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One Line Drawing - Interview with Jonah Matranga

  by Mark Rowland

published: 17 / 1 / 2003

One Line Drawing - Interview with Jonah Matranga


Often seen to be one of the pivotal figures in emo rock, Jonah Matranga fronted the influential Far, and now has both a new band New End Experience, and a solo project One Line Drawing. Mark Rowland meets him at an OLD gig to talk about his career to date

Ever since I've started writing bigger articles and interviews, which has been quite a while now, I've wanted to meet and interview Jonah Matranga. I am a huge Far fan (Those of you who do not own the 41 minutes and 12 seconds of beautiful, emotional perfection that is Far's 'Water and Solutions', I suggest you go out and buy it.) and am also really into Jonah's current projects, the folky One Line Drawing (basically just Jonah and an R2D2 drum machine), and the more rockin' New End Original, which is a full band. For the best part of a year, it didn't look like it was going to happen, until, after a month or so of barraging him with e-mails and posting messages on his message board, I finally got a reply from Jonah, telling me that he was coming to the UK in December, and that I could interview him. I was so excited I nearly had a heart attack. This man's music, especially that of Far and One Line Drawing, really does ( this is going sound really stupid) affect me emotionally, and the prospect of meeting Jonah and getting an opportunity to tell him exactly how great a songwriter he is, well, it's an exciting one. So, on the day of One Line Drawing's gig at the Garage in London, I have a big stupid grin on my face from the moment I wake up. I don't even care that I've got to go to work today, I'm that happy. On the train I'm quietly confident that this is going to be an easy interview. "You know all about his bands", my brain tells me. "You're quite good at thinking of things on the spur of the moment to go with the questions you've got. What could go wrong?". This kind of thinking has left me with a ridiculous amount of self-confidence by the time I get into London. I turn up to the venue at about 4 o'clock, the time I was told to get there by, only to find that Jonah's running late. After a good hour of walking the mean streets of Highbury, I go back to the venue to see whether I can get in yet. I get there in time to see two other people being turned away, but I thought I might as well try again anyway. There's still no-one there. Slightly frustrated by this point, I head off to McDonald's to get a drink. The people who got turned away from the Garage are there, and they introduce themselves as Katia Reiss and Krzys Honowski, who write for fellow internet magazine miuzik.com (Hello if you're reading this). After chatting for a bit we all head back to the Garage, and they actually let us in this time. Jonah comes up to us and says hi, and we introduce ourselves. "I've just gotta do a sound-check," he tells us, " and then after that we'll go and do the interview." The sound-check over, we head into Jonah's dressing room. "Ok, shall we start?" asks Jonah. "Er, we're from different magazines" he is told. "Oh, right. Couldn't we have all three of you asking questions? It'd be interesting to see how you guys use the same stuff. Do you wanna do that?" Everyone agrees, but almost straight away I'm starting to think twice about it. At least I've got my first question set in my mind, I've decided to ask him what he thinks about the Emo movement and the way that Far is often cited as an influence. Katia asks the first question. Katia R : You're playing with an Emo band tonight. What do you think of Emo bands, considering you've influenced so many of them? Damn! JM : I guess all I can say is take someone like Led Zeppelin. You can either be like Jane's Addiction, i.e. someone I think took a lot from their spirit and their interest in making rock really interesting and bizarre, or you can be White Snake and you can just make shit that just sounds the same and try and be popular. So for me, that's the choice for any band. I hope my influence is in trying to make rock more personal and to do your own thing. So if the main thing you take from someone else is "hey look, that person did their own thing', it's a bit silly to go "I'll just take what they did and do it". I, therefore, don't mind. In any genre of music I think there are brilliant people that invent things and create things and then I think there are a lot of people who just follow along, and I prefer to make stuff that is one's own. But at the same time I don't think the music I've ever made has been reinventing the wheel. I just think it has had a spirit that is it's own, and I think that's all we can ask for. KR : So do you get frustrated that Emo has become such a big thing now? JM : You know, I don't think it has become such a big thing, I think the papers have tried to make it a big thing, but I don't think any bands that they are trying to hype have sold that many records so I think their business plan failed. I've definitely seen a few trends come and go, and to me they're just that. To me when there's an authentic ground swell of noise from people who are like "Hey, that's a good idea!", that's very different from a marketing campaign. And I think Emo has been a bit more of a marketing campaign, as far as you know, there are people who love music. I mean to me Emo music is all