Shawn Harris, the lanky, 24-year-old ringleader of Oakland's ambitious punky popsters the Matches, admits that the elaborate beer-and-cold-cuts spread laid out for the band backstage at the Fillmore December 13 isn't a typical occurrence. "I used to work in the kitchen making nachos," says Harris, dressed in his mother's red-linen suit coat, which he has embellished with buttons, a velvet collar, black sleeves, and a shock of teased hair.
Rock/PopJust three years after Harris, bassist Justin San Souci, and drummer Matt Whalen worked together at the historic venue, the Matches (including guitarist Jon Devoto) are on its stage playing to a sea of bouncing teenagers as openers for +44, which features punk-pop superstars Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker, formerly of Blink-182. The Matches met Hoppus through their labelmate Motion City Soundtrack, and Hoppus eventually became one of nine guest producers (including Rancid's Tim Armstrong, Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, Goldfinger's John Feldman, and 311's Nick Hexum) on the band's thirteen-track album Decomposer, released in September by Epitaph. Harris called Hoppus daily to earn the coveted opening slot on the tour. "I would call him and ask if I was getting annoying yet," he recalls. "He said, 'Yes,' and I said, 'Cool, then I'm doing my job.'"
Indeed, the Matches - who may be one of the biggest rock bands to emerge from the East Bay since AFI - have earned their recognition by dogged persistence and aggressive street promotion. A few years ago, the band seemed more adept at jumping around onstage than playing their instruments, even as major labels were pursuing them. Today, they still appear to suffer from Restless Leg Syndrome, but they've also progressed musically. "To me it feels like our touring had more consciousness in our record than we did," Harris said backstage before their performance.
The thirteen songs on Decomposer are all over the map musically compared to 2004 debut E. Von Dahl Killed the Locals, which is no surprise considering the number of producers involved. Harris says Bad Religion's Gurewitz made the band listen to David Bowie and Prince while recording "My Soft and Deep." 311's Hexum insisted the band record "Didi (My Doe, Part 2)" live, because all of 311's hits had been recorded live. Though their rock-star producers heard hints of Devo and Van Halen in their songs, Harris confesses that the Matches "weren't superfamiliar with those bands." More likely, those influences came from another band that was influenced by those pioneers. Devo most likely came from the Faint. And Van Halen? "Maybe from guitar lessons," Harris muses. Their longtime manager Miles Hurwitz, whom they fondly refer to as "The Wizard," also has a hand in shaping their sound. At 52, Hurwitz co-writes the songs, shapes the band's vision, and introduces them to music like the Four Seasons and Loudon Wainwright III. Having been on the road for the past four years, Harris' most prominent inspiration came from the UK "strum-and-yelp" scene. "Clubs turned into dance clubs," he recalls of his experience in England. "It was rock songs blaring loud," like Kasabian and Arctic Monkeys.
The Matches are already working on their next release, which Harris promises will be "another permutation of our identity." And if his current tastes are any indication, it won't sound anything like Decomposer. Since seeing an exhibition on Bob Dylan in New York, Harris has been "obsessed" with the folk icon, as well as singer-songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Cory Branan. Tomorrow, it could be someone else. "It's not very often that I'm the most loyal fan to any one band," he says. "I like finding stuff my bandmates haven't heard of before."
Now in their twenties, the Matches appear to be leaving their punk roots behind. They came up as a bunch of teens at Bishop O'Dowd High School who found refuge from the jock crowd in punk rock. "The most readily available escape was to go to Gilman and see Link 80 play," Harris recalls. "We gravitated toward punk rock. It was such a shell-shock. Once we got out into the world, we realized, 'Oh, there's music out there that is really awesome.'" In reality, the Matches could never book a show at 924 Gilman. Instead, they launched their L3: Live, Loud, and Local series at Oakland's now-defunct iMusicast, which drew hundreds of kids.
Though the Matches were attracted to punk's scariness, they certainly never adopted its underground philosophy. The band has every intention of becoming successful, and isn't sitting back and waiting for it to happen. Immediately after their half-hour performance, guitarist Devoto headed out into the crowd armed with a box of CDs and a pitch to kids who hadn't heard of them before. One of those was 22-year-old Oakland resident Socrates Lopez, who didn't have cash to buy the CD, but said he'd buy it eventually because "I thought they were pretty good."
While the Matches still aren't a household name, they appear to be well on their way. So far, Decomposer has sold twelve thousand copies. The band members still live with their parents and don't yet have enough money to buy cars or houses. "Kids are somewhat aloof to the indie music scene," Harris says. "They haven't heard of us."