Monday, May 30, 2011

Interview With Squirtgun Vocalist/Poet/Teacher Matt Hart

Critical Mass: Thanks for taking the time to talk with Critical Mass, Matt. Fans know you as the lead singer for Squirtgun. Can you give us a little history on how the band got started?

Matt Hart: Squirtgun started in 1992 – 93—though we weren’t called Squirtgun at that point.  The Giorgini brothers (Mass and Flav) and the inimitable Dan Lumley were in a band at that point called Rattail Grenadier.  I was in graduate school at Ohio University studying Philosophy and teaching Logic.  For a variety of reasons that I can’t remember, Rattail’s singer (their 4th, I think) quit the band.  That’s when I got the call from Mass to come to Indiana and do some demos with Rattail.  The connection there is that during the late 80’s I was in a band in Evansville, IN (where I’m from originally) called Freaks of Nature, and we used to play shows with Rattail (who were from Lafayette, IN).  That’s how we all became friends in the first place.

At any rate, in the spring or summer of ’93 I did go to Lafayette to do some demos, but it became pretty clear to all of us that with me singing it wasn’t going to be Rattail anymore (they were a more hardcore/metally band, and I just didn’t have the throat for that).  Plus, I had a bunch of songs to add to the mix, and I started writing lyrics/melodies for some music that the other guys had already worked up. That’s how it all started.  I think in those first sessions we recorded “Social,” “Mr Orange,” “Allergic to You,” “Long So Long” “Liar’s Corner” and “With a Grin and a Kick,” among others.  because of Mass’ connection with Lookout at that point, it made sense for us to try and get a deal with them.  Mass wanted the band to have a cartoon-y pop-punk sort of name, and I came up with Squirtgun (I wish I hadn’t, but I did.  In retrospect, I should’ve come up with Piano Smash or Death’s Head Rabbit or Notes after Blacking Out—anything but Squirtgun…).

CM: I had the chance to see Squirtgun play, and actually meet you, a couple of years ago in Chicago when the band played with Teen Idols and 88 Fingers Louie. And you guy's were amazing live! Are there any plans for another Squirtgun album or possible tour?

MH: I’m glad you liked the live show.  We had fun doing those a couple of summers ago, but I kind of think that was it.  The end.  Maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve been wrong before, and we’re all still great friends, so I guess anything is possible.  But Flav is a research scientist in genetics at the University of Leicester in England now.  Mass just got his PhD in Spanish and is teaching at several colleges/Universities.  I teach Writing and Literature at the Art Academy of Cincinnati (a four year college of Art and Design) and I’m a poet (more on that below).  Dan writes for the Lafayette newspaper.  Additionally, Flav and I both have young children, so it’s tough to get away to rehearse, much less tour.  The truth is I haven’t even picked up a guitar, other than the toy guitar my daughter has, in more than a year.  I get the same charge writing and reading poems that I got playing in bands, so it’s hard to imagine going back to music, but if something comes up that’s too good to be true…well, I’ll never say never, but there are no plans.

CM: Who were your musical influences growing up and do you think those influences come through in your songwriting?

MH: Songwriting?  Oh man, I’m sure it’s mind boggling to some people, but I don’t write songs anymore AT ALL—NONE.  That said, the music I grew up with certainly influences who I am as a poet.  In fact, I just wrote a long essay in four parts for Coldfront Mag online where I discuss exactly the connections between punk rock and my writing.  You can see them here:

One thing I don’t discuss in the essays above is how much music performance, especially punk vocalists, have influenced the way I perform poetry.  I think I’ve always been someone who likes singers/bands that nearly fly apart on stage. That’s certainly something I’ve always tried to do.  There’s a recklessness to performance, which is both thrilling and potentially disastrous.  I mean, if you’re really in it, you’re totally weird-wired and also vulnerable as hell…  Every time I walk on stage/up to a mic whether it’s playing with a band or reading poetry, I’m trying for ekstasis—that is, to be literally beside myself, watching myself, the audience, the vast and the void.

Actually, I want a similar thing to occur when I’m writing; I want to “wake up” typing with a poem in front of me.  I get pretty wound up whatever I’m doing, but this keeps it exciting.  Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s terrible.  Extremity is crucial.  The experience has to be full-throttle.  Volcano mixed with trickster mixed with stars and giant heart.  Giant vision, giant voice. 

In this respect, my influences were and still are bands like Alice Cooper, Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys, The Sex Pistols, The Circle Jerks, The Germs, Lifetime, Jawbreake. More recent bands I’ve really been into are The Blood Brothers, forgetters, Shellac, Titus Andronicus, The Gaslight Anthem, and The Hold Steady.

I like performances (and try to give performances when I read) that are volatile, dynamic, noisy, and declarative.  I mean, whether I’m at a poetry reading or a rock show, I always want to have my face blown off and leave feeling like I’ve just seen something which is nearly inexplicable, totally surprising and somehow also provocative (both physically and intellectually).  I want to be moved, and I want to move other people.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.”  To me this is the bedrock of punk rock, and it’s exactly the reason so many of us are so wide up awake even in our sleep.  I’m looking in performances for something ecstatic (and there it is again, ekstasis), something outside the outside, totally in fits—like breathing fire by creating a flame thrower in one’s gut, not metaphorically but for real with the real.

CM: Back when you first started out playing in bands, pre mid 90's punk explosion, was it hard to find places to play outside of house parties?

