The Director’s Cut: Matt Evans – New Topographics

Brooklyn-based drummer and composer Matt Evans has released his new album New Topographics. Matt performs, records and co-leads collaborative projects with Tigue, Bearthoven, Man Forever and Private Elevators while performing and recording solo material under his own name. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he has since become embedded in the Brooklyn experimental electronic scene, releasing projects on the likes of New Amsterdam Records, NNA Tapes, Thrill Jockey, Cantaloupe Music and Perfect Wave.

His new album New Topographics combines his experimental streak as a composer with the ability to drum and make interesting drum patterns. Swirling melodies and light ambiance make this a mentally stimulating and soothing blend of electronic music.

New Topographics was written and recorded in December 2018 during a month long artist residency program at Brooklyn art space, Pioneer Works. The focus from that month is felt in the cohesion of this record.

Instead of us going into more detail to break this down, we asked Evans to do so for a Director’s Cut feature. Listen to the full album now, get your copy and read on for a breakdown, track-by-track.

1. Full Squid

I talk about “Full Squid” as being more of a state of being than a reference to the cephalopod itself, a zoomporphic phrase for drumming at the precipice of present-ness. I recorded this drum track early one morning in the studio when I was just trying to let loose and capture what came out with the instruments I had in front of me. After tracking a long drum take where I felt like I had felt really present for almost 5 minutes, I locked it in place and started adding additional elements on top of it.

I based so much of this record off of this Richard Brautigan poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” and I decided to translate it to braille, print it off and then read it as a graphic score. So, you can hear me playing these three woodblocks panned over to the left — and that’s an interpretation of the braille. That texture ended up becoming a language in itself so I recorded some other improvisations in response with this Casio in the studio. The last step was adding the drone and a synth part based on a harmonic permutation process I had been fooling with in a few different projects. I tracked it on this gooey Juno patch and it fit perfectly, a squid-like / inky vibe that really brought the whole track together. Now I’m able to play the both the drum part and the synth part live and it takes the cohesion of these two worlds to another level.

2. An Infinite Cybernetic Meadow

This name comes directly from the Brautigan poem. It’s also vaguely related to this Italo Calvino story I love called “The Infinite Lawn,” which describes, very simply, the analogous infiniteness between blades of grass in a lawn and the stars in the sky. The imagery, to me, is a slow zoom toward a horizon line, a meadow at sunset, which continuously unfolds on itself over the course of the track. I took the poem and translated it into numerous speeds and frequencies of Morse code. I added that to this really kind of low-key drum groove I had tracked that stems from imitating both North Indian Tabla music and Iannis Xenakis percussion music simultaneously. I added this wiggly Juno part that I refer to as “creatures.” I didn’t want melodic solos, but just these textures that would flop around based on their own randomized logic. Last I added this bassline at the end because it just needed to bounce a little bit.

3. Spinning Blossoms

This title also comes direct from the poem. The sound world is inspired by 80’s Mariah records, 90’s era Sega video game music and, I think subconsciously, the Akira soundtrack— combining these minimal ostinatos at different lengths that kind of spin over each other. There’s also a couple of texture layers that come from poem translations. I recorded myself typing out the poem and then tracked myself improvising on the drums with triangles and other objects in a similar style. One of my favorite parts is this synth part near the end that just kind of spits a bunch of random harmonic material all over the melody when it returns. There’s an amazing video for this track you can check out that builds a whole world from the computer keyboard, office ambience vibe during the intro.

4. Cold Moon

These moon tracks are really special to me. They need to be “felt” rather than just “listened to.” It’s the experience of standing outside on a clear night just staring up. I titled this track after the day I recorded it, the Cold Moon, December 2018— it’s really capturing that exact moment in time. There’s no real sense of rhythmic “time” on this, which was interesting for me to embrace. The pacing is set by the sound of me writing out the poem in pencil. The drone grounding the percussive sounds was “transcribed” from some piece of mechanical equipment I could hear outside the studio when it was really quiet. I recorded it with synths and then tracked myself wondering around the room with a microphone grabbing all these strange reflections. 

When I layered them, it gave the drone a nice light wiggle. I also used this moog to track “the big bug” that flies around the entire track and eventually found this broken drum machine and set the tempo as slow as it would go. That’s the big pop. There’s another video for this track shot by my friends Eridan at the Coney Ssland Aquarium— it’s extremely trippy and detailed.

5. On Dracaena

This was the first thing I made in the studio during the Pioneer Works residency where I made this record. We’re talking day one or two or something… I almost didn’t include it, but I was eventually convinced it was cool and felt like a nice short “introduction” to the second half of the record. It’s mostly sounds from the Casio CZ5k (I love Casio sounds…) and me playing drums along with.

6. Data Fog

I had to write something with a bit more grit that captured the anxiety I often deal with regarding overwhelming nature of our current digital communication systems. I took the poem and translated it to RTTY, a now mostly defunct data transmission broadcast system that has an obnoxious high frequency language similar to early dial up. I also included some voice memo recordings from this car service Arecibo that I used to ride with a bunch before ride-share apps became a thing. To communicate quickly, the car service moderators would use some kind of code chatter to tell drivers where to pick up riders, speaking almost as fast as a auctioneer. I would always record and I’m glad it made it deep in this track.

7. Ongongos

This one’s a totally made up word that seemed to match the new age aesthetic of this “gong drum” sound I was playing with. This was probably the only track I came into the studio having played with a bit. The sounds spoke to each other well— a fluttery synth, small bells, the harmonizer drum— and I just wanted to jam with it. I used to play it for like 15 minutes at a time but it felt good to tighten it up to a little 3-minute jam. This one also features the RTTY in a more “harmonic” context. I really dig how these sounds— Morse code / RTTY / writing—have a natural texture or harmony that can be magnified into entire sound worlds.

8. Jaich Maa

I had just read about this recent expedition that uncovered these hydrothemral vents in the Gulf of California that would pump hydrothermal fluids up from the sea floor that were so hot they’re perceived in this distorted way that makes it look like they create upside-down pools or waterfalls. The imagery was so beautiful and alien. I had tracked this long dreamy ascending keyboard improvisation that seemed to match the vibe, wandering in and out of it’s own harmonic structure and slipping out of tune near the end. 

I had also recorded some drumming on a cassette tape and recorded it while distorting the tape speed, which gave it this really aquatic feel— a drum machine from the ocean floor, my friend Ben Seretan mentioned. Finally I recorded myself spelling the poem out loud, but under the guidance of Elori Kramer (who also played some synth on the track!). I ended up distorting it through, essentially, a bad video call connection and ended up with this digital noise texture that felt similarly aqueous to the drum sounds.

9. New Moon

Probably the second track I recorded during the residency— recorded on the New Moon, December 2018. It’s very similar to “Cold Moon” in shape and size, but slightly different in flavor. I wanted to make these two sibling tracks. This one is quite a bit darker and doesn’t have the same glow “Cold Moon” has… it’s just the stars in the night. Similarly, the drone was a “transcription” of a hum I had recorded in an airplane a few months before. I started this one with a recording of myself writing out the Brautigan poem with a sharpie and honestly, this track jump-started the whole process of repeatedly translating this text into sonic material.