September 8, 2020
Tune-In Tuesdays #86: Thompson Springs’ Matt Smith on Their Debut Album, “Undertones”
Group photo of Chicago-based folk-rock band Thompson SpringsSource: Thompson Springs
Recently, we spoke to Matt Smith of Thompson Springs to learn more about “Undertones,” how the band began, and what they’re working on next.
Tell me a little about yourself, the band, and your music
We’re just kind of out in Chicago. The group started in 2016 when I was living in Madison, Wis. It’s been me and my drummer, Jake Bicknase, since the beginning.
Before that, me and him played in a previous band together. So we’ve been playing together for almost nine years in different groups.
We were feeling a little bit stuck in our old band, so I branched out and started Thompson Springs.
For awhile, we lived in Madison. Then I lived in Memphis for a year, then we both moved to Chicago last year.
That’s so cool that you guys have played together for so long. How have you seen each other grow as people and as musicians over the years?
Oh man, it’s been crazy. When I was in college in Madison, I put up a flyer to start up a band and only a couple of people responded. One of them was Jake.
We’ve seen each other grow completely through our first gigs, not even knowing how to play, not even knowing how to talk into a mic, not knowing how to set up a mic, going on our first tours and all the disasters that happened.
It’s been fun to have a partner to learn all these things with. It’s a bit unique these days.
It is. Normally when people branch out, they do it solo, so it’s great to have a partner in crime… Partner in music crime! So, what are some of your core values, both musically and personally?
In terms of music, I’ve always gravitated towards the guys that are a bit more lose. When a band is learning a song or playing live, it’s not really a strict regime. I like guys like [Bob] Dylan and Neil Young, where they’re just going with the flow more, seeing where it goes.
It’s been interesting lately with practice, when we get together with the band I can only practice the songs like twice before I’m just tired of it and I want to move on to another song.
Personally, I think patience and big picture stuff. Going into music again — but this could go with anything in life — if you’re having a disagreement or someone has a different opinion, you don’t always need to figure it out right then. It can kind of sort itself out over time.
Sometimes not in engaging in an argument will actually solve it more than trying to fight back right away.
In terms of patience and big picture stuff, that really applies to so many aspects of life. I’m a bit of a workaholic myself, so I had all these plans to get work done yesterday, then my hard drive corrupted on me. And it got me thinking, “Well, what is the big picture? Why do I get so caught up in the daily grind if it can all just disappear in the blink of an eye?”
Yeah! I think the mentality that helps me, especially with music, is it doesn’t really matter. That actually frees you up more, than what you were saying, trying to micromanage all the details.
If you care less, then you make better stuff and you care more, in a way.
Yeah! And it feels more authentic, too, ’cause people really connect with that.
Especially with today’s climate, with people being so divided, sometimes engaging in those arguments makes it worse. I think if you just step back, eventually they start seeing the right answers and the truth.
Exactly. I see so many things where I get really hopeful, then I hear one or two people say something terrible and I’m like, “What century are you in? Why are you still like this?”
Yeah, it’s a mess. But we’re sortin’ through it.
So, what role has music played in your life, from your upbringing ’till now?
A pretty big role. I grew up going to shows with my dad, who’s a really big fan of music. He can’t play a lick of music for his life, but he’s always going to shows and knows a lot of deep-cut bands.
He grew up in Brooklyn and used to go to the Fillmore East, the famous venue run by Bill Graham in the ’70s.
We started going to a lot of shows together, when I was 10/11/12. He’d take me to see The Allman Brothers, bands like that. I started getting into that stuff.
Luckily, I had a nice library near where I lived and they had a big discography of old music. So I’d just go, rent 30 CDs, and burn ’em to my computer. That’s how I started getting into old blues artists and stuff.
It was fun to collect music and get into stuff that people had never heard at my age. Y’know in high school, kids are listening to a lot more different stuff than I was.
It felt like a whole little world where you could learn about old blues artists like Elmore James that no one else really knows about. It was such a fun little world.
Ah, that’s so cool. I had a feeling that psychedelic rock influence had to come from somewhere!
Yeah. I don’t even listen to that much psychedelic rock, but that’s kind of how my songs turn out. I really like blues, folk, and old country like J.J. Cale.
How would you say your music has been influenced by living in the Chicago area this last year? What’s the scene like?
It’s only been a year, but I grew up in the suburbs here, so I know the area, the places to play, the bands.
I’ve been fortunate to have two great band mates, Jeff Sullivan and David Thrift, who’ve been here awhile. They’ve been helping us meet people, get on some good shows.
It’s a good scene. It’s pretty big, a lot of places to play. I mean, it’s all shut down now, so it’s hard to know what the benefit is of living in a city right now.
But I’ve made a lot of great new friends and everyone’s so supportive.
I’ve never been to Chicago personally, but my dad’s been there a couple times and he was telling me the other day the city scene is on another level. It made me wish I had gotten to experience that!
