Interview: Rich Mattson

Rich Mattson is an Americana/folk rock musician from Minnesota who has been performing and recording music since 1980, at the age of 13. When he was 20, he wanted to leave his small hometown and go to Minneapolis to pursue bigger and better opportunities. Since then, he has performed in multiple bands like The Glenrustles, Ol’ Yeller, and now Rich Mattson and The Northstars. He also has his own recording studio called Sparta Sound and often collaborates with his partner, Germaine Gemberling.

On 5 February, the Northstars’ 5th album, Skylights comes out. We’re lucky to have Rich with us on the blog to talk about his music, influences, and of course the new album. He generously took some time out of his day to talk to us about music. If you want to learn more about him and his music, keep on reading!

You can stream the album below on Spotify.

Angie Moon: On your Facebook page you describe your music as ‘Cosmic Americana’, what does that mean?

Rich Mattson: It started out as cosmic folk. It was acoustic. I played acoustic guitar. Germaine plays acoustic guitar. Our bass player played upright bass. Our drummer was playing with those hot rods, those little sticks. It was cosmic folk, but then we started rocking a little harder, switched to electric instruments and it’s always been Americana with me. I grew up on classic rock. I grew up on more Americana style music, country music, classic rock, folk rock, The Byrds, Neil Young, The Eagles, stuff like that.

Angie: All very good stuff. Who inspired you to start playing guitar?

Rich: A lot of people really. My first big influence was probably John Denver. I was a child of the 70s and I watched The Partridge Family. All of a sudden Van Halen came out and Kiss and those guitars were just so flashy and amazing and I don’t think I can be that kind of guitar player, so I figured I’d play bass. Then I heard Neil Young and I’m like ‘maybe I can play guitar’. It seemed like it was a more attainable goal to play like Neil Young and I learnt the entire Live Rust album just sitting there playing along with bass, playing along with guitar and I even played along on the drums. So I’d say that Neil Young is probably my biggest influence with guitar. The Edge from U2, I learnt all his guitar parts. And Peter Buck from REM. Those are probably my biggest three influences as far as why I decided to start playing guitar and how I got into it.

Angie: Who are your biggest bass influences?

Rich: I really like those British new wave bass players, like the guy from XTC [Colin Moulding], Paul McCartney is amazing. I like a real melodic bass player like the guy who played with Elvis Costello [Bruce Thomas]. And the bass player with Buffalo Springfield, Bruce Palmer, probably one of my favourites. The bass player in The Northstars, Kyle Westrick, kinda plays like Bruce Palmer from Buffalo Springfield and I’ve been looking for that guy all my life. I just love that style

Angie: Which songwriters are your biggest influences?

Rich: Neil, Bob Dylan, of course. Gene Clark, I love Gene Clark. All the music from REM, The Church, The Plimsouls, just off the top of my head. Good old John Denver, but that was my preteen years when I was into John Denver. More recently I guess I can say The Replacements, Paul Westerberg, The Flamin’ Oh’s from Minneapolis were another big influence on my songwriting.

Angie: What are your songs usually about?

Rich: I’ll have a phrase or line that seems kinda interesting and I’ll start there and keep going and it’ll be something I saw that day or something that sounds kinda clever. I’ll start with a line and something I can relate to and I think everybody could relate to. I just go from there. A lot of it is autobiographical. A lot of it’s words that – I guess you could call it bad poetry or maybe even good poetry, but it makes sense to me. I like to write. I’ve always kept a journal and written stuff down, you know?

Angie: What albums changed your life?

Rich: Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds was a big one. Live Rust by Neil Young. Zuma by Neil Young. The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street was a big one. Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde. The Flamin’ Oh’s, their first album was a big deal to me.

Angie: What was it like growing up in Northern Minnesota in the 70s and 80s?

Rich: It was a lot of dirty kids running around in the woods. We had motorcycles and three wheelers. We had a lot of fun. We grew up around a lot of woods and forest and iron ore dumps. They mined for iron ore here so there’s all these open pits and we just ran wild in the woods. It was a lot of fun. Everybody was into music. Everybody loved music. I had a friend down the street who was getting into music and he got a drum kit. I got a guitar and we went crazy learning songs together and right away we started writing songs together, but the thing is once we got old enough to drive, we couldn’t wait to get out of the Iron Range and move to Minneapolis where all the music was happening.

Angie: What do you like better about the past, musically?

Rich: I like the realness of it. The way you can picture the musicians playing together in a room. It doesn’t sound so produced where everything is so rigid. there’s mistakes. The music just seems to have more life to it and I still record that way where we’ve got musicians all playing together in the room and what we add to it later is a little bit of polish to keep up with the times, but I just love the sound of a band playing together.

Angie: What do you like better about the present, musically?

