Matthew Smith is freezing out there in the dark. A bitter January night that he calls “Siberian” has forced him to layer his upper body with a faded sweater, scarf, pullover cap and an oily reddish-brown leather coat. None of it is fashionable, and none of it nearly enough to protect him from biting temperatures dropping to near zero. He blows on his glasses as he walks, which are fogging up in the cold air. At the moment, Smith hardly looks the part of ambitious practitioner of inner space-pop, pseudo-country and neo-psychedelic bubblegum music. Nor does the tall man with thin, stringy hair and a chalky complexion look the part of a musical revolutionary. On second thought: Of course he does.
Smith — who has a growing cult following both as a producer and a songwriter in some of the most unlikely places around the globe but is all but unrecognizable in his own neighborhood — has just left a Polish restaurant around the corner from his Hamtramck home. He’s preparing to drive a few blocks away to another apartment, where he’ll talk about his career in music and listen to records, many of them his own productions. He knows his way around these narrow, congested streets. Smith grew up in this working-class city within a city in the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the people who lived here were of Polish ancestry, lured by the promise of work in Detroit factories. Not anymore. His neighbors now include economic and political refugees from Bangladesh, Bosnia, Kosovo and Senegal.
In the summer, black, white and brown children play in the L-shaped alley behind his house, a two-story, wood-frame dwelling built in the signature Hamtramck home style circa 1930. Young suburban refugees are here too, the artists and the dreamers, shoehorned among the conservative immigrant families.
The people who now live in Smith’s neighborhood are made up of hard workers and non-workers, the rooted and the transient, the friendly and the aloof, the overly trusting and the paranoid. During the formative years of his childhood — and as a 40-year-old artist who has made a career of attempting to boil down universal chaos into the perfect pop tune — Smith has been a direct witness to the extreme dualities of a radically changing world, often visible from his doorstep. A more perfect setting for a private man who spends most of his days and nights sequestered with a notebook and a guitar, trying to crack the magic codes of the human heart with words and music, cannot be imagined.
But Smith is much more than a bedroom composer moping his way though a sad, dangerous world. He might be the most obsessively busy musician in a town filled with obsessively busy musicians. Smith is the singer, guitarist and songwriter in the Detroit-based band Outrageous Cherry. This month the group releases its seventh full-length recording, Our Love Will Change the World. Songs from the LP are already in regular rotation on Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show, which is syndicated across the United States and linked to progressive radio affiliates in dozens of foreign countries. (You want exotic? How about getting airplay in Saint Lucia or Mauritius?) Smith also plays piano, organ, trumpet and synthesizer on the new record, which he produced. He is also a member of the Volebeats, a band he helped found in 1987. The group’s new LP, Like Her, is to be released on Turquoise Mountain later this year. The Volebeats also have a cameo appearance in Shopgirl, a feature film starring Steve Martin, which opens in theaters in March.
That only covers the first third of 2005, which is shaping up as a milestone year for Smith. An untitled new LP he produced for the Cuts (a Stooges-inspired band based in Oakland, Calif.) will be out soon; he recently completed sessions for Mississippi electric blues rocker Paul “Wine” Jones; and has live gigs and studio projects with his freak-out prog-rock outfit, THTX — not to mention touring with Outrageous Cherry and the Volebeats — to work into his schedule.
Of his life, Smith says, in phrasing that is at once simple and baffling: “It’s what I do. I can’t explain it. I don’t want to. I just do it. There’s no end point. This is what I’ll always be.”
Smith was born in Ann Arbor in 1964. It was only days later — as he tells the story, paraphrasing the way his mother told it to him — that the course of his life was set.
“On the way home from the hospital, she said ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was playing on the radio,” Smith says with the kind of wry smile that suggests that truth is being mixed with clever myth-making. “It was my first exposure to the Beatles. I must have liked what I heard.”
