THE UNDERCOVER DREAM LOVERS: ACCEPT THAT REALNESS
photography by stefano galli
Dreams are experiments in duality. They reflect and refract real-life. They are visions that can drive us while we’re wide awake, even when we’re charmed by things—art, environments, people—that we know are impossible fantasies. And when we’re dreaming, those bewildering distortions of time, space and plot can be as attractive as the heart-piercing moments where everything perfectly resolves. Matt Koenig, the songwriter-producer behind the Undercover Dream Lovers, makes these dichotomies into music, and the lustrous get-down grooves and deliberate lyrical ambiguity is exactly what you’d expect from an indie act with such a fantastical name. On an unhurried afternoon by Echo Park Lake, we talked about Koenig’s ‘if it feels right’ songwriting process and creating sounds that belong to both the past and future. The Undercover Dream Lovers play Thurs., May 9, at the Regent Theater—get tickets here! This interview by Sydney Sweeney.
Let’s talk about the video for ‘All You Need,’ which was shot inside your house. Some people in the public light are especially private about the places they live. How did you feel letting people see into such an intimate space?
Matt Koenig: I think I didn’t try to give it too much weight. I think in the moment. Alex [who works under the name Otium] was in town filming another music video for Hand Habits, and we were just hanging out. I was showing him some new songs, and [my manager] Rivka was like, ‘You know I still love these old songs!’ That’s when they just ganged up on me and were like, ‘We can do something tomorrow in one shot …’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know…’
I like how you continuously describe your friends as ambushing you.
Matt Koenig: That’s what it was! At that point, I was kind of okay with it, but I did have a dentist appointment that morning of the video, so they had to numb my mouth for some cavities and I couldn’t feel anything. And Alex was getting ready to head back to Arizona, so we only had an hour to do something, so we kept it light and silly. We didn’t plan anything I did in the shots—we just walked through it once and then I was like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And he was like, ‘Just start doing stuff!’
What were you smelling in that jar?
Matt Koenig: I was smelling jam! I tell Alex, ‘This doesn’t make any sense—you know that, right?’ But it was just fun and spontaneous, and I think the idea is also just like … a look inside what I’m doing. I have a tendency to not talk about myself a lot. I’m private in that way. I’ll work on things and assume that people don’t really want to hear about what I do because I do the same thing every day and it’s boring to me. But of course, to someone else, it’s probably interesting. And if I put my time into worrying about what others are thinking, and invest too much time in social media, I’ll end up doing that more than making the art. So I’m just like, ‘Forget about it.’ So this is me opening up in a really quick and easy way that’s carefree: ‘Hey, this is where I’ve been making music since I got to L.A., and it is what it is.’ I play on that piano one of the scenes, and I’ll sit there sometimes, and other times I’m up in the room—which is the space—and it’s nice for people to have a peek inside. We didn’t really ask how we could do it—we just did. Let’s do it.
What’s your favorite part about your house?
Matt Koenig: Coming from New York—everything about it. I really like decorating so putting it together was fun. Space is a really beautiful thing to play with. It’s the whole package. I spend the most time in the studio. Lately though, since the weather’s been getting good, it’s nice to hang out on the back deck as the sun comes up.
How long have you been in L.A. for now?
Matt Koenig: Maybe seven or eight months? I liked Brooklyn, but I’m the type of person who just goes with whatever feels right. And some people were trying to convince me to move out here and I really liked it. I loved New York, but I was realizing that some of the things I wanted to do kept getting put on the backburner and I felt constrained with time and space. Like, if I wanted to make a show better, the other musicians would be in other bands and we’d have really rigid schedules—like 45 minutes to make something happen. It’s really forceful. But here it’s more ebb and flow, so if something isn’t working out schedule-wise, people are more ready to accommodate so everyone can be together and in a good place, which is less mechanical. For me, that extra breathing room has been a huge benefit. I think that’s what I realized—I visited and saw that I could have that out here. It was hard because I had to consider the six months where I had to find a place to live and set up and meet new people to play with. But I did it all, and I love it.
How does the N.Y. hustle differ from the L.A. hustle?
Matt Koenig: I’m glad I went to New York first because it taught me that you gotta really take initiative. You can’t just live there super-relaxed. You gotta make money because it’s so expensive to live there. And if you want a social life, you gotta really want it because it’s not gonna just happen for you. You’ll end up hanging out alone. You have to choose what you wanna make time for and decide what you really want. So it’s a good way to learn about yourself. Coming out here, having gone through that already, I think I’m lucky in a way that I still feel motivated and disciplined even though L.A. is more spacious and freeing. I’m so happy I went, but I’m happy I’m not there anymore. I think people in N.Y. have a lot of nostalgia for the music they love and the things that were created there—like the 70s and the 80s—and you wanna go there because your idols were there and they toughed it out. But realistically, the times were very different back then. Especially for artists—I think they did have more flexibility with working on things in terms of time and money, but today it’s really rigid and streamlined. I think people go and just work really hard and do amazing things still, but maybe it’s more work that what had to be done in the past in terms of balancing work and life and art.
Do you think you give yourself enough time to have fun?
Matt Koenig: Yeah … I could probably go out and have fun more.
You sound doubtful.
Matt Koenig: When I’m with friends and everything is lining up, I’ll have the best time. But when I’m trying to keep track of stuff I’m working on and I get caught up, I have to tell myself to relax. That’s what the New York mentality does to you. I think I could loosen up more and go out and have fun being carefree. Something that was confusing to me—and it started in New York—was when you don’t have a weekend anymore. I worked in restaurants, so I still had a grasp of the idea, but then I started working in real estate and renting apartments, which was fun, but it was your own schedule completely. At that point, I felt like I should work on something every day and the lines between free time and work got blurry. You have to teach yourself to just take a few days off and be totally okay with it and relish in it without stressing about what you could be doing. I think that’s just another thing we have to work on because we’re so caught up in what’s ahead and doing everything right, you lose a sense of now—we have to remember that we can still get to where we’re going, even if we slow down a little bit. You can help yourself out by relaxing a little, even if it’s hard to remember.
How has moving out here influenced your evolution as musician?
Matt Koenig: It’s been a big change. Having the space to get more gear has been great, especially because I have rooms for drums now. It’s been a big change to my process for these new songs because I used to write or maybe make some beats, and if I wanted to elaborate or alter something, I would bring a drummer or borrow a drum kit. I learned that if you start with the drums first, everything gels better. You can be looser, and you get a better groove. Just that opportunity of having space has allowed me to start my workflow differently, and it’s super fun. We’ve also changed how I perform live. I have a lot of synths in my songs—and think a lot of musicians have this issue now—but in the old days you would write a song and if you got lucky you’d get a deal and go into the studio and record it and it’s done. And they approve it, and you play it. But now we have this thing where everyone has access to everything, and they’re putting all these elements in. So you’re wondering, ‘How the hell am I supposed to recreate this feeling in a live show?’ You either limit yourself while writing, or you use something like Ableton Live to make it easier for someone like your keyboardist. So he can still play, and we can make the songs a lot more familiar. I spend a lot of time dialing that in now, and now I have more time working one-on-one with people. I feel like our shows are the best they’ve ever sounded, versus being rushed in New York. I can feel more confident and comfortable sharing the music because it’s delivering what I want it to deliver.
Do you think your real-life inspirations have changed with your new environment?