Once again on the brink of a full-on festival season, Matthew Frederick is a busy man. He has what is often referred to as a 'portfolio career'. Not only is he a solo artist and co-founder of Climbing Trees, he is also the owner of record label Staylittle, a session musician and a TV presenter. Thankfully for us, he put the brakes on long enough to tell us more about his eclectic career.
So let’s count this off, you’re the founder of the record label Staylittle Music, member of Climbing Trees, a solo musician and a TV presenter. That must be a pretty satisfying array of work to occupy your time?
Indeed it is - and I sometimes feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, particularly when I’m attempting to keep four different inboxes in check! - but I really enjoy having eggs in a few different baskets, and it certainly keeps me on my toes. Out of the four, the only one I actually planned on being was a solo musician. The other three have happened almost by chance – or by accident, if you will – and it’s simultaneously a lot of hard work and a lot of fun!
It looks like you’ve got a busy festival season coming up with Climbing Trees, are there any you’re looking forward to in-particular?
I’m looking forward to all of them for different reasons. Most we’ve played at least once in the last few years, and we only play a festival more than once if we really enjoyed it the first time round! There are a few in there that are brand new to us, which is always exciting, as it gives us the chance to play in new places, new crowds and a potential bunch of new fans. A lot of bands tend to jet in, play a festival and then shoot off again, but we really like to make the most of the festivals we play, and always try to stick around for the whole weekend and get stuck in. It’s great to have a dozen mini-holidays or so every summer, but by September each year we end up more dishevelled and unkempt than ever...
The performance and sound quality of your ‘Live At Long Row’ recordings is so high, it’s easy to mistake them for studio sessions! How long have you been performing as a solo artist?
I think a lot of people are under the impression that my solo career is an offshoot of the band, when in fact it was Climbing Trees that was originally the side-project! That became my main focus when things started really happening for the band at the start of 2014, but I still try and squeeze as many solo gigs in between Trees shows as possible, and I often double up at festivals and perform both solo and with the band. The best of both worlds!
The songs you produce have such a distinct sound. Does your approach to songwriting differ much between your solo work and Climbing Trees?
The very definition of being in a band is that the songwriting process is generally more of a collective thing, although with three lead singers in the band, usually the bare bones of a new song will be written in isolation by one member before we come together and work on it in the same room. As for the instrumental pieces across both albums, they developed fairly organically with the four of us in one room, usually playing around with a couple of riffs between practising our existing songs, so they’re arguably a more accurate representation of the band than any of the individual songs are. In terms of writing for my solo work, I constantly have snippets of ideas floating around, and can instantly hear the final arrangements in my head, even if I’ve only got a verse or chorus – it’s just a matter of finally getting around to putting pen to paper and turning these embryos into full-formed songs!
How was your recent string of solo shows? Do you find they hold a different level of intimacy with your audience?
I usually play slightly smaller venues solo than I do with the band, and they tend to have that intimacy that’s sometimes lacking with larger venues and festivals, although I think we do a pretty good job as a band of engaging with the audience whilst on stage as well as having a good chat with them after the show. The solo shows are perhaps a little less structured, and consciously so. I’ll scribble down a rough setlist a few minutes before I go on stage, but that’s subject to change once I gage the vibe of the audience, and I thrive off that interaction. I don’t really get nervous before a show, but I’m sometimes a little more apprehensive about the smaller shows – everyone’s a lot closer, you can see the faces and reactions of everyone in the room, and you’ll find out pretty quickly if they’re enjoying your set or not. I tend to break up my admittedly miserable songs with some light-hearted chat in between, a juxtaposition that seems to serve me well, and I think helps to avoid that barrier between performer and audience that you sometimes see with certain artists.
Who would you say are the biggest influences over your sound? Do these change much between the band and your solo material?
As a kid I listened to a lot of The Beatles, so they were definitely an early influence, along with anything else I could find in my parents’ record collection. I also started listening to a lot of early Elton John and Billy Joel around the age of ten or eleven which, as a pianist, was a great learning curve. I went through a bit of a rock phase in my teens – Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, among others, before growing a beard in my twenties and becoming a bit of a folky. Nowadays I listen to a whole range of stuff, and hopefully the best bits are seeping into my material in some form of musical osmosis. With the Trees, you could probably knock up a Venn diagram of artists that we like between the four of us – there’ll be some shared interests alongside some obscure stuff in the outer circles that we listen to individually. I suppose these have all merged somehow to create the Climbing Trees sound, and although I’m never sure exactly how to describe it, we certainly do have a distinct sound as a band, I feel.
How has your writing style changed over the years? Can you describe the approach taken with Climbing Trees debut album ‘Hebron’ to your latest album ‘Borders’?