Though it will likely remain unproved that the song was embedded in Smith’s flowering psyche, it’s not much of a reach to say that the spirit of the Beatles looks down on nearly every song he has written, recorded or produced. The influence — or post-natal inspiration, if you will — is clearly there. But that knowledge is only an introduction to the story of Smith’s journey through music. Follow the bouncing ball from the wholesome pop artistry of those same early Beatles (in particular, John Lennon and George Harrison), the Kinks and the Beach Boys; and then add the literary decadence of the Velvet Underground and the psychedelic trance-rock of Germany’s Can and Neu! Sprinkle over it all the detached sexual yearnings of French ye-ye girl Françoise Hardy and the abstract sentimentality of Scott Walker, who observed “pretty girls everywhere” and then wrote them into his cinematic soundworld. Now you start to gain ground on Smith’s near three decades-long, and growing, body of work. But you’re not there yet. That might require a change of venue.
Now comfortably warmed by multiple cups of heavily sweetened black coffee, steam heat and songs streaming from speakers, Smith appears ready to trip backward through the past half-century. A shame there are few snacks to offer up to the musician, whose only admitted vice is sugar. Smith has come to favor chocolate-banana creme bars imported from Slovenia (“one of the advantages of living in Hamtramck”), daylong binges on Pop Tarts and bags of chewy-fruity candies that he once referred to as “my vegetables.” The songwriter takes no drugs, and never has. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He says he boozed it up as a teenager but quit at 21 after friends told him he “acted like a total asshole. Jumping on tables and screaming at people like Dennis Hopper.”
For the past 19 years Smith has decided that the path of clarity is the best way to tame the demon child that lurks within. His memory is pristine, with an uncanny ability to retrieve even the most microscopic bits of information — however useful or useless. The coffee and sugar help.
Smith fidgets in his chair, swivels forward and nods that he’s ready for some backward gazing. OK, let’s start with the 1950s: Inspirations?
“Elvis. Ritchie Valens. Orson Welles. Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Kerouac, Nabokov.”
“The Turtles. Petula Clark. The Beatles and the Stones. Dennis Hopper. Kenneth Anger. Fellini. Godzilla.”
Smith is rolling: “Phil Spector producing John Lennon in the ’70s; Bowie, Roxy, Eno, Iggy. Fassbinder. Soylent Green.”
Smith talks up his influences freely and charges his words with a fan’s admiration for all the great work that preceded his own. He gets downright reverential when he talks about how bands of the early ’70s had an impact on today’s pop culture. So does Krautrock fit into the scheme?
Smith’s eyes grow large. “The German scene of the 1970s was the real psychedelic scene, as far as I’m concerned, not San Francisco or LA. They were nonlinear and pulled ideas from all over the universe. What they brought to music was a certain alchemy, something that did not exist in the same way before.”
Smith says that groups like Can, Amon Düül II and Ashra Temple wrote music that enabled “the mysterious inner workings of the human psyche to interact with cosmic forces. That’s always been my definition of psychedelic ... not something that requires drugs.”
But surely he accepts that some artists have rearranged their inner compasses by altering their conscious state with drugs, particularly psychedelics? Many of the same people he admires have done so.
“But I choose to write my way into outer (or inner) space, keeping my mind focused and my senses sharp. I’ve become much more diligent, as I get older, about getting information from all sides, unfiltered. There’s always a lot going on in my head. I have to keep a tight grip on it,” he says. “For me, life experience is getting totally into it. Not getting out of it.”
Records and CDs spin as Smith talks. When he notices something he likes (the lush studio sophistication of Bertrand Burgalat, a French producer with whom he says he’d like to work) he grabs the album sleeve and liner notes to read. He picks up flaws or strengths in old Outrageous Cherry material. Of the X-Rays in the Cloudmine EP he says the “mastering is way off,” then nods in approval when some of his favorite songs (“It’s Always Never” and “Only the Easy Way Down”) from Out There in the Dark rotate through the stereo system. Smith has recorded over 130 songs with Outrageous Cherry, and can, given time to concentrate, come up with impressions about nearly all of them. When The Book of Spectral Projections — a record that was first released on the UK’s Poptones label in 2001 and was distributed everywhere but this country — is mentioned he says simply: “My favorite.”