music. Isn't all music supposed to be emotional? Isn't that the goal? To get to something with art? You know, it's such a redundant term. I didn't used to mind it so much, because I thought that there were bands that really reflected the term and embodied it in an affective way. Now I just feel like, again you've got people dressing a certain way, or making a certain noise as if the noise itself is Emo. The noise is just a noise. It's the intention behind whatever noise you make. As far as I'm concerned you could have a Hip-Hop band that was an Emo band, if their intention was towards that end. To me Emo has always been about taking away the rock star thing a bit from rock, but why it got that tag, who knows? I mean names are just whatever they are. I don't object to anyone in particular though. It's really up to the people who are making this stuff to figure out if they're making it from their heart. You know it's easy to talk about this stuff, but then you get into this weird hall of mirrors where the more sincere you are, the more saleable you are, and I don't really understand that. Krzys H : Is the music you're making now influenced by any current stuff coming out at the moment? JM : Yeah, I adore music, I adore it so much. I mean I'm very careful, probably too careful. It's one of the many ways I've shot myself in the foot, like if I hear a noise, or I fall in love with a record, I'm pretty careful not to write songs after that, because it might slip in. I'll play the guitar but I'm very conscious of not grabbing onto some style that I like, . There's always that chance though. I just love music, I listen to it as much as I can. I'm always asking people what they enjoy, and I like a lot of music that's older, and I adore music that's here now.I just like music in general really. KH : Is the way that you write songs by yourself different to when you write with a group? JM : Not for a while. With Far it really was different because it was us sitting in a practice room banging stuff out. Although even then there were songs that I would just bring in complete, but there's a different thing in a band where it's like "I've got this part", and you start talking and then you just play. KH :Was 'Thriller' (New End Original's album) not like that? JM : 'Thriller' wasn't like that because that record was just going to be a One Line Drawing record, but I met these guys, and got excited. It was probably a mistake in hindsight really. Not the band itself, but to basically give all these songs that are already complete to a band. I wrote all those songs. There were some interesting changes made by Norman (Arenas,N.E.O. guitarist), and in one case by the whole band, and that was a beautiful moment, but basically it was a solo record. The whole idea was to get past that record and get on to a more band kind of thing, and that got fucked up when Charles and Scott (Walker and Winegard, N.E.O. bassist and drummer respectively) left. Now me and Norman are trying to figure out where to go next and I'm in particular saying if this is going to be a band, I want it to be a band, where everyone's bringing pieces, because that's what's magic to me. KR : Do you prefer writing by yourself, or with a band? JM :I don't prefer either, as they are totally different things, and to me any great idea that comes is great. I don't care if it's in my sleep or because of someone else or because of something someone just did. I'm supportive of any idea. PB : (Yes, I do actually ask some questions) Going back a bit, you were saying about the beautiful moment in which the whole band added to a song.Was that 'Better than This', or something else ? JM : On 'Halo', the verse to the version that I had was actually quite different. Norman made a really interesting change to it. 'Hostage' was the one truly band thing. I'd had that song for seven years, and it never quite felt right and I think they really helped, I think it's the most special song on the record. So yeah 'Hostages' was the real band thing. 'Better Than This' was really Norman's idea. We had both really loved the song, but we had tried playing it in the One Line Drawing way, and it just didn't, and then he showed me this thing, and changed the way I sung it, and it worked. KR : We did an interview with Converge a while ago. JM :Oh yeah. Cool guys. KR : And they were talking about how they would never write a song in a pre-scripted way, of verse chorus verse chorus and so on. Do you have a sequential way of writing, as all your songs seem very complete? JM : I think to subconsciously change the way an idea comes out because you're scared it's too close or too far from something is equally silly. Whether you're writing a pop song to make a lot of money or whether you're trying to write a weird song because you don't want to be perceived as someone who would write a pop song. Either way I think it's contrived. KR : Are your lyrics more important to you than your music? JM : I don't know. KR : I just ask because in a previous interview you said your music was more song orientated than riff orientated. JM : Yeah, I guess so then . It's not important it just happens to be the way it is. I mean really, if I wrote a metal album tomorrow that had like eight words on it, I mean for me it's all about just trying to let ideas come out and not mess with them too much, because I'm scared they're too pop, too weird or whatever, which is hard. I think there's something