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Constant World: In Conversation with Matt Christensen – Part 1

In the first of our two-part feature, Zelienople’s Matt Christensen opens up about his new album, ‘Constant Green’.

“There’s a wrong way to predict the future/it’s called just being wrong/and not giving a fuck,” sings Matt Christensen on The Wrong Way to Predict the Future – the closing song from Christensen‘s Blue Smoking Room, one of several LPs he has released this year.

It’s one of those lines that provokes thought, shifting in meanings and context. It’s not the only time Christensen‘s songs mess with your head. He’s just that kind of songwriter – forever probing and asking the big questions.

Those familiar with these pages will know about Zelienople and the band’s lead singer/guitarist, Christensen. Earlier this year, both the band and Christensen have featured separately throughout these pages. Where Christensen’s solo work is concerned, it’s been some year of output, which we’ve previously highlighted.

Trying to get across the Chicago native’s full body of work is like trying to read the dictionary in one sitting. Both aspects, something one may get around to in their lifetime, although it’s highly doubtful.

In Christensen’s case, there’s the small matter of over 180 albums to sink the fangs into. Not an impossible task, but to keep up with the prolific pace in which Christensen releases new music, it’s an undertaking that will take many years to endure and reflect.

Which leads us to Constant Green. Christensen’s latest oeuvre and his first in 2021 that isn’t released independently via Bandcamp.

Teaming up with German-based label, Miasmah Recordings, the same label who last year brought us Zelienople’s Hold You Up and Christensen’s 2016 solo album, Honeymoons, on Constant Green Christensen reaches for simplicity, and, like most of his solo output so far in 2021, continues the kind of purple patch most artists could only dream of.

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Where Blue Smoke Room and Lost Men are aloof acknowledgements to Neil Young and Low and The Skies Push Back explores the shinier aspects of Christensen’s spacious, ambient voyages, with Constant Green Christensen combines all three.

Inspired by AM radio and a sense of space and freedom, Constant Green is yet another triumph for one of the world’s most underrated songwriters. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the songs on Constant Green carry a similar emotional intensity to the likes of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

The opening song, I Listen to Country Songs, is a songwriter revealing something akin to an open wound. Then there’s Where Does My Sound Go? A stunning ambient folk number that feels like you’re floating in the ether. That feeling doesn’t recede on the closing title track – yet another ethereal moment, ending the album in a state of bliss.

Having spent the year in email correspondence with Christensen, we decided to change things up and communicate via Zoom. The resulting conversation lasted just short of two hours, and while music was the focal point, many tangents transpired, not limited to politics, mental health and quitting smoking.

Due to the length of this conversation, we decided to run this feature in two parts.

Hello Body: An Introduction into the World of Matt Christensen

Sun 13: Talking to other artists from Chicago and it seems like the Midwest’s epicentre, consisting of people from different cultures and smaller towns throughout the region and other parts of America, too. It seems to be such a thriving artistic city…

Matt Christensen: “Yeah. I’m really like… I’ve never been good at that side of it, like networking and knowing. I’m not really a scene person, either. I think that most of the exposure we’ve ever gotten really was largely from Mike [WeisZelienople drummer].”

S13: I was going to ask you about that. You don’t really seem to be a part of a scene and more like a guy that’s just by himself making music. Is that kind of an intentional thing?

MC: “I think I’ve thought about this more in quarantine, like… I think that I’ve probably been more of a loner my entire life. I don’t really know if that’s necessarily where that comes from. I think most people are probably a little insecure, or a lot insecure, so they avoid contact that way. I’m trying to debate how deep I want to get into that answer. I can talk all day about it.

(Pause)

“I think there’s a lot to not like about people and I think that I thought I liked people. I don’t like the way… not to get too political, but especially over the last five years in this country, I’ve definitely always considered myself a liberal. But especially during Trump and the George Floyd stuff, I found myself getting further and further left to the point where I can’t identify with the way a lot of other democrats and liberals are arriving at their ideologies. So I think I’ve been avoiding people more because of that.

“To try and answer your question, musically. I don’t think I’ve had many people that have the same interests as I did. I think that meeting Mike was kind of a coincidence that we had almost exactly the same interests. That’s how Zelienople started, we’re both into… he was into African drumming at the time and I was getting more into African guitar. This was like ‘pre-drone’, so this is going back…”

S13: Late ’90s?

