Local Music Beat: Matthew Carlson of Lansing, Michigan’s Harborcoat talks about the band’s new album, “Joy is Elusive,” and Lansing music in this edition of the column
Matthew Carlson wears many creative hats. Not only is he a member of the Lansing, Michigan, based bands The Stick Arounds and Harborcoat, but Carlson also owns and operates his own record label, Phonophore Records.
Harborcoat are coming up on the release of their new LP, “Joy is Elusive,” out Oct. 1 via Phonophore Records. Carlson is the lead vocalist in the band, and when writing lyrics and stories, it’s obvious he draws inspiration from his personal experiences.
Carlson checked in with Audio Ink Radio to discuss the new album, his work with Phonophore Records and the strength of Lansing music and the Michigan music scene. Harborcoat brings together Carlson with Johnny Aimcrier (guitars, lap steel), David Baldwin (guitars, keys, backing vocals), Joel Kuiper (drums), Nate Moore (keys, mandolin, backing vocals) and Ian Walker (bass guitar). Find more on Harborcoat on the band’s Facebook page.
Anne Erickson: Congratulations on your new LP, “Joy is Elusive.” That’s a great title. Why did you pick “Joy is Elusive” for the name of the album?
Matthew Carlson: I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. In the months leading up to the pandemic, I was going through a particularly rough patch. One day, at a rather low point, I was sitting in my studio and simply thought about how elusive joy is sometimes in the midst of that darkness- how hard it is to see the light and be grateful for all of the good in life. I decided it might be a good idea for a theme to explore in my songs. So, I wrote it in sharpie on a piece of paper and tacked it to the wall of my studio. At the time, I had no idea that we’d end up with a record with that as the title, but all the pieces seemed to just fit together nicely.
The song “Help Me Out Somehow” off the album has a great ’80s New Wave vibe. Tell me about the story behind that song and why you wanted to put it out there as the album’s first single.
“Help Me” was one of the first songs I wrote for the record. It was one of those songs that happened pretty quickly. I wrote the vast majority of it in one sitting. The chord progression and vocal melody came first, and then I began to add lyrics that seemed to offset the buoyant nature of the music. I’ve always been a sucker for the juxtaposition of melancholy lyrics and upbeat music. It’s the kind of thing that Tom Waits calls, “Beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”
Lyrically, I was really hoping to capture what it’s like for someone going through a stretch of depression and anxiety. People who have not struggled with mental illness often see it as a case of just “being sad.” In reality, for me anyway, it’s a kind of fog that wraps around you. Self care goes out the window, your ability to be present in the moment disappears and every activity requires a ton of extra effort to complete. It’s a combination of sadness, exhaustion, fear and a loss of hope. I’ve always struggled to ask for help when these moments hit, and I wanted this to be an anthem for allowing myself to reach out for guidance and comfort from others.
Would you say there’s an overarching theme on the new album?
Obviously, the mental illness we have already touched on is a huge part of the record. Even more than that, though, it’s really about people sort of living on the margins and trying their best to get by. Many of the songs in the Harborcoat catalog are about folks living meager lives in small town America and just trying to eke out these tiny moments of happiness or relief. These are folks working dead-end, low-paying jobs. They’re struggling with addiction, self medication, family trauma and a true lack of hope. These songs are designed to play out like short stories with chords. I’ve based many of these characters on my own experiences with mental illness and living in a small midwestern town at a time where the gap between the haves and have-nots is expanding rapidly.
How did the pandemic influence the writing or recording of “Joy is Elusive,” if at all?
The pandemic really gave more time to focus on writing these songs. The idea for the concept had materialized pre-pandemic, but many of these songs came from writing sessions during the early days of lockdown. I am fortunate enough to have a small shed in my backyard with a studio and I was able to retreat to that spot and focus on writing for hours at a time.
While the lockdown didn’t really affect the content of the record per sé, it did delay how quickly we could get together as a band and rehearse the songs. Fortunately, we got to a spot where we could rehearse in a group of three with some degree of safety and then scheduled a weeklong trip to my family cabin to record the basic tracks for the record.
On Aug. 20, my Dad very suddenly died, and my whole world was thrown into a tailspin. I spent most of my time for the next few weeks up north helping my Mom deal with logistics and details. The grief and loss that set in were overwhelming, and I had planned to just put recording on the backburner. However, my family and friends and bandmates encouraged me to go work on the record at the cabin. I was very apprehensive and deeply concerned that we’d be spending several days to get quality stuff recorded, and I would be in no frame of mind to accomplish anything worth keeping.