“The way the songs developed as I wrote them, it was as if they emerged by themselves. I wrote it over a two-year period, then looked at the material and tried to figure out what I was singing about,” Smith says. “It’s a record with a lot of mystery, with a nonlinear narrative thread that connects like a space-rock opera. The stories are all cut up but there is a definite flow to the album.”
Smith continues: “When we recorded the album it was like we were all in a hypnotic state, everyone in a trance, no one talking. We recorded 17 songs in one day, most of them requiring only one take. It was the fastest album I ever recorded though it sounds like we spent weeks on it.”
Smith says his way of working, and the sound he favors in the studio — think of multiple voices bouncing through a canyon pushed forward by layers of “clean” and “dirty” guitars, washed over by occasional string and horn arrangements — doesn’t appeal to all musicians.
“When I first went into a studio and saw the equipment I could use, I thought, ‘I’m going to use all the knobs.’ I use echo, flangers, old compressors, anything I can to manipulate the sound,” he says. “It’s nothing new at all: I grew up listening to Motown records, which contained all kinds of sound effects within a pop format. Rock musicians can be too conservative when it comes to recording. They tell me they want to sound ‘live,’ but what they mean by ‘live’ is a cold, sterile representation of the energy of an actual performance.”
He says experiences like recording The Book have taught him to follow his instincts as a producer. He likes to work fast and get material recorded before any of the musicians have a chance to think — himself included. Four years later, the album sounds classic and fresh: 20 polished songs drenched in reverb, stuffed with science fiction and occult imagery (“The Astral Transit Authority,” “Here Where the Stars are Cracking Up,” “Electric Child of Witchcraft Rising”), backward guitar loops (on the title track) and Smith’s layered Midwestern drawl gliding atop it all. The album (which was rereleased by Rainbow Quartz in the United States. in 2002) got the attention of psychedelic freaks around the world.
“Kids who really got that record,” Smith says. “I think the fans understood it better than the critics, who in England especially didn’t seem to get it at all. The best review [The Book] received was in USA Today. I like that.”
Smith has heard various interpretations of his music from critics and peers in the Detroit scene — where he is lauded with respect by artists who share his sonic appetites and admire his accomplishments, regarded by others as an over-achieving, over-producing relic from a bygone era. There’s indifference from some who know of him but don’t care enough to listen anymore. Smith has been around long enough to sidestep the political minefields that dot the Detroit clubscape. He won’t talk about his detractors or discuss personal relationships. He only alludes to romantic involvements within the scene by saying that for a time, “everybody was dating someone’s ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend. It creates problems. People stop working with each other. You lose friendships. It’s unprofessional.”
He sarcastically compares the canonization of Detroit as “the capital of garage rock” to “swinging London gone to Flint.” He calls the interest in gossip in the Detroit scene “like the realization of an Andy Warhol movie from the ’60s: where nothing happens but you just keep filming nothing happening.”
The Majestic Theater’s talent buyer Greg Baise has known Smith since the early 1990s and has promoted some of his live performances at the Magic Stick and elsewhere. He calls the songwriter “a hidden treasure in Detroit, with an output so prodigious that some people might just take it all for granted. His appetite for music is voracious, but [when he creates his own music] it comes out with an identity that’s distinctly his. I first heard the new album on [New Jersey’s] WFMU and immediately I knew: That’s definitely Matt, it’s Outrageous Cherry. You can hear it as soon as the song begins.”
Baise said Smith’s greatest talent may be as a “magnet for other musicians. He’s an indefatigable worker, always involved in projects, cultivating his sound. Matt is totally earnest, someone who is adding to his own history with everything he does.”