to be said for throwing away the rulebook. I think that's nice. I always want to challenge, say like your first idea is either really inspired or just habit, so if it's habit you've got to chuck it and get to something better. If it's inspired, which I think first ideas can be, then I think you need to not question it. But I mean Converge is obviously a band I love who, yeah they just aren't pop songwriters. They are doing something else that is, I wouldn't term it as song orientated. It's more of a noise-scape with them, which is fucking brilliant, but it's a whole different animal. But I think the intention is the same. It's funny because I've had a lot of people turn up at my shows in Converge T-shirts and it's interesting because on the face of it we would sound terribly different, but I think maybe there's something there we have in common in a very weird way. PB : Something I have to ask, where did R2D2 come from? JM : It was one of those very silly ideas! That's a perfect example of the rulebook! I mean I had these ideas for beats and songs, and I didn't just want to bring a CD player on stage or whatever, and I had this little cassette deck shaped like R2 and I carried it around, and when I played a show I thought "Hey, why don't you play the beats?". So I put them on a cassette and stuffed it in, and then a couple of things happened. The main one was people just reacted to it in this amazing ventriloquist way as if he was actually doing something. I mean people asked if I'd rewired it or if I'm some sort of machine genius but I'm like "Oh no!" But it's funny people can take it so seriously to the point where some people are like "Oh, he's just doing it to be cool". It's really funny to me when people look at things like that and think that's me trying to be successful because the only way it insults me is that, if I was trying to be crass I wouldn't use a fucking robot. It's like oh yeah that'll be my way to millions! So yeah, it' s just a silly idea. What I enjoy about shows is thatit is a contrived environment. I am on stage, but what I enjoy is like enjoying that contrived feeling, enjoying the fact that it's a bit of a fantasy land, and I think that's fun. I like this mix of everyone kind of being in on it. Like "Hey we're here together, and I'm not going to take this too seriously", but at the same time here are these ideas. And so having this robot, in some ways, I never intended it as such, but he does a pretty good job of keeping that interesting balance of kind of goofy but quite serious in a strange way too. KH : You said the whole gig experience is more of a fantasy experience. Does that go as far as you letting the audience dictate what you play? JM : I think that would go more on the side of that I do a lot to rip down what I consider the toxic fantasy part. You know the whole idol, pedestal trip. In fact I like things being directed to me. The best shows I have been to in one way or another are a conversation between the audience and the performer. It's not a one-way thing. There's no fourth wall for me, you know the theatre term where you're not supposed to address the audience. I mean that doesn't exist with me. I think you can do brilliant performances in any number of ways and I don't think mine is the best in any way. It's just the way that has been really special to me growing up, whether it's a hardcore show or a folk show and it's sort of how I climbed into it. The fantasy sort of bit is more, well here's a robot whose playing a song with me. You know he's not! He's just playing the beat like anything would play the beat you know. To me it's like if someone was to go up and do performance art, if it was lip sink performance art, and it was very obvious and it was part of the whole deal, then cool, but if we actually think that those guys are singing, that's kind of sad isn't it? I'm all for doing any fun things you want and have these illusions, but have the audience understand what's going on and have them be involved in the illusion. KR : You're obviously quite into having fun. How important is success to you? JM : I've thought about one thing, and that is my path as a performing artist has gone hand in hand with my path as a father, and I think that has coloured it with a real sense of reality. You know, everyone would like to support themselves doing what they do but you know I've got a kid. I can't go fucking about and come home with no money. There's got to be something there. To me it's an inescapable equation, but if you choose something other than a really pure intention, to me with that equation it just wouldn't work out. You know, it has to be that you start with the dignity part, because to me that's the only way of knowing if it works, because if your always hedging your bets trying to be successful one way or another, a) you're not even doing pure ideas so you're gonna jam and b) I don't think you quite know what your supposed to be doing. If you really try your ideas and it works well good, then I think you are on a good path, but if it doesn't work, and you've already sussed out your fears, and you've really tried as hard as you can and it's not working out, then try something different, and if people ever stop showing up then I hope my pride won't be too much that I'll go "Oh, I guess people aren't interested in this idea anymore," which is totally fine with me. The ideas are for me, but it's nice if people are interested. So I'm so