I listened to Elvis Depressedly for the first time while riding a train bound for New York in the dead of winter, dreaming of feeling hopeful but actually feeling confused. Since then, I’ve listened to Elvis Depressedly while trying to make sense of regrets, missing my friends, and wandering out to an abandoned airfield where I used to run sprints with my high school cross country team. Certain lines will stick with me for days, like “If there’s a cool spot in hell, I hope you get it,” from “Weird Honey” and “I’ve been awake in this world for too long” from “Bodil”. I tend to put on Elvis Depressedly albums in times when I’m trying to learn how to feel okay inside my own head.
Mathew Lee Cothran fronts Elvis Depressedly, and the band’s about to leave for a month-long, cross-country tour with Alex G. Although Cothran has announced a forthcoming Elvis Depressedly album called New Alhambra, to be released sometime in November via Orchid Tapes, he’s also said that this tour could be his last and that he doesn’t want to release any more albums and that he’d prefer to find stability outside of the music world. I caught up with Mat to talk about this tour and the possibility of an end to his public involvement with music; also about late-night TV, space yachts, and snow.
Where are you right now?
Right now I am in Columbia, South Carolina, but soon we’re traveling awhile, and then Delaney Mills (who writes songs with me in Elvis Depressedly) and I are moving to Asheville, N.C.
How did you decide on Asheville?
It’s a growing artistic community, and Delaney and I love the mountains. We don’t want to leave the south really, and I feel like we’ll be respected there, whereas we aren’t in our home state.
How has living in South Carolina influenced your music?
Always negatively. The place is a dead zone culturally, spiritually, and absolutely devoid of any real scene. A majority of the so-called artists in this state are untalented, and the artists who are talented are treated like shit by the monoculture. South Carolina has yet to move into the 21st century artistically, and it probably never will. You’re going to see the whole state fall apart some day soon. South Carolina’s politics and community are not sustainable in the modern world. I mean, our state capital still has a Confederate battle flag flying right there in the center of the city. It’s shameful, it’s stupid, and I’ll be happy to leave it behind me.
I feel like there’s something weirdly compelling about the South in general, though, like a haunted and removed feeling.
It’s removed from the removal you find elsewhere. Being in the South involves confronting reality everyday. There’s a tendency in other parts of this country to be politically active only in ideas and only in talk. Southerners deal with the politics of life everyday. We’re poorer, we’re more maligned, and more misunderstood than others in this country. There’s a lot going on down here, but it’s not prettied up and posed like it is everywhere else. There’s a lot of talk in other places. There’s a lot of action here.
Can you talk a bit about your writing process? I’ve noticed certain images that show up over and over again in lyrics throughout the Elvis Depressedly discography, particularly Biblical ideas like heaven and hell and judgement. I’ve also noticed that snow comes up quite a bit.
Growing up in South Carolina, snow is so incredibly rare, and when it does appear, it shuts down everything. Even an inch or two can put everything at a stand still. Some of my fondest memories are waking up in the middle of the night to see the world completely changed, covered in white snow and reflecting the moon light. I experienced more in my childhood than I have in my adulthood, and I think a lot of those ideas come through in my music. I think that’s also where a lot of the simplicity comes from, or at least the way I value simplicity. The Bible is very strange to me, and it played such a bizarre role in my upbringing. I remember staying up late with my grandmother to watch Bible prophecy shows like the “Hal Lindsey Report” or “Jack Van Impe Presents”. As a kid, I was surrounded by the idea that our world is temporary and that any moment it could all end, and I have come to live my life with that in mind, for better or worse.
I feel like listening to Elvis Depressedly songs is almost like an act of healing shitty feelings and making sense of them a little bit. Does making music feel like a way to transform past experiences and perhaps make peace with them?
I’d agree that I have used music and songwriting to come to terms with certain aspects of my reality or my past. I’m of the mindset that if you can make some kind of monument out of your struggle you can keep it around like a trophy. Whereas some people can hold up their trophy and say, “I won the state basketball championship,” I can hold up my song and say, “I survived a bad addiction” or, “I learned to forgive someone I thought I never could.” I think all these tokens are valuable. I don’t think my struggle is more remarkable than the struggle of winning a basketball championship, I just think we should all have the right to commemorate when we win.
It’s cool that you can look back on your songs like that as markers of certain periods of your life, rather than measures of artistic capacity at different times.
At this point, I’ve been doing this for 11 years. I’m confident in what I am capable of. I no longer need to prove to myself or anyone else that I have what it takes. Now it’s about taking what it takes and making it work for me. Making it express the kind of ideas that I feel are important and true.
What are you looking forward to the most about your tour with Alex G?
Well, for one, Alex and his band are really fucking cool people, and I enjoy hanging out with them, so that will be cool. Also, I get to see Alex G every night, playing some of the greatest music ever made. One day, when Alex is cruising past Neptune on his space yacht making billions in intergalactic money after his No. 1 hit on planet X, I’ll be able to tell the alcoholic lying next to me in a gutter somewhere that, “Man, I saw him in his prime man, you should’ve been there man, hey got any change?”
