Following For 45 Minutes Behind Emperor X On His Walk Home After The Deutsche Bahn Was Delayed
March 22, 2023
In the strange years of 2020 and 2021, competitive debate tournaments were hosted on Discord. This was silly in a lot of ways. At the one tournament I went to, there was a voice channel which had been set up so that debaters could request and play songs from YouTube for the rest of their competitors. It was 2021, so mostly people played WAP. One person, however, played the video “Emperor X ‘Wasted On The Senate Floor’ At The Flowershop”, an energetic folk punk performance which name-drops philosopher Henri Bergson. This was how I discovered the music of Emperor X (real name Chad Matheny), which combines perfect pop songwriting with abstract, sometimes philosophical subject matter and with occasional delves into alien soundscapes of tape hiss and warped vocals.
A little known fact about Emperor X is that he attended American University! It was here that he recorded his first album, and sometimes his lyrics say things like “Red Line to Tenleytown / climb up antenna”. Based on this fact, I was able to lure Emperor X into an interview with me. As he walked home from the Deutsche Bahn train, I spent an hour asking him questions about his music and life.
R. Matheny (CRM): I’m ready for any questions you might have.
Alma Thompson (AT): You mentioned in your email wanting to reminisce about WVAU. What was the station like back then in 98 and 99?
CRM: I don’t remember the name of the building – it must still be there – there was a big antenna on campus, or there was anyways. It was behind what used to be a football stadium. And WVAU was a very small little sub-office of that building, where you would get into the basement. There was a tunnel going from Hughes to Anderson and Letts, and if you followed that tunnel, on the right there was a building that housed the communications department. In the basement of that building, WVAU was there.
Freshman, and I think sophomore year as well, had a show on there. I don’t know if they kept archives of shows, but I probably have some recordings of it somewhere.
When I first got to the school, I thought “How am I going to meet anybody? I don’t know anybody.” They had a big meeting, and all the cool kids were going to the radio club so I went there. Everyone was just super nice. They broadcast, quote-unquote, voa coax cable to all of the rooms, so your TV would hook up to the cable system. I think it was channel two, or channel one, or something. It had a text crawl of campus news and events, like whatever was for dinner that day in the basement at TDR. Do they still call it TDR?
AT: They still call it TDR!
CRM: It would say announcements about TDR, or sports stuff that I ignored, or frat and sorority stuff that I ignored. There was also a sort of TV channel, that was even cooler. There were a bunch of people who did comedy stuff on that channel. It was a cool thing to be into, and when I say cool I mean “socially acceptable for people that weren’t into Greek life or who didn’t want to be business majors.”
We had the night shift, midnight to 3. We would bring a bunch of beers and get completely hammered and find a bunch of records in the archives that we didn’t know what they were and just listen to them. I think like, everybody was an edgelord in 1997, so we probably did some stuff that I would be embarrased of looking back at it. We had a blast. I played some music on there too. There was a hall, in the back of the parking lot back behind Anderson where the music school used to be. They had a drum practice room down there, and I brought my 4-track there and stayed there until 5 or 6 in the morning recording stuff. That whole era was very important to me. I’m not sure if it still feels kind of anarchic like that, but I hope the station still feels like a student zone, like a place where anything goes. It should be. It should be anarchic and fun.
AT: With Western Teleport, you got a lot of attention when you hid the outtakes on cassette tapes. I’m wondering… you haven’t done that since, but are there other ways that you’ve been exploring and thinking about media in the time of streaming and how to subvert and challenge that.
CRM: I never really stopped thinking about it. One of the main things that I tried with Oversleepers was to release songbooks along with the album, which was a lot of effort. I released the songbooks as a way to be a bit more positive and less subversive about it, and think about what was important for the song. A lot of what I think about with respect to recording and releasing music is what happens to it over time: a tape cassette decays; a CD, we really don’t know how long they last. They might last 20 years, they might last a century, we don’t know yet. Vinyl records stay audible, but the quality degrades pretty quickly and they’re not heat-resistant. Streaming services are kind of interesting, because it’s multiple copies of these songs everywhere.
It’s like when people memorize the Quran. A reason for Quranic recitation in Islam is that you can’t erase that book. It’s in the minds of the devotees. Streaming services sort of do that with our digital files, but of course our digital files could all be erased by an electromagnetic pulse. What lasts are songbooks. It’s got paper, it’s got notes, and it’s got words. I think that’s also really empowering to the listener because it allows them to reinterpret the song on their own. And it allows me to do whatever I want with the recording of the song – it frees me a little bit.
