Matt MacDonald on His Soul-Searching Journey with the Classic Crime

ClassicCrime-HowtoBeHuman

Life is a happy blur for Matt MacDonald these days. His long-running band the Classic Crime released their first studio album in five years at the end of April. After a May run in support, he and his wife will pack into an RV with their three kids on a cross-country tour of living rooms for their shared project Vocal Few. The trip also doubles as a move for the family, who plan to reside in Nova Scotia for one school year before returning to Seattle. And to top it off, MacDonald hosts a weekly podcast with Sherwood’s Nathan Henry called Don’t Feed the Trolls, with the goal of conducting fair and thoughtful debates on current topics of the day.

Weighty subject matter is nothing new for the songwriter. On How to Be Human, MacDonald confronts the realities of human nature and the complications that knowledge entails. It’s not exactly summer popcorn material. The season of uncertainty saw him reconstruct his worldview from the ground up in response to what he was going to teach his young children, and the thematic work on the record has generated online heat among some fans for being too inclusive (“Holy Water”) and using the f-word (“Wonder”).

Behind the Setlist talked with MacDonald about why he’s cool with handling the criticism, the circumstances behind his life changes, the way the Classic Crime functions in the independent world, and how Don’t Feed the Trolls was started. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Now that How to Be Human is officially out, how has the reaction been?

It’s been overall great. Our fans are pretty generous with their comments and always love new music from us. People have been comparing it to other records we’ve done. We’ve gotten a lot of comments of people saying they think it’s our best record yet, which is crazy to think because we’ve put out a lot of records at this point. It’s good stuff to hear.

It’s been five years since the last album, although you did do the acoustic release in between. That’s got to feel good, right?

Yeah, it’s been a long time since we’ve put out original tunes. This is probably the longest album in the makes of any of our albums. So it’s good to finally have something new out and feel that energy.

Before we get into the album, I’ve got a few Don’t Feed the Trolls questions. I’m originally from the same area Sherwood is, so I’ve known about Nate and those guys for a long time. How did you two originally get hooked up together?

I can’t remember, but it might have been in the springtime or early summer of 2006. We played a show with them in San Luis Obispo where they all went to college. They headlined and we opened. I remember standing on the stage after we were tearing down and talking to Nate, who was really friendly.

They had come through town before we had even signed and played with our friends from Seattle in a band called This Providence. So we knew of them and had listened to their music, but that’s when I met Nate was when we played that show. That summer we went on Warped Tour and they were on Warped Tour the whole time. We hung out a bunch then.

MacDonald with ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’ co-host Nathan Henry.

When did you decide to do a podcast? Was that out of the blue or in the works for a while?

At the end of 2015, I had six or seven people independently come and ask me “When are you starting your podcast?” Everybody has a podcast now, and I’ve been on a bunch of podcasts myself, but I could never think of what it would be about. What do I have to say that people don’t already know? I don’t consider myself an expert in anything. I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades. I can do everything decently, but I’m not some specialist or educated formally. I just toured in a band for a long time and developed some skills through that.

I was on Facebook, being a keyboard warrior, and I would trigger these debates. The comment threads would go on for days and days. Nate, instead of commenting, would call me and talk about what was going on, about these conflicting ideologies and where I was, where other people were coming from and how could we reconcile these different opinions. How can we speak in a way that is productive and not just quarreling online?

We kept reminding each other “don’t feed the trolls.” Some people are going to comment on your Facebook thing and they’re just trolling. They’re trying to get an emotional response. They’re not trying to have a dialogue. So we thought about that concept. Nate’s still calling me once a week to talk about my Facebook posts, and we were like, we should just do a podcast on this idea of having an open dialogue that is fair enough to each side, or at least tries to steel man the opposite side as opposed to straw man.

Steel man is a philosophical term for if I can articulate your viewpoint in a way that is actually pretty generous and gives it a lot of credit, and maybe even articulates it better than you can, then you’re more willing to listen to my viewpoint. As opposed to if I straw man your viewpoint, you shut down and you’re not going to listen to it. I’ve focused on the weakest part of your argument and attacked it as the argument itself.

That’s the basis for the podcast. We have debates about things in our tone of voice, so people can’t misread who we are. They can understand who we are as people and that we’re not trying to start fights. We’re actually trying to get to the bottom of things and share opinions that are more digestible and not text on a screen.

Do you like having a podcast and being able to broadcast your views to a wider audience? What’s that been like to engage with?

It’s a lot of work, to be honest. We don’t really make much money on it, so it’s more of a practice than a career move or a job. We aren’t going out and trying to get the hottest guests and the most famous people and the experts. We’re just doing whatever we want. I think that can tend to limit our audience some because it’s really a podcast about Nate and I’s personalities, about how we both see the world differently and where our viewpoints overlap.