Within hours of arriving at the cabin, I felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders, even if only for a few days. The ability to focus on creating something in the midst of so much loss, felt like a tiny victory against mortality. It was comforting to be with dear friends in one of my favorite spots making a record. I am certainly not objective, but I feel like you can hear the grief and the loss on the recording. In a way, that loss is also countered by the joy of making something beautiful in the middle of so much darkness. I am so glad that I listened to the people in my life who assured me that recording was the right thing to do. There were tears, laughter and relief in that week. I’ll always remember this album in the frame of the way that we began recording it.
Wow. That’s an incredible story. You have a rich history in Michigan music. You spearheaded The Pantones for more than a decade and are currently in The Stick Arounds, as well as Harborcoat. How would you say this project stands apart from your work in The Pantones and The Stick Arounds, and what motivates you to have another outlet like this for your music?
The Pantones were an incredibly important and formative period for me. I had spent a long time playing as a solo artist, and learning how to work as a collective unit was tremendous. We managed to garner some acclaim and regional success. Like lots of bands, life just got in the way. Our bass player, Jake McCarthy, moved back to his native Maine and the rest of us were busy with careers and raising families.
I love being a part of The Stick Arounds. Jeff Gower and I write most of the songs, and the whole endeavor is a complete collaboration. It’s a much more rock and roll approach than my work in The Pantones. The band originated around our shared love for power-pop, and we have just evolved from there. This has been my longest stint ever in a band, and I cannot imagine not being a Stick Around. We’re doing our best work ever 12 years into our existence as a band.
The biggest difference between Harborcoat and The Sticks is that I write all of the songs for Harborcoat. Again, those songs are really like stories, whereas in the Sticks, I tend to write more from a first-person perspective, and the sounds are louder and more raucous- a sort of straight three guitars, bass and drums approach. We implement lots of harmonies in the Sticks, but the instrumentation tends to stay pretty consistent.
With Harborcoat, we incorporate lots of other sonic elements. The songs on the record are littered with piano, organ, mellotron, rhodes, mandolin and lap steel. Having six guys in a band can often feel like too much information at once, but my bandmates do a great job of picking their spots and delivering a diverse palate of sounds.
You’re also the owner of Phonophore Records. Tell me about the label and what you do.
I have been using the Phonophore imprint since the late ’90s. It’s long been just a vehicle for me to release my own stuff. Over the last year, I got very excited at the concept of trying to build that up a bit and get us to a spot where we could release records by Harborcoat and The Stick Arounds under one roof and to have a plan to release material by other friends and colleagues that make work that we love.
The basic concept is a cooperative to release music so that we don’t have to go out and crowdfund every release. Making records is expensive. We’re supremely lucky in that four of us in the Phonophore sphere have home studios and a cache of gear to avoid paying for studio time. But, records still need to be mixed and mastered. Then, they need to be pressed on vinyl, burned on CDs, advertised, promoted and toured. The digital streaming space has made distribution much easier to get your work out to the world, but it offers virtually no payment in return unless you can sell physical products like CDs and vinyl or make money from shows and merch.
Our ultimate goal with Phonophore is to reinvest every dime we make into releasing more and more music. We’re folks who are old enough that we grew up with physical media and most of us have large collections of vinyl and/or CDs. There is still an allure to holding a record in your hands and poring over liner notes and lyrics while you listen. Digital options are great, and we all use them for our listening, but as I said before, artists are just not really compensated for their work in that space. So, we need to find a way to build up our label and find a band of loyal folks who like our work and want to be a part of something.
Tell me about your involvement with Lansing’s GTG Records and how the label has supported local independent music.
Honestly, GTG was a real inspiration for me when I decided to take the next step with Phonophore. GTG is sort of the epicenter of the local scene. They have been incredibly kind and supportive of both The Stick Arounds and Harborcoat. All of our releases with those two bands will be part of both GTG and Phonophore. We’re taking a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach. When the local scene succeeds, it helps us all.
