Q&A with Angels & Airwaves Bassist Matt Wachter
There’s a rumor out there that Angels & Airwaves bassist Matt Wachter didn’t play Fender until after he left 30 Seconds to Mars. Not true. On the contrary, he’s always played Fender basses; he just played them even more in Angels & Airwaves. As it so happens, Wachter risked life and limb to purchase one of his first Fender instruments, a 1972 Telecaster Bass.
“I’ll never forget it, because I borrowed my dad’s car and drove into northeast Philly, which is not a good area at all,” recalls Wachter. “This guy’s house was lined with radios and TVs and I just remember he kept saying, ‘Do you have any friends who want to buy a TV or a radio?’ I was like, ‘No, I just want the bass.’ So he takes me to the back of his house and I remember thinking, ‘This is it for me. I’m done.’ But for $500 in cash I get this bass, and it was in mint condition, so I realized very quickly that it was probably stolen from someone. I did feel a little guilty, but I survived going into northeast Philly to buy it, so I felt like I deserved it. If anyone is missing a ’72 Fender Telecaster bass that got stolen from them, chances are that I have it.”
In case he was carrying any negative karma over the possibly stolen bass, perhaps the Valentine’s Day release of Angels & Airwaves album LOVE has cleaned the slate. The Tom Delonge (Blink-182)-fronted band decided to give away their third studio album to fans for free, and search for revenue by forging corporate and brand partnerships.
“What we wanted to do was get our music to as many people as possible, and we figured this was the best way to do it,” Wachter says. “We’re thinking the future of music is that it will be free and you’ll generate money in other ways. We see it as a way to pull kids to our website, where we have subscription-based content, VIP access and other things that we charge money for. So the music is free and hopefully kids will spend a buck or two to help pay back what we spent on the record.”
Which, as the quartet just realized last week, was quite a hefty sum.
“We spent our own money doing the record and recently found out just how much money we spent, and thought for a second that maybe we shouldn’t have done it after all,” laughs Wachter.
But the band has no real regrets, particularly since half a million people downloaded the album within the first 48 hours.
“It’s really been amazing,” says Wachter. “That’s gold by record label standards. We didn’t sell them, obviously, but that’s more than we ever would have gotten had we done it the traditional major-label route.”
Angels & Airwaves officially venture out on tour in early April with a first stop in San Francisco to play the Warfield Theatre, but fans got a sneak preview on March 27 when they played the Bamboozle Left festival at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
“The original plan was to do a friends-and-family show, which, generally, the idea behind that is you have a bunch of your friends and family come to a show so that if you screw up, it’s not that big of a deal,” says Wachter. “This, however, turned into something much different because Fuel TV streamed it live on television. It was awesome, but at the same time a little nerve-wracking.”
When Fender News catches up with the bassist for an interview, he and drummer Atom Willard are making the mind-numbing commute from their Los Angeles homes down to the band’s San Diego headquarters for a final tour rehearsal. Although it threatened nothing like the danger involved on his long-ago youthful drive to northeast Philly and its cesspool of crime, the 121-mile trip can be brutal.
“Especially when it’s a Friday afternoon after 3 p.m., you just know you are going to be sitting in gridlock traffic,” says Wachter. “There’s really no way to make it less brutal than it is, but a few of the times I’ve just been like, ‘Let’s pull off and take a nap and wait for this to clear.’”
Good news for Fender News — he had plenty of time on his hands to answer several questions about the upcoming tour, the album, why he loves playing bass and a few other odds and ends. We’d like to also thank Willard for indulging us by keeping the radio turned down for the interview, and for his now-and-then side commentary. Here it is …
FN: We caught the photo you guys posted on your website of your Bamboozle dressing room. It looked very glamorous.
MW: Yeah, right? We just had our big gear truck backed up to the back of the stage for our dressing room. It felt like Warped Tour all over again. It was awesome. I think what most people don’t understand (is that) backstage isn’t really that cool. It’s usually got a couple of dirty couches, and dirty carpet, and it smells like urine and alcohol and that’s pretty much it. I think people, myself included, have a very different idea of what backstage is like growing up. The days of Mötley Crüe are over.
FN: Blink-182 did go with an elaborate set design and use intense light shows for its stadium tour last summer. Has any of Tom’s showmanship carried over for this upcoming club tour?
MW: I think with Angels there are a few more budgetary limitations, but what we’ve tried to do is take an arena-like show and squeeze it into a club. We really had to get creative with the production and the way we designed. David (Kennedy) and Atom literally built the stage; the set carts and all of the elements you will see onstage, they built from steel. They both know how to weld, and so everything with us is really done in-house. I know a lot of bands say that, but truly, 100 percent everything is done in-house with this band.
