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Self's 'Breakfast with Girls' CD
'Breakfast with Girls' CD
Self's frontman
knows art when he hears it

By Brian Conant,
Illinois College Bureau

Don't ask Matt Mahaffey to explain exactly what it is he is peddling on his band Self's new release ("Breakfast with Girls" on Dreamworks/Spongebath Records) -- he's not really sure what it is.

"We've tried to explain it, but we can't. It is more than pop music - it is broader than almost any category. A long time ago we tried a couple of cute labels, like 'buzz-hop' but that didn't come across the way we wanted to," said the singer, songwriter about the band and sound soon to be known to the world only as Self.

"We're actually waiting for somebody in the media to come up with some interesting name for it," he added.

In a press release sent by Dreamworks, the label calls "Breakfast with Girls" which is the third album from Self (but the first promoted by Dreamworks) a mix of - um, everything -- and cites the sound as ranging from "edgy funk" to "lounge jazz" to "buoyant pop."

Yet whatever his sample heavy mix of catchy beats and off-handed lyrics will inevitably be labeled, Mahaffey is unwavering about one thing - his music is art.

"Whatever I string together I want my records to be an art form. I want them to be a collection of all kinds of sounds strung together by the consistency of the vocals," he said.

Yet the 26-year-old Tennessee native admitted he records the vocals last.

"Yeah, the stuff is always musically based. I'll write a song, basically as I am recording it," he said. To aid in the process Mahaffey has assembled an extensive home studio and a collection of instruments that range from expensive samplers to voice boxes ripped out of stuffed animals.

"It's like building a house - first you have to lay the foundation of sound, and once that is laid down you have a place for the words. The music comes first."

This process may seem haphazard, but to Mahaffey, who sacrificed his college education to pursue recording, the process is old-hat. He'll defend his artistic integrity.

"I'm doing a different thing than say Puff Daddy or Robbie Williams. I do more than punk out a catchy tune. When I sample something I use a tiny phrase or sound. I chop, morph and deconstruct it. I take the vibe, distort the vibe and get sounds and tones I could never get anywhere else."

"Sampling is an art form when you do it this way - a lot like DJing is. When DJing started in the early '80s most guitarists were dissing them, but these guys on the turntables were virtuosos," he said.

The former student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro left school before he could be booted out of the school for low grades, but insists he is better served without a degree.

"I was drawn to the music program, but when I got there I found I could learn more outside of the classroom than in it," he said.

Learning experiences for Mahaffey at Murfreesboro included playing in the numerous pop and R&B bands that thrive in a college environment, as well as in rock bands, punk bands and even a square dancing band.

Yet some of his most interesting experiences as a young musician came as Mahaffey (who is a drummer), was making a few extra bucks on the side by using an old four-track to compose "beats to go" for a slew of Nashville rappers - right out of his dorm room.

"That was insane. I'd lay beats for $40 cash and would have these 15-year-old kids come to my room with their white girlfriends whose babies were throwing up on my bed while we were laying down the track," he said.

"It was all for the love of music. I'd lay tracks all day and play with these crazy pop bands at night -- stuff like XTC and Elvis Costello -- and the whole time I'd think to myself 'This is what I want to do.'"

Meanwhile, fellow students and even graduates of the college, who bought into the system, did not fare so well, he says.

"In my opinion kids are best-served going to the place to learn copyright law and how to play in bands. I read a few days ago that ... something like 1,300 graduates from the school got jobs last year, but there were 1,500 graduates. I guess that's a good ratio, but you should ask the guy who delivers pizzas to my house if he is doing what he wants to -- he's also a graduate."

While Mahaffey was quick to leave MTSU, he found reasons to stay in Murfreesboro. With the help of former bandmate Seth Timbs and his manager Rick Williams, indie record label Spongebath Records was established in the small college town. Since then the label has thrived drawing on a diverse supply of talent that the University draws in - and spits out (current label dwellers include Count Bass D and The Lawerence Brothers).

