Sweden’s Kristian Matsson began recording under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth in 2006. His 2008 debut album Shallow Grave earned him a rapidly escalating fanbase that counts Justin Vernon and Will Sheff among its number, recently seeing him sell out London’s Bush Hall and countless venues across Europe along the way (click here to see our photos from the former). It’s a striking, assured record, songs like ‘The Gardener’ piling metaphor atop metaphor until you’re hopelessly cast in its spell (see his performance of the song on La Blogotheque below). His new album The Wild Hunt goes one better, a rambling collection of songs that matches his widescreen ambition to rough, easy melodies with all the confidence his burgeoning live reputation suggests.
Thanks to an email mix-up, DiS arrives at Barcelona’s esteemed Sidecar venue to interview him two hours earlier than expected. Rather than being politely asked to return when the soundcheck’s done, however, I’m soon whisked to a nearby restaurant with Matsson, courtesy of the fine folk at local music champions Houston Party. En route I learn that following a recent spate of ill fortune in Germany and France, all scheduled press in the latter was canned, and it’s not something he particularly enjoys doing in the first place.
Lucky, then, that he makes for an engaging, amiable presence. We soon find a slightly quieter corner of the restaurant to conduct the interview, which reads here more or less verbatim.
When did you start making music?
As a kid I made noises. There was a guitar at home, and a piano…you know, you go through school and you take guitar lessons and stuff like that. I played the clarinet first. I’ve just picked it up again, actually.
You used to play in a band called Montezumas, who I couldn’t find much information on. Do you find it liberating playing by yourself?
I was in bands for a long time and I had all this freedom as the singer – I used to climb around and do a lot of stuff, you know? But I wanted to try it [playing solo] to see if it would work. It’s kind of exciting, to have to do everything, to make all the sounds that come from the stage… So, maybe not so much liberating in that way – as I had a lot of freedom; I used to run around a lot before – but it’s nice just to play the songs that you wrote, you know. It’s fun.
The first thing you released as the Tallest Man on Earth was an EP a few years ago?
I put up a couple of songs on MySpace, and this guy Niclas [Stenholm] from a small label – who became my manager – he really liked it. He released the EP, and I had my first show booked. It was interesting – I started playing shows almost immediately, though I wasn’t really prepared to. I just went out and tried to do it, you know? At first I didn’t have enough songs, so I had to write some pretty quickly!
And it was 2008 when you released Shallow Grave?
Yeah, after those shows we just put it out there.
Yeah, after hearing the songs the first time Niclas drove up to the town where I live, and we had this long talk; now we’re super good friends. And at the same time we have this really…I wouldn’t have been here, playing all these shows, if it wasn’t for him. He’s not the typical manager type. I’m on an American label now, which he’s a big part of. And how we talk about music…it’s not that common in this business, you know?
How did it all lead to touring with Bon Iver in the US?
I went out there for a couple of weeks of really weird shows, and my future-booking agent was at one of them. And he’s Justin’s booking agent too!
How was that tour?
Well, it was just…super-amazing, you know? [Laughs]
And it was a pretty extensive run as well?
No no, I was only there for two weeks or so. But I was a fan, and was able to stand there at the side of the stage and watch the shows. They’re super-sweet guys and we became really good friends; we still are. Justin’s helped me a lot. After that tour it all started happening.
Has The Wild Hunt been ready to go for a while? It seems like you toured fairly hard after Shallow Grave, playing lots of new songs as you went.
It was written throughout 2009. I toured a lot, all over the place…and you always want to try these new ones out.
Did the process seem different this time round? Was there a game plan as such?
No, I really don’t have game plans [Laughs]. I’m going from step to step and seeing what happens. I recorded ten songs, and I wanted another album out there. Of course, you have these ideas of how you want it to sound, but before you know it it’s recorded and done. 2009 was a really…a lot happened last year. All the touring, a lot of other stuff; it’s hard to have an opinion, but I guess the record really sums up 2009 for me.
Are there any shows or places you’ve placed that really stand out for you? Do you have a favourite show out of all that you’ve played?
Sometimes you feel like you’ve played the best show you’ve ever done. But it’s so different, all the time. I still think about the Town Hall shows, those nights with Bon Iver. That was really amazing. But they’re all so different. Primavera Sound here in Barcelona was really great, but then you have a small show somewhere and it’s super-sweet. It’s great, I love it; the opportunity to do a lot of different shows. Like in the States, it went really well – the bigger shows in New York and LA – and travelling through, the smaller shows here and there; these things turn out to be really wonderful experiences too.
You mentioned earlier that you find it difficult – and you’re sometimes reluctant – to talk about your songs and your music. Is that part of letting the songs speak for themselves?
Yeah, I think it’s…it’s pretty much that. You know: We’re doing the interview right now, and these are good questions, but is it right – is it the best thing to focus on, you know? I’m still trying to write the best songs that I can, and play the best shows I can, and I don’t think I’m quite…there, yet. I just want to do that, and play good shows, and hopefully people will listen to the record and it’ll spread from that. And it has. Even though I’m not…I haven’t done a great deal of press, and I haven’t really had proper distribution anywhere except back home. I’m not good, at talking about my music, and I think what I’m trying to do is just to write good songs that people will really like.
