Primary songwriter and rhythm guitarist Matt Ragland opens up about the band’s forthcoming self-titled album Nelo, due out February 4, 2014
Q: What was your mindset when you were writing these songs? When were they written?
Matt Ragland: If I had to claim a mindset I would say that I’m just open…that is, in an open state of mind where I’m really listening to myself emotionally. I’m not holding back or suppressing thoughts. I’m just letting any thought or feeling come out. I guess it’s sort of meditative.
Songwriting is not something that I’ve ever been able to force. I know I love it. I know it feels good when it happens. But I don’t know how to take myself there. For me the trick is to pounce on that inspiration when it strikes.
There always seems to be a single moment of inspiration when the song “shows itself” to me. It’s hard to describe. It hits me at once, and suddenly I’m aware of what I want to say, how I want to say it, and what I want it to feel like. The rest is just filling in the gaps and figuring out how to bring the vision down to earth, how to put it in word form, how to actually make sounds that represent the feeling.
Q: The bio says “the lyrics are packed with content and meaning.” What are the songs about?
Matt Ragland: When I first started writing songs I think I was almost always driven by this desire to pay homage to the dream girl that I hoped to one-day meet. Sounds cheesy, but it made for a lot of material. I somehow knew myself better because I knew clearly what I wanted and valued in another person. The new album is about new love, loss, frustration, my closest friends, my race against time, and more…there’s no single theme. It’s just what’s been on my mind the last couple of years. One nice thing about these songs was that they all kind of fell out of me. I didn’t really labor over them. It felt like they were kind of begging to be written.
When it comes to writing songs, a lot of times I usually just sit down and go. A whole array of emotions makes its way into songs. The songs help me to make sense of the things I feel, the things that words alone can’t quite do justice to…and usually there are at least two levels of meaning in the songs that I write. The surface level almost always deals with something that is actually happening in my life (i.e. specific places, people etc). Below that level is the real emotion in the song. This is the level that deals with my reactions to those specific places and people…my own unique experience…on this level I react to everything going on around me, and the union of that world and the surface world is what brings about the catharsis for me. It brings the two worlds into one cohesive whole.
For example—‘Old Friends’ on the surface is specifically about an old friend of mine who actually has struggled with a number of issues for as long as I have known him. He’s a talented, loving guy with a lot of stuff that weighs him down. One night recently we had a long conversation about the same frustrations that he has had since we were kids. The same darkness, but we talked about it in a positive, supportive way. It occurred to me that all these years he had been reaching out to me. And it reminded me of how guarded I can be at times and how I need to reach out to my oldest friends too. How in many ways, his story is also my story. And that no one knows you like your oldest friends. They know where you come from. They know how you got to where you are now. How you became the person you are. They have a perspective on you that no one else can ever have, just like you have on them. Helping my friend with his pain is also him helping me with mine. And it’s been that way with all of my old friends since we were kids. There’s nothing like the quiet bond that you have with an old friend. ‘Old Friends’ feels like home to me. It’s a tribute to my oldest and best friends.”
Q: If the band had a motto or a mission statement, what would it be?
Matt Ragland: “Nelo,” take the pain, and loss, and darkness that you experience in life and use it to create something distinctly positive. Let it be fuel for you to create.
As for the band’s mission statement, make no compromises in the creative process and always be honest.
Q: How does the live performance differ from the studio album?
Matt Ragland: Prior to the new album we were always so frustrated that what we were doing live was not translating in the studio. There has always been a raw energy at the shows that we just couldn’t figure out how to capture on record. I don’t think crowds realize how important they can be to a band’s performance sometimes. When you’re in the studio, you miss what the crowd gives back to you during live shows and you tend to get into your head a bit (something I tend to do anyways). I’m not talking about just cheering or whatever. You can feel the movement of a crowd responding to moments in songs. You see it on their faces and in their body movements. And of course you hear when they cheer. But the point is that they are a huge part of that live energy that makes its way into the live performances.
When producing this album I was adamant that we try out every single idea we had. This meant a lot of overdubbing and days and nights in the studio experimenting. But in the end, most of the overdubbing was scrapped in favor of the original guitars, drums and vocals from the initial sessions that took place over the first four days of recording. Sure enough, the record sounds pretty live because in many respects it is! The foundational tracks were all cut together, and we performed exactly as if we were onstage. We didn’t have a crowd with us, but because we did everything at the same time, we were able to feed off of each other. So for this album, I think we finally brought the live world and the studio world together a bit. I think the new record really benefits from that.
