Interview / Peter Matson / Underground System – By The Insider

Brooklyn-based musician Peter Matson is a founding member of the futuristic afro-funk band, Underground System. The outfit first came to Ban Ban Ton Ton`s attention when our amico mio, Balearic beat pioneer and legendary DJ, Leo Mas, made their cover of the revolutionary anthem, Bella Ciao, a staple of his sets. Leo, along with Fabrice and ambient genius, Gigi Masin, subsequently remixed the song for Italy’s Hell Yeah! More recently though Peter collaborated with Razor-N-Tape`s Jkriv on a tune called Ewesse Ye – which was one of our top balearic floor-fillers from last year. Peter now has a new E.P., The Right Way, due at the end of this week, on Bastard Jazz, which contains another cracking collaboration – this time with Ibibio Sound System`s Eno Williams – that’s sure to make 2022`s “best of” lists. The Insider tracked Peter down to Mexico and posed a “few” polite questions.

 Interview conducted by our four-to-the-floor expert, The Insider. 

Hey Peter. It’s really great to talk to you. Thank you for taking the time.

Yes! Thanks for having me!

What are you doing today? Where are you?

I’m in Mexico City. I’ve been visiting and spending a little time here each year for the last five years, and more in the last two. Let’s call it my #2 after NYC (smiles).

I have a rosy vision of Brooklyn, even though I’ve never been there. It would be so cool to have this conversation over a coffee. Where could we have met today for this chat in your area?

If we were in BK this second, let’s meet at Homecoming in Greenpoint, which is down the block from the studio that I’m most often at. They have this New Orleans style cold brew coffee, with a bit of condensed milk, that’s a little more addictive than most drugs. CDMX is no slouch with coffee either. One of my favourite in the cut places here is called ‘Las Puertas del Paraiso’ in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighbourhood.

Were you born and raised in Brooklyn?

No, I grew up in quite a few different places. I was born in Los Angeles, and then I moved around New York State and NYC since middle school, where most of my family resides as well. Brooklyn I’ve been living in for my whole adult life.

What do you think are the characteristics of a Brooklyn soul?

Brooklyn is an incredible intersection of so many cultures and also it’s such an intense lifestyle to live there year in and year out. It keeps you humble and tough but also has this built-in sense of humour and aliveness going on in the borough that you can’t find many other places in the world.

How is the scene right at this moment. Is it back to full steam with clubs and gigs?

It’s been a bumpy ride of course, but there have been some great moments over 2021. Right now, with the recent holiday season being difficult, things seem to be clearing up again and people have had the confidence to get right back out to events. Most recently I was lucky to play a packed show at the end of January at Public Records in BK – everyone was fully enjoying themselves and it felt right.

Brooklyn seems to be stacked with musicians. Do you think that it creates creatives, or do you think that people of a creative disposition flock there?

Probably equal parts I’d say. The best results I’ve seen come from the people who effectively merge these two circumstances. They are either from BK, or have lived there long enough to be full blown New Yorkers, and then they take this upbringing, and merge it with a myriad of musical influences and the exposure to different cultural viewpoints that comes with the fast-paced transient life in the borough. This breeds something new and exciting in most cases.

Where do you make your music? Do you have a dedicated studio? Where is it?

My process has slowly evolved over time. There are a couple of go to studios I have used for years now to finish music, #1 being Transmitter Park Studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. 

Where I most enjoy to begin the music making process is on small, makeshift setups of my own, in different environments that inspire me. Somewhere I’m living or staying for at least a few weeks. I’ll bring a handful of my favourite instruments, a couple important pieces of hardware, and some small monitors with a quality interface – like the UA Apollo. I’ve done this successfully on tour in France, in Mexico City, at family places in New York, etc. It’s fun and inspiring to have both the limitations and feeling of possibility with new environments to develop a flow within. Most records you’ll hear of mine came out of some situation like this.

You seem to play a lot on your local scene. A friend of mine was there last week, from the UK, and saw you playing a live set in a club. JKriv on the bass with Norman Vladamir playing ‘Do You Wanna Funk’. What is it you love about live performance personally?

