MATT HOWDEN of SIEBEN talks loop pedals, the power of nature, and the power of the live stream…

Autumn, or the Fall, is here, and for those particularly connected with nature then you’ll no doubt be relishing the melancholia that the darker seasons foist upon us, and taking your pick of what to read or listen to as the nights grow longer. Well, how about Sieben? Roughly lumped in with the neo and dark folk genres, one could describe the music as a flowing stream of playful, yet shadowy themes, pastoral indeed, but perhaps sometimes as seen from an urban perspective, definitely possessing a bit of a twinkle in the eye, and yes I am probably struggling in doing it justice here, but regardless, Matt Howden is the showman who gives these ideas life – one man with a violin, an array of pedals, a cigarette, a microphone and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ideas. Recommended to be experienced live, Matt’s performances are a prosodic offering of sound, words, movement and colour, and as luck would have it, in the last year Matt has streamed Lockdown videos from his home in Sheffield, England, and you can still watch them online, or even buy the recordings yourself. The clincher for us was that he is as partial as we to a nice tweed suit and a ramble up the hills, so we simply had to grab a chat with the man himself before he went on tour this September.

Hi Matt, we were very impressed with your last Solstice performance. How has feedback been, and are you itching to do a real performance?

Feedback has been immense and wondrous, thanks 🙂 A lovely little community developed around the 55 live concerts I did in lockdown, predominantly on my LOCKDOWN SIEBEN Facebook group. People have been so nice, been sharing and caring for each other, and some lovely friendships made there. That’s been an amazing positive, despite Lockdowns, for me. That, and bringing disparate people together at the same (online) gig – people that are normally in separate pockets of my touring life! What was that about itching? 😉

What’s an average day like?

Well, I teach in a music technology college 3 days a week, so those days are pretty ordered. As, I suppose, are my days off, which I’d categorise as prepping for a show, doing a show, recording an album or other, or simply not doing music stuff. Throw in a good bit of DIY, gardening, eating and cooking, rugby and football, on those days. And lately I’ve spent a lot of fun time making daft videos narrated by my five-string violin, Kev. He also stars in them.

How’s teaching?

I teach my students mixing and mastering, studio techniques, and a little of how to survive in the music industry. The industry’s ways of working are different, as are the ways many of ‘the kids’ are making their music. As it has ever been, there are innovators, and then there’s some derivative, same-old stuff going on, I guess. Still a passion for music. And keeping it up with it, or trying to, helps keep me fresh. I’ve also written a number of songs, to demonstrate some particular technique I’ve been talking about, and then used it in my lessons.

It takes some discipline to use looping pedals live – at what point did you go the solo route in the Sieben story? How did it work out?

I started solo in around 2003, initially with backing tapes for a couple of years before I’d even heard of loopers. Vivid memories of my first ever solo show, in Leipzig at WGT in a church, where I went onstage and realised I’d never been onstage solo before, nor thought about just how scary it would be! Of the 1,400+ gigs I’ve done, I suppose I’ve pretty much got used it to now, but looping live can indeed be slightly tricky sometimes 😉 when audiences start ( famously ) clapping out of time?

It can be hard! Or idly shaking a hippy bell occasionally. Or smoke machine operator giving it a squirt out-of-time to my loop. Or the drummer’s snare has been left ‘on’ and rattles randomly. These things upset my balance, while making the recorded layers, and can throw you off easily. All things sent to test the mettle of the looper!

Do you factor in looping for new compositions?

Absolutely, from the start. They are loops before they are songs. And sometimes when you have the song, you need to deconstruct and devise how to make the loops again, better, quicker to put in place, or whatever the song calls for.

Can you explain the lockdown Sieben recordings?

During Lockdown, early, I performed an online show. The audience suggested I did it every week. So I did. Then they suggested I record these new versions, this re-working of my back catalogue, with my new 5 string Kevlar violin, Kev. So I did, recording as volume each month. It ended as 112 songs from my back catalogue, all improved and developed since their writing, with my groovy new sounds from Kev. And then became a 10CD boxset. And a bonus digital live album with 40 extra live tracks taken from my online concerts. SOME People in the LOCKDOWN SIEBEN group were kind enough to make 100 pewter keyrings with pithy sayings from the concerts, for me to give away with the first 100 boxsets- such an amazing, warm and kind act.

I checked some older interviews, and no one seemed to state the obvious…that you are a good violinist. How did you get started with that? Any musicians in the family?