AT: It’s not the canonical version of the song, it’s your version of the song.
CRM: Precisely. It’s one of my versions of the song, I have a billion of them. I don’t play the song the same live in any way. To answer your question more directly, the songbook was my most recent attempt at that. I haven’t done that for my most recent record yet, but I will be doing so. It was tough to get it printed, but I should have a couple copies of the songbook with me when I’m in DC. That’s a pretty timely question. Songbooks is my thing nowadays.
AT: I know you work with the jazz club in Berlin, you run it, Donau115. Does that bleed into your artistic practice in any way?
CRM: It’s more like, my practice led into it. I had a gig there, and a friend recommended me and I started putting on some concerts at this club. They were doing jazz. Now I’m one of the three owners of it, and it’s very important to me in that… when you live a life in DIY, when you’re older you want to find a way to give back. It’s my favorite place in Berlin.
AT: I’m also curious about the livestreams you did in early January. What prompted you to do those?
CRM: Well, I will be doing them again. I can’t say exactly what form it’s going take. There were some parts of it that were exhausting. But I do want to start interacting with people that know my music because there are a lot of you. Something also happened, something in the water around 2020-2021, where people in a younger generation started to discover my music. I guess it’s not that surprising, young people like weird music, that’s not inventing the wheel, but it seems like a missed opportunity to not connect with people directly.
I’m a lifelong educator, and I taught music and songwriting and music production for a long time, and I miss it! I stopped doing it in 2021. That’s why Lakes of Zones B and C finally came out in 2022, because I had a chance to work on it again because I quit teaching. I was teaching music stuff for a long time and I miss it, and I want to find a way to do that in a way that lacks some of the bureaucratic hurdles that teaching in a university has.
There’s a big wave of that. I hesitate to broach the topic because I know everyone’s sick to death of talking about it but… I find myself pretty far on the left side of the political spectrum, and I find that a lot of the good teaching online on philosophical and technical and cultural topics tends to be done by people on the centre right or alt-right, and I think that’s a big problem. I don’t think we have guys and girls doing things like the right does right now. We have a lot of excellent content producers, Contrapoints, Philosophy Tube, doing stuff. I think there’s a place for them and always will be, but there’s a lack of intellectual rigor. I wish to fill the void, I know that’s megalomaniacle and probably something I can’t fill, and there are also probably a lot of people who already fill this to some degree, but my background in music and DIY and also academic stuff is a neat niche that some people would appreciate. That’s what I’m trying to offer, and it’s also a way to connect with people other than just singing for them.
AT: I have a friend I know who does streams very regularly in a different context, it’s sort of a way of cooling off for her. She has a somewhat large audience, so we get like 10 or 14 people each stream and it’s just a fun thing to do.
CRM: Back in the pandemic, I was doing a lot of teaching online. A lot of the people I was talking to were talking about Discord servers, and how during the pandemic that became their social group. I had some people who were really into VR worlds, and to them that was not as real as reality, but the social part was very real, and I started to take that very seriously in 2020 and I think a lot of other people did to. I’m adapting it slowly now, because I wanted to think about it very carefully. I’m also in school again for philosophy, so I tend to be very careful about making statements.
AT: My friend was wondering, what is a meaning of the song Compressor Repair?
CRM: I would like to answer your question by describing the process of how I write. I start by glossolalia, where I speak whatever sound comes to mind. Every now and then, one of those syllables will sound like a word: say, compressor. There are maybe like five of those words, and then writing the song is a process of connecting the dots. Sometimes it will be something very very narrative that actually happened. Sometimes it will be just imagistic word spew. Often, it’s something in the middle, like Compressor Repair. I’ve never actually had to fix an air conditioning that blew up in my face. I did have a leaking air conditioner, my friend fixed it. There was a person that was important to me who was complaining about how hot it was. All of these things sort of link together.
I’m thinking of the lines to that song right now; I play it a lot, so I’ve got it up here. I have historical occurances in my life. This historical occurance I hang on that word, I free associate around that historical occurance, sort of trying to create an aesthetically satisfying unity. I think it’s very important that a listener or reader be able to play with the words and assign meaning. I am not a relativist in any sense. I’m actually a pretty old-school textualist about art stuff, but I think there are poems that tell stories and then there are poems that act as objects on which the reader or listener can hang their own meaning and co-create meaning with the writer. It is a tool by which meaning can be made.
