SN&R’s full interview with Matt Costa
How is gearing up for the tour going?
It’s going all right. [I’m] getting in shape [for it].
Are you home in Huntington Beach, in Southern California?
I live in Costa Mesa, which is just one city over from Huntington Beach. Yeah, I’m home right now, sitting here with my dog.
Are you touring with a whole band this time, and who’s in it?
Yeah. I have a band playing with me. I’ve got my friend Jason [Kardong]. He plays pedal steel. He plays in a band with this girl Sera Cahoone. I met him a while back because she’d done some shows with us, and we hit it off. He played on one or two songs on [my album Mobile Chateau], the previous record I did. I invited him on this tour, and he had some spare time, so he’s gonna come do some shows.
My friend Danny Garcia is playing guitar and bass. Johnny Ramy is playing [keyboards] and bass. Corey Gash is drumming and playing the glockenspiel. So it’s a five-piece [band] including me.
You’ve been doing music since you were just a teenager in Huntington Beach. How did growing up in Orange County affect your decision to pursue music, if at all?
I guess I could say I wasn’t really planning on [it]. When I first started pursuing music, I was just making recordings on a four-track for friends and stuff like that. It wasn’t until I met Tom Dumont from No Doubt, which is obviously this big Orange County band, [that I started to pursue music]. Once I met him, I’d go to his house a couple times a week, and we started recording songs. I started writing songs every week I’d go over there, a new song [each time], so we’d have something to work on. I think that’s when it started turning into something more serious. That seemed like the catalyst for turning it into something beyond just four-track recordings.
[I met him because] those four-track recordings that I made, actually, [were distributed] through a [clothing] company called RVCA. They’re big now. But at the time, they were just starting out. And they had my stuff around there. … I worked on artwork and stuff on my first EP with them and … the owner, Pat [Tenore] … who was successful in Orange County, really helped me out.
How did you realize that you could make a living off music?
I’m still always trying to figure that out, trying to see if it will [be a career]. I always cross my fingers hoping that I can make that last. For the last 10 years, I have, though, been able to make a living off of music. The only thing I can say as far as … how I [knew I] could make that [happen], was just dedicating myself to it as much as I can. So every time that I’m not touring around or doing anything, [I’m] just getting better at it, learning and staying inspired. And always being creative with it. So, when the time comes, whatever you gotta be doing, you’re ready for it. I think that keeps the muses happy.
I picked up your first album Songs We Sing in 2005 before it was rereleased by Brushfire Records. How did that end up happening? How’d you get connected with Jack Johnson and his label?
Through Emmett Malloy. He did surf films, and he wanted to use one of my songs in one of his films. So he did. From there, Jack heard it, and they invited me out to do a tour. I’d heard of Jack’s music before. I heard [him] when he came out with the first record, Brushfire Fairytales. I knew about it because I was familiar with some of Ben Harper’s stuff. And then so, when [Jack] asked me out on tour, we went out for Mexican food. And he’s like, “Hey, [do] you want to go out on the road?” So I agreed to it, and I got out there, and we were playing huge places. There were like 15,000 people in the audience at these places. I thought we were going to be doing House of Blues—[that] was huge to me. I was like, “Dang.” It blew my mind how many people were there.
And so, we were on the road then, and halfway through the tour, he asked if [I] wanted to release the record again through his label. And during the tour, I’d recorded a couple of songs that were on an EP. I decided that for the new release, I’d make an amendment to the record and include a few songs on there that were fresher. So we did that, and we kind of kept touring around Europe, and I got to meet a couple people who’d also been on the label through the years. It’s been real nice. Those people are real. It’s a real nice community. And people are real friendly and good musicians.
I was reading an old interview in the Santa Barbara Independent, and it said you moved up here to Sacramento for a while and wrote songs for Unfamiliar Faces. How did Sacramento treat you, and what’d you learn about it during your time here?