That’s awesome! Performing live is how I first began to approach making music in high school, as a guitarist, and in that way it`s always the most familiar feeling act in music that I know. It’s an irreplaceable feeling to be able to play and communicate in a room with like-minded musicians and audience members. Cumulatively speaking, over recent years I’ve probably logged more total hours in the studio or as a DJ than on a live stage with my instrument, but playing live music is responsible for a lot of my career highs and it’s the root of how my love of being a musician was born.

I hear a lot about The Black Flamingo in Brooklyn. Is this a live music venue?

Black Flamingo I’d file under nightclub, but it’s a very intimate space with extremely discerning, music forward programming and a no-frills ethos that`s much more in-line with musicians’ taste buds than some over the top bottle service and sparkler extravaganza.

It’s one of my favourite places in Brooklyn to DJ and has become a meeting place for some of my best friends in music since it’s opening.

Black Flamingo 1Black Flamingo 2

The Black Flamingo

There was a place I read about called the Mangiami which sounded like a very cool place, an after-hours for DJ’s and musicians. Did you know it? Did you go there where it was open? Is there somewhere that has replaced it?

I didn’t go there personally, but in recent years there have been a plethora of after-hours spots around. People involved in parties like The Loft and Joy always had their own home situations with nice audio setups, or often we would just end up closing out some of our favourite clubs and bars when we knew someone who worked or owned the spot – like Black flamingo (laughs).

I’d love to know about your background. I’ll bet your home was full of music. Were you a musical child? Were your folks musicians?

Definitely. I’m from a pretty interesting family in the sense that almost all of my family members for several generations have worked in creative fields. I’ve struggled to find people in similar situations… it’s not typical but we’re out there a little bit in the US, like lone wolves (laughs). 

Closest to home musically speaking, my dad is a composer and music professor, so that was obviously a huge influence on me growing up. I was not forced to play too much music as a child however, and it took me until high school to really become interested in performing myself.

Someone told me that you have a famous grandfather. Is that right?

Yes, along with the musical family discussion, my great-grandfather was Irving Berlin. He was one of the most widely regarded American songwriters of all time. American Songbook and Jazz standards; he and his counterparts like Cole Porter, Gershwin, etc. literally wrote the book on 20th century music in the US.

How much has he impacted on you?

A lot in quite a few ways, and I think there’s this sort of mutant confidence that I get from it, feeling like I’m just another farmer in this family of farmers, whereas most people who came into pursuing professional music often feel like the black sheep of their families, or there’s a stigma against it in more conservative environments.

One fortunate thing on the other side of the coin, I’m also far enough away generationally speaking that it’s not really too large a shadow I have to live under. I can operate pretty freely and make my own way in these niche corners of underground music without interference. Circumstances in my own musical career have all come about via my own motivation and interest, not old connections.

How many instruments do you play? What is the instrument you are most competent on..

Guitar was #1 and the instrument I seriously studied as a music student at The New School in New York. As I developed production chops I also started spending some time on instruments that are common in that world: bass, various synths and drum machines, samplers, some percussion, etc.

Do you sing too?

Only barely functionally. I like to practice singing on my own as a way of connecting to and learning songs, but I haven’t taken it on as a front person on stage or anything like that. Developing a lead voice of my own is a long-term sort of side project that would be rewarding to flesh out. I love to collaborate with talented vocalists.

How hard would you say it has been as a musician to make a living?

Not easy. I Don’t really want to beat this dead horse coming out of the pandemic right now (laughs), but I was fortunate enough to get government support the last couple years. In general, those of us that do music at least full-time or part-time/full-time it’s because it’s a vocation, a calling, and a lifestyle, and we need time to get it right that working in another field full-time wouldn’t allow.

Do you think it’s tougher for bands to release music? What challenges have you had with putting out music?

