Jonah Matranga drops the band names and renews a commitment to good, honest songwriting
Jonah Matranga was on the phone from a parking lot somewhere in Austin, Texas. It was a Friday afternoon and Matranga, one of the hundreds of acts at South by Southwest, was waiting to play a few songs at one of the yearly festival’s many afternoon parties. He tried to speak over the din of the singer who preceded him.
“Last night I played a set in the belly of the beast that is South by Southwest,” he explained. “And then we just came from San Antonio, where we got fucked over by a promoter. And now we’re headed west. We have the crazy no-man’s-land drive across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to L.A., and then San Francisco and Sacramento. I’m traveling with a guy from England and a guy from Boston, all of us hard-rock singers in recovery. So that’s good.”
Ah, life on the road.
For Matranga, a singer-songwriter who now lives in San Francisco’s inner Sunset district, it will be nice to return to his adopted home in Northern California. He is almost finished with a new album—“The record’s going to be called And,” he said—that will be his first proper full-length project, at least under his own name. “I’m really in love with the songs,” he added. He’s already got 15 tunes in the can, and next month he’ll return to Brooklyn to mix the last remaining tracks, with the record coming out on a small New York-based label sometime in early summer.
“My goal,” he said, “is to be a regional artist in several countries at once. I’ve got a label in Japan, one in Germany, one in Canada. I want [the record] to come out in small pressings in different countries, with the liner notes in different languages.”
Matranga has released a few other full-length albums, but not since he decided to put his music out under his own name. One of those incarnations, onelinedrawing, produced two: Visitor in 2002 and The Volunteers in 2004.
“I got sick of band names all of a sudden,” he said. “I’m so fucking wishy-washy, and I kept having these different band names over the years.” For each musical style he explored, Matranga created a different band identity to hide behind. “A good way to solve that was just to drop all the project names,” he explained. “It’ll be like Neil Young, where if I do things that are loud, it’ll be me being loud, and if I do things that are soft, it’ll be me being soft.”
Matranga said his musical multiple personalities caught up with him when one of his bands, Gratitude, was playing and someone came up to him afterward and asked him: “You know that guy from onelinedrawing? You guys kinda sound like them.”
“I had a guy actually get mad at me when I was in a band called New End Original [an anagram of onelinedrawing], and he was in the back of a room where we were playing with Jets to Brazil, and he came up to the merch table afterward and said, ‘I gotta admit something embarrassing—for the first three songs, I was really mad, because I was like, who the fuck is this guy ripping off Jonah? And then it was you.’
“So, for better or for worse, people will now know it’s me,” Matranga said. Still, he has no regrets about any former confusion. “I’m really happy for all the things made under all those project names. And, again, for better or for worse, I have that Frank Black-Paul Westerberg-Kevin Seconds shoot-one’s-self-in-the-foot gene,” he added, struggling to explain why he may have been all over the road, artistically, as many of his favorite artists also are.
Basically, it’s like this: Matranga isn’t calculating his next move based on purely commercial factors; he’s just following his muse, occasionally falling on his face in the process. That’s what real artists do.
When Matranga moved to Sacramento in the early 1990s, the native of Brookline, Mass.—a leafy Boston suburb often associated with the name Kennedy—already had finished his higher education at Pitzer College in Claremont, in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley. It was a heady time in popular music; the do-it-yourself punk and indie-rock cultures that had built critical mass throughout the 1980s exploded into commercial prominence in September of 1991 when Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, sounded a death knell for the Sunset Boulevard glam ethos that had dominated hard rock.
Matranga, then solely a vocalist, formed Far that year, with guitarist Shaun Lopez, bassist Malcolm Keefe and drummer Chris Robyn rounding out the band. Far’s first album, Listening Game, was released on a local indie label named Rusty Nail Records. According to Eric Broyhill, a local record producer and mastering engineer who manned the boards on that album, Matranga hadn’t come into his own yet. “I’d say Jonah matured leaps and bounds right after that record,” Broyhill said, adding: “Far was somewhere between Pearl Jam and Pantera at that point”—which is to say that the band was as derivative as any other new act still wearing its influences on its sleeves.
