Marquee Friends: A Conversation With Matt O’Keefe (Baby Chuck)

For better or worse, there is something within us that won’t give up. I suspect it’s called the spirit or soul, and whether it’s reaching for someone’s hand, the last mile of a marathon, or, in my case, the last bite of a sandwich, these are the moments when the soul in each and every one of us announces itself to the world— a mean, cruel, forgiving, and beautiful world where it seems like everyone and everything has given up, and at the same time, has defied it’s critics as we declare war with the obvious and easy. For better, that is what Matt O’Keefe does with his music. For worse, that is what I have done to this sandwich. I should have saved the second half.

I have known Matt for a time. The first time I saw him hold a guitar he was twelve. He was sitting in his room, playing “You Only Live Once” by The Strokes on a blonde Epiphone Casino that was as big as he was. I recently asked him if he remembered this, and he said, “No.” I asked again, off the record, and he replied, “Yes, yes I do,” with a smile. This entire conversation is off record.

We sat in his front yard to discuss three songs that will be released off his debut solo record, Warm Infinity. His girlfriend of ten years, Deanna, is walking around in a white lab coat with their dog, Woodrow. She has a beaker in her hand and is wearing gloves and goggles. Matt is wearing a shirt that says “Trust me I’m Irish.” He turns to me and says, “Her friends call her Ph. Deeee.” Woodrow barks in agreement.

We talk about Kendrick Lamar’s new album, The New York Yankees’ facial hair policy, and MJ Lenderman. I ask if any of these influenced his new music, and he says, “No. Well, maybe the Yankees’ facial hair policy, but no. This is the first time I wrote songs not wanting to be anyone else. The music I used to make, I always wanted it to sound like someone else—Tom Petty, Pixies, or Big Star—and with these tunes, I wanted none of that.”

Indeed, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what his new songs sound like other than it makes me want to be in a room full of people. Vegas, dockside expatriate bars, and Harlem in the 1920s. Gone are the blistering guitars and Yo Gabba Gabba Hey choruses, and in are pianos, horns, and lyrics that mention tadpole bellies. Listening, you get a sense of urgency, but not the kind you manifest when you’re handed your first drink at a party where you know no one’s name. More like when you are walking down a bike path and you turn around to go home because you realize you like someone and you must see them immediately to tell them how you feel. There is no thinking, just an urge to do.

We push into the past for a bit, and our talk slowly tapers as we realize the need to talk about the Orwells, a band that still exists, and that he left four years ago amid a swell of allegations against his former bandmates. I thought this would be a good place to start; not because I, a lazy writer, thought I have to shed light on this, but because Matt seems to genuinely want to talk about it, and I have never heard him talk about it. Woodrow has brought him a ball. He throws it into the shade. | n matsas

Matt O’Keefe: Though I think I’d been previously contemplating my future with the band—25 being this arbitrary age I’d set my sites on, to maybe reassess what I wanted to do with myself; I mean, at that point it would’ve been ten years—my decision to leave the Orwells was because of the allegations from the women who came forward that summer. That’s it. Sparing specifics, I have nothing unique to add. Of course, I can talk about it in a more personal sense, if you’d like.

Aquarium Drunkard: Please.

Matt O’Keefe: Well, I’d say I regret my hesitancy to reach that decision sooner… obviously. Brushing off the murmurs on social media and the things being whispered around Chicago as bullshit for as long as I did. Because that’s what I did. Simplest term, brushed it off as bullshit, didn’t ask questions.

AD: What do you mean?

Matt O’Keefe: : I mean, y’know, each person coming forward emboldening more to recount their story, and that adding up quickly. As these things seem to go. I’d be lying if I said that it all just blindsided me. This stuff was written all over bathroom walls. But, I was not aware of the insane scope of it. Not even close. Not that that’s any excuse. It’s just, it was then I realized I simply had no right to an opinion on the matter. Which, in fact, was one of the last things I told the band; at some point I just can’t confidently say any of this did or didn’t happen, who am I to declare that? I wasn’t there.

(There’s a lengthy pause.)

I was 23. I didn’t want my life to change in a day, or a week or whatever, y’know. This is what I did with my life. This is how I made my money, it was my job. Hence the out-right denial, and stubbornness, and ignorance. And, as cliché as it sounds, it really was like family. Which I don’t bring up to try to paint myself as any kind of victim here, or garner any sympathy. Just, it’s really easy to side with the person you love and need for your own livelihood. As we’re shown time and time again…

AD: Are you in touch with any of your former band members?

