THE UNDERCOVER DREAM LOVERS: ACCEPT THAT REALNESS
photography by stefano galli
Matt Koenig: I don’t know if it’s a direct thing from being here, but I do think that where you place yourself and what you expose yourself to affects you on every level whether you’re aware or not. But now that I’ve had more time to figure out some of those things that were a focus, I have more time to think about other things. It’s funny because I didn’t study music in school and I’m self-taught on everything, I learned from the internet, essentially, so there’s a certain comfort of getting over questioning yourself. I’m looking back at old music and what people did and the production styles they pursued … I guess I didn’t really listen to sounds before—I just went in a room and played something if it felt right—but now I’m looking at older 70s disco or listening to things that are energizing and fun and because I have the time, I can analyze a bit more. Naturally, that influences some of my ideas and processes.
What’s some older stuff you’ve been gravitating towards?
Matt Koenig: Have you heard of Hot Chocolate?
No—sounds great though.
Matt Koenig: Their songs are in like, every movie. I’ve asked people if they’ve heard of them and they’ll be like, ‘No, I haven’t,’ but then I play something for them—like ‘You Sexy Thing’—and everyone knows it. It’s so good—all their songs are. I think people have heard their stuff in movies but don’t realize it because we’re all focused on the story. Or if you’re out dancing and someone DJs it, you’re not really worrying about what it is even if you like it. I’ve always been someone who listens really passively and really enjoys a lot of things but didn’t always know who did what. I’ve been doing research now and piecing things together. There’s a couple of great Rod Stewart songs that I’ve been liking. And I’ve also been listening to this band Parcels—they’re newer but they have an older sound. I’ve just been excited by things that make you wanna dance without being electronic—songs that are more human and loose without editing and quantizing. Back then, a lot of bands didn’t have that option, so it was more natural.
That’s true. Off the top of my head, when I think about music for dancing, every newer song that comes to my head is electronic.
Matt Koenig: Yeah, and that’s probably because everything is so mesmerizing and transient because it’s so perfectly in rhythm. But I think a loose rhythm is more fun and human. It’s cool to accept that realness. Anytime I go to a party and people are putting on music, I try to pay attention to what’s playing or the song’s BPM. Or before I start a song, I’ll play something and get excited about it and go make something myself, which is something I never did before.
‘All You Need’ sounds like it’s about heartbreak. A few of the first lines, ‘I can’t breathe and you’re in luck’ and ‘this is now the saddest prize that I have ever won,’ struck me as interesting. What do they mean to you?
Matt Koenig: It’s really bizarre. My writing process is very steam of consciousness, so I will occasionally challenge myself to write ideas out and relate them to a concept so they’re a little more clear. But very often when I’m making things or looping sounds or taking a drumbeat and moving over to the guitar and picking up the mic … I get so embodied with everything that is happening, I’ll emote something and improvise vocals and lyrics for a long time. If something really registers with me, I’ll write it down and capture a version of it and try to do a better take and piece together other ideas that I’m having. It’s not always a perfect chronology in a story, but it’s pieces. I’ve debated on how much I want to work on that because I have a cop out with the Undercover Dream Lovers name. I like that the way I make the music, and find the words—[but] it’s very unsure. I’m trying to find it in myself. It’s not always the clearest thing—sort of like a dream, but there’s a lot of truth in it, and certain phrases will resonate with people as well … Ultimately, I’ve always thought, ‘Well, you can write whatever you want, but everyone’s gonna interpret it differently anyway.’ My whole process is refining the music so it can be understood on many levels, but ultimately, I just trust my gut. So back to the lyrics—yeah, that song was definitely a time where I was going through relationship stuff … I remember the time. It was after a relationship and I was meeting people, having different feelings and things like that. What I liked about the line ‘the saddest prize I’ve ever won’ was that it meant the end of something, but it’s something good as well. It’s this idea of changing times—I found something new, but it’s sad because I left something as well.
So while writing lyrics, you piece together different ideas—do you try to write thematically?
Matt Koenig: Honestly, sometimes I ask myself, ‘Can I make my lyrics more direct? Should I make them “better”?’ but I know that’s just become my comfort zone. Language is communication. People come up with slang all the time because they’re with their friends and a word happens and all of a sudden it morphs into something more. I think it’s more important to just emote what you’re feeling, and the message will come out. But I do work on different techniques that you can use to challenge yourself—maybe someone can relate what I’m feeling to a car, or a date, or anything. On the surface there’s one story, but underneath, there’s more. It’s hard.
Are you fine with that?
Matt Koenig: I’m okay with it. I’ve heard comments from people who are reading the lyrics and they’ll be like, ‘Wow, I really love the music but I don’t get what this person is saying at all.’ I had the epiphany when I was younger that everyone’s just gonna hear things differently, so don’t try to overthink it if it feels right. Always try to do something new and creative without getting too in your head about it. The songs for the first EP I put out, I wrote them in two weeks and I was like, ‘Do I make these demos and start releasing music again?’ Because I was making music before I was in New York, when I was living in Pittsburgh—so I was like, I don’t know. I was thinking I could just be in the moment and share them even I’m not artistically where I wanna be. Someone might still connect with that stuff. So I put it out, and there’s definitely songs on [that release] that people are like, ‘That’s my favorite still.’ Even though I might not be pursuing [the same vision] it’s a sentiment that someone still relates to.
