Once a staple of the Alaskan music scene, self-styled troubadour and pop-rock powerhouse, Matt Hopper, has moved on to greener pastures. (Literally, in Idaho.) But that doesn't stop him from regular visits home or an identity firmly anchored in his Alaskan roots, from his "Caribou Bill" alter ego to recurring themes throughout his songs. The PRESS caught up with him via to get his thoughts on his latest full-length release, High Hopes.
Anchorage Press: In a recent article about Alaskan music, a Paste magazine blog piece said you were a dead-ringer for Tom Petty on 2010's Jersey Finger and you say you count him as a major influence. What else were you listening to when you were writing and recording this album?
Matt Hopper: I listen to such a wide variety of music constantly that it's even become a job skill that has landed me employment at radio stations and as a music booker. If you can't hear it already, I am big on classic rock, hushed folk, doobie funk, rock and roll and psychedelic jam. I am also a fan of Paul Jacks' Smile Ease [from Anchorage] and Richard Swift's solo material. I hope people hear hints of lots of good artists mixed into my own blend of music...and I always love being compared to Tom Petty. He's one of my favorites.
AP: With High Hopes and the upcoming full-length, Husky, both produced at least in part this year, it seems like it was a productive one for you musically after taking time off from your music career "working for the man." Do you think the break from being a full time musician helped renew the creative process?
Renew isn't the right word; mend is maybe more accurate. Checking electric meters is a simple, healthy workday of going to assigned routes and mostly walking around neighborhoods checking electric consumption. I enjoyed the exercise and running into the characters out there in the woods from Eagle River to Trapper Creek. Stomping around Matanuska-Susitna was fun for me, and as a longtime resident of Wasilla with a six-year stint in Anchorage during my college years, it was a fun way to spend six months putting a little savings back into the bank. I'd just had a rather horrendous ordeal fixing a 1992 Chevy tour van as it came apart multiple times on a six-week tour. That all ended in a transmission meltdown outside of Flagstaff, AZ and me hopping on a plane to Frankfurt wondering how long I could make $42 last. I left my cell and laptop and joined up with Lucky Fonz III, Peter Piek, and Dentia Odigie, She Owl and others on an epic journey through six different countries. When I returned to Boise, my personal life hit a few holes in the road and with my bank account drying up, my adventure took me back to where it all started on Caribou Loop Road to take some time off from being a troubadour and recharge...and yes, perhaps renew as well. Sorting out two albums and releasing them is a sense of birth and renewal. While High Hopes came together quite quickly here in Alaska, I had been working on Husky in Oregon and various locations around the USA ever since 2010's Jersey Finger. A jack-of-all-trades music producer Roy Swice (a.k.a. Bryan Garfinkel) in Oregon was a huge part of that record, playing on it as well as assisting me in the studio with engineering advice and know-how. Husky also features songs I wrote and recorded but never released over the past decade such as early collaborations with Richard Swift and Roy Swice. One was recorded at a little studio in Wasilla, just around the corner from my parent's house, called Frozen Lake where we began laying down the tracks that became "Dreams (Are All I Have At)" featuring Alaska's James Dommek Jr. We finished that one later in North Portland with Drew Grow (of Modern Kin) laying down some vocals in the studio and Swice handling the decks.
AP: You produced High Hopes this past winter in Anchorage at Paul Jacks studio, Tri-Tone, with several well-known area musicians. Tell me about the collaborative process on this album. How was it bouncing ideas around with Paul Jacks? Is he's someone you've worked with before in your decade of being a musician in and out of Alaska?
MH: Working with Paul on High Hopes was great! Paul knows a lot of my older material and had some great ideas, played some keys on it, and pretty much let me take over his space a couple of days a week exactly a year ago. It was nice to work with someone who had been kind of following my musical career since the beginning and could talk to me about my musical choices. We even co-wrote "Watch My Cry", one of my personal favorites on the album. After some initial conversations and checking out his studio I began to plan for scheduling in November. I lined up some of the best drummers in Anchorage to come help me lay down the foundations, while I took it from there on guitar, bass, and keyboards. I also brought in Bryan Daste to spin his pedal steel on some tracks and Emma Hill to sing some vocals. James Glaves [Ghost Hands] mixed the album and has a small guest solo on it and Roy Swice [The Roman Candles] mastered it.