MC: “I think we were doing drone, of course. But I remember back then, it was kind of like the only big names, aside from like the big minimalist composers from the ’60s and ’70s, Windy & Carl and stuff like that. We were getting into that stuff, but we didn’t know many people who could tolerate that (laughs). It’s definitely a test of patience if you’re going through it. Then we started just getting… I mean, we both had the same vocabulary as far as ’80s stuff goes.

“So we had the three core people [in Zelienople], all kind of like-minded, same work ethic. But I think that I’ve never been a scenester. I don’t particularly seek out music anymore and that’s been deliberate. Like over the course, I think maybe in the last five or six years, I’ve deliberately limited my exposure to other musicians and that’s because I’ve tried to avoid… I don’t want to be influenced by other music. I know that you can’t help but be influenced by things, but I’ve been trying largely to take my influence from non-musical ideas. A lot of stuff that I do sounds somewhat like conventional songs, but I’m not approaching it that way.”

Zelienople (photo credit: Christopher Michael Hefner)

S13: What was the inspiration behind the songs on Constant Green?

MC: “So I was worried, I’ve always worked full time. But I had this job going back about 10 years ago where I had a lot of free time, I was working in social services, I work in mental health and they were going to close this programme down. So I could work from home for a fair bit of time, but I didn’t have as much to do. I don’t work for this place anymore, so I can safely say that. (laughs)

“Anyway, like I said, I’m home alone, I spent a lot of time by myself and I just started to play more and more guitars or record more and more. I got over my fear of putting stuff out there, largely to Bandcamp. If you pay attention to that stuff at all, I’ve got like 180 records on there, and so I think initially, it was kind of like everything that I did had to have some level of quality that I thought it had to be.

“But what I started to see, once I started really kind of just documenting everything that I was doing, at least in my mind, everything was kind of valid as they are the next thing. So constantly recording, I  don’t think this current record is necessarily that much different than the other stuff that I do and stuff that inspires, which is usually poverty, my upbringing and the city.

“But this particular one was deliberate, once I kind of figured out where I was going. I kind of chased the AM crossover vibe, I don’t know if you’re familiar or old enough to remember.”

S13: Sure.

MC: “I really got more into that, and I was spending a lot of time with Brian [HardingZelienople bassist] and Eric [Eliazer Zelienople keys], another guy, with the record. I think Eric was one of the first people to like, actually notice that. ‘This sounds like maybe a little bit of a lost ’70s album’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s totally what I’m trying to do’. That’s a good sign, that you know someone would pick up on it. That’s why I reduced it to all guitar. There’s keyboard, I think, on maybe one or two songs. There’s no drums. So it’s two guitar tracks, vocals and pedal steel.”

Zelienople interview: “our biggest enemy is cynicism”

S13: You release so much new music, are your lyrics and arrangements all abstract, then you pull things together and decide what works best?

MC: “I mean, I did get into writing a little bit more last summer. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Slow Planes?”

S13: No.

MC: “The video… Erik from Miasmah tried to do this record over with more like a traditional format. So he’s got like the first single [It’s Hard Not To Love Everyone], and then we did a video and Tim [Breen] just sent me the video today. So Tim is from Slow Planes. He was my only pick to do the cover art for the album and also the video.

“I know this sounds, like, really artsy fartsy, but I used to spend a lot of time structuring what I was playing or practicing riffs and I got away from that. I think for a long time, I would write lyrics up, and when we played shows as Zelienople I would do my best to remember them, but it would get all mish-mashed, so I eventually just got rid of that whole fucking thing. What I do is I think of a central point, maybe one phrase tied to that song and I improvise the lyrics, all the lyrics, around that idea.

“In my deliberate approach, if you try to describe that in musical terms, is that I tried to sing and play to the best of my ability around the idea of bop. Rough ideas of the melody and structure, the cluster of notes that I’m going to use, but then I try to move them around as much as possible, depending on how the mood strikes me. It’s what I’ve done for a long time in Zelienople, but then also for myself. It’s what keeps me interested in the same material. I know what key it’s in, I know, like, rough rhythms, but I do whatever I want to put those ideas in the moment.

