When I lived in New York, I met a lot of talented musicians through mutual friends and the durable creative network of Tumblr. One of these musicians was Matt Gruesen, who has released an array of genre-bending music over the past year from his Brooklyn bedroom. After work one day, I caught up with Matt to ask about his recording process and what inspires his forward-thinking music.
So my first question – who are you, and how would you describe your work?
I’m Matt Gruesen, I am a longtime guitar player-turned-producer. I like making music on my computer at home, and it’s not particularly limited to any genre – I’ve made dance music, dream pop, shoegaze, kind of indie rock stuff, and then more electronic, freeform, ambient… you know, anything I can get my hands on, I like to try it. Outside of that, I’m in a gamelan orchestra right now in New York, which is a Southeast Asian style of music. Which is nice, it’s separate from what I do individually on the computer. I picked it up recently, and a nice change of pace.
How did you get involved in that? That’s super cool.
In 2014, I was studying abroad in London. I went there because I was like, oh wow, I love dance music, I love UK garage, I want to just go take a little tour of clubs over there and feel the vibe of where it came from. I’m sure what I got was just like, a weird snapshot of it, not entirely… I don’t wanna say inauthentic, but certainly not… I don’t know…
Not, like, a full picture?
No, just not the full picture. I got a little slice from my angle, and it was cool. But while I was down there, I had been interested in gamelan music because artists like Panda Bear and Four Tet had referenced them in their work, and I saw that there was a London Southbank Orchestra that was offering a workshop on Javanese-style gamelan. So I signed up and I did it, and we had a performance in December 2014. And then I came back. I moved to New York many years later, and I’ve been living in New York this whole time.
I’ve been wanting to do it this whole time, I just didn’t care to look for it because I just assumed it would be in Manhattan… And then I had a friend from San Francisco come and stay with me because we were going to go camping at Honcho together, [which is a] queer DJ music festival. And he was like, “I’m going to a noise show and one of my friends, he’s moving all these gamelan instruments.” And that led me to discover that, oh, it’s in Queens. So I got back into it, which is fun. It’s nice to be in a group again.
Have you made a lot of music in a group or orchestra setting?
Recorded music, or…?
I guess either! I was thinking recorded music, but I guess an orchestra would be live music, really…
Well, we’re working on three pieces with the orchestra, but independently, when I make music, I’ve recorded a lot. Since the pandemic started, I’ve recorded a lot of things [laughs]. I would say… hundreds, but only maybe 50 of those approach a quality towards sharing.
I was wondering, too, have you been recording with an eye towards putting out music for longer than the pandemic? Or is it that being alone suddenly made that feel more doable?
I have always wanted to make music and share it, it’s just I didn’t have the tools or the vocabulary. It was the winter before the pandemic that I was starting to learn it, and then the pandemic happened, and I was like, “I’m just gonna lean into it, because I’ve got all this time now.”
What was that learning process like for you?
It was very much trial-and-error because I work in Ableton. I think Ableton is certainly for performing and people who just wanna play around individually, it’s not like Pro Tools or Logic, for people who are doing studio sessions. So I was just figuring out what everything is through trial and error. I was kind of throwing stuff at the wall until it stuck, which is a really weird way to learn, but that’s what I had to do. I couldn’t sit down and listen to a video or something. Way later, after I had my bearings in Ableton, there’s an online music school called Noiselab, and they offered online production courses that kind of cleared some stuff up for me, but the bulk of it was trial-and-error.
So you just use Ableton, you don’t use any other programs?
I use Ableton because that’s all I have space for on my computer. I do know how to use Logic, because it came on my computer and I played with it for a while. The one thing Logic has that Ableton doesn’t is that the vocoder software is really nice. Otherwise, I just prefer Ableton, that’s the only software I use really.
If you could go back and re-learn it through a class or educational setting instead of trial-and-error, do you think you’d do it that way?