AP: While you note that the album shows a wide range of moods from "the highest of highs to the lowest of lows", the common theme is that it was written on and prominently features piano throughout. How long have you been playing and what turned you to the instrument for this album after a body of work that has been mostly guitar driven?
MH: I have always been turned on by the piano, but Steve Earle (for one) said recently "I couldn't put a piano on my back and hitchhike down the road". This record features songs I've written on piano that had never been released before and I chose all of these piano-based songs because I knew I'd be working with a killer pianist like PJ and he could probably help me with some more difficult work if I needed him to. I ended up playing the main piano lines to over half the songs on the album because Paul is a pretty busy guy. He left me alone to work in there quite a bit and I came up with as much as I could on my own. I'd love to play piano more often and I should be playing about four or five songs on piano during our upcoming Alaskan gigs if I can secure a decent keyboard soon.
AP: I hear mention of a "Caribou Bill" in the title track of High Hopes, and have noticed it's been the name attached to your Facebook profile for a while now. Who is Caribou Bill?
MH: William is my middle name, hence the Bill part. I once talked a dying caribou into final rest for all eternity on a dark, subzero trip back from Fairbanks somewhere deep into winter. Just sat there talking to it knowing it would most likely die soon from either bleeding internally or freezing to death from not staying active and fighting the bitter cold. There wasn't much I could do, both legs broken. It was a beautiful creature, a reindeer with a velvety rack.
After the animal died, I drove the 300 miles home to Wasilla in silence looking into the icy black sky. The buttery, salty lumps of aurora-wrapped cotton candy blushed its pink and purple hues into my retina as I steered the Explorer home for the night. On a later tour with Chicago's Cameron McGill, I became affectionately known as "Caribou Bill" because of that story and after that, on nights when Matt Hopper took to acting a little bit crazy. Perhaps it was extra sauce on those tequila and lime doused halibut tacos that turned poor, hapless, good time Hopper into a jovial, spirited fellow-a cheery gas of a man out on the high seas!
Caribou Bill - perhaps he could be my Tintin, and I his Serge one day recounting tales that are a little bit fact and little bit fiction. My Snowy's are the dogs of the world, the animals I get to meet across the far-reaching lands. The pets, the wild creatures, the beautiful women, the bright colors, the differences, the similarities, the highs and the lows. The unions and the breakups, the ebbs and tides, the sunrises and sunsets.
Caribou Bill was also the name I gave myself online when my Myspace friends were spiraling out of control back in 1999 and I had to switch over to Facebook, even though I liked Myspace more for the music side of things. It was also a name I was considering using as my online name for a website I started that was going to be restaurant reviews, artist interviews, gossip style news (like NME magazine) and the like from "Caribou Bill" to the rest of the world. I am too busy doing "Matt Hopper" stuff, though, to really keep up with that site so it's just kind of sitting there while I've been busy creating songs and recording them, because that's me-I'm a songwriter-and Caribou Bill is one of my characters. Now he's getting little narratives written about him. It could be me, Matt Hopper, and it could be a little bit him, Caribou Bill. A kind of inflated version of myself...perhaps the foolish version of myself. I've used other characters in songs before, such as "Bobby Martin" from Reverse Odyssey's "Feels Like Home". Think of Caribou Bill as one my main characters and Bobby Martin is a make believe guy who fits into the story in that song. Then there"s Sunset Kid. Who knows where Sunset Kid is right now. Sunset Kid could be anywhere.
AP: How do you feel Alaska has influenced you as a songwriter and do you feel being primarily out of state lately has made any difference in your approach to your music?
