Photo by Hollyann Howard
Matt Wixson is a musician from somewhere near Detroit, Michigan who has been putting out solo music for quite some time, and has more recently been performing as the front man in the three-piece Matt Wixson's Flying Circus. He's known for ska stuff, drama, playing keyboard for The Flaming Tsuanmis, being gay, being vegan, being controversial, and being pretty awesome overall. I interviewed him over the internet throughout the past few days whenever we both had a chance to be online at the same time, and this is what came of it.
Idle: How long have you been making music, and what initially got you interested?
Wixson: I began recording my own songs around 10 years ago, but I think my earliest songwriting memory is in 5th or 6th grade, which is about 16 years ago. I don't remember ever really deciding it was something I would try, let alone something I could be known for, so I think it must've just started out of boredom and ability. I COULD write a song, so I did. I didn't actually start learning guitar until about 7 years ago, though, and I did that because I thought it would be much easier to perform stuff by myself with a guitar than with a keyboard.
Idle: How many songs do you think you've actually written and recorded by now? How big would Wixipedia be if it were updated to include everything?
Wixson: All together, I think I've written around 400 songs. I've recorded somewhere near 300 of them. Sometimes I'll write a complete song but it won't end up being recorded. Many die with only their lyrics on my harddrive as evidence that they ever existed, and many also die as rough demos that never get turned into a presentable song. And then some end up as a final recording and still don't end up being released.
Idle: Who are your biggest influences when it comes to songwriting, musically and lyrically? I guess also what generally inspires you to write a song?
Wixson: There's no doubt that Jeff from Bomb The Music Industry! has influenced a lot of my music. King Django told me my songs reminded him a lot of NOFX, and I would agree that I have developed a songwriting style probably most similar to Fat Mike's. The folk singer Phil Ochs definitely changed my approach to writing political songs, but I don't think my lyrics resemble his much. I'm talking about mostly lyrics, though. Musically speaking, my songs have known practically no limit of genre, and I draw from really anything I've ever listened to. I could point to parts of my songs and honestly say I was channeling Willie Nelson, Rhianna, Lee "Scratch" Perry, the Suicide Machines, or Cake.
As for what inspires me to write a song, I've noticed that I seem to complain a lot in my songs. Mostly about something on the very small scale, like private thoughts and feelings, or the very large scale, like politics and philosophy. I sing about the former because it helps me deal with things I'm too shy or embarrassed to talk to people about, and I sing about the latter because I'd like to see some of my "radical" ideas accepted as normal. The songs that aren't complaints tend to be irreverent and/or celebrations of the silly. I'm definitely not a comedian, but humor and playfulness show up in a lot of my songs.
Idle: You've been much less of a drama magnet recently, what's up with that? There used to be a whole thing with your Blind Melon song on youtube, and you did the Batshit song about The Aquabats, and the song about I Voted 4 Kodos. Oh and you had drama with the singer of Atomic Potato on that ska forum we used to post on. What was your favorite incident of drama surrounding your music or activity in the scene?
Wixson: I never TRIED to be a controversial person haha. Most of those incidents stem from me choosing the wrong way to express myself. I never wanted to be known as the guy who stood with old IV4K fans against the band's new direction, or the guy who put Blind Melon in their place, or the guy who called the Aquabats on their shit. I don't shy from those opinions, but in the case of some of them, they were not the correct way to go about things. I still write songs that criticize people and I still shit-talk people I know (or people my friends know). The difference is that now I do it in a way that doesn't get me in trouble.
Idle: Haha, that's more mature I suppose. Most of your merchandise for Matt Wixson and Matt Wixson's Flying Circus is and has always been parodies of other known logos and slogans. What are your favorites you've done? I like the rancid burrito shirt and the wutang shirt best, obviously...since those are the ones I purchased. Oh and I bought the Keasbey Nights one for Joey.
Wixson: I'm not a very wise visual artist. Some might say the same about my musical abilities as well, but I'll just give myself the benefit of the doubt for now. I really enjoy making references or homages or whatever to other people's work, no matter the medium, though, so if I am going to try my hand at graphics, this is the only way I feel competent at it. I don't feel a particular kinship with Wu-Tang Clan. The Buffalo Wild Wings shirt was designed after myself and some other vegetarian friends ended up spending a funny evening at one of the restaurants. Incidentally, we ended up there because the burrito place we intended to visit was closed, and the next shirt design had a burrito on it. I have a very serious relationship with burritos, and there's a strong chance I may write some songs about them (possibly an entire EP) in the future, much like HORSE The Band's EP about pizza. If there's a parody design I'm most proud of, it's definitely the Rancid/burrito one, because it not only has relevance to my life but it's way less recognizable of a design than the others. It makes it more special for the people who DO recognize it.
Idle: Yeah, I walked into a Chipotle to pick up an online order and the guy at the register was like, "Oh, I thought you had a Rancid shirt on, and I was excited! But it's not." That was the only time anyone outside of my friends has recognized it yet. What was it like being offered a blow job by an almost-stranger/Matt Wixson fan at Block Party last year? Does that mean you're famous now or something?
Wixson: Can I just say no comment to that one?
Idle: Ha, that's completely fine. You recently took your solo shit and added two members from CBJ to it. How do you like your material as played by a full band as opposed to when you just played shows alone?
Wixson: Playing shows with a band is so much more fun for me, and apparently for the audience as well. And obviously we can do more in terms of variety with three people instead of one. I get to play songs that never quite worked right in solo sets. And a MAJOR advantage is that it gives me an excuse not to play old songs I don't like anymore! I can just say "the band didn't learn it" and that's that.
