On September 26, two-thirds of TFDI performed at 3rd and Lindsley. Matt Duke was kind enough to speak with me before the show, and Jay Nash was kind enough to join on occasion. In thirty minutes, we discussed everything from love songs to bobsledding. These are seriously talented and very funny guys, and I enjoyed every minute of our conversation. Read on.
ATF: Describe your music for people who haven’t heard it?
Matt: Um, well I guess it’s very hard to describe. It’s certainly in the alternative sort of songwriter vein, and I draw from a lot of different influences. There’s something very dramatic and intense about the music, so I just sort of draw from these things. Some perverse places, and some of my own personal experiences, and others. I just like to take very cool, interesting stories and turn them into songs, so… In essence, it’s just singer-songwriter stuff.
ATF: Who are some of your influences, then?
Jay: Ron Jeremy
Matt: Some of the bigger ones, especially when I was younger, my dad introduced me to The Band and Elvis Costello… Guys like that. And Bowie, Supertramp, and Peter Gabriel has been a big influence. His record was one that really got me thinking about music in a different way. Especially in the way that he writes and approaches music. His performances especially. I did theater in high school, and when I went to college, I was going to be focusing on theater for a bit, too. So that certainly plays a big element in what I do. Musically, I grew up in a time when it was kind of the tail end of the grunge period, so then it was going into this post-hardcore thing. There are a lot of heavy bands that I was really into that I took note of. Guys like Jeremy Enigk, who’s an incredible songwriter and was the frontman for Sunny Day Real Estate. Big Pearl Jam fan, huge fan of their work ethic. They’re still at it after…this is like, their twentieth year, which is incredible. Soundgarden, because of Chris Cornell’s voice. Jeff Buckley’s another huge influence. Ani DiFranco… In fact, she’s one of the ones who, when I started to really get into the acoustic guitar playing aspect of things, listening to her and how she played, with the finger picking and the D tunings, and all this stuff is just pretty incredible. So she’s one of my favorites.
(Conversation devolves into lovefest for Ani DiFranco)
Matt: She’s the best, dude. It’s hard to find – this may sound sexist to a degree – but it’s so hard to find that perfect female songwriter, and when they’re really special, they’re just so tremendously special. We were talking about when we hear a female songwriter that we like, we’ll just listen to her for weeks at a time. You know, Tori Amos just put out a new record, and that one’s just f***in’ killer. Fiona Apple’s another one. When she came out and her voice is just, like, there’s something so special. Anais Mitchell’s another one, and of course, Ani DiFranco. There’s something super powerful about these women, they’re just so great.
ATF: Did you take lessons? Guitar lessons, voice lessons, piano lessons?
Matt: I took piano lessons when I was younger, when I was about eight. The guitar was something I picked up on my own. My mom made it very clear, because I said I’d rather not focus on piano, she said, “Well, if you’re going to pick up the guitar,” and she gave me hers, “you can teach yourself. We’ll see how far you get.” I used to listen to the radio and my CDs and stuff, and learn how to play that way. Because I had the piano background, it made it easier. But no vocal training. I hung with a vocal coach for about three weeks. We did three sessions because I was losing my voice a lot. She was showing me ways to keep it. That was the main thing, and it was really helpful. It was a big step for me. That’s about it.
(Interview mumbles about the benefits of classical education, no matter what type of music one plays.)
ATF: The path that your music has taken since you began… Do you write more from experience or do you try to experiment with things that you’ve heard?
Matt: I feel that, as far as personal growth is concerned, I took a nice, big step forward with the new record, One Day Die. That record as a whole is about personal experiences, stuff that I didn’t dig into when I was younger. It was always a lot more, at least at the time, I always made tried to rationalize it like this. I remember saying something stupid once. I said, when someone asked me why I didn’t really get into love songs, I said, “I feel like love songs can kind of be a cop out, and you should really look at other people’s experiences, and try to really personalize them somehow. Really find a way to express them.” I was finding all these ways to philosophically draw from everything but love songs. When in reality, some of the hardest songs to write are love songs and things that come from the heart. And those are the songs that are the most endearing to people. When it came to writing this last record, I was digging from stuff that was just sort of difficult to write on paper. But I got through it, and it was, on a personal level, it was very cool for me – very cathartic. Before then, it was kind of finding out interesting tidbits about people and things that I’d read, and all this other stuff and trying to bring it back to me in some way. And I felt like I did a pretty good job, but writing from a place that’s so personal, something so totally different, and I give songwriters a lot more credit if they can dig into some love songs…and into self. It’s hard to do.