FN: Did you contribute at all to the set construction?
MW: No, my expertise lies in the computer-programming field. We have this piece of gear I’m really excited about called a “monome.” It’s basically this controller that this company from Philadelphia built, and for someone who doesn’t know what it is, it just looks like a box with a bunch of lights on it that you can program to do just about anything. We’ve managed to feature that in our set every tour, but this one is going to be the coolest so far.
FN: Can you share any details about how you intend to use the monome?
MW: Without giving anything away, I’m basically remixing one of our older songs with it. It’s hard to explain how it works, exactly, but visually it’s really cool to look at and it’s really versatile. I enjoy geeking out with new gear, so this is definitely one of the things I enjoy geeking out most on.
FN: We now know that your first Fender bass was a Telecaster Bass, but typically you play Jazz basses, right?
MW: Yes, and actually, this record was the first record that I ever played a P-Bass, and I used it most of the record. I’ve never owned one, but Tom has a P-Bass at the studio and I just wanted to try something different, so I ended up using that on most of the record. I loved it and then it had me thinking, “Shit, do I need to go out and get a bunch of Precision basses now?” It’s definitely a different sound from a Jazz Bass, but I feel like a Jazz Bass has more options, tonally. On a P-Bass you know exactly what you are getting when you plug it in; you turn the two knobs up and that’s what you get. With a Jazz Bass, you can shape the tone a little bit more, which, I like having that versatility.
FN: So did you end up getting a P-Bass for this tour?
MW: No, but we decided to go with a war-torn look with a lot of our gear. So as much as it pains me to say, we took two of my Jazz basses and we really kind of abused them. We set them on fire; chiseled at ’em a little bit here and there. They look really cool, and like they’ve been through a war. If they had been vintage basses, I would never have done something like that, but these were two newer ones. I’ll always remember using these basses for this tour.
FN: Why the war-torn theme?
MW: It’s just the juxtaposition from the album, which is called LOVE. Our message has always been one of hope and infinite possibility, and we really do believe that. A lot of that came through maturity and age. We all grew up playing in punk, hardcore and metal bands, and that music is primarily based around angst and rebellion. But then we got to this point in our lives where we started to not be so angry anymore, and instead see the beauty and the possibilities in life. Having my little girl changed me in a way that I never even dreamt. I feel like so much of the ugly side of life is accentuated in the news and the media, and after having a baby, you want to do nothing but shield them from that side of life, so you try to accentuate the beauty and love in life.
At the same time, we’re still human and we have our faults, and it was a really, really tough record to make. We all kind of scattered in different directions and everyone was working on other projects, and trying to get back on the same page was a little difficult at first. And it took a long time to finish the record, so I feel it was a struggle to get here and I think our gear reflects that. It’s been through hell with us.
FN: You originally joined Angels & Airwaves during the middle of writing 2007’s I-Empire. Did you feel more in the groove since you were with this album from start to finish?
MW: Well, when I first came on with the band, it was really at the perfect time. None of the bass had even been laid down. What Tom does when he writes a song, he’ll lay down a scratch bass line; kind of an outline of chords. So he was like, “OK, well listen to this and come up with something cool.” To have that kind of freedom right away was pretty awesome, especially because right off the bat he just had total faith and trust in me. It was the same arrangement this time around. He would just have a general structure, and I would go in and add a little “candy” as he likes to call it.
FN: But after being around for a few years, do you feel like you have a better sense of what kind of candy he’s looking for?
MW: I think so, but although they are still Angels & Airwaves songs, they were still very different than our last record. I think every record I’ve ever done has its certain set of challenges, and it feels like you are relearning things all over again on how to record. There were definitely some challenges with this record. There’s obviously things you take and can apply from being in the studio over the years, but there’s always new curveballs and that’s what makes it exciting. It’s never going to be the same thing twice. There are always going to be new obstacles, or a new way of looking at things.
FN: Can you give us an example of one of those challenges you had to deal with on LOVE?
MW: One song in particular is this song “Shove.” It’s a really, really stripped down song. Most of the Angels & Airwaves songs have layers and layers of keyboards and really lush instrumentation with a lot going on. This song was the antithesis of that — just bass, drums and guitar and the keyboards would kick in on the chorus, but it was really stripped down. I felt kind of exposed. Even live I feel like it sounds like something’s missing. But it’s really cool in the sense that it gets back to the root and essence of what rock music is, as it’s just a simple arrangement. I think most bass players, myself included, on first listen usually come up with something way too complicated and way too intricate and just too note-y. You always have to step back and really look at it and simplify and let the bass line support the melody and structure of the song and not overpower it.
