Interview with Matthew Widener from Liberteer

Liberteer - Better to Die on Your Feet than Live on Your KneesLiberteer is an extremely interesting new grindcore project in two ways: (1) Its debut album has the longest and most straightforward, “You Don’t Say”-worthy name I’ve ever seen in grindcore so far. (2) Its groovy grindcore with symphonic and Americana elements thrown in!

The latest project of Matthew Widener of ex-Exhumed and ex-The County Medical Examiners fame, this political grindcore outfit brings listeners on a spiralling roller-coaster ride into the vortex of archetypal Anarchic ideas in grindcore, and surprises the hell out of everyone with an eclectic choice of accompanying musical instruments; namely brass instruments like the horn and trumpet, and Americana instruments like the banjo and mandolin.

Being the Happy Metal Guy that I am, I was compelled to email the pretty unhappy-looking Matt (see photo above) to squeeze him dry of answers to whatever curiosity I had about Liberteer after hearing that happy toy soldier marching motif heard from 0:42 onwards of the ninth track, “Usurious Epitaph”, off of Better to Die on Your Feet than to Live on Your Knees [Read the review hereAMG].

HMG: Your debut solo album is a real intrigue: it is basically grindcore sprinkled with symphonic elements. Was it just a curious cross-genre experiment you were trying out, or your secret desire to combine your grindcore and classical music backgrounds together to produce the epitome of what your musical career has been moving towards after all these years?

Matthew Widener: I’m not sure which; probably a bit of both. I’d say Liberteer is more a cross-genre application, not a new hybrid. I doubt any other bands will pick this flag up. I had always heard political grindcore in my head that had strange instrumentation. I didn’t intellectualize it much. It’s just what I wanted to hear.

HMG: Tell us about your classical music background.

Matthew Widener: Mostly self-study. I met a man named Stephen Morton while in the military who started me on the path. Brilliant guy, incredible musician. He taught me Schoenbergian harmony, 12-tone theory, serialism, even some Schenkerian analysis. We listened to his incredibly extensive music collection, you know, active listening: following along with scores and talking about it. It was like having a tour guide for this incredible new world. So that’s how it started for me. I play double bass. I have to call it contrabass in metal circles because people might confuse it with drums. I also play some cello and viola, though not as well. I would love to get to the level where I could play bass for a new music ensemble.

HMG: Tell us about your grindcore background.

Matthew Widener: I learned how to play death metal and grindcore when I joined Exhumed back in 1994. I had been playing for about three years by that point, but honestly I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The guys in Exhumed put me through metal school. And it was great training in Bill Steer type of riffs, which I continued in my band The County Medical Examiners. Also there’s my band Cretin, which started back in high school. It wasn’t until after I got out of the military that we resumed Cretin in earnest.

HMG: As evident from the clarity of intent displayed in your simplistically-phrased lyrics and straightforward album title, Better To Die On Your Feet Than To Live On Your Knees, your debut solo album seems to be espousing the political ideology of Anarchism. I’m no political science whizz, but I am aware that Anarchism is a school of thought under Libertarianism—and your project’s name is “Liberteer”, which sounds like a reference to Libertarianism. Which is it then, Anarchism or Libertarianism?

Matthew Widener: It depends on which type of Libertarianism you’re talking about. It’s confusing because Americans took the term from Europeans back in the 1970s and made it into something totally different. Libertarianism in the European tradition is Anarchism. Another term for Anarchism is Libertarian Socialism. In Europe, if you say Libertarian Socialism, people understand that you’re talking about Anarchism. In the U.S. they’ve appropriated the term Libertarianism for their free market, Minarchist style of government—which is totally different from Anarchism. So Liberteer is Anarchist. It has nothing to do with the U.S. style of Libertarianism. Liberteer is Libertarian Socialist.

HMG: Do you actually take what you sing about in Liberteer seriously, or just see it as a form of artistic expression?

Matthew Widener: Seriously. Look, I don’t claim to know all the answers. The moment you claim to have the answers, you’re fucked: you’ve subscribed to an ideology and stop questioning things. All I’m saying is that Anarchism is the only political idea that treats people humanely, that offers freedom and true equality. All Anarchism is trying to do is remove structures that create imbalances of resources and power. Isn’t that a fantastic idea? Which compassionate person wouldn’t want that? Well, there are many people who feel entitled to rule over others and feel threatened by the idea of true equality. And there are many more that align their nationalism and political parties with their own fears and use them as methods of ameliorating terror. So all I’m trying to do is get people to look at why they believe what they believe. If someone is a conservative because he or she is wealthy and doesn’t care if other people are poor, then just embrace greed and be honest about it so I can easily know that person for what he or she is. And if someone is caught up in a political stance because of moral issues that have been married to it, then they should address their own comfort systems and come to terms with whatever they’re afraid of, so I don’t have to live in a world where people hurt others because they can’t bear to confront their basic existential givens and anxiety.

HMG: Would you agree that political grindcore bands living in democratic countries are an ungrateful bunch for bashing their governments? I mean, it is because of their governments’ efforts in building up their countries’ economies, infrastructures, law & order, national defence and such that they have the luxury of investing time and resources into peddling their art.

Matthew Widener: No, I don’t agree with that. It’s a statement informed by half a dozen rhetorical fallacies. I think citizens of a country have a greater obligation by dint of citizenship to criticize their country. But the first thing a nationalist does to discredit a dissenter is point out some perceived hypocrisy like the one you made. You have to understand that I don’t agree with our democracy, that I don’t think democracies are healthy because they are state-run. The question is loaded. The language is too. Maybe you didn’t mean to insult me when you said bands like mine are “ungrateful” while “peddling” our art. I feel like I’m a sincere and thoughtful guy.

