Photo by: Andrew Gill

Photo by: Andrew Gill

Upcoming performances: 

Monday, April 20th, 2015 @ The Cultural Center12:15pm-1pm, Matt Ulery featuring Aurelien Perderzoli, Yvonne Lam, Dominic Johnson, and Katinka Klein.

Monday, May 11th, 2015 @ Elastic9pm, Matt Ulery's Loom

Current projects: In the Ivory (released on Greenleaf Music, 2014), Matt Ulery's Loom, Viscous String Quintet, Goran Ivanovic Trio, Nick Mazzarella Trio and Quintet, In Tall Buildings, Quin Kirchner Group.

I’m sitting here with Matt Ulery, Chicago bassist and composer. You have your Master’s in Music Composition from DePaul. In addition to composing your own work, you compose for Matt Ulery’s Loom as well as Eastern Blok—

Eastern Blok is no longer a band officially.

Ok, good to know.

But I love those guys.

When did that dismember?

It dismembered probably 6 months ago.  The newest version of that band is the Goran Ivanovic Trio, and we play all of his music. I did write for Eastern Blok for 10 years.

Ok, cool. So is there anyone else you’re writing for other than your own compositions and Loom?

Yeah, lately I’ve been doing string arrangements and orchestral arrangements for some other bands in the pop spectrum.

Oh really? Like who?

I just wrote strings and brass for a new Matthew Santos record.  And I also just did string/orchestral arrangements for this band, Wild Belle. I’m starting to get into more writing for other people and some commission stuff.  A lot of the time the reason I’m writing for myself is because I’m the bass player so I might as well be playing as a second sort of entity in the music.

That makes sense. Cool. Ok. You’ve also received many grants and awards.  I won’t go through and list all of those. Just wanted to mention that.

Not enough. I’m not talking about awards, I mean grants.

Always room for more.  And you are a jazz improve and bass educator at Loyola, as well as have been a guest artist and teacher at over 20 educational institutions, looking at your bio.  And then you just released your 7th full- length album?

6th full-length album.

6th, ok, called In The Ivory, which is a double record. Over 80 minutes of music.


Awesome record. I’ve spent some time listening to it.

Thank you. It takes a lot to get somebody in a room to sit down and spend some time with your art.

Your stuff has this great accessibility to it that I’m excited about because I feel like it goes past genres in a lot of different ways and in a way that’s not scary to listen to. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to be over your head necessarily although it’s complicated, the melodies still keep you drawn close to it, which I think is really hard to do, writing-wise. I’ve really enjoyed listening to that. 

Just wanted to start with that record. I saw your show at Constellation (record release show), which was great and wanted to hear a little bit about how the tour was. How’d the tour go from that show?

Yeah well Constellation was the ideal kick off for our two week tour. I was shocked that we sold the place out. I love that place. I’ve been there many times, played there many times, but never in that capacity. So to have the whole band there was a really encouraging experience, and it was sort of like a magical environment. We got to play that music, really kind of for the first time live all together since we recorded it. Anyways, so we went to Brooklyn, Baltimore, Philly for a couple nights, back to Manhattan, D.C., Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, South Bend, and Detroit for a couple of nights. It was kind of my first longish tour under my own name. I feel like it was a smashing success. I’ve been touring around, and when you’re in this country it’s a lot harder than when you’re in Europe because somehow there’s not as much of an audience for art music here. And for whatever reason I’ve found myself in many bars from time to time, between concert halls, because, you know, you gotta play somewhere on a Monday or you can hang out in the hotel.

This was great because every show we did was essentially a ticketed event or a cover charge at a club. People came to see the music. And maybe there was 30 people or maybe there was a couple hundred, but it all felt that we were out there doing something, instead of just pub-hustling.

That’s great. Getting back to talking about the record, there’s a song on there that has seriously been playing over in my head a lot. “There’s a Reason and Thousand Ways.” And so I just wanted to know what that song is about.

Well, it started off as something very real that I started writing. The first sort of poetic lines were something I came up with, maybe not directly about, but I heard my Grandma die when I was in Europe at one point, like maybe five years ago. And I wrote the initial poetic lines as a sort of non-musical expression; just an honest thing. Didn’t think I’d be doing anything with it, certainly not trying to exploit my real feelings.  And then it turned into a little bit more of an abstract song.  It’s kind of hard to describe the abstract poetry of it. But most importantly I wanted the harmony to really just pull the drama out of the melody that originally came from something real that turned into something a little more abstract.

So it started out as basically lines that could be a poem, and then turned into a melody, and then turned into the composition to support that.

