Interview with Musician and Fusionist Jim Matus

Jim Matus
Musician and composer Jim Matus is involved in several of the most interesting world fusion projects taking place in the United States. He reveals his projects and musical background in this interview with World Music Central.

You are involved in several different bands like Mawwal, Paranoise, Impulse Ensemble. What is the difference between these groups?

Mawwal comes totally from my vision so I get to be the boss. There is a core of 2 or 3 musicians I use for the live band and a dozen or so others that augment the recordings. I write out charts, make demos and teach them the material. I always leave room for people to interpret the material and make their own statements, but in the end I have the last word.

Over the years I’ve found some brilliant singers and players who seem to share my in vision. The brother and sister team of Joe and Jill O’Brien (bass and vocals) have been playing live with me for about 8 years. People like bass player Percy Jones and percussionist Shane Shanahan always end up on several of the studio cuts. Laila Salins is the newest addition to the Mawwal family and she has contributed soaring vocal improvisations and Latvian and Sansktrit lyrics.

I spend years experimenting and crafting these albums and try to do a release at least every 2 or 3 years. Since it was born out of my Progressive Fusion band (Paranoise), Mawwal has retained a pretty good fan base in the experimental Prog world. It’s funny, a lot of the same people who are into Dream Theater and King Crimson are into Mawwal. Since it doesn’t fit into the standard “World” music mold it’s kind of hard to define and market. Some have compared it to Peter Gabriel and I’m honored by that, but it’s really something much different.

In the past I’ve drawn a lot of influence from people like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hamza El Din and have done arrangements of their songs. A good part of the Mawwal material is based on Sufi music. For me, that’s the most magical and transcendent music in the world and its ancient traditions give me a solid spiritual and melodic platform to build on.

Impulse Ensemble
Impulse Ensemble is a totally different animal. It’s three guys with similar experience in leading their own groups just surrendering to the impulse of the moment improvising and playing off each other. Tony Vacca plays Balafon and percussion, Derrik Jordan plays 5 string electric violin and percussion, then there’s me on laoutar.

We have developed a repertoire of original tunes, but most of them came out of spontaneous jamming. Tony and I have known each other for about 6 years but only started to play together in 2009 when we got together in my studio and just ran the tape. It was an instant connection and we did a few gigs as a duo but we thought something was missing. So we added Derrik, and that was the final piece of the puzzle. It took off like a rocket (in our minds of course).

We play tunes that are pretty simple structures and then improvise off them kind of like a jazz concept, usually coming back to play the head. Sometimes we end up in uncharted territory and other times we just come back to the same place we started. Either way I always have to fasten my seatbelt. It’s one of the most fun bands I’ve ever played in. The sound is distinctly African but as Tony would say, it’s American World Fusion. We mostly use modal and drone textures mixed in with African pentatonic scales with some Middle Eastern and Indian colors too.

How do you find the time to play in so many projects?

Jim Matus
I have plenty of time on my hands. I’ve designed my life to that end. I live cheaply and have a very low overhead, no kids, and I drive a cheap car. If any one of these projects took off to the extent that it took up all my time then I’d have to pick and choose but for now I’m fine.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with who would that be?

King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Karsh Kale, Hassan Hakmoun, Simon Shaheen. I would be honored to be asked by any one of them to collaborate. But I have a great group of players that I am very happy with and I will continue to explore new music with.

You play a specially designed acoustic-electric instrument called laoutar. What is it? Who makes the laoutar?

It is a modified mandocello designed by Rick Turner (Renaissance Guitars). Since the tuning is similar to my Greek laouto I had him modify the stock mandocello by adding octave strings where there were unison. The result is that it sounds like a giant 12 string guitar meets a laouto.

What other musical instruments do you play?

Guitar, laouto and saz.

In this age of economic turmoil and social unrest, do you have a message you’d wish to impart through your music?

The situation in the world is absolutely deranged and totally dysfunctional. My message would be to somehow get back to the mother planet and tune into the music of the Earth. That’s what speaks to me about indigenous music. The transcendence of that basic connection to spirit and the selflessness of art for art’s sake. Only a tiny percentage of people making music ever get to make a living at it let alone get rich. Why try to please the market? “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” –ancient Sufi wisdom.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I’m most inspired by Sufi music. I discovered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan back in the 80’s on a little cassette, and then Hamza El Din, and Baaba Maal. It sounded like music from another planet, a planet where people were ecstatic and strange and where the music was free and flowing from the heart. Unlike most Western music which is very cerebral, this stuff is real and speaks to the body and soul, not just the mind. The other thing that inspires me is free jazz. There are some basic similarities in both these musical forms. Both require not thinking.

There seems to be a pretty interesting collective of musicians in your area making world music and fusions of various kinds? Why do you think there is such a concentration?

I live in Northampton, Massachusetts, right in between New York and Boston. I lived in New York for 15 years and I went to college at Berklee in Boston. So I know a good variety of musicians that I can collaborate with. It’s the Northeast! Greatest place in the world – I think! We are like a different country here. The anachronisms of the South and Midwest are so far away. Along with Northern California we are the progressive future.

Where are good places to listen to music in your area?

Here in Northampton we have the Calvin Theater and The Iron Horse. We have 5 liberal colleges in the area that put on great events and there are many other little venues that host very creative stuff. It’s a lot like Brooklyn or any other center of the arts. That said, I still need to go to New York City every so often to Lincoln Center or some downtown space to see the real cutting edge stuff.

What music genres, groups or CDs are you currently listening to?

Jim Matus
I’m listening to Indian vocal music and also Greek music. That just happens to be what I’m into now. The truth is that I don’t listen to music much anymore. I have music so much in my head all the time that I don’t need it. I spent 40 years of intense listening and now I’m enjoying a moment of silence.

We interviewed the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and asked what song was he completely addicted to – the one song that he will sing along with every time – and he told us his song was “One Love” by Bob Marley. What is your one song?

“Before the Bullfight” by David Sylvian

What do you like to do during your free time?

I like to walk in the woods and swim in the rivers around where I live. Nature is my religion. I’m a political junkie too. I spend way too much time watching MSNBC and Democracy Now. My heroes are Noam Chomsky and Terence McKenna.

What country would you like to visit?

Morocco or Bali (Indonesia)

Which is your favorite city?

New York of course!

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

In 1987 I was signed to Island records with my band Paranoise. We were given a small advance for delivering our first album and told to start on the second. Half way through the recording we were dropped from the label because we weren’t selling enough product. They had put a minimum amount of money into promoting us and expected us to catch on and sell by some miracle. We were a very off the grid item and needed someone in the system to stand behind us. This never happened because the corporate mentality is deaf to innovative voices unless they see money connected.

So the lesson is that the music business is no different that any other business. Profit is the only thing that matters and creativity and originality will always take the back seat.