"Tennessee is not just for country anymore," Mahaffey claimed. "There is great scene developing here. Lots of cool acts, lots of cool people."

Mahaffey is, of course, Tennessee-born and -bred. Hailing from the small town of Kingsport, he explained that his musical experimentation began on the pots and pans as a kid, until his parents finally broke down and bought the kid a toy drum kit from the Sears catalog.

He went through a kit a year until he was nine, when he finally pulled together a real drum kit and busied himself gathering local kids to form various bands.

"My parents have always been very supportive," admitted the musician, whose mother and sister were local celebrities for their singing talents.

And by the time he had formed Self, big brother Mike seemed like logical choice for guitarist.

"We didn't play together much as kids because we hated each other, " admitted Mahaffey. "Now everything is cool though. He can do some amazing things on guitar."

Yet recording with his brother was difficult. Recording with anybody was difficult.

"I'm not a control freak, I'm just more of a ball hog," he explained. "Prince -- now there is a control freak, but I'm learning to be less like that. I figure the more closed-in the operation is, well that's one less set of ears."

Mahaffey admitted he wants to get the rest of his band involved in production of the new album.

The frontman also made a bold new step on this release by entrusting Dreamworks to distribute and promote the record, which involved additional loss of control.

"Yeah, I'd like to have total control, but you have to give into the man sometimes. Dreamworks are actually a pretty good choice -- they are really good at selling records."

Self's second release "Subliminal Plastic Motives" was released on Zoo Records, which Mahaffey characterized as too "schmoozy."

"They would do stuff to make us feel like rock stars. We would get off the plane, and they would want to take us to strip bars and stuff, like we were some hard-core band. They may have gotten the wrong idea though. The second album may have been a bit too heavy on guitars," he said.

Yet Mahaffey says the relationship with Dreamworks hasn't been without its rocky points. More than a little friction arose when executives told Mahaffey they did not hear a hit on the album.

Thus was begotten "The Uno Song," written in just two days, which Mahaffey calls his "big f--- you" to the label.

"I wrote the prettiest pop song I could come up with. ... Then I said to the label, 'Here's my single. You can do a video with a pink letterbox and hearts flying around. ...

"It would have worked, too. ... The girls would have loved it. And then we would have had a hit and could have toured the country playing (the card game) Uno in a tour bus. That's why it's called 'The Uno Song,'" he said.

The label opted to release another song, the tropical-flavored "Meg Ryan." The song, which professes Mahaffey's love for the "Sleepless in Seattle" star, is not meant to sound psychotic.

"I had just gotten back from a trip to the Cayman Islands, so I was on the superstardom binge, and I was talking about becoming Polynesian, and I'm not sure how it really happened, but I thought about what would happen if it were me hanging around a movie set talking to hot girls like Meg Ryan, but its not really about Meg Ryan" he said.

Yet if anyone would ever turn and write a song about him "it would probably freak me out" he said, "But it would be cool to get her in the video. ..."

Ultimately, he admitted, the benefits of major label support do out-weigh the hassles, as the support from Dreamworks has afforded Self a "kick-ass" Web site (which will feature new MP3s every day), and a mondo budget that let Mahaffey to record a slew of tracks in big, decked-out studios. "It was a f---ing blast -- we'll never do it again," said the home studio fanatic.

Mahaffey is now working on an album that utilizes only toy instruments, for Spongebath (though Dreamworks is interested, he reported proudly).

He is also readying for a tour, which has always been a difficult endeavor for such studio-oriented workmanship. Yet the help of his band, Mahaffey said, is helping him through the anxiety of the tour.

"In the future we just want to keep doing things for ourselves. We don't want to paint by the numbers, like so many artists do these days. We don't want to be a band like Smashmouth, who have one hit and then water down their formula to make records.

"We play what makes us happy. That's how this thing came about anyway -- this stuff is ultimately for me, for myself," he said.



7/21/99

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