Yes and then there’s a second half of that composition which goes off into this sort of minimal world, sort of like this fantasy.

Like the B section of the song?

Yeah. Yes. So you have this sort of art song, and then you have this little middle section which is sort of a little folk song, and then into this more minimal American textures of this sort of fantasy escape.  That’s the way I kind of see it.

But mostly what I do is, once I have the melody, what I feel like is an interesting strong melody, if there’s words connected or not, then I feel like finding the harmony there-you can go anywhere with the harmony.

Uh huh. You’re talking about the harmony instrumentation-wise that supports the melody?

As in the bass note, as it relates to the melody, and all the other notes in between.  So, for example, if I have a melody that goes C-E-G, it’ll sound like what it is by itself, and then you can play an A in the bass and it’s gonna sound totally different than if you play a C in the bass. So the context that you’re creating with the harmony, the chord structures, the bass movement; that’s creating, that’s putting the melody in context of the drama it sits in. And that’s kind of what I do when I’m most successful, for me, writing music. Listening to myself, where does that drama go, based on how the harmony sets the melody up, in context.

Ok. Interesting. So can you walk me through your writing process in a song with lyrics?

Yeah, I would say when I’m most successful in a song with words, I’m usually singing/improvising a melody into my recorder like your ZOOM here, like my phone. Honestly because we’re all improvisers who write music and composing is improvising with more of an editing process, is the way I see it. So simply just singing away from my instrument; my voice isn’t my instrument so things come out that are a little bit more maybe ancient, without muscle memory. My vocal chords don’t have the muscle memory. And I mean ancient as in, based on my experience, listening to music, and then further back in the lineage that I’ve come up in. 

So singing a melody into the recorder, and it might be many minutes long, it might be 5 seconds long, but if it’s something I feel like felt inspired, more or less organic in the moment and that it sounded like me, and something that I feel like is interesting, just as a pure melody, then I would transcribe that, write it down, and like I was just saying, find a way to put that melody in the right context, for the right amount of emotion.


Whether it’s actually dramatic or melodramatic or just sets it up right. I would go through a long process of experimenting with that.  Sometimes it happens very quickly. When it happens quickly, it’s better.  We can do anything, we can harmonize things any way, we can change anything, so you have to make a decision every now and then. And almost always does the lyric come afterwards. But because I sung it, it’s already a lyrical melody, because I was able to sing it.

So melody and then the bass harmonization of the melody…

Essentially yes; melody, bass note, and determining whether that bass note is the root of the chord or maybe it’s not the root of the chord; maybe it’s the 3rd of the chord. Determining, based on the way I’m hearing those sounds together, those two notes, flattening the harmony. Yeah.  And that, I feel like that, even though it sounds like a boring process it’s so personal because we’re making these decisions on what we’ve done; what we’ve experienced in our musical lives. Do I accept this chord as the place for the right emotion?

Those decisions can be really hard. You have to make choices and say no to things, compositionally.

That’s all you have to do.

So then you add the harmonization. Where do the other instruments come in, in that process? Do they just support what the bass has set up?

Well for me, if you get the melody in the right context, with the chord structure, then you have your emotional structure. And then, being an instrumentalist and a bass player in a rhythm section in a band, helps me to appreciate ok, how’s this arrangement, how’s this energy going to flow? So then comes the arrangement. Maybe I transcribe this melody and I have eight bars or something, then I look at my material that I have, my thematic material in all this. Ok, there might be two ideas here. I’m gonna take those two ideas; it might be a rhythmic thing that came out, it might be a harmonic thing kind of a vibe—I’m going to exploit those two ideas, and I’m going to develop those ideas throughout the piece because I’m interested in creating some longer form things out of a lot of minimal ideas. So melody, harmony, and arrangement, to get the right flow. So if I can just imagine the way it flows---it helps if you know who you’re writing for. A lot of my music, Rob Clearfield’s playing piano and I know that him and Jon Deitemeyer on drums, along with me on bass, we’re going to shape a lot of this stuff because I know them; I know how we’re going to do it. It’s not totally written all down. The structure’s all there, but the energy and the vibe is going to be shaped by us.

Ok, so two questions that come to mind with that: on the long end of things, how long is your process, when it takes a long time? What are you talking, months?

It depends because sometimes you get the initial spark of an idea and that might sit in a pile on my Wurlitzer piano for, it might sit there for five days, it might sit there for years. But that’s the best thing you can get, I think, when you get that spark of an idea. Because sitting down in front of a blank page is very daunting, thinking, “ok, I’m gonna write some music now.” I need something, give me something. It might as well be something I already thought of  but didn’t put the work into it. So I guess once the project starts, on a project like In the Ivory, one of those pieces, if it’s eight minutes long or something, I don’t know, it might take a week. It really depends.