grateful that it supports me and I have no problem with money, but I know from seeing bands and from my own experiences that it just wouldn't work out if I weighted it more on this career. KR : Would you ever consider going back onto a major label? JM- No. It's not really a commercial thing so much as an emotional thing. It was always hard on me to have someone always wanting more, you know. If someone's invested a bunch of money into something they're always gonna want to make it bigger and bigger and bigger. And you see I don't think my ideas are necessarily like million selling album ideas. That's not to say whether they're bad or good. I just don't think they're quite that, but I'm open to anyone who likes it. There are definitely things I'm not comfortable with and I think it's a bit insidious on the part of an artist to sign with someone whose putting a million dollars into your career, and then expect that that person won't ask them to do some things that they're not comfortable with. So I think that's a decision the artist needs to take very, very carefully. For me I like that you can sell a small amount of records and bring a small amount of people to a club and everyone's happy and everyone makes money. I don't like this idea that you've always got to be bigger and better and faster. KR : Is that one of the reasons you first advertised this gig about a fortnight ago? It's all been fairly low key. JM : I wouldn't of had a problem with advertising more. I don't consciously try to do that. I think I don't put as much focus on it as some people do but that's me. I would love to come back in the spring and have it be more advertised. I mean I hate it when I come through a town and someone gets in touch and says "I didn't know you were there". I don't have any desire to keep this a cool little secret or anything. It's just that when you don't have a bunch of money to put into it and not very many people working on it, you just do what you can do. I am excited about these shows though , because I think the people who are here either got told by a friend, or from the website, or heard through me personally. There is, therefore, a feelingthat this is definitely a cool run, but if the next shows are more advertised and more people come that'll be cool too. Big shows can be fantastic, and little shows can be fantastic. I don't think in general something's brilliant because it's more popular. A friend of mine said "I don't mind when you get popular, I just hate it when you get big." That phrase has really stuck in my head. KR : In a way a lot of the Emo bands you were talking about have gone straight to being big. JM : Again, to me when you're marketing sincerity it's almost like, 80's metal was cool because you're marketing this obvious thing. Fine because that's sort of funny, but when you're marketing sincerity, when people are spending ten million bucks to look like someone on the streets, like what is that? That's the goofy thing. It's at this point that Jonah turns and looks at me expectantly. This is one of the most awkward moments of my life. PB : Don't pressure me! OK, I've got a question. You've done quite a lot of cover songs from everything like Jawbox to Band-Aid. This is kind of a typical question, but if there was any one song you could go up and play what would it be? JM : Err gosh. KR : Would you play it with R2D2 or a band? JM :Yeah! Yeah, I mean the covers that I've done, I've always been into jazz in the sense that I don't consider myself a jazz musician at all, but if you listen to a lot of recordings, they are really referencing a lot of stuff within their songs either another piece that was pretty popular at the time, or a pop culture thing, and there's a real freedom. So in my songs I'm always singing some sort of popular thing in my head and that could be anything from Madonna to Zeppelin. Again I just adore music, so there's no one cover that I could really choose. Actually there's tons of ideas of songs I have to do, but if I don't really get round to it I don't sweat over it. There's a couple of Sinead O' Connor tunes that I'm really hot on singing sometime. I was just listening to 'I Do Not Want What I Have Not Dot' for the first time in about ten years, which blew me away, so, I was actually thinking of doing with R2, 'I'm Stretched on Your Grave' which is a fucking cool song. It's cool to me because these days everyone's taking a beat box and putting like a sexy female vocal over it. That's been done a million times now, but to me that song, when it came out it was quite revolutionary to do this James Brown loop with these gorgeous lyrics and then that thing at the end. It's all quite amazing when you think about it historically, so I thought it might be a good song to sing. KR : Do you see yourself doing any other projects, which take a completely different direction to your stuff now? JM : Yeah well, with One Line Drawing itself, the next record may well be a record for a band. It might be like a Zeppelin record in the sense that it might be really heavy and then really soft and I've always had a vision of that. It's just that writing stuff you do on your own is quite convenient, you know. You just get on a plane and go, and it's not a big production. But yeah, I could see New End doing more music. I could see Onelinedrawing doing a million different shapes. I just did this score for this movie, which I loved. It's more a question of what ideas drag