FN: When you listen to the album is there a standout song for you? Is it “Shove” because of the reasons you just gave?
MW: It’s so hard because it does always change, but “Shove” is definitely one of them. Also, “The Flight of Apollo,” because it’s just a fun song to play. It’s just …
(interrupted by laughter from Atom)
Atom is chiming in with a funny anecdote. There’s a song called “The Moon-Atomic,” and it doesn’t have any bass because when Tom wrote the song he said, “I’m kind of envisioning this song not having bass on it.” So everyone gave me a hard time about it and how I had it so easy and didn’t work as much as th
ey do. I did end up playing bass on it. I feel like everyone else really liked the bass line. I guess it was one of my better ones and they thought it was really hooky, but ultimately it didn’t make the cut. Tom, again, was like, “No, I really envisioned this song not having bass on it,” and that was that. The bass-less song.
FN: Guess it’s a good thing you also play keyboards, because that could be an awkward song to play live on this tour.
MW: Yeah, and that’s really fun for me because I do enjoy putting the bass down for certain songs. On this tour in particular, we are all jumping around playing percussion and different instruments. Again, another way of mixing the show up and making it a little different.
FN: Are you one of those musicians who wound up playing bass by default?
MW: Absolutely, because I wanted to be a guitar player. I started out on the piano when I was a little kid and then I switched to drums for eight or nine years before deciding I wanted to be a guitar player. Then it came down to a band needing a bass player, and so I decided I’d learn to play bass.
FN: Years later, would you say it suits you well?
MW: Totally, especially my personality. I don’t like to think of myself as a showoff. I’m not trying to generalize or stereotype guitar players or vocalists, but I feel like most bass players are very subdued and, personality-wise, they like to blend into the background. That’s where I feel most comfortable, kind of blending into the background. I don’t like being out there like, “Hey, here’s my solo!”
FN: You’ve mentioned Metallica bassist Cliff Burton as one of your influences. Any others?
MW: When I started playing bass I was listening to Metallica and Iron Maiden — a lot of metal — and so that’s what I was influenced by at the time. Then there was a crossover point where I started listening to Suicidal Tendencies and more punk influences or thrash bands, like M.O.D. Then I got into straight-ahead hardcore and punk bands like Rancid and Gorilla Biscuits. In the years to follow I played in every sort of band you can possibly think of, which probably seemed a little schizophrenic. At the same time, I think it really helped broaden my style of playing. For instance, I played in a ska band for a few years.
(“I can’t believe you are telling them about that!” says Willard )
I don’t understand what’s so bad about playing in a ska band. It’s definitely the kind of music bass players can shine in and kind of get note-y. So that’s really kind of helped develop my over-playing ability.
FN: Is the story true about you suffering a concussion because of your onstage head banging?
MW: Yes, that’s accurate. I had a really bad headache for weeks and it just wasn’t going away and I was like, “F—, I think I have a tumor or something.” I got super paranoid, and we were in Idaho in one of the most remote places you could think of, and I went to this urgent care place. They took one look at me and figured since I was in a rock band that I was using drugs or just hung over. Finally I convinced them to do a CAT scan on me and they found out I had a concussion. They asked me a bunch of questions to figure out the cause and eventually they told me that I could easily have gotten it from head banging because that motion can cause your brain to slap against your skull. That was really awesome to hear. And it was funny too, because my mom would always tell me how she never saw Elvis waving his head around like I did and that I should wiggle my hips like Elvis. I tried to explain that I didn’t think that’s going to go over so well in this day and age.
FN: Tom has called LOVE the biggest release of his career and the pinnacle of his creativity. Do you mirror that perspective?
MW: I do. I really do. It’s weird to say that, because there’s a sense of finality and where do you go from there because is the rest going to be dog shit? It kind of sets you up for failure or a letdown in the rest of your career, but I think we’ll always put that pressure on ourselves to keep challenging ourselves. We’re going to say the exact same thing the next time. We’re going to continue to set out to outdo ourselves.
FN: Finally, we’re big fans of Say Anything. What made you guys decide on them for this tour?
MW: We’re just fans of them, too. I love Max (Bemis) and I think he’s a great songwriter and a great performer. For us, we just wanted to create a package that kids would want to see. We weren’t concerned with putting four or five bands on a bill. We just wanted one awesome band to share the stage with us, and Say Anything was available, and so it was perfect.