I liked living in Sacramento. Every time I bring up Sacramento to my wife now, though, she gets bummed out because I went up there for a girl. … My wife now is always saying, “You’re always talking about Sacramento; I bet you liked it.” So, to her, [talking about] Sacramento means [thinking about] my ex-girlfriend. It doesn’t mean that I actually just genuinely liked it there. But I did. I lived over by the Cannery [Business Park] area there. So, I’d walk down to the river every day. And I’d ride my bike down to the [Sacramento and American river] confluence or whatever. I liked picking wild blackberries at the river’s edge. I really liked it up there.
Actually, a song was inspired by [Sacramento] off that record. It was called “Never Looking Back.” It was about when that train bridge burned down. I don’t know if you were there at the time. They built it back up. I was in McKinley Park the day of, and I saw this big black plume of smoke rising in the sky, and I ran back because I thought my house was on fire. But it turns out it was that train bridge, which I’d walked across only about two weeks before for the first time. It was scary walking across the thing, because there were big gaps between the trestles and you could fall through super easily. But it burned down. Half of it did, anyway. I remember that symbolically made it into the record.
Just backing up a second, did you say you lived by a cannery?
Cannery Business [Park]. It’s on C Street and maybe 36th. Over by McKinley Park. Do you know that area?
Yeah, I know where that is.
So, it was an old cannery, but now it’s a business center. My friend’s family owned a BMW-repair shop over on the corner down there.
How long were you here for?
Like, two years. Yeah, and my girlfriend back then [was] from Rancho Cordova. So, for the time between that first record, Songs We Sing, and Unfamiliar Faces, I was up there a lot.
How do you feel about it now, and are you excited for coming back here?
Yeah, I’m always excited going back there. I haven’t been there in a little while. The last time that I was there was probably the last record that I did. I think I played there. I always like it there. Especially this time of year, it’s not that hot. I actually saw some picture recently over in San Francisco at a museum. Some picture, in black and white, so it looked a lot older than it was—I think it was just from the early ’90s—of a bunch of people, a massive gathering for tubing down the river.
That’s a pretty fun thing to do in the summer.
It is. I don’t know if I’ll be there for that. I also caught the largest salmon of my life in Sacramento. I was also bummed that I wasn’t there when the whale swam up the river. I was on tour. I was living there, I had my place, but I was out on tour at the time. Anyway, those are just old things.
Do you have any other particular memories of what you loved or hated about your two years here?
Yeah, it was all groovy, man. There was an old man who lived in a house next to me, and I’d always have good abstract conversations with him. I don’t know if he was all there. But to me, it made perfect sense. They were nice. I felt that we were more together than had he been perfectly sane. I miss those conversations. Now my neighbors here, they’re totally sane. I miss those abstract conversations. I miss walking by the river, actually. I learned how to skip stones in that river. These are just simple pleasures. (Laughs.) I know it’s not that deep.
It is a simple town. It can be quiet at times, for sure.
I definitely felt that living up there. Living in Southern California, it’s definitely a higher pace. When I lived up there, I felt I could shed that and relax, and that was something that was really nice. It’s probably a Northern California thing.
You changed directions and self-produced Mobile Chateau and went to Scotland to record with Tony Doogan on the self-titled album. What was that trip like?
It was great. I had never met Tony before, and I was familiar with stuff that he worked on. And so when I got there, we kinda had these ideas for working up the songs with these sort of lush arrangements, with string and horn sections. He introduced me to the Belle & Sebastian folks—or a number of the guys in that band—and having them back up the record was really fantastic. They’re great guys, and we have a lot of similar tastes in music. I’d been a fan of theirs for a long time as well. So, I really respect what they do. So to have them back up the songs [was great].
Leaving home, I didn’t know what I was getting in to, even [after] having conversations with Tony about conceptually what we wanted to do. Actually getting there and actually working on the tunes was real sweet. It was just a trip. We’d walk outside and every day, and you’re recording near a quiet river. At the end of the trip, we took a train ride up the west coast of Scotland, which I think is named one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. You take it up, and it looks out of this world. It ends in a town … [where you can] take a ferry over to Isle of Skye. It’s really picturesque, the kind of stuff fairy tales are made of, you know?