Yes. Creating and releasing a recording that’s high quality and sounds like a band recording, like humans in a room playing together, is a challenge that a lot of modern music producers don’t understand. Doing this while still somehow holding a candle to the sorcery of modern technology, and algorithm driven, muzak playlist forwarding platforms, can almost feel like a joke sometimes. What the hell would a band we all love like Sonic Youth, or Talking Heads, or literally any legendary avant garde jazz group of the 20th century, do if they had to start in ‘22. Kind of silly. But at the end of the day, those in bands that made a commitment and got somewhere with it, we just know. when you get it right, there’s no mistaking you for anyone else. You’re part of the rebel alliance. The last Jedis (laughs).

You`re a member of Underground System. Tell us about your band.

Underground System is a pretty special project to me. I co-lead it with my friend Domenica, and it’s the band I started as a platform to exist in the New York music scene, which is quite sink or swim. I was a flailing 23-year-old coming out of school not feeling like I was playing any music I liked out, and realising that I had to create my own opportunity to make something happen. 

For the uninitiated, think Fela meets a DFA or new/no wave aesthetic. Throw in the fact that Domenica is trilingual and raised in Miami and Venezuela and we have a sort of ‘Only in NYC’ creation on our hands. The live show is the leader and how we began as a group, while trying to produce good records and occasionally DJ them is chasing closely behind, as that’s quite an important pursuit to us as well. Our first LP we did with Soul Clap in 2018, and that developed into a bit of success and substantial touring in the EU we hope to start back up again with a recent partnership between US, Razor-N-Tape, and Heavenly Sweetness. 

There is something very exciting about a huge troupe of people on a stage. What big bands have over time inspired you?

Absolutely. Even if people imagine a group or an artist as having a singular identity, the reality is that if they’re known for their live show there are often many people on stage. Some of the legendary crews like P-funk, James Brown’s various groups in the `60s and `70s, The Talking Heads in the early `80s around the ‘Remain in Light’ era would be a few obvious picks. The elephant in the room musically speaking for me, and also one of the largest bands, would be Fela’s Africa 70 and Egypt 80, which were absolutely massive. Along a more underground NYC tip I spent a lot of my formative years in downtown jazz clubs, and it was always a thrill to experience some of the more avant-garde takes on the classic jazz orchestra setup. Maria Schneider Orchestra, Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra, Roy Hargrove Big Band, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra – most of these are non-household names that are very influential to NYC musicians.

Can you highlight some of your other solo works..

Peter Matson – Short Trips 

JKriv & Peter Matson – The Bigtime E.P.

There’s classic house and there’s soul and disco. But tell us about your brand of disco..

Yes. While I’ve spent years absorbing these sorts of influences and I’ll always go back to them and DJ them. My immediate world in terms of the music I’m producing is a bit of a hybrid. It’s a mutant version of dance music that drifts between disco, house, afro, and rock influences. It has a very NYC-centric aesthetic in the sense of incorporating a lot of the studios, players, and environments specific to the city. The lineage of dance music in NY would be a huge influence here in terms of the attitude and approach. We absorb it all: From The Loft, to downtown `80s groups like ESG, morphing into the harder house of the `90s, and eventually the dance punk and nudisco worlds that came about since the time that I’ve been around. I’m a fan of all this music and like to recombine these stylistic gestures in my own productions.

What do you think is one of the greatest disco records of our time?

Loaded question! (laughs). Of our time, for my age group – knowing that I wasn’t even born yet for some of this – I’d go with Metro Area – the whole anniversary edition that compiles all their 12s, so that I don’t have to choose between them (laughs). I don’t think I need to explain this one. 

The Right Way drops soon. Talk us through this release.

The Right Way’ is a unique batch of tunes, the production of which bridged the gap between the busiest year of my musical career – 2019 – and the stillest a lot of us have ever felt in our lives – lockdown 2020. A lot of the musical gestures and themes evoke a juxtaposition of high energy and motion with a dash of slow burning introspection that I can trace to exactly this moment in time.

Bits of inspiration and demo beats crafted while on tour around the EU with my band Underground System in 2019 made their way back home with me to Brooklyn, and a few grooves stuck out as complementary to each other; something worth fully fleshing out..

