Artist Interview: Onelinedrawing

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ONELINEDRAWING (JONAH MATRANGA) + Guests Tickets | £12.10 | Jul 5 @ The Hope & Ruin, Brighton | DICE

If there was a single figure who embodied alternative rock over the past three decades, it would be Jonah Matranga. From his time as the vocalist of the influential ’90s post-hardcore titans Far to a stint as an emo-popstar in New End Original to his tenure as the frontman of the summery pop-punk supergroup Gratitude to his solo releases as onelinedrawing and under his own name, Matranga’s always been on the cutting edge of alternative rock of its time. Now, with the impending release of Tenderwild, he’s returned to the onelinedrawing moniker for the first time in nearly 20 years–with perhaps his best output in that same amount of time.

In the same way that Matranga’s career has been marked by an ability to contort his smooth voice into whatever shape is necessary to fit the music behind him, Tenderwild is a sort of kaleidoscope of sounds, from the alt-country balladry of “Don’t Give Up” to the electronic rock of “This Is Water” to the ambient, echoing “When I Did Drugs.” We caught up with Matranga to discuss Tenderwild, his thirty-year history in the music scene, and the power of collaboration.

How’ve you been doing quarantine?

I think the thing I’ve realized is that, as much as I like to try and articulate it, music is the way that I best articulate myself and interact with the world. This record–I suppose music’s always been a way to get through and process stuff–but the enormity and the timelessness and strangeness of the past few years have really just led to me doing a lot of thinking about how I present myself to the world–not in terms of manipulating how people see me, but in terms of how I feel comfortable interacting with the world. It’s part of the reason I switched back to Onelinedrawing. I’ve looked at that as a very personal thing. When Far was still together and everything was falling apart I wanted a real personal outlet and found myself in a totally different circumstnce decades later but feeling a lot of the same uncertainty about the world. I went to some dark places through the pandemic and I realized early on this would go one of two ways, and the way it was going wasn’t great. I was very slovenly, depressed, fearful. Slowly that gave way to an expansiveness–I was really into existentialism when I learned about it because I liked knowing I could be the animal that I am in this absurdity. I was revisiting that. I was gonna go through the best way I know how: with friends, making music. That’s this record. I think it’s a really good articulation of how I felt, maybe how other people felt too.

This is your first release under the name Onelinedrawing in a while. Ten or so years?

2004 was the last Onelinedrawing release.

Even longer than I thought. Wow.

I kinda hedged. I self-released a little DIY thing called Me and You Are Two and I called that Jonah’s Onelinedrawing. Even wen I ditched it I had this feeling lie that’s my musical home, and I think COVID really crystallized that. I’m just an animal that likes to communicate through music.

Then it wasn’t weird to come back to Onelinedrawing, but more of a comforting thing?

Very much. In a time of very great uncertainty there was something about it that just felt natural. It wasn’t even a struggle. I just thought, “As long as I make music now, I’m gonna call it that.” As much as I love New End Original and Gratitude and I Is Another and all those projects I’ve been doing, I think it all could’ve been called Onelinedrawing. I never needed to leave it, but I think I’ve got a restless shoot-myself-in-the-foot, keep-things-fresh gene in me. Ditching Onelinedrawing felt liberating at the time, like confounding expectations, but looking back, it was a bit impetuous of me. It felt real sweet to come back. Felt like something needed to happen.

Then that dovetails with the very collaborative nature of Tenderwild. Each song obviously features contributions from someone you’ve worked with in the past. What was behind that decision to pull all these people together again for one record?

Part of it, again–I can’t thank COVID for anything–everyone was going through the same restless as me. It was like, “Hey, you’re doing nothing too. You wanna play a song?” Onelinedrawing was always supposed to be people coming and going, so it fit that bill, and then Norman Brannon–we’ve done so much over the years–a little while back, Norman–he’s always the first person I send music to–he said, “There’s something that happens when you collaborate with people. It’s not better or worse, but something different happens.” I listen to him when he speaks. I just thought about that–and this was years ago. I do tons of stuff alone, and I love solitary creation. But I think he’s right. Something happens when someone else is involved. This one I went into just thinking I’d do it with Jeremy [Tappero], who was in Gratitude and New End with me, an old friend, and he has an amazing studio and knows my aesthetic. I thought him, and we can bring in Norman when we need him, and that was all I had in mind, killing time with those two. I forget how a lot of it happened, but it was serendipitous. I think Jeremy was talking to Zac [Lind] from Jimmy Eat World, and he said we could get him on a track. Things like that happened. With “Don’t Give Up,” Chris had been in a really shitty accident and was recovering and I sent him the song, the demo of it, just to say hi–I tend to send music to my friends as a way of keeping in touch–and he liked it, and I thought, “Hey, if it’d do you any good to sing this particular song,” and he did. He wasn’t in the shape to sing at the time, but he really went for it, and I think you can hear that–and feel that–on the track. Things like that. Real friendly conversations. Jake Snider from Minus the Bear, similar thing. We’re just talking, and I don’t know him well, but I know his music, and I had this spooky, heavy track, and I thought, “Jake could fuck this up.”