Idle: That always works, ha. What are your favorite songs to play live now that you have a band backing you?
Wixson: I played a solo set a month or two ago, and found myself playing a lot of songs I also do with the band now. I've really come to enjoy playing those more than the other stuff. I really like how "Wherever I End Up" and "I'd Rather" sound with a full band. "Double Agent" definitely has a different feel to it now, and I kind of dig that. And I think all of the new songs, the ones I didn't previously release as solo songs, are good songs. Turns out when you bring other people into the equation and try to keep a consistent sound for a band, only the best songs make it to the stage.
Idle: Yeah, I really like the way everything sounds with the full band a lot. What would you say is the most fun you've ever had in regards to your music has been? (Block Party?) What's your biggest accomplishment with it?
Wixson: When I think of the most fun shows I've ever played, Block Party 2010 in New Orleans is probably the top of the list. I am as modest as I can be when I say I practically stole that show. I think only the Flaming Tsunamis and Stuck Lucky had better responses that day, which is pretty incredible for me. Everything went right, and everyone in the crowd was right there with me.
As for accomplishments, it's really the small things that mean the most to me. I've had people contact me and tell me my music has saved them from depression, even saved their life. I've helped gay/bi people generate the courage to come out of the closet. Once someone told me about how he joined the military when he felt he had no other options, and he walked around base listening to my version "I Ain't Marching Anymore" on his first day in Afghanistan. That's some heavy stuff, and I'm flattered and humbled to impact people like that. But I also have a poster from the time I opened for Pilfers in New York City. That's pretty goddamn cool, too.
Idle: That's actually all really cool. Your set at Block Party last year was pretty awesome, and I loved when you performed Gaytheist with A Billion Ernies. You're a vegan...as you know. What led you to this decision? I know it's clearly worked out very well for you in regards to your health, but how much of the decision was based on morals? Or was it just to fit in with The Flaming Tsunamis, ha.
Wixson: I've actually been vegetarian now for almost ten years. Nobody else in the Tsunamis was vegetarian until the month before I joined. A couple of them went vegan during my stint, but I didn't kick the dairy and eggs until about two years after leaving TFT. My decision to go vegetarian was entirely based on ethics, and I realized sometime thereafter that I should've been vegan for the exact same reasons. Beef cattle and dairy cattle live very similar lives in terms of tortured existence. I kind of just pushed that thought out of my mind for years, though, and I didn't actually go vegan until I read about the drugs, hormones, and diseases that end up being transmitted from animals to us through their milk and eggs. I was actually grossed out by the contents of those food products, which helped me finally claim consistency with my animal welfare beliefs.
Idle: I think we've had this conversation before; I think it's great that you went completely vegan. You identify as gay...I think I'm just telling you things about yourself that you already know. How do you feel about the songs you've written regarding same sex rights? Do you like having recognition as somewhat of a musical activist? Or do you feel more as though you wrote those songs because the issue was on your mind, and being established in that manner was just coincidental, because you just write about what's going on in your life?
Wixson: Part of the reason I decided to make "out" music was because I didn't have any gay ska/punk idols I could look up to. I think that just about every gay-themed punk band sucks, and I still don't know if there are any other openly gay ska singers singing openly gay songs. I think it takes a certain courage to be openly gay, and I want to establish ska and punk shows as a safe and welcoming place. That said, I try not to write gay songs just to write gay songs. "Uncivil Union" has a message to it. "Double Agent" is more of just a personal story from my life. It's the same way with a lot of my other beliefs, though. I try (probably somewhat unsuccessfully) not to beat people over the head with my anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-meat, non-religious ideas, but I also don't shy away from them. People have to "come out" if they identify with those ideas, too, and I don't think any of them should be controversial or dangerous anymore.
Idle: I completely agree with that, and I think you do a good job of not beating people's heads in with your beliefs, while still always representing what you stand for. How's the Michigan music scene these days?
Wixson: Since starting the band I've played way more punk shows than ska shows. Maybe I've just been missing out the past few years, but it seems Michigan has a really awesome punk scene lately. Against the Grain, Due North, Seized Up, Bike Tuff, the A-Gang... all bands worth looking into. It's kind of funny, though, because all of the bands I just mentioned have a member or two I've known from before... when they were in ska bands! I think that's what the Michigan music scene is lately. Dudes who used to play ska starting awesome punk bands. It's worked for us, too!
Idle: Ha, well that's good. I tend to listen to punk way more than ska, so it'd be the kind of scene I'd enjoy. What projects/releases are you currently working on?
Wixson: Well, the Flying Circus album that we recorded with King Django last summer should be released one of these days on Stubborn Records. We're almost ready to record new stuff already, too. By the summer I should also have released a split with See You In Mexico (Ryan from A Billion Ernies) as well as an EP on Whatevski Records, which is a NY-based label that does a lot of Slackers and Slackers-related digital releases. Community Records just released a free compilation called Head Above Water: A Response to the BP Drilling Disaster and I've got a new song on there as well. And despite all of these things being lined up, I STILL have a bunch of songs that don't have any destination yet.
Idle: That's a lot of exciting stuff coming out man. Okay, one last question. If you were to fight any band, active or inactive, who would it be? (Being a conscientious objector is not an option.)
Wixson: It wouldn't be fair for me to fight a whole band. I would have to fight a single person, and I think I would fight Bob Dylan. I like Bob Dylan a lot, but he's old and wouldn't stand much of a chance. And after the dust settles and the shame subsides, I'll have a story about how I met Bob Dylan.