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Seeking An Oasis: A Conversation with Matthew Doty of Deserta

Photo by Jacob Ball
7 April 2022

Photo by Jacob Ball

For Matthew Doty, Deserta has always been about exploring a sonic universe that allows him to express a kaleidoscope of emotions, without having to say much at all. Through a patchwork of reverb-tinged textures including drone guitars, lingering synths and driving percussion, the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist weaves together stories of care, frustration and catharsis that ultimately stretch to a gentle resolve. On new album Every Moment, Everything You Need (Felte), Doty chronicles the kind of year we all fear, full of uncertainty, tension and sustained pressure, and transforms it into a celebration of perseverance. It’s an essential reminder that we have the power to shape the stories we tell.

Stepping out as Deserta in 2020, Doty’s debut solo album Black Aura My Sun (Felte), garnered critical acclaim for its gorgeous, experimental rumination on new fatherhood, where shifting perspectives and challenges were relished with a cinematic flair.

Follow-up full-length Every Moment, Everything You Need continues these explorations but with a louder, more aggressive tone that mirrors the difficult year Doty and many others experienced. 

The pandemic meant that Doty had to give up his studio and downsize a lot of his gear and instead, carve out a small space in his home to craft the next chapter of Deserta. Sharing the space with his wife and two children, Doty and his partner are also essential healthcare workers, which meant the couple would often have to tag-team childcare with alternating 13-hour days in PPE with ever changing guidelines and protocols. On their days off, construction noise would drill through the walls on all sides of the apartment in the developing LA neighborhood, while helicopters, sirens, protests and police chases would soundtrack the evening hours. This, along with a small toddler in need of mental stimulation, companionship and basic needs, saw Doty pushed to his limit.

During those claustrophobic, overwhelming months, they ultimately led to a spontaneous release of creativity, with Every Moment, Everything You Need mostly written in the hour or two when Doty’s children were having their bedtime routine. It was a tiny window where Doty was able to focus on the project and the result is an album that feels urgent and necessary; where Doty’s artistry broke through every bump in the road, not because he simply wanted to write, but because he simply had to.

Once the blueprint for Every Moment, Everything You Need was set, Doty reached out to a number of collaborators to stitch together his vision for the sonic landscape. James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens, The National) came onboard to perform and record drums, while Caroline Lufkin (Mice Parade) wrote and performed vocals on the ethereal Where Did You Go. Elsewhere, the LP was mixed by Dave Fridmann (Tame Impala, Mogwai, Interpol), with Beach House and Slowdive producer Chris Coady engineering and co-producing, making this the first time Fridmann and Coady had worked together on a project. 

Demoing everything in his duplex apartment, Doty wasn’t able to play his guitar through an amplifier, or sing to his full volume, so he re-recorded all of the guitars and vocals with Coady.

The collaboration with Coady also urged Doty to push beyond his usual restraint when it came to vocals, swapping his fast-track approach for a more organic method. When it came to Fridmann, Doty says that the producer and Mercury Rev founder made Every Moment, Everything You Need a more pugnacious and authoritative album, with even the more upbeat songs reaching punchier heights. 

While the vocals are more prominent than Deserta’s previous album, it’s their amalgamation with the instrumental aspects that secures Every Moment, Everything You Need as Deserta’s most confident and assured release to date. An affecting emotional candor teamed with persistent riffs and tenacious rhythms sees Doty unafraid to dive deeper; an unrestrained approach that ushers in a lustrous purging of agitation and anxiety. Showcasing those dark, exhaustive thoughts through crucial swells and looped, electronic soundscapes, it’s an LP that’s infinitely layered, with something new to discover with each and every enchanting listen. - Mind Hive

Huge thanks to Tom Churchill at Mind Hive PR for the coordination and to Matthew for entertaining my questions.

James Broscheid: So you had a couple of shows already last month didn’t you?

Matthew Doty: Just a couple, yeah.

JB: How did those go?

MD: Good. Breaking in the new set.

JB: I’m really looking forward to Phoenix.

MD: Yeah, me too. Last time we played there it was a really tiny little spot, I forget what it was called. It was just like a bar with a tiny little stage to the side of it. Will be good to play a proper venue this time.

JB: Where are you playing? Rebel Lounge?

MD: Yeah.