It feels like it makes sense to have all these people from your old projects on this, your return to Onelinedrawing.

To be fair–that’s true, a million percent–Onelinedrawing has always been as much about a faceless human, random stuff–there’s a song called “I’m So Lucky” that I wrote on the day my grandpa died. I’d been playing in Baltimore, way back, just singing this little song for my grandpa, and this guy walked in–I think some part of Dashboard’s crew–and he started harmonizing with me and it ended up on the record. There’s a guy Rod Castro who played a ton of guitar on the record. He’s as successful as any of us, but in less scene ways. He played with fucking Beyonce! He’s an insane guitar player. I’d met him and was entranced by his guitar playing, and I just kept him in my back pocket. Liam Frost, who sings on “Hell of a Year,” I’ve never met him. I heard something I enjoyed. I liked the idea of singing this song about getting through this heavy time with someone across the water I’d never met. There’s neat random shit. Tomorrowbird will be on tour with me. I think making music with someone is as important a way to communicate with people as talking about your life, just making a song together. If music means anything like what it means to me to the other person, then we’re having a very intimate conversation, whether we know it or not. I think what made it a real party was having old friends, new friends, people I know really well, people I’ve never met, having a real stew.

It’s very interesting to me, the way the making of the record parallels the themes of the record, the idea that we’re all experiencing this together and are all part of creating this together.

I’m a very form-follows-function person. I like the aesthetic to come from the process, the themes to come from what’s happening. I’m into serendipity, trusting in that, and whatever happens is imbued with that energy. I look at this record for sure as a haven for me, and I think everyone involved felt similarly. Not to be too grandiose, I believe that the more personal I allow myself to be with something, the less self-conscious, the more intimate I am, the more universal it becomes. I didn’t go into it thematically but once I got done, it fit. It’s my deepest hope that the record serves–whether people know it or not–to take people through the things they’ve been feeling from being very optimistic to very confused to very depressed. It wasn’t planned, but the way it worked out was pretty great.

I know you’ve touched on this a little bit, but I’m very interested in the Departure EP too, that you’re coming back not just with the Tenderwild LP but this EP also. It’s got “Departure” and “Hell of a Year” on it too, and I’m curious why you chose to package those as a separate entity. 

Honestly, “Departure” in particular was written and recorded in a lot of fear for our country and our world. The “Hell of a Year” version on that is different from the album version, and it was made with my friends Dana and Scott, who were just dear old friends from Sacramento, and I sent them the same track I sent Liam. They sent back something so different, and both were beautiful. The extra tracks–I’m nothing if not prolific–and I sent these tunes to Casey and he was like, “You’ve got a new record already!” [laughs] Well, that’s true, and I’ve got a couple. But I thought they fit this moment, and I love them–”Someone on the Internet,” “Worry Is a Habit,” and then “Anthony’s Song” are, for various reason, as good for me as anything on the record–and as a listener I love b-sides. Departure is for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper. I hope my art is sweet and comforting for people, even on a hook level. I especially love a song–”Surrender” by Cheap Trick is a song I talk about a lot because it’s a shimmery little pop song, but the lyrics are weird and deep and dense and about America and disillusionment. I love music like Prince–you can listen to the tune and it’s this brilliant thing, and hooks! But you dig in and it’s really intense thematically. If you like the record, Departure is a little weirder, so if you like the record, here’s what else I can do.

It’s interesting you point out those three as being a little weird, because I think most of this record has a lot of variation and diversity within it. It’s crazy that “This Is Water” and “When I Did Drugs” are on the same record. 

