From the gingerly plucked acoustic guitar chords in the intro of “St. Cloud” on Side A to the slinky slide guitar, Tom Waits-style snarl, and snare rolls of the gritty “Skin & Bone” on Side B, Matt Keating and his band cover an impressive amount of musical ground on their double album Quixotic. Released this summer on the indie Kealon Records, the 22-song collection bounces from red-blooded guitar-pop and atmospheric Americana to an edgy and sly reworking of traditional acoustic folk.
The New York-based bandleader — a dedicated artist at ease with his underground status — still finds it difficult to define himself as a songwriter and performer. Growing up in and around Boston, southwestern Pennsylvania, and New York, he was as much into Willie Nelson and the British Invasion as he was into The Clash and Lou Reed.
“Coming up in the ’70s, people in south Pennsylvania were listening to Rush and Yes,” Keating chuckles. “There were some people who were more open to classic country and bluegrass to some extent. I was a little embarrassed to admit that I was listening to The Clash and Willie Nelson on my headphones when I was younger. I used to get beat up for it! Sometimes, stuff like that ends up being the coolest down the road.”
Mature and steady, Quixotic showcases Keating’s ever-increasing confidence as a songwriter and vocalist capable of touching on many moods and emotions — from the morose and disturbing aspects of life experiences to the lighter side of things.
“I feel like I’m equal parts roots-rocker, power-popper, kind of goth-folk guy,” he says. “It’s weird, I try not to be judgmental of music styles, I try to stay open to all of it. I remember playing a soundcheck recently where the soundgirl came up and said, ‘Oh, you guys are like a goth-country band.’ I’d never thought of it that way, I feel that Nick Cave is sort of goth-country in a way, so that’s fine with me.”
Produced by studio vet Adam Lasus (Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah), Quixotic rocks, rolls, mopes, and swings with a superb mix of styles. It’s an enjoyable journey that winds comfortably from song to song — a welcoming and warm trip full of Tennessee twang and Manhattan swagger. Keating likes to peg it as “a cross between the Velvet Underground and the Carter Family.” As a double album (two compact discs that would comprise four sides of 12-inch vinyl), Quixotic may be the veteran songsmith’s most ambitious effort yet.
“I write a lot, so a lot of times I over-record and then pick the best stuff,” Keating says. “This time, I just kinda like it all [laughs]. Plus, the artists I was really into growing up always had at least one double album, so I decided to make one. I think the first album I actually bought as a kid was The Beatles’ white album and it was one of my favorites. As with something like The Clash’s London Calling or Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, there’s something about that kind of scope where you’re able to go deep. I try to cover a lot of bases with a lot of stylistic moving around, between slower, moodier songs and more upbeat pop songs.
“When I sit down to write songs, I’m really not thinking of what style they’re going to be,” Keating adds. “For me, the lyric and melody always drives things. The melody has to have a certain wholeness to it and feel like it came from a real place. The lyrics have to come from a deep place as well where I’m saying something real. If it passes both of those tests, then I don’t even know what I’m doing when I go from there. I tend toward melancholy music myself. Music for me was always a place to go when I was feeling down. It was my therapy. But I think with this one, things are unusually upbeat.”
This new set of tunes arrives after Keating released a pair of intimate, mostly-acoustic albums recorded with producer Gary Maurer — 2002’s Tiltawhirl and 2006’s Summer Tonight. The new one features collaborations with Mercer, drummer Jordan Richardson (Oliver Future), and veteran guitarist Duane Jarvis (Lucinda Williams, Frank Black, John Prine, Victoria Williams, Dwight Yoakam, and many others). Additional guests provided extra pedal steel, cello, organ, and backing vocals.
Through much of the album, they sound like a combo of skilled, old-school jazz cats playing country-styled renditions of Beatles and Byrds songs.
“Duane played guitar on 98 percent of the album,” says Keating. “He added a lot of that vintage country twang, and there’s that Bakersfield kind of vibe on some tunes — similar to Dwight Yoakam.”
During Keating’s two-week jaunt through the South this month, he’ll be joined on stage by a different set of skilled players. The road band features guitarist Chris Masterson (of Son Volt, Bare Jr., Wayne Hancock), bassist Jason Mercer (Ron Sexsmith, Ani DiFranco) and drummer Mark Brotter (Hem). The bespectacled Masterson plans to play an opening solo set of tunes from his latest solo album, The Late Great Chris Masterson.
“Band-wise, we were going more for a Memphis soul or Muscle Shoals approach to playing country music,” says Keating. “Mixed with a bit of that ’70s British pub-rock, like Graham Parker & The Rumour.
“On stage, I feel that when I’m singing, I’m singing naturally from a good place,” he adds. “When I go for the notes in a low register, people say I can resemble Johnny Cash a bit. When I go really high, people compare me to Neil Young. Maybe those are registers certain singers are associated with. The Lou Reed comparison is pretty common, too, and I get that. Maybe it’s because it’s very lyric-driven and rhythmic. I’m not the best singer on earth or anything [laughs]. I know I have a limited ability, but I try to pick melodies that are memorable.”