Underneath This just conducted an enjoyable interview with Matt Howard of the band, The Lion of Tallasi. Please read more about them in the bio sent by Matt and watch this video of their song “My Babys Gone Away From Me” before reading the subsequent interview. I not only appreciate their music but also their social justice perspective.
Lion of Tallasi is a band from Tulsa, OK. It is a project led by singer/guitarist Matt Howard. Formed in 2011, they have released an album, an EP, and one single. Current and former members include: Kristen Howard, Mike Chiado, Blake Jarman, Ben Burkes, and Brandon Burkes.
Please describe your path to becoming a musician.
I’ve always had a fascination with music. When I was little my dad had this old beat up guitar in his closet and I would go stare at it like it was this magical alien relic. It was just this beautiful thing. That’s one of my earliest memories and I think that kind of set the tone for things to come. The first time I can really remember being impacted by music was a little later when my older sister got into Nirvana. I remember hearing that through the wall separating our rooms and just being in awe. I think that’s when I knew I wanted to be a musician. Then later I discovered Dylan and started getting more into the lyrical side of things.
How does being from Tulsa, Oklahoma affect the music that you make?
Well I’m originally from this small town in Arkansas. It’s so small there’s not even a population sign. It’s like a village. And super isolated. The nearest town to have like a music shop or book store is about 30 minutes away. I didn’t really fit in well so I was alone a lot. I think that’s part of the reason I’m a musician now. I didn’t have a lot to do except play guitar and write songs. Growing up there certainly had a lot of influence on my music though. Religion seeps into my songs a lot. It’s kind of an unavoidable thing when you live somewhere like that. My anger at the racism, sexism, and homophobia that’s so prevalent in the south is also a big motivator to write songs.
What does The Lion of Tallasi mean? How did you create that name?
The “lion” part of the name comes from my family crest. At the top of the crest is this lion holding a cross. I thought it was funny in a way. Kind of tongue in cheek because I’m the least lion-like person you’ll ever meet. “Tallasi” is a word that comes from the Creek tribe. It means “old town”. That was the original name for Tulsa and over the years tallasi just kind of morphed into the word Tulsa.
The title of your debut full length album is quite weighty. How did you decide to call it “God, Love, and Death?”
I just wanted something straight forward. I wanted people to know what they were getting into. I also thought maybe the album would find it’s way into the hands of people who would relate to it a little easier. People who have a fascination with religion and death basically. And people that like sappy love songs.
Your music has been described as folk. What does that label and genre mean to you? What do you think of the latest folk resurgence in the United States?
I’ve always enjoyed folk music because it can be such an unfiltered form of expression. It’s musical freedom. People say that about punk music but as far as I can tell punk has some pretty strict rules about how to look and how to act. Folk can be so many different things. It can be Bob Dylan or Daniel Johnston or Neutral Milk Hotel. There aren’t any rules really. It’s just regular people expressing themselves, rough edges and all. That’s the problem I have with the latest folk resurgence really. It doesn’t have any rough edges. Everything’s smoothed down and soft. It’s beautiful sometimes but most of it is meaningless. I can’t connect to it in any real way. It feels like a lot of it is written in a room somewhere by a team of writers. I know a lot of people enjoy it and I don’t want to take away anything from them. I know I’m in the minority here. It’s just not for me.
What has it been like using social media to fund and promote your music? How do you see technology continuing to influence folk music?
I feel like I’m really lucky to live in a time where I can promote my music through social media. It’s a great feeling when I connect with a new fan online that I might not have ever found any other way. I use social media mostly because we’re not a touring band right now, because (A): We all have full-time jobs so we aren’t able to take off across the country any time we want and (B): touring is expensive. So in order to tour we have to have money so we get jobs but because those jobs are so time-consuming we don’t have time to tour. Some bands pull it off but I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe if we get signed? I’m not holding my breath for that though.
Who and what are some of your creative influences?