me along the most and then what comes true. PB : So OneLineDrawing could one day do a death metal album? JM : Sure, totally. I wonder sometimes if I should have any adherence to the personality of a project. Sometimes I think I should. Other times I think that what might occur is if Onelinelrawing does turn into too much of a set thing, where there are these expectations on it, then I'd probably just ditch the names altogether and just work under 'Jonah', and then really I could do what the hell I wanted. It doesn't matter. It'sjust how much the artist chooses to have a consistency to a project, and right now, I guess One Line Drawing is perceived as quite a quiet guy with guitar playing, and that's cool. I have no problem with that. It just might be fun to shake it up. KH : In Far you were a lot heavier. Do you miss rocking out a lot? JM : To me there's a lot of fun in trying to put the same amount of intensity into being up there with a guitar and a robot as being in a hard rock band. It's kind of an interesting project in its self, and New End was as energetic as I could have asked it to be and will be, I think, if we continue in one way or another. I just toured with a band called Thursday, a hardcore band, a great band and we actually did a Far song, which was really fun, but it was only fun because it was them and just perfect for a few reasons. PB : What song did you play? JM : We did 'Mother Mary'. It was quite cool, and we did this re-arranged bit at the end with like a half time, super heavy bit. It was really fun, and so that's great. I don't really attach too much value to a particular shape. I think it's what is becoming behind it, whether it's a million watts or two watts. I think. Yeah, so that's brilliant and fun, but it's not more fun, it 's just also fun. PB : So your work is more based on changing who you work with rather than what style you do? JM- Yeah, and even more that that, what songs are fun at the time. I mean, I really love that people who love Far like One Line Drawing and like New End Original. I love it that there are Converge shirts at my shows because that says to me, people aren't as worried about how something looks and sounds or what their interested in, and they trust me, which is a really cool feeling. You know, that's my favourite kind of artist, that the main thing I think of with them is trust. If you trust that I'm not going to get up there and sell you some crap, then that's as much as I can ask for, and, you know, I'll try not to! KR : We'll hold you to that! JM : Yeah definitely. People are good at that. They call me out all the time,and I like it. I mean mistakes are everywhere in rock! It's good to have a community that talks. KR : Is there anybody else you would like to work with? JM- God, it's such a long list. I mean producers, just as far as a dream list, you know, I think the two at the top are Brian Eno and Rick Ruben. They've both made records that have made me cry. I don't think I'd ever convince them to do such a thing, but if I could dream. I've had this dream for a while of making a little CD or mix tape and sending it to people, not anyone famous as such, just musicians that I love and sort of extending it as a little invitation like lets find something to do together, and with anyone from Bjork to Lou Reed to David Bowie to Converge you know, who knows what could come out of it. I mean Thursday I think may well end up playing on a One Line Drawing record because they are great people, and a great band. I always like singing with Chino and the Deftones and my good friends Remy Zero but I mean I have enough ideas of all sorts, of cover songs, of records to make, of band names! I mean I have enough ideas to last like eighteen lives! So it's really a matter of being patient and letting them come out at their own speed. Hey do you have any song ideas for tonight? KH : I'd like to hear an old Far song, like 'Joining the Circus'. JM : Yeah. Oh wow, I haven't played that in years. Ok ! PB : If you could play the Band-Aid song, that'd be great, 'tis the season as well! JM : I can't! I can't do it! God that would be cool. That's actually quite a hard song. Those 80's pop songs sound really easy when you sing a long with them, and then you come to learn them, and they're a real pain in the ass. That was super fun. PB : Didn't you all sing in different voices for the different singers? (the song recorded by Far, the Deftones, and Will Haven) JM : Yeah, I was Paul Young and Bono, and Chino was Simon Le Bon and then Grady from Will Haven did...actually I think he did the chorus and just screamed! That was cool. That was a really fun time. Its weird little things like that I love! It's at this point the interview stops. It's a bit of a weird one, but I think it's turned out okay. Later on, Jonah completely blows the audience away with a lively set in which he takes audience requests and mixes his own songs in with covers like Jawbox's 'Savory', and Deftones' 'Be Quiet and Drive', and also s songs from all of his bands. Oh, and one more thing, Jonah did eventually play 'Do They Know It'sm Christmas ?' when he played in Glasgow, so I'd just like to say, thanks Jonah! And of course, thanks to Katia and Krzys as well !

Picture Gallery:-
One Line Drawing - Interview with Jonah Matranga

One Line Drawing - Interview with Jonah Matranga

One Line Drawing - Interview with Jonah Matranga

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