Photo credit: Elyssa Goodman
Matt Siffert is a bassist, composer and music director of a group that I have vested interest in. It features the talents of my music making & horn playing girlfriend. Aside from that, Matt is a bassist, composer, and songwriter from New York City. He is interested in combining his varied artistic interests into a unique and personalized musical vocabulary. He has worked in various contexts: with jazz musicians such as Jean-Michel Pilc, classical ensembles such as the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), as well as in his own groups as a bandleader. He has performed locally and internationally, from Le Poisson Rouge in New York City to the Siena Jazz Festival in Italy. He studied composition at The Juilliard School evening division, and earned his Bachelor’s degree in music and psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. Visit him online.
I recently caught his group in action at Le Poisson Rouge. They were the opening act for Sasha Siem; another song writer who utilizes more instruments than just the traditional rock band to create music. Matt is able to harness the sound of french horn, drums, piano, electric bass, cello and percussion by way of stomping feet and snapping fingers to create sonorities that serve his songs aesthetics. Lyrically, he is just as acrobatic and incisive. Throughout his set you are presented with a mind that expresses motifs of introspection and irreverence. It is obvious that he goes beyond the calling of bassist and meets the title of musician.
1. What were some of the first gigs you played as a professional bassist?
My first gigs were a smorgasbord of backing singer-songwriters, playing in theater pits, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and rock shows, etc. I enjoyed the variety, and still play in most of these contexts. The different elements all find their way into my music in positive ways.
2. Can you give us some insight on your practice routine?
Since my creative output is divided between bass playing, singing, and songwriting/composing, I end up prioritizing based on what my schedule demands. If I’m gigging heavily as a bassist, then I drill my technical chops, parts for the shows I’m playing in, etc. If my performance schedule is light on bass but heavy as a singer-songwriter, I’ll practice voice. If I’m busy with commissions and personal projects then I’ll be focused on writing, which, like bass playing and singing, requires daily work.
At the moment my schedule is a mix of all three, so I do my best to play bass, sing, and write every day. I also have mandatory daily ‘listening’ time where I explore and listen to new music the importance of which I cannot possibly overstate.
3. Who have been some of your major influences throughout your musical career?
There are so many! I guess I’ll talk about bass, since that’s why we’re here. My first influences were Matt Freeman of Rancid, Cliff Burton of Metallica, and Flea of the Chili Peppers, who played heavily and melodically. That then carried over to Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead), Oteil Burbridge (Allman Bros), and Mike Gordon (Phish), who had the same sense of melody with a lighter, looser style. Then came Jaco Pastorius, who showed me that the bass is charismatic enough of an instrument to carry a group.
As I grew into songwriting I found players like James Jamerson and Ray Brown, who showed me that a tight, un-flashy bass line could propel and energize a song. Then there’s Paul McCartney, who turned the bass into an instrument that could contribute counter melodies, much in a way that resembled a high string, wind, or brass instrument.
4. What kind of gear are you using? What gear do you recommend for a player who is playing a lot around the city?
My rig is simple. I use a 5-string Music Man Stingray with a 10-inch Gallien-Kreuger amp. My recommendation for gear depends on what styles you play. The Stingray and GK have a smoothness and warmth, which makes me feel at home in folk/jazz/hip-hop/R&B gigs. I’d recommend both of them for people living in these worlds. (GK’s also work beautifully with upright basses.) Rock players usually opt for Fender basses and SWR or Ampeg amps, both of which pack more of a punch. They make for a great sound too, just one that’s different from my own style of playing and musical personality.
5. You are also a composer. When approaching bass lines what is your process? How has being a composer influenced your career? Do you ever compose starting with the bass?
That’s a great question. My approach to writing bass lines is two-fold. I have to serve the character of the song/composition, and then give shape to the overarching musical narrative. So, firstly, I have to be aware of the nature of the piece I’m playing: is it a song that’s written from the perspective of an angry person? Is it a peppy swing tune? Once I figure this out I need to align my style of playing so it’s helping to bring that character to life. Then I need to figure out the overall structure of the piece; does it start quietly and get crazy at the end? Does it coast softly from start to finish, but change texturally? Once I understand this general shape I craft my lines accordingly.