Outrageous Cherry has made a habit of playing with choice performers from all over the world, including Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, Barbara Manning, Morphine and Acid Mothers Temple. Last year, Smith performed at the defunct Detroit Art Space with Damo Suzuki, who was a vocalist in Can.
Smith has fans in Chile, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Japan, the United Kingdom and Redlands, Calif., where one of his brassiest, most outspoken champions resides. The notorious Kim Fowley, who worked with Smith on the Michigan Babylon recording and other projects in 1997, likens Smith’s skills in the studio to Nick Lowe in his prime.
“I mean the Nick Lowe of 1977-78 who produced the Damned, Elvis Costello and the Pretenders,” Fowley says over the phone, preparing to blow even harder. “I’m a genius in the studio and I look for other geniuses in the studio, so I worked with Matt. Not many producers can work in a spontaneous, interactive way with musicians, who can be some of the biggest idiots in the world. He can. If you want to get it done quick and cheap, and you have five heroin addicts who have to record from midnight to six, then you want to hire Matt Smith.”
On a roll, Fowley begins to flex his well-documented skills for courting controversy. He asks: “What else do you want to know? Are you looking for something Matt does wrong as an artist? Is that what you want to hear?” Now 65, Fowley’s been playing the role of a rock ‘n’ roll lunatic-savant-provocateur since the late ’50s. He worked for Motown in the early ’60s (“Berry Gordy paid me to think”), had chartbusting success with the Hollywood Argyles (“Alley Oop”) and the Rivingtons (“Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”), and wrote songs for the Beach Boys, the Byrds and the Soft Machine. His other credits include performing on the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out, producing Gene Vincent and discovering and managing the Runaways. Without him, where would Joan Jett and Lita Ford be today?
Fowley starts in again: “If there’s something wrong with Matt it’s that he doesn’t do more. He should be richer. He turned down an opportunity to be in an underground super group with Troy Gregory [the Witches] and John Nash [the Alphabet, Electric Six] with two other musicians I would have added. That was my idea. It would be like the Eagles doing Syd Barrett music. He didn’t want to do it. Matt’s not a practical guy. He’s like a 15-year-old kid playing guitar in his bedroom. He’s too high-principled, willing to walk away from money too easily.”
Responding to Fowley’s comments, Smith defends his choices by saying, “I follow a path strictly for the music, not because of business decisions. What Kim is saying is true: That’s what he was suggesting to us. But we didn’t want to stop our other projects even though we weren’t making much money off our music then. The difference is how you approach making music: [Fowley’s] is more of a Hollywood approach. All about the hustle. Our way of working is rooted in Detroit style, which is less about the hustle to make money and more an act of rebellion against everything.”
That’s not to say Smith isn’t making money off his music, which has become his day — and night — job. (Smith works a few shifts at Car City Records for extra cash, and has worked there and at other record stores in the past.) “It [money] comes in fits and starts. Mostly fits,” he says.
Later, Smith admits that the cumulative effect of writing and producing for 17 years has meant that royalty monies have started to come in with greater frequency. “It’s still not there when you need it most, but it’s a nice surprise when it does arrive when you don’t expect it. I throw the money back into my recording anyway.”
Fowley also clearly admires the rebellious “Detroit style” of making music. Smith gives him credit for reigniting the scene when Fowley spent time recording here in 1997.
“Kim has a knack for bringing energy and getting attention to every scene he visits,” Smith says.
And Fowley empathizes with Smith, with whom he says he shares the same burden: “We both live in the future. We both have our eye open for the next big star. He has a rock ’n’ roll heart. He’s a catalyst. He reaches people all over the world. People will kick themselves later for not listening to Matt in the studio. When I was in Paris and Manchester, his fans wanted to know if Matt Smith had come with me. These are geeky little record guys with glasses who look like Elvis Costello did 25 years ago. Those are Matt’s fans, and there are a lot of them out there.”