I don’t know what the overall end goal is, but it’s helpful for us to at least have that platform and be able to use it to formulate our thoughts a little better. If we were thinking these thoughts in private, it probably would be more scattered. When you’re trying to produce something that is coherent and everybody can grapple with and digest, you tend to make it more organized and try to be more thoughtful. That’s helpful personally for us and is probably the main reason why we do it.

Yeah, I really enjoy any time I put one of those on and love hearing you two mash out your thoughts together.

Thanks, man. I appreciate that.

Moving on to the new album. This was the third album you’ve funded on Kickstarter and you got three times what you were asking for. What are some of the keys to doing a successful Kickstarter project?

We’ve learned a lot after doing three, and I’ve done countless more for other bands. I work with digital marketing for BC Music, which is an artist co-op friendly label of the Bad Christian dudes. We’ve done a lot of crowdfunds and every time we do one I get more insight on what works.

Having the built-in list of backers from our previous two really helped, because then we were able to email them and let them know we’ve got another one on. They don’t discover it two months later or whatever. They’re aware of it right off the bat. And then figuring out how to launch it well. You don’t ever want to soft launch a crowdfund. You want to make sure that first day and those first few hours are really good and everyone’s paying attention.

We did some little tricks. We had people sign up a few days before for an email list so they could be the first to know when it goes live. We got six or seven hundred emails that way. Then when we went live, we used Facebook Live, which as a platform was being favored pretty heavily by Facebook’s algorithm. So whenever someone went live, it’s sort of this way now, but at least in the beginning last May when we launched, everyone was getting notified when we were live. We got a lot more impressions that way.

We used Facebook Live to update people about the campaign and let them know which packages were selling out. We asked them if you wanted a package that’s not here, what would you like? We dialoged about it and I think that’s what got a lot more people involved. They saw it more often and more frequently and were interested.

You’ve been an independent musician for several years and Classic Crime has become a part-time thing you’ll do periodically rather than a full-time, steady thing. What’s that transition been like in the evolution of the band?

When we all started out, it was like this is it. We all dropped out of college. We worked restaurant jobs and practiced every day and lived in a house together. We thought this was going to be our career. Our legacy was going to be the Classic Crime.

As time goes on and reality sets in, we never blew up in the way we naively thought when we were 19 or 20 years old. We never really made money. We were signed, obviously, to Tooth & Nail Records for a while. We went on a bunch of great tours, but it was never enough to sustain a monthly income. It was whatever we could get here or there.

Going independent was a decision we made after leaving Tooth & Nail. Our other founding guitarist, Justin DuQue, left and went to nursing school and became a nurse. He was like, “I need to do something. I need to get a career and support a family.” He was the first to go. At that point, I was like I’m not going to fade out. We’re not going to die like other bands did. We’re going to die on our own terms. I saw these people crowdfunding, so we went that way and it worked out really, really well.

The good thing about it is we’re not contractually obligated to tour 10 months out of the year. We can still be decent husbands and fathers. The guys all work their own jobs. They’re entrepreneurs themselves. Skip, the drummer, runs a DJ company. He does wedding DJ stuff. Robbie has his own photography and videography company. He does that full time. Alan works at Whole Foods. He can take time off work and go on tour a couple weeks out of the year.

So every six months or so we do a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there. We’re able to maintain by having that steady income of these other businesses. That way the pressure to make this big is gone and this can be a side gig for a long time. We traded the pressure of skyrocketing to the moon for a longer, less aggressive arc.

We hope we can continue that way because we’re not going to burn out. We can do a little bit here and a little bit there. We can still crowdfund our records. Ultimately, we can still make music, which is what we’re all about and why we started the band. It’s why we tried to make it, because we wanted to create a life for ourselves wherein we could make music for a long time. That’s what we’re getting to do. It’s not what we originally planned it to be, but it is definitely enough and we enjoy it.

You’ve said before how each past record is a stepping-stone to the next one. What were the circumstances that led to How to Be Human?

A lot of change over the last five years. I have a five-year-old daughter now, a three-year-old daughter and a seven-month-old son, so I’ve gone full dad mode in my life. It’s similar with the other guys, too. Art follows life in a lot of ways. Those changes in my own life have informed a lot of things.

I’ll try not to make a blanket statement, but when you have kids you start thinking about what you want to pass on. What do I want to save from my childhood? What do I value, and then what do I want to do a way with and let go of? What did I think was not good? You do this self-examination of what kind of parent you want to be. What do I teach them about the world and how it works? What do I teach them about the bigger topics, like God and religion and politics?

