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Interview: Jonah Matranga (Sons of Alpha Centauri)

5 May 2024

Jonah Matranga, a dedicated musician since the early ’90s, fronted the influential emo band Far. Though they never achieved massive sales, Far garnered a devoted following through their music and touring with bands like Deftones and Incubus. After Far disbanded, Matranga embarked on a solo career under the name onelinedrawing. Pioneering a form of internet-driven house shows, Matranga built on Far’s fanbase and fostered a close connection with his audience, offering merchandise on a sliding scale – a practice that continues on his website today.

Forays into other bands like New End Original and Gratitude in the early 2000s didn’t lead to the next level, but Matranga found his niche with onelinedrawing and collaborations on other artists’ albums. While hesitant to commit to a full-time band again, he actively lends his vocals to projects like Sons of Alpha Centauri, where he’s fronted the formerly-all-instrumental UK band’s latest two albums, Push (2021) and Pull (2024).

With a multitude of projects on the go, Matranga wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when we connected for a recent interview. This sense of easygoing curiosity is what kicked off our conversation.

JONAH: So what are we talking about today?

We’re talking about the new Sons of Alpha Centauri album.

JONAH: I’m in a fun time in my life where I am not even sure which interview is for which project. There’s a few things happening at once.

I don’t know that you were the first person to do this, but you were doing house shows and chatting with fans on the internet really early on.

JONAH: I just had a really different take on the internet and on playing music for a living than most people did. The Internet is where a lot of it tied together for me. There’s so much potential connectivity in the internet, and it’s sad to me that we’ve walled it off into streaming networks and social networks. To have a website is kind of antiquated at this point.

I’ve always been doing things that were really different from what a lot of other artists were doing. Some of what I did became really popular and got tremendously commodified since then, but back then, people just thought I was a fucking weirdo.

I would be there for hours after the show talking and signing stuff for people. That wasn’t the way it was done. Punk rock was punk rock and there was a standoffish macho thing going on. I was just very into the conversation both within the music and without it. This all leads back to Sons of Alpha Centauri. That life kind of led to this life because I connected with them. They’re people who love my music. They made instrumental music and they wanted a singer. I said I didn’t want to join a band but I would sing over their tracks.

They’ve got jobs and stuff so it’s this really neat symbiosis where they get to work with a singer they really love and I get to keep making a living. They essentially pay me like a session guy and I love that. I love that they’re not trying to make a million dollars. They’re just trying to make music they’re proud of. They said, “We’ve always made instrumental stuff but if we had a singer that we wanted to hear on this, it would be you.” I felt really flattered and it’s been just a lovely thing over the last several years to make vocals for music that was super inspired by rock music that I made 20 or 30 years ago. It’s such a beautiful circle of life. All of the things that I created before, it was from this exact impulse which is to connect on a level where the walls are down. I’m just a little 5-year-old saying, “I make music for a living. Would you like to give me some money for my ideas?” It’s such a simple little equation.

That’s great. They’re getting to work with their hero but they’re also able to tap into the community that you’ve been building. While maybe there’s no dreams of selling a million records, it is going to reach some people that it might not have reached had you not been in this project.

JONAH: 100 percent. It’s a funny line for me. Sometimes people ask me to do stuff and I have the sense that they’re really ambitious. I’m not really interested in being around that energy. There’s a desperation that I don’t like feeling. When I get insecure or when I’m feeling scared, I relate to that feeling of wanting to be big and wanting to be successful. I totally get it, it’s just not something I enjoy being around because I don’t think it’s fun. What I love about the Sons guys is that they reached out like any other email I might receive. I’ve worked with a ton of artists that don’t put any money into their stuff. The Sons guys have a little money from working their jobs and being responsible. They’re not super rich but they’ve got enough money to get the record pressed and get it out there. There’s a lot of people I’ve worked with that probably no one will ever hear the music. It’s never been about that. It’s about the conversation with them first and foremost and then if they really love what I do they get this amazing thing where they get to play the music with, and for, their friends and there’s this guy from the bands they like and listen to on there. There’s something really sweet about that for me.

Marlon and Nick live in the UK, right?