There was a lot going on before the shut down. A lot of places. Venues would have shows, then they’d have little block parties outside, little festivals. There’s a lot, a good cultivation of the scene.
What inspired you to want to branch out with Thompson Springs? Were there any particular themes or genres you were looking to explore?
View this post on Instagram
These boys are going on tour in Dec! Look out for dates tomorrow. Jake and I are pleased to have David (bass) and Jeff (guitar) joining the lineup. These guys rip and the band sounds great with the fresh interplay. So pleased to have them. Don’t worry we love Andy we’ll probably collaborate on future work he’s our OG! New music soon…. Thanks @kaylaa_lynnn for the photo!
To be honest, it was more from a logistical and business point of view. The first band Jake and I were in was called The Sharrows. That’s where we all learned how to play music and it was very educational.
But it was like five people all leading different lives in a very democratic way, so getting simple things accomplished seemed really difficult. Setting up tour dates, sometimes not everyone was available.
I just wanted to try and see what would happen if there was more of a direct leader in a group. That was the experiment, just trying to get some things going a little bit.
Tell me a little about your debut album, “Undertones.” What’s the story behind it?
We recorded it almost two years ago, it’s kind of crazy. We were going to release it earlier, but there were other things that were more important to focus on in the world for a while there.
It was our first full-length. We went down to Nashville to do it with Pat Sansone, who plays in Wilco, and our engineer friend Andy Freeman.
We had a great time, learned a lot from Pat, had a lot of good laughs. It’s nice to get it done and move on to other things, to have something that’s a piece of the time period when I wrote those songs. They feel old now.
It’s funny, two years ago wasn’t that long ago, relatively, but the world has changed so much since then that it feels like ancient history.
It feels like a different time, going to shows and stuff.
Who were some of your biggest influences while working on the album?
I don’t think there were any while working on it. When we were working on it, we would get to the studio at 10 a.m. and the whole day we would work.
There wasn’t really any room for influence because we were so busy and just trying to take it thing by thing. Like if we were putting down the guitar, we were just focusing on that.
We weren’t really thinking anything passed that, which is kind of good, to be like hyperfocused.
Being in the zone and getting to share a lot of laughs, what was your favorite part of writing and recording “Undertones?”
Favorite part was working with Pat. It was the first time we’d ever worked with a producer, and I had no idea how it would go, if he was going to tell us what to do or make his mark on the song.
But it couldn’t have been a better experience. Pat’s all about the music. So we would come in with a song, sit on the floor with an acoustic guitar and play it.
Then we’d start fine-tuning it like, “What should the drums be doing that they’re not doing?” Or, “What’s wrong with the bass?”
Just little things that really make a song that sometimes you don’t think about. We tried different stuff. He’s made a lot of great records and he knows the flow of a song. It’s cool to see his mind working in real time, that was my favorite part.
As one of the artists behind “Undertones,” which tracks mean the most to you and why?
I really like the second song, “Sirens.”
It’s just in this weird tuning that I was excited about. Me and Jake had that arrangement forever and we wouldn’t nail it down, Pat really helped.
I like the “Deadly Stare” song. It’s got a vibe with Jake’s keyboard part.
And the “Rainbow” one, too. It’s kind of dreamy.
What do you hope listeners take away from the album?
I have no idea. In some ways, what they could take away from our band is we’re a small independent band and you can have ideas and make them happen. I hope that’s inspiring to other bands and musicians who are just starting out.
We don’t have a manager or record label money, but we were able to make this album of our songs. Hopefully that’s inspiration to people who are trying to do little things in their lives.
In terms of the music, it’s so funny, everyone who listens to it has a different opinion or band that they reference that it sounds like. So whatever anyone can get out of it is great to me.
Throughout all of your musical work, what has been the most challenging aspect of your journey?
It’s so hard getting people to be interested. And I get it, ’cause I’m not constantly looking out for new bands, either. But going on tour to new cities, getting people out to shows, trying to sell albums, it’s tough.
But when it happens, it’s really rewarding. Those little victories of meeting people, putting out an album, or playing on a local radio station.
Those are the kinds of things that make it worthwhile and make it feel like you’re making a little progress.
What’s next for Thompson Springs? Are you guys working on any music videos, any merch, or any additional music?
We just got our vinyls shipped, it was late coming from Florida. It’s kind of cool to have that and it’s the first time I’ve ever pressed vinyls.
We’re just working on new music at our house, actually. It’s been a fun but also crazy experience, buying gear and getting into all that stuff, it’s a whole process. But we’re trying to work on a new album, record it all ourselves just to learn. So we’ll see how that sounds… Could be a disaster.
Give Thompson Springs’ debut album “Undertones” a listen on Spotify now!
Be sure to follow Thompson Springs on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with their upcoming releases.
Interested in having content featured in an upcoming blog post or issue of The Burgundy Zine? Head on over to the submissions page!
For all other inquiries, please fulfill a contact form.