My life as a composer has helped immensely with this approach to bass playing. Through composition I’ve developed a more heightened sensitivity to the character of a given composition, and a more intuitive ability to make a piece of music compelling to listen to from start to finish. So, when I pick up a bass, I can take these skills I’ve learned and channel them through my instrument. It’s a thrill to learn these musical techniques and be able to realize them through writing and performance.
With regard to composing on the bass, it’s funny; I almost never use the instrument as a springboard for composing. I either write in my head usually in weird places like subways or showers, where there are no instruments or on chordal instruments like a piano or guitar, where I can hear a broader spectrum of material. I’ve been playing bass much longer than piano, guitar, and voice, and when I write on it I gravitate toward old patterns and licks that are unconnected to what I’m trying to say musically.
6. What are some of the aspects of your playing that have made you successful?
I always do my best to have a strong and clear artistic vision for my projects, and be mindful of how the bass (and other instruments) fits into each of these projects. When I’m hired by someone else to play bass I’m equally mindful of how my instrument fits into the instrumentation of the group they’ve assembled, and, more generally, how my musical approach fits in to and can facilitate what the artist is trying to accomplish.
7. Where do you go to hear live music when you aren’t playing it in New York?
The Village Vanguard has always been my favorite room in the city. It’s one of the few places that are small, cozy, great sounding, un-flashy, and wonderfully curated. My second and more recent favorite is Carnegie Hall. It’s elegant and tasteful in design, and, despite being large in size, acoustically impeccable. Roulette, Le Poisson Rouge, and The Stone all have exciting and innovative programming, and Rockwood Music Hall and Caffe Vivaldi are great places to see songwriters. I also love house concerts!
8. Outside of being a musician, what are some of your favorite pastimes? What has been one of your most memorable moments living in New York that hasn’t involved music?
Another great question. I have to say, I love going to museums. I learn so much about texture, character, emotion, and storytelling from visual art. I also love reading. As a songwriter, it’s tempting to use other songwriters as primary sources of inspiration. But at the end of the day, you’re dealing largely with language, and most of the masters of language are writers. It is from poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction, and transcribed interviews that I get a majority of my inspiration for how to use text.
Other than these “artsy-fartsy” activities, my most memorable moments are definitely hanging out with friends and family. Having friends who love me and will jump on my back in the freezing cold and refuse to let go until I fall my face into the snow, or a sibling (in my case older brother) who while dressed as ‘Death’ on Halloween when I am dressed as a ‘Pumpkin Rights Advocate’ will dance with me at a rock show until we sweat so hard we can barely see, it’s these absurd and goofy moments that make me happy and want to get up the next day and keep doing what I do.
9. Who are you currently listening to?
I’ve been listening to Messiaen’s piano music. As I develop a musical vocabulary that borrows from different genres, I’m constantly trying to balance consonant, tuneful melodic and harmonic content with more dissonant, colorful sound worlds. Messiaen has this breathtaking harmonic palette that takes dissonance and makes it heart wrenching and beautiful.
I’m learning that harmony is as much a horizontal craft as it is vertical, which is to say that our emotional response to a certain chord is not just based on that fragment, but everything that comes before and after it. If you took some of Messiaen’s chords out of context, they’d be brash and unsettling. But he places his musical materials so intelligently on a temporal plane that you feel invited into his world, rather than pushed away.
10. Any words of wisdom for younger/aspiring musicians who may or may not be reading this?
Be mindful of what you like and don’t like, and be specific about why you do and don’t like these things. If you hear a song and hate it, figure out what caused the reaction. Were the lyrics cheesy? Was the drumbeat too cluttered? Or if a composition really moves you, what about it did that? You may find that you actually hated the brass arrangement, and never ever want to hear a trombone ever again, but that modulating from A major to F minor pulls your heartstrings inexplicably.
You may also discover larger-scale insights about yourself as an artist; you may find that instrumental music just doesn’t connect to you as much as vocal music does, or that you always need to play your instrument really loudly to feel like you are authentically expressing yourself. Regardless of what you uncover, as a musician you live in the world of details, and the more articulate you can be about the things that move and don’t move you, the more self-awareness you have, and therefore the more in control over your creativity you are.