Do you think the ambiguity in your lyrics correlates to you being a private person?
Matt Koenig: Probably. I’m one of eight kids. I have six sisters and a brother, so maybe it’s a personal space thing. Who knows what it is? I don’t like to be upfront and obvious. I like to put a twist on ideas that sounds and feels good in a rhyme scheme, or also maybe I just like the way it articulates in a song, or maybe it just feels good to say a sentence. I love that I can cheat with the whole dream thing, because dreaming is sort of bizarre—you don’t know what’s going to happen, and one thing doesn’t make sense with the next, and you’re asking yourself what does it all mean. I actually wrote that song about three years ago and I never really thought I was gonna put it out. I was in this place where I liked it and it was at a time where I was trying to decide if I wanted to treat it more like a demo and make it better and work with producers, or go my own route. But ultimately, I got to experiment with it. And I worked on it, and it wasn’t getting any better than the demo I already had. I was frustrated, so I was like, ‘I’m gonna put this on the back burner and work on new things and keep growing and learning or whatever.’ It became one of those things I thought I’d moved on from. Rivka—it was one of her favorites for the longest time. We used to play it at shows early on because we didn’t have a long catalog to choose from. People were like, ‘Wow, I love that song—when’s it coming out?’ ‘Oh, we’ll see—I gotta figure it out.’ Eventually it got away from me and right now I’m writing a lot for my next project—either an EP or a full-length. I’m working on that material right now. But every once in a while, I’ll reflect on old stuff I’ve done and I had a bunch of friends over and one of my best friends, Otium, who does all of my music video content, he was in town and had heard the song before. So they would all gang up on me and try to make me put something out…
And ‘All You Need’ was the chosen one, huh?
Matt Koenig: Yeah, but I can be pretty stubborn sometimes. I was like, ‘Look, I’m already moving forward, and I don’t wanna get bogged down in what I already did …’ Even though I know everyone listens to music at a different pace, so it doesn’t really matter. But in a creative sense, I don’t like to hold onto things too much. I don’t want to have to worry about perfecting things too much, even though it sounds like that’s what I was doing. I just always want to be creative and make something new. That’s my mindset. I get more excited that way.
So is it that you’re just over the idea?
Matt Koenig: I just exhaust myself. I burn out and then I don’t even know if an idea is good or what it is anymore, or I won’t know if it’s ready. Sometimes that happens with songs where I’m doing too much, and then I decide to take a small break and I start something fresh, and I feel really good and rejuvenated so I wanna put my time into that. That’s the pattern. Each time I do that I get better and feel like I’ve learned something new, so I become obsessed with that. I probably have like 50 to 100 songs just chillin’, but they’re at different levels. Some are just a verse and a chorus, and some are more like a full idea, but there’s a lot that I’ve learned something from and I’ve taken that skill to the next set of songs. I want to get faster at my workflow so I can capture the moment quicker, and I want to refine my ability, so I can be more spontaneous and release things quicker. I feel like if I put something out months later, I might be in a different place, and I might feel different … and it’s confusing because you’re changing so you’re wrapped up in it. But if I feel like I didn’t finish something in my mind, I’m okay with that because it’s just the art I made at that time. If it does something emotionally for somebody that’s awesome. I’m pickier about what I put out because I like the idea of showcasing what I’m working on. It’s a blend—like, ‘This is something from the album I’m working up to, and this is something I did spontaneously and wasn’t thinking too hard about.’
I have a scenario. You’re in a creative slump and you have to leave your house to get the juices flowing. Where do you go?
Matt Koenig: I definitely like going on hikes, which is fun. Or—I know this is a vague answer—but anytime I go out of the house and meet with people, it’s just refreshing. I also recently got a fish tank aquarium for the house and it’s a great distraction for my brain. I get obsessed with learning about it and setting it up because there’s so many details, so I won’t be stressing about the music because my mind is preoccupied. I’ll find something interesting to obsess about and then eventually I’ll realize I’m doing too much and go back to work with a clean slate. Or I’ll clean a bunch—it’s therapeutic for me.
Since you make dreamy psych pop, what’s your perfect psychedelic dream?
Matt Koenig: Hm. I’m really fascinated by like … what the future of reality is. So maybe it’d take place in a world where all the hypothetical scenarios I’m thinking of … where you’re like, ‘How will this play out? I won’t even be alive for that?’ Or like somehow visiting what the possibilities of what people like to dream up: ‘It’s gonna be like this in the future or like that…’ I get very curious. With my music, I try to make something that sounds like the past and the future so it’s a blend of all these ideas that are happening and it’s a nod back to how it’s connected to the same thing that was happening in the past, even if it has a new casing or something. If I was dreaming and I could choose, I would live in a world of ideas that don’t actually exist.
THE UNDERCOVER DREAM LOVERS WITH L’IMPÉRATRICE ON THURS., MAY 9, AT THE REGENT THEATER, 448 S. MAIN ST., DOWNTOWN. 7 PM / $17.50-$25 / 18+. GET TICKETS HERE! VISIT THE UNDERCOVER DREAM LOVERS AT THEUNDERCOVERDREAMLOVERS.BANDCAMP.COM.