Matt Batey is somewhere between a veteran and a sudden upstart. He's been playing in Seattle for over a decade, as Ruler and with bands like Cataldo. In May he released his first album as Ruler, Winning Star Champion, a set of 11 verbally downtrodden yet aurally infectious indie-pop songs. On first listen it feels, in a very good way, instantly familiar.
Friday, Ruler plays the Sunset Tavern. Below Batey and I talk about the recording of Winning Star Champion and what the reception has been like so far.
To start, can you talk about the gestation of this record? When did you start recording and how did that work out?
I recorded the first song in 2011 but it was in my practice space, just on my laptop and that song was "Keep Moving," and it ended up being the version of the song that we put on the record. I think I didn't record anything else for a couple of years because I didn't have any money. Then I recorded some songs with Michael Learner at his house and then I didn't have any money again. There were these long periods of not really being able to do anything and then if I happened to be able to put some money together for a session I would blow it all at once. That’s why it took seven years.
It wasn't seven straight years of working on it. I don't think I could do that. I'd go crazy. It was spread out because I didn't really have the means to make it happen. I don't think the next one will take nearly as long.
How do you think that affected the final record?
Well the benefit of taking a really long time is that I had more time to reflect on what was happening. It’s not like I had to throw it all together and then pick a sequence and put it out right away. I could really reflect on what had been done, what maybe I wanted to redo. And I had the chance to go into the studio again.
But the bad thing is that by the time the record was actually finished all of the songs are so old that I found a completely different person than when I started making it. Now I've got a whole new list of things that I want to talk about. I’m more focused on making the next one but I still haven't gone on the tour for the first one.
When did you finish writing the songs for this current one?
I don't know. It’s hard to pinpoint a spot when a song is finished because I don't really sit down and write all of the lyrics out and choose an arrangement and call it done. All of that stuff tends to take shape and change as it gets worked on at the studio. “Winning Star Champion,” for example, probably went through seven or eight different arrangement iterations before it got to the one that it is now.
That song is super old, it just changed little by little over the years. I don't really think of them as being finished until the final master gets done, because little choices can get made to change as song as it's filled in.
What did “Winning Star” sound like it its first iterations? Was there a difference in tone at all? The whole record has downtrodden lyrics combined with often very hooky, upbeat songs and that song seems to be the most extreme case of that.
That song was always like that. I think if anything it was more upbeat in its original form. It had like hand claps in it and more happy backing vocals in it and that stuff that I did in my apartment. The formula of the sad lyrics and happy music was always supposed to be the way it was. That's probably been the most constant thing in the making of the record. I really like putting the sad things that I want to say in songs to really happy upbeat sounding music.
Do you have any sense of what drives that impulse or is it just purely instinctual?
It's kind of hard to say, but I think just from a practical standpoint upbeat songs are more fun to play. But I don't really have any upbeat content to put into them, so I want them to be fun to play but I also want them to be real in what I have to say about my experience in life. I don't want to play slow sad sounding songs, but I also don't want to write a bunch of big lyrics to match up with the play on stage, so I think it's just a practical consideration.
I think having more painful, real content put to upbeat songs makes it—it helps you rise above it, make it seem not so overwhelming. If you could write a pop song about feeling like a failure, it makes feeling like a failure seem less bad in some way.
So how does it feel to have such a positive response after working on the album for seven years?
It's incredible, totally unexpected. One of the reasons I worked on it for so long is because I figured nobody would listen to it. Why be in a rush to put out something that everyone is going to ignore anyway? So to have that as sort of my mentality and then receive such good press and feedback and to get signed to the label—it all just feels like gravy.
It’s a very clear case of a passion project.
Yeah totally. I've been playing in bands for a long time and I'm 31 now. When I first moved to Seattle when I was 18 I was like, I'm definitely going to be a famous musician or at least rise through the ranks, or whatever my dreams were.
And then slowly over the years I was just like okay maybe none of that will ever happen and maybe nobody will ever care. But I still really like doing it so I'm going to do it anyway. So then get to a good review from Pitchfork....
And to have the actual piece of art rooted in the feelings of not succeeding and then to have the art succeed based on those feelings of unsuccess? There's this weird contradiction there, it seems.
Yeah, to write a song about how you never do anything right and then to have that song be received by the press and basically be told that you did it right—it's weird. It's all new to me so I'm still trying to figure out how to feel about it, how to appreciate it, how to move forward with it.
What does the future hold for the band? Do you play with an alternating set of musicians generally?
Yeah they're alternating based on availability, mostly because everybody plays in multiple bands. From the beginning of the project, I wanted to have a lot of flexibility with what we could do. I had multiple people that I could call at any given time to play the live show. Over the years it slowly got narrowed down into the group that it is right now. They were always the people that were available and they were the people that I called first.
The idea was that I never have to say no to anything. I can do a solo set if people want that or we can do a two-piece set with me and a drummer, all the way up to like six people on stage if the occasion calls for it. It's low stakes. Everybody just shows up and wants to have a good time and I think that is reflected in the way the show comes across.
It's almost like jam sessions with a set batch of material.
Exactly. I wrote the songs on purpose to be pretty easy to play from another musician’s perspective. We don't really have to rehearse it very much. We usually do one rehearsal. The players can have a lot more fun with it because they just show up and bash it out for the live set.
Ruler with Sloucher and Bruce
Sept 7, Sunset Tavern, $10