The conflicted bliss of Mattson 2’s “Paradise”

The L.A. jazz duo plays Friday, July 5 at The Winnebago.

The L.A. jazz duo plays Friday, July 5 at The Winnebago. (Photo by Andrew Paynter.)

On the new album Paradise, psych-jazz duo Mattson 2, consisting of twins Jared and Johnathan Mattson, merge a couple of the emotions that title might evoke—the tranquility of escaping the rigors of the human condition for a while, and the grief-tinged hope of some place where all the folks you’ve lost along the way come to rest and wait for you. 

On tracks like “Essence,” the San Diego-born pair wash guitar licks, crisp snares, and calming tempos over the listener like white crests of waves on a sunny day. Still, there’s always a glint of sadness in the band’s music, and on tracks like “Shell Beach,” the sun sets and that feeling comes to the fore. On the album’s title track, dawn breaks, and the Mattsons seem to be thinking about the times when loss yields to peaceful resolve.

The nine-track record is the result of a recording process that took place between just the two brothers in a Californian cabin situated in a real-world paradise. This intimate recording process reflects the way the brothers have made music together since childhood, but struggled to replicate as professional musicians until now. It’s also, by design, more approachable than anything they’ve released so far.

Currently, the brothers are touring the record around the country, but also have another full record recorded and have been tracking random sessions with Chaz Bear of Toro Y Moi, who also released Paradise on his Company Records label. Before Mattson 2’s show (with an opening set from Madison’s own Kainalu) on July 5 at The Winnebago, Jared Mattson spoke with Tone Madison about the pair’s bond as brothers and musicians, the unique dynamism of their music, his first foray into vocals, and the challenge of creating art that’s both relaxing and mindful. 

Tone Madison: Why did you use such an intimate recording process for Paradise?

Jared Mattson: The newest recording enabled us to take matters into our own hands. We made seven records before this, and the more people you involve in the process, whether they’re amazing or not, it takes just so much time, energy, and effort to coordinate everything. So, going into this record, we wanted complete solidarity, complete control. We wanted to be the only ones holding it back, basically [laughs]. 

Making records from home is an incredible experience, because you answer to no one and there’s no time constraint, no budget constraint. If you want to make a record, just go in your room and make a record. It has this casual air to it and recording it this way created the least amount of stress.

Tone Madison: Can you talk about the balance of making something that is both substantive but also easy to listen to?

Jared Mattson: I don’t know. If I could explain it eloquently, I would, but that’s kind of why I’m a musician. I express my ideas through music [laughs]. I think what you’re getting at is super important, though. It’s kind of what Jimi Hendrix did. Jim Morrison talked about it. There’s the famous quote by him, “What I’m interested in is the balance between the known and the unknown,” so I think it’s giving people enough to digest. and as a musician it’s your job to know what works and what doesn’t, I think.

I know that this will get people moving or this is going to be catchy, but you pair that with the idea to express yourself in a creative way, a unique way, your own way. It’s struggling between improvisation and clear, coherent musical ideas.

Tone Madison: This is also the first record where you decide to incorporate some of your own vocals. Other albums, like 2017’s Star Stuff, had other people’s vocals, but why your own for this one? Also, what kind of emotional element did the addition of lyrics or vocals allow you to add to songs that you couldn’t before with just instruments?

Jared Mattson: The biggest thing, and it sounds so cliche, is that human element. I think people just need to hear the human voice. We’d started singing when we were on tour with Khruangbin, and it went over well with the audience. We had started singing stuff from Star Stuff, Chaz’s stuff, and it went over really well, so we thought maybe we could start incorporating that.

The lyrics are some of the least important material, I think it’s the vocals and the way it sits in the music for me personally, since I’m not a super lyric-oriented person. I’ve listened to The Smiths since I was in the sixth grade, and I still don’t know any of the lyrics. And then I listen to groups like The Cocteau Twins, who sing in gibberish most of the time. They’re one of my favorite vocal groups. So for me, the emotional element of it was the use of the vocals and getting that part of your soul out into the tape, into the recording.

In a general term, one of the songs, “Shell Beach,” is basically about our sister’s overdose on heroin. So for some, it may sound like relationship-fodder lyrical content, but there are some deeper issues. The last track, “Seacliff,” is kind of exploring how an artist of any kind is a slave to this system and if they want to be a working artist they kind of have to be part of the system at the same time. There’s never this freedom that you truly experience, so little things like that.