JB: That used to be called the Mason Jar. So there was some decent underground history with that place.

MD: The Lost Leaf was the name of the last place we played. Have you ever been there?

JB: Yeah. Long time ago.

MD: It was a cool spot – just kind of DIY for sure.

JB: Yeah, absolutely. Kind of like Modified Arts, a small place there on Roosevelt Row. I used to live in Phoenix and went there all the time when it was a live venue.

MD: We played Modified a few times with Saxon Shore.

JB: So I just want to begin with congratulations on the release of Every Moment, Everything You Need. Were you were you able to be as patient crafting the songs as you were with Black Aura? Or did was that all afforded by the pandemic?

MD: In some ways, yes. With the writing, I was able to maintain my pace. The recording I had to move out of my studio, during the pandemic. There were a few reasons, some of pandemic related some of it and well, my studio flooded, that was part of it too (laughs). Not flooded, but there was like a big leak in the ceiling from the air conditioning or something and it was I moved out the day I came in and saw that. I was already on the fence about it (moving out). Then that that happened and I was like, “Alright, I’m out of here!” But up until that point, in the pandemic, it was just really hard to get away from the house because my wife and I had to work opposite schedules. So it was either go super late at night or find a random day that we both happen to be off because we weren’t using like childcare or anything. We weren’t having anyone in our house. So it wasn’t like we could just have a sitter and I can go to the studio like with Black Aura. Then I got everything into the house had a little tiny nook that I kind of wrote the record on and have writing days where all my pets would be on our bed (laughs). The pack it up before bedtime and then for the guitars and such I wrote most of the parts, they were just like direct. I’m a big fan of DI guitar sounds so it was kind of hard in some ways to get the sounds and know what they were going to sound like when I had it amped up everything. That was the only thing I felt maybe a little rough around in the studio, but for the most part like 90% of the way that I wanted it.

JB: Yeah. So you obviously were not using amps in your house right?

MD: No. We were still in an apartment at that time. So we had neighbors below us. Yeah, they would not have liked if I was playing on my amp right above them.

JB: (Laughs). I saw I read in an interview recently where you were recording rough mixes for your first album, and then you know, you would listen to him in the studio, and then you’d go for walks outside that kind of help you generate further enhancements to them. And I was wondering what it was that same approach for this record? Obviously, the pandemic probably kept you more inside than maybe you wanted but, were you able to get out and kind of feel them out in the open air and work on them from there?

MD: Yeah, some of it for sure. Not as much, but it was still part of it. Just listening to the demos outside of the studio, always a helpful plan I think.

JB: Yeah. Did you incorporate any lessons learned from your first you know, LP writing and recording-wise?

MD: No, I pretty much kept it all the same. I bought, like, a couple other things here and there to like, try out some new things and they ended up just deleting those parts anyway and selling that gear (laughs) shortly thereafter. So I used all the same … pretty much everything the same as just dialing in the sound a little more in the same sense, the same guitar and the same amp, same pedals.

JB: So with your kids and being married, obviously. How has having a family impacted your music, if at all, and in a roundabout way, how has it changed you as a as a person?

MD: You know, it makes some things, obviously, touring is a lot more challenging, but it also makes you more selective in what you say yes to. So I feel like we don’t waste a lot of time and on the road playing shows for like, the other bands and stuff like that. Yeah, I mean, not only do I not want to be away from my family, but it takes a lot to coordinate work schedules and my wife has to kind of sacrifice on her end when I’m gone, and with childcare and getting someone to the house at 6AM before she goes to work. It’s takes a lot. Definitely the touring part can be taxing but I think in the creative process it’s definitely more enriching to have a family and that also just makes what little time I have to be creative generally more productive too I think.

JB: You’re limited on time.

MD: I don’t see that in a negative way. I prioritize how I need to and keep everybody happy.

JB: Yeah, she sounds super supportive, which is awesome.

MD: Definitely not easy on either of us to be out there at this point in our lives.

JB: If you’re going to if you’re going to go on tour, you’re going to make it worth your while.

MD: Yeah. Something about it has to be intriguing.

JB: I’ve been playing the new album a lot as of late, mostly in the car, because I think it’s just great to listen to behind the wheel and especially over here in the Sonoran Desert, I think it goes great with the landscape for sure.

MD: Oh yeah, that’s nice.

