that were hanging on the side. Now, obviously, it seems to be a much more focused, cohesive thing. When did that turn come? When did it become, “This is good. We’ve gotta put all our energy into this now”?

Matt: Well like you said, the beginning was just, “OK, I’m gonna write some songs.” We had some downtime from the Waking Eyes and I was like going to pay a visit to people who were also musicians around here. So let’s write a song, why not? So we just started doing that, and suddenly, one day you’re like, “Hey, I have a record here.” That first record was not deliberate in any sense. It was very off-the-cuff. I didn’t spend very much time thinking about what it was gonna be. I just, you know, wrote the songs with friends and brought some other people in to do some recording with me and did a lot of work on my own. Then when it was all done, I just sat on it for a couple years and then a couple opportunities arose to put together a live project. And that’s when the other guys got involved.

PS: OK.

Matt: So yeah. At first it was just to perform songs live. And then it became, “Hey, let’s try writing some songs together with the group.” So we wrote a couple, wrote a few more and then it became a lot more evident that we were doing something that was kind of taking the best things of that first project, but really, it wasn’t the same thing. I think, in a way, there was a germ from that first project that we allowed to grow and it bore some fruit, which is the current Royal Canoe. It’s hard to exist without that first thing, maybe. I don’t know. But after we started writing songs and just feeling the process out together, I think we all got pretty excited with what we were creating, so then it was, “Hey, let’s go on a tour.” We got a good response and then it just kind of ballooned from there.

Paul: From a songwriting perspective, how does writing songs in this project differ from things that you’ve done before? I would look back at some of the Waking Eyes stuff, and maybe not so much on Holding On To Whatever It Is, but before, a lot of it was straightforward, guitar-based rock and roll. 

Matt: Right.

PS: Whereas now, it’s a lot more, “Let’s get the synthesizers involved,” “Let’s build all these loops.” I got a preview of the new album [Today We’re Believers, due June 25, 2013], which is great by the way, and I mean a lot of it actually sounds kind of symphonic. I mean “Exodus of the Year” sounds so, so joyous. So how does that experience differ for you?

Matt: You know what? To be honest with you, I feel like if I go all the way back to Combing the Clouds or even the band that preceded the Waking Eyes, called the Pets, that’s kind of how we always worked on music—primarily writing on the computer. Maybe you’d start with the song, or maybe the song would reveal itself as you started putting on different layers. I think the straight-ahead part you were referencing was more of the anomalous period. To me, it’s the only way I think I can really work. For instance, if I sit down at the piano and write a great pop song and throw in some tape loops and call it a day—I think it’s probably the reverse of that. We just try to create an atmosphere, some sort of experience, and then out of that, a song emerges. Then you go back and forth, you peel everything back and you see what’s there. Then you add it all again and subtract half of it—it’s a lot of muting. [Laughter] I think our songwriting process, at least half of it, is having what we call a “mute path.” We go through a song and just randomly start muting things. It’s amazing when you cut away the layers and do that. Suddenly, these things will start interacting with each other in ways that you hadn’t really anticipated. And a lot of that happens in our songwriting process.

PS: Vocally too—obviously one of the thing that jumps out is the effects here. On “Bathtubs” for example, you’ve got everybody singing. But if you look at “Today We’re Believers” or “Nightcrawlin,” you’ve got a lot of effects when you double, triple, quadruple-track your voice too. Is that an experiment you just want to try, or do you feel that brings something more to the sound?

Matt: There’s two ways you can look at it. In some ways, maybe it’s done out of insecurities. I know that would be the obvious reason to create effects on some things. Maybe there’s some truth to that. I don’t think there is, but you never know. I mean, I’ve heard a million songs that’s just a clean vocal. And that sounds great and everything, but I think we’re just—in all aspects—nothing is off the table in terms of what we’re gonna try to alter sonically. I think in the end, it’s all about trying to tap into your emotions. So putting on effect isn’t just to be gratuitous or go “Wow, that’s weird.” It’s more about, “How does that make me feel?” “How am I responding to that?” So it’s all been quite purposeful in that sense.