Tone Madison: Given the album’s title, how did you want to go about exploring the various ideas the word “paradise” can evoke?

Jared Mattson: I think under the more darker-toned lyrics, I think there’s still this breezy, uplifting feel to it regardless of what the lyrics are saying. I think the “paradise” element is just trying to make a feel-good record. I don’t want to be preachy or talk about my own ideas of paradise, but we wanted the record to be for everyone and be something that’s just a positive, feel-good record. 

Where I was recording the record was in this very paradisiacal environment of palm trees, and the computer in the studio is sitting next to a window where I’m just looking out at this whole row of palm trees and all this vegetation and succulents. The place where we recorded was also basically paradise as well. 

Tone Madison: Theoretically then, couldn’t you have just had very Beach Boys- or Beatles-esque lyrics that are like, “let’s shake our hips,” instead of the darker lyrics? Can you go into the impulse or the need to have darker lyrics?

Jared Mattson: There’s not a good answer for that. There’s no linear thought linking the lyrics to the title. I wish there was. It’s just something to call a piece or a moment in time. Those songs happen to be in that collection.

I would say I just like the sound of paradise. It’s kind of a nod to Haruomi Hosono’s city pop and other people who have themes of paradise in their music. There’s a track called “Paradise” on the album and that was written after a few close friends had passed away, and just my own outlook on the future is that I will see those people again. So that was an emotion and feeling in that piece of music.  I just like the title and then when we wrote that song we thought, maybe we could just call the whole album Paradise.

Tone Madison: Another thing I want to talk about is that with instrumental writing, an artist can convey so much emotion, but the link between a sequence of chords and the emotion it conveys is so tenuous and tough to explain. How do you perceive that link, or know how your music will affect the listener?

Jared Mattson: Man, if you could quantify that, then you could make a hit record every single year. I think at the end of the day, it’s what the artist has to say. It’s also humility, it’s also I don’t want to just listen to myself all day long. I want to potentially be understood by other people. 

Our jazz training also comes from improvisation, and I think that has a lot to do with taking people on a journey. We’ve had people at our show that have used words like “enchanted,” or “mesmerized,” or “hypnotized.” That was when we were doing quite a bit more instrumental music then we are now. I think what it comes down to is when you’re not fed lyrics, you’re forced to imagine your own situation and create your own story. 

When you’re hearing instrumental music, no one is telling you what to think. No one is handing you a narrative, and you need to create that yourself if you have the patience and the desire to sift through the music. That’s a big factor, I think, this pairing between improvisation that take the listeners on a journey and vocals that take them back down to planet Earth. 

Tone Madison: That leads me to want to talk about the two other genres, besides jazz, that your music is also tagged with, surf and psych. How does “surf” resonate with you in terms of describing your music?

Jared Mattson: No, man, that’s the funny thing. I don’t know if it rubs off from being from San Diego, I’ve never thought of us as surf music. What we were emulating and really inspired by and trying to emulate were artists like Gábor Szabó and Chico Hamilton, who were West Coast jazz musicians.  So, I don’t associate ourselves with surf at all, but I do appreciate the open arms that the surf community has given it. 

Tone Madison: What about psych, then?

Jared Mattson: I think that would go back to the improvisation for me, because psychedelic at its core is taking people to this outer-space level. The people who inspire us in that regard are Miles Davis and his electric era, of course Jimi Hendrix, and I’ve been into Pink Floyd quite a bit, so very iconic psychedelic artists. Another artist who’s been a huge influence and I think is at the core of psychedelic and taking your mind to these other places is the guy I mentioned, Gábor Szabó. He does it in a very arcane eastern way, which is something we didn’t really get to on Paradise so much, but I think it goes back to improvisation.

I think the reason people love improvisation so much is that it’s a shared experience between the performer and the audience member, and that special feeling is the reason so many Deadheads are like, “we’re here experiencing this moment, and no one else but us will here these notes, and no one but us will here these notes again.” So it takes your mind to this other place, this unique place. It feels like this very special experience because it is.

Tone Madison: It’s also cool because it really resists a lot of the ideas we have about how we value experiences. We’re so obsessed with building monuments to experiences we’ve had, whether they be Instagram posts or something else, but temporariness can be really special too.

