Interview: Hodera’s Matt Smith Discusses ‘First Things First’

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Photo by Brian Tice

Hodera’s 2017 album, First Things First, is one of the most intense displays of raw emotion to be released in recent memory. The record deals with the scary and vicious reality of struggling with mental health, the death of friends, and fractured relationships. The varied dynamics and dense tones only serve to make the lyricism hit even harder, flowing in and out like powerful waves. Scrolling through the band’s social media pages, it is clear that in its six months of existence this album has had a lasting effect on both fans and the band’s members themselves.

In some way, First Thing First was a result of the reception to Hodera’s debut LP. “United by Birdcalls was the first release that I’ve ever put out that really got a decent amount of attention,” said vocalist and guitarist, Matt Smith, “so I started getting feedback from people.” The album brought about similar connections from the band’s growing audience. “People would see me at shows and talk to me or email me or message me and tell me how much it helped them. That made me kind of want to go deeper.” This in turn informed the process as Smith began to write songs for the follow-up, inspiring him “to get more personal, more honest, more raw.” One of the most distinct changes was the transition to a nearly one hundred percent first person perspective in the lyricism. “I didn’t really hold back on this one. Instead of turning a story into third person or using a whole lot of metaphors I just said ‘this is what I’m going through.’”

Another factor of growth between the two albums is the fact that this time around, Smith had a band. Smith wrote everything himself on the first album, and then had help in the studio with the drums, bass, and additional guitar parts from producer Adam Cichocki at New Jersey’s Timber Studios. For First Things First, though, he went in with band members that he had been playing and writing with for over a year. This familiarity and preparation made the process of recording smoother, but that doesn’t mean it was faster. “I mean, this album took a really long time,” Smith said. “We recorded it and then rerecorded it like a year later. And then we went on the road and we wrote a couple new songs.”

At first, the band was going to save these new tracks for the next album, but then they realized they were too good to hold off on and went back to the studio again. There was also the desire to get the dynamics just right. Smith explained how the first song on United by Birdcalls, “Breath Easy” hadn’t come off the way he wished it had. “Live it hits so much harder when we hit those choruses because we have big ass loud amplifiers and big distortion pedals and lights that come on at the same time.” He went in knowing that he didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, even to the point of going back to the mixing engineer multiple times, telling him “every hit on this record needs to be three times louder.”

Diving deeper into the influences on the album, Smith pointed to music from the folk tradition. “Honest folk songwriting has always been lyrically my influence. I guess I do in a sense write in a folk style, I’m just also like an angsty early 20 year old so I do like to get loud, too.” While folk may be at the core of Hodera’s music, the hardcore and punk overtones is what really digs its claws into listeners. The rage present in those genres of music is what appeals most to Smith. His process is to “write folky, but then just make it really loud.” Pinpointing more specific influences on Hodera as a whole is a challenge for Smith to do on the fly, but something he takes very seriously. “I will mark down songs and bands where I’m like ‘I really like the tone of this guitar’ or ‘I really like this riff’ or ‘I really like this melody – how can I steal this?’” And he has no qualms with being transparent about this process; “every songwriter does this, if they say don’t, they’re lying.” For him, it’s not truly about stealing but instead figuring out how to use “a color from somebody else’s pallet and then use my own colors to create something new.”

“Holding Patterns” draws specific influence from the song “Sleep Patterns” by Merchant Ships and the general trend of spoken word performance over a musical track. While this was a style Smith knew he wanted to explore, “this was one of those songs that did not flow out easily.” Smith first attempted writing poems and also asked around to see if any collaborators wanted to write something as a guest spot, but nothing seemed to fit right. Then, when reflecting upon the experience of receiving feedback from fans who felt comfortable sharing how Hodera’s songs made them feel, Smith realized how the purpose of his music has changed. “Them coming up to me and telling me that they felt less alone and they felt better, they felt comforted by my songs, made me feel less alone, made me feel comforted. So I wanted to flip that role. I wanted to show the audience that they’re not alone either. I’m not the only one, just because I’m writing the songs, that feels this way. All of you are [feeling this way] so let’s feel united in that; that everyone’s struggling in their own way.”

From there the process began of recording conversations all across the country with people of different races, genders, and sexual orientations and, eventually, putting together a storyline. “Some of those conversations were just two minutes and some of them were a half hour so basically we just over and over and over again had to listen to everybody’s stories.” Eventually themes began to emerge. “These three people have talked about moving and how geographical change never helped them get better. These three people mentioned at the same time how they can’t find a job and they’re broke as shit. And then this group of people tended to, you know, start to talk about the solution; how they’re gonna do this and they’re gonna do that and they’re gonna get better and they’re gonna find a purpose so really put them at the end.” And in the end, all the color-coding, splicing of sentences, and organization created a cohesive, moving closer for the album, which leaves the listener feeling less alone.

First Things First is available now on vinyl, CD, and digitally from Take This To Heart Records


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Scott Fugger / @Scoober1013

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