ATF: How would you define success?
Matt: Happiness. Very simply. Any time, even if it’s something small, when I’m happy…there’s nothing like being happy. That, to me, is success.
ATF: Do you feel like you’ve reached it, then?
Matt: There’s…yes. Because I’m so happy with what I do. I mean, there are days that are some down days, but the highs of this job are really, really high. But because of those down days, it really forces us to stay extremely focused, and try to exercise self discipline to the utmost. Because this is not exactly the easiest job, even though it’s a fun job, it’s just not easy. So, yeah. We want to try to achieve those highs every night and every time we get on the road. It’s a challenge, but I’m very happy where I am.
Jay: Now do you want to know how we really feel?
(Interviewer sticks foot in mouth in the following question, which seems to happen a lot. Onward.)
ATF: I called out Lover I Don’t Have to Love in the review. I’d like to know what you were saying.
Matt: I can’t take credit for the song, because it’s not mine. It’s a cover of Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst. It’s off the record Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. It came out when I did a short stint in college, and just like Ani DiFranco, he’s probably one of the best lyricists right now. This is one of the first Bright Eyes songs that I’d heard. I didn’t know that he existed before I heard this record, but that song in particular is the first thing I heard of his. And it was so provocative, and so good, and there’s something about his warbly, emotional voice and the way he performs. There’s something super captivating about him, and that song’s just badass. It’s just so good. I played it out a couple times at shows, and the guys, when were on the stage for TFDI stuff, Tony (Lucca) was just like, “I wanna get the beat on that. I can put a thump in the guitar.” And then Jay started, and so we just started playing it at shows. Which I thought was great, because it gave me an excuse to play it every night. It’s very cool when every other night, there may be a person who says, “Cool Bright Eyes cover.” They know! If they don’t, it doesn’t matter, but to me, it’s just a great song, and I love playing it. I’m so happy that I’m now associated with getting to play it. It’s been fun.
ATF: It fits so well with everything else you do. It doesn’t stand out to me as a cover.
Matt: Well, I felt incredibly drawn to the song. Especially lyrically. That’s very flattering.
ATF: How long has TFDI been singing together? I saw you here (at 3rd and Lindsley) about a year ago.
Matt: We’re still kind of getting our bearings, as far as being a real trio on stage. At this point, when the three of us are up there, it is like a band. We have a chemistry. We had a chemistry before, when we first met each other and were doing the solo sets, but that was more on a personal level. Up on stage now, there’s more of a rapport that has been established. It’s awesome. We’ve been at it now for, we met two or three years ago, so now this will be the fourth or fifth leg of touring that we’ve done. The one where we finally solidified that this was a unit, the three of us, like when we get together now, we’re not solo anymore, it’s us, was late last year in November or December when we made the LP. And then we started touring before we recorded and again after we recorded it. That was a blast. It’s become something none of us anticipated would happen, and that was kind of what the EP was. It was just an amalgamation of spending a lot of time together, a couple drinks, and some free studio time. Throw all that together and you get a little EP, and we put it out, and people really like it. So, we decided we’d just do it again.
ATF: I’m glad you did.
Matt: I’m glad we did, too. On a personal note, he’s (Jay) awesome, and so’s Tony. It’s very rare, but sometimes you bump into musicians who, for lack of a better term, are total d*cks. It’s not the easiest to get along with each other when you have to be in a car for seven or eight hours out of the day, and then at a venue, and share stages, and all this. It’s like summer camp, and you hope that you don’t bunk with someone who’s a d*ck. We got really lucky, and the three of us can deal. We’ve each got our little idiosyncrasies, but we get along.
ATF: You each have very distinct individual styles, but then you come together for this fantastic blend. The vocalist in me wants to know how you achieved that blend.