Are you happy to be with [new label] Dead Oceans?
I’m really happy to be with Dead Oceans. We took it really…we absolutely didn’t rush into things signing to a label, but I love those guys, and have been speaking to them since the beginning. We spoke to a lot of different labels, but I love the way they talk about music and the way they treat music, and I actually had a really awesome time here in Barcelona with Chris Swanson last year, who runs the label. I’m really super-happy.
I wanted to ask you a bit about your writing process, as the lyrics on The Wild Hunt could be interpreted in so many different ways. There are certain lines and images which really stand out, like seeing “God in headlights, kneeling down on frozen highways” from ‘Troubles Will Be Gone’. What do you start with when it comes to writing a song?
It’s really different from song to song, how it happens. Sometimes you have lyrics, or the idea for some lyrics, and you just sing them over and over and just make up the music and…it just comes to you? You just put in words here and there, and sometimes you can struggle with a song for so long…but then you take a break and sing things you think are just…silly. And that’s when you write a really good song. You go back to the ones you were struggling with and it’s easier, and…I can’t, you know, I can’t get it out in words. It’s kind of fascinating, because you write a lot of shit too. But you have to try and keep up.
With a song like ‘King of Spain’, it sounds so…freewheeling and triumphant the first few times, but then when you really listen to the lyrics, it quickly becomes clear that the song isn’t really…
No, no [laughs]. I don’t consider it a triumphant song at all. You know, obviously it’s not about being the King of Spain – it’s not about Spain at all. I really don’t want to try and explain it; it’s more fun for me to have other people try to figure it out.
I’m sure it will go down well tonight! While we’re talking about lyrics, something that comes up again and again on the album is this idea of transience; there are so many references to leaving, to moving on, scattered throughout.
I don’t really think of it as a negative thing, at all. It is in a lot of songs. I never really speak about this. It might sound pretentious, but it’s about…having the option. When you know that you have the option to leave and disappear, you can do it so easily. You have it so close to you. It’s kind of like, that’s the thing that could keep you going. It’s not being like a coward or something like that, you know, but having that option.
So, that in itself is inspiring?
Yeah. I could have probably explained it better, but…
You’ve been referred to as a ‘folk singer’, and a very natural one. Of course, a lot of people get bracketed folk singers, and you’ve been labelled all kind of things. Where do you see yourself?
I don’t consider myself a folk singer. I kind of hate that, because I’m not nostalgic at all, or…okay, so I’ve found this way that I like to do music and of course, there’s tonnes of blues and country and older things I love to listen to. But today, I don’t think these genres are really there in the same way any more. It’s all over the place. And this…I like to play guitar this way, but to me this is not ‘folk music’, you know? It’s just music. I’m inspired by so many different things, and there are so many good records being released all the time. There’s a lot of things that inspire you.
And it’s so hard to explain what good music is. It hits you in the stomach. You know that feeling when you hear a great song and it turns your whole day into some surreal experience, you know? Because it’s so wonderful. That’s the thing; maybe one day I can write a song that could hit someone like music hits me.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I love that Megafaun record so much, Gather, Form and Fly…the last couple of years I’ve been listening to Justin’s stuff a lot…right now, lots of Nurses, who the tour’s going to be with, in the States. That a lot, and the new Beach House album is great, you know…we listen to a lot of music. A lot of Tom Waits on this tour, actually.
[Laughs] Yeah, ‘cause we…we needed him in France! What else…the new Radio Department album coming out…
Are there any other Swedish acts you want to shout about that UK readers might not be aware of?
There are some really awesome bands. I used to play with a guy from this one band called Francis, who just went out to play South by Southwest, and they must be the best live I’ve seen in…they’re just so good live.
What kind of stuff do they play?
Kind of…some kind of indie-rock I guess! [Laughs] Oh, I hate that word too. How can you describe them? They’re like, good songs, they have a great lead singer, she’s really awesome live and…yeah, it’s really hard. Check them out!
Just to quickly return to The Wild Hunt, another major aspect of the album is the natural world. Lately there have been a lot of records that really get into this, from Shearwater through Bowerbirds, The Knife, Andrew Bird and Midlake…
Those are really great bands, you know, but the thing for me…it’s such a natural thing. Ah, sorry. But growing up in the countryside, where I still live, it’s so important to me. It’s this great mysterious thing that I kind of know, but I don’t, because it’s so weird. You travel round and you meet a lot of people and you see a lot of places, you have all these things in your head. I think you need something to project them onto, all these impressions. Like you said about the seasons in Sweden, in the summer the sun doesn’t really go down, and in the winter it’s…the opposite! They shift so drastically, and it becomes part of who you are.
The Wild Hunt is released April 12th via Dead Oceans. Download two tracks from the album here
The Tallest Man on Earth returns to the UK for a one-off show at the Tabernacle in London, June 9th