That’s tough to say because I genuinely don’t know if there are fundamental things that I’m still missing. I don’t think there are! But you never know. I’m sure it’s mostly just things that are more like, mastering techniques that I wouldn’t have learned about. If I had the opportunity to do a course instead, I still feel like I probably wouldn’t. [laughs] I’m very hands-on, like, just give it to me and Iet me figure it out and ask questions. [Though] in this case, the only thing I could ask questions was the internet and, you know, go on YouTube or something. Ableton was cool because it wasn’t just figuring out how to produce, it was also how to synthesize and how to use samples. That was all happening simultaneously.
Like, you were learning all of that at the same time?
Yes. So when I started releasing music, it kind of felt like I was throwing everything at the wall because that’s also kind of how I was learning – everything at once. Mixing was happening at once, composition, learning how the instruments work, learning how to manipulate audio.
Are you self-taught with instruments too, like with guitar and gamelan?
Gamelan is led by an instructor – there are several teachers in our group. I don’t quite know if instructor, conductor, teacher is the right term. Or leader. I don’t know what the term for it is in our group. It’s kind of like face-to-face transference of like, this is how you play it. With other instruments, guitar and piano, when I was younger I had lessons for three years. But then I took that and ran with it.
I was listening to some of the music you made last year, like I was listening to Heavy Sleeper and stuff…
Oh wow. You still have that??
Yeah! [laughs] Should I not?
Well, I took it down because it’s the sound of someone who’s figuring it out. I was going through a lot. [laughs]
I mean, for what it’s worth, I still enjoy that record!
I think it’s funny that that thing still has a life. Actually, sometimes I think about revisiting that old stuff and just, like, cleaning it up. I actually have gone into some of those old files. I think when people start to learn, especially if you’re self-taught, in my case at least, people might try to overcompensate – I tried to overcompensate – and just lay it on too thick. A lot of that record is me trying to get everything out all at once, laying it on too thick, but somehow being a little too shy at the same time, which is a weird thing. But what kind of clicked for me is that “less is more” kind of deal, so far at least.
I hear that. It is interesting, because I was listening to that and I was listening to the stuff that you’ve released recently too, and with Heavy Sleeper, I felt like I heard a lot about what you were saying about not feeling tied down to genre. Whereas I feel like now, what you do sounds a lot more focused. I wouldn’t necessarily say one is better than the other, it’s just a different approach.
When you’re making stuff now, do you go into it with a solid idea, or is it just what comes out in the moment?
There is stuff that comes out in the moment. There’s a bunch of ways that songs come out. Sometimes it’s just, I’m bored, I open Ableton, I scribble and one thing leads to another. Sometimes I go in there with an intention, especially if I’ve been listening to something that I really like and I’m like, “what about this set of music or other songs, what about it that engaged me or pleased me, how can I play with that?”
But ideas will also come other weird ways. One way is, sometimes I’ll put music on at a low volume in another room – especially music I’m familiar with – and when I can’t quite hear it through the walls, my brain starts fill in the pieces a little bit, and I get melodies through that. So I’ve written some stuff that way. I also will wake up from a dream and have-… you know how your alarm wakes you up? Instead it’s kind of like, a song is playing in my head, and it wakes me up. Usually I’ll wake up and sing it into a voice note and fall back asleep. And then, later, I’ll turn that into an idea. And sometimes I’m just playing the guitar and having fun.
Is there anything in particular that’s inspiring your work right now?
I feel like the whole music-making thing for me has coincided with my Saturn return. The time I started the first record was when my Saturn return began, and now it’s kind of getting close to my Saturn return ending and I’m getting close to this point of a little bit of clarity, but also less enthusiasm. I feel like I did a lot really fast. But part of that was going back to what I was listening to when I was younger and accepting that, oh, this was cool, this was good, there wasn’t any reason to be ashamed of what you were listening to when you were a kid. I don’t know if that’s, like, a normal thing…
No, I’ve definitely had that too!
