Matthew Good’s ‘Chaotic Neutral’ an album built on trust

MATT-GOOD-7898_50“At a certain level, you get to know everyone.” Matthew Good details how after leaving Universal Records, his home label of 13 years, and wading in independent waters for another two, he has found himself back on a major for his latest solo album, Chaotic Neutral. Universal had invited him back, but having “done that dance before,” the Burnaby-born songwriter opted to side with another giant, Warner Music Canada.

One of Warner’s greatest appeals to Good was his history with company president Steve Kane. The two share a rapport that dates back nearly two decades. “I remember sittin’ around swappin’ stories about all the great shows he got to see back in the days. Steve’s a real music guy.… He’s surrounded himself with real music people which, in this day and age of major labels, trying to deal with the mayhem that is music and still turn a dime is an impressive thing, to be leading a ship like that. So for me, it’s a bit of an honour.”

Trust shaped Chaotic Neutral in more immediate ways than just which label got to stamp its name on the album’s jacket. Good took a more hands-off approach in order to give the songs some fresh perspective, a suggestion that came from his long-time producer, Warne Livesey. “[The songs] were completely done,” Good says of the music which he’d demo’d himself. But he ceded the playing of the actual parts – bringing them to life – to other musicians including Holly McNarland (a friend of 20 years), Sam Goldberg Jr. (Broken Social Scene), Bones Hillman (Midnight Oil), Anthony Wright, and Stu Cameron.

Good can’t overstate the significance of his relationship with Livesey enough. “The whole thing starts with Warren Livesey. Warne produced the record with me. He’s the godfather of my children. I’ve been making records with him for 18 years.”

Along with Good’s producer and fellow musicians, he also poured a large amount of trust into his new label. It was Warner’s call to open Chaotic Neutral with lead single “All You Sons and Daughters” instead of his first choice, “Harridan”. In fact, Warner determined the album’s entire track order, a much different sequence than Good’s original idea, save for the closing track. The label based those decisions on Spotify and Rdio users’ listening habits, but Good is unconcerned by such factors. “I know my fans,” he says confidently, perhaps a bit proudly. “I’m not worried about it. I know they’re gonna go listen to the whole thing, and they’re gonna find what they like.”

If Good had intended to make a “hugely obvious statement” with Chaotic Neutral, he might have exerted more control over a detail like track order. “[The album]’s not a concept. It’s not like Vancouver or like [Lights of] Endangered Species where everything was in the right order that it needed to be in.” Overall, Good approached the whole record-making process with a much more relaxed attitude this time. “I wanted to put ‘Harridan’ first because it’s a kick-ass song.” Simple considerations.

Not so simple, though, were the sessions that led to Chaotic Neutral. Prior to completing the record, Good discarded an entire album’s worth of material. Songs from those previous sessions began climbing upwards of 21 minutes; he described paring them down into more concentrated morsels as trying to bang a square peg into a round hole. “It’s something that I could have done, but the clock was ticking, and I was kind of like, ‘Man, this could take you fucking years.’ The fact that I knew I was gonna go in and make a record, I needed get my act in gear.”Rarely one to give his songs much time to gestate (“I wrote ‘Hello Time Bomb’ in 45 minutes on a bet, on a three-string guitar with nylon strings…”), Good decided to start over entirely – almost entirely. “Tiger By the Tail”, the shortest song from the discarded sessions, was the only one that survived in its entirety. He also culled snippets of “Cold Water” and “Los Alamos” from the early demos, the first two songs he completed specifically for Chaotic Neutral.

Perhaps the biggest exception to Good’s rule of working quickly is “All You Sons and Daughters”, a holdover from years ago that he could not let go of, for sentimental reasons: “It’s not some great musical accomplishment; don’t get me wrong. But I wrote it right after my son was born. I decided to resurrect it because obviously, I’ve had another child since, and they’re all grown up…. I wanted to include it because its very much a message to my children about life in general and maybe even some of the mistakes I’ve made in my life, the mistakes they’ll make in their lives, and the innocence I see in them and the power that generates in me…”

Another personally significant track for Good – and overall standout – is Chaotic Neutral‘s version of “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush. Just don’t call it a cover; Good is keen to avoid conflating the term with “tribute”: “You don’t cover Kate Bush,” he clarifies flatly right away. “When you try to cover something, obviously, it’s gonna have its differences from the original, but it’s gonna kinda carry along the same lines.” Instead, Good is “paying tribute,” putting his personal spins on the classic by abridging it from seven to four minutes, altering the tempo and chord progression, utilizing different instrumentation, and even by simply being male instead of female. “Hounds of Love is a huge record in my life, and that song out of all on that record is my favourite song, and when I demo’d it, I was just havin’ fun and seein’ what could be done…. When we finished it in the studio, everyone liked it so much, we were like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s put it on the record.'”

If Good had a year and a million dollars, he might have continued the earlier sessions, he says. After all, they weren’t totally fruitless. Although, he is also fully aware of – mystified by, even – the potential futility of having access to so many resources. He cites a band like U2 who pour a year and a million dollars into uninspiring albums: “I’m like really? A year? Really? Are you fucking kidding?… Seriously guys, is it just the hotels?”

Conversely, he expresses nothing but amazement over and praise and admiration of bands who work much more “on the quick,” like Led Zeppelin. “I find it utterly phenomenal if you think about the fact that in, what was it? Five years? Led Zeppelin released all of those records, like I-IV and Houses of the Holy. And toured.” He pauses. “That’s insanity.… You think about the material on all those records and the fact they came out year after year after year after… That’s just nuts to me.”

Chaotic Neutral is in stores and on iTunes now. Matthew Good plays back-to-back shows at the Vogue Theatre on November 13 and 14. Tickets are available online.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu