Matt Mahaffey made the best of his time at Middle Tennessee State University, but little of what he absorbed had to do with formal studies. “Everything I’m utilizing now I didn’t learn in a classroom,” says the 22-year-old Kingsport native, whose one-man band, Self, is quickly earning a national reputation with its debut album, Subliminal Plastic Motives.
Rather than immersing himself in textbooks, literary classics or test tubes, Mahaffey exploited his first years of self-reliant freedom by indulging his primary interests. Unlike most of his peers, this didn’t mean beer, women or sports. It meant musicnot so much listening to it as creating it. “All I wanted to do was write songs and make music,” he says.
He transformed his dorm room into a miniature recording studio. A four-track machine consumed the space on his desk, and bookshelves held tapes and other creative necessities. Few classes caught his interest. He paid attention to copyright law and an audio media course, but he ignored basic studies, such as the sciences and English; his grades were so low that MTSU suspended him.
Mahaffey saw the boot as a boost, even if his parents didn’t. He quickly established himself in the young, active Murfreesboro music community as a producer of hip-hop records. He also gained a reputation as a good drummera true rock ’n’ roll rarity. This talent got him into several bands, some of which operated simultaneously. One night he might be playing reggae with Reality Salad, the next night banging out hard rock with Solid, then on another evening he might be pushing time with the eccentric pop outfit Ella Minopy. All along, he kept creating his own wide-ranging musical collages in his home studio. “I never really thought about making a record of my own,” he says. “I just had these ideas I wanted to work on. I thought I could play them for friends when they came over.”
Among those who stopped by for a listen was Richard Williams, another MTSU student with ambitious plans for starting his own production house and record company. Williams asked Mahaffey if he could present his homemade tapes to major record companies. Mahaffey shrugged and thought, “Sure, why not?” He didn’t expect too much to come of it.
Before long, however, Williams started getting a reaction. Interest in Mahaffey peaked when he performed in a high-profile show as part of the Nashville Entertainment Association’s annual Extravaganza last February. “I remember reading in the paper the next day that all these labels rushed to see us,” Mahaffey recalls. “I thought, ‘What? What the hell is going on?’ I was flabbergasted.”
Several labels set up meetings with Williams and Mahaffey. By March, Mahaffey had signed with Zoo Records, and Williams had set up a production and distribution agreement with the same label for his own independent company, Spongebath Records. (Self’s debut is the first to come out as part of the Zoo/Spongebath partnership.) When Mahaffey mentions this series of events, he stops, unsure whether his NEA appearance occurred last year or the previous one. In truth, it has only been about nine months. “God, it seems like forever ago,” he laughs, then adds sarcastically, “back when I was young.”
When he signed with Zoo, Mahaffey only had five songs worth putting on an album, he says. The company gave him two months to fill out the rest. He furiously devoted himself to his home studioa dream task. “I wanted to make the coolest record I could make,” he says.
Thin and wiry, Mahaffey seems somewhat shy and awkward but not at all self-conscious. He comes across as a person capable of tapping into his own creativity and energy without second-guessing himself, and he fully splurges an innate inventiveness that allows contradictory ideas to flourish. He works hard to make these conflicts come together, and they do: The 12 songs on Subliminal Plastic Motives are an engaging, thoroughly modern musical stew. Mahaffey’s music combines angular hip-hop percussion, crunching hard-rock guitar, catchy pop melodies and layered harmonies, all of which work in tandem with a brashness that at times recalls such divergent influences as the Beastie Boys, Pavement and Prince.
“I’m really a fan of heavy music, but I’m also a fan of Prince and total melody, and I’m a fan of sampling and groove music,” Mahaffey says. “It was really tough trying to combine everything I really enjoyed into one project. That’s why it ends up being really diverse, even almost schizophrenic at times. A lot of it was stuff I couldn’t think of not putting on a record. I’m a big fan of music in general, and this being my first record, I wanted it all on there. In pop music, it’s so easy to get stuck in a rut. People are so quick to classify you as something. I wanted to keep it diverse. I didn’t want to write the same song over and over again.”
Mahaffey began with self-penned songs and packed them with synthesized musical samples and mechanical drumbeats. “I got really caught up in the studio aspect of it when I was making demos,” he says. “But once I got to where I was doing a record, I started thinking about touring and playing my music live. The record is definitely geared toward a live band more than it would have been. It would have been tons of sequences and really tight stuff. But I chose to try to blend synthetic and acoustic music as best I could. Still, it’s a chore to pull it off live. I’ve got samples flying everywhere. Everywhere we play, the sound guy is like, ‘What’s this eight-keyboard output stuff? You only have five guys onstage!’ So far it’s working. We’ve got it so we can play a bathroom or a concert stage. Nothing is sequenced live; we trigger all the samples live. It’s definitely a challenge, but we wanted to have freedom. We didn’t want to lock into a drum loop and have to play the songs the same way night after night.”
As advanced as he is in the studio, Mahaffey admits he’s still learning about writing lyrics and performing onstage. The lyrics on his debut are a pastiche of cheeky, repeatable phrases that rarely come together into any clear story line or message. Many mention pop-culture figures or problems that arise from heavy-duty record-company negotiations. Madonna winds up drunk in Mahaffey’s bed in “Sophomore Jinx,” which also finds him fretting about being a commodity and keeping his music fresh. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley appear in “Big Important Nothing,” a song Mahaffey wrote after watching the couple’s highly hyped interview on ABC-TV.
“When I write a song, it’s about whatever’s going on in my head,” Mahaffey acknowledges. “I wrote most of these songs after we signed a record deal, so I was really consumed with thinking about making and having a record come out. I’ve got a bunch more songs like that.” He flashes a small, self-deprecating smile. “It’s really gross. I’ve got to get some different subject matter going.”
Mahaffey is the third former MTSU student to make a quick splash on the national scene in the last couple of years, following fast on the hip-hop heels of Count Bass D and Me Phi Mi. The artistic merit of all three performers’ albums suggests that Murfreesboroa small, conservative college townis establishing itself as a distinctive musical hotbed. As Mahaffey acknowledges, making music outside of Los Angeles or New York encourages independent thinking, while being a part of a creative community of young artists provides inspiration and motivation. “We have this small, incestuous scene,” he says. “I think there are a lot of good bands here. I plan on staying here as long as I can. If my record does anything, I’ll support the local scene as much as I can. I think that’s what it’s all about.”
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