A few days before Outrageous Cherry will play a mid-January show at the Lager House, the band assembles at Smith’s house for rehearsal. The practice space is unorthodox; the band members simply sit around a kitchen table, plug in and jam. It’s casual, certainly, but intensely serious at the same time. Smith calls out tunes that the group will be playing at the gig, but occasionally he freelances into a riff that his bandmates might not know, like Roxy Music’s “Editions of You.”
The flat is filled with posters from Japanese film festivals and a lobby card for Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana; promotional materials for LPs by Captain Beefheart, Roy Wood, Lou Reed, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Brian Eno; LPs and singles by Marvin Gaye, Can, NRBQ, the Groundhogs, Giorgio Moroder and the Isley Brothers. There’re books stacked upon books. Many are music-oriented (on Stockhausen, Sun Ra, Marianne Faithfull), but there are a number of others on film, novels and on magic and the occult.
Smith grew up as an only child in this house in Hamtramck, where his parents introduced him to a wide range of music before he was old enough to walk. From his dad, Smith acquired a fascination for jazz, and sonic abstraction; from his mother came his love for French pop of the ’60s. His parents, who divorced in the early ’70s, were both high school teachers in Detroit.
“My father is kind of a beatnik jazz guy who collects books and records,” recalls Smith, who adds that his father recently moved from Hamtramck to a town near Cadillac in rural Michigan. “I remember my mother traveling to France and Canada and coming back with these beautifully sounding records.”
He was sent to public schools in Detroit (“My mother didn’t like the juvenile delinquents I was hanging out with in Hamtramck. But I was too nervous to ever become a criminal”) before he moved first to Warren and then Huntington Woods. He says the only redeeming thing about the move to the suburbs was that he met like-minded teen freaks like Troy Gregory and Mike Alonso (Electric Six, Aquarius Void) in Warren and most of the members of the Volebeats and Keir McDonald (Medusa Cyclone) in Berkley. He graduated from Berkley High in 1982 and went to the University of Michigan, where he majored in film studies, getting a B.A. in 1987. That same year he returned to Hamtramck, where he helped take care of his grandmother until she died in 2003. Smith’s mother still resides in Huntington Woods.
Outrageous Cherry has undergone numerous lineup changes since 1992, when the band formed as a psychedelic pop side project to Smith’s alt-country interests in the Volebeats. The group’s first single, “Pale Frail Lovely One,” established the primal OC sound: melodic, harmonic, jangly, beat-driven guitar pop that only hinted at something darker and more subversive yet to come.
At the practice table, current bass player Courtney Sheedy is seated to Smith’s right; guitarist Larry Ray is directly opposite him (in front of the kitchen sink) and drummer Carey Gustafson is off near the door that leads to the back porch. Her kit consists of the maximum Smith will allow in Outrageous Cherry: a floor tom and a snare drum. But Gustafson has added a tambourine that she uses for kick beats or for hi-hat fills. Why not cymbals? Smith says he doesn’t care for the high frequencies they create. “They hurt my ears,” he says.
This is the lineup that played on the two new releases: the Why Don’t We Talk About Something Else EP and the full-length Our Love Will Change the World. No one at the table is drinking alcohol and there are no cigarettes, though in Smith’s living room earlier Ray rolled his own tobacco and lit up a smoke. Ray is a Detroit music vet who played in the Ivories in the late ’70s and early ’80s, then spent time playing guitar with Ted Lucas and the Spike Drivers. He won’t give his age, but says he’s “older than Matthew.” He appears grizzled and worn, but is considered the sweetheart in the band — despite the fact that the two women, Gustafson and Sheedy, are much younger and prettier. Ray is the adventurer in the group, Gustafson says, on tour disappearing for hours haunting record stores and God-knows-what in foreign lands, then suddenly appearing at the gig minutes before the band is to go on. “Larry keeps us going on the road. He’ll bring us flowers. He’s a real gentleman,” she says.