PS: When it comes to the lyrics, is it a collaborative process? Because when I listen to a lot of the songs, it almost seems like you’re really working line-by-line. It creates a much more interesting song than, I don’t know, “Met a girl at the bar and she was really pretty …”

Matt: [Laughter] Right.

PS: So how does that work?

Matt: It’s interesting you say that. It is absolutely collaborative. Not all the songs, but most of them I’d say are team efforts between me and Matt [Schellenberg] or me and Bucky [Driedger]. We do a lot of paired-up writing. I mean, also a lot of things come from stream-of-consciousness perspective. Then afterwards, you’re like “OK.” I mean, that’s how a lot of lyric-writing works. It’s one thing to go, “I’m gonna write a song about …” like you said, what was it? “Met a girl on a barge?”

PS: The bar.

Matt: Oh, at a bar. [Laughter]

PS: A barge might be more appropriate to a Royal Canoe song.

Matt: Right. But I mean there’s a purpose that’s underlying it all. It’s the kind of thing where it’s been the most effective and brought up things that we’re really happy with. You know what? For me, honestly, if I could tell you what the whole process of Royal Canoe has taught me is that although working alone is great and I do enjoy it still, there is something about the collaborative process that I think, for me at least, brings out the best of what I do. And I think the best of what other people do too. Teaming up with someone as a pair or as a group and trying to create something, I don’t know, for whatever reason, there’s an energy that I find working with other people that I don’t always get when it’s me on my own. I think the same thing applies to the words.

PS: Looking ahead, I know you guys had some American dates earlier in the year. Are you gonna be coming south of the border again later this year?

Matt: Oh yeah. I think we’ll probably be doing something in the middle of summer. Maybe a June or July time frame. We should be in the States and then again in the fall, probably. I think our plans are probably to tour as much as possible. I would imagine that we’ll end up south of the border several times this year.

Credit: Sterling Andrews. https://www.facebook.com/RoyalCanoe

Credit: Sterling Andrews. https://www.facebook.com/RoyalCanoe

PS: How has the touring experience not only worked for the band in terms of gelling as a unit, but also changed from maybe what you had with the Waking Eyes? Because I remember when that band was going, I was always looking for American dates, but you seemed to stay up there most of the time.

Matt: Yes.

PS: Coming to the States and getting to do this European tour, what’s that like for you?

Matt: It’s another thing that from the get-go, we sort of said we wanted to go down to the States. I wouldn’t say we ignored it with the Waking Eyes. It just wasn’t as much of a priority and we wanted to make it a priority with Royal Canoe right from the get-go. So we got our visas, we booked our first tour and knew that that had to be a focus for us. To get back to the first part of your questions, I think for us, touring is and was a huge part of what we do. I think the live show is definitely at least half of our whole thing that we bring to the table. I think touring is an essential part of learning how to, like you said, gel the band. Learning how to play your songs properly. We aren’t a jam band. We don’t jam and then go, “Oh hey, there’s a song here.” It’s usually, we write a song, record it and then even after the fact, there’s all these pieces that we can still put together. So we’re in a position now where we’ve spent the last couple years playing through these songs, we know how to play them, and now with our album coming out, we’re pretty confident with where we’re at on that front. I know in the past, there have been situations where the album’s come out and you’re scrambling to figure out, “How do we do this again?”

PS: Right.

Matt: “What preset did we use for the keyboard?” [Laughter] Thankfully, we’re not in that position.

PS: Does the change of scenery being so frequent help you? I know I read some previous interviews with you and other guys in the band where you talk about writing all these songs in Winnipeg and having that balance between harsh winters and joyous summers. Does it serve—even mentally—as a break to have a night in a Chicago bar or time in Los Angeles or Manchester?

Matt: Oh yeah. I think it’s integral. I think I can speak for all Winnipeggers when I say that although it’s a great city, you can’t stay here for 12 months and maintain your sanity.