You’ve mentioned a few times on Tumblr that this tour will be your last and that you won’t release any more music after New Alhambra, what are your plans after all of that’s done?
It may or may not be our last. I’m not a liar, I always say what I feel, but what I feel changes so much it makes me seem dishonest. After New Alhambra I’m going to focus on my solo project, Coma Cinema, awhile for a new album called Let’s Rid the World of Music. I’m going to continue making music under my birth name as well, hopefully collaborating with artists I admire. I want to do a podcast about music and the business and about the artistic process. I’m hoping I can get some good guests for that. I like to stay busy, though sometimes it weighs on me too much. Everyone needs a break, I guess.
What artists are you hoping to collaborate with?
I’d love to work with Cass McCombs. I’d love to do an album with Sam Ray, Alex G, Rachel Levy, Warren Hildebrand, Dylan Khotin-Foote. I’d love to work with Blithe Field… that will probably happen.
Are you working on any projects that aren’t music-related? Do you make any other kinds of art?
I’m not really talented at other types of art, but Delaney is talented at visual art and at film making. We want to do all kinds of things. We’re just thankful to have an audience for our whims.
What do you think needs to change about the music industry, in order to create more supportive situations for artists?
The album cycle concept needs to go. The whole marketing campaign structure needs to go. The idea that you can pay a PR company thousands of dollars to do your promotion and then they turn around and tell you “You have to make a video, you have to write a bio, you have to get pictures made.” What are you paying these people for? So they can send a few fucking emails to Pitchfork and have the one guy that they know there say “no thanks”?
If the artist is expected to be their own publicist, designer, manager, booker, etc, the art is going to suffer. Not everyone is great at everything. The current system preys on the poor because there is a pay wall to get your shit heard. You might have 10,000 people download your album, but if you don’t pay one of the four big companies, no one is going to write about you, even if they like your music. The current system is designed to keep the people at the top of the food chain on top and the younger, newer artists scrambling around at the bottom until somebody cosigns for them. It’s baffling, and it’s bullshit.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg, you start looking at streaming services and artists aren’t being compensated. What if I walked into someone’s book store and announced to the customers, “Hey everyone, pay me ten bucks a month and all these books are free”. The shop owner is going to walk up to me and say, “Get out of my store asshole,” and If I’m Spotify I just turn to the guy and say “Oh don’t worry kid, I’ll give you half a cent for every book sold!”
But see, the artist doesn’t have a voice. We’re the fuel for the machine and while it’s dying they keep tossing us in trying to kick start the thing into a new life. I want to see art flourish on it’s own terms. Fuck the industry.
Was there a particular moment when you realized that you didn’t want to continue making music full-time, or did you come to that decision gradually?
It’s just not sustainable, really. I’m known by a lot of people, but awareness doesn’t pay the bills. I’m pretty far under the U.S.A. poverty line, but I pride myself on the fact that I have never been late paying a bill. I believe you honor your commitments, whatever you have to do. I was raised to be really prideful about money. It’s hard for me to accept help, but if people want to throw me cash to help with my bills here and there, I accept it. I don’t feel like I’m owed anything, no one is, but I could never raise a family on musical income, and I’m not a kid anymore. There are other satisfactions out there, and to be honest, I’ve pretty much done it all. I never thought I could take music this far, I mean, even as a little kid, I always told myself that I’d never get to tour, that I’d never have people listening to whatever art I made. It seemed impossible. The internet came along and kind of showed me the light so to speak, and I’ve had a hell of a go at things so far, so I’m not disappointed.
“If I know he’s proud of me, there’s not a thing in the world that matters more than that.”
What have you been listening to recently?
There’s a new Julia Brown album that’s absolutely beautiful. Alex G’s DSU is golden. The upcoming Foxes in Fiction album is a masterpiece, and I don’t use that word lightly. I’m really enjoying Khotin’s first full length album out on 1080p records, also the new Sunny Day in Glasgow is phenomenal. Lately when I’m alone, I listen to my favorite songs from 808s and Heartbreak. It’s got some truly great songs on it.
What inspires you?
My grandfather inspires me. He raised me like a son. He came from nothing and has worked harder than anyone on earth. He’s got all sorts of issues with his health, but he keeps fighting. I think about him every day. If I know he’s proud of me, there’s not a thing in the world that matters more than that. My childhood wasn’t great, but I never wanted for anything when I was with him, and I grew into a sometimes shitty teenager and used to think he was crazy or that he had it out for me. Everyday I realize how wrong I was. God forbid I ever become a father, but if I do I’ll have had the best example one could ever have.
I really love one particular line you posted regarding New Alhambra as your last album: “I know I have satisfied that voice in the back of my mind that’s been talking to me for years.” I feel like that’s one of the most important thing an artist can achieve.
I think so too, and I’m excited for the world to hear the record.