Ok. That feels short for something that’s really elaborate.

It really depends. If I told myself I’m going to sit down from 9-5, I would produce a ton of music. I might not get the initial sparks though, that I want, originally, to start something.

The process would be different, probably.

Yeah, and sometimes I like to, it’s nice to welcome various processes. I also like to try this one thing if I have some time, maybe I’m away from home, and I have a lot of down time in a hotel room or something like that, it’s fun just to get the juices flowing, to listen to some music and then turn it off mid-phrase and then continue; pretend like you know where it’s going to go; sing some melodies, and it immediately twists into your own world. You can try to even-I mean unless you have an insane musical memory and you’re a genius-you can try to re-create what you just heard. And you’re not going to, you’ll probably fail, but it becomes you all of a sudden. And then that might turn into something totally different once you start playing a chord to that melody. Those are the things that get the juices flowing.

Cool. Great idea. My other question that comes to mind with what you were talking about, you mentioned Rob Clearfield, and the woman who you sing with-I don’t want to mispronounce her name, how do you say her name?

 Her name is Grazyna Auguscik.

Those feel like long-time collaborators for you.

And Jon too (Jon Deitemeyer).

Ok, and Jon too. So how much do they influence your compositions? I mean, you know what they like, does that structure the harmonies that you’re creating?

Yeah. I would say, as far as this music’s concerned where there’s a lot of piano, I would say absolutely because I know to not give Rob too much information. Sometimes if there’s a dedicated piano part and that’s maybe unrelated to who is playing it, because if I can play it, or if I write a part, then I can play it. So it doesn’t really matter who, in that sense, is playing it. But a lot of times you know, I’m giving Rob and Jon, and myself, essentially, lead sheets with melody and chords. And I know that because we’re long-time collaborators that Rob’s going to play something hipper and easier than if I would have tried to write something that I think he would have played. That’s in the context of this jazz chamber music, for sure. So yes, it does shape the way it turns out; it more shapes the way it ends up sounding. Probably in a more abstract way, from years of playing together, you know, his music has shaped the way I hear music in general, so it shapes my experience for the editing process.

Ok. Some questions I think about with writing that I wanted to know what you think about. Do you feel like you can hear someone’s motive in the music that they’re playing? Whether it’s in a live performance or on a record, and what’s behind it?

Motive as in like reason?

As in intent.

 Well, I can tell if your motivation is to make the best music possible at that moment. And I can tell if that’s not your motivation. And that’s kind of a yes or no, or I mean that’s an opinion-based thing.

Right. I think it’s subjective.

Yes, totally subjective. And that’s all that kind of really matters to me as far as that question, I think. Because, what other motivation is there? Or what else is there besides…

I think it’s different for everyone and it’s just interesting to hear what’s important to you in creating, and I think that filters how you listen to things.

All I’m interested in doing while creating with people is to make that connection with the people that I’m playing. That’s my motivation. Yeah, I guess one other motivation could be to please the audience. But I don’t know, with most artful music, the show is to be engaging with your band mates; is to be engaging into the music and not mugging the audience, so they’re not bored with what you’re doing.

Right. So in your mind it’s more about the connection between the players.

Absolutely. Cause as a listener and an audience member that’s what I connect to. I don’t need somebody looking at me, and you know, rocking out.

Right-like a monkey in a cage sort of thing.

I don’t know, I get that as an entertainment value, I just happen to think it’s not as important as making the connection with each other.

Cool. That’s awesome. So what pop records or musicians have been the most influential to you?

I’m sure it goes way back for me-The Beatles, of course, and Nirvana, heavily.

Ok. Which Nirvana record?

I mean, the first day I got my electric bass guitar I went downstairs and started learning Nevermind, which was, you know, the big one. But going back to it now I love In Utero, and I love the pop punkiness of Incesticide, and I like them all. That was like a major influence in why I started playing music in the first place; listening to Nirvana. I just thought it was very interesting. And Kurt Cobain’s music is deep because he may not have known what he was doing (theory-wise), but he would play a power chord on the guitar, you know, root-fifth-root, and if he just played that, you wouldn’t hear the quality of the chords-you wouldn’t hear major minor necessarily. But with his melodies that he was singing, he was dictating the quality of the chords.

Without knowing that, without thinking about it.

