Interview: Matt Dawson

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The beauty of picking up an instrument is not only finding a creative outlet to discover your own artistic voice but it’s also about sharing the experience with others as they develop their own style. Nearly twelve-years ago, I watched this drummer from my elementary school take the spotlight from the jazz band as he proceeded to fire away at a professional-like level. Before the days of YouTube, my friend Matthew Wolckenhaeur would’ve probably become a viral sensation as he flawlessly commanded his drumkit with such rhythmic precision and maturity even at a young age.

Full disclosure, we became best friends in middle school and legitimately grew up with one another as we attended high school and college together. Long story short, we were even roommates when we both participated in the Disney College Program. Why is this information relevant? From a first hand perspective, I witnessed Matthew’s growth as a performer over the years and I could attest that very few musicians dedicate such an intense commitment to their craft. Straight up, his work ethic always stood above and beyond my musical peer’s in the central Jersey area. Even back in high school, I watched him expand his artistic horizons as he taught himself how to play the piano, guitar, and sing. If you never played an instrument, I could not express the level of difficulty it takes to master one instrument, let alone every critical component that comprises a modern rock band. To Matthew’s credit, he never settled for just being a talented drummer.

If you’re looking for inspiration among your peers, I respect those who take the biggest risks to ultimately achieve their lifelong goals. For over a decade, I witnessed Matthew evolve from winning Battle of the Band’s in Asbury Park to embarking on a solo project that he’s been working on for the last five-years. As I mentioned earlier, I saw the seeds of his latest project blossom when we were roommates in Florida. To his credit, he laid out a blueprint back in 2010 and stuck to it over the years. Embarking on his solo project “Matt Dawson,” he wanted to build a studio in his basement, intern for a professional recording studio, study abroad in London, graduate from college, and independently release his own music. He’s been true to his word every moment of the way. Drawing inspiration from a variety of influences including blink-182, Michael Bublé, Yellowcard, and Justin Timberlake, his sound is deeply rooted in the melodic elegance of pop music, as well as, the youthful angst pop-punk.

On the cusps of releasing his new self-titled EP, Matt Dawson has finally reached a point where he could dedicate his full time and effort into pursuing his musical dream. I could endlessly rant about his talents but his strongest strength is songwriting. Regardless of everything previously mentioned, Matt Dawson’s ear for melody unequivocally ranks near the top when evaluating promising artists from New Jersey. While I mentioned certain aspects of our friendship, I wouldn’t talk about his music if the quality didn’t exceed my expectations. I’m just lucky enough to write a truly unique story about an extremely talented local musician that I’ve known about for years.

In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I sat down with Matt Dawson for an in-depth interview covering every aspect of his musical career, as he gets ready to embark on his solo career.

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Starting off, talk about discovering music and your early experiences that led to Matt Dawson…

MatWhat got me into music was discovering blink-182 and even before that during the boy band days – when I was listening to NSYNC – I remember telling my parents, ‘I want to sing like Justin Timberlake.’ That was my before I could even play the drums or sing, I had no musical talent whatsoever other than tapping on my dad’s guitar case. In fourth grade, I started to take drum lessons and my friend Mike showed me blink-182 and I said to myself, ‘What is this sorcery (Laughs)?’ I wanted to play drums like Travis Barker and I joined all the bands in school and I aspired to be that kind of caliber pop punk/rock drummer. I learned the drums by listening to blink-182 songs and some other bands too but Travis had a particular craft and style that I emulated until I developed my own style. When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I had this cover band called Wired that was put together through Freehold Music and we played a bunch of cover songs, which helped me learn how to play real rock music and we played some pretty cool places like the Stone Pony. As a fourteen-year old, that was such a great experience.

What was it about the drums that struck a chord and attracted you to the instrument?’

Even when I was really little, I had to be three or four years old, my dad would sing in church and I grew up hearing the music. We went to church every Sunday and he would always perform. I would sit there and keep rhythm on his guitar case and my parents were always like, ‘You have really good rhythm.’ We were moving around pretty often when I was young and I never had time to take drum lessons. When I was 10, we finally moved into the house that we live in now and I said myself, ‘Okay, my school offers drum lessons and that’s what I want to do.’

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Talk about your early experiences as a performer and finding an identity as a songwriter…

After Wired, my friend Chris and me decided to form our own band 5AM. He knew someone named Brian who played bass and I had a friend Shawn who sang. That was my first real band and I was also playing piano by that point and I started to write my own music. We had a good songwriting team where I would write the music and Shawn would write the lyrics. It definitely built a sense of confidence that I didn’t have before. Shawn wound up moving away and I totally went through a depression because I didn’t have that songwriting partner and I hadn’t written anything completely on my own before. That pushed me to write lyrics and music on my own and I formed my next band Just Enough. We weren’t the best musicians but we actually had some decent local success – at least enough to be played on 94.3 The Point. We actually won a few Battle of the Bands and we even played Starland Ballroom.