Q: Where was this new album recorded? Tell us about what you learned producing and/or mixing the album.
Matt Ragland: We recorded at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studios located just outside of Austin. We did a lot of mixing at numerous studios, but I wasn’t quite getting what I was looking for. I have no theoretical knowledge of music and had no mixing experience whatsoever. The record had become so personal to me and the band. In the end, after running out of money and being without a finished product, I decided to learn about mixing and to co-mix the album myself. Matt Meli, engineer at Yellow Dog Studios in Austin, got the final mixes going and taught me a lot. He put up with my obsessive nature to some extent too. We paid a good amount of money to work in multiple studios with multiple engineers, but in the end, Meli and I printed final mixes at my house. And I’m so glad that we did it this way because the record sounds like what it is: a labor of love. I went half-crazy working on it, but it was worth it. No compromises were made. It’s honest. And it vibes.
Throughout this process I learned once and for all that “vibe” is the most important element to any recording. It’s easy to get bogged down in the studio and obsess over fidelity and equipment and technical things. But when it’s all said and done all that matters is whether or not the recording vibes. Does it take you somewhere? Does it conjure up images in your head? Does it feel like your band? These are the questions you have to ask yourself. Not questions like “was this guitar line executed perfectly?” or “is there a little scratchiness in this vocal?” etc. Much of the beauty and vibe in so many records lie in the imperfections. It’s easy to know that about other people’s music, but when it comes time to make your own, that can be difficult to remember sometimes. With this project I finally was able to let go and put these ideas into practice. And I think it contributed to the live vibe of the album.
Q: Tell us about the track “Hometown.” What is special about this one?
Matt Ragland: I’ve always been aware of this kind of “in touch” emotional world inside of me. It’s the world where songs are made. And it’s the world where I actually enjoy my own thoughts. I’m sure most people can relate to this in some way. When I’m in that state of mind where I feel very in touch with that world, I’m usually either making music or listening to music. “Hometown” on the surface is actually about my hometown (Dallas, TX) and the feelings I get when I walk by buildings, places, and people from my childhood. But my “hometown” is also that world, that state of mind that I was just describing. The world where I can live in the moment and seemingly feel so much and think so clearly. Where I feel so in touch with myself and the things going on around me. And the two meanings are connected in that walking through my hometown (usually with a pair of earphones) often puts me into that emotional “hometown.” I really live for those moments.
Q: What does the band do together for fun?
Matt Ragland: We really are all such great friends. We have each other’s backs. And we laugh…A LOT. There are a lot of different personalities in the band, but somehow we share a sense of humor. When you spend nearly every single minute with the same group of guys for extended periods of time, it’s amazing how quickly you all learn how to make each other laugh.
We like to travel, drink beer and wine (not the driver!), and debate politics and religion. Ha! Not very rock ‘n roll, but that’s what we do. We had a band intern once that thought he was going to go on the road with a bunch of rock ‘n roll guys (whatever that means), and he was shocked to see that rather than talking about girls and booze etc, we were debating the efficacy of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of individualism or applauding Herman Hesse’s “Treatise on the Steppenwolf.” Does this make us sound like a bunch of nerds? Maybe we are [laughs].
Of course we like to let loose after shows, but most of the time we’re travelling. Aside from our schedule, not much changes when we’re off the road. I hear about bands that stay the hell away from each other when not on the road. We are the opposite. We might give it a couple of days, but then we just pick up where we left off.
Q: Do you (or anyone in the band) have any specific hobbies, collections or idiosyncrasies?
Matt Ragland: I train in Krav Maga. It’s cheaper than therapy. I also read a lot. I like Ernest Hemingway, Herman Hesse, Sam Harris to name a few. I recently read a well-known Bret Easton Ellis book called Less Than Zero. I thought it was great…reminded me of Hemingway actually.
[Singer] Reid [Umstattd] is a bit of a movie buff. He knows all the movie-related current events. Whenever I need a movie recommendation, I always call Reid.
Matthew Muehling is a master of Halo. I’ve never witnessed this, but I believe him.
For MSO press releases, bio and assets for NELO: