“We never broke up, but we got burned out”—Matt Mahaffey on the return of Self

August 27, 2014 by Scott Heisel

“We never broke up, but we got burned out”—Matt Mahaffey on the return of Self

It’s okay if you don’t remember SELF. The quirky, innovative and just a bit funky alt-pop band led by MATT MAHAFFEY were incredibly prolific in the late ’90s and early 2000s, releasing four official full-lengths in a six-year span plus a slew of semi-official digital releases loaded with outtakes, B-sides and covers, but they never had a massive breakthrough hit. They’re probably best known for 2000’s Gizmodgery, an album created solely with toy instruments, which might sound like nothing more than a novelty release until you actually listen and realize just how fucking good the songs were.

Sadly, Mahaffey’s brother Mike, who was also Self’s guitarist, passed away in 2005, and the band have been largely dormant since, popping up occasionally for one-off shows. In the interim, though, Mahaffey has kept busy on the other side of the boards, producing records by Hellogoodbye, Forever The Sickest Kids and more, as well as creating commercial jingles and scoring for movies such as the Shrek franchise. However, Mahaffey recently issued the Super Fake Nice EP, the first official release under the Self moniker since 2000, and Scott Heisel was so thrilled to find the band back in action, he called up the singer at his Nashville home to find out what was going on.

INTERVIEW: Scott Heisel

It doesn’t seem like Self ever broke up, per se, but you had a bit of a “dark period” for a number of years in the 2000s. How do you view the band as of right now?
It’s kind of tough because we all live in different states. When we were on DreamWorks, we made a record called Ornament And Grime that never saw the light of day because the label folded the night after we finished it. Even then, we were kind of living all over the place. I’ve always [viewed Self] kind of like Pavement, where Pavement would make a record, then go back to where they like to live, then get back together and tour. I use that as my guide: “Hey, if Pavement can do it, then we can do it.” So once the [label folded], everyone kind of moved on, band-wise, and became professionals in the industry in many forms and facets. I was always writing, though. They’ve been the ones who have been gung-ho about doing these one-off shows. They’re really fun, and it’s amazing people have come out to them. We’ve packed every single show we’ve done over the past year.

As far as the “dark years” go, we lost our [record] deal, and we had been plugging away at it for a long time, so I just released a lot of B-sides records. You have to move on to do something. Self never broke up, but we got burned out.

There’s been a huge wave of ’90s nostalgia in the past few years, but I feel like that’s a little anachronistic when it comes to Self. I never viewed Self as a ’90s band or a 2000s band—your sound was always more futuristic than what was going on at the time. I don’t think people are going to your shows now for the same reason they’re going to see Everclear or Third Eye Blind. What’s the vibe you get from your fans nowadays? Has the music been embraced by a younger generation or do you see your fans aging with you?
It’s a little of both. It’s really interesting to see younger kids, especially online and on social media, discover us. They’re like, “Oh my God, I just found you, and there’s this plethora of music!” It’s nice to stand onstage and play songs I wrote 20 years ago and look out over the crowd, and it feels fresh, not like I’m rehashing something. Our music still fits with cool stuff. Regardless of success, it really makes me feel proud to know that the material has aged well.

We played the El Rey [in Los Angeles] the other night, and there was this dad and his daughter who drove from God knows where, and she was holding this mountain of T-shirts and vinyl, and I went up to shake her hand and she was just flabbergasted that I was standing in front of her. She couldn’t have been more than 15.  Maybe her dad pushes it on her like crack. [Laughs.]

Well, that’s the reason why you have kids, right? Since Self predated where the internet ended up going in the 2000s, your band are essentially un-Googleable. Even if you google “self music,” you end up with a bunch of rappers. It’s a challenge for people to uncover your music, but what’s amazing to me is that it’s all on streaming services, too. Do you control your catalog?
I control my independent releases such as Gizmodgery and The Half-Baked Serenade; I don’t know who controls the other stuff. They just seem to put it up. My friend Jordan Zadorozny from Blinker The Star, I saw his band’s DreamWorks album August Everywhere was on Spotify, and I hit him up, like, “Hey, how’d you do that?” and he was like, “I didn’t; they just randomly put it up.” A couple of weeks later, Breakfast With Girls showed up. I think it’s just someone’s job to be like, “Well, we got this music sitting around, so we might as well make 0.00003 cents.”

DreamWorks seemed to have a lot more interest in music, not money, when you were there. They had a really cool stable of bands. What were your memories of going through that structure, with a major label that was trying to act like an indie label?
They were human beings. Just the people that were running it—you had Lenny Waronker, who’s just an icon, and Mo Ostin’s son Michael Ostin, and to a lesser degree Mo Ostin. Then they were pulling in A&R guys like Luke Wood, who’s now at Beats headphones, who signed Elliott Smith. You had Michael Simpson from the Dust Brothers moonlighting around there. They were cool people trying to do cool things, and in that brief period of time when Breakfast With Girls came out, you had Creeper Lagoon’s Take Back The Universe And Give Me Yesterday, which is one of my favorite records of all time; you had the Eels. Elliott Smith, Blinker The Star, Ash—just really cool, eclectic stuff, because they weren’t pressuring us for hits. They were like, “We just want to establish that we’re the place to be.” We all ended up making really eclectic records as a result.

Were they involved with Gizmodgery or was that on your own?
Contractually, they had the option to pick it up, and they were like, “No, you can have it.” [Laughs.] I was doing Breakfast With Girls and Gizmodgery at the same time, and when I turned them in, they were like, “We won’t count this one. We’ll pass.”

