Interview: The Tallest Man on Earth Is Kind of Short, Wants to Collaborate With Feist
"Singing all about [yourself] isn't all that interesting--I don't want to just do that. It's not very fun, and it may be dishonest."
The Tallest Man on Earth is about five-foot-nine. Maybe; wearing the right shoes. Narrowly built, spindly legged, and quietly spoken, the loftiest thing about him is actually his haircut, a swept-way-up look which evokes early Dylan just as helplessly as his songs. Like Dylan, Kristian Mattson is a walking contradiction: a 27 year old Swede whose music takes its signifiers from Harry Smith, its fine-spun guitar-work from Leadbelly and Nick Drake, and who sings in a bent growl that can go sweet or slack, pierced through with a back-porch American twang. Paradoxically, he also may be one of our strangest young lyricists--an idiom-twisting blues scholar whose faltering command of the English language partially accounts for the weird, refracted beauty of his lyrics.
Before his first show at Bowery Ballroom this spring, Mattson spoke to us about his quietly arresting debut Shallow Grave, his poor interview skills, and his deep admiration of Leslie Feist.
The first show I saw you play was at Town Hall opening for Bon Iver. What was that tour like for you?
I'd been here before a number of times, but this was definitely something new. You can't say enough about Bon Iver. They're amazing musicians and really wonderful people, and that tour was a great experience for me--so many great rooms, cities, the people, everything. Town Hall is a beautiful room. It was good to go out west and do some shows by myself too. I played a lot at South by Southwest, which was...
Kind of a meat market?
Yeah [laughs]. And a bit like a circus too, I think. There's a lot going on. I also played so many times there it was hard to know what was happening. It was fun, though.
I'm sure you got to hear some music out there as well. What current bands have you excited or inspired by?
Well, here obviously Bon Iver. Feist is the biggest one right now. I know I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm kind of obsessed with that album. I think I listen to it every day. I can't even drive my car without listening to it [laughs]. It's weird. Okkervil River too--Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names, I've been listening to those all the time. Another band I really love is The Avett Brothers.
Who would you like to tour with or collaborate with? This is the biggest paper in the United States. Not sure if you knew that. Now is the time to reach out.
Oh, really? Cool. [laughs]. Feist, definitely. That would be great.
One of the songs I loved at Town Hall was "King of Spain." Will that be on the new record?
I think so [laughs]. You like that song? I've been going through a few versions of that song during the tour and I think I finally have a pretty good feel for it. I've actually been writing a lot of new songs. I have a few that I've been trying out in these shows, and I'll play a few new ones tonight [editor's note: "King of Spain," "The Wild Hunt," "A Thousand Ways," "Troubles Will be Gone"]. We'll see how it goes. I can't really talk about a good part of it yet. A lot of it is already recorded, though. I think you'll be able to hear some of it soon. We're hoping for the beginning of next year.
I couldn't help but notice that the two most linear songs I've heard you play in terms of storytelling--"The Gardener" and "King of Spain"--both have these highly unreliable narrators. A cynical way of looking at this would be that anyone who tells a story is unreliable by definition. Is there a part of you that just distrusts linear storytelling?
I don't know, I hadn't thought about it like that [laughs]. I don't know if I think about writing songs in that way. I probably try not to think about it, there are no regular rules I make or anything like that. The songs happen in so many ways--sometimes an image, which is a way I like, sometimes a melody, or whatever--that I just want to give myself enough freedom to let it happen. I don't want to close myself off to any of those ways. Also, there are different ways to make a story. I like to think that all of the songs are telling a story, and that the music is telling a story in its own way. I find it hard to talk about.