“It’s like I never do anything the same way twice and I’ve gotten so into that habit when you asked me the question like, ‘Do I do things deliberately, or whatever’, I don’t remember until I’m asked and now I remember, that’s what set me off in that whole direction (laughs). The initial direction was deliberate. But now that I’ve done it for so long, I just I don’t think about it anymore.”

S13: The first song, I Listen to Country Songs. It has an abstract feel but it also has that AM vibe you were talking about. It reminds me of growing up and listening AM radio in the car. Was it the first song written for Constant Green? I know with Zelienople’s Hold You Up, when we spoke earlier this year, you said that those songs were tracklisted in the sequence in which they were written. Is it the same here?

MC: “It’s the same with Constant Green, it’s all chronological. All of my parts I did at home, then I took it over to Eric‘s house because he has nicer recording setup than I do. He also has the pedal steel which is fucking big, so I went there and then Brian and Eric would overdub, except for I Had A Vision That I Could Move Anywhere. That’s the only one that’s different.”

Matt Christensen - Constant Green

S13: With your songs, I find myself forming the imagery of Chicago, but on I Listen to Country Songs the protagonist is in Ohio. There’s kind of an intangible thing going on – like they are picking their mother up from the jail and then there’s talk of cigarettes being cheaper in Ohio. It feels like one of the strangest songs I’ve heard from you. Did you have an intention to move your listeners away from these familiar landscapes of Chicago?

MC: “Yeah… man, you’re really making me work for this (laughs). Let me get a cup of water. No, I mean, in a good way because I’m not used to having somebody pick up on so much shit.”

S13: (Laughs)

(Matt leaves the room briefly then returns)

MC: “So… I don’t like scenes. I really don’t like aesthetics. I don’t like the business, that’s perfectly sure. But really, I think you’re right, I’m writing about some stuff that I’ll get into, particularly with that song you just mentioned, like… this is really personal stuff and I usually don’t talk about meaning unless somebody else already picks up on something in there anyway. So yeah, I mean… that song is about a large part of my family. I’ve got a pretty fucked up family.

(Pause)

“I grew up without much money. I didn’t know that I was poor. In my 20s I started to be around more people who weren’t poor, talking about what they had and I’m like, ‘I guess I was poor’. But I wasn’t raised to identify as poor. But there’s a lot of mental illness in my family, drug addiction, suicide, stuff like that.

“So the stuff about, you know… I never really had to pick my mom up in jail, but I’ve had to do other things like that. Hospitals, stuff like that. And so for me, like the thing about, not necessarily playing with a narrative, because I don’t do that, either. I think what I do in real time is I sing what I’m thinking, or what the general theme of the song is going to be about, and then, yeah, I’m going to pick up certain phrases that are part of the lexicon of songwriting or catchphrases. So the idea of picking up someone from jail in the rain – yeah, it’s got the whole imagery thing. It is based on a real experience, just not jail, just not in the rain.

“And so the other is about like… my wife is from Cincinnati. So we have to travel through Indiana and Ohio to get down there. We usually go once a year, for whatever reason, and so growing up in Chicago and living here, I really feel like I’m in kind of a bubble. When I leave this bubble, I get to see a little bit more of the country. I’m not much of a traveller myself, but the isolation that some of these people in smaller towns have is really much more significant, culturally, than being in a city.

“Sometimes when people say, ‘Have you met someone like this?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve met every fucking kind of person you could possibly imagine’. You know, communists, evangelical Christians, Ethiopians, like especially the neighbourhood I grew up in, it was a super diverse neighbourhood. But wanting to get out of there and you start to see it’s much more homogenised.

“So Ohio, the line about the cigarettes, they are much cheaper than in Chicago. Chicago has, I think, one of highest cigarette taxes in the country.

“That line about never leaving. I saw this guy at this gas station, and I realised I’ve been kind of hypocritical, like, shitting on other people’s towns, but Chicago has a bad reputation, you know, in the States. Maybe in the world at this point.