Matt: Is it going to sound horrible if I say we didn’t really need to work that hard?
ATF: No! That’s special.
Matt: Yeah. We lucked out. It was like winning the lottery. Because as far as I’m concerned, we did come from such different schools of music, and for whatever reason – and this is probably why it worked, because we all came from different places – we could find the harmonies where we could settle in. It’s hard to explain, but I’m so used to playing the way that I play, but it happened to complement the way that he played, which happened to complement the way that he played. And, you know, that just doesn’t happen. So all we had to really do was fine tune it, and we spent a lot of time addressing what we wanted to do with the LP, but for the most part, it was just right there.
Jay: It got a little more interesting when we were making a full length. We sat down to do the EP, and we just played the way we played, even though we were in three different places. There were three different sets of influences, which is a strength at times. Like, I don’t want to really listen to Tori Amos.
Matt: And I don’t want to listen to the Grateful Dead.
Jay: So, we are on divergent paths in a lot of ways, but I think what we want to do musically isn’t that far off. Like, the music that, ideally, each of us see as the most pure, creative statement, those three things we bring aren’t that different. But we’re coming at it from three separate directions, which is why it can make something interesting effortlessly. I’m curious to see what the next chapter’s going to be. When we can actually dig in and make a bit more of a conventional record, a deeper sonic power to draw from. When we really start to get into the nitty-gritty. There’s going to be conflict and conflict resolution.
Matt: Because I want to make a hip-hop record.
Jay: And I want that hip-hop record to be playing on a separate block, underneath a bridge.
Matt: This is called compromise.
ATF: That’s one thing I loved about the album. For the most part, I could pick out who had the most influence, as far as the main songwriter, in each song before reading the liner notes.
Jay: You can tell because whoever wrote the song pushed the other two guys out the way.
ATF: So what is your favorite song from the album?
Matt: The TFDI record? If I Was a Ghost. A lot of people say that, too, because it’s, without a doubt – even with the guitars, when they first come in – it’s just a haunting, eerie mix. And again…
Jay: If any one of us had tried to make that part, that record, by ourselves, it never would have happened.
Matt: Right. Like, the three of us were sitting around, and all the sudden he goes off, and then I’ve got an idea and throw it in, and then Tony’s like jumping in with this, and it all comes together. And if we were all to just sit around, and I said “Tori Amos?” and two were like “Nay,” and Jay said “Grateful Dead?” and two were like “Nay,” and then someone said, “Crosby, Stills, and Nash?” and we’re all like…”Okay.” And when we were writing, it just felt like this was the epitome of the experience that we’ve had so far, in making the record and being on the road, and just finding all our voices, and for some reason they just intersect on the same plane. And it’s just a haunting tune.
Jay: Now we have to play that song tonight.
ATF: Were you not going to play it?
Jay: We aren’t really sure what we’re going to do tonight. We’re just kind of… Tony’s not here, so we don’t have a plan. We’ve got the electric guitar, a mandolin… Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s late on a Monday, and the people who are here are the ones who just really wanted to be here. Some ladies flew in from Nebraska, there’s some more from Alabama.
(Interviewer mumbles about the dog that wandered onto the stage and a woman who sat down at the piano and started singing when Tony Lucca last performed at 3rd and Lindsley.)
ATF: So what’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you guys while traveling?
Jay: We’re not at liberty to discuss those things.
ATF: Everyone says that!
Jay: Stock answers. We rode the Olympic bobsled in Park City, Utah. That was fun. We went seventy-three miles an hour in the bobsled. Something awesome happened on the last tour, but we can’t talk about that. Can’t talk about Vegas.
Matt: Bobsled. That’s it.
Jay: We stayed with Lindsey Vonn when we did the bobsled.
Matt: She’s quite the skier. An incredible athlete.
Jay: Oh. One time we were in New York City, and I did this song called Barcelona, and this girl comes up on stage and starts singing in the middle of the song. And I had no idea…
ATF: So this happened to you, too?
Jay: It was Sara Bareilles. And she totally surprised me. I mean, she’s an old friend, but I almost fell over.
Matt: She tried to get behind the piano.
ATF: Like she knew what she was doing? Jeez, I hate it when people do that.