Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Over the past four decades, Rich Mattson has played in more bands than you could count on both hands, some short-lived and as underground as it gets, others which lit up a local scene, toured nationally, and had fleeting shots at rock and roll immortality. Whether or not you’ve heard of these bands — the Glenrustles, Ol’ Yeller, the Tisdales — Rich and his bands have shared the stage with many groups you have surely heard of, including Wilco, Trampled by Turtles, Soul Asylum, and more.
To read Rich’s bio is to experience that familiar, almost mythic saga of life in rock and roll. It’s got small-town kids with big dreams, eagerly kicking out demo tapes, putting on rowdy basement shows, courting record labels, and covering countless miles in a dumpy but dependable tour van. It also has break ups and reunions, with band members burning out or finding their way back into a lineup or studio session at just the right time.
The latest chapter in Rich’s rock and roll journey is set in a remote corner of Minnesota’s north woods, not far from where he grew up. Yearning for “country life” and closeness to family, he bought an old church and turned it into a music studio, doing the work himself and paying the bills by selling the congregation’s old pews. Against that backdrop, Rich continues to record and produce music, while also playing shows with his latest project, Rich Mattson and the Northstars.
Even though the big label dreams never came to fruition, Rich doesn’t lament that rock and roll superstardom remained just out of reach. Making music with your friends continues to be its own reward. As Rich concludes his bio: “In retrospect, if I think about ‘What if such and such a band would have gone big-time,’ I think it probably would have wrecked everything, and we would have spent all the money by now.”
I hope you enjoy this conversation about Iron Range roots, tip jars in the dark corner of the bar, and the merits of cultivating a cool music scene wherever you are.
Adam B. Giorgi, The Daily Yonder: You’ve traveled all over the world making and playing music. At the very onset of your bio you tell a tale, a very familiar one to me, of how you “got the hell off the Iron Range” of northern Minnesota, in favor of the “music Mecca” of Minneapolis. Yet, the road eventually led you back to the Range, where your new musical HQ, the studio Sparta Sound, now resides. What has that journey been like overall? What were the forces that brought you back to where it all began and how did you arrive at a point of resolution about it?
Rich Mattson: Overall, the journey has been excruciatingly fun. I’ve met such amazing people through playing and recording music. When I left the Iron Range, I never wanted to look back. And I really had a great time living in Minneapolis for 18 years and got to establish myself as a songwriter, musician, rock and roller, studio owner/operator and scenester. I’ve never had to take out an ad for the studio, it’s always been word of mouth. Far as the band though, it’s a never-ending hustle!
The whole time I lived there [in Minneapolis], I would come home to see my Mom and family on holidays and just to visit. My dad passed away at age 49 in 1990. My mom and I have always been very close, and she needs me around. We sort of ground each other. I was up here in August of 2005, August, my favorite month. A beautiful time of year on the Iron Range. I had a thought of looking into what commercial properties were going for with the idea that maybe I find a cool space to put my studio in and make it into a recording retreat. At the top of the listings online was this little church in Sparta. I went and looked at it, kind of on a lark, and it was love at first sight. Everything fell into place like it was meant to be. I didn’t have some grand plan at all. Just took a huge leap of faith and somehow it more or less worked out. There were some lean years at the beginning, and many doubtful moments where I wondered what I had gotten myself into, but after I signed the dotted line there was no turning back, and I was determined to make it work.
DY: Making a similar return home is something my old Iron Range friends and I have imagined, even talked about, but we always leave those conversations with a tacit recognition we haven’t reached that point in our journeys just yet, and acknowledge it’s possible we never will. What would you say to younger folks like us if you were hanging around during those kinds of conversations? Where might your experience help more recent Iron Range expats consider things differently?
RM: Well, most of the people in the Twin Cities area, when talking about escaping the big city, they talk about going to Duluth, Grand Marais, or Ely. The Iron Range is definitely another place to consider. What you should understand is that these Range cities are ripe for change and positive developments. Most of the downtowns are crumbling and desolate. The buildings are there, waiting for renovation, innovation, new life. I honestly think there is massive potential in all of the Range cities for new business. And talk about inexpensive. A younger generation could take over any time, and it would be welcomed. Especially to people who grew up here and want to come back. The community is very connected, Iron Rangers always look out and care deeply for each other. It’s a beautiful area with good, honest people that may come off tough at first, but when push comes to shove they always have your back.
