Matt Jaffe Returns and talks about acts that inspired his music
Welcome back Matt! Please could you tell us about the Top 5 music acts that you like the most and have influenced your career and your music.
My favorite musicians are best represented by a chain of dominoes, each inspiration knocking down the next and the next and the next... I never would have discovered the microcosm of Joe Jackson, Graham Parker and Nick Lowe if not for an abiding love of Elvis Costello, just like I never would have known about The Modern Lovers if they didn’t share Jerry Harrison with Talking Heads. Whether by supergroup cross-pollination (John Doe and Dave Alvin teaming up in The Knitters), groups namechecking heroes (The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton”), or flash in the pan collaborations (Joe Strummer subbing for Shane MacGowan in The Pogues), I delight in the winding and unexpected lineage of the music that drives me. That said, I have narrowed my list down to the Top 5, my condolences to the many greats left on the cutting room floor.
It begins, of course, with Talking Heads when I was 10. Though I already had Summer Flings with U2 and The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads was my first full-fledged love affair. I identified with David Byrne’s earnest awkwardness more than Mick’s sultry swagger or Bono’s Catholicism-tinged passion. Furthermore, Byrne sang about concepts that, while not necessarily relatable, were also not unrelatable. Maybe a 10-year-old isn’t too concerned with the abodes of civil servants (“Don’t Worry About the Government”) or the agricultural supply chain (“The Big Country”), but they still made more sense to me than anything on Some Girls. For my first open mic, I learned “Psycho Killer” and “Heaven.” I was going to play them in that order, but after assessing the tranquil mood at the bookstore/coffee shop, I started with the latter. I also wore a broad-brimmed fedora, so that the audience couldn’t see my eyes, nor I theirs.
While recording with Jerry Harrison and ET Thorngren when I was 16, they encouraged me to use ET’s Fender Jazzmaster instead of my Stratocaster (“we’ve got Strats coming out of our ass,” I recall ET saying). Upon wielding the Jazzmaster, I found inroads to the music of one the guitar’s most noted wielders: Elvis Costello. My folks had already gifted me one of his greatest hits collections, but I lost interest after cursory listens to “Alison” and “Everyday I Write the Book.” However, this time round, I discovered a vinyl copy of My Aim is True in a dusty stack of LPs in our basement, and fell head over heels. (My maternal grandmother was scandalized when she tuned in to the “Mystery Dance” lyrics while preparing Thanksgiving dinner). Unconvinced by my puberty-ridden vocals, Jerry and ET encouraged me to emulate Elvis, until one day they said I sounded too much like him. ET said that if I could mimic singers this well, I should try Al Green next. What followed was a chronological deep dive into Costello’s discography, with special adulation reserved for This Year’s Model, Imperial Bedroom and King of America. “Man Out of Time” remains in the running for my favorite song ever, and if I ever need some Bananagrams ammunition, I know who to turn to.
Jerry Harrison comes up big again via his friendship with John Doe of the band X. At the time, we all lived in Marin County, and John and Jerry knew each other from a shared cameo in The Darwin Awards. When I was 17, my band played a battle of the bands in which John Doe was one of the judges. (The battle was hosted at The Marin Rod & Gun Club. As a vegetarian, I poked fun at the venue from stage, and was later chided for doing so, given that the club gave us the chance to participate—and indeed win—the contest). At the end of the night, I caught John just as he was leaving the venue and introduced myself as a friend of Jerry’s. This encounter flipped the “don’t meet your heroes” maxim on its head. Usually, we idolize a musician, and the illusion comes crashing down once we realize the artist is a mere mortal, or worse, a total asshole. In this case, I was not yet a fan of John’s, but quickly became one because of his genuine character. X’s music baffled me at first, as my dalliances in punk were mainly with The Clash, who still bore semblance to Classic Rock, albeit more aggressive. X, on the other hand, eschewed the rulebook of my influences up to that point. And so, I found my way into John’s music through his solo catalog, which is littered with stone cold tear jerkers (“Twin Brother” chief among them). His music became my self-prescribed therapy in the throes of my first year of college. While I have come around to the utter brilliance of X, John’s impact on me also lies in the other artists his work turned me on to. Like so many, I registered “country” as a dirty word when citing favorite genres. Without John, I never would have discovered the alt country universe of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and Alejandro Escovedo.
I usually find the grief surrounding a celebrity’s death to be perplexing. Given that I don’t know the person, but cherish their output, I find myself grateful for the material they leave behind, and I don’t get worked up about an individual I never met. Our culture is so obsessed with biography over content, so in death, I try to maintain content as more important. This cold-hearted diatribe aside, I was truly gutted when Tom Petty passed away. Truth be told, I remain gutted. I get chills thinking about his 2008 Superbowl Halftime Show, those opening chords of “American Girl” announcing rock and roll perfection like a chorus of angels. Like so many, “Free Fallin’” inaugurated my guitar instruction. I had seen him twice in Berkeley a month before his death, and if I loved his music before his untimely passing, I worshipped it after. His writing is the flip side of the coin from Costello. Where Costello finds meaning in labyrinthine turns of phrase, Petty produces profundity in minimalism, his drawl disguising the brilliance of his lyrics. As someone who tends toward the verbose (can you tell?), I try to remember Petty when a song gets byzantine. If I had a mantra, I’d pull it straight from the Gospel of Tom: “most things I worry about never happen anyway.”
Astonishingly, this fifth artist might be the biggest obsession of all. And if you knew how I’ve obsessed over the prior four, you would truly find this astonishing. At an open mic in Alameda, CA in 2018, I heard somebody cover a song called “The Book of Love,” introducing it as a Peter Gabriel song. I was utterly floored by the composition (if not the performance), and to the ultimate ruin of my frontal lobe, discovered that the song is originally by The Magnetic Fields. That is to say that the work of their enigmatic frontman Stephin Merritt now constitutes about 95% of my brain. Based on the merit of that one song, I purchased their triple LP 69 Love Songs (since most people don’t take that title at face value, I’ll tell you that it is actually 69 songs about love). Since then, I’ve been in free fall through the twee and twisted Merritt songbook. (Aside from The Magnetic Fields, his work with The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and Gothic Archies all offer indelible chestnuts). From the Cole Porter echoes of his rhyme scheme (“not for all the tea in China / not for all North Carolina”) to the utter devastation of his sentiment (“all the umbrellas in London couldn’t stop this rain”), his songwriting has helped me discover the artist I want to be. The depth of his catalog has been an endless well of exploration in recent years, and hearing his work for the first time was a true “before and after” moment in life. Furthermore, Merritt suffered petit mal seizures as a child, and as someone with epilepsy myself, I find extra kinship to his music. There are passing references to this condition in his songs “Railroad Boy” and “Weird Diseases,” but the empowerment I find is in the greater solidarity. I don’t know where I’d be without his music—though my friends to whom I’ve evangelized about it probably wish it was somewhere else.
It goes without saying that a lot of greats didn’t even get a namecheck, but I feel satisfied with this top five. I’ll be grateful if I’m even a twig on this musical family tree.