The Big Pink

Years after big-label Balloon Guy deflated his passion for making music, Matt Olson returns to his songcraft in Smattering

Listening to the gravelly purr of Smattering singer Matt Olson, you'd never guess he's the owner of a mile-running maw in casual conversation. Fifteen minutes into our two-hour chat, he's yammering at the speed of French about the old days in his once hyped, now defunct Minneapolis band Balloon Guy. He remembers a certain hefty $30 espresso bill paid for by a label flunky, and the time he hollered at Capitol Records CEO Gary Gersh on top of the record company's building in Los Angeles--and as his pace quickens, his barrages become wittier, making it harder to get a word in edgewise. It's as if he's challenging me to interrupt him.

Lounging in the Loring Park apartment where Smattering recorded their glacially paced new slab of indie pop, the eight-song Rajah Pink and Wading Pool Blue, Olson launches volley after fascinating volley of verbiage. He looks almost suave in his navy blazer and puffy, kelly-green vest, like a shaggier Peter Lorre. Our host is bassist-keyboardist Scott Tretter, also of Balloon Guy, who twiddles with some recording equipment nearby. Drummer John Seitz reclines on a futon, silent. Soon keyboardist-drummer Bill McGuire shows up. None of Olson's easygoing bandmates does much to interrupt their chief songwriter, but Tretter does try to rattle him: Claiming to audition the band's finished next record, a full-length this time, the bassist swaps it for Canned Heat's "Goin' Up the Country" and Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." Olson, a longtime AC/DC fan, pauses and chuckles.

The Smattering now assembled around Olson is the fully realized version of a solo project-cum-group he began in the early Nineties--mostly as a diversion from his more ambitious and noisy Balloon Guy. The quieter band was always a wider and arguably more interesting channel for his maniacal approach to lo-fi, experimental pop. Professing an ability to construct songs from works of art and newspaper headlines, Olson would write six or more tunes every day for his two bands during marathon four- and five-day sessions. "I like to become so exhausted that I can't really think anymore," he told City Pages in 1996. Eventually he would crash and sleep for several days. Smattering--then Olson, McGuire, and Polara frontman Ed Ackerson--debuted as a proper band in 1995, with the then barely known Duluth act Low, at Northern Lights Music on Hennepin Avenue.

From elliptical to oblique: Smattering members (left to right) Bill McGuire, John Carroll Seitz, Scott Tretter, Matt Olson
Daniel Corrigan
From elliptical to oblique: Smattering members (left to right) Bill McGuire, John Carroll Seitz, Scott Tretter, Matt Olson

Meanwhile, the Pavement-like Balloon Guy was going pop without blowing up, scaling dizzying heights of optimism and local goodwill until they eventually snagged a deal with Warner Bros. Olson and Tretter ruefully recall postgrunge 1995 as the year of Balloon Guy and Veruca Salt (remember "Seether"?). Yet success proved a lesson in self-disillusionment. The gilt-edged decadence of major-label life, they remember, bred such smarmy misbehavior as requesting Ice Cube and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo as producers for the band's record. This while the band was enduring tongue-lashings for "selling out," from their peers and messing with their freewheeling record execs' minds.

"I convinced [one] I was on parole and we couldn't tour because I wasn't allowed to leave the state for a year and a half," Olson remembers, reddening as he relives his self-indulgence. "I invited him to go window-peeking, and he freaked. Through the industry, we heard the story of him going back to the Whitney Hotel and calling some woman, saying, 'I'm going to have to spend thousands in medical rehabilitation just for that guy's mind.'"

 

Olson bailed on Balloon Guy after a sobering gig opening for the Goo Goo Dolls in Iowa City. "In the paper was a picture of us and it didn't even mention how we sounded," Olson chuckles. "It talked about how we kind of dressed like Weezer."

