Turn it Down: Loud dispatches from Lansing’s music scene

Q&A: Matt Carlson talks new Harborcoat album

‘Joy Is Elusive’ LP features all-star Lansing lineup

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Matthew Carlson, the chief songwriter in Harborcoat, is a familiar face in the Lansing music scene. For more than a decade, he led The Pantones, and he currently is a member of The Stick Arounds — a genuine power-pop band. 

Beyond that, the singer/guitarist also recently formed Phonophore Record and is getting set to release Harborcoat’s sophomore LP, “Joy Is Elusive,” on CD and deluxe blue vinyl. Locals can pick it up at the Oct. 2 album release show at The Avenue Café. 

Harborcoat, which Carlson formed in 2016, also comprises drummer Joel Kuiper, Johnny Aimcrier (guitar, lap steel), David Baldwin (guitar, keys, trumpet), Nate Moore (keys,mandolin) and bassist Ian Walker. Fans of early R.E.M., Wilco, Teenage Fanclub or Billy Bragg might want to check out this steadily growing catalog. 

City Pulse recently caught up with Carlson.

You’ve said these songs “don't fit” with The Stick Arounds. How are they different? 

These stories feel much more personal and specific than the Sticks songs. I think of the Harborcoat stuff as short stories with chords. The songs on the record were really all built around the theme of joy being elusive and difficult to see. They’re about people who are often unseen or invisible. People living on the edges of society, often chiseling out meager lives filled with self-medication, depression, anxiety and a lack of hope. 

While these songs are fictional, they’re based in part on my own experiences with mental illness and living a life in a small Midwestern town where lots of folks are leading lives like the ones described in the songs. Sonically, there is a lot more ground being covered than on most of the Sticks recordings. This band is a six-piece outfit, and we have textures galore. On the recording, and even in a live setting, there are keys, mandolin, lap steel, horns and layers of harmonies. As a player, the album, and our live show, feels like a pretty immersive experience. I hope we can make the audience feel that way as well. 

Given the pandemic, was this batch of songs affected by that mess at all?

The songs themselves really weren’t informed by the pandemic in terms of themes or structure. The themes were pretty well defined before lockdown occurred. However, working from home for months on end allowed me the time to write for longer periods each day and gave me a chance to really focus on the structure and contents of each tune.

Lockdown did severely affect our ability to rehearse and record the album. By July of 2020 we managed to find a way for three of us to get together at a time and work out the bare bones of the songs. Then, we made plans to record at my family’s cabin for a week in September as a four piece. A few weeks before our scheduled recording date, my dad died very suddenly. That of course threw everything into chaos and there was a period of time where it looked like we’d have to abandon things for a while. 

What inspired you to keep working on the record? 

Thankfully, my family and friends convinced me to follow through and spend the week recording. That week was a huge relief in so many ways. It felt great to be creating something with people I love at a time when the world felt filled with loss and fear. I’m not sure if the average listener can hear the dimensions of grief and gratitude on the finished recording, but those of us who were there, you can feel it in the corners of the recordings. 

Looking back, when and where did you first start playing and writing music? 

I was a late bloomer with musicianship. I didn’t end up really learning guitar until I was like 20. What really motivated me was the desire to write my own songs. I’d grown up listening to a lot of ’60s folk — like Donovan, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Of course, The Beatles loomed large as well, but it was really Billy Bragg and R.E.M. that made me believe I could do it for myself. 

Almost as soon as I had learned how to play a few basic songs, I was writing my own. Looking back nearly 30 years later, they seem pretty childish and simple, but it was a huge step to have the confidence and ability to bring a new thing into the world that hadn’t existed before I wrote it. There was something almost magical to it. 

Over the past year you’ve been growing your label, Phonophore — what’s next? 

We have a few irons in the fire. In addition to the Harborcoat album, there will be new Stick Arounds material in 2022. Jeff from the Sticks has a solo country project he’ll be releasing sometime next year and we’re set up to release some stuff in the coming months with The Royal Scene. We’re always talking to our friends and colleagues looking for how we can help. 

I’d also mention to anyone reading this that even a small purchase from a local or regional band that you dig makes a huge difference. Buy a digital record. Pick up a T-shirt at the show. Every dollar makes an impact. Capitalism is kind of gross, but without that income we can’t keep making records and playing gigs. The scene needs you. Do what you can to help.

Harborcoat

“Joy is Elusive” Release Show
w/ Drinking Mercury, Flatfoot.

The Avenue Café 
2021 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
Saturday, Oct. 2
8 p.m., FREE
phonophorerecords.com

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