Matt O’Keefe: I tried to reconnect with one of the members a couple years ago to no avail. The other ones I never did. I haven’t spoken to any of then since I left. It’s alright. I’m okay with it. It’ll always be a part of my life—the success of the band bundled with the way I ultimately view it in the end, what I think it unfortunately represents now. I still try to reconcile those two things in some way, but can’t really. Though truthfully, I’m grateful for the movement the women taken advantage of by that entire bullshit mid-10’s garage rock scene started. That scene was pitiful—based entirely on being drunk and childlike, jumping around stage sometimes literally with your dick out. I spent 7 or so years running around the country and world where this mindset or attitude was the norm. I fucking was one! For our own good everyone needed to be checked. Shallow early-twenty-something men given a bad record deal, a Twitter following, and a sea of booze. It was a nightmare, and I was on the good side of it.

AD: What did you do when the band broke up?

Matt O’Keefe: Nothing. Ha! I said I was never going to touch a guitar again. I was done. Cooked.

AD: How long do you think you went without actually touching a guitar?

Matt O’Keefe: Four months.

AD: What were those four months like?

Matt O’Keefe: I really don’t remember. Everything sort of blended together. The first thing I can really recall was how much my hands hurt when I picked a guitar back up.

AD: Fingertips?

Matt O’Keefe: Yeah, I’d lost all my callouses.

AD: Were any of the songs you’re releasing written in this period?

Matt O’Keefe: No, the first song I wrote was about a year or so later, which is on this record, “Leavespeak”.

AD: But you’re not releasing that one yet?

Matt O’Keefe: Not yet. “Surrender Anyhow”, “Treeshadows”, and “October 500 B.C.”to start out with.

AD: What can you tell us about these tunes?

Matt O’Keefe: Well, Surrender Anyhow… Lyrically, I guess this song’s about life just humbling your dumbass. The pre-chorus thing: To live life in-between/ what I say I am and I’d like to be/ is to surrender anyhow. In the last few years, I had some shit jobs or I had no job—I wanted to make music again and was slowly trying to, on my own. That line is about struggling to commit, having each foot in a separate camp—just being unsure of what to do with yourself. The line about white pockets—Wake on your parents’ couch / Walk with white pockets out—comes from a book I was reading around then. The author wrote about someone turning their pockets out, to show they had nothing on them, nothing to hide. He called them little white flags hanging from the sides of your pants. There’s plenty of shit on this record taken from books or poems I’ve read. I find it a really fun way to craft tunes.

AD: Musically, it makes me wish I knew a new dance.

Matt O’Keefe: It was originally much slower! The demo had these MIDI horns I played on a keyboard. A bit Herb Alpert meets like, Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack, maybe? I’m glad we sped it up. It helps the album. I should note how important Ryan Pollie’s arrangement ideas were when it came to reinventing my demos. He approaches producing from the viewpoint of a songwriter, first and foremost—it was a really inspiring experience working with him. Everyone who played on the record, as a matter of fact. We were gonna fade out that long instrumental ending. But Ted Taforo wrote too good of a horn line on top, we had no choice but to let it play out. And Eliana Athayde with the strings, plus her voice just carrying mine in the chorus.

AD: So who is everyone who helped you record?

Matt O’Keefe: Ryan Pollie: puts out music under his own name, aka Los Angeles Police Department. Kosta Galanopoulos: releases his own music under the name PWNT [Play what’s not there]. Kosta mixed it, too. Kosta put a lot of work into this record of mine, and I’m forever grateful to him for it. Eliana Athayde: releases her own music under the name Jacaranda. Ted Taforo: Fucking rips up his Instagram daily with videos of him blowing horns. And releases music under his own name, I just learned.

AD: Feta rock.

Matt O’Keefe: What?

AD: Treeshadows.

Matt O’Keefe: Treeshadows is something I wrote from someone else’s perspective. Ryan Pollie had to learn the piano part because I couldn’t play it without holding down the sustain pedal the whole time, which would create just a wash of notes. God bless the man. This one reminds me a bit of the Virgin Suicides score as well, actually. I even tried to cram a distorted synth line someplace in there, but thankfully we took it out. Lyrically, too: In the tadpole summer let your insides breach and tell me what comes next, a new breed or is it just nothing? That’s kinda got two meanings.

AD: What meanings are those?

Matt O’Keefe: I’d rather not say. October 500 B.C. was also written from someone else’s perspective.

AD: Whose?

