Matt Mahaffey is one of those brilliantly prolific musicians, but not exactly one who you’d know. The one piece of music of his that you absolutely do know is the Expedia dot com jingle. You might remember the Shrek soundtrack because of its Eddie Murphy rendition of “I’m a Believer,” but the first song on that album is a Self song. And if you have kids, these days you’re most likely to hear his music in the cartoons he’s working on. But between that and his work as a writer and producer, there’s been a slow drip of music as Self, his band that was once signed to a major label in the 90s.
Super Fake Nice, out July 29, is a new EP and the first officially released body of new Self music in 14 years. In an era of reunion tours, it's hard to get too excited. He says a full-length album is on the way, although Self is unlikely to be his moneymaker at any point.
There are positive signs. Mahaffey was surprised when Fat Possum called up and told him they wanted to reissue Self’s debut Subliminal Plastic Motives 20 years after it came out. And the band’s first New York show in more than a decade was, he said, probably the best show they’d ever played here. Still, life has its way of getting in the way. Though Super Fake Nice is performed and recorded by Mahaffey, Self is still technically a band, with members scattered around the country. That makes getting together for anything but limited shows difficult. Mahaffey seems content to do his thing in Nashville. To his credit, that situation has actually pushed him to work more on Self when possible. Perhaps we won’t wait 14 years for the next Self album after all.
What's it like being back in Nashville after having been in Los Angeles?
I didn't really appreciate it then but there's kind of a whole layer of stuff going on now that didn't exist 14 years ago. There always was a scene but it wasn't really getting the proper recognition. Nashville has always been known as Music City, but it was really Country Music City. I think a lot of the transplants like Black Keys and Jack White, what he's doing with Third Man, there's just a scene of people who didn't live there when I last did, and East Nashville is kind of becoming the Silver Lake of Nashville.
And you built a recording studio?
In LA I couldn't really afford to have a studio outside of my house, and in Nashville I can afford to not only buy a house but to build a studio on the property, catered to my needs. It's not a commercial place but it's just for what I do, it works just fine for that.
Has it been harder to find work as a producer based in Nashville?
In LA there's a million platinum selling writers, in Nashville you're a bigger fish in a smaller pond. If someone's doing a writing trip you're more likely to get a writing session with an artist that's visiting. If I'm writing then I make a trip to LA, and I go LA several times a year to do just that. I'm not really producing a lot of bands right now, I'm scoring two different cartoons and those are both based out of LA and I just Skype in. I write all the songs for the cartoons at my place and I score them at my place. It's really interesting because the film company's based out of Ireland, the writer is in Paris, I'm in Nashville and all the talent is in Burbank, and we just manage to get the same amount of work done. I was working on cartoons when I was living in LA and I realized that I could be driving down to Burbank and being physically in the studio, but I was Skyping in. That was kind of a bell for me that I could do this from anywhere. And once my daughter was born, it was kind of a no-brainer to go live where we want to live and where we can have space. I'm still getting work from LA, and I'm super thankful for that.
What's the workload like?
It's wall-to-wall music, Hanna-Barbera style. There's four songs per episode and there's 52 episodes. It's a massive amount of work. I'm doing that between making records or whatever else. To put in in perspective, for the last year and a half I've been writing just the songs for season 2 [of Henry Hugglemonster]. Next week I go in to score. I write the songs, the cast cuts them, I mix them, they get put to an animatic, that gets turned into animation, then once the animation is locked and the picture is locked, they send it back to me and I score it from start to finish. So each episode is 11 minutes long, they pair two of those together to make a 22-minute episode, so you have two finales in each basically half-hour episode. It's constant.
What's been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge would be not reading music and not knowing what I'm doing and making it sound like I do.
Do you collaborate with other musicians on this stuff?
It's all me. It's kind of wild because sometimes you're on a deadline and you have to have 11 minutes of score done in 24 hours and I have to have it done by the next morning. So I'll sit in the studio and just kind of do this stream of consciousness thing of just kind of watching it over and over and scoring it. The next morning I send it in and a month or two months later it airs and I see it and I don't remember any of the notes. It's pretty brutal work when it comes down to it.
This EP is the first piece of Self music in a long time. How did you get this together?
I've been doing singles here and there, simply because these rappers keep coming out and calling themselves Self. Like one a year, at the very least. So I would put a single out just to say look, we've got a release. I guess a lot of rappers don't Google to see if someone is using a name. I'm just tired of paying lawyers to send cease-and-desists out.
This EP came about because of a long time friend Matt Messer who was at EMI Publishing. We always wanted to work together and he started a label called El Camino. With "Runaway," it was really nice to hear someone say, "This is a great song. I'd like to take this to radio." That inspired me to finish all the bits and bobbles that I had and get back into it. I've been wanting to write a record but life keeps intervening. I really pushed myself to finish it on deadline. It's mainly because of him.
I have to ask about "Hey, Hipster" from the upcoming EP. Do you really hate hipsters?
I have no beef with hipsters. Some of it is just really comical, it's almost like a costume. You're kind of old enough to know better than to wear these costumes. Pabst Blue Ribbon is the drug of choice in hipster Nashville. You'll be at a bar and see someone order a PBR and they'll be like, "We don't serve PBR." And they'll order some esoteric $9 craft beer. So that kind of defeats the purpose of their whole vibe. I'm just observant of the hipster. I'm not condoning or putting them down. I just find it interesting, that's all.
I wanted to go for that John Linnell/John Flansburgh type of humor without being Mickey Mouse about it. It's a popular topic and it's a little passe but at the same time I needed something to fill out the EP. I was kind of like, I like this piece of music and I don't care what anybody thinks of it. In the back of my mind it was kind of like Peter Gabriel's The Barry Williams Show. When Montel Williams and all these day-time talking heads were having white trash beat each other up in front of the camera, [Gabriel] wrote this Barry Williams Show song and I remember being like, "What are you doing?" I just hated it. This hipster song is my Barry Williams Show but I couldn't help putting it on there.
The album I think you might be most known for is actually Gizmodgery. How do you feel about that album in hindsight?
I think it holds up for what it is. I still get compliments on that record. I always wanted to do it. One of the first interviews I ever did, they were like, "What do you want to do?" And I was like, "I want to make a toy instrument album." I'm super glad I did it. I mean "Trunk Fulla Amps" was used in the last season of "Weeds." I'd never do it again, but it was a good exercise.
I was inspired by this record that came out called At Home With the Groove Box, and Roland had just come out with this drum machine that had all these sounds in it. So they gave one to Sonic Youth and Buffalo Daughter and Beck and every sound has to emanate from this drum machine except for your vocals. That kind of sealed the deal from me, every sound has to come from a toy. You can sample it and detune it and do whatever you want to it. And it really launched me into using the Omnichord a lot, which I still use today.
It was nuts but we were also kind of going crazy because we were making this DreamWorks record Breakfast With Girls which was just insane. We were working out of two or three studios at a time and then on the weekend we would work on Gizmodgery. It was just a whirlwind of activity. Those records came out a year apart. I was really in the zone.
Todd Olmstead is always making his travel plans through Expedia dot COOOOOM! He's on Twitter — @toddjolmstead
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