Tommy, who runs GTG, is an avid music lover and incredibly generous dude. Virtually every undertaking in the GTG universe is designed to make Lansing a place for bands to thrive. It’s become a hub for some touring bands, and we’re always trying to expand that. I’m not sure if most people outside the area have any idea just how great the scene here really is. People often use the word community a lot when there is a group of people doing a thing, but in Lansing, it really is communal. Musicians and fans band together for each other. There is a great deal of support and love.
The pandemic was rough on independent music venues across the U.S. You’re based in Lansing, Michigan, which recently lost two music venues: Mac’s Bar and The Loft. What does the loss of Mac’s Bar and The Loft mean to you and the local music scene?
Sadly, Mac’s had really become a shell of its former self before it closed. I have some great memories of nights at that place, but it had been a number of years since it was at its peak. The Loft was an odd room, but it did provide a nice spot for touring bands. I never got the chance to play there with one of my bands, but I went to a number of shows at the Loft.
The real concern for me is that now we are really down to just one true venue in Lansing at the moment, The Avenue. It’s my favorite spot in town and has been the center of the scene for a while. But, a scene cannot survive with just one venue. The Robin Theater does have shows occasionally, and there are a few other spots in town where something happens once in a great while, but the community is starved for stages at the moment.
I know that The Green Door is getting ready to re-open, and I have heard some rumblings about The Loft making some sort of return. Ellison Brewing is prepping a new location in REO Town, and there is a space in their building that could host shows. What Lansing really needs most is something like a 300 to 400 capacity venue that can host regional and national touring acts. Lansing often gets squeezed out by venues in Grand Rapids and Detroit, but we have a lot to offer here and a vibrant scene to support it. For example, Grand Rapids is a larger city, so it can support larger venues, but the local scene there is a shadow of what is happening in Lansing, based on my experience. We need to be able to parlay our local community into larger events with a mid-sized room that can help to further build our scene and music community. The appetite is there, for sure.
What are some local, independent bands that you think should be on people’s radar in Lansing, throughout Michigan and beyond?
Probably my favorite band in Lansing at the moment is The Wild Honey Collective. They are a four piece that plays folk and traditional tunes with luscious harmonies. I also really dig Royal Scene. Some of those guys were in 19 Wheels and The Hannibals, and they write great power-pop songs that feel timeless. The Aimcriers are old Lansing friends and loads of fun. Down in Detroit, I would say that Jeremy Porter & The Tucos, Popular Creeps, The Legal Matters, Minihorse, and The Gashounds would be at the top of my list. I could go on and on.
What are your thoughts on the Michigan music scene? Do you think it’s strong?
There are lots of great bands out there for sure. Like virtually every other community right now, the pandemic has thrown things into a whirlwind of unknowns. Bars and venues are struggling to stay afloat and obviously worried about the future.
It would also be great to see folks who are not familiar with their local scene take a chance on a night of original music. So often, folks are willing to plunk down big money to go to an arena show and support superstars. I get the appeal of that, but there is great music happening in your neighborhood. You can often get in for a few bucks or even free and have the best seat in the house. You might just find your new favorite band. And when bands at our level make a connection with new fans, it’s so much more magnetic than being one more person who dropped $125 for nosebleed seats to Maroon 5 or whatever.
In Harborcoat and The Sticks, we have made great friends with bands all over the state. One of the joys of playing shows and being in a band is how your community seems to grow with almost every gig. You play a show and hang out and within a few months, you have new folks who are truly a part of your life. There is a sort of magic to it. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of the greater Michigan music scene.
You have several album release shows on tap with Harborcoat. What are you most looking forward to when it comes to getting back on the road?
During lockdown, I missed playing shows and rehearsing more than anything. Being able to get back to that has been wonderful. Obviously, we’re thrilled at the idea of playing these new songs for audiences. As a six-piece live band, there are a lot of moving parts, but it affords us so many sonic opportunities. Because the records are often littered with tons of layers, we’ve had to make choices of how to present these songs in a sort of purer form for live performance. That rehearsal process has been challenging and enjoyable. This run of fall shows finds us all over Michigan and other parts of the Midwest. It’s always exciting to tour a new record, but when we put out our first album, “Brutal Gravity” in the Fall of 2019, we only had a chance to play a handful of shows, and then pandemic hit and everything shut down, of course. So, this feels like our first real chance to tour behind this band and these songs. It’s exciting.
Anne Erickson’s column appears regularly in Audio Ink Radio. Have a band or concert to share? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.