DY: When our younger selves “escaped” places like the Iron Range, I think there was this implicit notion at the heart of it, that we needed to leave because the opportunities were elsewhere — particularly as it related to having access to a dynamic arts and culture scene and options for creative careers. But now that I look back on it, I realize there was quite an interesting scene there during my youth. A number of my close friends were kids in bands, playing punk rock, metal and hardcore, and more experimental stuff too. They’d do shows in churches and community centers, at old town halls and commercial properties, or from main streets and municipal parks. There was a proud DIY, indie spirit to it all. What’s your take on the scene in the small towns of northern Minnesota these days? Playing in your band, Rich Mattson and the Northstars, do you see a similar creative abundance that might go overlooked and underappreciated by the big city tastemakers?
RM: Absolutely. When I left, Minneapolis was becoming a really big deal in the music world. There was this phase through the ’80s and ’90s where certain towns had these breakout “music scenes” and that was the place to be. Towns like Seattle, Athens, Georgia, Austin, Texas, [and] Minneapolis. And bands were taking off in vans, touring the country. That’s what I wanted to do! Every city worth its salt had a music scene and a rock club with a house PA and bands playing three to seven nights a week. The labels called them “markets.” We’d go on tour two weeks on, two weeks off, always planning the next one, and doing it all ourselves: booking, promoting, driving, making posters and sending them out. Used to drive us crazy when we’d spend $3.88 on postage and the club didn’t put up the posters. Of course, times have changed, quite a bit so, and I’ve gotten older and that whole model of DIY and touring like dogs burned itself out. It’s a young man’s (or woman’s) game, if at all. But what I’ve come to find out is that if whatever town you’re in, say, Eveleth or Timbuktu, if there is one person willing to take the chance on putting themselves in the spotlight and play some gigs and do the work of letting people know and then those people show up and enjoy it and talk about it, there’s the start of a whole new scene. There will be more talented folks that will come out of the woodwork and say, “What about me? I have a song in my heart too.” And they’ll go and play their music and some of the people who went and saw the first act go and see the next one, and so on and so on. Other artistic types get bolder, connect, and help each other build a scene.
The Range was mostly cover bands for a lot of years, and I won’t say nothing bad about that, but a lot of them did the same material and people got tired of it and all there was to do was go out drinking and dancing to the same old, same old. When we started bringing original music around here, it was very exciting and fresh (still is) and the reason to go out wasn’t about getting drunk and finding a special someone to go home with, suddenly we’re being entertained. Suddenly there’s more to it all, something intangible but honest and good. And there is community. A scene. I believe any and every town in the USA has its share of artists, musicians, poets, writers, etc. But these sensitive souls need to be nurtured and embraced by their peers and their community. The main reason I couldn’t wait to leave was that I wasn’t feeling that back in the ’80s, and I needed to get out and make connections in real life and see the world.
On a side note, when I was in 10th grade, in 1982, my dad was laid off from Conveyor Belt Service in Virginia, MN and found work in Colorado. Our whole family up and moved to Longmont, just north of Boulder, and lived there for two whole years. That experience really opened my eyes and changed my life. Took a lot of the fear of the big city out of me and made me want to explore. One thing I didn’t know before I left the Range is that most people really are inherently good and kind, and will give you a chance. Don’t blow that chance! In ’84 we were back in Eveleth [again], but I had a new perspective on life and what I wanted to do with mine.
DY: You call your Sparta Sound studio a “’Rock and Roll Bed & Breakfast’ in Beautiful Northern Minnesota.” How do you see the setting of the studio and that unique backdrop facilitating the process of making music? Has being in a more remote slice of the north woods helped artists you’ve collaborated with get into a different frame of mind or explore new territory when writing and recording songs?
RM: I love when people walk into the studio and say, “Wow.” Then later, sitting outside on a break and saying, “It’s so quiet!” There is a lot to be said for getting away from your normal surroundings to focus on your art. No distractions, nature abounds. My friend Terry Walsh showed up with his band without anything arranged and they wrote a beautiful song, “Northern Lights,” which was more or less a picture of the recording session itself. They wrote several others too, but that one really puts it perfectly.
One thing that’s great about this place is I’ve never had a band argue or fight with each other, when they get here they are all-in. And they get to bond, as a band, which is hard to get to do these days.
