It's around five in the afternoon, and I'm sitting in a lounge area at the Marin Youth Center in San Rafael with Shawn Harris, lead singer of The Matches. Harris is all charm, slouched on a couch with a Peter Pan smile and a Johnny Depp face. He's the kind of front man you can't help but fall for, even when he's in drag.
Harris, 24, in a Barney-purple workingwoman ensemble of a suit jacket, pencil skirt, and white tights is dressed for the night's costumed Halloween show.
The Matches of Oakland, CA, have been igniting the music scene since signing with Epitaph in 2004 and hitting the country on endless tours and music festivals. Coming back from playing dice and sharing a bus with OK Go! on a U.K. tour, the group is currently the sole opening act for +44 (Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker's new band). The Matches are well beyond performing in Boys & Girls Club venues, but clearly Harris and the boys don't give a shit.
When Travis Barker broke his arm in October, postponing a load of dates on the +44 tour, The Matches' singer/guitarist Harris, bassist Justin San Souci, drummer Matt Whalen, and lead guitarist Jon Devoto jumped at the chance to play the local Halloween set. Most bands that have managed to escape the confines of their garages and high school gyms turn up their noses and never turn back. But any fan of The Matches finds their choice as no surprise.
Though the band may have outgrown the Bay Area music scene, they continue to return to their roots by supporting local bands and implementing D.I.Y ethics. Back in the local days, the Matches started their own series of shows called "L3" for "live, loud, and local" at the now defunct iMusicast in Oakland, creating a place and a culture for the underage crowd to thrive. Instead of handing out flyers or stickers, The Matches spread their sound through "commotion promotion," where they performed acoustic sets outside of popular venues, dorm rooms, and malls to attract fans.
Now signed and playing in the venues they once solicited outside, one would think the D.I.Y. methods would cease.
"I just spent the last week sending out illustrations to every college radio station director and DJ," says Harris proudly, at the eve of leaving for New York's CMJ (College Music Journal) music marathon shows. "Instead of making Xeroxed flyers or glossies to promote our shows to these DJs, we made basically a thousand tiny art prints that we're gonna hand out like flyers." The prints, all numbered and hand printed, were designed by Harris and band mate San Souci. Other self-promotion tactics include homemade You Tube videos and web banners. On the business side, drummer Whalen is also the tour manager. The Matches are hands-on with everything from sewing matching buttons on their outfits to animating their next music video for "Little Maggots."
With big projects and huge tours crossed off their lists, the young band (ranging in age from 20-24) have been living out their teenage dreams. "We just played with Rancid," Harris drops with a boastful smile.
In fact, the East Bay band has a lot to boast about. For their sophomore album Decomposer, the boys managed to enlist nine name producers including Rancid's Tim Armstrong. Others include 311's Nick Hexum, Goldfinger's John Feldmann, Mark Hoppus, and Epitaph founder Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion.
"The pressure to be original and inspired and everything was pretty high because we were working with some bands that inspired us to start playing music," says Harris about working with big talent. "We really stepped it up to do our best."
The 13-track disc proves to be a reflection of what the band's best is, with daring songs ranging from string heavy to techno infused. "We wanted to have this diverse album that was about each song being an individual rather than the album being an individual sound," chimes Harris.
Songs inspired by U.K. dance clubs ("You (Don't) Know Me"), crows on telephone wires ("Little Maggots"), and a George Saunders short story ("The Barber's Unhappiness"), Decomposer is a pop-rock mosaic masterpiece.
Far from the sugary pop-punk package that is E. Von Dahl Killed the Locals, you'd be quick to assume Decomposer killed the Matches. But not even their hardcore and oldest fans seem to think so. "In fact it's the old, hardcore fans who find the least amount of differences between the two CDs," says Harris.
The changes between their two albums are predictable considering the age gap them.
"You update yourself every year, whether you know it or not, change is slow, but this is just kind of what comes out when we open our mouths now," mentions Harris about Decomposer.
Harris, however, insists that some things will never change.
"While the album definitely moved in many different directions than what we kind of were known for after doing our first album, one thing that has stayed the same is the live aspect of the new songs. We were very conscious in making sure that every song that went on this album would translate to the live show, and kind of hold hands with our old material. Maybe it's just the filter of how we perform, but there has always been this quirky desire to approach and execute songs differently than the status quo or the mainstream. There has always been that aspect of our band, which I think is where a lot of our own sound lies."
For a band with a steady grasp and vision for themselves, it's no accident how they manage to retain an individuality that keeps them from being categorized with today's general punk bands. It can also explain why The Matches chose the indie record company Epitaph over the many major label deals they were offered.
"Major labels are gross and swarmy and they disappear and reappear and they don't really care about you. In the end, they're just throwing your band out there, it's a business venture, and if it hits and sticks, then you're huge... For a little while. If you're really lucky then maybe you'll have a career but most likely you don't."
Harris prefers to build the band "organically" rather than through excessive air play on the radio.
"Our band is less about what single we pick. Nobody knows our band from a song or two, you either know us or you don't, And if you know us you've probably seen us live, probably seen us on tour," says Harris. "And that's how we're gonna get our name out there and kind of introduce ourselves. And we'd rather introduce ourselves than have some big marketing plan introduce us."
"I think that even though it's a slower path to go with an indie label, Epitaph has a ton of clout as far as being supportive of their bands and what their bands want to do and that was the most important thing for us," he continues. "That's why we chose to go with Epitaph and it's going to take us longer to build than say, a band that signs to a major yesterday. They'll probably blow up before us but the plan is that after their single is passed, and their next record comes and doesn't do as well, we'll still be out there building and at some point, somewhere down the line, pass them up and have a career and be a band that made themselves."
From their D.I.Y. ethics and attitude, The Matches are more than capable of blazing a big career on their own. So what do The Matches see in their future? Harris' lipstick lined smile spreads in excitement at the possibilities.
"I want to do bigger art projects I'm working on our animated video, and that really excites me too actually... To be getting into moving visuals to coincide with our art, and we're definitely going to be doing more of that in the future," grins Harris. "Of course we'll be on tour and we'll be pushed to the edge of our comfort and our patience with each other and not being stable... Learning even more, how to be gypsies. We're doing a headlining tour at the start of February, and we're going out with a few other bands. I want to get everybody in one bus to the point of everybody getting so fed up with everyone else and get camera crews in there and have it be the most entertaining thing. I want to make a lot of friends, I want to write songs that are ten times as good as the songs I'm writing now..."
Whatever the future holds, The Matches aren't willing to settle for anything.
"I want to keep upgrading ourselves. Keep ourselves uncomfortable enough that we never quite become one thing. That we can always be shifting- either evolving or devolving, always on making ourselves a bit uncomfortable with our art. I don' want to develop a sound and stick to it. It doesn't sound appealing to me. We very well may be one of those bands that everybody has a favorite era of."
Later in the evening, the guys, themed in black and white clothes and faces painted gray ("We're in a black and white movie," Harris announces), set upon the Youth Center stage. As they play with an undeniable talent and driving passion, it's clear the band may grow too big to perform at a small local show ever again. But if you know The Matches, you know they won't give a shit.