Smile Politely

Teach the children well

It’s physically impossible not to like Matt Talbott, erstwhile Hum leader, current Centaur frontman, and all around handyman. Ever since the band parted ways amicably in 1999, he has remained a constant on the local scene, continuing the indie rock dream in the form of local space groove merchants Centaur, and opening a studio, Great Western Record Recorders. In his role as recordist, he’s worked with a variety of acts, most notably Hopesfall and local acts Absinthe Blind, Terminus Victor, Tractor Kings, The Blackouts, and Tummler. Additionally, he’s done guitar and vocal tracking for NYC band the Forms and has done several collaborative projects with ex-Shiner mainstay Paul Malinowski.

And if that’s not enough activity for one human being, try this on for size: he’s been a football coach for nine years, starting out with youth ball in 1998 and moving on to the high school level at St. Thomas More in 2003, where he served as freshman and junior varsity head coach before taking over the line and running game responsibilities for the varsity squad.

And as always, he does everything with a casual, inimitable charm and deep-rooted humility that makes the inevitable “just folks” tag seem overstated.

Over and above all of this comes family. He and wife, Susan, have three boys, gentle hellraisers each and every one, just like their dad: Ivan (7 years old), Eli (5), and Ben (4), all of whom Matt loves to pieces.

Last fall, he started a new teaching gig at Millikin University in Decatur, one that affords him ample opportunity to blend together all of his passions and interests. I recently conducted an interview via e-mail that focuses on the Millikin job and his future music activities.

Smile Politely: How did the Millikin job happen, and what do you teach exactly?

Matt Talbott: I’m an “instructor” in music business and commercial music at Millikin University. I started last fall. As with most things in life, landing the job was mostly the result of blind luck. Mark Rubel (owner/operator of Pogo Studio here in Champaign) had been teaching at Millikin for some time, and he left to start his own program at Eastern Illinois University. I wasn’t really aware of what was going on with the situation and was not actively looking for work, as I planned on spending one more year as a stay-at-home dad. A friend of mine, Ben Juday (who does my studio repairs), was at Millikin last summer doing some tech work on their studio. The studio manager mentioned that they were looking for someone, and Ben mentioned it to me. I went ahead and applied. A few weeks later they called me in for an afternoon of interviews, and the Dean called me the next morning and offered me the job. It’s somewhat amusing: I kinda laugh when I put together a resume. I mean, who needs a guy with a Master’s in Education who spent most of his adult life in a van playing rock shows and then putting together a recording studio? I guess there’s a place for everyone.

SP: How “set” is the range of course offerings? Do you have control over that? Can you propose classes, topics, etc.?

MT: The course offerings are pretty set, but they do have a culture over there that really encourages the faculty to “own” what they’re doing. It’s something that has taken me some time to get my head around. I was a little insecure starting out, and spent much of my time trying to figure out what other faculty had done previously in my classes. Being new to higher ed, new to Millikin, and occasionally lacking some specific expertise I’d prefer to have, it took me awhile to allow myself to take chances and to think and work more independently. I’m doing better with that now.

They do have all the mechanisms in place, as you would expect, for creating new courses, and I’ve seen it work. But I feel like I have plenty of room to grow with my current class load before I start rocking the boat. (If I were to rock the boat, I would propose a cross-discipline summer immersion course involving field recordings of Laplander summer solstice rituals. Or something like that.)

SP:  What, in general, is the relationship of the students to your classes? Are they all music majors? Do they have a particular interest in indie rock, recording, etc.? And this is probably a tougher thing to measure, but I’ll try anyway: Are they thinking their way through the courses or are they just passing through? How many have previous technical experience of some kind?  How broad is their understanding of the history of what they’re studying with you? Do they know rock history, recording history?

MT: The kids are all over the board. And “music business” is a broad and diverse enough landscape to accommodate them all (a fact that I go out of my way to get them to understand). Some students really have an interest in and excel in the studio. Some do better in the traditional classroom setting. Some distinguish themselves as musicians. One might be a killer horn or string player, but not particularly creative. Another might lack chops but be very flexible in his or her thinking. A few kind of “have it all.” And, yeah, some of them are just kind of treading water.

Ignorance of history is all but celebrated in this country. I actually like history (and minored in it), and it informs my teaching all the time. That said, one really wants to avoid being the guy who only talks about the Beatles and Zeppelin all day long. Thus, I’m the guy who talks exclusively about Rush and Union Carbide Productions.

SP: How do you find this experience affecting your understanding of what you have done and are continuing to do professionally? Can you express how teaching the material affects your understanding of what you have done, do, will do?

