It has been a crazy few years for Matt Drenik. After being diagnosed with Uveitis, an autoimmune disease that affects the eyes, the then Lions front man saw life in a different light (no pun intended). He began to write softer songs without the help of his bandmates and decided to pack up and move from Austin to Portland. There, Battleme was born. Drenik’s debut self-titled release is slated for an April 24 release via Ghostland Observatory’s Thomas Turner’s label, Trashy Moped Recordings. Amidst the stress and excitement connected to releasing an album, Drenik was kind enough to chat with me about his musical transition, the Portland music scene, and working with the guys at Sons of Anarchy.
Katrina Nattress: You began the Battleme project in 2009 after being diagnosed with Uveitis. How did you get diagnosed?
Matt Drenik: Lions was on tour in Atlanta, and I stepped out of the van and noticed a bunch of black dots in the sky. I thought it was sweat or something in my eye, but I couldn’t get rid of them. Months later they were just getting worse and much more noticeable during the day. I finally went to an eye doctor and they sent me to a retina specialist who diagnosed me with an autoimmune disease that affects the eyes.
KN: How did you feel after being diagnosed with the disease?
MD: Kind of like it was no big deal and that they would fix it. I didn’t know much about being sick or going to a doctor up until that point. I think I had been to the doctor once in the last 4 years previous. So it was all new, and I just assumed that doctors would see a problem and fix it…They told me something was wrong and I went back to my life, thinking it would get better.
KN: How did this encourage you to start a new musical project?
MD: I think about 9 months in, when I saw how complicated the treatments were going to be, is when I really started writing more songs at a rapid pace. I started to think that maybe this wasn’t going to get better, and maybe things were changing, and I wanted to write all the things that I’d been thinking about writing for so long. You get into that mode when you’re in a band, [where] you write a record and tour for about a year. You play those songs to death, and then you go back and do it again. It’s a cycle. And I wanted to break that cycle. I wanted to write tons of songs. I wanted to have a body of work that someday someone would see and say, fuck man, that guy was writing great songs. Jay Reatard said, and I’m paraphrasing, it’s a race against time. I feel the same way. It’s not a matter of burning out of material; it’s a matter of burning out of time.
KN: Not only did your musical style change, but you also moved from Austin to Portland. What caused this relocation?
MD: On the last Lions tour I met a girl in Portland. We were flying back and forth to see each other off and on for 9 months. Finally, she asked me to come to Portland for the summer and I just went for it. It sounded cool. I put Lions on hold and just went. They also had a great eye clinic, Casey Eye Institute. It was killing two birds with one stone.
KN: What are some local Portland bands you’ve been into lately that we should check out?
MD: Red Fang! My bros from way back in the day. I actually met my wife through John Sherman (the drummer). 1939 Ensemble is so great. Jose owns an amazing drum shop in town called Revival. I just met the guys in Radiation City and I’ve been digging their last record for the past few days now. Oniunu is great. My good friend Matt Brown owns the local label he is on.
KN: Although you have yet to release an album, you have already been featured on multiple episodes of Sons of Anarchy. How does that feel?
MD: Great. I love those guys. Bob Thiele and Kurt Sutter have been nothing but amazing to me. I’m not exactly sure how we ended up working so much together. I think one thing led to another and pretty soon Bob would just call me and ask me to sing on a Forest Ranger song or cut this song for him. I’m good under the gun…I think it helped solidify a great relationship with us, to the point where a few months back I was at Kurt Sutter and Katy Segal’s house, hanging out with the family, singing a cover song with Katy in their living room.
KN: Ghostland Observatory’s Thomas Turner has backed you from day one; tell me about working with him.
MD: He’s been a big supporter ever since he heard the initial demos I did for the record and got involved pretty immediately. I’m not exactly sure what struck him at first. He just heard something that made sense to him and he wanted to explore it a little more. On a surface level, I’d known Thomas for years--the Ghostland boys were always around the Austin music scene--but the extent of my relationship with him was pretty minimal. After he heard the songs, we hooked up on the phone and just started rattling off ideas. It was great. I don’t think he really cared about what others thought, or how many units would sell, or if we had a single. He just really dug the songs and wanted to put out the record because he thought it was cool. And that kind of meant everything to me.
KN: Take me through the writing/recording process with this record.
MD: I built a lo-fi studio in my girlfriend’s unfinished basement with pipes and noises and hum. It was beautiful. I’d go down there and get lost. When you’re alone, things start to get heady, and if you just go with it, you sometimes land in places that you would’ve never thought you’d go to. For instance, I was playing with drum triggers and beats because I had yet to buy a drum kit. So as I’m messing around, I started thinking of an acoustic open G slide thing, and then I’m thinking of Funkadelic and all of a sudden I’m singing in this low, falsetto voice. It’s funny, and I’m just kind of rolling with it. Pretty soon a song starts to take shape. One thing leads to another, and I’m recording some wild guitar solo on it and throwing a vocal line through a shitty combo amp and boom, “Cave Blues” is born.
The record kind of morphed out of those feelings. I’d go downstairs and try to find a voice of a song. Then I tried to find a voice of a record. I wrote “Wire,” and that kind of triggered the voice. Soon “Touch,” “Closer,” “Makin Time,” “Wait for Me,” and “Pocket” all spawned from that place. They were all making sense together.
KN: You’re used to playing with a full band in your former project, Lions, what are the largest differences between this and solo work?
MD: Ah, it’s much different! There is no filter. No band filter. Some people do well with it, some fail miserably. The band filter is funny. Every band that I’ve ever been in has it. Someone writes a riff or a song, brings it in, the band decides if they like it, then they decide how to turn it into their sound, then they attempt to reconstruct the layout, then it’s the band song. I’ve seen a lot of great ideas come to life from this process, but I’ve also seen some really great ideas killed before the second step.
With the solo stuff, I’m my own filter. Usually I let all the ideas go through till the end. Then if something doesn’t feel right, I’ll kill it. But at least I know. And I dig that. I think it’s important to see things through, no matter what the initial vibe is…It’s what is in your soul. Do the gut check. If your gut is sinking when you are writing, move on to something else.
KN: What can we expect from Battleme for the remainder of 2012?
MD: Touring. New record being recorded. Unreleased songs being released. Keeping busy.