MH: Alaska is such a broad idea to me, but of course some facet of Alaska has seeped into my songwriting, whether it's a direct ode to the state such as Jersey Finger's "Denali" or, from the upcoming Grand Ole Hopry, "Fools Gold" which offers up some lines about growing up in Wasilla and a song I wrote about Idaho, the state I've been living in for the last five years. I guess I do write about places in my songs, but I'd say the majority of my songwriting deals with matters of the heart, which are pretty universal subjects. I enjoy playing with my Alaskan based musician friends and my Idaho friends, as well as my pals all over the United States and Europe.
AP: Do you still feel like an ambassador to the Alaska music scene despite not being a full time resident?
MH: Yes, I will always have my stories about the music scene in Alaska from about 1997-2003 and where I fit into that to talk about, and I love helping other bands navigate their ships towards the north country-it's usually not very hard to talk them into. I interact with a lot of Alaskan based bands down in the "Lower 48". Most musician people know to look me up in Boise if and when you're rolling through for some advice or a warm meal. Or I can take you on an hour-long hike that will whip you into shape for meter reading season. I try to get up to Alaska at least twice a year to perform and relax, so I'm maintaining my partial residence. Being a troubadour is about going places and observing all the while so I'd say I'm mostly a resident of the road and the sky. The journey however, is the destination and I'm just enjoying as many moments as I can.
AP: What's next for you?
MH: I'd like to tour a whole lot in 2014, but first I'm setting my sights on Nashville, TN this winter to record "Grand Ole Hopry" and I'm currently trying to set in motion a concrete plan for how to get that accomplished, logistics wise. I have already started making plans to tour in Netherlands and Germany this spring and plan to spend most of spring on the road. This summer I am aiming for a national tour split up into a West Coast leg with a bit of super group, Cliff Rawson (of Ladycop) and Peter Piek, who happens to be the guy that designed the cover to High Hopes, also a songwriter out of Leipzig, Germany, home of classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach. It's looking like a June tour followed by a trip up to Alaska for myself and Peter in July, and then head to the east coast for August into the fall. Then I'm probably going to record this "tropical" album next winter, and perhaps try to knock out a decent solo record sometime as well. One just presented itself to me. I'm nearly 35 years old and throwing around terms like decades these days is starting to make me feel a bit old. Hope some people like the throwback songs on High Hopes like "Stick It To Your Man" and "The Absentee". Some of those songs were written a decade ago and I'm just now getting around to releasing different versions of them. I just hope to keep making great music and collaborating with people I enjoy working with and making it happen. It's a nice life-writing in songs and verse, traveling, performing, interacting with an audience, backing up other songwriters. I get plenty of time to think about it all and work on new melodies all the time. Oh, coming in spring I've the decade re-release of The Gold Rush E.P. a simple five-song album I cut in a kitchen in Culver City, CA after work one summer. Got it mixed and hit the road on a never-ending quest for discovery both of myself and the world outside, a discovery of conflicts and resolutions. These will be coming out on 12" vinyl, the original on one side, and newer full band versions as the B-side. Check out the record label PIAPTK.com for more information about that release.
Matt Hopper celebrates the release of his sixth album with a month-long Thursday night residency at Humpy's Great Alaskan Ale House, among other tour dates. You can stream and download High Hopes and Hoppers' other albums, including the upcoming Husky, in their entirety at www.matthopper.com.
Matt Hopper & The Roman Candles
Thursdays in December at Humpy's
Saturday, December 7 at Kharacter's (Homer)
Tuesday, December 10 at the Pioneer (Anchorage solo show)
Friday, December 13 at the Blue Loon (Fairbanks)
Saturday, December 14 at the UAF Pub (Fairbanks)
Tuesday, December 17 at the Discovery Theatre (Anchorage, musical guest for Arctic Entries)
Friday, December 20 at the Yukon (Seward)
Friday and Saturday, December 27 and 28 at the Sitzmark (Girdwood)