Featured Music: Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Contributors may come and go, but the brothers and nephew Gray remain the same.
Matthew and the Arrogant Sea
W/History At Our Disposal and Bridges and Blinking Lights 8pm January 24 at The Chat Room Pub, 1263 W Magnolia Av, FW. 817-922-8318.
Gray Areas

Somewhere between shoegazy pop and pop-prog lies the family affair, Matthew and the Arrogant Sea.


If Family, Family, Family Meets the Magic Christian sounds like the title of a concept album, that’s because it is. Matthew Gray, the leader of the Denton-based pop quintet Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, has declared that the band’s first full-length on Denton’s Nova Posta Vinyl label is “autobiographical.” The 14 poignant, trippy tunes full of shimmering boyish background vocals, ’shroomy Donovanesque lyrics, and eerily off-tune guitar work follow their own highly personal yellow-brick-road plotline. Exactly where they’re headed, and what the journey means, is locked safely away in the mind of Gray, MATAS’ 26-year-old singer-songwriter.
“Another reporter asked me, ‘What’s the meaning behind Family, Family, Family?’ and I was like, ‘Fuck you, that takes all the pleasure out of listening to it,’ ” said Gray in a tone that’s teasing rather than pugnacious. “I don’t think the band even knows what the concept is. Charles Bukowski said, ‘A good writer never tells you the reason behind his writing. People will interpret it the way they need to interpret it.’ ”
Those other still-in-the-dark MATAS members include guitarist Caleb Gray, who is Matthew’s 23-year-old brother; singer-guitarist Jacob Gray, who is Matthew and Caleb’s 16-year-old nephew (and who occasionally performs solo as J Gray); and two close family friends, bassist David Howard and drummer Jonathan Losasso. Over the band’s five-year history, a dozen or so other North Texas musos have participated on various Matthew and the Arrogant Sea projects. (Howard and Losasso are former members of Fort Worth’s Eaton Lake Tonics, and ELT frontman Domenic Ferraro has been a frequent MATAS collaborator.)
MATAS has delved into improvisational, ambient, and lo-fi sonic corners, but the beguiling and sometimes haunting Family, Family, Family, produced by Ferraro at his home studio and released a little over a month ago, represents their first cohesive, focused effort as a band. This is not to say deliberate looniness and a kind of school-playground glee don’t pervade tunes like “Pretty Purple Top Hat” and “Mock Origami.” Other tracks, like “Marry Me Annie” and “The Man in Me,” resonate with a Harry Nilsson-styled lonely humor. (By the way, The Magic Christian part of the title has nothing to do with Terry Southern’s same-named ’60s satirical novel: “I’m not that hip,” Gray insisted.)
Matthew and Caleb were raised in a musical family in St. Paul, Minn. Their mother was a professional singer at weddings and other private events, and their dad loved to play the guitar along with Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash on the stereo. Dad tried to teach his sons to read the sheet music of everything from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to “Ring of Fire.” Matthew and Caleb diplomatically begged off and began teaching themselves by ear during obsessively long practice sessions, making plenty of mistakes along the way but gaining an appreciation for off-kilter blues and jazz tunings like the D-A-D-F-A-D chords of Skip James, Steve Earle, and Joni Mitchell. “There’s nothing more fulfilling than to mess with the tuning on your guitar,” said Matthew. Nontraditional tuning “makes it hard as hell to stay in sync during a live show,” he said. But there are benefits to the extra work. “The timbre [of the MATAS sound] isn’t quite as solid as a lot of other pop and rock bands. It’s more silky.”
At 16, Jacob is an evocative, impressive singer-songwriter in his own right. By the time the Gray family had moved from St. Paul to Fort Worth six years ago, Matthew was teaching him the guitar. “I used to listen through the walls to Matthew and Caleb and their friends play,” Jacob said. “I wanted to do what they were doing – to experiment and to create music, not just copy someone else. I’m not so interested in listening to a Bob Dylan song and saying, ‘Oh, my God, I want to write a song that sounds just like that.’ I’ve always tried to write music that came from ideas in my head rather than somebody’s else’s music.”
Jacob is currently being homeschooled by his grandparents in Fort Worth, but once a week or so he engages in marathon practice sessions with Matthew and the Arrogant Sea that can last up to 10 hours.
Uncle Matthew merrily lives full-time in Denton, a city that he said is “full of musicians and writers and painters who listen to each other and support each other.” Last month, MATAS launched a two-week national tour to support Family, Family, Family that had them driving up the West Coast for club dates in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Denver. Uncle Caleb has since relocated with his wife to North Carolina, although he still plans to contribute to upcoming recording projects.
Matthew and the Arrogant Sea wants to expand its professional horizons in 2009. Family, Family, Family Meets the Magic Christian has earned raves across the indie-music blogosphere as well as some unlikely comparisons to the Seattle-based Sub Pop band Fleet Foxes. (“We don’t sound anything like them,” Jacob said a little wearily.) The vinyl-CD package is set for a Jan. 28 international release courtesy of the global distributors Junket Boy. Matthew has already written and demo’d most of the tunes for MATAS’ follow-up album, tentatively titled You Can’t Tame a Wild Rabbit. Matthew et al, also have secured upcoming performance slots at Austin’s ultra-crowded SXSW, and Nova Posta Vinyl has pledged to help them scout and book a handful of dates in European cities to promote their esoteric but unpretentiously happy-sad brand of neo-psychedelic tuneage.
By way of hinting about the mysterious “concept” behind Matthew and the Arrogant Sea’s music, Matthew Gray said, “I’m a spiritual, anarchist, vegan punk with a strong work ethic. I get my inspiration from my friends and my big family — I’ve got 12 nieces and nephews — and from all the creative electricity in Denton.” As far as the professional future of MATAS, Matthew offered simply: “The music industry is a vicious machine.”
After years of pouring serious energy into the music, they’re finally learning to pay attention to the demands of that machine.

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