Matthew E. White: The Best New Act of 2012

Music Features Matthew E. White
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“Well, I’m glad it worked,” Matthew E. White laughs. He’s talking, of course, about introducing himself; his record label, Spacebomb Records, and his massive (at times up to 30-piece) band into the greater, national music community.

“For us, this being our first record, it was important to make it as good as we could make it and try to explain to people, even in little things like that, that this record is us,” White says. “Whatever record you have, I put it in the package in my house. I actually put that record in the plastic sleeve, sealed it shut, and hand numbered it. It was me or one of five people who helped. It has a piece of humanity to it.”

That introduction starts the second White’s debut LP, Big Inner, hits your palms. The appropriately pure white sleeve features the bearded, long-haired, bespectacled man himself, decked out in formal-wear and staring listeners dead in the eye, prepared to greet them with the written and aural messages that lie within. You pull out the content inside—A lyric sheet that doesn’t allow listeners to mix up the lyrics, a forward from Hometapes’ Sara Padgett Heathcott, and to tie it all together, White lays out his mission in a hand-signed letter, complete with a seal stamped at the top that reads: “FROM THE DESK OF MATTHEW E. WHITE.” It’s hard not to take this all a little personally, but in this case, that’s a great thing.

“On February 5th, 2011, in Richmond, Virginia, Spacebomb Records was brought into this world,” White writes. “On that Saturday, we took years of talking, planning, learning and practicing, and put our fingers on the red record button—that enchanting invention of the last century—and captured the music of our imagination. You can find that day, as well as the following thirteen days, spinning at thirty-three revolutions per minute around your record player. This is a document of our first time making music together, and truly a record of what our lives sounded like for those two weeks.”

The letter, the seal, the hand-numbered albums, they’re all little packaging details that—like Big Inner’s nuanced horns and soaring choirs—make the album an above-and-beyond introduction to White and Spacebomb’s mission. That LP is a summation of White’s roles as songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, producer, engineer, promoter and leader; a showcase of the immensely talented musicians he surrounds himself with, notably led by drummer Pinson Chanselle, bassist Cameron Ralston, and arrangers Trey Pollard and Phil Cook. “I knew what the goal of the record was—to display what Spacebomb could do. And I wrote those songs with that in mind,” White says.

According to White, Spacebomb’s foundation is rooted in a network he started years ago in Richmond called The Patchwork Collective, a promotion organization that existed solely to curate original and experimental music. “Out of that, came Spacebomb. Out of that came this record. I was promoting and encouraging a lot of that stuff, more from a promoter end, that’s where a lot of that started for me. But I’m just one part of the story, and there’s a lot of great shit going on.”

The other parts of that story span across an entire sleeve of the album; there’s nearly 30 of them including Chanselle, Ralston, Pollard and Cook, but also plenty of other notables—violins, woodwinds, brass, an entire choir. It’s no coincidence that while White bills the album under his own name, he gives all the credit to his community—essentially, it’s the Spacebomb house band.

“Not only did they bring their talent, but a real work ethic, understanding what we want to do,” White says. “They’re unbelievably talented, but they also understand what we need to do. I’m coming to them with songs, but when I’m working out drum parts or bass parts and string arrangements, that’s not me at all. I might guide loosely from a conceptual angle, but that’s all them. I really believe in surrounding myself with people that are excellent at what they do, that understand the concept of being as free as they can be. That’s the idea of making music as a community that’s better than what we can make on our own.”

For now, Spacebomb’s reach across Richmond is broad, but it’s still in its infancy. And for as self-assured as White’s stunning debut is, it’s easy to forget he’s running the operation out of his Richmond home that he shares with Chanselle, recording all of Big Inner in an unfinished upper floor with a tape machine.

“It’s a happy mess up there,” White says. “Everything is kind of broken or kind of works. It’s not a perfect recording environment, but because of that, it becomes about the music. It has to be. It’s not about the equipment you’re using to transform the sound.”

But maybe overall, the most refreshing thing about White’s debut is his enthusiasm to share it with others, and let people take their own meaning from his tunes. “I have songs that are totally important in my life where the author has no intent of it serving that purpose. Music is really connective, that’s why I’m in it and I love it. I love music so much. If there’s anything I can do to share it with people, that’s what it’s about. It’s a wonderful gift we all have, and I love talking about it.” His songs matter-of-factly explore heartache (“Big Love,” “Will You Love Me”), but notably White’s getting press for his undeniably spiritual lyrics that can be as blunt as the album’s final, assuring lines: “Jesus Christ, He is our Lord/Jesus Christ, He is your friend,” but even that portion of the album isn’t fair to judge at a first listen, drawing up big questions of organized and personal relationships with God.

“I think people read into it a variety of ways. There’s also a bit of dark irony there—The narrative [for “Brazos”] is a slave couple, people leaving the South, where very strong Christian traditions brought them their faith. That’s what they’re born into, but also something they’re relying on personally. That’s what resonates with me personally, when your faith is something where the community may have caused harm. It’s a weird place to be in, but they’re still there. They’re leaning on that. I think any time you start talking about faith, there’s a difficult part, a dark part, a part that’s hard to deal with. And then there’s a part that’s very comforting, and that’s all in there.”

What’s exceptional about White (and Spacebomb) is that they’ve got something so fully realized to begin with—conceptually and musically—and still feel the need to let us in on its secrets. After all, the imagery we get from the record label’s name is something completely alien descending onto Earth and exploding. And if White’s debut is any indication, we’re glad he’s given us fair warning to brace for the wonderful explosions to come.