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Matt Costa

Matt Costa: Making the Dark Side Sound Just A Little Bit More Cheerful

Matt Costa Counts the Rats in The Alley Behind The Commodore Ballroom

By Scott Wood

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Matt Costa: I don’t think I have ever been in an alley with so many rats!

There is only one large cement step that protects Matt Costa from potentially squashing a rat with his tennis shoe. We are at the bottom of a long and steep set of stairs that connect the second-story of Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom to the alley below. I am setting up my equipment while a pack of them scurry under some industrial-sized garbage cans. We have come all the way down here, so that the sounds of the opening act’s soundcheck will not interfere with recording our chat.

Scott Wood: It is nice of you to ignore them.

Matt Costa: Yeah, well... They are hard to ignore, but, you know, they are here, and so are we.

Another one jets by us.

Scott Wood: Ok you get compared to Jack Johnson all the time—even when it is an extreme compliment. [Note: Costa is on Jack Johnson’s label and they do sound eerily alike. Try hunting down the rare mp3 where the two team up, merging two of their hit songs “Fall Line” & “Sunshine.”] You must hate it! So what is one way you guys could not be more different?

Matt Costa chooses which He-Man character he most identifies with: "Skeletor, actually, because he was dark. He had a dark side.

Matt Costa: I have long hair and am dirty most of the time, and every time I see him, he seems to be clean. He’s pretty showered and pretty kept together, you know? I think that’s probably the biggest one: hygiene.

Scott Wood: Ok, what about musically?

Matt Costa: Musically, I would say, I think I strum a little bit harder than he does on the guitar.

Scott Wood: You guys are both former athletes who were forced to retire your sport due to injury and you both turned to music. He was a surfer, you were a skateboarder. Do you still maintain links with the boarding community?

Matt Costa: Of course. Yeah, yeah! A lot of my friends actually are professional skateboarders now. So, yeah, I do. Thru skate videos and things, sometimes friends will ask for my songs to use in their parts and I’m always excited about that because I got turned on to a lot of music that way, as well. So, in more ways than one, I am involved in the skateboarding community.

I'm not saying I am turning to the dark side or anything, but there's something about when you are raised with all these things that you are told not to do that dark side definitely becomes appealing, you know?

Scott Wood: If you were going to show off for your girlfriend, what skateboarding trick would you do for her?

Matt Costa: If I could do any or the ones I could do now?

Scott Wood: Either.

Matt Costa: I dunno, let’s see... I would probably... Uhm, I don’t have a girlfriend, so I probably wouldn’t do any tricks.

He laughs.

Scott Wood: We could imagine you are trying to impress a girl who is not your girlfriend—yet?

Matt Costa

Matt Costa: Yeah, well I just keep it simple. I’d probably maybe do—I dunno—a 360 flip or something. I don’t know.

Scott Wood: I was reading that you research old music to inspire your own work. You are often described as an “indie folk artist” and folk songs began as protest songs. So what place should politics have in contemporary music?

Matt Costa: Music and politics... Uhm... Personally in my music, I think it’s good to be reminded of the past in order not to be doomed to repeat that in the future, which is a common thing. There’s a song that I wrote called “Sweet Thursday,” which is about John Steinbeck and basically about Monterey, where he lived. You know, just an ode to him in hopes that people, via my music, will be turned on to him, or kind of go down that path, you know?

I think it’s hard to form really concrete opinions. I think ideas and opinions always change, you know? What I do with music and politics and things, I just try to lead people in the directions where they can use the knowledge to know and then form their own opinions. I don’t really feel that I should force my opinion on anyone. That’s me personally, but other people have really strong opinions and are really opinionated, you know, and do that. I think it’s all up to the musician and personal choice.

Scott Wood: Yeah, folk musicians are often forced to deal with that kind of stuff, by fans and press. But combining it all together like The Guess Who’s “American Woman” makes for a potent mix of the two, a great rock song and a great reaction to the times.

Matt Costa: Yeah, well, I definitely think that most good things you can appreciate on multiple levels. To me, listening to music and playing music, that’s what makes it kind of exciting—that’s kind of what gives you the thrill, you know? Knowing about all those multiple layers leaves the mind many places to wander, you know?

