Friday, January 16, 2015

Interview: Matt Henry

At last year's Tamworth Country Music Festival I went to a gig called Late Night Alt at the Tudor Hotel and it was one of the best musical experiences of my life. Now its organiser, Matt Henry, is taking it to three nights, again upstairs at the Tudor, and I spoke to him about the shows, alt country and his own music.

I actually did meet you briefly earlier this year at your alt country gig at the Tudor when you suggested that someone should buy you a beer for organising it and I bought you a beer.
It was you?

It was.
Oh that's right.  There you go. Well, thank you, of course I do remember that, which is amazing that I can remember anything from that night in the end because it went to two [a.m.].

I left at one-thirty.
By the end it was getting a bit ugly.  So thanks for the beer, I really do appreciate it.  I'm off the beers at the moment; I will be off the beers in Tamworth so I might have to ask people to buy me a Diet Coke or something.

I thought you should have been bought more than a beer – it was a fantastic night and I've been talking about it ever since, so I was really pleased to see that you were able to get it up again for this year.  But first I'd like to ask you a bit about the genesis of the first gig in January 2014 and then how you've organised 2015's gig.
Well, last year was born out of, really, a necessity. I was sort of trying to organise my gigs about mid-year that year and because you have got to do it that far out and I just couldn't really find a whole lot of places that I was excited about playing.  Like, I really couldn't find somewhere that really fit.  And I had spoken to other artists and friends who had sort of felt the same and I thought, well, rather than complain about it or maybe not go, I will try and make something out there and get it off the ground.  So we had this idea and we guessed that a lot of artists would go back to each other's places where they are staying in Tamworth and have a bit of a jam after their shows and hang out, and I just thought, well, why don't we do that but just in a bar somewhere and the people just come and watch?  So that was the genesis of it and we got it up and running, it was really myself and Lou Bradley.  And we didn't really expect it to be quite as successful as it was and get that many people there.  I kind of thought we can't promote any of the names because everyone has got their ticketed shows, so how are we going to get the people there and let them know about it?  But I think that once the good artists turned up word just sort of travelled and it filled up.  You were there, it just filled up quickly.

It really did. The reason I knew about it was because Brad Butcher had told me about it at his gig the day before, so he was doing good advance work and he didn't say many names, he just said you and Lou and Jess Holland, I think he mentioned – and him, of course – and he said a few other people would probably come and play after their shows.  And it was a great night.  But I will be interested to see – or hear, really – what format you're planning because I thought it worked so well just having people play two or three songs each and keep rotating it.
Look, it did and the format has changed a little bit only because the soundy had a terrible time because people were just jumping on and off, and people were pulling their leads out of their guitars without turning them off and all of that.  So he had a bit of a hard time.  They had a great time at the venue in terms of they got good bar sales, so they were happy to have it again but they wanted it to be run a little more carefully.  So I've had to change it up a little bit.  They're going to be half-hour sets or there will be some 20 minute sets for sort of singer-songwriters and then some half-hour sets, and some that will go a little bit longer when there's a band on stage.  So it has changed a little bit.  I'm hoping it will run just a little bit smoother. Given that they gave us three nights, that was part of the deal as well. I kind of have to listen to them a little bit more rather than just do what we want to do. 

I'm looking at the press release that I was sent and there is one night on here for alt country – are you on the 21st and the 23rd?  What are the dates for the Alt Country Late Night?
It's on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd – so Wednesday, Thursday, Friday nights from 10 p.m. and it will go until 1 a.m. this year instead of 2 a.m.  That was the other little caveat that they put on us because again the sound issue just got a bit out of control after 1 a.m. 

Well, you've got a packed schedule then for this Tamworth because you've got quite a few other gigs going on?
I'm just playing one night, I'm playing the Thursday night at Late Night Alt but I will be there to, you know – I mean, if you can call it hosting. You saw it last year – it's not exactly hosting but just introducing people.  I will be there doing it again for those nights, but yeah I've got a packed week in the lead-up, a busy sort of first weekend and then I've got Lou's album launch and then Brad's album launch, so it's quite busy.  I'm a bit nervous I've taken on a bit but too much but you've just got to get into it.

You just may not be able to talk in between gigs to save your voice.
That's right.  I'm probably feeling a bit more like because I'm not drinking out there I've got to fill my time with wholesome activities like singing, so that will save my voice a hell of a lot of punishment if I'm off the beers.

Look, it's too hot to drink there anyway.  That's my opinion about Tamworth every year: too hot for alcohol.
It's so true – it's too hot to drink wine or anything like that, so I'm with you, and especially last year, it was brutal. 

You dehydrate too quickly otherwise and there's only so many shopping centre air-conditioning systems you can get to in time.
That's right and all the music venues have got good air conditioning fill out really quickly in the morning.