OK, so I’ve got that squared away. I know how the world works. I know good people from bad people. I know right from wrong. It’s all very constructed and there’s a good delineation there. But then the older you get, the more you see—sometimes, not all the time—that the world is pretty gray. There’s bad stuff in good people and there’s good stuff in bad people. How do you reconcile that with a more naïve dualistic view of the world?

My wife and I pulled all that stuff apart and we were left with a lot of doubt and a lot of fear. A lot of figuring things out. It was a crazy shift in our worldview. We’ve seen it reconstruct over the last few years into something that is more open and more tolerant. Less concerned about being right is the main thing.

The best way to put it is that I just have this sense that it’s OK. I didn’t really have that sense before. I had a sense that I was wrong, or there was a level of shame about certain things. That all goes into the record, of course, because I’m writing about all of these experiences, from the darkest parts to the lightest. So that’s what is informing the lyrics on How to Be Human.

“I’m not sparing anyone if I’m sugarcoating things, or if I’m not challenging them or just affirming their preconceptions.”

You’ve gotten some, shall we say interesting, feedback on a few of the songs like “Holy Water” and “Wonder.” I imagine that was somewhat expected on your part. What’s that been like, to go back and forth with the criticism?

It’s funny, I had a friend the other day go, “So how do you handle that criticism?” He was reading some comments that he thought were pretty harsh. At this point, it really doesn’t bother me that much. I used to get very defensive when people would criticize my art because I had poured my heart into it. I put so much thought and effort into it, so if someone called me lazy or bad or childish or ignorant, I was like, “No, you’re wrong! This is very deliberate. I thought this out.”

Now I don’t really care about the naysayers. I don’t know if it’s spiritual growth or development in my life, but when I am aware, when I am present and embodied in myself and understand who I am and am being healthy, I can take criticism so much better. I see it as a projection of someone’s own insecurities. I understand that some of the language on the record will trigger people’s insecurities. I understand that defensive reaction when they’re pounding away at their keyboard, angry at me for triggering those insecurities.

I don’t take it personally. I did it on purpose, and I expected that people who felt insecure would attack it and attack me. I’m not sparing anyone if I’m sugarcoating things, or if I’m not challenging them or just affirming their preconceptions. If I’m doing anything good, it’s going to come with a level of backlash.

Honestly, the digital marketer in me sees it as really good for business, because the more people interact with the posts and comment on it or dislike it, the algorithm sees that post as more valuable and services it to more people’s feeds. The more people argue on the comment section, the more people see it, and hear about our music and are invited to engage with it. So I’m cool with all of it.

The album closes with two of the best songs on the record, “Holy Water” and “Black & White.” Is there an overall arc to the album you were trying for? Was there an idea you wanted to leave people with or questions you wanted to pose there?

I’ll preface this by saying I don’t really write songs with intent. The only intent I have is to get what is in my heart out into the world. I don’t think, oh, I’m going to create this great concept record. I have all these concepts and I’m going to put it together with my ego. I try to take the ego completely out of it and go, OK, what do I feel right now? And then I put it down and step back later and go, OK, what are the themes here? I try to organize the songs that play into a theme.

This record is about the very nature of being human. It’s about every step of the way being fully honest with yourself about where you’re at. Not building structures around you that insulate you from challenges or that insulate you from hardships or from struggle, but really facing all of your ghosts and facing your inner life and your subconscious and not running from it.

The songs are about different steps in the journey of life. It’s about the ups and the downs, both, but from a sincere standpoint of embracing each step, even the bad stuff. So really embracing it and going fully into it, and not just living in denial or trying to escape or trying to create mental gymnastics to get around the difficult aspects of life.

This is just an aside perspective I have, but when you look at some of the greatest people in your life, you’ll often find that their backstory is filled with incredible suffering that has informed their life. They seem more alive. They seem more human because they’ve gone through the fire of their suffering and their doubt.

That’s the main concept of the record, that in order to be fully human you can’t stay in your protective insular bubble. You have to venture out into the wilderness and go on this journey, which often is difficult and bleak. Sometimes it doesn’t lead to good places, but ultimately it is the only journey that will lead to growth and to becoming more fully alive.

“There’s not enough lament in music, and I mean pure lament and torment. Everybody wants a happy ending, but [‘Wonder’] I left it the way it was.”

Probably the darkest moment on the record is “Wonder,” which I assume was written at one of your low points you are talking about there. What allowed you to move on and get past that? Was there an event or experience you can look back on and see where things started to shift?

No, that song is right in the middle of the journey, which I think is key. The middle is often the longest, right? Well, let’s face it. The journey’s not over until it’s over. So you’re consciously in the middle for the longest period. That song being in the middle of the record was strategic because “Holy Water” is this big epiphany of the sacredness of life and everything in it. That’s the start of the record, but it’s retroactive. It goes down into the pit after that.