Scott Wood: I read that you were a He-Man fan as a kid. You had a He-Man bike. Which He-Man character would you want to be the most?

Matt Costa: I’d have to say He-Man, you know? They kind of forced him on you the most. He was the main guy. And actually, I can’t even remember the other... Who were the other characters again?

The record is about dealing with that and your own vices and things. I think to me music is something that I love the sound of so much and it makes me feel so good.

Matt Costa: Oh... You know what? If I could go back and change it, I would choose Skeletor, actually, because he was dark. He had a dark side. He was pretty cool. But I would say He-Man as a little kid—I had the one where you put the pack in his back and he’d punch and it would go POP. It would smoke and it would smell funny for a second. That was exciting to all sorts of different senses you know? So yeah, you know? He-Man... He-Man...

Scott Wood: You definitely have the sensitive singer-songwriter thing going for you. What is the sweetest thing you have done for a girlfriend?

Matt Costa: Well, I would say that you can never go wrong with flowers. The sweetest thing I did was get a girl flowers and it’s a good way to get yourself out of trouble too.

Scott Wood: Ok. Can you tell us about a time you got into trouble and needed to use the flowers to make it right?

Matt Costa: Actually I was more preparing myself to get out of trouble the next time, you know? You are always going to get into trouble for something.

Scott Wood: A Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card?

Matt Costa: That’s kind of what it is. And then you kind just be like, “Remember this moment? Ok, well... Don’t forget about the flowers.”

Scott Wood: Because you are always labelled this sweet singer songwriter guy, when was the last time someone called you a jerk? It doesn’t have to be a girl situation, but just in general?

Matt Costa: Wow. Last time I was a jerk. Let’s see... When I dragged you guys out in to this rat-fill alley—that was the last time I was a jerk.

Scott Wood: It’s nice of you to take responsibility for that, because I think it was my suggestion. Your album, Unfamiliar Faces, I read where you said the title came from you opening up to somebody and the risks that come with that. When was the last time you opened up to somebody and were rewarded?

Matt Costa: I opened up the book The Master and Marguartia recently and was rewarded with a good story.

Scott Wood: Cool. What did you enjoy about the novel?

Matt Costa: I was raised really really religious as a kid and in the book, it’s about the Devil going to Moscow . It’s by Mikhail Bulgakov; he’s a Russian author. They kind of portray the Devil as the hero, you know? And it gave me this thrill, the dark side having this power. I’m not saying I am turning to the dark side or anything, but there’s something about when you are raised with all these things that you are told not to do that dark side definitely becomes appealing, you know? It was an interesting story because it kind of took a terrible thing that was happening with the State of Russia in like the 1930s and things and turned it into this sort of whimsical tale that gets kind of psychedelic at times. I would say the whole time I read that book, I was on a whole other trip.

Scott Wood: The LA Times call Unfamiliar Faces “the most upbeat album they have ever heard about a crippling dependency”—were they bang on or what?

Matt Costa: We don’t have the same ears, all of us. I would say they are not far far off. I would say they are close.

Scott Wood: How?

Matt Costa: That’s like a kid going, “Why? Why?”

Scott Wood [I try to interrupt]: Well, come on—

Matt Costa: But I know. I’m gonna go into something. I’ll go back to what the question was too. There is a character in John Steinbeck—Hazel in Cannery Row. He always keeps talking because he is comforted by asking someone questions and hearing them talk back to him and there is comfort in that, you know? I think we are all searching for those comforts in life, you know? To me, everyone has those things, you know? And I think the more you go on in your life, you are confronted with more and more unfamiliar things, you know? Strange circumstances, which can be at times eye-opening to how dark and how scary... As much as people are half made up of good, they are half made up of bad, you know? You try to be good and everyone does, but it’s hard when you see the darker side of things and the darker side of yourself. The record is about dealing with that and your own vices and things. I think to me music is something that I love the sound of so much and it makes me feel so good. I am a big fan of 50s and 60s music, which kind of had a good feeling to it, you know?—Really up lifting and things. Listen to The Lovin’ Spoonful or The Beatles and things like that—those songs make you feel good. So the record was made to make bad things sound a little better. So I guess that comes into a record about “upbeat crippling dependency.” 

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