It’s kind of like rebelling against your parents, in a sense, but instead you’re rebelling against yourself, maybe? But musically, like your taste. I went back to that old stuff, and it’s coinciding with me – because a lot of the stuff I used to listen to were people in bands, not individual producers – and now I’m more in the mindset of a collective. But also, I feel like I’m opening back up to the power of the guitar, a bunch of guitars, what that sounds like together. I saw My Chemical Romance on 9/11-…
You know, their comeback tour. And I feel like that kind of flipped a switch in me. I started going through a bunch of records like those [that I listened to] when I was younger, just kind of looking for that energy. Because it’s life-affirming! Music can be cool but it can also be life-affirming. It’s a conduit for what I’ve been feeling. I think being able to open up to that is what has been the biggest revelation at the end of this period.
Like opening up to your past self?
Accepting my past selves.
That sounds really rewarding.
Yeah, it’s felt good. Part of me just hasn’t translated that yet into music, it’s mostly just in words so far. I’ve been kind of all over the place in terms of trying to make stuff. But it feels like the stuff that’s been made is given a little more attention to detail, care, time to grow. I did Heavy Sleeper, and then two months after that I did another record, and I wrote a song in there that felt like the first real song I ever wrote. And that kind of sent me into a spree where I was like, “Oh, I can do this!” Like this is something that’s possible for me. The year after that I had four full albums, like concepts, aesthetics, covers, titles, all done. And I just didn’t wanna pull the trigger on anything. One of them, Conrad [Tao, a New York-based composer and pianist] contributed strings to, which was really nice. But there was a lot of music being made, and I took a pause, and that little break has been rewarding.
Yeah, I do hear the difference in approach from before vs. now. I was also wondering – because I know you DJ too – do you think DJing impacts the music that you make, or is it a totally separate practice?
I think DJing is just an extension. It’s fun, I like to think of it as kind of… You spend time setting stuff aside. If I hear something and I’m like, that would be a lot of fun to dance to or spin, I’ll set it aside. But also I pay a lot of attention to what my friends are listening to and what they’re sharing, and a lot of it is just a reflection of that. Sometimes I feel like I’m just playing a lot of songs that my friends put me on to, so it’s also an appreciation for them. It’s kind of an extension of my process.
That sounds cool! I have two last questions. The first one is, have you ever made music in a studio setting, or has it always been bedroom stuff?
It’s always been my room, I’ve never been in a studio. I’ve been in the radio studio at my college, when I had a radio show at Boston University, but I’ve never been in an actual studio.
Would you be interested in doing that theoretically?
Yeah! That would be fun. Depends on what’s in there. [laughs] The thing that I think would be nice about a studio is that it’s a dedicated space to do it, because right now, this is my room. I work remotely, so this is where I work, so all these places kind of overlap. And also having a place where I can be loud without having to worry about it. And a studio, everything’s set up, you don’t have to put anything away, and everything probably sounds really nice. So yeah, it’s very appealing. [laughs]
Yeah. I interviewed someone recently who was renting a house that had a woodshed in the back where they put all their instruments, and they were showing me around and I was like, “Damn, this is cool as hell.”
Yeah, I feel like it’s hard for young people to get there.
And in New York, too, there’s so little space in general.
Everything’s so expensive here. Very competitive. I don’t think that stops anyone from making music here. I feel like, particularly in my area, I still will hear bands practice, they just usually sound like heavier bands. I swear to God I heard a screamo band yesterday. I was surprised, because I don’t see anyone around here who looks like they’re making that kind of music, you know? So I was like, what is going on? [laughs]
My last question is: are you working on anything new?
Yeah, always am. [laughs] I kind of had this burst of stuff that I started. The first time I got COVID, I made a challenge for myself where every day – I feel like this is not the thing you’re supposed to do when you’re sick, but I was also sitting alone in my room for seven days and going crazy – so I challenged myself to start something in a day, finish it, and share it. And I did and it was fun. Then I got COVID on my birthday, again, and I tried to do it again and I was like, “I don’t know how I was that crazy a year ago, but I can’t do this.” But I started a handful of things, and some of them are really good. They’re at the finish line, and I have to push them over the edge.
I’m excited to hear it when you share it!
I’ll definitely make a bit of noise when I put it out. Bang some pots and pans. [laughs]