He retreated to his parents' basement in Faribault, grew a mammoth beard à la Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and obsessively fiddled with weird beats off equipment he'd scored on the Warners' dime. He still employed electric drums and synthesizers but says he gave up electronica after hearing a loop-laden Sprite commercial. "I declared the genre dead," he says. "Anything that's so easy to exploit and winds up in a commercial that's cooler than a lot of the [music] that comes out--that's not a worthy art form. Because it's not based in emotion, it's based in science."

He returned to the Twin Cities in 1997 and was encouraged by then-girlfriend Reba Fritz to perform in a Bryant-Lake Bowl "Noiseless" showcase. The music Olson had been working on post-seclusion suddenly felt serious. "I did that show and it lit me on fire," he says. He reconnected with McGuire, and the duo's first gig (along with Fritz, who sang backup) caught the attention of record geek Seitz, who was enlisted to play drums. Tretter joined the band after sitting in at a Chicago show supporting His Name Is Alive. At that concert, Olson met Tim Rutili, guitarist of Chicago roots luminaries Red Red Meat, and the pair formed a mutual admiration society.

When Rutili asked him why he wasn't attending to music full time, Olson responded, "I'm eating a lot of nachos." Rutili suggested Olson rethink his priorities, and the songwriter heeded the advice. Where a kind of sonic bombast colors Smattering's early offerings (1995's Sissy Bar and a pair of 1993 tapes, Tone Bored and Sound Spectrogram of a Casual Utterance, all on the local Generator label) 1998's Bom seems a softer and more focused work, highlighting Fritz's dusky backing vocals.

Likewise, Rajah Pink flows with languid, literate ease. Upon hearing the record, you might classify the quartet as a mob of bookish mopes who are content to work knobs and refine their liquid chords. But another listen reveals a shimmery lilt and hopeful expansiveness in its rolling keyboard-guitar patterns.

Where this newfound sonic inspiration comes from is hard to tell. When Olson cites influences, indie bands are almost an afterthought. He refers to British painter David Hockney and Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata." He nearly leaps at me from across a low coffee table while grandly quoting his hero, Argentine poet-philosopher Borges: "Everything written is autobiographical!" Indeed, Rajah Pink lifts from highbrow culture to illustrate lowbrow band life. Its title comes from a New York Times description of a caftan sported by designer Yves Saint Laurent in 1960s Morocco. The track "Hallowed" borrows from a London tabloid headline heralding the death of Khmer Rouge warlord Pol Pot. More directly, the opening "All for Show" revisits Olson's hesitant return to music--grinding its self-loathing title into the refrain of the coda.

You can detect Olson's frenetic emotional pulse while watching the band perform--he's renowned for his quick-fire stage banter--but not so much on Smattering's early recordings. Hearing Rajah Pink's aching lullabies for the first time brings to my mind a rather lonely childhood moment: lying tucked into bed at nightfall on a summer's day, the sound of older kids still playing outside, a feeling of contentment mixed with resignation permeating the room. Sometimes Smattering's innocent-seeming, bittersweet pull can be powerful enough to make you giggle and weep at once.

This tonal complexity might owe its success in part to Rutili, who has become a kind of guru to Olson. (Perhaps in tribute, Bom boasts a buoyant reading of Rutili's acoustic anthem "Braindead.") The Red Red Meat man drove his mom's Cadillac from his Chicago home to take part in the weeklong recording of Smattering's untitled, who-knows-when next release. The four agree that the nearly finished record is "huge"--I'll agree--and pushes the periphery of Rajah Pink's soundscape. The unmixed, moody tracks "Now That I'm 16" and "Prestige of Evil," and the haunting postmortem note "What a Friend Might Say," cut to the gut. The record will likely be released on Rutili's Perishable Records label--as big-league as Olson plans to get at this point.

"He said when we have whatever songs we want to put out, in whatever format, just call and he'll get started," Olson beams.

Until then, there's the blushing Rajah Pink. Someone once told the singer that each listening to Smattering reveals a different layer: first sexy, another confusing, a third sad, a fourth more hopeful--like getting to know a painting. Olson approves of this and what it says about his songs: "It grew into something else depending on how he felt."

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