Seattle, Washington’s Matt Bishop, lyricist and lead singer of the five piece, orchestral-pop and folk band Hey Marseilles, offered up part of his afternoon for an interview with Smile Politely to discuss his band, soon-to-be released album, and national tour. The newly re-opened venue, The Accord, will introduce Hey Marseilles to the area as this renamed venue (previously known as The Highdive) is a new stop for the band on their tour route.
Smile Politely: How did you come up with a title for your band?
Matt Bishop: It’s such an unsatisfying answer… We wanted something that sounded cool. Our guitar player spent some time in New Caledonia because his mom is French. When we first started as a band we just wanted something that sounded abstract and we rhyme a lot, so we added the word “Hey” in front of the word “Marseilles” and that worked.
SP: Did you consider any other titles before you made that official?
Bishop: We did. We weren’t really sure if we were going to be an alt-country band or more of a folky band, so there were a couple more. We almost named ourselves just Marseilles, Left Out Counties and we’re glad that didn’t happen. And we almost named ourselves Hey, Hey Marseilles but we cut down the “Hey” to just one.
SP: Are there artists in your area that influence you?
Bishop: Damien Jurado. A good song doesn’t have to be over thought. It can be simple. I played a Taylor Swift cover night a few weeks ago and I realized that Taylor Swift songs, at least the ones I learned, are essentially the same four chords over and over again. Marrying the simplicity of a good song with ways to make it sound unique is a challenge and that’s what I’ve been nurturing and hoping to make stronger as a product of getting to know other musicians and songwriters. The community in Seattle is so strong in terms of the relationships bands and musicians have with each other. When we write a song we show it to the guys from The Head and The Heart, or we sing on other people’s records or they sing on ours. Keeping each other in that competitive, creative headspace is something that’s really easy to do in Seattle.
SP: Do you have a favorite band you’ve worked with?
Bishop: Our management, Onto Entertainment, was pretty integral in connecting us with Anthony Kilhoffer (John Legend, Kid Cudi) and has been great to us. We’ve done some co-writing down in L.A. with Anthony, our producer, and he’s probably the singular, most favorite individual we’ve worked with in that capacity.
SP: What has that experience been like for you?
Bishop: We’re very straight laced, folky guys who like abstract music like Sufjan Stevens, and Anthony is kind of an older guy who comes from the Hip-Hop world and is all about cutting out the crap. He thought that we had a lot of crap in certain parts of our arrangements. He’s super funny and there may or may not have been consumption of certain intoxicants while making the record that allowed everything else to be that much funnier. It was just a really good time and he was very light hearted.
SP: Was it difficult hearing that you had to cut out pieces?
Bishop: It is, but his personality and the way he would communicate it was put in such a way that we quickly bought in to his train of thought. We were all fortunately on the same page in terms of understanding what type of record we wanted to make and he was the type of guy that could help us make that record.
SP: How do you handle negative feedback?
Bishop: It’s expected. Most of my friends don’t even listen to my band; don’t ever take it personality. Everybody’s got their own opinions but what really matters is whether people come to the shows and that’s what will keep us around. When things go bad you just practice harder. If I forget lyrics I try to make them up on the spot and nobody really notices.
SP: How have you progressed from your previous albums to your upcoming release?
Bishop: We started as a seven piece band a few years ago. Our first two records are really instrumentally based with a lot of long songs, so we wanted to focus our strengths into more cohesive, shorter songs, pull in some production elements that might make the songs have a broader appeal, while staying true to ourselves and what our identity has been as a band.
SP: What was it like to create your shortest song, “Eyes on You”?
Bishop: We didn’t intentionally write that. It’s one of the rockiest songs we’ve ever played and when we got to what is now the end of the song there wasn’t really any reason to keep hitting the short hook.
SP: Was there a specific reason you featured “North & South” on your website?
Bishop: I think “North & South” is a song that really ties the traditional singer-songwriter ballads that we would have on any of our records but the production on it is such that it’s got a really cool electronic beat that previous records wouldn’t have had, and the aesthetic it provides is totally different. It’s a nice bridge between old Hey Marseilles and this new record.
Previously Released Albums:
Lines We Trace
To Travels and Trunks
Hey Marseilles — Coming February 5th, 2016 — (*3rd Full Length Album)
SP: Have you played much in Seattle since you began touring?
Bishop: We’ve been touring nationally for about three years so we don’t play as much in Seattle. Now we only play maybe 2 or 3 times a year. I was at a coffee shop a couple of days ago and somebody just came up to me out of nowhere, said that they were really looking forward to the new record and that’s encouraging. That’s something that happens not infrequently in Seattle, and it’s just a really good place to feel like as a musician I am supported, recognized and valued.
