The Boxer & The Soloist with Matt Kivel of Princeton

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Matt Kivel

The fourth quarter of 2013 brought some of that year's most endearing releases, and of them was the lauded sleeper hit of Matt Kivel's solo album, Double Exposure from Olde English Spelling Bee / Burger Records. Striking up a bond around the New Year, we began a correspondence series of e-mails that explored the solo artist journey from his prior work in Gap Dream, Princeton, and Sleeping Bags. The conversations moved from record collecting, family music favorites, and sports before we locked in on an in-depth surveys of boxing, and the parallels between the blood sport and the solo artist. Once Kivel got on bonding with his father and brother over boxing, there was hardly much else worth discussing. “I’m obsessed with boxing,” he wrote. “I spend a lot of time reading about it and it's the only sport that I follow on a daily basis. I check out message boards and comments sections—it's kind of a bad habit. I boxed a little bit during high school and started up again a few years ago.”

That's amazing that you all are into boxing, have you all kept up with all those Mayweather and Pacquiao matches?

Don't get me started, it's been such a disappointment that that fight was never made. The greatest fighters always fight each other. Leonard / Hearns, Ali / Frazier, Robinson / Lamotta, Leonard / Duran, Pryor / Arguello, Hagler / Hearns. All of those guys fought in an era when the best actually fought the best and as a result, all of those fighters are now remembered as all-time greats. In order to be considered an all-time great in the sport of boxing a fighter must take on the best challengers of the day. In a historical sense, Pacquiao and Mayweather have to fight each other in order to solidify their legacies. But perhaps it's too late now. Pacquiao is slowing down and even if they do fight, it certainly won't be what it could have been in 2010.

Where do you find or feel that the rigor of boxing has informed or impacted your songwriting?

I don't know if boxing has impacted my songwriting. I think there are some parallels between boxing and being a solo artist. Both are individual pursuits and you are in a position when you are basically just on your own. You can make whatever you like out of it, but no one is going to do anything for you. I kind of like that. I like the feeling of being alone in something, in a pursuit. Boxing has just instilled a kind of work ethic in me. All of these fighters train so hard and work so hard. I really admire what they do.

Does it provide perhaps a counterweight of catharsis to say the vulnerability expressed and exposed on Double Exposure?

I think boxing and music are both cathartic, one is physical and the other is more psychological. They’re both forms of self-expression, and in some ways they channel the same emotions, but the mechanisms are different.

If you're not really a boxing fan, I recommend you watch Pryor / Arguello 1. I consider that to be the greatest boxing match I’ve ever seen. Those are my two favorite fighters. Just a relentless match and a perfect clash of styles.

Back to the boxing singer-songwriting parallels and um, perils; this going it alone feeling and style, does that perhaps maybe contribute to some of the elements of fatalism and melancholy that permeate certain songs or styles?

I think there are many similarities between boxing and being a solo performer. You do the work mostly alone, and it's sort of a detached experience. You are very in tune with yourself, but that perspective can be misleading. it's always important to get some outside opinions about what you're doing. It’s easy to lose it.

The closest parallels I could find between boxing and playing solo are the shows/ fights. When it's your time to go you really go out there alone. You say goodbye to everyone else for a little while and that's it. Obviously the stakes are much higher for fighters—though being an anxious performer, it can feel like the stakes are high even when the worst case scenario is a couple of boos, a bored audience, or a few tomatoes hurled your way; a far better outcome than a knockout loss or trip to the hospital—and I just have so much respect for their commitment. People criticize fighters all of the time—it's what makes boxing an engaging subject of debate—but I respect and like all of them.

I’ve sparred in boxing gyms, and the feeling is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. You are placed into a ring with another man and his only goal is to hurt you in the most effective manner possible. You are aiming to do the same thing and going in; you know that you're going to get hit hard in the head. The fear and excitement is tremendous and I think you learn a lot about yourself in the ring. You learn how well you can fight back, how much pain scares you, how vicious you can be, but you mainly learn the art form. You learn to control yourself; you learn to stay disciplined in an inherently dangerous situation. You can go through your life wondering how you would handle a situation like this, or you could join a boxing gym. I chose the latter… I got injured a few times as a result, but it was worth it. I stopped sparring a little while back, after I dealt with an inner ear/head injury that was never properly diagnosed, but I still train on a weekly basis and I enjoy it very much.

