• Features

Q&A: Canasta’s Matt Priest

written by: on August 27, 2012

Canasta's-Matt-Priest-InterviewMatt Priest is the lyricist, lead singer, bassist and occasional trombonist for Chicago’s orchestral pop sextet Canasta.

In a recent phone conversation, he discussed the ten years of the band’s existence from the original inspiration to what’s next, including a his newest role as dad.

Pop ‘stache: Now that you and your wife Jen have welcomed your daughter Sawyer into the world, has it affected your songwriting?

Matt Priest: I actually have a whole bunch of lyrical ideas that I think I will tackle first before I start writing stuff that hadn’t occurred to me before having a kid. I don’t think it will affect our next record so much, but maybe the one after that will be a total “cheese fest.” I can see myself being taken over by the wonders of fatherhood, the tiny miracles.

P’s: Given Canasta’s track record, we can expect that in ten years.

MP: That’ll be about ten years. That’s right, right on target. No, the next thing we do is going to be an EP, it’ll be something shorter because it does take us a long time. Since the last record came out, like half the band is new folks, so they’re chomping at the bit to have their names in there, their voices both musical and instrumental on something, so I think we’re going to do something shorter to make sure it happens quicker.

P’s: What it is about Canasta that takes so long to release albums?

MP: The songwriting process at least in the past, and who knows if this will still be the case, was incredibly democratic. Just about everyone had input on almost every part of every instrument. It produces music that has been through a long “approval process” and as a result I feel like the details are really nice, you can hear it and the songs are really solid.

P’s: Is there a central musical goal or a philosophical perspective that you bring to the composition process? What are you trying to do with your band?

MP: In the past, we didn’t really know what we were doing. Any time that we got a part done that sounded good to us we were sort of surprised. Over time, we became better craftspeople and it became a little more scientific. With the new record I kind of want to challenge ourselves and do some stuff that doesn’t feel comfortable, because in the beginning none of what we did felt comfortable because it was all new to us.  I want to get some of that back.

P’s: Do you think your tour, as part of the US State Department’s cultural exchange initiative, in Mongolia will factor into new Canasta songs or the recording process?

MP: I do, actually. I don’t think sonically you’re going to start hearing global rhythms and horse-hair fiddles or anything, but In Mongolia, we were blown away by some of the folks that performed for us. They didn’t need mics. They didn’t need any electricity. There were like two of them, and there were some gorgeous songs.

It inspired us to create music that travels better, or is more easily stripped down to its essence, to the essential parts and that might still sound great.

With current Canasta songs, they don’t work that great when you take folks out, so we’ve only played a song once or twice with less than six people. We still intend to use everybody, but I think the songs might actually be more easily stripped down this time or might have a stronger central essence.

P’s: Why has there been so much turnover in the band personnel?

MP: I can think of specific reasons for all sorts of people leaving over the years. Some left because it just got too serious and took up too much time, and I understand that.  Some moved away and some got other paying musical gigs. Once someone got divorced, and someone else got married and their spouse wasn’t really into the idea. There’s been a whole host of reasons. To some degree, it’s a six person band, it’s a democracy, but at the end of the day I am the leader. I sort of run things and determine the tone of rehearsals and things like that, some people don’t feel that vibe, which is fine.

P’s: So you don’t necessarily rule like a dictator, but you’re driving the car.Chicago's-Canasta's-Matt-Priest

MP: When it comes to the actual songwriting and stuff it’s about as democratic as it could possibly be, short of falling apart. But when it comes to the other stuff, I tend to run things and dole out tasks to people and so forth. I used to work in different aspects of the music industry, at a label, a distributor, retail and I used to book a venue. I know a lot of artists don’t feel like doing that kind of stuff, but I’ve always had an appreciation for it and felt like it’s an important part of the whole process. So whenever people join the band we tell them up front, “Hey, we spend a lot of time doing this stuff too.”

I think it’s part of the reason we’ve been able to stick around for ten years. If you get lazy, there’s a million other bands in Chicago that will pass you up and take all your spots and take all your fans.

P’s: What do you do when a major label calls you?

MP: You mean in theory? Because it hasn’t happened yet. Geez, a major label. It’s so hard for me to imagine, and maybe it shouldn’t be a major label picking up on what we do and thinking that sprawling six-minute pop songs was the future. There are a lot of indie labels that we would love to work with, and we send them stuff and follow up and everything and try to get their attention but the major labels? We haven’t spent much time thinking about that or pursuing it, I kind of assumed that was never an arena for us.

P’s: Would you say no to an independent label?

MP: No. We’d definitely be interested in an indie label. Some really small indie labels, like one person or whatever, have approached us, and in a lot of those cases, even though we appreciated the offer, we’d like to see a good reason to sign. But for an indie label that actually was a little bit bigger and had all cylinders firing, for sure.

P’s: Given your band’s debut and its history with idiosyncratic covers, can we expect any similar on the next release?

MP: It’s funny you should ask. We’ve been working on a cover of a Fever Ray song called “Seven” that we like a lot, so I could see that maybe making an appearance. It depends on the length of the EP. It might be a three song single, or it could be more like five or six songs, which will determine in part when it comes out.

In the meantime, catch Canasta on Sunday, September 16 at Guinness Oyster Fest in Chicago and at Priest’s alma mater, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, over Homecoming weekend this October.