I think the first one that people are going to notice when they listen to my music is Bright Eyes. I’ve always felt a deep connection to their music and they’ve obviously been a big influence. Another obvious one, especially on our first album, is Bob Dylan. Elliott Smith is another big one but I’m not sure how much of that comes through. Lately my favorite band has been a band called Villagers. They have such beautiful and well written songs. They’ve been a big inspiration on my writing lately.
How do your social and personal identities affect your creative process?
I’m a very empathetic person and I think that comes out in my songs a lot. I see or hear about people suffering and I feel the need to spread the word, to tell everyone that these people need help. I feel like I also deal with some of my issues with depression and anxiety through music. When I’m feeling really anxious or depressed about something it seems like if I put it into a song it kind of loses its power. Like it’s trapped there in the song.
How does performing compare to recording?
I really enjoy both a lot. With performing you get this cathartic release and you sort of develop this bond with the crowd because you’re up there sharing all of this personal stuff with them. Recording is great because I start with trying to capture a performance and then I get to shape it by adding instruments and effects and EQ’ing and all that. I really enjoy playing producer and the technical side of things, although I’m still learning in that area.
In what ways is your music feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist but I’m not sure that the music I’ve put out to date could really be considered as such. I do think it’s an important issue and one that needs more people writing about it.
I enjoy your song, “It’s Christmas” (Keep Me Warm). There is a bitter-sweetness in it so reminiscent of that season. Any plans to make more holiday-themed music? 🙂
I’ve actually written 3 or 4 holiday themed songs that I’ve put out under various names. I’m not sure if any of those are available anywhere anymore though. I’ve actually considered re-recording a couple of them for release this Christmas. I’m not sure if that will work out though.
How did making your EP, “Songs for Warm Summer Nights” compare to working on your most recent album?
Well both of them were self recorded using pretty much the same equipment. I spent more time on God, Love, and Death. I think it came out better for it. It’s less sloppy I think. God, Love, and Death was also mixed by someone who had more experience with that kind of thing. Both were really fun though. I think “Summer Nights” is way more personal and maybe kind of depressing. God, Love, and Death is depressing too but more in a “the world is a horrible place and we’re all going to die” way.
How has it been working with other musicians to make songs?
I think my favorite part of recording is hearing the parts other people come up with for my songs. All of the songs on God, Love, and Death are so much better because of the people who helped out with it.
One of my favorite songs by you is “If I Only Had Your Love.” What is the story behind this song?
It’s interesting you ask about that one. When I first wrote it I was feeling kind of lonely and depressed and it was just this song about not being confident that anyone could really love me for who I am. It was only later that I realized the religious aspect of the song. I mean you could interpret most of the song as me talking to God. The first line is the most obvious: “I could sing your praise a million ways but it wouldn’t be enough.”
If you could cover any song, what would it be?
That’s a tough one. We did a cover of Postal Service’s “Recycled Air” for a compilation that I really enjoyed doing. It was fun converting this electro-pop song into a folk song so I would say something that’s far removed from the folk genre. Like a dubstep song or something.
What do you enjoy doing outside of music?
With music and work I don’t have a lot of time for much else. I am a voracious reader though. I go through 2 or 3 books a week usually. I also go to estate sales looking for old musical equipment a lot.
On what projects are you working on next?
I’m working of an EP that will be kind of a mellow, mostly just me and acoustic guitar thing. All of it is being recorded on this old reel to reel so it has a great sound to it. I’m also working on an EP with my friend Paul Steele, who goes by the name Along Came Paully. It’s a split EP and we co-wrote some of the songs on it. I’m really excited about both of those projects. I think the songs are some of the best I’ve ever written. I’m also planning on releasing a single or maybe another EP and all of the proceeds from that will be donated to LGBT charities. I also have another album pretty much written so I need to start on recording that soon.
What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?
I’m afraid I can’t really give any tips on being successful. I will say that you shouldn’t give up. If this is what you love then you should stick with it, even if you aren’t playing to huge crowds (or any crowd at all) when you play shows. I feel like if I can connect with even one person and I can make that person’s life a little better with my music then I’m happy. I know what it’s like to feel alone and misunderstood and I know how much music can help.