JB: Shoegaze is one of the genres that really is kind of like a thinking person’s music, I think anyway, and it depends on the band and the artist but it impacts me in different ways. Some artists enhance my connection to nature. For example, I remember going on a backpacking trip to Glacier National Park back in the 90s and the only thing I kept playing over and over was Just For A Day by Slowdive. It kept playing it in my head as I’m hiking mile after mile in gorgeous scenery (Matthew agrees). I couldn’t think of a better soundtrack for that trip. And your stuff in Deserta as well as other forms like yours allows time to reflect on the past and the future and who I am as a person and what I’ve lost as well as what a future holds that I can’t see. It’s really hard to explain as a fan to the person that’s creating the music! This album that you just put out I think falls under the latter for me; it’s a reflective record for me. It’s a beautiful piece of work and it’s it’s caught me in tears a couple times already.

MD: Thank you. That’s great.

JB: So that to me is what great music should induce some people but you know, what is it about you know, the more atmospheric side of pop that that has you so hooked and intrigued?

MD: I’m not sure I can put my finger on it per se. It’s just something I’ve always been drawn to. It’s the music I listen to and the music that I make is always going to have that angle to it where my first band that was active in Saxon Shore was totally instrumental post- rock and then Midnight Faces a lot of songs originated as instrumental but Phil (Stancil) added his vocals, but still like it wasn’t like the vocals were the entire song or even when it’s like a break, there’s still some things where there shouldn’t be (both laugh). I think even with like the vocal now has like a huge fan of singing live though I am getting a little more comfortable with it, but it’s figuring out how to make it just be part of the wall of sound and get that across to whoever doing sound, so they’re not like trying to push my vocals in the mix.

JB: Is that like a … I don’t want to say constant battle when you’re recording but when you’re working with others, and you have a you have a sound in your head of how you want things, do you get any pushback? Especially on vocals, you want it a certain way in they say, “No, why don’t you try it like this?” I talked to different bands when they’re in the studio recording, and some get pushback from engineers, and others are, you know, more cooperative know what the artist wants, you know.

MD: Yeah, I feel like I work with people that get it like. The first album, I did everything myself. There was no one to talk to you about it. And then with this one, I worked with people who I knew would get it. So Chris Coady, recorded the album and just had worked with Beach House and Slowdive so he’s just gonna get what the vibe is supposed to be. And then, Dave Fridmann who mixed it, I feel like he never tried to put the vocals too hot in the mix and I don’t think we ever had to. Yeah, I think maybe the first time he mixed I said like, “Maybe come down a little bit” and then from there they were right where they should be. I have not had to have any battles really. The people I work with are people who I trust and I let them do their thing and that’s why I work with them anyways because I want their input on what I’m doing.

Photo by Jacob Ball
Photo by Jacob Ball

JB: Yeah, you’re working with people that have that type of pedigree, you know? Beach House and Slowdive? I mean, come on (laughs). You know, how great is that?

MD: Yeah! Chris started with Beach House early on with Teen Dream (Sub Pop, 2010) and worked up through I think Depression Cherry (Sub Pop, 2015), so every record in between them. So I think he kind of grew with the band though I don’t want to speak for him there. I just feel like he kind of just like gets what I’m trying to do vocal-wise.

JB: That’s a nice run of records right there. So the fact that that an album of such beauty like Every Moment, Everything You Need can surface after an incredibly difficult past year or two for all of us, it’s been hell but I think that the past year or so of personal sacrifices speaks to the perseverance of the human spirit (Matthew agrees), and listening to a work like you just put out is reassuring despite maybe some of the lyrical content. I know you deal with what you went through over the past year or so in the lyrics on the album but considering everything that happened was this record a difficult one to create?

MD: Actually, even a little bit less time on the first one. The first one I’m trying to figure out … I don’t know, just trying to make a group of songs that I felt went together. This one I think I started right when the first album came out or shortly before with a couple months to go until everything shut down. Then I was done with recording in November of that year so it didn’t take super long. The part that took the longest was getting the vinyl pressing done.

JB: Yeah! The vinyl is due out in the summer or something like that?

MD: We actually had some flown in for these upcoming tour dates but the majority of the albums will start shipping in May. Fortunately we got some in time for the tour.

JB: I guess I’ll buy another copy then! I pre-ordered it a while ago when it first you know hit so …

MD: We will have some in Phoenix.