I kind of had a similar approach to [certain songs on Double Exposure]. Even though you single out the melodic elements of “Double Exposure”, that song was more lyrically driven. I had some ideas for the words and that sort of drove the melody, whereas “Whip” and “Tetro” were the other way around. but during the time when I wrote all these songs, I was kind of writing about similar themes. There were certain recurring ideas that just ended up in all the songs

I love those similarities, and stark differences between the arts of performing and boxing.

From the risks of exposing these kinds of personal interiors, how do you let the effects of feeling, creating feeling, conveying and expressing feeling into the melodic writing match into the lyrical territories?

In terms of lyric and melody, it really depends on the time period I was writing in. There have been times when melody meant everything to me and there have been times when lyrics were the main focus and then there have been times when both mattered equally. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that neither one; lyric, or melody, can live without the other. They’re both equally important for me. So even if I have a song with minimal melodic changes and a lot of lyrics, that small amount of melody is crucial and in some ways even more important than the lyrics.

So with all the training are you also planning any kind of title-ish bout? Or is that kind of like, hoop-dream-pipe dreams? My dad and his dad, my Opa, and I would box and wrestle growing up, but I could not hack it-amateur or pro.

[Laughs] No. It's purely for my own enjoyment.

And like boxing, the high stakes, you were talking about themes… and mortality, thoughts on mortality and pangs and edges of despair are very prominent. What is it about the life & death continuum, the allure of the abyss, and those brutal, bottoming out doubts?

I don't really know how to answer your question, I think there is a little bit of everything in everything. So if there is death and darkness or despair there is the opposite emotion contained within that as well. Boxing is kind of like that. Boxers are optimistic by nature. They are entering a brutal and unforgiving situation and they believe that they are going to emerge victorious and healthy. It's that belief that makes it compelling. If that hope and willful optimism weren't in the sport than we would be watching an execution, which I have no interest in. I'm interested in redemption.

This kind of reminds me of something. I have been listening to Bonnie “Prince” Billy's I See a Darkness album over the past week. It's an album that I've loved for the last eight years or so. I had always thought of it as a beautiful album, but I guess I never really thought about why I liked it so much. It occurred to me yesterday. The album is funny! Not that the emotional weight isn't heavy and dense, but there is an element of humor—especially in the song “Death to Everyone”—that hangs over the whole thing. It's such an emotionally powerful record, but I think that's more because of the humor and hope and not the darkness part of it.

Then on a lighter side, you released Double Exposure via Olde English Spelling Bee (a creative power house) and Burger Records (an unstoppable, tower of all indie everything), was curious to hear your thoughts on the future of independent imprints, and their ability to immortalize tomorrow and today's artists for the greater good. Because shoot, where would we all be without these imprints?

As a record collector and just general music fan I've always loved the concept of the record label. The idea that you could just see that a label put something out and buy it without knowing the first thing about the artist, simply because you trust them. I like that idea. I always imagine bands/artists on a label as teammates. I think independent labels will always be strong as long as they put out great records. I was lucky to work with Todd [Ledford] from Olde English Spelling Bee. For years now I've been buying his records and being able to be a part of his team has been really a great thing for me. When I look in my record collection and see my album with the OESB font it makes me very happy.

You were talking about everything from your interest in redemption, and the humor and hope that you discovered within the emotional density and darkness of Bonnie “Prince” Billy's I See a Darkness album; and it got me wondering on how you were going to follow up Double Exposure. What further pushes and quest for redemption through life's blindness and trials might make up say a, Triple Exposure, or say even a Quadruple Exposure? I feel like the indie world is all wondering what to expect next from the canons of Matt Kivel.

[Laughs] I don't know what anyone else wants to hear. But I've basically finished the follow-up and it's called Days of Being Wild. I worked on it with Paul Oldham. It should be out in the summer or fall. It's got more rock sounds on it. More bar chords and things like that. More drums. I've been playing the new songs live a lot recently and it's going alright.

Matt Kivel's Double Exposure is out now on Olde English Spelling Bee / Burger Records.