Kristian Mattson is, upon first perception, a musician quite literally bigger than life. He refers to himself as The Tallest Man On Earth, and his performance is equally full of vigour and intensity.
From one side of the stage to the other, Mattson runs, jumps and sometimes even lays down, always with his guitar in tow. His music is a blend of folk and blues, with his pondering, crooning melodies often compared to Bob Dylan.
His signature intricate finger-picking, open-tune guitar style is also a spectacle to behold, helping to clearly authenticate the musician’s talent amongst his indie folk peers including Bon Iver who he toured with in 2008.
Following his abounding performance at Gothenburg’s Way Out West, Clash caught up with the Swedish artist, who in person is a slight 1.7m, to chat about his upcoming work and recent acclaimed track releases ‘Time Of The Blue’ and ‘Rivers’.
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You managed to captivate a full audience in the rain at Way Out West. Was it nerve-racking to play to home crowds after you have been touring all over the world?
It’s scary being back in Sweden. We’re not really allowed to have confidence in ourselves. I live in the countryside in Sweden, several hours north of Stockholm [Dalarna], half of the time and in Brooklyn the other time, so I can see this. So yes, I got nervous before the show, nervous people wouldn’t come to the show, but then they did and they stood there in the rain. But recently I played Royal Albert Hall in London – it was wild – just billed to my name. That was very nerve-racking.
But you look so at ease on the stage, like it’s just you and your guitar. It’s very powerful to watch.
It gets easier to get on stage – this [Way Out West] is show 140 on this tour. After the shows now, it feels like I can’t do another one. But then you go to bed, wake up in a good state (we’re all pretty healthy in the band, we figured that out – I quit drinking and work out on tour), and then that feeling of not wanting to play again disappears and somehow I am looking forward to the nerves – the tension builds up and I get on stage and it feels great. Plus a lot of days are boring – you’re traveling. So when you get to play, that is the most fun.
When did you know you had a musical talent?
I guess when I was a kid in school. I am still not a very social person. I have a lot of friends but at parties I am not the guy in the middle of the room. Or at the music industry events after the show, I usually wait and go 15 minutes before everyone has to be kicked out. But in school, there was a thing every Friday – Fun Hour we called it – I felt the need to play something and be in front of people. I usually played the clarinet. And when we had theatre in school – I went for it. The other kids would just read and I acted it out. It’s still with me.
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Turn the energy into fear and make something beautiful out of it...
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Was this instilled in you by your parents, or your friends, when growing up?
Mostly I am just curious. It’s actually a scary thing to go out in front of that many people and do something that feels almost dumb. Like why take that challenge when that many things can go wrong? It’s that fear, similar to being back in school, I am going to do this challenge. There is no failure – failure is not an option. And if you do that, turn the energy into fear and make something beautiful out of it, you feel the victory feeling in your body. A lot of these things I do for myself just to prove I can do it. Once you feel that feeling, you want to feel it again.
You are classically trained, yet your open-tuning style is very free and charismatic. Can you talk about how you transitioned to this more liberated way of playing guitar?
I attended music high school, so I learned how to play classical and jazz guitar. But I was also the guy at school wearing a leather jacket and eye-liner. I am grateful for my teachers now, as it provided me with a good foundation. But it wasn’t creative enough for me. I started listening to Nick Drake and Skip James, and figured out you could just re-tune your guitar by running up and down the neck. If you put it to this tuning, then your left hand doesn’t have to do much, and the right hand becomes a songwriting machine.
The other secret of my guitar playing: it’s so easy on the left hand as I use the keyhole on the neck. So I am in a position where I can run around on stage like an idiot. If I have to play all over the neck, you have to stay put and my energy is different. I need to move a lot when I play; if I sit down for too long I play too fast. I need to try and put some reins on it. I’ve been doing this technique for a long time and it still works.
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You’ve made four albums, you’ve toured with Bon Iver, and now you travel around the world with sole billing to your name. Is there pressure that each tour or each album must be even better each time?