Jared Mattson: Definitely. I was also inspired after the fact by Frank Zappa. I didn’t really listen to tons of his music, but I did with his interviews. One thing he said that hit home before we played the show in New Orleans was that he never played the same solo twice. He always improvised the solo he played during a show. That solo was his gift to the audience. They’re the only ones in the whole world who are going to be able to hear this guitar solo, so things like that made me think I should stop playing the recorded solos. 

I preferred taking the Randy Rhoads and the Van Halen approach to repeating your solos because it’s part of the record, and it’s part of what created an emotional response in the first place, so sometimes if people didn’t hear the solo, they’re like “Man, I wish you played that solo.” So now, I do a little bit of both. I like having the solo as compositional material but also using it as a launching pad type of thing. 

Tone Madison: Could you elaborate more on how you determine when you improvise and when you stick closer to the recorded version, in a live setting?

Jared Mattson: The way we do it is actually really similar to they Coltrane did it on A Love Supreme, and that is a very simple approach. You write a piece of music and then in the music there’s a part where you say, at this point there’s going to be all improvisation, and you see what happens, and then here’s our cue to go back into the written stuff. We have this kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure elements to the music where we’re like at this section of the song, let’s extend this bassline so we can start improvising over it.

Tone Madison: When you’re playing with someone who knows you so well musically, is it hard to keep an element of surprise in your improvisations? 

Jared Mattson: The way you described it I would say yes it would be difficult, but on the other hand it’s not difficult when you think of improvisation as just real-time composition. When you have a relationship with a musician, and you know each other on this really intimate level you’re able to retire from any form of communication by using improvisation, and it eventually sounds like you’re not improvising. Instead, you’re creating this music and creating this flow and this architecture in real time. 

Tone Madison: On an emotional level, what is it like to let dozens or hundreds of people into this originally very intimate experience between yourself and your brother. Does it maintain the same feeling to you, or how does it change?

Jared Mattson: Everything before this has been very introspective music and instrumental and very jazz-oriented. I feel like this music is meant to be shared with people. It’s meant to be a shared experience. So no, it’s not difficult at all to get there for these people. I feel like it’s the type of record that needs to be played at festivals and live and stuff. For that reason, we’re doing this private performance in San Francisco at this residency that we do and we’re going to play the record start-to-finish live. 

Tone Madison: There’s this kind of irony, that in order to make the most outward-looking album, you had to have it be just you two. 

Jared Mattson: I think it did. People need you to be honest and they need it to be real. In order for us to get there, in order it to be our truest statement to date, not that there won’t be more after this, but to really give ourselves to the audience, it needed to be just us. And part of that is the Twinchronicity, which is what this engineer called it one time. It’s like this flow state that happens between us. And when it’s just us when we’re in a room together making music, it just gets more powerful. Not to say that this album is better or worse than our other work, but as a communication process, nothing can get in the way of that.

I think it relates to what you’re saying because I think this is a record that finally has more to say than any of our other records, and that’s because we can say more when we’re functioning in that flow state. 

Tone Madison: In a recent Washington Post piece, you talked about your faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that writer brought up how Coltrane’s later pursuit of music was one that was a direct channeling of his faith. I was hoping you could elaborate on whether your pursuit of music is similar to that.

Jared Mattson: If one does believe in an intelligent designer or creator, which I do, you also get to the next level of believing that creator designed his creation to also create. I feel like, not that it’s like the crazy act of higher power making music, but I think that I’m doing what I’m designed to do when I create. It puts me further in touch with who I am as a person. I think for humans, it’s just a really important part of our life to be creative with arts. I feel like I’m getting closer to this cosmic level in the act of creation. But, it’s not like a religious experience every time like the way Coltrane describes his. 

Tone Madison: Do you hope that your music helps other people reach that place as well?

Jared Mattson: I would hope that it would. I think like you said some of the melancholy and the darker tones is an aspect of everyday life that I think should be in the music and I don’t want it to be chippy and happy every time, but I do want to express a positive message. We get inundated with heavy dark energy on a daily basis, and it drives you crazy. I was reading that before Matty A. Tavares from Bad Bad Not Good wrote his amazing record he was contemplating suicide. So you never know who is on the verge of collapse, and I think it is an amazing thing to try and actually write music that can actually make people feel good. 

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