Matthew Chaim on Bon Iver, Road Trips, and 'The Mathematics of Nature' [Q&A]
Photos: Dan Robinson
When asked, people would readily agree that logistics and emotions don't entirely align. Left versus right brain, we've all been told which side of the spectrum we sway toward. Yet, after the personality tests are settled and we inevitably grow through our experiences, feeler or thinker aside, it becomes clear that the palette of the human experience is certainly not black or white but iridescent in nature.
Songwriter, artist, and travel enthusiast, Matthew Chaim will tell you that his life journey follows this colorful metaphor. Losing his father at only 12 years old, Chaim was exposed to some of the darker hues of life at an extremely tender age. It was this exposure to immense pain that spurred the outpouring of his heart into music.
From his first EP, 2018â€²s HOMEMADE, to his debut album The Mathematics of Nature, Chaim's evolution as an artist and a person is wildly apparent. From the deeply personal and profound subjects present to the intricate sonorities utilized, with The Mathematics of Nature, Chaim has reached a new height in his artist career, one that exemplifies incredible courage and relentless creativity.
Together, Chaim and friend, producer, and co-writer Jason Wu, a.k.a. Rabitt, explore the multi-hued palette of the human experience. A concept album through and through, though seemingly intangible, as one allows themselves to get lost in the project, the range of sonics explored becomes an extension of feeling. By marrying the science of sound with the art of emotive expression, we can better understand what The Mathematics of Nature truly entails.
Each track tells a different part of Chaim’s story, complete with all the highs and lows and back and forth that comes along with being so distinctly human. As the album progresses, the story moves through various gains and losses: the death of his father, the loss of a love, and finally the discovery of the world around him and what is truly most important in life. The Mathematics of Nature becomes a sort of sonic photo album, highlighting beautiful moments of strife and clarity along the way.
We had a chance to catch up with the myth, the legend, Matthew Chaim on everything from the grieving his father, his solo trip across the United States, and the inspirational process of constructing The Mathematics of Nature.
OTW: Let's start at the very beginning, how did you catch the music bug?
Chaim: I started playing the drums when I was about 15, and quickly adopted the vision that I would spend my life touring the world as a drummer. That vision hasn't changed all that much. My position on stage has simply shifted a touch more downstage.
OTW: Any groundbreaking musical or philosophical influences on you?
Chaim: My influences are ever-changing. A big one for me throughout the creation of this project was and is Bon Iver. When I drove across the country to move from Montreal to LA, I was driving West for eight days and that meant witnessing eight sunsets in a row. Every evening as the sun began to set, I'd switch off whatever album or podcast or audiobook I was listening to and put on Bon Iver's 22, A Million. Not only is that record an incredible sunset soundtrack, it also showcases such free, stream-of-consciousness creativity in both the writing and production. And that is the place I also strive to write from. Or rather, not so much strive towards but let go into.
OTW: Your lead single "Sunflowers" is about the loss of your father as a child. How did experiencing this grief at suh a young age shape the person you are today?
Chaim: I was already a pretty sensitive kid before my father passed away. He died when I was only 12 years old, and I think it left me in a very confused and shocked state. Perhaps more so at such a tender age, but I believe we all find ways of storing such immense pain in faraway crevices of ourselves - both physically in our bodies and mentally/emotionally in our psyches. Writing songs has proven to be a great way for me to excavate this hidden pain within me, and reverse some of the numbing work I had to do at such a young age.
OTW: You're originally from Montreal, can you tell us about the music scene there? How does it compare to Los Angeles?
Chaim: I don't know that I ever found myself deeply embedded in the nucleus of the Montreal music scene, so I'm probably not the best ambassador to talk to it. But I will say there is an incredible culture in Montreal that has allowed some pretty incredible music to come out of the city. I definitely found my little community of creative collaborators there, and I'm super grateful for getting started in Montreal with those friends. There is a rhythm to Montreal that is completely different to Los Angeles. And the more time I spend here in LA, the more thankful I am for having some sort of tether to the slower, more grounded pace that Montreal built in me.
OTW: When moving to LA you took an epic solo road trip across the country, were there any profound moments experienced on that journey?
Chaim: That whole journey had a pretty profound effect on me. I was surprised to learn just how much I enjoyed driving long distances completely alone, and after the first few days, I settled into this wonderful rhythm that felt really empowering. There was something about getting to LA by myself and on my own terms that gave me this beautiful sense of independence and freedom. And the closer I got to my destination, the more the Earth rewarded my efforts with its beauty.
As I got into Colorado and then through Utah, the natural landscapes opened up into these incredible expressions of just how creative and grand the world can be. I also met some incredible people along the drive. I chose not to plan my overnight stays beforehand and often ended up couch-surfing with complete strangers. Some of whom I'm still in touch with. It has been nice to settle into LA for a while now, and have my own space and whatnot. But I definitely feel another road trip coming in my near future.
OTW: Any recommendations for when we plan our road trip across the U.S.?
Chaim: Check your oil and tires. Plan as little as possible. Go slow.
OTW: Tell us about meeting your primary collaborator and friend, Jason Wu a.k.a. Rabitt?
Chaim: Jason and I met in the Summer of 2018 when I was here in LA for a few weeks on a writing trip. I had actually reached the end of my trip the week prior and was planning to head back to Montreal when my good friend Aidan D'Aoust at the Songwriters' Organization of Canada (SOCAN) had contacted me with a cancellation at their LA house. He asked me if I wanted to extend my trip a week and stay at the house, and it was in that extended week that I was lucky enough to meet Jason. We were thrown into a session together, and out came "Sunflowers" on that very first day.