PS: [Laughter]

Matt: You have to leave. And that’s what’s great about touring as well. It gives you that chance to go somewhere else and experience somewhere else. But it’s always good to come back, no matter where your home is. It’s always nice to come home. For us, Winnipeg has been an important part of our whole writing process. For the reasons you mentioned—it’s always played into our songs. You can’t avoid it. It’s one of those type of those places.

PS: I remember I got the chance to interview Steve [Senkiw] of the Waking Eyes back in 2006, and he was talking to me about the Canadian music scene. And he told me that doing the rounds up there, you keep running into the same people. Does getting to stretch your legs more—even if it’s just making connections for certain gigs in California or something—does it open things up for you more?

Matt: Totally. The thing about Canada—and we love Canada and always want to tour here because there are so many great people here that are big into what we’re doing—but the one thing about it is that there’s 10 or 15 cities that you can really feasibly tour. And it’s so spread out and you don’t want to go to those places once a month or else no one’s gonna come to see you play anymore. So opening up and going out to the States allows you to tour year-long, if you want to. Ten times as many cities, a lot of bigger markets that you can go to. You know, you could spend a week in California. You could spend a month in California, really, just playing shows. Especially being from Winnipeg, you do an east coast thing or you do a west coast thing. It’s nice to be able to do a circle, or a half-circle of the continent. I would never want to take that out of the equation anymore.

PS: So many of the artists I interview now, we always end up talking about the modern state of the music industry. For Royal Canoe to be back on the indie scene—I know the Waking Eyes were never a huge, mainstream thing, but you did have Video Sound on a major label—but to have this touring plan now, how much does of a challenge does that pose for you guys in terms of making sure the money’s made to make those tours?

Matt: That’s a good question. I think especially with six people, that’s a constant challenge. How do you not just bleed money all the time until there’s no blood left.

PS: I’m sorry, I don’t mean to depress you. [Laughter]

Matt: No, no, it’s true. It’s something that you have to ask yourself. There comes a time when you say, “Oh, I’ve made a grand total of $300 for this band and I’ve put in about 5,000 hours to it. Hmmm.” To tell you the truth, it’s always gonna be a labor of love. You’re not doing it to make money, but at the same time, truth told, we do wanna approach this from a point of wanting to make a career out of it. You have to make it financially viable. That’s really where touring becomes a really important thing. Really, your only thing. You’re probably not gonna make a ton of money off record sales. I mean, maybe if you get lucky. All of that is sort of more winning the lottery than touring, which is simple. If you bring your show to a city and people like it, and you let them know you’re coming back, and then they come back, then it starts adding up. Then it becomes, “Oh, this could actually work.” But you have to be sensitive to the fan base. You have to be sensitive to the way that people approach it. It’s something we’re getting better at, but it is something that’s definitely on our minds.

PS: And how much does something like the video you just did with DJ Flula help that? Is that becoming a necessary thing where you try to find a way into the viral market too?

Matt: Yeah, I mean just like any—I hate this word, but—content. I mean any way that you connect with people. In the end, if you believe in what you’re doing and you think you’re making good music, you want people to hear it. I think that’s the whole purpose of that stuff. But at the same time, you can’t have fun doing it if you don’t believe in what you’re putting out there. There’s no sense in going out there and waving a bunch of pom-poms in the air trying to magic up some viral love. There has to be a purpose to it.

PS: Well and it’s cool to look at what you do too. Hand-Pollocking record sleeves for people. That does create so much more buy-in and loyalty from the people who follow you.

Matt: That’s what we’re hoping. If it’s an authentic thing and if you like the result, then people can sense that. If you don’t believe in the thing that you’re doing and there’s some kind of ulterior motive, people will see that.

PS: So what’s been the best experience in terms of drumming up excitement for the band that you’ve had so far?