Another example: Erica Western Teleport. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “I’m so glad you wrote that song, I can’t believe that the exact same thing that happened to you that happened to me, for example”… and then they tell me this insane story that has nothing to do with what that song was related to. I think that taught me something, people will ascribe their own meanings to things. Growing up, my favorite band was and continues to be R.E.M. Listen to some R.E.M. lyrics. They don’t “make any sense,” but I have deep emotional connections to them.
AT: Reminds me of my friend’s album, where I got the meaning really drastically wrong, but that’s a good thing, because I was able to connect to it so easily that I latch onto something that it’s not.
CRM: 100%. And not every artist is aware that they’re doing this, but I think as listeners you have a right to reassign meaning.
AT: At the start of 2022, you wrote a blog post about Simulation Swarm and something you call “The New Clarity”.
CRM: No one’s ever gonna pick up on that, but it still really means something to me. There’s something there.
AT: Have you found anything else going on in that direction?
CRM: If I had a few hours to think about it, yeah. There are definitely other examples but I can’t pull them out of my hat right now. There are a couple of bands in Berlin that do it, there’s a band called Hauswife. Not all his music does this, but that’s also true of Big Thief, not all their music does this. Simulation Swarm is something truly special.
I don’t know if Lenker talks about what that song is about ever. I can’t make heads or tails of it, but it’s so clear. What are you saying, but you’re saying it so clearly. I think that’s the point. Hauswife also hits on this. I think we could see a bigger wave of this. The Lakes of Zones B and C flirted with this on a couple tracks
AT: The one about the cheerleader – the captain of the football team – falling down to her death, that one has it.
CRM: It’s as overwhelming as distortion is, but it doesn’t need distortion. The recording quality is super clean, except for that bendy weird bass solo that the guy in big thief does. I can’t name a year before 2022 when I thought “oh okay, music might be doing something new again” since 2013 when – do you know who SOPHIE is?
AT: I’m familiar with her.
CRM: It’s a niche, it’s a niche that I tend to love. That was the last time I heard something and thought “this is new, and potentially mass pleasing”. So it’s been 7 years since I felt that feeling that Simulation Swarm gave me.
Definitely genre and inventiveness has slowed over the past 20 years compared to the rapid pace that we saw between 1960 and 2000. Do you know Mark Fisher? I can tell right now that you would love Mark Fisher.
So Mark Fisher talks a lot about this, about genre inventiveness slowing over time. He has hints of post-Marxist attributes in his work. I don’t think he’s wrong, but I also think there’s a technical explanation for it where recording media stopped evolving.
AT: I have one more question: what’s your favorite bus line in DC?
CRM: They changed the bus numbers! We used to have the K7, they used to have letters and numbers. Basically, there was a bus that did what the Purple Line does. But back then, my life was entirely the Red Line. You would take the shuttle [referring here to the Wonk Bus] to Tenleytown, then you’d take the Red Line to Chinatown, then you’d get on the Green Line, move up two stations, see a show at the Black Cat, hang out at that area, and that was pretty much it. No one went outside of Northwest, there just wasn’t anything going on in a party way outside of Northwest DC.
Not true at all when I moved back there in 2003. Things had changed, and also I was briefly in a go-go band for a while. I played guitar in a band called the No Mercy Band, it was a good time. We played at a venue in Bladensberg called the Iceberg and it was everything I thought playing guitar in a gogo band would be.
The DC transportation system in particular will always hold a special place for me because it was the first city I lived in that had one that was comprehensive. And it’s where I learned as a human being – I can’t drive because of my eyes – it’s the city where I learned to live independently without having to ask for rides, because with my bike combined with the metro I could get everywhere. Jacksonville, Florida is where I grew up and it just doesn’t work there. It’s impossible. I wish I could give you a good bus line answer, but I must disappoint you for several reasons. Mainly that they use different numbers now.
On March 22, Emperor X is opening for Eyelids at the Pie Shop in Northeast DC. You can buy tickets for this performance here. Also of interest is Suggested Improvements to Transportation Infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor, a concept EP themed around the public transportation systems of the cities this tour covers. One song focuses on the Friendship Heights metro station, a locale familiar to many AU students.