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Interview: Mathas On His New Album, Trolls And Rapping With A Conscience

After a fairly lengthy hiatus, Perth rapper Mathas finally released his sophomore album Armwrestling Atlas last year. Described by himself as a labour of love, and by critics as a masterful rendering of beats and instrumentation, as well as Mathas’ undeniable brilliance as a lyricist.  Armwrestling Atlas is a clear-eyed look at Australia, and also into Mathas’ intelligent and humorous story telling. Despite the elapsed years between this album and his debut, 10lb Hairless Sasquatch, it seems that the award winning, rising hip-hop star has hit the ground running this time. After an intensive run of live dates following the release of Armwrestling Atlas, Mathas has already put out new single, Bravo Troll, and is about to embark on another run of shows. We spoke to him ahead of his tour Trolling Australia, about getting that album off his chest, social consciousness through music and trolls under the bridge…

It feels like you’ve barely had time to draw breath between releasing Armwrestling Atlas and Bravo Troll, are you on a bit of a creative run at the moment?

Yeah I think so, I mean the last album Armwrestling Atlas took me six years to finish. It’s a collection of songs I’d been making and performing live for a really long time but never actually managed to put in the time that was necessary in order to complete it. So it was really a long slog, a labour of love thing. So once that was done and out, we did the tour and I’ve kind of got this thing in my hand that’s done! And from that point on it’s been this really nice cue for me; setting my studio back up, working on music again for the first time in probably a couple of years you know. I’m actually writing new songs.

Your newest track Bravo Troll speaks about the proverbial troll under the bridge, and how it’s still a feature of todays world. Did you have specific trolls in mind when you were writing?

When I’m talking about storybook trolls, it tends to be the one from the story Three Billy Goats Gruff. Who basically pops up and tries to prevent the goats from getting to the green grass on the other side. So I think it’s relevant to the modern internet troll, and I wonder whether that’s where the name came from*? I don’t really know the origin of the name for the internet troll, but it’s sort of drawing a link between the two I guess. With the modern trolls, I guess there no one in particular, I’m just probably talking more about my friends dealing with them on the regular than my self.

It’s not something you’ve come across too much?

Not yet! I’ve been relatively fortunate enough to avoid it so much up to this point. But I watch a lot of my friends who are probably a fair bit more famous, or are women – just in general women deal with it on a daily basis. It’s a part of public life these days.

Most of your work, including Armwrestling Atlas as an album, is very Australia focused in terms of the ideas you address, was there a particular idea or catalyst that drew the album together?

All the songs are basically about different aspects of the world from my eyes. I only really write about things when something’s bugging me, more than anything else. I’ve not been particularly notorious for writing songs about happy moments! Probably because it’s an outlet. But with that album, it was really focusing on Australia and its place in the world, then little aspects of daily life within it. It could be focusing a little bit on the negatives, but still have a positive light at the end of the whole body of work.

You are most often credited as a lyricist, and I’ve heard your tracks described as ‘music with a back bone’ – has that conscience within your writing developed over the years or was it always there?

I think it’s something that’s always been important to me in the music that I listen to as well. I love listening to music that makes you party and is specifically to that purpose, and I think the music I listen to is really wide ranging. But when it comes to hip-hop, the stuff that’s really resonated with me is where someone’s really saying something about a particular topic, or managing to give you a scope of a whole idea and point of view. I’ve always really appreciated subtlety in hip-hop as well, where it’s not necessarily really direct what you’re saying. There’s lots of coded language in hip-hop. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time, and with Armwrestling Atlas, funnily enough, compared to my first album it’s probably even less coded. I was trying to open the ideas up a little bit more so that they weren’t quite so convoluted.

You do take on some hefty issues in your writing, but your songs don’t come off as judgmental – more like a wiser, older brother. Is that a conscious decision or just a natural stand point?

I think that is my natural stand point but it is also probably intentional because I don’t really love being preached at, just like anyone else. So there are moments on the album, and in my music, where it does come across as preachy, but if you see it live I think you get a bit more of an idea. When you get to see my facial expressions, and I’m putting a different sort of emphasis into it. It comes out a little different in a recorded product, but when you see it live you get little bit more of the comedy behind it.

Like your videos which definitely have a comic edge quite often?

Yeah! When I perform live I do a bit of stuff that moves around a little bit, to lighten the content of the lyrics. If I just stood up and rapped a bunch of dark songs at people very seriously, it would be a pretty different attitude.

Drug and alcohol use are common themes in your writing, but not usually couched in the same party lifestyle that a lot of people would associate with hip-hop or rap – Doctorshopping for example. Does the idea of substance abuse work as a metaphor or represent something larger for you?

I think drug and alcohol use, or smoking, these kind of things are little sort of masochistic qualities that a lot of people with creative or art-orientated minds tend to fall back on. I find that interesting as a topic itself, being able to shed light on some of the things that I do myself. Just so that anyone else might listen to the lyrics and relate to it through themselves. They tend to pop up as themes as they’re relatively prevalent in my life – I’m never really endorsing the use, but it’s part of my life so people that really resonate with my lyrics are probably on the same page.

You have also advocated for mental health awareness as part of Music Feedback’s campaign, where you discussed creativity as an outlet?

