Storyteller, songwriter–William Matheny, a West Virginia native and longtime keys player for Athens, Ohio, Southeast Engine, has broken out on his own with Strange Constellations, his debut 11-song solo collection of songwriter’s songwriter compositions. Released via Misra in February, Matheny’s songs don’t rest solely on the laurels of his everyman storytelling ability; Jackson Browne pop hooks alternate with alt-country tunes that might call to mind Drive-By Truckers, or even a twangier Craig Finn or Ted Leo.
We caught up with Matheny recently to discuss his development as a musician, Strange Constellations, and lofty goals. This is what he told us.
You are from Morgantown, West Virginia originally, right? What has being from Morgantown contributed to your development as a musician? Why not move on to someplace like Nashville?
I’m from Mannington, WV, originally. It’s a really small town about an hour south of Morgantown. I’ve lived in Morgantown since I was 18, so at this point, saying I’m from Morgantown is probably equally accurate.
As far as my development as a musician is concerned, moving to Morgantown was important simply because it was a college town with a music scene, some proper music venues, some really good bands and at one point , even a couple record stores. It’s a story that thousands of kids in America play out each year: impressionable 18 year old from a small town moves to a college town and has their mind opened, starts drinking coffee and reading Kafka. In my case, I got exposed to a much wider range of music and more importantly, I met people who were releasing albums, booking shows and touring.
Pragmatically, living in Morgantown makes a lot of sense for me. My band lives in Huntington, WV, so I’m close to the guys and I’m geographically close to a lot of the major east coast cities. We’ll be doing about 200 shows this year, so I’m gone most of the time anyway. My rent is also really cheap, so it’s nice to not have to work three jobs when I come from tour just to get by.
Do you know Mikey Iafrate? He’s from that area.
I do know Mikey! He’s working on a new record at the moment and I played some pedal steel on it. The album sounds great. I’m looking forward to that coming out.
What are your best earliest memories of music? Wasn’t your grandfather a country singer?
My father is a bluegrass musician, so he was always playing guitar or banjo around the house. When he wasn’t doing that, the stereo was usually on. My grandfather was a country singer who worked regionally with some different bands after he came home from World War II. They recorded a 78 and even ventured as far as Pittsburgh, PA, to perform on KDKA which, to a guy from rural WV in the early 1950s, must have felt like Marco Polo on the silk road. He passed away when I was less than a year old, so I never truly met him, but I think about him frequently.
When did you realize you had an affinity for it?
That’s hard to say. I remember being a little kid, younger than five, and seeing my dad playing music with some of his friends at a party or something. It looked like they were having a great time and I thought to myself that I’d like to do that too. I started taking piano lessons and then shortly after that, I started playing guitar and then promptly forgot all about playing piano until much, much later. Basically up until the time I joined Southeast Engine.
I know Adam from Rozwell Kid played bass on the EP. Who played on the full-length and are they also members of your live ensemble?
We didn’t truly have a proper band together when we started recording the album, so for the most part the record is me, Adam Meisterhans and Bud Carroll. As we got close to the end of the tracking, the actual group came together with Ian Thornton and Rod Elkins and we were able to get those guys on the record at the 11th hour. The live band is Rod, Ian and Bud and then Adam joins us when he can make it. Our friend Tom Hnatow from Horse Feathers and Vandaveer has also been playing with us as of late.
When did you begin writing Strange Constellations and what were you hoping to accomplish with the record?
I started writing the album on one of the last Southeast Engine tours in 2012. We existed in the sleeping-on-friends-couches strata, so I’d usually wait until everyone was asleep and then I’d sneak off somewhere quiet to write. At that point, I didn’t really have any concrete ideas about making a record or releasing my own music. I hadn’t written any songs in about five years just because I was so busy being a side person. Writing was initially difficult and the songs were coming slowly, but I kept doing it every night and eventually it all sort of came back to me. I don’t know how to ride a bike, so I can’t say for certain if it was like riding a bike, but I was having a good time writing again.
Who recorded Strange Constellations and what were you hoping that they’d bring to the table? Did they bring it?
Bud produced the record at his studio in Huntington, WV. Even after all the tunes were written, I still didn’t have any concrete plans about what I was going to do. Southeast Engine had pulled into the station – or whatever train metaphor you’d like to use for a band going on hiatus – and I wasn’t really doing much of anything. Adam and Bud mentioned that I should come down to Bud’s place to record some stuff just for fun and it gradually coalesced into the album. Both of those guys are just absolutely brilliant and they brought a ton to the table. They always have amazing ideas and they both really elevate anything they’re involved with.
What are your proudest accomplishments on the record?
Probably “Blood Moon Singer.” It was the last song we recorded for the album and by that point, we’d finally put a band in place and the whole track neatly tied together all the strands I’d been tracing with the writing of the record. It’s sort of like the whole album in one song.
I didn’t have anything to do with it, so I can’t actually count this is a proud accomplishment, but I love the album cover. Bryn Perrott is such a phenomenal artist and she did an amazing job.
You band is definitely a cross-genre pursuit. Have you noticed that you attract as many fans or country, jam band, Americana as you do indie rock?
I would say so, which is nice. I’d like to think that there are multiple points of entry with us. Everyone’s welcome! Except for racists, bigots, misogynyists and homophobes, of course.
Were you beyond yourself when you were asked to play Mountain Stage last year with your own band? How was that experience different than doing it with Southeast Engine and Todd Burge?
Without sounding too much like I’m thanking the academy, the guys and I all grew up attending Mountain Stage and listening to it on the radio. I think if you’re from West Virginia, it means a lot to you. Even though I’m lucky enough to count the producers and staff as good friends, it’s still a real thrill to be on the show, regardless of what act I happen to be playing with.
Is music your career? If not, would you like it to be?
I have a day job, but I’d certainly like to be doing this full time. Obviously the pie is a lot smaller these days and talking about the old school, big time level of success that people had in the ‘90s and earlier seems about as plausible as living on Neptune. If we could be a reasonably well run, sustainable small business, I’d be happy as a clam.
What are your loftiest goals for your music?
My real end game is to build a proper body of work that stands by itself. Anything else after that would be gravy.
(For a full list of Matheny’s tour dates, visit: http://williammatheny.com/tour/)