Matthew Steinke is less an artist than a mad scientist.
His installations often involve animatronic critters wandering about with adorable sinisterness, while his drawings and animation include disparate, evolutionarily dubious amalgamations of the organic and inorganic bunged peremptorily together. He incorporates that kind of Frankenstein genius into his music as well; he builds his own instruments, and his current band, Octant, is perhaps best known for its use of drum robots. He lives in New York, and you can find more information about his various projects at his website.
Matt, could you give me a quick run-down of the bands you’ve been in?
Steinke: I have been in many bands since I was thirteen growing up in Austin, TX. I could give you a long list but I will start with the first band I started that made a record.
Mocket (1995 - 2000): One single on Up Records, full length on Punk in my Vitamins, full length on K Records, full length on Kill Rock Stars.
Satisfact (1997 - 2000): One single on K Records, two full lengths on K Records, and one full length on Up Records.
Octant (1998 - present): Two full lengths on Up Records, plus many self-released mp3 singles.
The Five Cents (2006 - 2009): One self-released EP.
I know Octant was on Up records for awhile. Are you independent now?
Steinke: I don't plan to go back to Up because Up is no longer releasing new recordings. The founder/owner died in 2000 right after I left Seattle. Business was slow soon after (his passing) and I guess they decided to just fill Modest Mouse orders from here on out. I think that the old Octant records will even someday be out of print.
I don't know what I will do in the far future, but for now I am so independent and D.I.Y. that it’s hilarious. It is the Octant way. Everything is home brewed, which is a big part of what I offer. I wouldn't mind getting some help in the PR department, however. That part is a full-time job and it's a hat that I have had very little time to wear. I am super busy making instruments, writing songs, practicing and recording.
I know you construct many of your instruments yourself; could you talk about how you do that, or what kind of instruments you use on your recordings?
Steinke: I have been making drum robots since I graduated from college in 1997. They seem glamorous when you talk about them, and they are often more complex than they appear and sound, but technically speaking, they are mechanical drum machines – acoustic electronically-controlled musical instruments. I have a mechanical toy piano, a mechanical bass guitar-like instrument, and a mechanically bowed zither. I use guitars that I have modified or customized, a toy guitar, a toy accordion, a music box that has magnetic pickups, and my sampler theremin watch. I also now have a homemade harmonium.
For live performances, I usually play the harmonium or piano on some songs, guitar on some, and on some I just sing or shout into the mic. I like to mix it up in the set to keep it interesting, so I don't always use the exact same setup. The size of the venue and the setup time determines what I use, as well. The robots come in handy because then I don't have to pay anyone to play with me and the crowd loves to see and hear freaky musical inventions these days. Believe it or not, that wasn't always true. In the '90s in Seattle, the crowd wanted lots of loud guitar rock or a slick DJ drum and bass dude with a laptop or expensive store-bought gear.
I am a one man band now, and I like the solitude of writing songs alone, the challenge of figuring out how to play them live, and the overall responsibility and the "rugged individualism" of being a one-person act. Somehow because Octant has had many past members, supporters, and adventures, it feels like a real band of souls or even a family when it's all going on stage. It may also be the poltergeist of robotic instruments. But it is at that point I find myself addressing the audience as members of the family or the congregation. That is very different from the older Octant where I stood behind giant machines with stage fright like The Wizard of Oz.
For my recordings, I use all the same stuff and sometimes more. I have been keeping the non-acoustic instruments and effects to a minimum. I am no longer fixated on dissonance. I don't mind it in a subtle way, but I am trying to make instruments and recordings that sound musical - which is very challenging. The percussion in particular is the most challenging because the actuators that hold the mallets are often not musical and are designed for industrial purposes. I am now designing and building my own motors and solenoids from scratch in order to minimize the "clank" sound. And even when you muffle the mechanical noise, there is still plenty to record - which is pleasant when it isn't excessive.
I decided that songwriting was the reason that I play music, and it's not just making sound sculptures and noise that inspires me. When I record a song, I consider what the song needs and then I build around it. That is when I decide what instruments I need to perform and record with.
Are you also doing all the recording, and what kind of equipment do you have to do that? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of working by yourself as opposed to working in a studio?
Steinke: Octant never recorded in a studio. The drums were recorded in a garage on the first record and in a practice space on the second. Now, I record them in my tiny Brooklyn apartment. F*$% the neighbors! For the first two records, I mixed in the studio but tracked at home. For the past two recordings, I recorded on my computer and then I mixed in the computer. I am working on a few tracks that will be recorded on cassette 4-track but those, too, will end up in the computer as all things do.
I like recording at home in my pajamas and not going outside all day. I love the mental space of a room opposed to a studio. For these kinds of songs, a room is the closest thing to my brain - my interior. A studio is a good moderator for bands with members. There you have an engineer to keep everyone focused on playing together well. You also tend not to abuse each other as much in front of non-members which helps everyone's morale. And you can drink beer and coffee – basically hang out in a hotel-like environment and party, which is nice too. I don't need any of that for Octant, however. I don't think I want it, either. This stuff is hard work that I don't think any of my friends could or would want to put up with. This music is composed and must be performed and recorded exactly the way I wrote it to keep it Octant.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing your own promotion — or how much of your own promotion are you doing? And how much and in what ways has the internet changed this?
Steinke: Right now, I am doing all of Octant's promo and the advantages are few. One that I can think of is the direct contact with fans. I enjoy emailing and talking with Octant fans very much. And once again, it's part of the D.I.Y. way and there is some satisfaction in that.
But I would be very happy to have a manager at this point who would help move things further. What would be even more sweet is a manager who has creative ideas about how to promote and sell music. I would be very excited to work with someone like that. A booking agent would be nice, too.
I know you’re also trying to figure out a tour schedule for the end of the year when your new record comes out. How are you going about doing that? Is this a new strategy for you, or something you’ve done before?
Steinke: I have booked little Octant tours here and there – the east coast, Canada, up and down the west coast. It’s a lot of work and if there are any booking agents out there who want to help out, please get in touch. The only strategy I can think of is do it and then do it again and keep track of where you play and who booked it. Go back to the same places if it works out. This is the same old indie rock strategy that has been in place since the '80s. Octant has an extra venue which is the art/performance art world. Before I even went to art school, Octant was performing at art schools and galleries all over the country, followed by a Q&A and sometimes a lecture/artist and a presentation. I like doing that stuff very much. The new Octant setup is also portable, allowing me to fly out to play.
How are you hoping to make money mainly from your music, if at all? Through touring, record sales, or some combination?
Steinke: I will make money mostly by performing, some digital music sales, some publishing, and some from merchandise. I always have hope to make money as an artist and sometimes it happens more than others. For the most part, Octant has always paid for itself plus a little extra here and there.