- TextTom Connick
On the cusp of his upcoming debut album Bad Contestant, the London-via-Reading musician talks sadness, sarcasm and South London’s music scene
Holed up in a hillside Wetherspoons in the South London district of Denmark Hill, the sharply-dressed Matt Maltese seems a little at odds with his surroundings. Behind him, sozzled punters prop up the fruit machine, while screaming children run laps around the bar. The young singer assures us he’s in his element, though – this is his local, he reveals. What’s more, given the pub chain’s right-leaning politics, his self-proclaimed ‘Brexit pop’ music is perhaps better suited than you might first think.
To clarify, Matt Maltese is not a right-winger. He emerged in mid-2015 with Even If It’s A Lie, a back-to-basics demo which found the then 19-year-old pontificating on the nature of his early heartbreak. Once the European referendum reared its ugly head the following year though, that directness became his calling card. Pinning himself (somewhat sarcastically) as ‘Brexit pop’, his to-the-bone depictions of young life were a refreshing antidote to his shinier pop peers. It’s a guise that soon saw him adopted into the emergent South London scene – a group of bands and solo artists joined not by musical similarities, but by hard-left political affiliations and a warts ‘n’ all dedication to storytelling.
“I’d like to think we all have in common a real perseverance to sing about the truth. I think a lot of people don’t want to sing about what’s actually happening with themselves, but I feel like a lot of those [South London] bands are actually really good at it” – Matt Maltese
“I played a gig with Shame when I was 19, and I was wearing white turtlenecks and singing heartbreak songs and they were… Shame,” he laughs of the scene’s bizarre musical contrasts. “I’d like to think we all have in common a real perseverance to sing about the truth. I think a lot of people don’t want to sing about what’s actually happening with themselves, but I feel like a lot of those bands are actually really good at it – being gross if they have to be; awkward, but in a beautiful way – which I think a lot of musicians are afraid to do.”
On his debut album Bad Contestant, out June, Maltese’s music retains that charming contrast. Like Father John Misty had he grown up in New Cross, or the Tranquility Base… era Alex Turner had he not flown to the moon, there’s a timeless quality to Maltese’s piano-led compositions; one that’s now bolstered by lush instrumentation, and the LA-led production talents of Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado. Dig beneath the surface, though, and his lyricism is far less slick. “There are cronies with their jobs and ties and cash / there are people like me – the whitest trash,” he deadpans on lead single Greatest Comedian, a love song that finds him comparing the object of his affections to “the highest quality hardwood door” and “the final wartime piece of bread.” As The World Caves In, meanwhile, is a track that would be well-suited to a wedding reception’s first dance, were it not really about snogging in the face of the impending apocalypse.
That comic juxtaposition is something key to Maltese’s creative process. Growing up in his hometown of Reading, he was enamoured with the theatrics of the stage. “I was just a little nerd for sure,” he says. “I liked West End musicals and reading loads… I just liked theatre, in general. I liked adding drama, it was the thing that kept me entertained, I think. I was an only child as well so there was maybe some of that in there, but I used to dream about being in Fame and stuff – a proper Broadway kid!” he quips with a smile. “That kinda gets stamped on when you’re 11 years old and everyone around you is like ‘what the fuck?’, so I dropped that dream. I probably got a lot more sad and a bit more snobbish.” Picking up a keyboard while all his secondary school peers descended on guitars, he began writing near immediately. “It properly defined me, I think because it definitely made me an outsider in the realms of teenagers learning rock and roll,” he notes, citing Tom Waits as an early influence.
“I used to dream about being in Fame and stuff – a proper Broadway kid! That kinda gets stamped on when you’re 11 years old and everyone around you is like ‘what the fuck?’, so I dropped that dream. I probably got a lot more sad and a bit more snobbish” – Matt Maltese
When it was time to up sticks for university, the scale of his new London home and his increasing awareness of the wider world around him left him somewhat paralysed. After discovering comedy as a way to unpick the knots in his mind, ‘Matt Maltese: the musician’ was born. “I find comedy allows sincerity to really mean something,” he admits. “I think there’s a real lack of truth and awkwardness and grossness to pop music these days, where the best side of the coin is described without any of the bad side.” Citing the likes of Peep Show and The Office as unforeseen inspirations, he continues: “You think, ‘God, this is fucking tragic’, but life is like that. Life is tragically fun so often, and a lot of people choose not to face that. I don’t blame them – it’s not that nice realising that, for sure, but that is always the sincerity in comedy that speaks to me.”
Maltese’s own comedic tragedy came when Even If It’s A Lie began to attract attention, during one of the darker spells of his personal life. Despite industry interest and a swelling audience, Matt was still kicking his heels around town. “It was a moment in my life where I was writing sad, pretty down in the dumps songs because I was down in the dumps,” he says. “It was kind of in the midst of things feeling like they were coming crashing down – that was happening, and that was great, but I was also living in Camden on my own, had a break-up, was sleeping like 14 hours a night. It was a pretty shit time, so it was a funny thing to happen at the same time. I think it’s very conducive in music – you find your worst times are often the best, everyone says that.” It’s a poisonous trend in music that Maltese is more than aware of. “I feel guilty being happy, as I feel it’s not conducive of having a career,” he admits, “which is definitely fucked up. I am also wary to blame it on the career thing, though – I think I am that kind of person anyway.”
“You go through a heartbreak, then you go through another heartbreak and then you go through a third heartbreak. By the third one you’re like, ‘oh this is fucking stupid’, but you kind of make it into your own little West End show” – Matt Maltese
With Bad Contestant, Matt Maltese has found the perfect sweet spot between musical escapism and oh-so-British misery. Escaping to LA to record it alongside Rado, Matt and his producer’s collaborative efforts ensure that that big-city American sheen is evident throughout. It’s a record that grins through the grislier parts of life, and one that, perhaps unexpectedly, ended up mirroring Maltese’s life in more ways than one. “As my whole family is Canadian, I’ve always felt like the moody one,” he says, “The one who’s thinking too much, or being too sarcastic – making sarcastic comments at the dinner table and that kind of shit. I felt like it was a funny little microcosm of my family life, having someone who’s adding these breezy productions to pretty depressing subject matter. It felt like a pretty good representation of my life – that staunch Canadian positivity and niceness, enveloped around cynical, 20-something tragedy.”
“I take a lot of pleasure in dramatising the very depressing cycles of life,” Matt admits. “You go through a heartbreak, then you go through another heartbreak and then you go through a third heartbreak. By the third one you’re like, ‘oh this is fucking stupid’, but you kind of make it into your own little West End show.” It seems with Bad Contestant, the the young Matt Maltese is finally living his stage show dream, one comedic calamity at a time.
Bad Contestant is out June 8