Emperor X: The Mad Scientist

Music Features Emperor X
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Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.
Album: Western Teleport
Member: Chad Matheny (vocals/guitar)
For Fans Of: Daniel Johnston, Danielson Famile, The Mountain Goats 

As anybody who has either intentionally attended or accidentally stumbled upon an Emperor X show can attest, Chad Matheny is anything but shy. He shouts, stomps, flails like an excited toddler, and generally as much noise as he can. He’s performed in a laser tag arena, flash-mobbed a Los Angeles pedestrian tunnel, set up after hours in a Post Office lobby, played a generator-powered set under the 710 freeway in Long Beach, and paraded around the streets of Manhattan with an acoustic guitar and audience in tow. He often assembles backing bands whose members meet just minutes before shows—he recently recruited a motley woodwind section via Craigslist the day of his highest profile New York gig to date—and he directs these ragtag ensembles through his chaotic indie-pop songs with the fervor of a coked-up preschool teacher.

Matheny is frequently likened to a mad scientist. His hair is usually tussled, his eyes meander in their sockets, and his glasses are thicker than some binoculars. “I was born with vision problems,” he explains. “But when I was 15 I was in a car accident that made it worse. I have permanent retina damage. Everything looks like a slightly out-of-focus movie camera with a throbbing purple and green blob in the right eye that never goes away.”

“I was basically blinded for five days in the hospital,” Chad says.”I had a Sony Walkman and my grandmother asked me what music I liked. She went to a record store and came back with several tapes by Pavement and Sebadoh. These bands made me feel like recording was accessible, something I could do. That set the hook for me wanting to be a musician.”

Stephen Malkmus  and Lou Barlow inspired some confidence in young Chad, but he was far from the extrovert he is today. At 19, he pressed his first Emperor X record The Joytakers’ Rakes / Stars On The Ceiling, Pleasantly Kneeling and promptly hid all three hundred vinyl copies under the bed of his Washington, D.C., dorm room. “I paid to press them and then I got embarrassed,” Matheny explains. ”I showed my friend Adam a record and told him I didn’t want anyone to hear it. He grabbed it from my hand and started running. I chased him to his car, we drove to his house, and he sprinted in with the record and locked me out.”

Matheny pounded on the front door until its glass pane broke. When his buddy let him in to bandage his bleeding hand, Matheny bolted for the turntable, grabbed the record and shattered it on the ground. “I felt terrible, because I secretly wanted Adam to hear the album,” he says. “I gave him another copy as a peace offering. He liked it; he’s played bass in several incarnations of the Emperor X backing band.”

By 2004, Matheny had overcome his timid tendencies. He self-released Tectonic Membrane / Thin Strip On An Edgeless Platform and its 2005 follow-up Central Hug / Friendarmy / Fractal Dunes. The solid pair of full-length albums sounded like R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People played on thrift-store Casios. From these records, Emperor X garnered moderate acclaim, built a curious fanbase and tallied up massive debt.

Matheny entered a state of chaos. He moved from his birthplace of Jacksonville, Fla., and adopted a pseudo-nomadic existence through New York, D.C., St. Louis, Los Angeles and Dallas. He indulged in oddball releases—vinyl only EPs, MP3 bundles, a cassette tape whose B side is its A side backwards—but the crisis of releasing music ran deeper than a format war. “I began thinking about the ethics of producing waste and my contributions to global warming,” he explains. “There was no environmental justification for making 1,000 copies of an album, especially with physical products having an increasingly diminished value for everybody. But I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of an album, because it’s such an important structure to organize songs and artwork.”

Matheny came upon a unique solution: “My answer was to make music, bury it in the ground and post GPS coordinates online for people to find,” he says. Chad began to stash the original masters of his cassette tapes throughout New York, Los Angeles, Florida and even Australia. “The material on the tapes was also stored on the Internet. If somebody found the tape, the audio on it would become available to everybody for free. I wanted the music to be heard, but I also wanted the physical work of art to have its own worth. The best way to do that was to only make one copy.”

The project was as much an interactive game between artist and listener as it was an exercise in neo-Dadaist performance art. “A lot of people thought it was a brutally futile gesture,” Chad says. “I never saw myself as self-destructive. I definitely resist the notion that I’m deliberately obscure. I just did what made sense to me at the time.”

The risky move paid its dividends. Reporters at NPR’s Weekend Edition program caught wind of the Emperor X hide-and-seek adventure and interviewed Matheny for a particularly charming segment; when asked about the potential for a tape to remain buried forever, he replied “If nobody finds it, oh well, I’m a litterer.” The radio spot helped grab the attention of Bar/None Records, the Hoboken, N.J., label that will be releasing Emperor X’s long-overdue album Western Teleport this fall.

Now signed and settled in Los Angeles, Chad has never felt better about his one-man band. “It’s great to have this whole six-year period of questioning and struggling and nearly drowning behind me,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I went through a dark phase because I had a lot of fun. I was never trembling in the corner by myself with a bottle of whiskey.”

For Matheny, the release of Western Teleport is vindication for his unconventional ways. “I’m at a part of my life where I need to not care so much about things I can’t control. I need to be as weird as possible and do whatever I want until I’m so insane that somebody notices,” he laughs. “It seems to be working out so far.”

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