First of all, this interview has been placed in a bit of misleading category. Matt Stevens is not just an everyday guitarist: he’s an everyday guitar hero. In five years, he’s gone from winning over audiences at open mic nights to a recording solo artist in his own right, as well as performing as part of a highly dynamic collaborative project in The Fierce & the Dead. And he’s achieved all that just by being a bloody nice guy, not to mention rather good at the guitar as well.
During our half hour phone conversation, Matt frequently emphasises just how fortunate he’s been to get where he is today. “I’ve been incredibly lucky, I’ll be the first to admit that,” he says. “To be able to do weird music and get paid to do it and do all these gigs is great. The audiences have just been really, really nice!”
Of course, attributing all his success to his audience would be underselling Matt’s ability on the guitar. With just a battered acoustic and a handful of stompboxes, he creates complex arrangements that belie his limited onstage setup. His sparse pedalboard consists of a Line 6 DL4 for looping, a Digitech Whammy pedal for basslines and making weird noises, a TC Electronics Polytune and a Boss volume pedal.
“I use the volume pedal to do the fake string sounds and make ambient noises, anything I can do to make it not sound like an acoustic guitar and a bloke with pedals,” Matt says. “I’m terrified people will get bored, so every time I try and do something I think ‘well, what can I do to make sure that people don’t get bored of it’?”
Not only does Matt keep his playing interesting for the audience but he also goes out of his way to test himself on the instrument. “I use an old Ibanez Artisan acoustic with an L.R. Baggs M1 pickup in it,” he says. “It’s really knackered; it’s got three or four holes in it. The action’s quite high but if I have a really low action I tend to go a bit widdly as it’s too easy to play. It’s quite a difficult guitar to use but it slows you down and makes you think a bit.”
This opposition to widdling says a lot about Matt’s influences on the guitar. These include the likes of Bob Mould from Hüsker Dü, Johnny Marr and Robert Fripp, as Matt approaches the guitar from a compositional rather than a technical standpoint. For him, real virtuosity comes from jazz guitarists who play over chord changes, rather than shredders who rely on mindlessly fast modal runs.
Funnily enough, inspiration usually strikes while Matt’s watching television. When an idea hits, he lays down a quick demo in GarageBand before shaping this into something resembling a finished product in ProTools with longtime producer and friend Kevin Feazey. The process doesn’t end there though, as the pair journey to Livingston Studios in London, where they overdub loud guitar parts and drums. On the subject of recording studios, Matt has a few words of wisdom to share with aspiring musicians and bands.
“I think it’s really worth investing money in recording things and making them really good because then you’ve got far more chance of standing out,” Matt explains. “If you can get someone to give you a second opinion, be it an engineer or a producer, on an album, you really gain something from doing that. You learn from working with other people.”
In no situation does Matt learn more than with his bandmates in The Fierce & the Dead, which include producer and bassist Kevin Feazey, drummer Stuart Marshall and guitarist Steve Cleaton. The band are currently in and out of the studio recording a new EP, which, so far, Matt claims is very loud and, at some points, even scary.
Still, it’s a frightening sound that is worked on collaboratively and democratically, with no one member having more control than the other. “One of us will bring an idea into the room and when it comes out at the end it’s nothing like we thought it would be,” Matt enthuses. “It’s a really exciting process and you come up with something you never would have imagined you’d come up with.”
In collaborating with the rest of the band, Matt keeps his electric setup fairly minimal. He uses a Mexican-made Fender Telecaster with the same pedalboard as with his acoustic material, only this time he adds a Marshall Jackhammer distortion pedal to significantly up the rock ante. A Line 6 FM4 Filter Modeller also sees some use in the studio but Matt says that it’s too unpredictable to use live.
However, it’s Matt’s amp which tells a real story: his Fender Princeton transistor model was the result of a long search for a certain sound. “I had real difficulty finding amps I really like,” Matt explains. “I want it super clean but I don’t want it to sound sterile like some of the emulated guitar sounds. Technology has got a lot better recently but there’s something about that transistor amp that’s quite gritty and edgy and responsive as well; it’s not compressed at all so if I play loudly and play quietly it really has an effect on the dynamics and the sound.”
That dynamic contrast is the lifeblood which courses through The Fierce & the Dead’s compositions: when the loud parts are loud, they’re louder than life, while quiet sections simmer with unassuming majesty. In fact, their sound has left such an imprint on their fans that the band are finally relenting and putting out a live DVD after one too many requests from audience members.
Being appreciated by an audience is one of the things Matt loves most about his line of work, and he’s always keen to make each gig he plays unique in some way. There’s more scope for this when playing solo, as he recalls a recent incident involving a mobile phone.
“I was doing a gig and I went to a really quiet part in a song and someone’s mobile phone went off,” Matt recalls. “I looked at the guy with the phone and he looked incredibly embarrassed. I paused the song while his phone went off; the whole audience was just breathing. I had stopped dead and I just kept waiting and waiting and waiting until his phone stopped and then I said ‘right’ and went back in with another loop. For me, that’s why performing is incredibly good fun; that was a one-off and you’ll only get that once at that one gig.”
It’s an unfailing dedication to music and the moment which makes Matt Stevens and The Fierce & the Dead such engaging prospects, both for the musicians and their audience. Having such a connection, whether online or in person, only furthers the link between the performer and the listener and that can never be a bad thing.
“The most important thing I’ve learned about over the years is the community: it’s me and you, the people who do podcasts, the magazine people, the people on Twitter, the people on Facebook, the blogs,” Matt says. “If you’re a musician on your own, you’re not going to get anywhere. It’s all about everyone working together to get the interesting stuff out there.”
You can listen to Matt Stevens’ latest solo album Relic above and buy it, along with his previous work, on Bandcamp. Matt will be touring across the country from February 2012. The Fierce & the Dead’s latest album If It Carries On Like This We Are Moving to Morecombe can be heard above and purchased from Bandcamp. The band are working on a new EP for February and will also be releasing a full-length album and live DVD in 2012.