In terms of my solo work, I’ve actually only realised recently that my style of songwriting changes depending on whether I’m writing with the piano or with the guitar. What’s then interesting is transferring the resulting song to the other instrument and seeing how that translates. I’ve got a few songs that only work on piano and a few others that only work on guitar, but the majority work well and have a slightly different feel on both instruments, so I’ll often mix it up at shows depending on the venue and how I feel at that precise moment. With regards to the two Trees albums, I don’t think we changed the process of writing much between the first and second, I just think we got better at it. We’ve certainly honed our craft and are a much better band as a result, both in the studio and on stage.
Your album/single artwork for Climbing Trees has a very unique and creative theme. What was the inspiration behind it and who did the designs?
A good friend of ours, Gareth Pugh at Plaingraffic, has designed all of the Trees artwork to date. I think it’s helped to have someone outside of the band who can listen to the tracks with fresh ears and interpret both the music and lyrics in their own way, and let that feed into the design. We basically give Gareth free reign with our releases, he comes back to us with variations on a theme, and we tweak it from there. Each of the four singles from ‘Borders’ tie in with one another aesthetically, and I think each single begins to make more sense when set against the previous releases. It’s about giving these standalone tracks a visual identity aside from the album, and I think that’s really become apparent across the course of the album’s cycle in terms of the single releases.
What can we expect to hear from the next Climbing Trees album? Have you guys started writing anything for it?
We’ve not actively started writing a third album, but we’ve managed to gather together around half a dozen songs almost without thinking about it, which is a nice situation to be in. They could all end up on the next album, or perhaps just two or three, but it’s good that the ideas are flowing and we’re not having to force it. At the moment we’ve still got one more single to release from ‘Borders’ before the festival season and ahead of another run of shows in the Autumn, so we’ll probably start thinking about a third album sometime after that. The second album took the best part of two years and a lot of hard work, so at the moment we’re just enjoying being back out there and playing our songs again without the pressure of having to create anything new just yet. All in good time...
What’s next in the pipeline for your solo work?
I’ve always got something in the pipeline! My problem at the moment is deciding which pipe to choose, if that makes any sense! I’ve been toying with the idea of recording a classical EP at some point – that’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, actually. I’d also love to record a blues EP, but before that I’ll be recording a full studio solo album. At the moment I’ve got a batch of songs that work really well acoustically and another batch that would thrive in a live setting with a full band, so I may even split these across two releases. Only time will tell, but whichever project I decide to tackle first, it probably won’t be until the end of this year or the start of 2018. That seems a long way away at the moment, particularly with the Trees diary blocked out until the end of the year, but we’ll be there before we know it, and I’m constantly evaluating and revaluating what my next move will be, much like a world-class chess player, but without any of the necessary skills.
How do you find the music scene in Wales? Is there much of a community aspect?
The scene itself is really healthy here in Wales in terms of the number of great bands and artists we’re producing, but on the flip side there are concerns over the future of a number of smaller, independent venues that give a leg-up to those bands and artists when they’re starting out. Womanby Street in Cardiff is under threat in particular at the moment, with almost half of its venues closing down for various reasons in a matter of months. The ‘Save Womanby Street’ campaign is hoping to change that, though, and is a great example of the music community in Cardiff and South Wales as a whole pulling together for a really important cause.
What’s been your favourite gig to date?
There are loads that stand out, and, similarly, one or two that I’ve chosen to forget... The Trees had some great shows in 2016, including our album launch at the beautiful St John’s Church in Cardiff, a hometown show Staylittle Music put on to reopen Pontypridd’s Muni Arts Centre, and in particular, our set at last summer’s Green Man Festival, where a good few hundred more than we expected turned up. That one was particularly special, as it’s a festival we always dreamed of playing when we started out, and despite raining for most of the weekend, the sun broke out right at the start of our performance. I’m not saying that our music has the power to control the weather, but it’s certainly got something going for it.
What would be the dream line-up for you to be featured on? Who would you most want to play alongside?
That’s a tough one! The great thing about festivals is that you often play either straight before or straight after bands that you perhaps wouldn’t find yourselves on the bill with at your everyday concert, and it’s the best way of hearing new music, in my opinion. In terms of Climbing Trees, I think we’d fit in pretty well with bands such as Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Band of Horses and so on, whereas solo I’d love to play with Ben Folds and Regina Spektor. The Trees were fortunate enough to support Jamie Cullum at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff a couple of years ago, so that was a good one to tick off my list, as I’ve always been a big fan. We’re up for headlining Glastonbury as well, if Michael Eavis happens to be reading.