MT: If I told you how much I’ve learned about music business since taking this job, then that would necessarily include a confession of how little I knew last August when class started. So I won’t. The answer to the above question would be “A lot.” I do find myself looking back at certain aspects of my “career” as a recording “artist” and touring “musician” through a different lens (sorry … I have trouble taking myself or what I’ve done very seriously). For sure. Mostly it’s just interesting, like, “Wow, now I see what our lawyer was talking about 15 years ago when he said we’d have to settle for 75% of the statutory rate for mechanical royalties.” And I find the real world examples from my past can, on occasion, make good fodder for classroom examples and, hopefully, help a student understand a concept more completely.

SP: What have you learned about the business, things you didn’t know or couldn’t teach as well as you might like? What new avenues of exploration has this experience opened for you?

MT: That’s a tough one to answer because I’ve learned so much. Basically any and everything I am teaching demands further exploration. Computer recording applications, copyright and publishing, accounting … you name it. But it’s great. I am so lucky to have gotten the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad for three or four years (seriously, how many men get to do that?), but man was I ever ready for a little intellectual stimulation. Of course, this has been more like shock therapy.

Actually, now that I think about it, being at home did present its opportunities for intellectual growth. I can name probably two or three dozen monster trucks, and, in less than five minutes, can assemble a Thomas the Train layout to rival that of any civil engineer in all of Sodor. My wife thinks she’s better at it than I am, but she’s just not.

SP: What is the value of these courses/experiences in your mind? I guess I am asking you to identify the deeper “value” kinds of things you’re teaching above and beyond the mechanics of the recording studio and the various intricacies of the business end of things?

MT: I think that’s a really great question, and I think any teacher struggles, on occasion, with the whole “Is what I’m doing important enough?” question. Actually, I suppose anyone in any profession has that inner-dialogue at some point. I’ve resolved my issues by saying, look, I’m not going to beat myself up over this every day. Maybe teaching music business isn’t on par with the work of Mother Theresa, but any form of teaching presents constant opportunities to share core values and impact lives in a positive way. I think the subject matter takes a back seat to how you go about your business.

There are some issues, though, specific to higher ed and music biz that we need to keep in mind. In talking about the music business, we’re discussing an industry that’s been financially gutted in the last decade. The money flowing in from the sale of music is a tenth of what it was in the mid-nineties. So that means way less money going to record labels, management, recording studios, whatever. At the same time, these commercial music programs in higher ed are becoming more popular. So we’re cranking out more graduates into a shrinking job market. How that all plays out is yet to be seen. So I guess we try and give these kids a healthy dose of realism, but not discourage them. And I don’t really think there is a reason to be discouraged. I just tell them to work hard, enjoy the moment, and that they need not micro-manage every aspect of their post-graduation plan. Life never turns out exactly like you plan, and that’s generally a beautiful thing.

One other thing: Commercial music students at Millikin are, first and foremost, musicians. There are some music biz schools around the country where you can get in without being an exceptional instrumentalist or vocalist. Millikin is not one of them. They’re really serious about developing the entire musician there. I like that.

SP: What’s next on the music and/or recording studio fronts?

MT: Now that I have the Millikin job, I am hoping that will free me to use my place this summer to record (finally) the next Centaur record. We’ve had the follow up to In Streams basically written for several years. We’ve had several false starts, usually due to my schedule, paranoia, sloth, or mental illness. I am hoping this is the year. You’d think that with the songs written and access to a great studio, I’d be able to get it done. But, I got issues. As they say with the Cubs, “This could be the year.” The folks at Millikin would really like for this kind of thing to happen. For someone in my field, this is the cash equivalent of publishing. They want to see me actively writing and recording. So that’s an additional new piece of motivation that I welcome.

Also, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a label for the studio. Obviously the current trend is for bands to record their own stuff on their home digital workstations. In an effort to combat that, I’m basically handpicking some bands I want to work with and inviting them in for small projects that I’ll record to analog, mix to analog, and then press to vinyl. It’s not so much that I am obsessed with vinyl; I just want to record some good music using a process that plays to my strengths and the strengths of the studio, and I am hoping the bands will enjoy a slightly old-fashioned approach to working. Since they’ll be my sessions, I won’t feel like a tyrant dictating terms. My goal is to turn this into an ongoing series of quarterly releases (starting out with 7”s — only because I want to start out with manageable-size projects that are more likely to make it to completion). I know enough about the business to know this won’t make money. But I’ll get to work with bands and music that I particularly enjoy, and hopefully this project will help spread the word about my studio to other like-minded artists. So it’s almost like a marketing investment in the studio, except that it’s fun and cool. I’m pretty serious about this and have some folks lined up for a June recording session to get it rolling.

SP: What’s happening coaching-wise?

MT: I’ll be helping out with the football team at Millikin next fall. Kind of like a “walk-on” coach. I’ve been an assistant coach at St. Thomas More here in Champaign for many years. I decided to introduce myself to the Millikin head coach and said, “Hey, I’m here every day. Need any help?” He’s been very kind and has invited me on as an assistant. How cool is that? So I’m basically looking for good oboe or horn players who can run a 4.4. If you hear of any, send them my way.

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