When I first saw Rich Mattson perform with the Glenrustles 11 years ago, the word that came to mind was: muttonchops. He had John Fogerty's '60s sideburns and a long bowl haircut. But unlike Fogerty, he leaned close into the microphone as he played guitar, and shut his eyes. He had a beery intensity.
Looking at him now, practicing with his new band Ol' Yeller, Mattson looks exactly the same. There's something reassuring about this. Maybe it's the fact that a guy would adopt, and stick with, a look that's been out of fashion for pretty much the entire time he's had it--which is what, a couple of decades? Family photos show a 14-year-old Mattson with the same mop top, the same sideburns. "I swear to God he's still got some of the same clothes," says his friend, singer John Ewing.
Still, Mattson isn't the same. Facing drummer Keely Lane and bassist Dale Kallman during practice, he shuts his eyes and leans into the microphone, same as before. But his voice is more confident now. And he's singing his songs in the cozy studio where he records them, Flowerpot, which he built in the garage behind his tiny Northeast Minneapolis home. (A $2,000 loan from Grandpa helped launch the studio 10 years ago, but in a different house.)
The songs are better, too: "Reading Katie's Diary" might be nothing more than the standard punch line that by spying on your girlfriend's journal, you've just confirmed everything she wrote about you. But Mattson has honed his old trick of making truisms feel like classics--and Kallman's harmonies don't hurt. As I tap along on tambourine, the refrain "She'll never love you" seeps into the same synaptic tissues reserved for Who lyrics or my childhood phone number.
The refrain on Mattson among admirers is that he was always great, but only recently, with Ol' Yeller, has he begun to surprise them. For others, though, the refrain on Mattson might still be: "muttonchops." Rich Mattson is taken for granted by the scene that made him a neighborhood icon, like the painted stars on First Avenue. For many, he's just the quiet dude who worked sound at the 400 Bar, then the Turf Club; who played drums with Danny Commando and bass with the Odd; whose band of 12 years, the Glenrustles, were nearly impossible to miss in the bar ads of City Pages.
"I'd get 10 calls a week from bands saying, 'Hey, you want to play with us at the Terminal Bar?'" Mattson says of the old days, taking a break in the studio. "I'd be like, 'Yeah, sure, why not?' But then our audience kept dwindling and dwindling, and by the end of this, it was like, 'Oh, the Glenrustles are playing? Who gives a crap.'"
Mattson has approached things differently with Ol' Yeller. On Friday at the Turf Club, they make their first local appearance in months to celebrate the release of their third album, Penance (SMA). They've been touring like hardcore kids, putting CDs on consignment around the country. (This indie method is not without hazards: When Ol' Yeller checked back on seven discs left at one shop, the store was no longer there.)
Mattson's resurgence with Ol' Yeller would seem to demand a City Pages reappraisal if anything did. So I sit down and laugh with the band, then go home and type up my notes. I think for a while, then start writing, and all I can come up with is this: muttonchops.
The trouble with writing about Rich Mattson is that he doesn't lend himself to description, rock criticism, or even funny stories. "He's not anecdotal," says Nate Dungan of Trailer Trash, when I call to ask for advice. "He's just there. He's like Mount Rushmore or something. He's a powerful benign force. You're not going to hear about him throwing a fridge out a hotel room.
"In fact, his resolute mellowness is probably why he's not the superstar he should be," Dungan continues. "Because he is so laid-back, and committed to doing things at his own speed. That's why he's not living in Nashville getting kicked around Music Row."
To know the man, friends say, you've got to know the producer. Mattson opens his studio doors to anyone who can track down his cell number, like a collector of stray cats, but with one-off musicians. "You'll get a guy over there with just a trumpet and a bucket full of water, and he'll record that," says John Ewing.
Once you're in there, Mattson sticks microphones in front of you and tells you the tape is rolling. It's an approach that has become storied on the local scene.
"It sounds so simple, I know, but other people argue about which mics to use for hours," says Duluth musician-producer Mark Lindquist. "He just turns them on."
In fact, everything about Mattson sounds simple. His music has been described as "meat-and-potatoes rock" so many times that I long for verbal garnish: Are the subtly inventive song structures like parsley? Are the out-of-nowhere codas the vanilla ice cream? Let's just call it all muttonchop rock and get it over with--a description that at least gets at the vague, displaced nostalgia his music evokes. Ol' Yeller are more punk than the Jayhawks, more pop than Wilco, but Mattson's mellow is dreamier than either--a catnap Replacements.
To imagine where this music comes from, just think of Mattson loving the Replacements from way up in an Iron Range town where the central landmark is the world's largest hockey stick. Rich and his brother Glen Mattson (who became a namesake of the Glenrustles) grew up in Eveleth, Minnesota surrounded by taconite plants and mines, thick woods and crowded bars. Maybe Rich really did fall asleep to the train whistles he rhapsodizes on "Out in the Sticks" (where he sings, "I just can't find my way back there/Now I hear there ain't even tracks there").
Hating the changes in Northern Minnesota was a recurring theme in the Glenrustles, which the brothers formed after moving to Minneapolis in 1988. With a title lifted from Charles Wakefield Cadman's 1909 poem "From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water" (via a Hamm's beer commercial), the song "Sky Blue Waters" described the construction of the Grand Casino as "a sad and disgusting day/when the bulldozer comes this way/and everybody says okay/'cause they're getting free money."
Fudged final rhyme and all, the tune remains a favorite among Mattson's Northland fans. He's something of a legend up there, and still plays the area when he can. Friends say his mom comes to every show in Duluth. "She's hip," says Ewing, who remembers a van ride with the family once when Mom requested the boys sing some Flying Burrito Brothers. (In the May issue of Lost Cause, a letter signed "The Ol' Laughin' Lady" thanks the magazine for printing a photo that shows "Rich's beautiful smile.")
Like any kid so hungry for music that he orders nine John Denver tapes from Columbia House, Mattson probably felt like an alien in Eveleth. Mattson probably also felt like an alien here--a Northerner in "da Cities," as he calls them. But there's one apparent constant in his life, which might be summed up in the word scrawled on a tiny photo of his wife taped on the control panel in his studio. And no, it's not "muttonchops."
Love, it turns out, is the cliché Rich Mattson does best. And Penance casts him as a sort of wise man of love--"the doctor," as he calls himself. "I obsessed about love," he admits during our interview. "But you gotta let people live their own lives and make their own mistakes. That's what I write about, the mistakes."
The toughest thing to explain about Ol' Yeller is that their music comes from a place of happiness, of contentment. Mattson's drummer has been in a committed relationship nearly as long as him--for four years, and with kids. Only bassist "Diamond Dale" Kallman remains single.
So, does he ask Dr. Rich for advice?
"Not directly," he laughs. "I just try to get it out of his songs."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.