The thing about Glasgow, [Scotland], is that it’s got a real great music community. A lot of the guys playing on the songs are in five other different bands. They all knew different players and things. We’d go out one night and watch a couple guys play in one band, and a bunch of guys play in the other. [I’d] go down to the record store and pick up some new records and there’s always bands playing around. [I] picked up a record by Sandy Denny who was in Fairport Convention. I picked up an old demo of this tape of hers that was recorded right down the street from the studio we were at. So I listened to that and walked down the street, [and] stared up at the window where it was recorded 50 years ago. Those kinds of things put you in the right kind of headspace to record a record.
Do you have plans to record with No Doubt’s Tom Dumont again? And what’s your relationship like with him these days?
I talk to him really rarely now, maybe like, once or twice a year. I actually owe him, out of kindness, this book that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while. I’m going to give him a gift of a book. He [gave] me Tortilla Flat, this John Steinbeck book. I [later] went through all of [Steinbeck’s] books. Recently, I just read [Steinbeck: A Life in Letters] that Steinbeck wrote to everyone—publisher, wife, friends, enemies, all that stuff. And so, sitting right there, I’m looking at it [now], it’s on the bookshelf. I’m going to drop it off on his doorstep, along with returning his copy of Tortilla Flat, which I’ve held on to for 10 years.
I just read Cannery Row. It was pretty awesome.
I really like his stuff. My favorite of his is probably The Pastures of Heaven. And Travels With Charley is a good one. Cannery Row is great. You got Doc in there. He’s good.
I think those characters who are homeless and running around the town are really profound.
Yeah, it depends on how much you want to read into it. What’s great about his books is that if you read [them] at different [phases] in your life, you really get more from those characters than you thought were in them on the first read. I think all of his books have an element of that. That’s the thing about Tortilla Flat, too. You’ve got those characters as well, Danny and those guys, sort of similar characters [to the ones in Cannery Row]. I think a big part of [those books], to me at least, is the idea of responsibility. And how much you choose to deal with that. What you value and what you’re responsible for. I think that’s what you’re saying, and it’s nice to see how those characters deal with it.
Getting back to your musical career over the past decade, what would you say is a highlight or best moment, or anything that sticks out?
Oh, man. Pprobably about two years ago or so, I got a call from Donovan. And I sang “Sunshine Superman” with him onstage. We opened up the show and sang it together. That was a big moment. Not only being on the stage with him, but just being around him. I grew up listening [to him]. … I’ve heard “Mellow Yellow” on the radio since I was a kid. It’s just one of those songs.
[I started] really getting into those other songs of his and listening to them on records or CDs. When I heard it, it was some guy from the past, from the ’60s, and I held them on a pedestal. When we did that show together, I spent about 15 minutes alone with him on his bus, and he went through and sang me some songs just by himself with him and a guitar. It was insane to hear that voice that I’d heard so long, from the ’60s and from the records. All of a sudden, it was coming right out of his mouth to me, just singing these songs. It was wild. That’s one of those things, it’s just cosmic.
I read that after shows, you sometimes play for people on the street. Is that something you plan to do all the time, or is that impromptu?
I like to play, and it’s just if people want to hear songs and things [I’ll do that]. A lot of times, you’re only alotted a certain amount of time during the set, and a lot of people will say, “I wish you would’ve played this song.” I’ll be all, “Oh, well, I’ve got that one. I’ll try to remember it for you.” People come out to the shows, and that’s why I’m there. To sing songs to them. A lot of times, if I can’t squeeze it in, I’ll sing it afterwards. And, yeah, I do that kind of thing. I know how important that stuff is to me to have had people do that to me as well. Listening to those songs means a lot. They carry [songs] inside of them.
What’s next for you musically? Is there anything that you’d like to accomplish in the next five years or so?
I’m always just trying to be a better musician all the time. Just writing songs and making a living off it has afforded me the ability to get better at it because I’ve been able to dedicate a hundred percent of my time to it. I think that’s pretty much that. Playing the songs, getting better at them and learning new stuff. And probably keep writing records—I think that’s what makes me the happiest right now. If I can continue doing that, that’d be a good thing.