“So I was just getting cigarettes in this gas station, and he’s like, he rang it up, and I think it was like, 8 dollars, where it’s, like, 16 dollars here. I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s just so cheap here’. He replies, ‘Oh, where do you live?’ ‘Chicago’, I say and he’s like, ‘How do you live there?’ And I realised that this guy probably hasn’t been anyplace else. My first impulse was to be ‘Fuck you!’ I mean (laughs), you know, it’s sort of like going over to someone’s house and saying, ‘This place is nasty!’ You know, of all the things I could say to him, like, if I did, or could even say. I was writing from his perspective, for a second. Putting myself in his shoes, trying not to judge myself for judging. I kind of let myself go there without judging myself for judging [others], if that makes sense?”

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S13: Yeah, for sure. It’s Hard Not to Love Everyone kind of has a pandemic feel to it. Like, I don’t know what it’s been like in the US, but in the UK, at times, everyone has tried to come together during this pandemic.

MC: (Shaking his head)

S13: Way off the mark on this song, aren’t I?

MC: “Yeah, I mean, America for the last five years, I mean, I don’t know… I wouldn’t blame the pandemic for it, but we’re really fucking polarised, man. I mean, even the way I’m talking about other liberals, I think is indicative of that. I think that our country has fragmented into every subgroup imaginable and we all think ourselves more evolved than the others.

“We see it in every possible way you can define people. Black against white, male against female trans against straight, it’s just that every subgroup has dug their heels in a little bit further and I think that was one of the things I was talking about earlier. It’s like, I think that I’ve lost, in a large sense, my faith in people. (laughs)

“When I really try to boil it down and be a little bit more grounded by that, I think there’s less people capable of critical thinking than I thought there were, or there’s less people willing to do it, I really do see that as our salvation.

“You know, there’s so many things that we think are opinion that could easily just be explained and we could move on. Like, the differences between races and the differences between the sexes, you know, these things, at least in my mind and what I understand about neuroscience and psychology, they’re done, they’re settled, we know that there’s no difference. And so continuing to debate them is just an indulgence in your own tradition and biases.

“That being said, I also think that people are largely the product of their context. For example, talking about intense racism, like that may happen in the South (in America), you know, like, your first thought is to think that they’re just backwards people, but how could that rationally be possible? Why would all of these people just be clustered in this one state, this one region? Maybe it’s something that’s just been going on there for a long time that creates this way of thinking in a normal person. You know, it’s almost like it’s a blank slate and this culture is imposed on that person, and that’s how they develop.

“I guess what I’m saying is, every time I’ve met someone, this is where that line comes from, or the title is, almost without fail at some point when you meet someone, I’m like, ‘this guy’s a complete cunt’. (laughs) Despicable, ugly, but you get drunk with them, or you get them alone, and usually it starts with you saying something about yourself, like saying, ‘I was abused when I was a kid’. This other person, nine times out of 10, at least in my experiences, something bad happened to them. Like, ‘I was part of the foster care system for 20 years. People put cigarette butts out on my arm.’

“So I think that we’re all basically the same, we all crave harmony. We all want to love each other, but inside every malevolent person is a wounded animal that’s acting out, and I think that, you know, in my day to day living, if someone is like that, I try my best to be nice then move away if it’s not working. But in my mind, this person is worthy of being saved. I go back and forth. I really don’t think that humans are lost causes. I think that our misbehaviours are largely the result of abuse.”

S13: I think the default position for humanity is that we want to be nice and want to be loved and want to love. But sometimes certain obstacles have been put in an individual’s path, blocking the potential of that actually happening.

MC: “You never really have to look further than yourself to see. Like, if personal relationships don’t go well, you can see, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I treated that person that way, because I was jealous, or I felt that because they were rejecting me’. So I think we launch a lot of preemptive strikes on each other as a species based on things that we imagined the other person’s thinking. You’re saying, that’s like… one thing that I say about myself and with others, when this comes up and people say things like, ‘Oh, I know they’re thinking that’, somehow it seems like you’re having a lot of arguments with this person that they’re not there for. You’re imagining what they’re thinking and none of us are really reliable at that. You can’t really tell what someone else is thinking. We’re fragile. We’re all just delicate little things. I’d like to see more of us wearing that on our sleeves, I think. Start off slow. Listen to The Smiths. I don’t know. (laughs)

“My daughter’s 14 and her and her friends know all about The Smiths, and I’m like, ‘How the fuck does this happen?’ Not many of them are into Depeche Mode.”