And the Tudor is not one of them, because I played in a covers band in that upstairs venue several years ago and we were as hot as Hades, I remember. 
Well, you would know full well then because and once you're on stage and moving around and under lights, it's twice as bad.

I think, as you mentioned in the press release, there's not a huge awareness of the alt country genre here but I'm also curious as to how you personally define alt country within Australian country music as opposed to, say, some of the Americana that comes out of the UK and the US.
Someone asked me that question recently and it's hard to answer because in terms of an Australian sound in alt country, I think it's really so in its infancy that it's really hard to define.  Australian storytellers, I would almost go as so far to say that people like Paul Kelly really are kind of like Australian alt country, but he's been around so long.  I think it's in terms of the Americana acts that are out here and people who are taking their lead from Americana and things like what Kasey [Chambers] and Shane [Nicholson] have done with their albums, is there really more tribute to Americana than they are anything Australian.  It's more Americana done by Australians than Australian Americana or Australian alt country.  But I think we're sort finding our way.  I feel like people like Brad are probably doing something pretty unique; it's quite uniquely Australian.  It's very country but you've sort of got that inner city alternative vibe about it too.  So I think that that's kind of the future of it is that kind of sound.  I think someone like Harry Hookey is definitely in that vein, although it's a bit rockier.  But he's definitely sort of doing something that is quite different.  So no it's interesting; it's a very difficult thing to define.  It's like defining country itself: it's just so broad. I hear so often people say, "I don't like country music but I like that."  And you're, like, "Yeah, well, that's country music," but you know it's not what they consider to be country music.  It's not twangy and there's no big wide lapels, so they're not quite sure where to pigeonhole it. 

Well I tend to describe Australian country music as Australian storytelling in song, because I actually think it's the one genre that encapsulates that when other genres don't. 
I agree and that's so true and that's what Lachlan [Bryan] does so well and it's that very bush ballad–type feel but with a contemporary sort of spin on it, and I think that's probably what's defining some of the younger artists coming out who are sort of alt country artists is perhaps subject matter more than anything else.  Whereas sound-wise there are some different sounds and there are different instrumentation but I think subject matter more than anything.  They're not afraid to sort of tell some broader stories and it doesn't have to be necessarily stories of hardships on the farm or drought or that sort of thing.  It's just it's all got its place and I think it was a just a bit underrepresented out of Tamworth, so we just really wanted to do something about that. 

It's a great initiative, but I'm also interested in talking about you so I'm interested in how your own sound has evolved, so where your earlier influences were and how you've come to put yourself into alt country really.
The EP I put out about 18 months ago is already feeling very different to the songs I've written in the last 18 months, so I'm starting to work on an album, we've gone into preproduction on an album that I really don't have an idea on the release date but I think it will be sort of end [2015] and it's a very alt country sounding, the songs.  So my influences really have been from a long way back.  I love Cat Stevens and John Denver and that's sort of seventies singer-songwriter type, Nick Drake, that sort of thing.  But of late I've been listening to a lot of rock 'n' roll – Buddy Holly – and also people like Gillian Welch, so it's just broad.  You know, if you love music, you love music whatever the genre and whatever the time and a great song is a great song. and I just love great songs whether they're pop songs or old songs, new songs.  So I think that basically where I'm heading has got more of an Americana type feel to it, if you were to define it in any way.

Australian country is a really broad church and I do think that the audience, regardless of age really or even what they've listened to before – and you see this at Tamworth, in particular – is just really accepting of new music, of variations on country whatever they are.  As long as they think there's a story in it they will listen to it.
I agree.  Australian audiences, and Australian people generally, we've got the greatest nose for bullshit in the world and I just think that if someone's just shovelling a bit too much, they don't really get a lot of airtime or a lot of recognition.  Australian people really like down-to-earth people with good songs. I think we've got a great ear for good songs and we're producing some the best music in the world in Australia at the moment.  I would love to think that alt country and some of the more folky country and Americana country could break through and maybe get played on Triple J or get played a bit more on commercial radio. I don't know if that's a pipe dream but I'm hoping that someone can break through a little bit.