Not really. My dad had 15 folk records. My sisters had piano lessons, but I played football for two youth teams, and never bothered. They only used their piano skills as an instrument of torture on me, their younger brother, anyway. Despite that, I taught myself the violin, from aged 15 on.

Maybe Sieben fans would be partial to the odd piece of romantic art music, and would love to know what you think? Could you name your top five favourite classical / romantic pieces? With or without strings?

Do you know, I’m not sure I could, these days. Always partial to a bit of Mozart, and Bach, but I’m not a listener, these days. You’re more likely to find me listening to Sage Francis, Wonk Unit, or Idles 🙂

How have live performances gone in the past? Any drama?

Well, I’ve done a hell of a lot, of all sorts, in 35 countries at last count. I love playing live. And I love that because I’ve played live so much, I’m able to deal with a lot of situations that arise 🙂 Live is the payback for the long hours in dark rooms writing and recording new material 🙂

Assuming all music is framed in some kind of genre, what does your music mean to you, and is it somewhat shaped by that genre? What does it represent?

No genre, it’s just me. I get lost trying to describe it to people. And drop in mumbled words like ‘hypnotic’ and ‘tuneful’ and ‘but not for every one, it’s kind of alternative’. I make what I make. And I shape, and endlessly re-shape. Endlessly try to develop what I do.

What messages are in your music?

You should really take a listen yourself 😉

Right wing nationalism had been growing slowly in this country for a while, even more so up north. Are people particularly polarised, where you live?

Life feels more polarised generally, with Brexit, mask wearing, pandemic, in many day to day respects. But I guess also the circles you move in mean it sometimes doesn’t feel that polarised. And as for the ‘right wing growing’, I think the whole Overton Window of politics has shifted to the right, sadly. A nasty edge, cheap nationalism and protectionism, a closing of borders, a shutting down of openness to others, to other ways. Certainly in the UK we have become more inward-looking – so much so we haven’t noticed how shit Brexit has been for us. There seem to be a lot of people putting a lot of effort into not noticing all the down sides now coming our way. Or pretending they don’t exist. Covid has helped blur the seismic impact we’re feeling…

How do you feel about democracy, these days? Perhaps you have had constructive conversations about this with people with an opposing view?

I do, in person. Given up online, certainly with people I don’t know. Even trying to have an open conversation seems to ‘paint you into a corner’ these days. Most seem to want to shout and not listen. We’re in the Wild West of digital technology now- so democracy, like many of the old ‘industries’ of old are reeling from how to keep up with the tectonic shift of it all. Democracy was up-ended here for the Brexit vote. Democracy nearly upended by Trump and his games. What I’m left with is deflation. That such obvious power-grabbing, self-serving shits can garner the votes of half a population.

Many neofolk fans will have read a fair but of occult stuff over the years, but maybe don’t feel any need to ‘wear it on their sleeves’ now. Have you ever been or are you still interested in runes and mysticism and so forth?

I am endlessly fascinated by, in awe of, giving respect to nature. I have a passing interest in some elements of mysticism, but for me there’s enough mystery in nature to keep me going for good

It’s striking how artists who identify with the Neofolk scene incorporate nature into their creations, in their artefacts and even in how they dress themselves and their surroundings. Your art is words and sound, that attest to the mystery of nature, would you say? And in what other ways does nature fit into your life? Are you a rambling man, perhaps, at least?

I would say 🙂 Certainly to its majesty and over-arching power- it’s the planet we live on, and as we know we’re running head long into wiping ourselves out…

And in what other ways does nature fit into your life? Are you a rambling man, perhaps, at least?

I am. I’m a walker. My wife and I have just done 60 miles on The Mendip Way, and around, down in Somerset. And I love a bit of gardening- always a good antidote, when my head is spinning from working on a new song 🙂

Should visitors to the UK check out Sheffield?

I reckon! There’s not masses here, but a nice, not too big a city; not the most beautiful in some ways, but lots of prettiness throughout the city. A pretty green city, with some walks where you can follow parks and end up in wild countryside without ever really noticing the city Loads of good music, some good culture going on – and lots of various alternative things too. I love living in the city. Been to ‘better’, of course. But yes, well worth a visit 😉

To wrap it up then Matt, what would you say to yourself, if you could go back in time?

“not that one!”

How would you change the world, in a sentence?

With a rod of iron in my role as benign dictator? Possibly I’d start by banning people from asking musicians such questions 😉 Ask some wise people.

Last words for the fans?

You’re bloody lovely, and your presence, warmth and kindness kept me going during Lockdowns

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