Matt Christensen (photo credit: Tim Breen)

S13: I was never into Depeche Mode and definitely more The Smiths. I don’t know, David Gahan’s moustache and vest, it’s a bit creepy. But of course you’ve got Morrissey’s world views…

MC: “That’s the thing about that. So my daughter was like, ‘How do you forgive him for Brexit? and I replied, ‘Because the guy is fucking nuts!’ He’s always been this guy, so when this happened, I was like, ‘Oh my God. This was the guy that said that wearing leather was the same as murder’. So I can’t take the man seriously. It didn’t really affect my appreciation for the music so much, because it’s just what he does.”

S13: He’s been a contrarian since the day, for sure. Like, he’s become more offensive as he’s got older. But yeah, you could be right. He probably is nuts.

MC: “Yeah. I’m also not sure how much he actually believes…”

S13: Who actually knows? I read his memoir. We’re still no closer to finding out about the real Stephen Patrick Morrissey.

MC: “I started reading that, too. And I was really impressed by how… I wouldn’t say he’s a great writer, but definitely, he’s every bit as fucking smart as he seems to be. Lyrically, like he’s a deep dude, and I think… what we’re talking about now might be one of the reasons I don’t write him off as far as his racist stuff goes. I think that people are never one thing, you know what I mean? People are really complex. I wouldn’t put this guy into the category of like, a dim bigot. He’s that complicated. I just can’t, you know… “

S13: He’s not polarised here in Britain anymore. People have a vehement dislike for him, with his views on Brexit and the obvious racism.

MC: “What’s the country’s sentiment on Israel these days?”

S13: Here in Liverpool, I would say it’s probably pro-Palestine. In comparison with other parts of the country, Liverpool is a left wing, progressive city, by and large. We’ve had some pro-Palestine protests in the last couple of weeks, so yeah, that would be the city’s position, I would say.

MC: “I think that in the States I’m still guessing it’s largely for Israel. For those who really care at all. I think that in Chicago, it might also be pretty pro-Israel. It’s a big city. It’s fairly segregated, and I mean… the neighbourhood we live in is all the way up north [in Chicago].

“This neighbourhood is really liberal, ultra liberal, and super diverse, so I think that most of the neighbourhood is proudly pro-Palestine, but we also have a large Jewish population, which is obviously pro-Israel. I don’t know, man, I’m anti-religion, so I’m always kind of like.. people say, ‘Oh, this isn’t a religion issue’ and I’m like ‘Bullshit, yes it is’ (laughs). It just doesn’t really seem to ever go anywhere good.”

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S13: No, it doesn’t. From a political point of view, you raised a salient point earlier regarding our inability to adopt critical thinking. So a lot of these issues that are deriving, what with social media, where there’s no such thing as people meeting in the middle. It’s like, ‘My opinion’s right and it’s the only one that matters’.

MC: “I mean, I debate about doing that. As you get older, too, not everyone has to be right about everything. I mean, everything has to be a debate, you don’t have to argue. I go back and forth between that and really challenging the stuff in the moment with people, and a lot of it for me, I don’t know if this is necessarily fair, but I wonder if a lot of our resistance to critical thinking comes from Christian/ Abrahamic dogma.

“You know, it’s socially accepted for you to derive your morals from these principles and you have as much of a say, politically and in public, as anyone else. So a lot of your beliefs and morals are determined not by critical thinking and by independent thought, but by this Bronze Age ideology. I wonder if that’s what holds us back as far as really embracing reason, you know? You are allowed to have, for lack of a better way of putting this, a completely nonsensical argument, and it has equal say to one based on reason. That to me it’s just…. I don’t know how we’re going to move forward with that.

“I realise it’s dismissive, I get that. Yeah, I’m sorry (laughs). It’s like, compared to the UK… I mean, I think within the States now, and I’m sorry, I have friends who are people of faith, this isn’t like a character assassination for those types of people. But like, I think that only 25 per cent of the people in the US right now identify as non-believers. You can’t run for high office without identifying as Christian, so I really see it as really hopeless.”

Read Part 2 here.

Constant Green is out now via Miasmah Recordings. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

9 replies on “Constant World: In Conversation with Matt Christensen – Part 1”

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