Matt: That’s a good question. I think the first video we did, the “Nightcrawlin” video was maybe one of our best things. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, because it was a really quick thing we put together with a friend of ours named Mike Maryniuk and we just, you know, had this idea for a live performance video that kind of had some strange performance art weirdness to it. Just kind of got together one night, got a whole bunch of our friends there, went to the studio we worked and yeah, we’re really happy with how it turned out. And people are responding to it. I think it’s for the exact reasons that we were talking about—we’re obviously enjoying ourselves while we’re doing it.

PS: One of the things I wanted to ask you about too—I love the B-side that’s on that “Extended Play,” “Caught in a Loop.”

Matt: Right.

PS: You were talking earlier about the songwriting process and how muting brings a lot out of it. Is that the type of song where it had a lot of ingredients to begin with that were stripped back? Or did you say, “You know what? This is very light as is and it works …”?

Matt: It’s more like that, but that’s a weird one because that whole song came from a loop pedal that I got. I was showing Matt and Bucky how to use it. And I just, you know, in 10 minutes or less, said “Here.” There’s a drum, a tambourine. Then quickly laid down a bass guitar and then the guitar. It was just, “This is what you can do.” And then Matt’s like, “Oh cool.” He put down a backing vocal and then Bucky laid down something. Then we were like, “Wait a second. This is really great, actually.” So all the music for that one, really, stemmed from just a demo. We were like, “Wow, we really like this.” Then after the fact, I wrote some words for it. It was like, “There’s a song in here somewhere.” Then we re-performed it live, added our own flavors to it, so it wasn’t our typical writing process, but the great thing about that is the looping process. You can put the guitar down. See what that’s like. There is a lot of that that still goes on.

PS: I know you said you guys aren’t a jamming band, but given the amount of time you’ve put into this—3 years so far already—do you expect the songwriting process to stay as long as it is or do you think it will expedite?

Matt: I don’t know. I think we have gotten a little quicker at it. When I say we’re not a jam band, I definitely don’t mean that not everyone else is involved. Everyone is very involved in the songwriting process, writing parts and helping with everything. It’s definitely a very communal effort.

PS: Of course.

Matt: But I think we have gotten a little bit better at figuring out what our process is and how we get to the end result. At the beginning it was a lot of trial and error. We wrote so many bad songs that we never want people to hear. Or things that just didn’t work out. But to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t really like the feeling of getting too comfortable with the process, because that almost makes me feel like—you never want to have the sensation that you’ve found something concrete. All art forms should always have a certain amount of mystery to them. You don’t really know why things work. And I think if you know exactly what you wanna hear in your head—I’ve never been able to do that. It’s always been a process of discovery. What excites me is not knowing the process. So if something gets a little too easy, I get very suspicious that maybe things are getting a little stale.

PS: Is it important to have a producer who challenges you and pushes you even further?

Matt: Yeah, and I think for us, the producer we work with is a good friend of mine and someone I work with on a lot of projects, named John Paul Peters. The one thing about us is that we bring totally formed ideas with all the parts written to the table. Then we re-record things and then, like with the EP, we tried bringing things in and bringing things out. I think it’s really important to have someone who’s confident with us and can say, “That bit isn’t good” or “There’s way too much going on here.” [Laughter] That’s generally the criticism that I think most producers would have. You know? “We need to pare things down.” And if there’s any part of the process that I am comfortable with how we’ve developed, I think we’ve gotten a lot better with the new songs that we wrote just picking our spots. That’s an important part that we have struggled with in some ways, but I think that going forward, we’ve become a lot more economical with when those moments happen. Working with a producer like JP has been great, because he’s really good at that stuff and challenging us to take those risks of not having a hundred things not happening at once.

PS: Heading to Europe, what are you most looking forward to?

Matt: I haven’t been there for about 4 or 5 years, so I’m just excited about being there. I’m a huge history buff, so I’m as excited about the shows as I am about the tourism too. it’s such a great place. I think for me, it’s all great. Being a musician is wonderful and I love it and I love the creative process, but the real cherry on top is getting to do things like this. You just want to appreciate those. Don’t ever take them for granted and just try to lap it up as much as possible and remember it forever. You’re not going to get to do this all the time.

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