A second indie album, Quick, followed, and then the band signed with Immortal, an imprint then distributed by Sony Music subsidiary label Epic Records. Keefe left before Quick and Robyn’s childhood pal John Gutenberger was tapped to replace him. The “leaps and bounds” Broyhill mentioned came into full flower with Far’s third album, Tin Cans with Strings to You, released in spring of 1996. A fourth album, Water & Solutions, followed almost two years later, and the band broke up shortly thereafter—mostly due to conflicts between Matranga’s increasingly melodic impulses and Lopez’s resolute hard-rock sensibilities. As Gutenberger put it, “Shaun wanted to rock, Jonah wanted to be Jonah, and I just wanted to play in a mellow rock band.”
Lopez went on to a band called the Revolution Smile, and today he lives in Los Angeles where he produces records, including the Deftones’ newest album, Saturday Night Wrist. Gutenberger and Robyn formed Milwaukee, an Americana-leaning outfit. Today Gutenberger plays bass behind his songwriter wife, Caitlin, in Two Sheds, and less frequently in Rusty Miller’s band Jackpot.
Far may not have become a headliner, but its influence on the genres that came to be known as emo and screamo are readily apparent. According to Gutenberger, Far’s albums sell better today then they did when the band was together. “We were ahead of the game,” he said. “That’s kinda cooler than trying to ride the coattails of it.”
Sometime after Far, Matranga relocated to San Francisco and began recording his DIY audio sketchbooks under the name onelinedrawing, which were dramatically stripped down compared to Far’s sonic juggernauts. His performing style became radically more intimate, too.
Jerry Perry, the local rock promoter who publishes Alive & Kicking, has watched Matranga’s career unfold. “When you think about Jonah, in the context of not just Sacramento music, but in the context of music that’s become very popular in the last few years,” Perry said, “when he first started doing Far, he was combining really heavy stuff with really sensitive stuff. And just being the age that he was with the background that he had—he was listening to Pearl Jam but he was listening to Rickie Lee Jones, or metal but he was also a Prince fan—he brought all that to the table. But it was when he started doing his acoustic music, the way that he picked up how Kevin Seconds approaches writing pop songs or solo acoustic songs. From that, we saw a lot of artists like Jacob Golden, locally, doing this very introspective, personalized kind of performance. And then you saw this whole scene emerging from that.”
According to Perry, successful acts like Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes owe large parts of their careers to Matranga. “I hear Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba doing his thing, and I just think he’s a poor man’s Jonah,” Perry said.
Matranga made one more foray into hard rock with the band Gratitude two years ago. It was a swing for the rock-radio fences that didn’t quite pan out, with one album released by Atlantic Records.
His current project sounds more promising. And was recorded in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood and was produced by Matranga and Ian Love from the band Rival Schools. Love, who Matranga calls “the record’s secret weapon,” played electric guitars, bass, slide guitar and keyboards, along with some of his bandmates and friends.
According to Matranga, And is firmly rooted in the songwriter tradition. “Even back in Far, I’d fight with Shaun because I was in love with songcraft,” he explained. “I remember Wildflowers by Tom Petty had come out and I was fucking in love with the record and would extol the virtues of Tom Petty. And Shaun would laugh at me because I would say, ‘He’s just a good, honest songwriter.’ And whether it’s Chrissie Hynde or Joe Strummer or Neil Young or Tom Petty or David Bowie or Prince, what those people have in common, and what I adore about them, is their love of songcraft. And that’s always been the place where I come from.”
And it’s also the place he seems to have arrived. Let it be said that Jonah Matranga is a good, honest songwriter. And that’s a virtue to be treasured.