Matthew Frederick Interview
(Interview by Kevin McGrath, Photos by Jon Pountney & Francis Brown)
Newsoundwales have been working with Climbing Trees since the release of their debut album and were privileged enough to host their album launch for ‘Borders’ at St John’s Church in Canton. Ahead of their end of year hometown gig at the Muni in Pontypridd Kevin McGrath caught up with Matthew Frederick to talk about the gig and what the future holds for Climbing Trees.
The last time that we sat down for a formal interview was two and a half years ago, just as you were putting the finishing touches to Climbing Trees’ sophomore album Borders. How do you evaluate Borders today? Did it live up to your hopes and expectations?
I haven’t actually listened to Borders that much since we put it out, if I’m honest! As we’re still actively promoting the album and only released the fifth and final single back in the summer, I haven’t really had the time to distance myself from it and then go back and listen to it with fresh ears. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m sure there are things on it I would change. We have talked in the past about going back and remixing/remastering our debut album Hebron – there’s one track in particular that I love playing live yet have to skip every time I listen to the album – but as things stand it’s probably wiser to put that kind of effort and energy into working on new material instead of constantly redrafting.
Would you consider re-recording it for a future album?
Only if it was on a live album, or perhaps a reworked version for an acoustic release. There are a few tracks on Hebron that could sound a lot bigger, and they’ve grown live over the past few years, but I suppose the album is a nice snapshot of where we were as a band at that particular time. We had around half of the budget of Borders, and initially went into the studio with the aim of making an EP before it eventually snowballed to become our debut album. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I’m still proud of it.
You must have been delighted that Borders was shortlisted for the 2016 Welsh Music Prize, in what was a very strong year with nominations for the likes of 9bach, Cate Le Bon and eventual winner Meilyr Jones?
Yeah. I suppose it’s not cool for bands to admit to wanting to achieve awards. It’s all about the music, after all, but it was nice to be recognised nonetheless. It showed the progression from Hebron, in terms of reaching a wider audience. We knew that it was a good record, but it was pleasing to be nominated alongside some of the names you’ve mentioned.
Given the critical reception afforded Borders, you seem to have attracted some big name supporters on national radio. How important is the backing of movers and shakers like Huw Stephens and Tom Robinson in raising the band’s profile?
It’s nice to receive the odd spin on Radio 1 and 6 Music here and there, which is something we weren’t achieving three years ago, but in many ways I get as much satisfaction from our music being played on smaller stations in Australia, America, the Netherlands or wherever it may be. A band of our size, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, would have found it extremely difficult to reach a fanbase outside of the UK without a whole team behind us plugging the music. I was actually looking at a breakdown of our Spotify streams the other day, and there are people literally all over the world listening to our music, which is still a little mind-blowing when you think about it.
You’ve released a thumping five singles from the album, the last of which being “Fall” in August this year. It was made available on coloured vinyl, which is a first for Climbing Trees. Are you something of a vinyl junkie yourself?
Oh yeah, definitely. I used to rummage through my parents’ record collection, from the age of about five or six, absolutely fascinated by these massive black circles…
What did you find there? Can you let us into a few secrets?
The Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash, all the things you’d expect to find in your parents’ record collection, although what really stood out for me was a seven inch single by a band called Mad Dog. They were actually a local group featuring my cousin Tony on guitar, and I vividly remember looking at the back sleeve, reading their fan-mail address, which was Tony’s house at the time in Penrhys Road, Ystrad, and that was probably the first time I realised that being in a band was as achievable for a kid from the Rhondda as it was for The Beatles, who were almost mythical beings. I think that’s what really kickstarted my ambition to become a musician.
“Fall” was used to soundtrack an exceptional promo video for this year’s Iris Prize Festival. It’s an immensely moving short film, which I urge everyone to see. How did you become involved in the project?