Yes! I love when my daydreams are rewarded by someone hearing what I was going for. “This Is Water” and “When I Did Drugs” are very related songs, thematically, and they couldn’t be more different in their presentation, in their mood. For me, I’m a kid who was–if there’s one band in my DNA it’s Led Zeppelin, not that anything I’ve done really sounds like them, but from a very early age, I was very entranced by the fact that there’d be these aggressive and soft sounds coexisting together. They gave me permission to do shit like that. Between them, Bowie, Prince, Sinead O’Connor, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Neil Young, people who aren’t afraid to go wherever the song takes them and trust that if it all comes from the well there’s a connection there. Maybe not everyone will hear it! But I’ll hear it, and what’s so sweet is once in a while people like you hear it and experience the same thing I experienced. If I tried to make a weird record, it’d be a put-off. If there’s one thing I’ll do, I won’t stay in the same mood for a whole album. I love fucking around. [laughs]

I wanna talk about a few songs, and I wanna start with “Tenderwild.” In that bio from Norman, he said you wrote that for your wedding.

It’s literally my wedding vows.

And then that’s the first single too. Is it strange putting something like that out there into the world for people to hear?

Again, it’s all I’ve ever known. My music, for me, has been–when I was a kid, I didn’t imagine that 30, 40 years later I’d be doing this for a living. It was a survival tool. I was a mess. Music was–I’ll never forget being in my room, listening to Quadrophenia, and realizing I like music more than I like people. This is my companion in the world. That hyperpersonal genesis of music has always been that way, so some of my most universal songs, in the end, are things that started as gifts to people–literally, like, one person. Obviously it was a sweet little love song for a woman I was falling in love with, and it’s for her, to her, about her–I sang it as my vows–and I was writing not so much about her, but about what I wanted our love to be, which was a tenderwild love. That’s a word I made up because those are the twin poles of who I am as an animal. I want a tenderwild love, and I want everyone to have a tenderwild love. It’s a love song to love, and she totally knows that. It’s meant for us as a guiding light, and if it can be that for anyone else, or even if it’s just a tune on a mixtape, that’s great. It was not scary, long story short, because this has always been about me figuring out this life and maintaining some joy. I love sharing it with people, and I’m proud to have made a modest living doing it, but the fact that I raised my kid doing it, and I’m still doing it, it just blows my mind. I made sure early on I was doing this because I loved it, because I saw some people with success who weren’t happy. I really that when that fourteen-year-old-playing-in-the-basement joy goes away, it’s a lonely and decadent and misunderstood life. But with that joy, it’s one of the coolest lives I can imagine. [laughs] The joy isn’t just integral for me, though–we see all these incredible performers on top of the world just killing themselves, ODing, and I always paid attention. For me, that joy has to be there. Anyone else liking that is secondary. When I get lost in that, the heart is gone.

So hearing that, I’m really curious, even though this might be a facile question. I know there’s all these musicians now–say, Geoff from Thursday, Jeremy from Touché for example–who are making music now and using you as their model. What is that like for you?

I’m immensely proud, honestly. They should take me on tour! [laughs] But, again, I don’t care in the sense that it’s all for me to enjoy life, to survive life. Shit, to have artists–regardless of their success–come along like that is one of the coolest things about releasing something. Right now, some 14-year-old with a cool big sister might hear Water & Solutions for the first time and it’s completely new to them. They can hear all the other songs we’ve done, all the other bands related to Far, and that’s so cool to me. I know that feeling, and as a music listener, it’s so cool to be a part of that for other musicians who then make their own cool shit. For me to be anywhere in the lineage of music being passed along, and especially if they create their own music, if I inspired them? It’s the fucking best. Thursday, I love my friendship with them. Jeremy from Touché Amoré is one of the sweetest–he was at some of the earliest Onelinedrawing shows, but I’m not sure he was old enough to see Far. [laughs] I think they opened for us when we reunited! That kid is the nicest kid, and I always loved his smile and his presence and now he’s got this badass band! I love being a part of his adventure. Hayley from Paramore shouted out Water & Solutions as well, and the guys in blink talk about it. I mean, it’s really sweet! Whether it’s Deftones or Dashboard or Frank Turner or fucking whoever, being such a rock nerd myself, and thinking of rock as a lineage being passed along, I’m so happy to be one of those nerds.

When I asked that I felt like it could’ve been a loaded question but I feel like that was a really gracious answer.