I love it when the band gets fired up about their songs and the music they’re making. I try to encourage that as much as possible. And I try to create the kind of uninhibited environment that allows it. Any idea is worth trying, and I don’t discourage any musical experimentation. It’s pretty obvious if something just isn’t working. Then again, sometimes the craziest ideas are the best ideas.
DY: In your online primer for Sparta Sound, you mention that you specialize in recording “real music played by real people,” but you also speak to the evolution of your gear and a willingness to learn new methods. Emerging technology isn’t just shaping how music gets made, of course, but also how it gets distributed and discovered. The distribution and discovery element has big implications for the geographic norms of the music biz. Today’s successful musicians are just as likely to be “discovered” on a platform like TikTok or YouTube than playing a club in Minneapolis or Nashville, and in that regard, they could arguably set up shop just about anywhere. How does that affect how you approach getting music out into the world? Does it give you optimism that others can build successful, meaningful musical careers from places like the Iron Range, or wherever their neck of the woods may be?
RM: That’s exactly what I was thinking when I moved here. I had a hunch that music was moving in that direction, you know, being able to get your music out there from wherever you are. The darkest corners of the globe are quite possibly the most interesting.
I cater to a niche, “real music played by real people,” [and] what I mean by that is if you are hoping to make a record sounding like Billie Eilish or Drake or Ariana Grande I don’t think I can help you. “Real music” to me is played on good old-fashioned instruments: guitars, drums, piano, fiddles, etc. Not dissing the aforementioned, but what they are doing is science fiction computerized electronic wizardry, and that’s just not what I do or have ever aspired to. It’s intriguing and sonically impressive, but for what I do it’s not my thing. I like bands. I like singer-songwriters. That is who I want to work with. My favorite part of the process is tracking the full band, live in the room, getting the ultimate take. Getting to the core of the song, playing it back and watching them hear it for the first time, making adjustments and doing it better.
What has evolved for me is the equipment I use. I was using analog tape from 1981 up until 2010. And when I started the [first] studio — Flowerpot, in Minneapolis — in 1991, it was with some real cheap microphones and processors. Everything I have I’ve saved up for and bought as I go. The studio was put together piece by piece. I’m pretty happy with the gear I own now. The switch to digital recording to a computer was a huge step. Once I got over the hump there was no turning back though. I’ve gotten pretty proficient with what I have, and it’s not the latest, shiniest edition by any means. I don’t like to get bogged down in the technical side of it. I just make sure everything works properly and keep up with repairs. When a band shows up I know how fired up they are to start playing, so I try to be ready to get to work!
What happens after it is all recorded and packaged is up to the artists, how far they want to take it. I have a good idea what needs to be done and can give some directions and recommendations from my experience, but I am definitely always learning. The game keeps changing, and it always will. You have to stay on top of it, that’s probably why I’ve never quit, or taken a hiatus for that matter. I don’t want to fall behind.
DY: Finally, when you think about today’s music landscape, is there anything that has you feeling excited or energized? What kind of stuff are you digging these days, whether locally in your own backyard or around the world? What might you recommend our readers check out and enjoy?
What I love is seeing young bands with tons of energy and guitars and drums and intensity going wild onstage. Glad that’s still happening; I was worried it was going extinct for awhile. The best music has gone underground, as it should be. I watch the Grammys and I don’t know any of these artists, or how they got so popular, but money talks, and as I said earlier, it’s just not really my thing. A lot of people my age say, “Ah, new music ain’t what it used to be, nothing good out there, blah blah blah,” but I don’t believe that at all. The good stuff is out there for sure, you just have to look for it!
I enjoy live music, local music the most. I’m just as entertained by the band in the corner bar with a tip jar on the stage as I am by some big show at Red Rocks. The same good energy can happen in either place with the right crowd.
Far as what I’m listening to, I just caved to Apple Music and got a subscription and am on the hunt for some new favorite bands … I’d appreciate any suggestions! Mostly what I listen to otherwise is KUMD, KAXE, and WELY, my local FM stations, and whatever I am working on in the studio. And of course all my old records come in handy. I’ve got quite a collection but I’m ready for some new stuff!
To keep up with Rich Mattson and the Northstars, visit richmattsonmusic.com or follow the band on Facebook. Rich’s music, including the Northstars’ latest album, Skylights, is available on Spotify and Bandcamp.
You can also hear Rich on the radio every Sunday, co-hosting “Northland Rumble!” on WELY, which can be streamed online at www.wely.com.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.