JONAH: They live near Kent, in relatively rural England. We do recording in this studio called Anchor Baby and it looks like we’re in Robin Hood when we were out there. It’s beautiful. It’s stunning. I’ve spent maybe 10 days with them in the several years we’ve known each other, always making music or hanging out with their family. I have stayed with them a couple of times when I’m over there and it’s so lovely every time and so sweet and calm. I just adore them as humans. We really hardly know each other but we kind of know each other in that we’ve made a couple of records together at this point and, to me, that’s as intimate as you can get.

Was the first record recorded during lockdown? Were you able to get together with them or was it a bit of a tricky affair to make that first record?

JONAH: Maybe some of the tracking was done during Covid. I’m trying to get this right because there’s a time scale to this project that’s so natural. There’s no rush to release anything so I feel like the first stuff I recorded was actually quite a while ago and then it wasn’t a long time before they finished it because I have no say in it after I do the vocals. I remember I did a session in San Francisco that ended up being the vocal for a bunch of tunes on the new album, but maybe not for the old one. I forget. The point is, there have been lots of different sessions, and I don’t recall any of it being during Covid. I’m on tour a lot and making music of other sorts all the time so I need to fit it in where I can fit in and then they’re working and having families and doing their thing so they need to fit it where they can. It just happens as it happens. There’s never any pressure on either side. I send this stuff off. I don’t need it to ever become anything. And when they send stuff to me, they’ll check in if it’s been months or something. But I’ve said to them from the beginning, I don’t want to sing anything unless I hear it. I don’t want to force something just to make some money from the guys. I want it to be fucking good so it takes a long time sometimes because it’s not like a normal band where we’re meeting up every week or there’s a label who’s telling us what time we need to get the tracks in by or whatever. It’s a very sweet, natural, chill thing.

How does the writing happen? Do they write and record and then send you the music or do you collaborate at all on the music side of things?

JONAH: Nope. There are times in which I want to micromanage an arrangement and this is what I love about working with them so much. I fucking hate arguing over the songs and the shirts and shows. I’m sure I’ve driven so many people crazy. I am so idealistic and just cannot get deep enough into a song. It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. So it’s really nice being in a project where they’re making all the decisions. They just send me instrumental tracks. Sometimes they sound like the way they end up sounding on the record. Sometimes they are very, very stripped down and just basically a guitar and a drum or something. I’ll get where the project is going, so I will sing with that in mind.

There’s a song called “Doomed” on the new record that I really love. When they sent it to me, it was actually just guitar. I knew that they would probably end up putting rhythm, drums, bass and other instrumentation to it. I almost wish that they had kept it just the guitar. The idea of singing to a track that was probably going to have more instruments than just me and an electric guitar, it definitely was not on purpose, but I kind of fell in love with it. Sometimes I think I should say things like that, like, “Hey, consider keeping this one super fucking raw because I think there is something here” but I truly don’t really say much like that because usually the tracks are relatively close to done and I really don’t want to get a big back and forth about it. They obviously like the song the way it is so I’m just going to do my best to sing over it.

One thing I will say is like, “For this whole three minute span of this song, I don’t have anything for this.” I won’t say that it’s bad or good. I just say I don’t have anything for it and then they get to choose. I’ve done songs that haven’t ended up being recorded in the end. There probably are songs that have changed based on what I sang but I don’t even remember because I just worry about my vocals and making something that I like and that hopefully they will like.

Do they send you one song at a time or do they send you batches of songs?

JONAH: They’ve sent me big chunks. They’ve sent my little chunks, I don’t think they ever sent just one song, they don’t seem to work like that. They generally seem to send me chunks between three and seven songs.

Have you ever sent them anything back where they are like, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve heard”?

JONAH: They’re very, very effusive sometimes. Very, very sweet. They’ve always been so sweet and complimentary. It’s always nice when someone likes something that I did, of course it feels good, but at a very early age I realized that I really couldn’t listen too much to what other people thought of what I was doing musically or otherwise. I had to decide if it was any good. So, they may say some nice things, but I’m just concerned with giving them something that I’m proud of.

As far as their stuff goes, “Pull,” the title track, whenever a track starts and my head starts bobbing, I know there’s something there and the longer my head keeps bobbing’ and longer I’m in the song, the more I know it’s special for me. I am as daydreamy as anyone about shit. This could be a huge fucking single.