A host of analog synths, especially the go to SH-101 and Juno, guitars, various percussion, and in the case of A1 and B2, the recording of live drum performances, built each track into a place where the sonics were exciting and the feel projected my voice.

For finishing touches, collaboration. The A1 vocal on ‘Call and Answer’ was literally that, a phone call, and an answer. In recent years I became friends with the UK group Ibibio Sound Machine, as they share a similar approach to melding afro, disco, and electronic influences as my band, Underground System, does. We had hung out at studios, parties, and festivals, and been passing around demos for some time. Even though we ultimately sound different as bands I feel that in terms of mission, Underground System is the Ibibio Sound Machine of NYC and vice versa. It’s a natural collaboration between myself and them. There was something about the groove of this particular track that I thought would work well with Eno Williams’ voice. She is British/Nigerian and in this case singing in the Ibibio language. Eno delivered a beautiful vocal performance.

A2, keeping with the UK theme…. some of my favorite Afro/Disco 12”s of the last decade were those put out by Faze Action. I’m a huge fan. I was thrilled that they were up to remix ‘Call and Answer’. Evoking the spirit of some early Madonna/Jellybean-era instrumental, but undoubtedly ending up in a different direction with interwoven Afro/Electro sensibilities.

The Right Way’ itself takes its name, as a lot of tunes do, from an inside joke with a friend writ large. Vocoder, idiosyncratic live synthesizer sequencing, and a heavily mangled guitar solo in the final moments add personal touches and structure that steer it away from feeling like just an Italo-ish DJ tool.

PB (ca va)’ is a personal favorite, and the sleeper tune on the E.P. Slowing down and digging into dreamy intro pads, melding an Eno/Byrne-esque groove with the functionality of a slow burning party-starting jam. My Underground System bandmate Domenica’s vocal snippets in the breakdowns set it over the edge and bring the track fully to life.

The whole E.P. is an evolution from my previous 808-laden Bastard Jazz release, ‘Short Trips’ – which was a decidedly more minimalistic record in terms of approach, and more on the house sounding side of things. The Right Way gets much more into afro/disco, Italo, and Balearic kind of territories.

I hope you enjoy, and can find within it a pointed aesthetic; an interweaving of club, downtown groove, and afro influences that is both genre-bending and timeless, without trying too hard.

Bastard Jazz seems to be a label for collectors and the more discerning. Have you been a fan of the label over the last two decades?

Definitely. Bastard Jazz was consistently in my periphery as a label to always trust – being an eclectic NY based musician and DJ of sorts – and it felt right as a home for my work that might not fit with a label that has singular genre guidelines built into their ethos.

Why do you think the label has been so consistently good for so long?

Aaron is an attentive label head, who is very actively involved in all the labels work. He’s super open and knowledgeable about music and likes to cultivate long-term relationships with all his artists. I’d say the label quality ultimately stems from his consistency in bringing together so many interesting artists and musical worlds into one cohesive package.

Who is your current musical obsession?

I’ve been enjoying a lot of song-based music as of late in between digging for dance tunes.

I can’t go very long these recent years without listening to Little Dragon. Also, I’ve had that Roisin Murphy remix record that Crooked Man did ‘Crooked Machine’ on repeat for the last couple months. That’s such an awesome and hard to pull off concept, a single producer remixing an entire album of proper songs seamlessly. Pretty top stuff.

What keeps you grounded?

It was hard to tell for a couple years there, but it ultimately has recently come back to the same answers I always had. Music, my close friends, and partners in business and personal life. I’m lucky to be surrounded by great people all the time, and I try to go out of my way to continue to cultivate that.

If you hadn’t been working in music all of your life, what do you think you might have done instead?

I was talking about this with a friend. No regrets, but if I hit a reset button I think it would be to the point where I started school in NYC, and pursue something totally different and see what happens. I honestly have no idea what that is though. I was a successful poker player as a young`un (laughs). I’d like to see this play out as a plot to some conceptual `90s movie, a Memento type setup.

Peter Matson The Right Way

Bastard Jazz release Peter Matson`s The Right Way ft. Ibibio Sound Machine and Faze Actions Remixes, on 25th February.

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