Another curse for artists is that FOMO gene, like, “I didn’t get my due!” I’ve never had that, and I feel lucky for that. I think I was always so happy to get to do my thing and pay my rent doing it! I’m a simple creature. That resentment that can stew when they feel like the world hasn’t seen their genius, it’s not a good look. [laughs] I appreciate that.

I want to work backwards on the record for a minute. I’m always impressed when records open with songs that are, for lack of a better word, patient songs. I think it’s part of why I love, like “Thunder Road” as the opener on Born to Run. It feels like a very confident move, and so I’m wondering what your intent was in opening Tenderwild with “Get a Dog.”

Partly, back to form-follows-function, that lyric “Today is one of those days we can look back on,” and the refrain “I want to know you,” it’s a very literal invitation. It’s funny, I’m looking back at the records now–band records often ended up with bangers from the top, but my solo records very consistently start with the little dreamy openers. I’m a sucker for it like you. I like being gently let in. I adore that as a listener, and all I’m really doing is the thing that I love. It was partly thematic and partly that I love that vibe too. For the listener who wishes the record opens withTenderwild,” okay, but I like a song that quiets a room. I think you’re right about Springsteen too, because people think of him as this barnburner guy, but for me, Springsteen’s best shit is the understated stuff. I recognize how big his music can get, and it’s great, but the first time I fell in love with Springsteen was when I heard Live 1975-85 and the thing I fell in love with? The long-ass spoken word intros! The hits are great, and it’s cool they play for 18 hours, but the intro to “War”? One of the great intros and kick-ins. “The River” has a chill-inducing intro. The song “I’m on Fire” I love because of its spooky badassery. But yeah. I don’t love everything the guy does, but I deeply respect his workingman’s rock vibe, but for me, the cool shit is the sensitive shit.

I’m glad you say that because the other song I really wanted to ask about was “When I Did Drugs.” It’s so different, so understated, and I’m really curious where that soundscape came from, because it feels like such a drastic change. I don’t think you’ve written a song like that before. 

That’s funny because two things happened when you asked that. One, I remember–your question about record openers is still in my head–I at least halfheartedly argued for Water & Solutions to open with “Waiting for Sunday” at one point.

That would’ve been wild. 

Of course, in bands we usually ended up opening with bangers, but with Gratitude, I know for a fact we were pretty close to opening that record with “The Greatest Wonder,” which I still think would’ve been a stronger beginning for the record and would’ve led to a very different album. I do love that Gratitude record still. But “When I Did Drugs” came from a really raw place. It was written in the wake of Travyon Martin’s murder and me just trying to sort out my feelings about what was happening. I forget how the songwriting process happened, but Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old murdered in the park for playing with a fake gun–you realize there was no conversation or de-escalation and it was just a fucking murder–I was just trying to tell the truth. I wasn’t trying to make some grand pronouncement about systemic racism. But when I was a boy I was playing with fake guns in the park. I was doing worse, frankly–breaking windows, lighting fires, doing drugs, stealing shit. “When I did drugs and ran around / weird kids, we owned that town / we’d steal for fun and we’d run / but we wouldn’t get shot” was when I knew I had it and couldn’t fuck it up. There was so much simple truth there. It wasn’t about anyone else’s life, but it was a very different experience for me, and there’s no common denominator in these things other than melanin count. I wasn’t rich as a kid–I was incredibly fucking poor until I was, like, ten–so it wasn’t that kind of privilege. I didn’t have a powerful parent. It wasn’t that. I’ll never forget we were fucking around in the park, and the cops came, and I was on my bike, and it wasn’t an effective method of escape so I ditched it in the bushes and ran and the cops picked it up and put it in the squad car. I told my mom this lie that we got mugged and my bike was stolen and maybe the police have it. [laughs] So she called the station and the cops said, “Yeah, we got the bike. We saw a little Black kid throw it in the bushes.” I felt so sick that I unwittingly became a part of this weird racist fever dream. Why did he assume I was a Black kid? It was such a sobering moment for me. I was just being a little fuckface trying to lie to get my bike back! There have been reminders of that throughout my life. “When I Did Drugs” was really just trying to come to terms with how different my life would’ve been had my skin been darker. The reason I use the word Black as opposed to African-American is because I like to be real about the colorism in the world, that, the darker your skin, the more difficult your life tends to be. It’s such a simple conversation, a simple song, but I wanted to begin from a personal place. I wanted to write a song to help me navigate my feelings about these young boys being shot who, for all the world, were me, except they’re Black. There was another kid, Jordan Davis, who got shot for playing his music too loud. His mom came to this place Glide that I sing at, and I was able to sing “When I Did Drugs” for her, and it was very, very powerful, and I felt like in some small way it helped her to see a white person say, “Yeah, I was a little kid playing his music too loud too, and I never got murdered for it, and I want you to know that I know that.” And it’s not white guilt, because I have nothing to be guilty for. I was just born into this world. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of–but there is something shameful about denying that, about obfuscating that, ultimately about leaving the world as fucked as it was as when I was born. I hope my kid has a little more health around that, and her kids, and their kids–I see a lot of this as generational. So it’s just my little note, just my story. My deepest wish is for white people around the world to just put down their picket signs, tell those stories, and admit to when they were complicit, to when their life was spared. There’s something powerful to me about simple conversations and admissions. There’s a reason that song’s not a big anthem. I’ve really made some rooms full of white people very uncomfortable with that song. It starts out with this funny lyric, “when I did drugs,” and then you hit the end of that verse, “we would run but we wouldn’t get shot” and then people are like, “Fuck!” [laughs] Thank you for asking about that song. I love it very much. I remember writing it very clearly, and I remember singing it for Jordan’s mom.