What would you take away from those experiences that helped you develop your style with Matt Dawson?

If I didn’t have those experiences, I wouldn’t have known what playing a show feels like outside of playing in the school jazz band. It’s a totally different feel to play a rock show as opposed to playing in the school band. When I formed my own bands, it wasn’t that I only had confidence in performing; I also had confidence in writing and composing. That’s my big thing now, I compose all of my own music in Matt Dawson and I obviously haven’t played any shows yet since it’s all-new but the confidence in my composing came from my writing experiences back then.

“Matt Dawson” has been in the works for five-years now, talk about the early seeds of this project now that you’re ready to release new music…

When Just Enough broke up, I tried a whole bunch of different projects. First off, the name Matt Dawson – Dawson is actually my Grandmother’s maiden name and it’s a simpler name than Wolckenhauer. I also wanted to do something where I could sing and be the frontman since I was always behind the drums. Don’t get me wrong; my first love will always be the drums but I wanted to show a different side to my creativity. I also didn’t have to rely on anyone else for this project to work. I took a couple of songs from Just Enough, which I revamped and that’s how I started. I started redoing those songs in my own way and I incorporated the piano along with my vocals. The music went in all different directions. I think I was trying to be more aggressive and go for more of a rock sound – I guess to feel cooler (Laughs) and to attract ‘the rock listener,’ as opposed to going for a mainstream sound. My last album Party Animation, it was an eight song LP and I was very proud of it. It was the first album that I produced on my own but it was definitely darker than I originally intended. I think that’s because I didn’t know how to make it lighter. On the new stuff, I’m going for more of a poppy sound. I’m trying to crossover my pop punk roots into new age pop, it’s this weird hybrid and everyone that’s heard it so far has told me the same thing – they can’t place the sounds anywhere and that’s the best compliment.

Describe what it’s like to play multiple instruments and compose all of your own music…

Being able to play a few different instruments is cool, it’s good and bad in a certain sense because I don’t have to bud heads with anyone creatively. People could argue how that’s a bad thing since there might be something that I’m missing, which is why I have people listen to my songs before they’re done. I will ask them. ‘Is there anything I should change up?’ Being able to start a song from the ground up and layer everything is really cool. I always write everything on the piano first since that’s where I have the most emotion; the songs starts off as a piano ballad with vocals. It’s more intimate and it really determines whether or not a song is there and than I’ll throw in the drums and guitars atop of it. I’ll watch the whole thing evolve and I think it’s cool because I don’t have to wait for anybody else. It’s whatever I want when I want it (Laugh). Especially for what I want to bring to a live show, not many people bounce around from instrument to instrument. I can play drums and sing at the same time, play guitar and sing, play piano and sing, or just sing. I think that’s something really unique to my sound and I think people will connect to that. I think going from the drums on one song and playing the guitar on the next song will keep the energy going live. Sometimes when you’re watching a band perform, it gets kind of boring after a while – not because they’re playing badly but nothing changed movement wise and I think keeping the movement going would be pretty cool.

Talk about the songwriting process behind your new EP and what’s transpired over the last year that’s lead you to this point?

I think of this new batch of songs as a culmination of everything that I’ve worked on coming together at once. There’s a couple of songs that are remakes like this song “Faster,” which was a 5AM song, a Just Enough song twice, an early Matt Dawson song on It’s What You Make Of It, and now I recorded it again. I’m sure I’m just messing with perfection at this point but it really hits home. There’s other stuff that’s brand new and the inspiration came from all over the place. There were some riffs that I had for years and they just clicked all of a sudden. For the first half of this year, I was working 50/60 hours a week at Volkswagen, which built up my anticipation since I wasn’t doing anything musically related. I would sit there when I was bored and just write down lyrics or melodies in my head and I would kind of compose the arrangements and play it through my mind. I said to myself, ‘Alright, I have to put all of my effort into this and I have to take the time to do it.’ That’s why I left my job and put all of my effort into my music during June and July, which was dedicated to straight writing and recording. I had already written most of the music so I wrote a lot of the lyrics as I went. I had vocal melodies that I could hum with the music. As I started to record, I knew where I wanted to go lyrically. I would throw lyrics over the melodies. That’s how a lot of the songs came to fruition, but making the decision to leave Volkswagen and put all my effort into the music was a huge step for me. Now it’s about getting the music in the right hands.

