MATT JAFFE & THE DISTRACTIONS
As part of our on-going association with ReverbNation, Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips catches up with San Francisco-based artist Matt Jaffe prior to embarking on his biggest American tour to date.
San Franciscan-based guitarist, singer and songwriter Matt Jaffe is one of those artists who you feel that success is going to find, no matter what obstacles are placed in his way. With a lean David Byrne-like frame, punk-era Elvis Costello attitude and a splash of Springsteen-style charm, Jaffe’s rockin’ shows have been conjuring the kind of electricity that many others aspire to but rarely achieve. To further aid his cause, he has always had a knack of running into the right people at the right time, even back in his school days. For instance, as part of a school project he was obliged to do, Matt requested and was granted an interview with Jerry Harrison, a member of one of his favourite bands, the Talking Heads. Harrison was a fellow Mill Valley resident and by chance at a later date, was in the audience at an open mike night when Jaffe was performing. The two got chatting again and Harrison became somewhat of a mentor and producer for the now 20 year old singer, songwriter.
“It was wonderful meeting him and I would say he did many, many things for my career,” Matt tells me. “Just to name a few, he encouraged me to form a band. Forming a band has been a huge thing for me. He taught me how to record, how to write in a conventional way… hopefully not too conventional but also not overwhelmingly quirky. In a lot of ways, he’s sort of helped me take the whole thing a little more seriously.”
The good fortune didn’t stop there. That chance encounter led to Jaffe finding himself in a studio recording with two of the world’s finest musicians, bass player Nathan East (Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, George Harrison, Daft Punk) and drummer Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty, Stevie Vicks, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash). “That was four years ago,” recalls Matt. “While it was happening, I don’t think I recognised just how insane that was … which is probably a good thing. I think if I had been too cognisant of what an opportunity that was, I think I would have been more stifled. In that instance, I think my naivety benefitted me in a strange way.”
Jaffe learned much from working with East and Ferrone and has enthusiastically taken onboard many of those lessons. “They would hear a song once and on the first take nail it,” he says of the superstar musicians. “That takes an incredible balance of holding back and respecting the song but also confidence and bravado in assuming what you’re playing is right. You don’t sound good if you are tip-toeing around the thing. I think that combination of confidence and respect is something I learned from them.”
Things were looking so promising for Matt, that he decided to drop out of the prestigious Yale University where he was studying film to concentrate totally on his music. “I wanted to have as many unemployable skills as possible,” laughs Jaffe in regard to the artistic paths he has chosen in life. In April this year, Matt released a four track EP titled Blast Off, which was produced by acclaimed producer Matt King Kaufman, known for his work with Jonathan Richman and Greg Kihn. Previous studio excursions had left Jaffe unsatisfied with his recorded sound but with Kaufman, he feels he is getting closer to the sonic vision which is so vivid in his mind. “In the past we found that we could sound really raw or really slick but couldn’t find a happy balance,” says Matt. “I think he helped us find a better balance. I still don’t know if it is the perfect medium but it’s better.”
Jaffe is a prolific songwriter, claiming he has written over two hundred songs of varying levels of merit. Clearly, a full length album was not out of his reach but the older and wiser heads of his management and label suggested that an EP was the optimum way to go. However, a full length album has been recorded and awaits all the pieces of the industry jigsaw to be in place before it sees the light of day. It’s a plan Jaffe is happy to comply with. “There are bands I admire who started with an EP, so that’s OK,” he says. “Plus, the climate has shifted toward bite sized, more easily digestible pieces of art now. I’d like to put out a full length record soon but I don’t want to put out expectations that will not be met. There’s not a set date. It is recorded and it’s just a matter of playing games now.”
The sound generated by Matt Jaffe and The Distractions is old school power-pop/rock. There’s not a lot of technological embellishment going on, it’s all about tone. At the moment, that’s generated from a Telecaster guitar and a Fender Blues Junior amp.
“Right now, I am a Telecaster guy,” he explains. “I had been using a Jazzmaster. I was the rhythm/lead player for a while and I thought the Jazzmaster was a cool way of blending those roles. A year ago we added a lead guitarist, which is wonderful for me. I get to do zany, looney movements without having to worry about holding down the guitar so much. Since then I have transferred to a Telecaster because I feel it’s a better guitar for chugging away on rhythm parts. In terms of amps, I had been using a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, which is a great amp but it is really too big. To get it to really overdrive naturally, you’d have to be blowing away half the ear drums in the room. Recently I have been using a Blues Junior which is a considerably smaller amp but it does the job.”
The relatively clean rock sound that Jaffe prefers means that his pedalboard mainly consists of tone-enhancing effects as opposed to extreme sound-altering stomp boxes. “You would laugh if you saw my pedal board,” he says. “It is the most amateurish thing you could imagine. I don’t even know how to describe it. It is like a box of water colour paints and I thought, well it’s in my basement and it is free or I could buy one of those pedaltrains for $150. So I took what I had and used adhesive to put velcro on it and I have 5 pedals on it. I have a Boss tuner, Boss Tremelo, Boss Digital Delay and there’s a pedal company called X-Otic Effects and I have two overdrive pedals from them. One is a clean boost and one is a slightly dirtier boost. To be honest, I try to just get the tone I want from the guitar and amp and then very occasionally use a pedal to enhance the tone.”
This week Jaffe begins the biggest tour of his career, supporting veteran blues artist Blues Traveler on an extensive 23 date national American tour. It could also be the start of something really huge for Matt Jaffe and the Distractions. As much as chance has played a role in what has happened with Matt’s career so far, there still needs to be a large degree of substance involved and Jaffe would seem to have that well and truly covered. As for his grand plan?
“I was worried you might ask that,” he laughs. “I have been able to keep it secret so far that I don’t have one. My ambition is dual pronged. On one side I want to conquer the world be the next Clash or something. On the other side, I feel very modest about it and I’d be happy if I could just live comfortably off writing and performing my own songs. It’s the classic Freudian ego, id thing. The ego wants to be very successful and tour the world but I think the more reasonable side of me recognises that if I am able to write songs, record and perform them, and not go hungry, then I will have considered that a success.”