I like to ask people variations of this at the end of interviews, and I feel like you’d have an interesting perspective. If you were to go back to Jonah from the Far days, sit him down, tell him, “This is where you’ll be in 2022,” and play him Tenderwild, what do you think he’d say?

Real talk? I don’t wish this were true, but I wish this was a Far record. I think this is where we were heading with Water & Solutions. I was writing more and more melodic stuff, and I tried to give far “14-41,” “Hostage.” I tried to give them “Your Letter,” “Better Than This,” and that’s one of the things that led to the breakup. I had these tunes that were speaking loudly to me, that I really believed in. I said, ultimately, “Let me figure out these songs. I want us to keep going.” That was always my dream for Far, and that was why we called ourselves Far. We didn’t wanna be nailed down to any genre. My deepest dream for that band was to continue. From Tin Cans to Water & Solutions, you see a broadening and a self-assuredness, and shit gets a little quieter. That’s not to discount the earlier records, but those were a different time in our lives. And sure, Tins Cans had “Girl” and “Job’s Eyes” and “Sorrow’s End,” so there was some interesting, strange stuff on that record, but Water & Solutions had “In 2 Again,” “Another Way Out,” “Waiting for Sunday.” The whole back half of the record–side A we beat the shit outta people, and then side B we wanted to show some different textures if you stick around. “This Is Water” I could 1,000,000% hear Far playing.

I was gonna say that one, and even “Tenderwild,” that sound isn’t that different from what you were doing on At Night We Live.

Hell yes! “Everyday Angels” could’ve been. I think a lot of this record could’ve fit on At Night We Live. That’s a great reference. It would’ve been really neat. For me, the names of the projects, especially as I get older–to your point about what I would say to that kid and what he might say to me, I would like to think that I’ve grown and matured and there’s a reason I had my central hook be “I never wanna say my best days are behind me” because I believe in that, but at the same time, I’ve been writing the same songs for a long fucking time. [laughs] Neil Young said one of my favorite things about music: “I’ve basically written three songs, and all the others are bad attempts at those songs.” I think that’s true for me. [laughs] I’ve written some version of a soft weird thing, some version of a super poppy thing, and some version of a loud thing over and over, always trying to see what’s there. I honestly don’t see this as different–in fact, I think this is the best mixture of band and solo or songwriterly introspective stuff that I’ve ever done.

I agree for sure.

It really pulls everything together. I think that kid would dig this record, and I would excitedly play this for him, and say, “Look! This is what gets to happen if you keep playing music and settle into yourself a bit.” I would say, if anything, “You don’t have to be so dramatic all the time!” It’s still got highs and lows, but it’s more relaxed. I do what I do and people like it, and I’d tell him, “You don’t need to be so angsty. It’s all okay.” But I was in an angsty time. Music helped me figure shit out. I think me and that kid would like each other. I’d have a lot to share with him, and he’d remind me not to stop going for it, not to lose all that angst. That kid would’ve encouraged me to put “This Is Water” on the same record as “When I Did Drugs.” I consider that kid in me alive and well and I never wanna lose that sense of exploration.

Tenderwild is out June 24 via Iodine Recordings.

Zac Djamoos // @gr8whitebison

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