Matt O’Keefe: Someone who’d been drinking—glass gold as a trombone. A real maudlin. This is simply a song about memory. The comfort of it, as well as its inescapability. Its haunting quality.

AD: Memories often have a hard time staying out of what we do next.

Matt O’Keefe: I hadn’t written anything really, until Deanna and I got stuck at my parents’ house—the house I grew up in—at the start of the pandemic. Wasn’t planned. We went to visit, and then lockdown happened. We had no real reason to be in LA, so we just kinda extended our stay indefinitely. Ended up being two months, maybe… Funny how things happen like that.

AD: You began writing then?

Matt O’Keefe: Yeah, I started to write these songs on, I shit you not, my first electric guitar, the one that’s always stayed there. The blonde Casino. You know, a lot of the record is about specific things that had happened while growing up. Or I was really pulling inspiration from those images. Stories that you carry with yourself. I was, quite literally, trapped in my childhood home with nothing to do but, like, look at that old shoebox that has notes and shit from when you were growing up inside. Figuratively speaking… I don’t actually have that shoebox. But that feeling carried over into the writing of the whole record. In a way, it was raining and the buckets got full. I had to empty the buckets…But then, of course, it’ll rain again. I don’t know if I’ve moved past it. But it feels like I have.

AD: Moved past what?

Matt O’Keefe: I don’t know. Coming of age bullshit, or whatever. So Treeshadows.

(He pauses for a moment.)

When I was 18, going into the school year, August, I was at a friend’s college going away party… in this tall apartment complex in the town I grew up in. We were all out on the balcony and across the street, on top of this parking garage was a kid, a classmate of mine, though a couple years younger, would have been a couple grades below me… he was sort of just pacing back and forth, alone, on his phone. We didn’t think much of it. Maybe other than he was meeting someone there, y’know, or someone stood him up, or something. He eventually jumped off the parking garage. We didn’t see it, but he eventually jumped off.

AD: Wow.

Matt O’Keefe: Yeah. I think, collectively, we thought about stuff like that during the pandemic. Everyone. Things that you just carried with you and never really got over. I wrote Treeshadows from the perspective of that kid. The opening lines are O breathe in / abandon what you left behind / fears will soon fade away / hear my heart static / at borders where the stations change and the concrete comes up quick / the black tree shadows gather company. My friends and I were celebrating someone going into this next chapter in their short life and here was this kid, so close, ending his. You don’t make sense out of these things. You maybe try to by writing about them, but you don’t. What else can you do?

Deanna, who has removed her goggles and gloves, carries a pan of chicken and a bottle of barbecue sauce. Matt follows her with his eyes.

Matt O’Keefe: I fucking love barbeque chicken. When it’s really hot outside, I crave it.

AD: Is this a weekly meal?

Matt O’Keefe: No, unfortunately.

(There’s a pause.)

Matt O’Keefe: You know what’s really outrageous?

AD: What?

Matt O’Keefe: Baseball ticket prices. Dodgers’ grandstand start at like $75, for any place worth sitting. Honestly. The outfield is the only reasonable option.

AD: But the sun.

Matt O’Keefe: Night games. That’s where it’s at.

AD: You’re from Chicago. Cubs or Sox?

Matt O’Keefe: Cubs. But I follow both.

AD: The Cubs are in last, right?

Matt O’Keefe: No, no, that’s the Cincinnati Reds. Terrible.

AD: All sports interviews are the same. Reporter: “What happened out there?” Athlete: “Well, we gave it our all.”

Matt O’Keefe: This is true.

AD: Is it true that the best songs are written in 15 minutes or less?

Matt O’Keefe: Yeah, definitely. Obviously it’s something that subconsciously builds up, and you didn’t really write it in 6 minutes. You’ve been inching around it for 6 months and everything you’ve tossed aside just so happens to coalesce into something that can happen really quickly.

AD: Is there an expectation with this record?

Matt O’Keefe: No, personally, no. I didn’t set out some sort of goal. Just to finish it. Best case scenario it leads to me making another record this year. Like, if there is enough interest and I don’t feel like I’m just pissing in the wind… that’s the best case scenario. I’ve got the songs.

AD: When will the rest come out?

Matt O’Keefe: To be determined. Possibly next month. Next week. Never.

Deanna has begun to apply the barbeque sauce to the chicken. Matt licks his lips.

AD: How often do you eat barbecue chicken?

Matt O’Keefe: Not enough.

AD: Off the record?

Matt O’Keefe: A lot.

Woodrow howls.

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