SP: Where was your first gig?
Bishop: We were playing at a CD release party in the Connor Burn Pub. We played a couple of covers and played earlier versions of our first record songs. I think that was in 2009; we were all super young. Half the band couldn’t even get in the bar, they were under 21.
SP: Where do you see your band in the next few years?
Bishop: Hopefully still making music and working on our fourth record. We tour for this one and of course we’ll be rich and famous, living in all of our own houses, touring the world, meeting presidents- fingers crossed.
SP: We’re excited to have Hey Marseilles come to The Accord!
Bishop: Champaign’s one of those places that we have never played before. It’s always fun to play in new cities. We’re super stoked to play that stop. When you book a tour it’s a vulnerable action. You want to get it out to the world and we hope our album’s well received. We’re excited to see our fans and for the possibility. This tour’s pretty long and will keep us busy until spring.
SP: How do you balance your touring life and your personal life?
Bishop: All of us are employed outside of the music world with flexible jobs. The five of us have been together since 2006, going on ten years — that’s a crazy accomplishment. Some of us work from the road.
SP: What makes a good recording session and how do you feel you made the album what it is?
Bishop: Everybody being on the same page and respecting feedback and input, having a collective goal in terms of how you want the songs to sound and how you want the album as a whole to sound, that’s where the producer comes in; he can focus that. We have given him the authority to tell us when we have good and bad ideas. We pretty much took on a song a day and wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that so quickly and effectively without being on the same page and having trust in Anthony. Foundationally, that will be why the album’s successful down the road.
SP: With so many instruments used in your albums, do you think one instrument dominates over the others?
Bishop: A big part of our new approach is managing dynamics, ensuring that every element of our sonic landscape is placed appropriately in conjunction with the larger contexture with other instruments so everything plays an equally important role.
SP: When considering music and lyrics, do you think one is more important over the other?
Bishop: No. They are totally different entities without each other. I think some songwriters focus on one over the other. Even when we started as a band I was more focused on the lyricism and the other guys really didn’t care about lyrics. Realizing that it’s the focus of those two things that make a good song is something that we had to learn. Part of everybody writing their own songs was to encourage them to understand that and figure out how we collectively could follow that formula and marry lyrics with music in a way that resonates with a lot of people.
SP: What is the band’s songwriting process like?
Bishop: I used to write the melody and music or the foundational structure of the music first, but a lot of the times what I call “Monster Lyrics”, or first draft lyrics, end up making a new song. I do have a list of lyrics that I will think up or song titles that I’ll think up and I’ll return to if I’m looking for lyrics for melodies later but usually I’ll start with the melody first because I want it to speak for itself. We all actually wrote our own music and lyrics for the album which is the first time we’ve done this. I used to write the lyrics on top of the music that the other guys would write and I wanted to get out of that headspace and wanted to write some of my own music. All of our singles have been written by different people. It’s been a ton of fun to encourage each other to try new things. Guys who didn’t used to write lyrics are writing lyrics now and I’m having a lot more of a vocal role in arrangement and production, so we’re kind of all tapping into each other’s skill set and learning from each other.
SP: Were all of you formally trained?
Bishop: Our string players were all classically trained as was Philip, our keyboard player, but Nick and I were not; we taught ourselves. Over the course of being together as a band and making music for ten years, being in that environment you learn so much. I’ve learned to sing better and my vocal approach is a lot different. I think my voice sounds different than it did on our first record and we all have different talents. I taught the other guys how to sing, essentially, so we could have more backup vocals. We used to never have backup vocals. It’s definitely been a cohesive effort.
SP: Would you ever want to teach music?
Bishop: I have no skills in articulating the logistics of music. I’d be a horrible music teacher but I’ve already done some workshops on songwriting and done some co-writing. Being able to transfer those skills has been fun but don’t anticipate I’d ever do that alone as a career.
SP: Did you always want to be in a band?
Bishop: In the back of my mind I never really knew what I wanted to do career wise. I used to play solo shows in college and always really liked that. Initially it was just the three of us (Matt, Nick and Philip). Philip knew the Andersons, the string players, from the town they grew up in. We had a trumpet player for a while, a couple different drummers, and we just kept adding until we couldn’t fit any more people on the stage and then we had to downsize. We’ve essentially become a small business. I don’t know how it happened. Hey Marseilles took off a little bit in Seattle and it just happened. It’s been fun to try and make it a reality and we’ve gotten this far. It’ll be fun to see how much further we can go.
Check out Hey Marseilles this Saturday, January 30that The Accord in Downtown Champaign. Doors open at 7 p.m., show is at 8 p.m. — and Hey Marseilles is joined by Bad Bat Hats and locals Again Is Already.