That was a really powerful and cathartic song to write, and I was excited to see what else Jason and I could create together. I left back to Montreal, and a few weeks later decided to drive myself across the country to LA. Jason and I started writing together on a regular basis in the fall of 2018, and both our creative collaboration and friendship steadily grew. It's been an incredibly gratifying experience to build an entire project from scratch together. His talent, creativity and willingness to take risks make writing songs with him exciting every single time.
OTW: Since your debut EP, your sound has changed a bit. Tell us about what inspired this sonic shift?
Chaim: I think it has a lot to do with what's in my ears that effect where I'm going sonically. At the time of writing my debut EP Homemade, I was obsessed with Drake and the whole Toronto, OVO thing: PARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan, etc. Then last year, I started to fall back in love with my favorite band as a kid, Coldplay. And that sent me on a whole adventure of digging into artists that I was familiar with but never went deep on, such as Bon Iver. And when I started to really listen to 22, A Million, it was over. I was in love.
OTW: Tell us about the process of putting together The Mathematics of Nature?
Chaim: A lot of The Mathematics of Nature was written in the fall of 2018, just after making the trip across the country and committing to discovering what my life could be like if I came to LA and didn't leave. Before making that trip, however, I also ended a long-term relationship with someone I loved in Montreal. So I got to LA full of the raw sensations of a breakup plus the inspiration I soaked up on that drive and out came all these songs. Once Jason and I decided to put together a project that was entirely written by us, it allowed us the freedom to do some experimental and exciting things with the songs. I think we felt that the cohesion would be there no matter what since our creative signatures would naturally touch every track. So with that in mind, we just threw ideas at these songs and saw what stuck. I'm super excited about the final creation, and yet also know that this is only the beginning.
OTW: Any collective motifs or themes? Easter eggs?
Chaim: Lots of themes are threaded through these songs for me, and the order of songs also plays some importance. A lot of it lives at this intersection of heart and mind, of left brain and right brain, of math and nature. But I also love the idea of people discovering their own meaning and relationship with the songs. In terms of easter eggs, one thing that comes to mind is in the intro song "Tender." There are these vocal samples in it that are my vocals all chopped up and pitched and tuned in different ways to create something melodic yet of little to no lyrical meaning. However, within the gibberish, you can sort of make up your own ideas of what I'm saying. I've started to hear certain lyrics in there. You might find your own.
OTW: We hate to play favorites but we can't help but mention how much we love"Departed." What was the inspiration behind that one in particular?
Chaim: "Departed" is about the on-and-off relationship I was in back home. It speaks to the intensity, the volatility, and the pain of constantly running away and running back to someone you love. Interestingly enough, "Departed" was probably the most laborious song to write and finish on the project. I remember it took us a good few sessions to start to feel like we had something. I had written it off early on in my head as something I wasn't crazy into. And then, sure enough, it grew into this super emotional and special song for me. It's also one of my favorites to perform live.
OTW: What does your writing process with Rabitt look like?
Chaim: Jason quietly starts an idea on the guitar or piano or some pad sound, usually a very simple one. And I sit in the back of the room and quietly sing some melodies and jot down some lines. Sometimes he'll print out a loop of that one sound and I'll go outside the studio and write to it on the balcony or somewhere alone. After I feel like I've got something I'm into, I'll head back in and only then will we start to put what I'm writing and what he's writing together. There's this "alone, together" quality to our collaboration that I really enjoy.
OTW: We have to mention, the sounds found on the project are truly mesmerizing. How did you and Rabitt go about shaping the sonics of the EP?
Chaim: We just try and do the weirdest things we can think of. On "Thoughts,“ which is the second song we wrote together, we started by loading up some sort of vocoder connected to the mic and I recorded some ideas. Jason then pitched those vocals down and sped them up. We scanned through them until we landed on this crazy frog-sounding rhythmical thing, which ended up becoming the main percussive element to the song. Jason is also incredible with melody. Coming up with melodies is probably my favorite part of songwriting, so typically my artist child gets all frustrated when someone else in the room is pitching their own melodies. But Jason is amazing at creating these addictive melodies that end up in a lot of our songs' post-choruses. For more sonic details than that, you'll probably have to ask Jason directly. But yeah, I think a lot of it is simply our intention to find sounds we've never encountered before.
OTW: You've been busy performing live around North America. Tell us about the curation of your live show? A little bird told us there is a meditation portion of the performance...
Chaim: That bird is giving everything away. It's been super exciting to build out a live production for this music, and we're just getting started. My goal with the live show is to bring people into a quieter state. Not outwardly quiet, as surely I want the music to be loud AF. But an internal quietude, a concentration. Because it's so easy for us to forget to enjoy what we are experiencing in the moment and spend our time negotiating with the endless train of thoughts and judgments in our minds.
Live shows are an excellent place for us to start and tackle this habit, because by attending a show we are essentially saying, "For the next however many minutes, I am going to focus my attention on this centralized point of entertainment." People are giving me the gift of their attention. So that's why I'm playing with this meditation section of the show. We're still in the research and development phase, but I have some pretty crazy visions of what this production will evolve into in 2020.
OTW: Anything special in the works for 2020?
Chaim: So ya the live show is front and center for me in 2020. We're going to be taking this music out into the streets for sure. I've also got some songs to share with you in 2020 that are… important to me. That being said, I’m also starting to pendulum swing back into writing more, and I think I've got some fresh music in me that is ready to take form.
OTW: Who are your Ones to Watch?
Chaim: I'm really into EDEN right now, love his new releases. There's also this insanely talented Canadian artist named Leif Vollebeck who I'm obsessed with. He just dropped a new record two weeks ago.