Matthew Hart's Our Thickness, his fourth release as the Russian Futurists, is bursting with brass, organs and sometimes even '60s-pop nostalgia. But it's hip-hop that really gets the Toronto native going.
"That's the probably the music I listen to the most," says Hart. "I produced it [hip-hop] for about eight or nine years. That's still how I approach most of the music I do, like finding samples, cutting up drum patterns and stuff like that. So I still make it like exactly how I used to make hip-hop records, I just add more melodies and more pop-oriented type of stuff. I still approach it exactly like I did hip-hop."
Adding more melodies seems to be job number one on Our Thickness. Hart chases around each element on his poolside pop nuggets, searching for a way to add a vocal line to match every rolling moment. He had the time to be so meticulous; his previous LP, the well-received Let's Get Ready to Crumble, was released in 2003, also on Upper Class.
"I think, all told, it was probably about two years on and off," Hart says of recording Thickness. "That wasn't working on it [everyday], though. I had a day job. It was probably about a year, if I was doing it all the time. It was about a song-a-month kind of thing."
Hart probably couldn't hold a day job nowadays even if he tried. When I caught up with him, he'd just finished a U.S. tour, and he's planning on touring Europe in the fall. He'll probably head back into America in the winter, providing he's allowed to cross the U.S./Canada border.
"There are tons of people down there [in America] that I met that are excited about the music scene here [in Canada] and just excited about what's going on up here, so its good that we're so close," he says. "It's just a shame that relations aren't so great right now, because there are border problems and stuff like that. We had tons of paperwork to get through just to come down and play shows down there, so that's kind of drag. I wish it was more open so that we could come down there a lot easier, without having to go through all the red tape."
"That's my number-one qualm, I'd have to say," he says. "It's terrible. It's a real headache. I'm hoping that they loosen up about that especially, because the U.S. looks at it like, 'You're taking a job away from a U.S. band,' but I don't think that's the case. I think it's more just about what fits the bill. So that's kind of a drag, but I had a great time down there."
Plus, there's always the beer to help make up for any hassles at the border.
"I really like the fact that you can get beer everywhere and it's really cheap," he says. "Like at the gas stations and stuff like that. It's great. That's like one thing here that we haven't really caught up on. We have to go to a specific store, like a beer store, that closes at nine or ten. That's one thing I like about the States: They're a little less uptight about that kind of stuff."
Long before he could tote easily acquired beers back and forth to his tour van though, Hart was over yonder, finishing up Our Thickness. Like Let's Get Ready to Crumble (2003), everything was done in his lo-fi tradition. But Hart needed more isolation this time around in order to get the closed-off feel onto his record. So he packed up his equipment and some weed and he and his big ol' beard headed north to a cabin.
"It was just really taking a super long time to get it done in Toronto, because I've got lots of friends here so I just wasn't focusing on it enough," he says. "So I got a really good deal on this bit of property for a month and rented that and went up there and worked on the record. Yeah, I basically just pulled some 'back to the land' kind of stuff. I just went fishing all day and recorded all day, and it was great. I didn't have a phone or anything, so I just went up there, wigged out and finished up some songs. It was awesome. It was just north of where my parents live, which is kind of like 'cottage country' up here. It's just so beautiful and so isolated."
The isolation translates well. Even though songs like "Still Life" revolve around a carefree, even danceable swing, the words speak otherwise. Behind Hart's vibrant, lush presentation of electronic beat-driven pop are his woeful looks backward into once-blissful, love-centered afternoons. The best lyrics seem to come from what always happens next. After the stable moments dissipate and tumble subsequently into hopelessness, Hart comes tumbling through with either character sketches or reflections on his own relationships.
"It's about a couple (relationships)," he says. "My old records were more specific to one person. This one's the most varied in that. I mean, some of it's about one person and some of it's about other people.
"And other times, I'm not even writing from my point of view. I'm writing about things that my friends are going through or writing from the other person's point of view because there's only so many ways you can really bitch and moan about stuff," he says. "You kind of have to branch out a bit. I've had to branch out a bit because it can't all be so confessional and so personal because you run out of things to say. It's a little bit of everything -- some of it's personal, some of it's from different perspectives -- so it's all over the place."
On "These Seven Notes," Hart is at his most revealing, or perhaps his most revealing about someone he knows. The song's protagonist frantically tries to balance himself on a tightrope commitment he's made with "three words" that he's not sure he "meant," while "sealed envelopes" hold letters he never mailed. Hart casually deals out sentiments phrased with what he deems "worthless lines," but his words on "These Seven Notes" ironically fall into the more vivid and carefully chosen lot on the album. His seven (musical) notes make up the first half of each lamenting remark, and at the same time, "notes" doubles for the loads of letters never sent. All of this happens over what begins like a Phil Spector Christmas number but climbs its way into what is unmistakably a springing, cheerily decorated hip-hop beat.
But that's his first love.
"I like the Eastern Conference stuff. I like Cage and the Def Jux stuff, and I like everything from the Top 40," he says. "I really like that new Beanie Siegel record and Cam'ron and lots of different kinds of hip-hop. It's like any kind of music. You dig around and there's good stuff in every style. There's good stuff in the Top 40, there's good stuff underground, and there's good stuff in between. It's really super-alive right now, the hip-hop scene, so there's lots of good stuff around."
Beanie? I tried to follow the Beanie case pretty closely in the papers a while back, and it seems like Siegel makes a pretty shitty drinking buddy. Hart just laughs at my protest.