JB: Good! I don’t care about buying another one (Matthew laughs). I’m dying to hear this album on vinyl.

MD: For sure! Hopefully we can get another pressing soon as we just ordered a third one that should be in August (laughs). The first two are spoken for already.

JB: I’ve talked with a couple different label heads and they’re pulling their hair out with the backlog at the pressing plants and constantly pushing releases back and it’s driving them nuts. So are you are you able to devote a little more time to music now that perhaps maybe the pandemic is kind of in the rearview mirror?

MD: Yeah, we actually went part time at work. I had initially meant to go part time around the time the first album came out and we were starting to tour and such and then COVID happened and I thought, “Why would I go part time?” What am I going to other than work anyway? (Laughs) So recently as of like last month I was able to go part time so I have a little bit more time. I mean I have to have two small children so it’s not like my days off are days … off (both laugh).

JB: Not 100% devoted to music but that’s alright.

MD: Yeah.

JB: You are able to tour which is great news. And speaking on the tour, do you have a backing band or is it just you?

MD: Oh yeah, we’re a four piece. A drummer and then a bassist. So Paul Doyle plays drums, Eric Hehr plays bass and also a sampler and then Valentina Faubion plays guitar and is also on vocals.

JB: Is it the same backing band you had on the first tour for the first album?

MD: Yeah, Valentina is the new addition for the new album’s tour cycle.

JB: Have you spent much time in rehearsals?

MD: Yeah, I think we have most of it ironed out. Of the last two shows the first was in Boise at Treefort which is a festival so we had like a 20 minute changeover. Take other bands stuff off, get our stuff on, get line checked and then start the set. So we only had to cut one song due to the time constraints. People seemed to be receptive. So I think we are pretty dialed in. It was kind of chaotic for the first set back for since the new album has been out.

JB: So when it came time to record, you performed everything but drums, right?

MD: Yeah. I map it out and then have James … who is not the live drummer, James McAlister, he played and recorded live drums. He’s a very talented guy.

JB: Yeah, I was I was reading the bio, and I saw he plays with The National and Taylor Swift. There’s some variety right there.

MD: Yeah, he’s friends with Sufjan (Stevens) and that’s kind of his link to that whole crew. I think I first met him in the early 2000s and he was playing drums for … I don’t know if you remember the band Ester Drang from Tulsa (Broken Arrow, OK)? They were a big shoegaze band around that time. They’re still active, but he doesn’t play with him anymore. We had met playing some shows when he was in Ester Drang. During the pandemic I just reached out to him to see if he was available and he was so it worked out.

JB: Your vocals are a little more upfront in the mix than the previous album.

MD: Yes!

JB: So what was the impetus behind that decision? Was that something you set out to change from the start of writing and recording?

MD: Not really. I don’t mind if they are buried but, yeah, I think figuring out better ways to record and sing was another reason I wanted to work with more people on this album rather than doing it myself again and just keep doing the same thing. I mean, even the first project there was not anything that I didn’t like about the way it turned out but I wanted to try something new and see if there was something I could be doing better. Because I mean, as someone in their late 30s who Just start singing in front of people for the first time in their life, it’s a little nerve wracking (both laugh). Like the fifth time I’m singing in front of people it’s live on (Seattle radio station) KEXP, I’m like a nervous wreck (more laughter). Like in the interview portion, I think I just like totally blacked out.

JB: I know that’s funny, because I always tuned into those, those live sessions when they play them on the internet. And, you know, some bands are just super focused on the music and they just want to you know get on with it and prefer to skip the interview portion. They just, they seem so detached. It’s I don’t know, it’s kind of entertaining to watch.

MD: I know. Yeah, I think I would cringe too much. I’ve not watched the interview portion again (both laugh). I can’t do it. I feel like I just needed a handful of beta blockers before going into that (James laughs).

JB: So you weren’t “the front man” in the two previous bands that you were in?

MD: Not really, because like the first band, Saxon Shore, I started that band with Josh Tillman, who’s now Father John Misty, he has very much always had a frontman persona. So like interviews, it was always Josh, taking the wheel. And then in Midnight Faces, Phil was the singer so he was naturally the front man in that situation. So I don’t think being a frontman is something that’s ever been anything that came natural or necessarily something I wanted.