I love daydreaming about that because it’s a fun thing to do. And without being resigned to a certain level of success, I do believe that there’s hardly ever a song, no matter how good it is, that truly goes around the world in some significant way without a shit ton of money behind it in one way or another. There are all these beautiful songs, from “Let it Be” to “Wet Ass Pussy,” that have a lot of money behind them. I think I want to pat myself on the back for putting the Beatles and Cardi B in the same sentence.

The chorus of “Ephemeral,” the first track on the record, I remember singing but, honestly, when I got it back, I was like, “This is cool.” Sometimes I hardly even remember what I sang because it was literally two or three years ago sometimes. And then I don’t listen to the music because they’re working on it so when I heard it, when that chorus first kicked in, I was like, “Oh shit, THAT’s a chorus!” That might sound like me being cocky, but what’s so beautiful is that it doesn’t feel like it’s me singing. I’m just listening to music that I like. But then I go, “Oh shit, I was part of making this!” It’s kind of a humility. It’s like. “Damn, that’s a fucking good chorus and I did that.”

The pulse of “Pull” is like riding a fucking motorbike. I got into that vibe. I think what I love about the Sons stuff is that it’s not stuff that I write generally. I love writing a riff, but I like a chorus and a lot of other stuff. They write such riffy music that’s not really songwriter music so it’s really lovely to just put on my riff music vocal hat. When I hit that chorus, there was a freedom in singing that that felt great. I totally tell them that, but mostly I think it’s less a mutual admiration society and more a mutual motivation society. When I hear a track, I sing, they get inspired by it. They might say, “Can you double that or put a harmony on that?” So, it’s more a creative conversation and the fact that we remain engaged, that’s the compliment. I don’t think anyone needs to say to me how great my music is because if they’re exchanging their time and or money for my idea, that’s enough of a compliment. I don’t need anyone I’m in a band with to fawn over me. They put their energy and their money into this. They’re spending money to make this music. They are not turning a profit and I adore that. I love being part of what they’re spending on. I feel very honored.

I didn’t even realize this was something you were doing but when I saw your name in the press release, I checked it out immediately. After doing some of the onelinedrawing stuff you’ve done, this must feel a bit like a return to your roots. Did you have to flex memory muscles to sing this stuff?

JONAH: Not really. The thing about me is that I think anyone who likes my music will notice if they start to listen to it with this in mind, I’m the same creature in all the bands. I get really screamy sometimes at onelinedrawing shows, especially live. I really love the somatic feeling of just going for it. But as far as that type of music, that’s why I was talking about the riffy thing. Most riff songs are one chord, basically. There are chords, but it’s really just the D chord the whole time. And so, as a singer, there’s not really a lift in the chorus. You’ve got to figure out something else to do over D. A lot of times with heavier riffs, it’s about finding the dissonant thing. Singing over chromatic changes is not easy as singing it over more simple songwriter progressions so it’s really about finding a vocal that is compelling and has layers. With a lot of hard rock, there’s so much happening in the music, there’s not really a lot of room sonically for a vocal. A lot of times, it’s picking my spots. It is a different muscle as you say but, honestly, hard rock has never ever been far from the center of me. I’m some weird combo of Zeppelin, Prince, Tom Petty, and Sinead O’Connor or something like that. It’s all in me all the fucking time.

Given what you’ve said about Sons and your role, I imagine there’s not going to be any touring for this band. Will you ever do a live performance or is it just a studio project?

JONAH: We’ve talked about it. I have no idea how it would happen. I’ve done this with a few bands at this point. If they were to say, “We’re going to rehearse these ten tunes, you learn them too,” I would literally walk on stage with them, with no practice, and just see what happened. I’m up for it because a song is a song. And if everyone takes the songs seriously and is able to play with it and be active in it then there is no conversation that’s needed really. There’s no practice that needed, it’s just being in the song so I would love to do it. I really can’t imagine any sort of tour but one thing I’ll say about the UK is that it is a small place so I could see maybe doing a few dates there but a lot would have to go right for all of that stuff to happen. Calendars would really have to align so I don’t think it’ll ever happen but we talk about it. Who knows? I’m open to whatever.