Yeah, of course. That’s the beautiful thing about folk music, which is what-that’s my folk music; learning a song-maybe it’s not super folk music because I did learn it from a record and MTV, it’s not like my friend taught it to me. That’s pretty deep stuff and that’s been some of the most influential pop music for me, yeah.

That’s really interesting. And then who are you listening to now?

I’m really into this Laura Mvula record right now.

Laura who?

Mvula. M-V-U-L-A. She’s a singer, she’s from England, and she writes music. She has a new record with the Metropole Orchestra. So it’s like soul–orchestral soul.

Are there any romantic composers that have influenced you heavily? 

Absolutely. I don’t know if I ever-I never really spent a ton of time studying, so I feel like from an academic point of view, I’m kind of a poser by saying this but Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Chopin. But I feel like I got a lot of that romantic music via the Eastern European composers writing for Hollywood. Like Miklós Rózsa and Prokofiev, and Shostakovitch—those guys came to Hollywood to work and they brought this romantic style; orchestral music to background music. And it wasn’t considered a very great thing to do as a composer.

In this, in writing this record, what’s something that you’ve learned about your writing, while making this record?

I’ve learned if I sit down and do it, and try to flush out some of my good ideas, my initial sparks, then I’m capable of creating a larger piece of work that I’m interested in. You know what I mean? Cause I had a pretty luxurious amount of time this last year, or a year ago, to write that, from a grant I got. And I worked, I just worked more diligently. I just decided I’m going to do this. And I had a lot of fun doing it. And I learned a lot about, cause it’s all experimental to me. I look at it as all, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just going to go for it, and I’m going to try this kind of orchestration.” And I’ve learned a lot from that.

I’ve also learned that it’s ok to write something that sounds perhaps similar to something you’ve written here and there. Embrace your own melodies in your head. Embrace the harmony that you like! Because eventually it forms your voice, and your own vocabulary.

It’s not weak to do something that’s like resonating in you, over and over. Something is still coming out.

Yeah. We can think of many composers that do that. Who write music and ok, that sounds like them. And a few people have told me recently, “oh it sounds like you” (referring to In The Ivory), and that’s the coolest compliment because that means I’m just being honest with myself. Ok, it’s resonating, like you said. I like it. I’m not saying recreate what you’ve done, but to be ok with something similar harmonically or rhythmically or melodically. Not to necessarily try and do that, but if it happens, it happens.

Yeah. And I don’t know if I fully buy that you don’t know what you’re doing because you do have a master’s in composition, so when you say “this was an experiment,” I get that from a personal standpoint but you also have the academic training, you know what I mean?

I guess so---

And maybe the thing is, you don’t allow that to guide your writing in a way that maybe other people do. Maybe you rely more on intuition as opposed to your academic training.

I would say absolutely. And I rely more on my musical experience, because academic training is not necessarily musical experience. It’s science and technique but I don’t think it’s necessarily how you learn how to be creative. That’s what I mean by being experimental, and I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s still the way I’ve always felt, when I was in school and everything, like, what am I doing? I’m just going to try this. Not using subscribed methods but more using the academia to sort of work harder. That’s the way I’ve always felt about it.

That’s cool. A good like Midwestern ethic to it. You know?

(Laughs). Yeah, I think it comes from that.

Cool. So what is next for you?

Well, I’m real encouraged about this last tour we did. I’m going to work harder and book some good gigs for this summer. I’m doing a handful of collaboration gigs with eighth blackbird this summer and next fall. And working on getting a couple of commissions through third parties, to do something like In The Ivory, where I have my guys, and we combine forces to bring in some other people, we create a band.

And this year I want to record a 6 side triple LP; each side being approximately 20 minutes of a different project. So one side would be songs with a lot of production; one side would be jazz big band; one side might be orchestral strings; one side would be my quintet Loom… As encouraged as I was with making this record and having a lot of great feedback about it, I was also kind of a little bit discouraged and daunted by the music industry, and the model that we’ve been using. I’m super happy working with Greenleaf Music, and they’re great, and I’m honored. But just the idea of hustling a record is kind of a daunting task. You know. So I kind of wanted to say, you know what? Here’s six projects. And there’s really nothing I can do about that other than try and perform each one. So that’s what I’m going to do this year. I’m working on writing that stuff now. I want to shoot high, so I can actually get to work. And by work I mean having fun by myself.

That’s the goal. Thank you, so much, for your time.

Thank you!

It’s been a great pleasure, picking your brain. I could talk a lot longer but….

I’ve got some questions for you next time (laughs).

But I’m going to be respectful that we’re sitting here and he’s about to play a gig so all the best!

Thank you!