Rich: I like a lot of these folk groups that play around. I’m kind of amazed by it really, there’s some stuff that I don’t even know how they come up with these sounds. To me it sounds like computers making the noises and I’m mystified by it. So I guess that’s a quality and I find it amazing.

Angie: What was it like writing and recording your latest album, Skylights?

Rich: It was a blast. It was really really fun. We got together for two weekends in my studio and we learnt the songs. I kind of demoed the songs and played them for the band and we got them together and whipped them into shape and we got to play them all together live and so we did the basic tracks and I took it from there and added stuff to it. Worked on vocals with Germaine [too].

Angie: What are your favourite songs on the album?

Rich: I really love that opening number, “Death Valley”. “In Flight” was our favourite that one has kind of worn on my a little bit. I really like “Against the Wall”. “Another Stupid Song” is a good one. I love all the tunes. I love Germaine’s songs a lot, those ones really stand out. “How Can It Be”, that one really rocks.

Angie: How do you think your music has evolved over the years?

Rich: I guess the lyrics have gotten better, a little more to the point and I think the arrangements have gotten a little more to the point. I used to try to throw a little too much in there maybe, but maybe it’s a little more refined. Maybe I’m getting a little better at it as I go along, but It’s hard to tell from my perspective.

Angie: What is your proudest accomplishment as a musician?

Rich: My proudest accomplishment is that I have released about 30-some records just on my own and was never really owned by any company and I have complete control over all my music.

Angie: Was it your own decision to never sign to a label?

Rich: Well, we really tried to get on a label at first, we were really striving for that. That was always the brass ring back in the 90s, to get on a label, but it never really happened for us for whatever reason and in the end it’s probably a good thing, because who knows how we would have handled it? We were a little wild and crazy.

Angie: What do you wish you knew before 2020?

Rich: Gosh, who would have ever seen any of this coming? I could say I wish I knew there was going to be a pandemic where we would be locked down for a whole year, but what good would that have done me to know what was coming? I don’t really have an answer to that question.

Angie: When was the last show you played?

Rich: This is probably the longest I haven’t played a show in probably 25-30 years. February 28th was our last club show. We played a lot over the summer in 2020, and the very last show we had last year was on 10/10/2020, at Olcott Park in Virginia, Minnesota.

Angie: What are your live shows like?

Rich: I usually have a setlist ready and we kind of look at that and we just rock through a whole bunch of tunes. We mix in a couple of covers, but we mostly play our original music and it’s not a lot of BS between songs. We just go from one right into the other and we rock it up and try to have a great time and bring people together and have a lot of fun.

Angie: What songs do you usually cover?

Rich: We do a lot of different ones. We do a tune by the Traveling Wilburys, “Handle With Care”, we like doing that one. We do a lot of Byrds songs, we do some Neil Young. Maybe a little Pretenders once in a while. Maybe some Johnny Cash, we do that once in a while. Link Wray’s “Rumble”, that’s a big one, that’s kind of a showstopper.

Angie: Yeah, I really like the fuzziness of that song. It was a gamechanger in rock.

Rich: Yeah, we like to end the show with that one sometimes. I’ll get right down on the floor.

Angie: What kept you motivated this past year?

Rich: Well, I just think that when this is all over it’s gonna be like the Roaring 20s again and people are going to be going out and it’s going to be like this explosion for live music. It’s gonna be better than it ever was. People are gonna be coming out and really wanting to rock out and that’s what keeps me going. I look forward to that day when we can all really just have a great time because people are gonna want it. They’re gonna be hungry for some live entertainment like it was Roaring 20s style, really having a good time.

Angie: Sort of like a rebirth and making up for lost time, I guess.

Rich: I’ll be coming out of it like crazy, you know.

Angie: What are your goals for this year?

Rich: For this year, we’re gonna get this album, Skylights, out and hopefully play a bunch of shows around it. There are probably gonna be a lot of outdoor shows so goals I would say, book as many outdoor shows, concerts as we can and we’ve got some new songs already that I’ve been working and I’d like to release an EP sometime this summer too.

Angie: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Rich: Practice a lot, know your stuff, don’t get on stage until you really feel comfortable with your music, and don’t be afraid to kick ass!

Angie: Very good words. My final question is any words for your fans?

Rich: Thanks a lot for sticking with us over the years and we really appreciate you being there for us and we really appreciate everyone that’s picked up a copy of the record so far. The presale has been going great. Can’t tell you how much that helps us and how great that feels to know that our music is getting out there.

You can follow Rich Mattson and the Northstars on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, his website, and Bandcamp. Reminder: The first Friday of the month is Bandcamp Friday, so if there’s any musicians you want to buy an album from on Bandcamp, they waive their fees on Bandcamp Fridays so more money gets to the musician and is a big support for them!

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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