 

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Since you took the risk, describe the reward of following your gut feeling. What’s the next step in getting Matt Dawson out there?

First of all, it’s already rewarding because I have hands down wrote the best stuff I’ve ever done. If I never record anything else ever again, though I would be upset, I wouldn’t be disappointed because I’m so happy with what I’ve done. I also know I could do better but I don’t think I could do better with the facility I have. I have to get further, which is definitely a motivating factor – to get to the next step. I interned for a publicity company last year and I learned a lot about how to promote myself. I have all their e-mails and I’ve been throwing out e-mails to everyone and their mother trying to contact with people. I think one of the biggest pieces of advice that I really heard was to surround myself in a scene that’s similar and ride the wave of success. I know they’re a little more poppy than me but this band Five Seconds of Summer is massive right now. They’re in this pop punk sort of realm so the goal is to submerge myself in the genre and hang out where those sort of bands play and use social media to target that audience until I find that right person who says, “I believe in you.’

Since you plan on performing acoustically, describe the challenge of debuting your new material live. Especially in such an intimate setting, that kind of vibe determines whether or not your songs hold up…

It’s completely scary especially because I’ve never done it before. Sitting behind the drum set is one thing because I could play with my eyes closed. Playing the guitar and singing is something I’m not comfortable with in anyway. When I’m in my basement, it’s fine but I practice everyday in preparation so I’m ready when the time comes. It’s probably the scariest part of this whole scenario because I’m totally outside my comfort zone. Writing and recording everything was the honeymoon stage – I was used to that but grabbing people’s attention and playing an instrument I’m not used too in front of an audience is all uncharted territory. Once I get into it, I’ll be fine. The first show or two might suck (Laughs) but everything else will be fine.

What are your plans for the rest of the fall and winter? When are you going to release the new EP and how often are you looking to perform?

Music wise, everything is all finished. I waited for the copyright’s to come back before I released anything. I put up one song on my website and I’m looking to get the new stuff up on iTunes and Spotify in the next few weeks. I have Party Animation up on all of those platforms so I could do the same thing for this next one. The EP is going to be self-titled. I’m hoping it’s all finished not too long after Halloween so that’s in the works. As far as shows, I’m hoping to do shows sometime in November even if it’s only one show per month. Especially as a local artist that has to sell his own tickets, the less you play, the better it is because you’re more likely to get a lot of people to come out. If you’re playing every weekend, it’s like, ‘Alright, he’s playing another show. Do I really need to spend 10 bucks to see him at some crappy bar?’ If you’re doing that once a month, it builds that anticipation, especially when you’re selling tickets to your friends and family (Laughs) because you don’t want to be overbearing. Live shows are tough because I don’t think it’s the name of the game in today’s music business. Don’t get me wrong; playing live is great but I don’t think it necessarily gets you noticed unless you’re playing shows that are worthwhile. If you’re just playing open mics, I don’t think people are there listening the same way they were 20 years ago where you performed until you died or got a record a deal. With social media and sites like YouTube, there’s so many more ways to get noticed so I’m trying to make sure I don’t waste my time on one particular thing.

 

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Instead of putting all of your time and effort into releasing full-length albums, do you want to focus on singles and EP’s just to keep your music out there?

That’s exactly right. I feel that unless you’re Taylor Swift who has millions of dollars and could release 12 to 14 song albums, I think EP’s and singles are the way to go for the common musician. There are so many groups out there who only have four song EP’s that are doing really well by playing a bunch of covers and originals.

Where are you looking to perform and where could unfamiliar listeners see you live?

I definitely want to look into places in Asbury Park like The Saint because I loved playing there. Stone Pony is obviously a given and there’s a few good venues down that strip in Asbury. I’m also going to try and find some places in New York but I’m going to start off in Asbury.

Last question, what’s your excitement level like right now?

Oh, I’m not stopping. It depends on the day you ask me, sometimes it could be really tough and not because my life sucks or anything like that. The recording process could be emotionally draining, which I think a lot of people don’t recognize. They might say, ‘He’s playing music and not working a crappy 9-5 job, what does have to complain about?’ There is nothing set in stone, it’s scary and it’s all on me. I feel this huge amount of pressure but during those days where it’s really rough, I just have to put on one of the songs and it all goes away because I’m like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe that’s me and I can’t believe I recorded this. I forgot how excited I am.’ You’re a musician (referencing me) and you know how there’s something about music that you just can’t describe and I can’t wait to start playing again because performing is the best part. I can’t wait to see where it all goes and I want to connect with people so I’m beyond excited

To find out more about Matt Dawson check out his official website or his Facebook page.

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