Were they concerned about Glenn Danzig taking legal action? You do a surprisingly good impression of him on “Trunk Fulla Amps.”
Oh, I doubt it. I’ve never heard from him about that, but I’ve seen him punch a lot of people out on YouTube and get punched out on YouTube, too.

He has a knack for that. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the video on YouTube about Danzig moving a pallet of bricks in his front yard; that’s a good one, too. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s hilarious.
I haven’t seen that, but I used to drive by his house in LA, and there were always big blocks of concrete in his front yard.

No way! So you can corroborate this story. This is the pinnacle of my journalistic career. So let’s talk about the new EP. It’s crazy to me that you announced you were first working on Super Fake Nice literally seven years ago, via a Myspace blog. Is what Super Fake Nice is now the same as it was going to be in 2007?
It was going to be a full-length initially, but life has been intervening a lot. I just like the title; I was sitting in a movie theater waiting for a movie to start, and there were two guys in front of me with their sodas and popcorn, and one guy was like, “Oh yeah, Melinda, she’s being all super-fake nice to me,” and I thought that was hilarious. I had never heard that before. The title stuck with me. Back then, it would’ve contained different songs.

Looking at the new EP, how far back do any of the songs date?
The oldest one would be “Runaway.” I had the groove for a couple years. That song contains a sample of Parliament’s “Do That Stuff”; it’s probably one of my favorite samples of all time. I’ve probably written five different songs over it since I sampled it in, like, 1990. This is the first time it was like, “This makes sense.” I’ve had the groove for four years, maybe?

Self recently made their late-night TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, but I believe you had an in. There’s a ringer in your band, is there not?
Yeah, my bass player works there, so that definitely helped seal the deal! Hopefully the music had something to do with it, too. But I find it amazing that as adults, we’re accomplishing more this time around without a record label than we ever did with a million dollars promoting it. The label never got us on TV, and they would throw money at anything. I think that’s pretty cool.

Was it nerve-wracking to go on live TV? Do you still get butterflies?
I do when we do these one-off shows, because you’re cramming for the test and then you have to show up and make it work that one time, and then fly home, and that’s kind of a pain in the ass. Doing Kimmel was an absolute blast; doing an hour-and-a-half at full tilt, I always get nervous.

Do you see yourself ever getting back to a more hardcore touring schedule or is that not in the cards these days?
It depends on the public’s demand for it. If we can do some extended weekend-warrior-type situations, everyone is down to do it and everyone can afford to do it, but the one-off things are pretty expensive to do. Right now, I’m just experimenting with things. Next month, I’m doing a residency as Self in Las Vegas—just some weirdo, Jon Brion-type shit.

One reason the average AP reader might recognize your name is not because of Self, but because of your production work—you’ve made records with Hellogoodbye, Forever The Sickest Kids, Anarbor, the Sounds and more. What are some things you’ve seen in that side of music that you think is interesting or inspired?
I learned a lot by working with Forrest [Kline, Hellogoodbye frontman]. He’s younger than I am, and it was really interesting because he kind of did the same thing as me. He made all these beats in his bedroom and wrote all of these songs out of thin air, and got all this attention. We’d go into the studio together, and we butted heads. He wanted to work with me—at that point, he could’ve worked with a lot of big people, and he chose me, and we would get to these moments where I would say, “What is it about what I do that you actually like?” [Laughs.] “Why are we doing this to each other?” He knew what he was doing, and he had to get around me to do it, unfortunately. He had a lot of success and toured the world, and when we made the next record he had his ideas, and we jammed and had a lot of fun. You can hear that in the music. [Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!] was very rigid; you can hear us getting along a lot better on [Would It Kill You?]. I love listening to it as a result. It reminds me of how much I respect Forrest. To me, he’s the poster child of independent music. He’s a smart businessman and a smart musician, and he’s doing everything right, in my opinion.

Then you meet a lot of bands who are like… I always equate it to skateboarding. The drummer’s trying to do a 720 before he learns how to grind. Some bands rely on a computer to make it music, so there’s tons of lacquering involved. That’s the producer’s responsibility. It’s a different type of vibe. Also, the way bands were discovered—bands were getting signed off one song off a Myspace page. I worked with a lot of bands that did that—they wrote one song, got a record deal and barely knew how to plug their shit in. It’s not their fault; they probably know how to plug it in now. But when they were in the limelight, they were like, “We have no idea what we’re doing.” Everything has escalated, and I think musicianship took a backseat in a lot of instances.

Earlier this year, your first album, Subliminal Plastic Motives, was reissued on vinyl through Fat Possum, which was exciting for people like me who still buy everything on the most inconvenient form possible. What else is coming? Will more Self albums get the vinyl treatment? What about deluxe editions of old albums, or even new material?
That’s a good question. I think the Subliminal sales are good; the Fat Possum guys are super-cool. I’m up for whatever. I’ve got a full-length I’m going to start working on now; we’ll see what the future holds for future releases. I’d like to put all the B-sides records up in some form or fashion, and maybe those will get the vinyl treatment, too.

Are there going to be more Self shows beyond your Vegas stint?
We don’t have anything planned. We wanted to see how LA would be, and it was a rousing success. It was the liveliest LA crowd we’ve ever had, and that’s super-positive. It all depends on where we can get booked and who’s gonna come out, so it’s up to the fans. alt

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interview hellogoodbye self matt mahaffey

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