Arise Emperor X

He played one of our favourite shows of 2012, but who exactly is Emperor X? We caught up with the man himself…

We hold our hands up; a year ago we’d never heard of Emperor X. He wasn’t even on our radar. Enlightenment came thanks to promotion supremos Deep Hedonia, who recommended the American singer-songwriter to us. We went to the gig and in our review that followed, wrote: “there was a definite sense of fraternity [in the room]; of new music discovered and new friends having been made.” Consider us converts to the cause.

Emperor X (real name Chad Matheny) has five albums under his belt (2011′s Western Teleport the most recent). We wondered whether we could expect a new record anytime soon. “Yep. I’m using my down time before tour partly to relax but also to finish up the new record. Right now it’s in a jumbled state but by the end of the month it should sound more like an album.”

We somehow get into specifics about lyrical and thematic features of his writing – he has been quoted talking about how tragedy is often present. Do artists need this before they can create anything meaningful? “A really good friend of mine was with me at a cafe, preparing to work on something. I interrupted him and asked what he was scribbling. It was fiction, he said. ‘And there are only two narratives: death and love.’ “I’m not sure I buy that, exactly, but it’s a very elegant way of saying that in order to make any art with real value you have to engage one of those two themes – like it’s hard-coded into the universe or something … it’s very difficult to make interesting work about how great everything is.” But, he qualifies, “saying there are ‘tragic’ elements in my lyrics is certainly meant loosely, not in the Greek sense.”

“The cylon I slant-reference in the song is one of the human models, not a fracking toaster!”

We take a diversion of a slightly lighter kind, asking about the former science teachers referencing of cylons on the track Erica Western Teleport. Being fans of the reboot of Battlestar Gallactica, we were interested, naturally. After establishing that he’s “definitely referencing the R. D. Moore 2003 re-imagined series,” he jokes: “the cylon I slant-reference in the song is one of the human models, not a fracking toaster!”

Things take a turn for the philosophical. “The AI-focused 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica changed a lot about how I think about ontological philosophy and the recording arts, believe it or not. [After] being seduced by reading some of the progress philosophers (Whitehead, Prigogine, etc),” Matheny went from being an analog purist to concluding “consciousness is an emergent mathematical phenomenon that can conceivably be attained by digital computers.”

With the conversation now sailing worryingly above our heads like a cylon air raid, we bring things back – for us at least – to safer ground, and ask about comparisons made between him and the likes of Geoffrey Lewis, Jonathan Richman and Mountain Goats. “Those comparisons are very generous and I’m flattered by all three … they’re good reference points for my music.” Humble to a fault, he does at least concede that “Jeff Lewis in particular talks about a lot of the same subject matter, although our approaches are very different. I remind people of John Darnielle [of Mountain Goats] because of our very similar vocal ranges, I think, and maybe the production style on his early albums.”

And Jonathan Richman? “[He] has the same ‘I don’t care how long this takes, I’m going to ride a bus to Croatia to play one show’ attitude and maybe a similar nice guy demeanor. And they’re all on the bookish side. Jeff Lewis has a song/comic about the Kim dynasty in North Korea, how rad and nerdy is that?”

Speaking of “riding a bus to Croatia to play one show,” Matheny often tours solo and we’re keen to hear what that’s like, and whether it only serves to increase the feeling of transience between cities. “Cities are still very different if you pay attention, and being alone helps me pay attention.” He’s quick to pint out it’s not always this way: “I tour with bands sometimes too, and I’ve forged lifelong friendships had a lot of great times that way. The most fun times on tour are with others. But the deepest times are when I’m alone.”

He’s not kidding about the deepest times occurring when he’s alone. “I relate this one incident in Montreal a lot in which I played a show that didn’t go well at all and when it was over I knew no one, had no one to call, and walked a few miles to the central bus depot in the rain and slept on the floor there and actually cried in the rain. Dark times.” But, he continues, “a place and time that makes you miserable reveals itself in a kind of unflinching clear light, and I don’t experience that as strongly when my emotions are absorbed by friendly, concerned companions. I love traveling alone.”

“If you ever want to make me really truly happy when you see me on tour, bring me a mix!”

With all that time alone, we’re eager to know what he listens to on the road. “Not much,” comes the answer, then: “I torrent the Beatport Top 100 and put that on my phone and slowly delete the garbage and separate the awful frat boy dubstep from the good modern techno, that’s always a fun time-killing project for a long bus ride.” We’re not sure what answer we were expecting, but, he says: “if you ever want to make me really truly happy when you see me on tour, bring me a mix!”

Then it’s final question time, something we alluded to at the top of the piece and have danced around (okay, avoided) all interview. Why isn’t he better known? “The supporters of my music are unusual in that the majority of them learned about me by being at one of my concerts. For most commercial artists, touring is a way to capitalize on PR; for me, it is PR … I’ve missed out on the whole buzz thing. I get a blip of big ups and then…nothing.”

It’s as much of a conundrum to Matheny as it is to us. “I waste a lot of time thinking about why I’m not more well-known,” he concedes, “[but] if I go on for the rest of my life as I am now, good. If greater acclaim comes, that’s wonderful of course, but worrying about it will not help me write better songs … If I relied on blogwave props and downloads/record sales for my mental health I would’ve gone insane years ago.”

The mystery remains then, especially for those – like us – who know and love his material. For our money he’s fully deserving of the comparisons made above; any elevation in profile a natural consequence of more people hearing his work. Catch an Emperor X show and we’re pretty sure you’ll join the ranks of the converted.

Emperor X plays 18th April 7pm @ Bold Street Coffee with support from Chiz Turnross £3

The album 19 Live Recordings is available via Plan-It-X Records

Posted on 17/04/2013 by thedoublenegative