It’s up and down – people know me – it got bigger at one point. I did feel some pressure of maintaining a certain level of popularity, but now it feels that I am okay if this would disappear. I just want to make the music I want to make. I don’t have a record deal at the moment and that feels kind of fun. I made three records with the label Dead Oceans – that was great but I want to be creative all the time, and having to wait six months until the record is released is not ideal for me. I know that’s what they have to do in terms of building tactics around the release – but it’s a break on creativity for sure.
Would you produce and release your own albums?
When I was home for a couple of weeks I started to record. I have a bunch of songs, but the ones that are finished and released are ‘Time Of The Blue’ and now ‘Rivers’ which I’m very happy with. I have a really good studio at home - it’s where I can get clarity. I have a grand piano that is just perfect for me. And that room is very woody. So there is a freedom of mixing and mastering it and then putting it out.
Singles vs albums, what do you prefer?
I like to do albums where songs are connected to each other, even though sometimes you can’t figure out how they are connected. But my music is not really played on pop radio so I don’t get too focused on these things.
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I like to do albums where songs are connected to each other...
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Would you want more of your music to cross over to radio play?
Of course, I want more people to hear my music – you just have to write really good songs – like Justin [Justin Vernon of Bon Iver] wrote, and still writes, really good songs. The most important thing for me is to make the music that I feel passionate in making.
You have explored different sounds, like the electric guitar. Is there a new sound you are currently exploring, or are you working with different instruments?
Yes, I’ve been trying a few things, different projects like instrumental music, a lot of droney, electronic stuff. I love the sound of distortion where it sounds like things are breaking apart and hiss and hum. My long for lo-fi will probably keep me from being too big...
You have already completed one score for the Swedish film 'Once a Year' [with ex-wife singer/ songwriter Amanda Bergman who also performed at Way Out West]. Would you be interested in doing more composing work, similar to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis or The National’s Bryce Dessner?
I would love to do that, if it’s the right project or director. I have recently made music for a radio documentary. And I play a lot more instruments than the guitar. I play the piano, the clarinet – I am not great at it but I can mess around with it – and I play a lot of synthesisers. I also mess around with horns but I should just stop – there are people much better with these. I messed around with the pedal steel [guitar] for a while as well but I have to limit myself – you can play clichés on everything.
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A tour can be a hard thing for creativity, you become brain dead after a while...
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You have been tight-lipped when your next album will be finished. Any updates?
I have a lot of stuff with me on tour. But a tour can be a hard thing for creativity, you become brain dead after a while. You do that show every night and you let everything out, and then you get into transmit mode to the next place and after a while I have a hard time reading. Right now I am reading Flannery O’Connor’s short stories – my brain can’t handle anything longer. I find myself re-starting a page, and tell myself, ‘C’mon Kristian, you can do this.’ But to answer the question, I am going to tour this year and end in Australia in December. I probably won’t tour much next year. I am not in a hurry. But I will say, I really feel this is going to be a good one [album]. Right now, I can’t say much more because there are so many songs. And I have other projects on the side, some re-inventions of myself – me doing other things which is really exciting.
What sort of side projects?
No reveals yet. I am researching things, and refreshing my memory with orchestra instruments and what range they are. I haven’t written down sheet music since high school. And I’ve been playing with a group of classical musicians called Y Music that started because Sufjan Stevens put all these young players together. They are immensely talented – most went to school at Juilliard, and some have played with Bon Iver, The National and other bands. I did a show with them last year in New York and we recorded a bunch of my songs but with their arrangements. Spending time with musicians who are so amazing at their instruments has me inspired. So the next step is mixing those songs – it’s been almost a year.
Your current two tracks evoke a sense of peace, like you are content with your life. So all in all, life is good?
Yes, I am in a good place. Though on tour you start to narrow down your views – this bus is leaking and when it’s raining our life stinks. But we [the band] have a great life. And for me to get to where I am means a lot. I have played a lot of small shows, I have traveled alone on weird trains in Europe. I have played my way to where I am. So I feel very lucky to have this life where I can be creative in many ways.
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