MH: We definitely played some house parties, but we also played a lot of gymnasiums and college student centers, VFW Halls, and little all ages clubs that would pop up here and there (then disappear just as quickly)—for example, Mass’ Spud Zero in Lafayette, which was around for a couple of years and hosted everybody from The Zero Boys and Screeching Weasel to Naked Raygun and Green Day.  There were plenty of places to play, and when there weren’t we created them.  We did it ourselves, and that continues to influence who I am.  I don’t ever have the sense that there’s something I can’t do.  Not having money or resources is no excuse to not follow one’s dreams and passions.  DIY all the way.  Make it happen.

CM: How do you feel the scene has changed since those early days? Do you feel the scene has gotten better or suffered in the wake of "mall punk" and bands like Green Day going multi-platinum?

MH: Well given that Squirtgun’s most famous song is in a movie called Mallrats, I don’t really think I can disparage mall punk.  I mean, where I come from mall punk is all there was/is?  I was mall punk in 1984.  There was no such thing as punk rock in southern Indiana back then.  We had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so we hung out at the mall—and hatched plans to have shows in people’s basements, etc.  I once played a show in a stairwell, between a basement and a first floor.  I played a show in a kitchen in Knoxville, TN.  I’ve also played shows in soccer arenas.  The point is: punk is and always has been about doing it yourself.  The labels don’t matter.  Labels are the antithesis of punk.

As for the scene, I don’t really think there’s much to say.  And even if I did think there was something to say, it wouldn’t make any difference—which is a great thing.  I’m just one guy, and I don’t even go to shows anymore, so I don’t really know anything about the scene—not even whether or not there is (or ever was) one.  The important thing is that to some extent or other there will always be young people in revolt—both literally and figuratively/artistically.   And that means things may ebb and flow, but punk rock and its various tributaries (those established and those not even thought of yet) are a fact of our existence, which is lucky for us.

CM: Are there any newer bands out there, not necessarily punk bands, that you really enjoy listening to?

MH: More recent bands I’ve really been into are The Blood Brothers, forgetters, Shellac, Titus Andronicus, The Gaslight Anthem, and The Hold Steady. 

Additionally, I love jazz—especially super noisy, squealy, squawky, tear your hair out jazz, e.g. Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra…  Love those Sonic Youth Records’ (SYR) Sonic Youth records (the super feedback-y noisy ones), Storm and Stress, DNA.

But man, I listen to everything from Classical music to Bluegrass to Hardcore.

I always wanted to be in a hardcore band.  Johnny Whitney, late of the Blood Brothers, has the most kickass voice of anybody.  Blake Schwarzenbach, too.  And Darby Crash…

CM: In recent years, as mentioned, you've worked at the Art Academy Of Cincinnati and have even started writing poetry. Has any of your writing been published?

MH: Just to be clear, I started writing poetry long before I was in Squirtgun and I’ve continued writing it very seriously all these years.  I have three published full-length collections, Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006), Wolf Face (H_NGM_N Books, 2010) and Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2011).  A new book of poems—my punk rock book of poems—Sermons and Lectures both Blank and Relentless will be published in the spring of 2012 by Typecast Publishing.  I’m really excited about that one.  My hope is to open some punk shows reading from it.  It’s pretty out there, weaving together references to early punk rock, my own personal life, and various philosophers/philosophical positions as a way to talk about human feeling/being, visionary activity and transcendence.  The poems are really fiery, and it would be awesome to deliver them in front of a wild at heart, punk rock audience.

Speaking of the Sermons and Lectures, I should mention that a different section of it appears at the end of each of the essays I linked you to above. 

Beyond that, there’s a ton of my poetry out there for anybody who’s interested.  I also give tons of readings, so it’s pretty easy to catch me live.  Over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve given readings from NYC to San Francisco and everywhere in between.  Last summer I read in China for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the US Department of State.  This fall I’ll be back in NYC and also Portland, OR and Seattle.  It’s great work if you can get it.   

CM: Can you give us some of your influences as far as literature?

MH: Yeah, I tend to like things that are surprising (both in terms of their content and the way/s they use language).  I love the Romantics, the Surrealists, The Beats, The New York School Poets… Here’s a reading list:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (especially the Conversation poems)
John Keats
John Clare
The Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud
“Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville
Emily Dickinson (one of our weirdest poets!)
Walt Whitman
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
The Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Dada Painters and Poets, Ed. Robert Motherwell
The Poetry of Surrealism, Ed. by Michael Benedikt
The Dream Songs by John Berryman
The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara
The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan
Flannery O’Connor
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Wallace Stevens
On the Road, Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans and Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Gregory Corso (anything)
On Bear’s Head by Philip Whalen
Dean Young (anything)
Indeed I Was Pleased with the World by Mary Ruefle
This Is Not a Novel by David Markson
Grave of Light: Selected Poems by Alice Notley
Haruki Murakami (especially the short stories)
Donald Barthelme
Kenneth Koch
Lydia Davis
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
The Tennis Court Oath by John Ashbery
The Savage Detectives and 2666 by Roberto Bolano

CM: Do you enjoy writing poetry as much or more than writing music or is there a nice counter balance between both art forms?

MH: I love writing/reading/performing poetry.  Writing music I was never very good at.  I never really cared all that much about being a musician.  I wanted to be a frontman.  I wanted to go the distance lyrically/melodically in dissonance and harmony, but more than that I wanted to be a presence on stage.  I wanted to throw myself against the wall.  I wanted to BE music.  With poetry, I can do that.  I do that.  I try everyday to do that.

CM: Is there a website where we can get news on what you're up to? where we can get some info on your literature writings, music news, possible new releases, up coming appearances or merch?

MH: Yes indeed:

CM: I would like to thank you again for taking the time to talk with Critical Mass. It was a pleasure talking with you, Matt. And I hope we get to hear more from you in the future. Thanks again.

MH: Thanks, Chris.  It was fun.

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