At Matt Duncan’s CD release party at Al’s Bar recently, the crowd was about as diverse as you’ll find for a local Lexington band. The Matt Duncan Band has strong supporters from far-flung reaches of the music community: college radio DJs, noise-rock makers, twee indie pop fans and people who probably haven’t turned on a radio since the golden days of 70s AM channels.
The reason is easy to understand after a song or two: Matt Duncan is tapping into a vein of American music that’s been untouched for decades. His new album Soft Times puts down roots in the neighborhood of Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, and Hall and Oates. For many, these would be guilty pleasures; for Matt Duncan and his bandmates, they’re artists who had it all figured out.
“Whenever I tell an older person what sort of music we play, there’s usually an initial surprise, (as in, I figured you were going to say indie rock’) but it’s usually short-lived,” Duncan said. “It’s almost like they’re surprised more kids aren’t playing this stuff. I kind of agree with them.”
And though he may be younger than your average Steely Dan fan, Matt Duncan is no wide-eyed pup in the eyes of the Lexington music community. For years he’s been making music as a part of local bands, but it wasn’t until he started performing solo in 2008 that he started gaining notoriety around town. He released his debut EP “Beacon” in 2010 to heaps of acclaim both local and online.
Duncan’s new album, Soft Times, is a collection of largely autobiographical songs. The title track refers to artists who mine their suffering for artistic gold – and a tongue-in-cheek look at Duncan’s lack of serious problems to use for songwriting fuel. The verses allude to his lack of suffering (“I haven’t been through much worth mentioning”) while the chorus holds a lukewarm Tarot reading of “soft times ahead.”
“I just feel like our problems don’t always deserve so much reverence,” Duncan explained. “ And I don’t think perspective is such a bad thing to have when writing. “Are the times really hard, or am I just soft?” ”
In addition to showing a lot of songwriting maturity, Soft Times also demonstrates how much better Matt Duncan has become in the studio. His debut EP “Beacon” took him three years to record in his home studio — just barely better than two songs per year. But after learning so much on his first release, his second went much smoother: Soft Times was knocked out in a year.
Duncan credits part of this speediness to his in-depth demoing of the new album. ““For me, the demoing process is more of a head game, part of the songwriting process,” he said. “By the time I’m recording, 75 percent of a song is already written and arranged. Plenty of it will turn out not to work, but I’d say at least half sticks.””
And though the Matt Duncan Band is usually six members, Duncan got as far as he could recording the album by himself before calling in his collaborators to help out.
“I record a bit, mix a bit, record a bit more,” Duncan said. “If something’s not right after a little mixing, I re-record it. If it turns out I’m just not good enough to play it, or it really ought to be on an instrument I can’t play, I call someone else in. ”
Now that the album’s been released, Matt Duncan and his band members are concentrating on goals both short- and long-term. At the moment, the group are awaiting the arrival of the vinyl copies of their new album, the deluxe version of which features tarot cards pressed inside clear vinyl. The slow turn-around at the pressing plant, however, has meant the group may have a bit longer to wait.
Duncan will soon begin work on two new albums, one “orchestral folk” and the other dance oriented, both less autobiographical than his existing catalogue. But most recently he’s started thinking about hiring a booking agent and possibly even a manger to handle business side of his band. Like many artists, Duncan says that’s not what interests him about the music business.
“I’m just hopeless when it comes to that stuff,” Duncan confessed. “It steals all of my presence of mind, and doesn’t give me much in return.”
Matt Jordan of Lexington is a the creator of Youaintnopicasso.com, a music blog he started in 2004 as a freshman at the University of Kentucky. His regular updates about music and musicians, interviews, concert reviews and industry news have gained him a wide national audience and helped make him an opinion leader in the music industry.