Matthew E. White: Taking Big Inner Outward

Music Features Matthew E. White
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Last year Matthew E. White had a loose plan for his life, and that plan was Spacebomb.

“It’s not just a label,” White corrects when asked what brought him to start Spacebomb before making the album he planned to release on it. “It’s about a whole process.”

“It’s about the community of musicians here and a particular time and place that is going on in Richmond, Va.,” he continues. “It’s about a scene that I saw and wanted to organize, helping the musicians here—which included myself—do something bigger than we could do on our own. Spacebomb was the opportunity to do that, essentially creating my dream job.”

The dream job for White had been a long time coming, as he took an interest in music from boyhood and followed that passion to music school, an experience that is still difficult for him to express his feelings on succinctly.

“Music school is a dangerous place,” White says. “It’s a bad place for art to be. But if you wanted to find out the nuts and bolts of how something works, or like how to work with 10-piece string sections, that’s sort of where you have to go. If you can get in and get out with who you are fully intact, you get to work with some amazing teachers.”

“I didn’t do Spacebomb in order to sustain myself,” White says. “It was supposed to be a long-term project. We’d put out some small-run albums and maybe in five or 10 years we’d gain some steam. And just make it all about consistency and about quality, cutting the path for yourself. But things have sort of allowed us to do things a lot quicker and to get somewhere we weren’t quite expecting, both as a label and certainly for me personally as an artist. This wasn’t on the cards originally.”

What White is referring to is last year’s release Big Inner, an album that appeared seemingly out of nowhere and ended up landing him as best new artist in a number of year-end lists, including at Paste and Consequence of Sound. The surprise for White was in the reception.

“I’m not surprised that it is good.” He laughs. “I felt very good about it. What has been surprising is other people’s reaction to it. You never know there. But when I first started sharing demos, I could tell that there was a different kind of energy to the reaction. It’s not like this is the first music I ever made.”

That energy spawned Hometapes’ involvement to help release it, upping the expectation on White’s part in the process. By January of this year, Domino was rereleasing the LP and, in White’s words, “it went kind of nutso overseas.” White also describes the added resources and validation as a dream come true, but he spins it around to Spacebomb.

“It’s also a validation on why we started the label. We started the label in a very ambitious way because we thought we had something to say. And we were gonna make a bunch of albums all involving the same core musicians because I felt they all have a lot to say.”

White has been touring for a year and a half since the initial release of Big Inner. In that time he has toured with the Mountain Goats and Okkervil River, two songwriters generally considered among the best, but working in opposite distant textures and sentiment than White. Still, White notes trying to glean as much knowledge and personality from people like John Darnielle, whose previous album White arranged the horns for completely separately from his normal routine.

And where an album cycle usually would be winding down now, Domino is releasing Big Inner again, this time as an expanded collection dubbed the Outer Face Edition. But this isn’t just a few bonus songs or demos tacked on. White went back into the studio and created a new EP of all new songs, taking somewhat of a departure from his breakthrough.

“The scary part of releasing records now with more attention is that you are forced to release on more of a schedule,” White notes. “The fear is for the schedule to catch up with your brainstorming. I don’t want it to be ‘now you have to release a record’ and I haven’t thought about it. So, the EP was an idea from this big Google Doc I have called Ideas. It’s just ideas I have for recording. I spend a lot of time with that document while I’m on tour and just note ideas I have for production that I think would work. So, when it came time and Domino asked if I’d be up for recording an EP, I said ‘hell yeah, I’ve got all kinds of ideas.’ And then I looked at what resources I had, whether it’s personalities or time. Time was a big one because I basically had three weeks, so I went through my ideas and figured out what I could pull off in that time.”

“When I made Big Inner,” he continues, “it was an experiment, just to see what happens when I make a record with bass and drums, a little bit of guitar, percussion and then horns, strings, choir, then mix it and see what it sounds like. That’s not to say it was a demo, but it was demo-ish, or made in that kind of attitude. But Big Inner is such a small piece of how I think about music. Outer Face is the attempt to broaden the perception.”

Indeed, Outer Face does get away from some of what White was quickly known for. He takes the guitar off the album, which is his primary instrument, and removes horns for most of its genesis, and suddenly the album is a new tunnel into Matthew White’s mind. Though the EP comes out with the reissue of Big Inner, White was able to convince Domino to put the collection out on vinyl as a stand-alone, and it’s not hard to understand why, as all were newly recorded original songs, and all are as good as what White first gained attention for.

“So many deluxe editions are kind of bullshit,” he explains, “And every time I put my name next to something, I want it to be saying something. Like, a lot of people load up demos or outtakes and that’s fine, but I worked hard to make something real, something that I was very proud of. It’s real. It’s a real thing. It can stand on its own.”

And though White admits he hopes to wrap the Big Inner part of his career sooner rather than later, he seems to have grown into a professional long ago, The only signs of any industry inexperience are his honesty, his conviction and his disinterest in pleasing anyone but the core of Spacebomb. And with these, you get a sense that White will always be a beginner.