Chad Matheny has made DIY electrofolk in the United States for upwards of a decade, but for the first time he's singing about America from another vantage. The Orlando Sentinel, an EP-turned-LP hybrid that he refers to as a DJ set of his own b-sides, marks his first album release as Emperor X since he moved to Berlin on an artist's visa. Though he's loving Germany—he doesn't drive and found America's car culture suffocating—Matheny still sings through a lens unique to his homeland. This is a guy who writes catchy pop songs about filling out Medicaid forms. He imbues some of the most soul-sucking American rituals with a rare humor and warmth.
Impose is pleased to premiere “H.M.S. Blank Mediterranean”, a new song from The Orlando Sentinel that displays a perfect cross-section of the album's themes. We also caught up with Matheny over Skype to talk about some of the challenges and reliefs of moving overseas while making art about Florida—see our conversation below the track.
You're newly based in Berlin. What about the city called to you?
The last place I lived in America was L.A. and in a lot of ways, Berlin is the opposite of it. I can't operate a motor vehicle. The problem in America is there are places where you don't have to have a car, like Portland, Seattle, New York, but they're all expensive. Berlin is like Philadelphia rent with New York levels of transit. So that's the main attraction for me. It's just infrastructural. Artists generally are treated better over there, which I appreciate too.
Were you able to get a different perspective on the States from Europe? How did the move inform your music?
It's all the cliches that are pretty much true. I mean, Europe's not a perfect place. They have right wing movements and they drive over there too. Not that I think cars are evil. But in the States, when you ride public transportation, with a few exceptions of the cities that I named, your company is generally people with DUIs or people who are under the care of the State. I don't want to say any judgmental things about those people, but we sort of ghettoize public transportation in America. Over there, grandma bikes to the grocery store. It's a very normal thing to not be involved in car culture. Having that as a comparison was a game-changer for me. Artistically, in some ways it made things more difficult, because a lot of artists get a lot out of struggle. It made me have to struggle less, and that was disconcerting for a while. Like, oh, wait, I'm only paying $300 for rent and I have a balcony and a bunch of trees outside? The show pay is generally quite a bit higher over there. All of that made me struggle less. But after I got used to it, it was like, oh, okay, I actually just have more time to focus on what I love doing. It's very positive but it took a little getting used to.
There's a little bit less respect for DIY in Europe. It's more like, (German accent) “If we have not heard of you, then perhaps you do not deserve to be heard of.” That's the prevailing mentality. Europe is a more class-rigid society. But one of the things that's great over there is, yes, it's class-rigid, but the floor isn't very far below the top of the bookshelf. The lowest of the low, you're still able to make a decent living. You get healthcare. I had appendicitis over there and got to experience the wonders of the German healthcare system. That was awesome. If it had happened to me in America, I would have been bankrupt.
On this new album, you focus specifically on Orlando as an emblematic site for all these different observations about America as a country. What makes Orlando ideal as a symbol for the issues you get into on this album?
The way I work is a little backwards. The reason the thing is called The Orlando Sentinel is because I made a beat and I started singing on top of it, and something that came out was the word “Orlando.” I figured out why later, and then I hung other words onto it to put it into context. So I didn't choose Orlando so much as the metaphor came up to me like a cat, nuzzled me, and said, “Hi! I'm a metaphor! Use me!” But Orlando definitely works. It's a Florida urban environment, which means it's either hot or raining almost all the time. It's a lot like Los Angeles in that its layout is gridded, but not in a way that's useful to navigate for a pedestrian. Walking across Orlando is not a pleasant experience. But like Los Angeles, it has some really intense and excellent local culture of people countering the prevailing Disney mythos. It's a strange place. Growing up in Jacksonville, which is just north of Orlando, Orlando seemed like a cooler, high-tech cousin. It's a bigger city than Jacksonville and it's got more nightlife. It made sense to me in a fantasy way that there were dance clubs and people running around, really future things happening in Orlando all the time. It's not true, but in a small way it is. When I was in Berlin at night, I felt like what I thought Orlando would have felt like when I was a kid.
You dig into some uncomfortable political realities on this album, but you keep a sense of humor about it. How do you hold onto that lightness even when you're discussing the dysfunctions that plague this country?
Well, unfortunately, I think they plague all countries. When you travel a lot, you see politics shoved in your face, and it becomes reality in the same way that having to pay your rent is reality. Politics seems like a very practical concern to me. You can't be too serious about something that's a practical concern because you'll go crazy. You know all these 9-11 truther folks that post flyers everywhere. It's really easy to go off the deep end. I'm not saying anything particular about those people—I'm sure they're nice people who just have pretty extreme views—but we live in a time when politics is simultaneously becoming more important and harder to figure out. And that sucks. I certainly hope I don't come across as though I'm making a joke out of politics, because sometimes I worry that I'm making light of something I take very seriously. At the same time, in the arts, you can't turn it into a lecture. Aesthetically, there's humor and then there's the cosmic giggle, to borrow a term from someone I look up to a lot, Joel Sternfeld, an art photographer in New York. If you go deep enough into something, it becomes funny not for any pathos or anything, but just because it's the laughter of truth. When somebody says something and you just go, “hahaha!” and it's not funny, it's just, like, whoa. I actually offended somebody in Germany because they don't do that. If something's true, they just go, “ya!” I laughed and they were like, “But why are you laughing? It is true.” I think it's an inherent nervousness in the American soul, but in a good way. Laughter's a great thing.
Emperor X's The Orlando Sentinel is out June 27.