Gustafson is 33 and comes from Clawson. She joined the group in 2001 and played drums on Supernatural Equinox. She went on Outrageous Cherry’s short European tour in 2003, playing shows in England and Spain. The band played in Barcelona and Madrid, where they taped a television show that Smith calls the Spanish Midnight Special.
Gustafson says life on the road brings out the best in the band, as well as unpredictable responses from their fans. “We have crazy, tripped-out psych freaks on the West Coast, on the East Coast and in Europe. People ask us if they can read their psychedelic poetry before we go on. It’s a lot different here. Matt’s music is so incredible, the band is always evolving. But I want more people [in Detroit] to come see us play.”
Sheedy, 25, played with the Americans (along with Scott Michalski of the Volebeats; who was also briefly a member of OC) before joining the band in 2003. She’s toured with the band out West, where she says there is an “urgency about the music. Carl Newman [of the New Pornographers] really likes the band. He was singing to some of Matt’s songs when we were in Vancouver. They have a mutual admiration society.”
Later, Smith says: “I really like this rhythm section. We can do a lot more things now with the music. I feel like I finally got the P-Funk-style bass and drums combination I’ve been looking for. Larry can follow me anywhere on guitar and he can play anything. We can do a lot more with this band.”
“I can’t believe we’re not all taking to the streets in America and tearing everything down” —Matthew Smith, Hamtramck, January 2005
It’s Friday night at the Lager House and both rooms inside the Detroit club are jammed with bodies. Aquarius Void is on stage and Matthew Smith is on the dance floor supporting the band and its music. This is not uncommon: Smith goes out often to see local talent. Tonight, his head, arms and feet are in constant motion; Smith is not a dancer, but he’s a mover. He willingly allows Aquarius Void’s slow psychedelic grind to take hold. He has, as he sings in “The Unseen Devourers” (The Book of Spectral Projections), gone “to some place I don’t know.” The room fills with rock-club kids who look to have the same idea. The night is showing some promise.
Outrageous Cherry are generally not thought of as a band with a revolutionary message, though Smith would beg to differ. He says he was, when not yet 10 years old, forever changed by his exposure to the political life and crimes of Richard Nixon. He followed the Watergate scandal, watched the resignation press conference, and came away an eternal skeptic of power and authority.
“I think the capitalists have finally figured out a way to control culture,” he says. “They stopped trying to keep up with it: Now they own it.” Smith’s solution? Condense revolutionary ardor into three-and-a-half minutes and make it swing. “Our Love Will Change the World” is his joyful call to arms.
When Outrageous Cherry bounces into the song on stage at the Lager, the crowd starts to surge forward. It’s nearly impossible to resist. The tune is a perfect distillation of everything that seemed right in 1966, when an uptight world was looking for ways to feel right again. The Monkees are in there, as are Brian Wilson, John and George, Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane, Ray Davies and Pet Clark: all conspiring to connect the hearts of the world with music.
The crowd is up and dancing. Some girls are hopping, eyes fixed on the stage. They hear: “Our minds are a political machine/We’re turning gears in an endless stream/We’re the catalysts of invisible schemes/And that’s how we’re living …”
Outrageous Cherry is going at it, hard, and Smith’s face is flush with passion. By the time the band hits the song’s chorus, fans are pushing toward the stage, fists thrusting, hands clapping, people singing along. For airtight, ice-cool Detroit club rock, this scene could almost be read as a breakthrough moment: It’s sweet, innocent but somehow righteously angry.
The band moves on to songs that target other zones in the brain (the mind-bending “No Escape from the Infinite” from Out There in the Dark is one in particular), but the mood set by “Our Love Will Change the World” still lingers in the air. It’s a difficult song to top and it should stay up there for a little while longer. The message is too valuable, the messengers too skilled to let it come down.
Outrageous Cherry appears Saturday, Feb. 5, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700). The Avatars and Pizazz are supporting. Our Love Will Change the World is out now on Rainbow Quartz.