JB: You’re not really pining for it.

MD: No.

JB: I’ve always wondered because I remember when Fleet Foxes first came out and I thought they were such a great band. Then Josh left and I always wondered why he split. He obviously wanted to do his own thing but maybe there was more of a desire to be the frontman of his own project you know?

MD: No, it was. When he left Saxon Shore it was because we were about to record an album Dave Fridmann and I feel like he kind of saw that as maybe a catalyst for the band given where we were and he didn’t want to be a drummer with a side project and then he joined Fleet Foxes (laughs).

JB: Yeah!

MD: Which is a WAY bigger band! The first time I saw him performing as Father John Misty it was affirming. Very awesome to see him finally out front where he should be.

JB: I’m embarrassed to say I have not heard Father John Misty. Maybe a track that a friend put on a compilation once but that’s it.

MD: That’s alright (both laugh). I’m not here to promote his music (uproarious laughter)!

JB: I’ve always been curious I’ve just never listened to it.

MD: The first album has some really great things on it for sure.

JB: I remember meeting him on the first Fleet Foxes tour and I thought they were all really nice guys. I didn’t see that coming when he split but it’s making sense now. So with all that in mind, going back to you was it was it a difficult thing initially to step out as a solo artist then?

MD: With Deserta I never really had a need or the intention of just being a band that tours or anything. I originally had a video project in mind. I then talked to April (Morris) who runs the Kalamashoegazer festival up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and she was really into it and wanted us to play the festival. So I said, “Alright. I’ll put a live band together!” I think something happened with the festival, I posted a link to a song from part of the album and it got some traffic. That kind of helped garner some interest in my songs and things started happening where it looked like it was going to be more than just a studio project.

JB: Do you consider Deserta shoegaze? I’ve seen tags ranging from synth pop to alternative to shoegaze.

MD: I don’t know, it depends on what your definition of shoegaze is. I don’t think we sound like My Bloody Valentine if that’s what people think shoegaze is but more of like the attitude I think for sure. As far as genres, I don’t know. There’s a good amount of post- rock in there and some heavy Robert Smith influence and stuff so …

JB That’s just it for me, shoegaze covers a fairly wide range. I mean, you can melt your face off with My Bloody Valentine or meditate/reflect with Deserta, especially your last album, you know?

MD: Yeah. I think it helps for people to say this is a shoegaze record to help them know where to place it in their mind before they listen to it. It’s that idea for people. It can be hard when you don’t know what you fall into to find new listeners but the shoegaze community is pretty incredible and supportive. They buy records and merch and people who like shoegaze share it with other people they know that like shoegaze so it’s a natural community of sorts in that way.

JB: Similar to punk in that way.

MD: Yes, for sure.

JB: Is there anything you miss about not being in a band?

MD: (Sighs) Not really (both laugh). I have a good mix now where I have my creative outlet when I have time and then I have some good people that are available to go make it happen live. It’s really the only way I could do it. I think at this point in my life I don’t think I could wait on other people. I have availability to be creative and also tour.

JB: That makes total sense. Are you originally from L.A?

MD: Oh no, I’m from the East Coast, upstate New York.

JB: Was it rough settling in out west coming from the east for you?

MD: No. When I moved here it was a time when you could definitely get a lot more for your money. I moved out here from D.C. which is also crazy expensive. You don’t get a yard in D.C. whereas L.A. you get a little land at least because everything is so spread out so that is nice.

JB: Anything else you want to cover?

MD: No. I think that was good!

JB: Well thank you for your time and looking forward to Phoenix.

MD: Yeah, me too. Thank you!

For more information on Deserta, please visit:

Website
Bandcamp
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Spring Tour 2022

April 11 – Phoenix, AZ at Rebel Lounge
April 22 – Chicago, IL at Sleeping Village
April 23 – Kalamazoo, MI at Bell’s
April 24 – Indianapolis, IN at SSP
April 26 – Denver, CO at Hi Dive
April 28 – San Diego, CA at Soda Bar
April 29 – Los Angeles, CA at Lodge Room
April 30 – Santa Ana, CA at Constellation Room

May 01 – San Francisco, CA at The Independent
May 05 – Vancouver, BC at Fox Cabaret
May 06 – Seattle, WA at Funhouse
May 07 – Portland, OR at Hawthorne Lounge