I’ve played a number of shows for Francis Brown of Newsoundwales over the past few years, both solo and with the Trees, and he’s heavily involved with the Iris Prize. He showed me some of their past montages a while back (there’s one from a couple of years ago featuring a track by Lily Beau which is absolutely beautiful), and asked us if we wanted to be involved. It’s always a pleasure to see your music used in a different context, and this was one of those projects where you don’t have to think twice, really!
You’ve spent a large part of 2017 playing the festival circuit, which has been your personal favourite festival appearance this year?
As much as I love playing the bigger festivals, sometimes the smaller ones, where you’re playing the larger stages or even headlining, can be more rewarding. Sometimes it means you’re able to engage with more people because you’re not lost among the hundreds of acts at a larger festival, and generally the smaller events are a lot more relaxed. Either way, we tend to get stuck in and make a weekend of it rather than shipping in, playing for an hour and then shooting off again, and we’ve got to know a lot of our fans personally over the past few years by playing festivals. I think we are seen as quite approachable compared to some other acts. We spent a good half hour kicking a football around with a few fans and their kids at Green Man in the summer, which you might not get from Kanye West…
Here’s the $64,000,000 dollar question: Will there be a new Climbing Trees album in 2018?
Looking at the chronology, 2013 was Hebron, 2016 was Borders; I think if we release a third album before 2020 I’ll be pleased! It’s a long process and a lot of hard work creating an album as a completely independent band; from the writing, recording and mixing, to the artwork, pressing and distribution. It’s been pretty full-on since we released Borders, so in terms of a third album, it’s on the distant horizon, but there’s no rush. We’ve set aside the first half of next year to concentrate on some solo stuff and side projects before reconvening a little further down the line to start writing again as a band and eventually get stuck in to this third record. We do actually have songs that we didn’t use for Hebron and Borders, for one reason or another, as well as tracks that we started writing after we put Borders out. There are various bits and bobs knocking around, little ideas recorded, things that we’ve jammed. If we had to go into the studio next week we could make a really solid EP out of it all. We have at least half a dozen crackers in the pipeline, so it’s looking promising, if not imminent!
Do you have a sense of what type of record the third album will be? With Borders there was a stated objective to make a more expansive, rockier album then Hebron which, by common consent, was something you accomplished. Is there an overarching vision this time around?
We’ve actually chatted about recording a completely instrumental album at some point. The instrumentals have been prominent on both records, I think there have been three on each, as well as tracks such as ‘Fall’ and ‘Coda’ which are neither a song nor instrumental, lying somewhere in between. The instrumentals feel like the most collective tracks and the most accurate representation of us as a band in many ways, perhaps because there’s no focal point in terms of vocals. We’re aware that an album entirely comprised of instrumentals might alienate a lot of people though, so it probably wouldn’t be a commercial success!
Have you thought about the nuclear option of committing to one lead vocalist?
I don’t think that would ever be an option for us, or something that we’d particularly want to do. One of our main strengths as a band is that we have three lead vocalists, which arguably makes us more interesting live as well as on record. The uninitiated listener could flick between the singles we’ve put out from Borders without necessarily realising that it’s the same band because those five recordings feature three different lead vocalists, all with a different sound and feel.
The band has just played its very first American shows. Where exactly did you play and how did the ‘Trees’ songs’ go down stateside?
We played two Mondo.NYC shows at The Delancey in Manhattan (apparently we were the first Welsh band to play there!), as well as a really intimate Sofar Sounds show at a beautiful apartment in Little Italy. It was a great experience, particularly off the back of our first European trip earlier this year, and another to tick off the list!
You have a big hometown gig coming up in the Muni Arts Centre on the 23rd of December. Now, I’m Pontypridd born and bred, but you’re a Penygraig boy, I believe. What’s the story behind Climbing Trees being labelled as a Ponty band?