HMG: Singing about politics in grindcore is a very banal thing to do. Would you agree that this is because it is usually “all talk, no action”? If you’re actually going to take action for some of your thoughts, what do you plan to do?

Matthew Widener: Banal? Again, that’s an interesting word choice. Do you actually think that making the effort to organize a band and record a personal message that could potentially influence a wide audience is meaningless? I spent three years on this album! I made something personal that could further organize like-minded people, provide solidarity, and actually get people to think about their own beliefs. I’d call that an action. Do you really consider music “all talk, no action”? Music has long been used for propaganda, because it has incredible emotive powers, right? But it sounds like you’d rather have me “do something”, I don’t quite know what you mean, maybe something physical. The thing is, when I hear other great political grindcore, or when I read something written by a great thinker, I am inspired. I’m changed. In turn, I’m driven to inspire someone else. And that’s how a message transmits. I think grindcore has a wonderful history as protest music. So does punk rock and folk music. These forms of art seep into our cultural fabric and inspire people.

HMG: The brass instruments heard in some of the tracks, are they horns or trumpets? Or both?

Matthew Widener: Both.

HMG: Did you simply not have enough money on your budget to hire real-life brass players to perform and record the brass parts you wrote for this record, or was it your intent to keep the number of people involved in the making of this record to as little as possible in order to stay in line with the grindcore tradition of utilizing minimal resources (and actually letting the public know about it)?

Not Actually Liberteer - but kinda looks like him, eh? Matthew Widener: There was no budget for this album. I recorded it myself in my house. Had I known some brass players, I might have asked them to play on the recording, but likely the results wouldn’t have been as good, since my production skills probably wouldn’t be up to the task. To me, musical context is everything. I don’t feel this type of music needs real instruments. This type of metal is heavily processed and tweaked. And it has nothing to do with classical music; these instrumental sections are no different to me than reverb or any other effect designed to enhance the music. That is my context for grindcore, and metal in general, and owes much to the sonic demands of the music. But my context for classical music is entirely different. With classical music, only real instruments and performances can do justice to timbre and technique, and even more than that, it really seems to be the point.

HMG: Not many people include symphonic elements in grindcore music, and even less people include the mandolin and banjo. Okay, maybe only one person so far—you. Did you use electric versions of both instruments for the recording? Is there a political or cultural motive behind using both instruments, seeing as how the banjo originates from Africa and the mandolin, Europe (e.g. showing support for Afrocentrism over Eurocentrism)?

Matthew Widener: No, there is no intended political or cultural motive to using those instruments. Obviously, the banjo is considered an early Americana instrument, but I wasn’t really trying to make a statement there beyond the fact that I am an American and this is how I am informed. Some have pointed out that the early Americana sound can indeed be a statement, but seeing as it wasn’t exactly a conscious one on my part, I can only shrug and nod. I guess that’s for others to decide. Everyone has a valid opinion.

HMG: Even though your lyrics espouse the ideology of Anarchism, your music actually sounds pretty well-structured for grindcore. Why didn’t you try out a more chaotic form of grindcore (played by the likes of Insect Warfare and Orchid) to sonically illustrate what you’re singing about?

Matthew Widener: I’m confused by your question. Anarchy isn’t promoting chaos. Anarchy depends on an incredible amount of organization and cooperation. It aims to make a functioning society without a state, and to do that you have to organize on a granular level—everyone has to be culpable and involved. It is the opposite of chaos. The music in Liberteer is designed to be emotive and inspirational, just as I find the political idea to be. If I had made the music more inaccessible, the stirring elements wouldn’t exist and this album wouldn’t be what it is. That sounds like a much different project to me, one to express more rage than Liberteer is expressing. Liberteer has a strain of optimism and hope that isn’t found in more chaotic-sounding projects.

HMG: You played for Exhumed during the mid-‘90s. Do you think that Liberteer is influenced in any way from your time in Exhumed? Were you ever frustrated by the gory theme of Exhumed because it seems unintelligent and unimportant as compared to political themes?

Matthew Widener: Exhumed taught me how to play extreme metal. Since that time, I have come into my own, but that’s where I learned. The riffs in Liberteer won’t be found on other albums because they are often written in major keys. But I was never frustrated by the gory themes in Exhumed. Extreme metal involves a lot of fantasy, and gore is part of that. I love death metal. Gore is fantasy, attitude, that sort of thing. I’m an atheist and find religion ridiculous but still fist pump to Satanic metal. It’s fantasy. Liberteer isn’t about fantasy.

HMG: Liberteer was previously known as “Citizen”. What prompted the name change? Was the name “Citizen” a reference to the view that governments built around un-anarchic political structures should take the views of the ordinary people seriously lest they overthrow them someday (as human history has proven time and time again over the centuries)?

Matthew Widener: To be a citizen, you must be a citizen of something. And because citizenship is citizenship of a state, it is tacit support of a hierarchy that consolidates power and oppresses. So it didn’t make much sense to keep that name, not even ironically.

HMG: Imagine yourself in a record shop, and you just won a lucky draw in which you get to choose a free record to bring home. Only 2 are left – a first-print edition of Wormrot’s Abuse and a rare live recording of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 performed by the superbly prestigious and renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in their early years. Which would you choose and why?

Matthew Widener: I’d choose the Beethoven because I can imagine myself listening to it more. But that’s an interesting question and I totally imagined winning the draw. Now I’m bummed it never happened.

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