I also wonder if necessarily that's even needed in terms of sustainable careers, and that is an important thing to think about. I look at a lot of country artists who wouldn't necessarily be very well known but a lot of them are moving towards sustainability in their careers, there's that interesting thing of what you might necessarily have to compromise on if you're going for the Triple J audience as opposed to going to the audience that's there already. Often, in country, the audience is in small towns and not necessarily near the major transport hubs, so it's that effort of getting out to see them.  Whereas radio, I guess, can reach a whole lot of people differently with less effort. 
Exactly.  The last thing you would want to do is to have a bastardised version of something just to get played on a particular station. I guess it's more just a general supporting if there's just so many great young songwriters and talents and then having sustainable careers is so difficult in music at the moment.  When it is live music, that really keeps everyone going, but, you know, just a little more support from radio [would be good].  That generalisation of people saying "I don't like country music" but not really knowing exactly what it all entails, and particularly these days where [there's a lot of more folk-oriented [music] and of such high quality it's just a shame that it doesn't have a little bit more of an audience.  But I take your point: you wouldn't want to change it just to get on a particular station.

What interests me is that a big part of the reason I started the website was to try to make more people aware of Australian country music – I completely agree with you that the quality of music that's coming out of Australia at the moment is just extraordinary, and I think Tamworth is a big reason for that because it's so competitive, really, for performers and for songwriters.  If you're not up to scratch in Tamworth you're just never getting asked back, basically.  So you have to be on your game all the time.  But I found the website, at least half my audience is in the US and those people are reading about Australians.  I don't cover much American music.  They're reading about Australian country music artists.  So I find that really curious too. 
That's fantastic.  That's amazing that there are so many people in the States who are reading it and there's so much interest there. In America I know there's been a particular backlash recently of the sort of direction of country music and the kind of songs about utes and what they call them pick-up trucks type –

"Bro country" I think they're calling it.
Yeah, people are looking for something a bit more real. 

Also from my perspective, one of the things that I love about going to Tamworth is seeing the whole range of performers – and Late Night Alt was an example of this, that there's equal numbers of men and women as acts.  It's all sort of ages, you can have a band that's got a 20 year old and 50 year old and a 30 year old in it, and I don't see that anywhere else it world actually to that extent.  Apart from maybe in jazz and blues, but it's extraordinary.
I totally agree. Look, there are aspects of it with that kind of ute-type songs and pick-up truck and picking up girls–type songs and they're not exactly female friendly, but I think particularly in alt country the mix is really pretty even.  If anything there's probably more women and women songwriters and women performers in that genre at the moment than there are men.  But it is it's such a diverse festival and you can see so many different varieties of music and so many different types of performer and it's quite amazing for one week or eight or ten days or whatever it is.

Now I'm going to conclude with a question about Bangalow and the Bangalow music scene because I guess for you guys, south-east Queensland, including Brisbane, is part of your scene – is that correct to say?

Definitely and we're quite lucky in Bangalow, in that there's a couple of sort of major centres nearby.  There's Ballina and Lismore and Byron Bay and then the Gold Coast is only about 45 minutes and Brisbane is about an hour and half.  So there are a few good centres to base ourselves.  I seem to be more doing more with the Brisbanites than anyone else.  There are some good performers in Byron and there's a Ballina country music festival that's not bad, but they've actually had a bluegrass festival in Bangalow this year. It was a picker's festival and it was the first one and they got about two and half thousand people here.

Amazing, and it's a small town too.
Unbelievable. It was the Bangalow Bluegrass Barbecue and so they're doing it again [in 2015] and it will just get bigger and bigger, I'm sure.

Well, I'm looking forward to seeing Late Night Alt, I'm going to try and get to all three nights of it.
The first person [performing] we're thrilled [with], we've got some great acts and Wednesday night the opening will be fantastic and Thursday night is going to be huge.  We have got some really good bands and we're closing with a bang on the Friday night, so you won't see a bad night there. 

Late Night Alt at the Tudor Hotel, Peel Street Tamworth:
Wednesday 21 January, Thursday 22 January, Friday 23 January from 10 p.m. 

Matt's gigs in Tamworth:

Saturday 17th January 2015 | 9am
Tamworth Services Club, TAMWORTH NSW
Writers in the Round

Sunday 18th January 2015 | 3pm
DAG Sheep Station, NUNDLE NSW
w/ The Bushwackers & women in docs

Monday 19th January 2015 | 11.40am
Post Office Hotel, TAMWORTH NSW
(02) 6761 3322

Monday 19th January 2015 | 8pm
The Family Hotel, TAMWORTH NSW
Lou Bradley Album Launch [support]
(02) 6765 7722

Tuesday 20th January 2015 | 11am

Tuesday 20th January 2015 | 3pm
Imperial Hotel, TAMWORTH NSW
Brad Butcher Album Launch [support]

Wednesday 21st January 2015 | 1pm
Locomotive Hotel, TAMWORTH NSW

Thursday 22nd January 2015 | 1.30pm
Southgate Inn, TAMWORTH NSW

Thursday 22nd January 2015 | 10pm
Late Nite Alt, w/ special guests

Friday 23rd January 2015 | 3.30pm
(02) 6765 8361

For more information, please visit 

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