I started writing poetry from a really young age, I’m not sure what the reason for me doing that was. I’ve just always really liked writing, I love words, and it was always a way of putting ideas to page. Or things that were bothering me – to get them away from you so you could move on from them. I think I understood that from a really young age, and once I started listening to lot of hip-hop – probably in my very early teens – I realised how much the stuff I was already writing kind of fit to that. So then all of sudden hip-hop became the outlet.

Is advocating for mental health something close to your heart, as something that touches the music industry very definitely?

There are a lot of people who are suffering from that kind of thing a lot more than I am. Generally having that outlet has been pretty important for me keeping a relatively stable mind. I think it’s something that is really prevalent in people with quite creative orientated brains, but I can’t speak for everyone. I think those people tend to be maybe a little more emotionally agile, people who might have to pay attention to the idea of their own mental health a little more?

Can you tell us a bit about The Community music collective in WA, which you’ve been part of for quite some time now?

I met Diger Rokwell, who’s actually coming on tour with me, in 2002, and we started running shows together. There was a bunch of other people involved as well, and it’s kind of like a big group of all of our friends, all making music under the same umbrella. We started using it to put on shows for ourselves when we were young, and no one was really giving us a chance at shows. That was about thirteen years ago now, so we’ve been running it for a long time. At the moment it’s in this little period of hiatus because everyone’s been working on their solo projects, but for a long time it was about building something in Perth for us. I think that’s one key thing on why myself and Diger have only been having some national attention over the last three for four years – because we were spending a lot of time trying to build something in a town that didn’t have a hell of a lot to do at that point. I think we’re proud of that as well, because Perth’s been really flourishing over the last few years and there’s a lot more to do.

Looking at the roster and catalogue from The Community, it’s pretty extensive…

I’ve been working in the hospitality industry for a long time, and once upon a time there weren’t really many places to play. There also weren’t many places to go out, so a lot of people would leave the state to go live elsewhere. Which people still do of course, but I think at the moment there’s just a little bit more to hold you here. And I think our crew feels a bit like we played a part in that.

Do you see the scene continuing to grow there? You’re also signed interstate, as well as being part of The Community, which is quite unusual.

It’s still under the Community umbrella, it’s Big Village Records and Community Records. Big Village are a crew who I’ve always admired, and I’ve always gotten along well with the people involved in it. I made friends with Joel Rapaport a number of years ago, and he’s always been really supportive. I think it’s good for eastern states and western states – we’ve formed a bit of an alliance which is cool.

Do you feel like you’ve got some room to explore now that Armwrestling Atlas is finally out and doing it’s thing?

It’s a huge weight off my chest I guess, when you’ve got this project looming over your head that you’ve been meaning to finish for so long. And my last album before it was in 2009, so I intended to follow that release up with another one the next year. But I did have a lot of really awesome years supporting almost every hip-hop person who came over to Perth, doing their western tour. So I had a lot of gig experience in that time, but actually getting that release finished was just this thing that loomed for a long time. And it starts becoming a bit heavy, you have this thing that you just can’t get completed. Now I feel I’m of an age where all I want to be doing is writing and putting out music, and I probably have a little bit more drive than I did in my twenties. I’m enjoying this period of time.

As well as putting out new music, you’ve been pretty busy with massive runs of live dates, and you’re about to embark on the Trolling Australia run. Are you staying on the road for a while or do you have any more releases planned?

My plan is to put an EP out this year called Gripes Of The Human Mind, so that will be towards the end of the year. At the moment I’ve been heavily in writing mode and just planning for this tour. Once the tour’s over I’ll go bury myself in a room for a few months and trying and nail the EP. There’s also a project that I’ve been working on with Diger Rokwell as well. We’ve been meaning to do one for years – even though we’ve been collaborating in The Community for thirteen years we’ve only done a few songs together.

And you’re also planning to have a full band with you for the Trolling Australia run I hear?

Yeah! Super exciting, I went from someone on stage on my own with a bunch of props, for however many years, to now where I have two bands. The band I’m bringing on tour with me is bringing the songs from my album to life, as they are on the album. I’ve got three really great players, a guy called John Brown, Bryn Stanford and Dan Carroll. And they’re all dudes who’ve played in a lot of bands and have done for years – so they’re pretty experienced, well linked in guys. Then I also have another project and another group, which is a harpist named Michelle Smith and a drummer Jerome Tell. We do some stuff together as well, and we’re going to hopefully tour that maybe early next year.

*Obviously I had to check this one out, and the term does in fact come directly from the concept of a monstrous creature, taken from Norse mythology. It can also refer to old hunting terms, where ‘to troll’ was to drag a lure as bait whilst fishing. So now we know.

Mathas Tour Dates:

30 April – Wide Open Space Festival – Alice Springs NT

12 May – Newtown Social Club – Sydney NSW

13 May – The Small Ballroom – Newcastle NSW

14 May- Northcote Social Club – Melbourne VIC

15 May – Grace Emily Hotel – Adelaide SA

20 May-  Amplifier – Perth WA

28 May – Big Pineapple Music Festival – Sunshine Coast QLD

28 May – Black Bear Lodge – Brisbane QLD

Image: Supplied