Here’s the thing about “Wonder.” It’s the first song I wrote where I felt insincere if I was going to clean it up, sensor it or tie it in a bow, and give it a happy ending or a hopeful bridge. There’s not enough lament in music, and I mean pure lament and torment. Everybody wants a happy ending, but that song I left it the way it was.

That was key to getting through those dark moments, fully going into and engaging with and expressing the pain and not feeling the insecure need to fix it for myself or for others. People will go, “Well, that’s not helpful,” and that’s a very non-Western thought, to not overcome and achieve and succeed. We want the ABCs and the five steps of success. How did you get out of that? What’s your testimony, bro? That song was a full embracing of I’m not going to do that.

I can’t point to any specific turnaround, but the more I engaged and expressed that actual pain and doubt, the more it went away. That’s just therapy. That’s like when your therapist says you had this traumatic event. I want you to write 500 words on it, and suddenly you feel better. Why? Because you got it out of your subconscious. You got it out of your head and you got it onto a page.

Now you can see it as an object and not something that’s torturing you, but something that’s done, that’s behind you. You’ve put it into linear time and now it’s been written. It’s out. That’s what that song does therapeutically. Now that it’s written and it’s out, it’s behind me. That’s the best way I can put it.

The album is starting to sound like a big downer, which it really isn’t necessarily. So on a lighter side, what was the funnest moment in this process for you, the funnest song to work on?

“Holy Water” is not a downer. It’s a downer for some people who don’t like I said that stars are billions of years old, but that was a fun one to write. It’s all happy [laughs]. It’s energetic and upbeat. I had fun with a lot of these songs, especially with the rhythms, because I started a lot of them with just the drums. I would program drumbeats, do the bass over top of that and then build the songs from the ground up. It was different for me because normally I’ll start with guitar.

I really liked doing “Driftwood.” That was a cool one. It has three different time signatures, but the rhythm section is super tight and static. There’s these subtle changes in the kick pattern that add a beat or a drop here or there that make it interesting, at least from a musician’s standpoint.

What was it like doing the vocals at the end of “More?”

[Laughs] Just the yelling? Well, yelling is easy for me. It’s funny when people are like, “I like your heavier stuff.” I get it. I can do that, but I can also do it in my sleep. It’s so easy at this point that it doesn’t surprise me or impress me. It doesn’t make me happy to hear myself do that. So on this record specifically, and on the last few ones, I try not to.

But it is my instinct to start yelling, especially when I’m talking about an appetite for more and you can never get enough. It seemed to lend itself to yelling. So yeah, it was one of those songs where it required that aspect of my voice. Of course, it’s fun to yell. It’s fun to just yell and get it all out there. It’s such an instinct for me now that it’s not a novelty anymore. It’s something I can go to naturally.

In stark contrast with the yelling, you also have Vocal Few on the side, which you’ll be heading out on the road with over the summer. What’s the latest on that project?

My wife and I bought an RV and are going to be traveling across the country for eight weeks with our kids. We have 40 different living room shows lined up. We’re going to be playing acoustically, with a piano and an acoustic guitar, hanging out and doing a Q&A with people in living rooms. It’s super fun.

It’s totally different from a dark rock concert at a club where you’re elevated on this stage and higher than everyone else. You’re at eyelevel with people and in a place where people live. It’s a different way to communicate music. I am a huge fan of sincerity, so I find it a lot more of a sincere space to be in.

So we’re jumping into the RV and going all over the country in June and July and the first part of August. Then we’ll be driving across the boarder in Nova Scotia, Canada, which is as far east as you can get over there in the maritime. We’re going to be moving into a house that was my grandparent’s house and living there for one school year.

My oldest will go to kindergarten and we’ll be writing a Vocal Few EP while we’re there. I’ll do all my work online, as I do, from home, and then we’ll book another tour on the way back. So summer of 2018 we’ll come back to Seattle in the RV and tour again. It’s this big, epic trip for our family. We had a wild hair, had the house open up and my aunt say, “Hey, come live in it.” We thought about it and said, “Yeah, that would be cool. We can, so why wouldn’t we?”

Obviously, it’s really stressful. We have to move out of our house this month. I’m going to be gone for two of those weeks on tour with the Classic Crime in May. So it’s a lot to prepare for, but we’ll get it done. We always do. It’ll be fun.

That sounds really exciting and like a perfect place to end on. Good luck with the move and this tour. Hopefully everything will run at least somewhat smoothly for you.

All right, I appreciate it. We need all the luck we can get [laughs].

Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist

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