The original five-piece line-up featured two Rhondda members (me being one of them), two Ponty members and one from Cardiff. Ponty was the natural mid-point, it was where we rehearsed (at Globetrotters Bar), and we played our first show in Clwb y Bont. Ponty is where the band blossomed, so it’s only fair that it’s labelled our hometown, although I feel like I’m betraying the Rhondda slightly! So let’s just say that I’m a Rhondda solo artist, but a member of a Pontypridd band…
Your last gig at the Muni, in April 2016, alongside Peasants King and The People the Poet was a sold out fundraiser for the much loved venue. What does it mean to be back playing a re-opened, rejuvenated Muni?
We try to put on one hometown gig a year, and we’ve not actually played in Ponty since the last Muni show. We wanted to wrap up the year with a hometown gig, and it was the natural choice in terms of venue. Last year’s show is up there in the top three in terms of Trees’ gigs, and arguably number one. We’re looking forward to putting everything into this final show of what’s been a long and eventful 2017, and if it’s anything like the last one then it should be an absolute cracker!
Given that this is a Christmas gig can we expect the band members to have a Christmas cover or two up their sleeves on the big night?
Believe it or not, in all of the shows we’ve played over the last few years, we’re yet to perform a cover. Even when we were starting out with only half a dozen songs, we still bloody-mindedly only played our own material. Whether that changes at this show remains to be seen, but it’s as good a time as any to break the rule…
You’re being supported on the night by Ofelia and The Moonbirds, what can gig goers expect from them?
I genuinely believe that both are worth the ticket price alone! We pride ourselves on our harmonies, and it’s a big part of our sound, but I think Ofelia are on the next level. I’ve watched them develop over the past couple of years and they’ve become one of my favourite live bands. They’re style is reminiscent of our first album in some ways, so I think they’ll go down really well with our fans. The Moonbirds are a really energetic live band, massively talented, and I’m a little worried about following them, if I’m honest! There’s a really nice blend between the three of us, though, and it should work well on the night.
Turning to your solo projects, have you been able to devote much time to actual songwriting, given your hectic schedule?
I’m always writing bits and bobs – the issue is getting enough time to sit down and turn them into fully-formed songs! I know that I’ve got enough material washing around to make a couple of really good albums, if I can finish off what needs to be finished off. So far, in terms of my solo releases at least, I’ve put out an EP and a live album, but the next record would technically be my debut studio album, so I want to make sure it’s as good as it can be. I’ve got twenty or thirty things that could go on there, as things stand, but I may put out an acoustic EP as a teaser with a full album to follow. I also plan to release an EP of classical piano compositions at some point, and I’m also writing a piece for a short film which is going into production in Scotland next year. There’s a chance I could win a Scottish BAFTA, which has always been a dream of mine, of course! So there are lots of irons in the fire…
I can’t let the interview go by without asking for an update on the songs that you’ve co-written with the wonderful singer-songwriter Jodie Marie and which I have been lucky enough to hear live once or twice. Please, please tell me that you two are going to release “Red Dress”, “Make it Better” and any other gems that you have hidden away in the vaults sometime in 2018?
I’d love it to come out in 2018, but again, 2020 may be a more realistic aim! We have both been so busy with our various projects, but we’ve got four or five strong songs which should make a really nice EP, and I’m sure we’ll get round to it at some point, when the time’s right. All good things come to those who wait!
You are also the mastermind, guru, power behind the throne, call it what you will, of Staylittle Music, home to Climbing Trees, Matthew Frederick solo artist, The Minerals and Tendons. Are there any plans to develop the roster further in 2018?
It is something I would like to do, and will do at some point, I’m sure, but I’m wary of spreading myself too thinly at present. I’ve been bringing other acts on board through our ‘Staylittle Presents’ shows rather than releases over the last year. Putting acts that I love together on bills, doing one-off gigs in unique venues. With friends who are self-releasing, I’m always open to the idea of putting out their music under the Staylittle banner and bringing them in as part of the family, but it was never intended to solely be a record label, or a promoter for that matter. I’d also like to record another series of Staylittle Sessions, as it’s been a couple of years since the last aired on MADE TV. So there’s plenty to get done in 2018 and beyond! Watch this space..