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Excavating the Self: Matthew Dear on His ‘Lost Album’

On June 24, 2021

Image by Brett Carlson

There’s nothing like the feeling of stumbling upon a great album you’d forgotten about. Buried in the depths of your mind are lyrics you thought were long lost and unexpected memories with a whole host of songs. In the case of Matthew Dear, there was one extra caveat — the album he rediscovered was one he’d made himself.

“It’s pretty fucked up, because Sam [Valenti] of [my label] Ghostly, he was the one that kinda put all the things together again and said to me, ‘Hey remember all this? Remember this thing?’ And when I heard them it was so messed up, because I could sing every one. My wife, too,” Dear recalled. “She remembered every song and we looked at each other like, ‘Oh my god.’”

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On June 25, Dear will release Preacher’s Sigh & Potion: Lost Album, a record he made from 2008 to 2009, in between his breakthrough Asa Breed, a progressive electronic pop record in which he used loops to create surreal, Kandinsky-like soundscapes and Black City, a heady funk-forward project that blended dark and light like a neon reflection in a Manhattan puddle. The latter earned Pitchfork’s Best New Music designation, and, along with his strong records under his house alter ego Audion, helped Dear vault to widespread recognition in the electronic music community.

Today, Dear lives with his wife and children on 10 acres of land in Ann Arbor and teaches for his alma mater, the University of Michigan. He has moved into a new phase of his life and career with both grace and exuberance. Over the phone in May, the 42-year-old is warm and endearing, eagerly recounting stories of his first plane trip and dinner party after being vaccinated, savoring human contact and connection that he’s realized is essential to his songwriting.

“Hopefully, it’s like meditating,” he said of the return to normal social life many are enjoying. “I’m hoping there’s a bit of that coming out of this where we’re really washing the slate clean and coming back to life [thinking] ‘What do I really want to do? If I go to this music event, what do I want to take from it?’ It’s really all about fulfillment and doing the right thing.”

And it feels right for Dear to put out this album now, even though he admitted that sometimes discussing it with the media can feel like “an out-of-body experience.” Releasing long-stashed music is not a new concept — from Marvin Gaye’s You’re the Man to David Bowie’s The Gouster to Nas’ The Lost Tapes, examples exist in almost every genre. But Preacher’s Sigh & Potion is fascinating, because we can see how its ideas show up in Dear’s later work, while also imagining how his career might have been different if he’d decided to drop it back then and put his singer-songwriter foot forward.

Dear said that releasing the record had felt like too radical a departure for that juncture in his career. From the jangling guitar loop that opens the album on “Muscle Beach,” it’s clear that Dear was tapping into something different, utilizing folk fingerpicking and country chord progressions as the basis for songs and augmenting them with the occasional programmed drum flourish. Still in his 20s, Dear explained that he was at a personal fork in the road, and wonders whether, had he released Preacher’s Sigh, his lost album would sound more like Black City.

“You’re seeing this personality split where it was this sleeker, New York techno DJ, long trips to Berlin, meeting with my friends and staying up late and doing drugs, dancing, drinking too much. All that became Black City,” he said. “Whereas my father, my Texas history, the acoustic side, fingerpicking, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, my youth in Texas, that all would have been Preacher’s Sigh & Potion.”

Dear acknowledged his family’s southern roots, specifically his ancestors who were apparently killed by Texas rangers, on the Asa Breed cut “Vine to Vine,” but really immersed himself in those ties for Preacher’s Sigh. He said the making of the album came after realizing that the music his father loved, narrative-driven songwriters like Emmylou Harris and Van Zandt, were “just as cool as Jim Morrison.” Working in this style presented him an opportunity to really develop as a vocalist, something he had been interested in since his teenage years.

“Now is a good time to put out this kind of record that shows, ‘Here is this other side that was happening at this time that there was just no way I could have explained it to you guys then. It would have been so confusing if I would have put it out.’”
Matthew Dear

The album is like a space western, at once a relic of a past era and undeniably futuristic. Standout track “Eye,” sees Dear reaching his lowest vocal register and asking questions fitting for a blackhat outlaw. “How long will I run? When will this be through? And if I get caught, you know what to do,” he sings solemnly.

Tracks like the bubbly “Supper Times” and the bouncy “Hikers Y” are more quintessential Dear, but even these feel rougher-hewn than his previous work. Once he decided to finally release Preacher’s Sigh, Dear said he was encouraged by Valenti to resist the urge to tinker with the tracks. He said they made sure the new mixes were as bright as possible, but otherwise kept the songs preserved in amber, leading to what he sees as a very authentic depiction of a musician exploring their creative boundaries.

“I don’t want to say this could have been anybody’s record, but I think it’s a good slice of [a] young person exploring technology on a computer in the privacy of their own home, learning how to play guitar and sing at the same time, and pushing record,” he said. “This is what was captured.”

Listening to Preacher’s Sigh for the first time is a little like watching an influential ’60s movie in 2021. Certain concepts have been explored subsequently, but it’s important to remember that this album was made years before the true dissolution of genre and the popularity of folktronica acts like Sylvan Esso and Bon Iver. The album certainly feels more natural now than it would have then, especially now that we’ve seen Dear grow as a songwriter on subsequent LPs Beams and Bunny.

“Now is a good time to put out this kind of record that shows, ‘Here is this other side that was happening at this time that there was just no way I could have explained it to you guys then. It would have been so confusing if I would have put it out,’” he said.

Like many musicians, Dear said the quarantine time during the COVID-19 pandemic was not especially fruitful for making new music. He turned to a myriad of other pursuits — starting a forest school with his teacher wife, learning about mycology (the study of fungi) and livestreaming DJ sets — but said that he’s been inspired by the more carefree spirit of his early days, even though the pressure was arguably far greater on him then as a rising act than it is today.

“It’s been inspirational to go back through these songs and remember that sometimes I fidget with things too much now, and that I should take a cue from old me and just worry about the vibe and the idea first,” he said. “I don’t think I gave a shit at the right time. (Laughs) I should have given way more shits when I didn’t.”

Dear had recently played his first live show in over a year when we spoke, and is excited by the prospect of performing the songs off Preacher’s Sigh & Potion, combining the freewheeling writing of his youth with his poised stage persona, honed over countless hours performing.

“I would really like to do a computerless [tour], me and an acoustic guitar,” he said. “I would love to tour that way at least once, just me and a guitar case and my cowboy boots and some jeans and a wrinkled shirt. Even if it’s just for me and the 15 people that come to that show.”

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Grant Rindner

Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.

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