“It was just a big beautiful blue kite” – Interview with Matthew McGee about Johnny Bertram’s Neon City

Friday, July 11, 2014
10 am
Downtown Jackson

Laurel: So how long have you known Johnny Bertram, and how would you describe your musical connection?

Matthew: A few years. Let’s see, about six or seven years. I met him at a show in Jackson. Wooden Finger was playing. I think he was opening up for us, and he said, hey man, you want to be in our band? (laughs).

Laurel: He did? That night?

Matthew: Yeah, that night! And I was like, wait second, who are you? (laughs).

Laurel: That’s bold.

Matthew: Well, then I heard his music, and he was great. So, I was like, very cool. He was making the record Sing Your Song and also Days That Passed and was needing some violin parts. So I just came in and played with them, and it was easy.  It was like…when things come together and it’s easy…easy to play with him. And I loved the songs. There was one song that I played guitar on. And I just picked it up and it made it to the record. I really enjoyed that one.

Laurel: Did that surprise you?

Matthew: Yeah, well, I was just playing around. I’m trying to think what year it was. It was the year that Jamie Weems got married. Whatever year that was!

Laurel: So, as far as the record Neon City, can you talk about your involvement in that project?

Well, I was helping produce him, and what that means is actually to get it done. Let’s actually make something happen. I had a bunch of recording equipment and I was like, let’s make this record. And that’s what happened!

Laurel: So you said, this is gonna happen?

Matthew: Yeah, because he was about to move, and we only had a certain amount of time. You know, I had all this equipment, and I just went into the 121 Studios (now NMAC) and did a lot of tracking there. And then, he would work nights, and around the clock.

Laurel: Well, I think a lot of people don’t know how much is involved in recording. How much time and focus. So having somebody produce that way and say, yes, we’re going to do this, here’s where we are, keep this rolling…

Matthew: Yeah.

Laurel: Did having that deadline that he was moving, in a way, was that a good kind of pressure?

Matthew: It was a really good pressure. I think it was like, we got to get this done, because we want to release something we’re proud of. And let’s work really hard to get it done, and that’s what happened. And Johnny worked really hard on it, I mean he just spent night and day working on it.

Laurel: Did he have his own gear at home that he was using or was he coming back in there to the studio?

Matthew: He was using mostly..I think we had one of my laptops, and a lot of ProTools interface kind of stuff. He was doing it all around.

Laurel: So you would share files…?

Matthew: Mm hmm. He did some of the tracking in Boise, Idaho, where his family lives.

Laurel: During that time period?

Matthew: Yeah, he made a trip up there…

Laurel: He just brought it all with him…

Matthew: Yeah! I think he put some Rhodes on a song, and maybe a Casio keyboard.

casio keyboard creative commons
Laurel: Well it’s neat sometimes how using an unexpected instrument can really put a new spin on a track.

Matthew: One of those songs there’s an organ that goes (demonstrates a sound, like rrrrrrttttttt!) but I wasn’t expecting that and it sounds so good.

Laurel: What would you say about working with Johnny that made the strongest impression on you?

Matthew: Oh man. Well, just his drive to do something great. It’s an awesome friendship to have, and musical friendship…

Laurel: Mm hmm, he’s got that drive, and it sounds like that may have inspired you to say, “yes, we’re going to make this happen.”

Matthew: Yeah…we were playing a lot of shows as Johnny and the Golden Bicycles, we were playing all over…

Laurel: It was almost a wave…

Matthew: It was a wave!

Laurel: I remember being a part of that – I think it was Jacktoberfest – it felt like the city was responding with you in this way…

Matthew: Yeah, it was so…just, awesome. I loved it!

Laurel: I bet it was nice to be a part of that, from the stage side.

Matthew: Yeah, it was.

Laurel: Do you think that when Johnny Bertram left, that he left a gap or a hole in the music scene in the city of Jackson?

Matthew: Mmmm…I like to think so. I mean, I still wish he was here. Just because I miss him, and loved playing with him and hanging out with him. He’s one of my best friends ever!

Laurel: And that kind of friendship…it’s rare.

Matthew: And I really miss him. But, you know, I talk to him a lot, texting and all that (laughs).

Laurel: So you stay connected…

Matthew: Yeah. I’ve been meaning to go up there, but I’ve just been crazy busy.

Laurel: Well that leads directly into my next question, which is, do you yourself have any connections to Portland, Oregon? Have you been out there? Is it a special place?

Matthew: YES! We did a tour one time, and we went from Jackson to Portland.

Laurel: With Johnny?

Matthew: Yes. I think that’s where we turned around (laughs) it was like, we got to Portland and then, we can’t go any further!

Laurel: (laughs)

Matthew: But it was great, and I love the town. I spent a few days there…you know his wife’s family is there. So we spent time with them. And went out to Cannon Beach.

Laurel: Oh! I went there…

Matthew: So amazing! I bought a kite….we flew a kite there…

Laurel: You did? What did it look like?

Matthew: Oh it was just a big beautiful blue kite.

Laurel: The wind there is just amazing.

Matthew: Oh, I know. But the day we were there was just the warmest day of the summer and the whole band was out on the beach just watching the sunset. It was just, really really really cool.

Laurel: Wow!

Matthew: Yeah, but we spent about a week there, just hanging out, and playing, you know, it was really, really really great.

Laurel: When you all play, do you write new material together, or is it mostly Johnny?

Matthew: Mostly Johnny comes in with some songs, and we’ll listen to them, and then he’ll have the ideas and you can just kind of improvise. That’s the way I play.

Laurel: So it’s not necessarily that he says “play this,” but he’s got the framework and you jump in on it.

Matthew: Yeah, exactly.

Laurel: So do you think you might ever do a project with him again?

Matthew: Oh, yes. Yes! Yes, indeed.

Laurel: What would you like to do? I mean, is it shaped in your mind yet, or do you just know you want to?

Matthew: We just know we want to.

Laurel:  Is there anything else you want to add about anything we talked about?

Matthew: Well, hopefully sometime in the future we’ll make another record. That’s what I hope. The thing that we did already…I’m just so glad to be a part of that.

Laurel: Yes! I remember when my husband Daniel put “Neon City” on the record player for the first time and we just looked at each other…!”

Matthew: Me, too! I was just like “whoa” I put it on the record player and laid on the floor and just listened to it with my eyes closed and…I don’t know…it just made me feel great.

After the microphone was off, Matthew and I talked a bit more about the power music has to keep us connected, and how the musical communities in Jackson have something special that keeps people together.

My personal connection to Matthew has been in and around the Jackson music scene for years – he is unfailingly cheerful and polite. I saw him about 4 days after a serious bicycle accident in the summer of 2014. Matthew said, now you have something new to write about! And he was right. I was grateful to him at a time when my spirits were low. His enthusiasm translates to his playing, as he genuinely shines in the joy of music each time he performs.

This interview is the second in a series of interviews connected to the making of the record “Neon City” by Johnny Bertram (2012). The next interview forthcoming will be with Richard Stowe, manager of the building where “Neon City” was recorded.

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