Matt Stevens is a nice guy. Over our two-and-a-half hour stint in a pub just off Denmark Street, he uses a variant of the phrase, “Good on them,” about seven times, regularly wishing well of people he might fundamentally disagree with. Even talking about Scientology – which we agree is “ridiculously bonkers” – after three pints of paint stripper-like lager, Stevens isn’t prepared to stick the boot in: “It’s obviously not real but if it makes people happy, then that’s good.”
Far from the profile of PR-trained celebrity, Stevens is emblematic of a new breed of Internet-hewn musicians with homegrown fanbases. If you’re not one of his 17,000 followers on twitter and you’ve not heard any of his many projects and collaborations, you’re missing a trick. He’s the founding component and shredder-in-chief of instrumental proggers, The Fierce & The Dead. He’s also the credible – i.e. not Ed Sheeran – face of looping guitars, having made tons of solo albums with his layered, textured sounds giving away such divergent influences as King Crimson and punk band, The Cardiacs.
What’s more, Stevens’ biggest musical stimulus isn’t even a musician. “Stewart Lee is the biggest influence on me because of the repetition thing. He rephrases the same gag over and over again,” he says. “I do the same thing, but with my music.”
For an artist whose medium is voiceless, he is surprisingly verbose about anything and everything. When talking about his new album, Lucid, Stevens lets on that it came about as “an act of therapy.” He goes on: “I remember coming back from the gigs with Knifeworld, playing the Lexington and it was almost sold out. It went really well. The next day I had to go and get a job in a shop. It went really badly, and I remember thinking how quickly can it go from one thing to the other.”
As a finished product, Lucid is deft and sweeping in its approach. There are bits which sound like post-rockers Jesu, quite a lot of nods to King Crimson and at one point in ‘The Other Side’, I swear I hear something from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. Far from being limited by not using a vocalist, Lucid is progressive in all senses of the word, something which Stevens achieves by an adaptive approach to each new project, “I normally change the sounds, the collaborators and listen to different music. It’s not contrived, it’s about keeping yourself interested really.”
Stevens is clearly interested in everything. There are points in our session where he’s more the interviewer than I am, asking me about my niche choice of degree and comparing notes on juggling the day job with more creative exploits. As well as being as a musician, Stevens works with people with autism, and in addition to living with a wife and two-year-old son, he writes a column in Acoustic magazine. As if that’s not enough, there’s his extended internet family that he’s grown through cottoning onto the boon of social media from its inception.
“I got into Twitter early on. I realised it was really cool,” he enthuses brightly. “I used to think it was a wonderful promotional device but it’s actually about meeting people who I’ve become mates with.” Far from the Zakk Wyldes and PR-run social media channels, Stevens realises that belching endless ‘buy-my-new-album’ slogans onto the internet is a waste of the possibilities of digital media. For Stevens, the internet is the means through which he can communicate with an otherwise distant audience, comparing it as the digital equivalent of the aftershow atmosphere at the [sadly now defunct] Kingston Peel.
I try to get Stevens to talk about Robb Flynn’s recent tirades on the internet, and how they smack of cynical ploys to garner free press, but he just shrugs: “If you spend time thinking about things that you don’t like, you’re pissing your life away. There’s a lot of music I don’t give a shit about, but I won’t listen to it.” His point is valid, and not only speaks volumes about his attitude to a rapidly saturating industry, but also about the changing topography of tastemakers. The scene-building print media of the nineties has been superseded by a vast, endless resource of indefinable channels of communication. In this way, the internet is a blessing and a curse.
That’s not all the internet is taking. “We’ve lost our Neil Youngs, Thom Yorkes… with social media there’s pressure to have people skills. We’re losing our depressive loners and our enigmatic people.” This, too, seems like a double edged sword. Stevens, whose sheer perseverance and genuine amiability are tangible as you talk to him, is a native of the digital landscape. Despite insisting that the removal of “miserable fuckers” to be replaced by “functional” people is a loss to the industry, you can’t help but feel that Stevens’ obscure, uncompromising brand of music owes its longevity to his devotion to his craft and his ability to translate that direct to consumer.
We talk and laugh about the etiquette of unfollowing people on Twitter and how the fifth biggest Youtube channel is just someone’s hands unwrapping Kinder Eggs. For musicians like Stevens, the internet is a lifeline through which he’s developed a brilliant and interesting career. For the rest of the world it’s just an excuse to watch a monkey pissing into its own mouth. As he aptly puts it: “The world just doesn’t want innovative music, great drama or Shakespeare.”