• North Country Primitive

Cultivating the meditative: an interview with Mat Eric Hart

Sometimes you need to take a break from the somewhat hectic pace of many guitar soli releases, hollowing out a peaceful space where you can find a little respite from lightening fast finger flurries and overtly dizzying displays of virtuosity, where as much is communicated by setting and ambience as by the actual playing: there is, after all, a virtue in restraint. This is a space ably occupied by London born, South-of-France resident guitarist and sound recordist Mat Eric Hart. That's not to say he isn't a technically accomplished and innovative guitarist (he definitely is), but to acknowledge that it isn't always necessary to hammer the listener into a state of submission to prove that point. Mat's use of environmental sound as an instrument in its own right and an integral counterpoint to his melodic, hypnotic guitar playing creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts to bring us something pastoral and bucolic, without the sentimentality sometimes implicit in such a description. And in strange times like these, we need a music that can transport us to a sheltered, welcoming and strangely immersive place.

Photo by Delphine Parodi

Can I start by asking a bit about you, where you're based, what led you to make a solo guitar album and what you were doing as a musician prior to Spirits and Reflections?

Well to begin in the present, I live in a city called Aix-en-Provence near the South East coast of France. I moved out here in late 2019 with my wife to start a new adventure and bring a new life into the world, our daughter Pearl who joined us that December. We wanted to remove ourselves from the compression of life in the city, having lived in London for many years; it seemed the right time to change direction. I had been writing, recording and performing since my early twenties, but found creative solace with a project called Blue Movies – a collaboration between myself and my long-time friend and producer Tom Ball that began sometime around 2013. We had met through playing together in a band and we had always been very tuned in to each other’s music. Tom taught me a lot about life, music & creativity. In 2017 we put out an album titled “Disenchantment” which was really a studio-based project that developed into an album. We were doing lots of recording and experimenting with sound and equipment. I think back so fondly on this time: it really helped me to grow as a person and a musician, but at the same time also helped develop my creative approach towards sound.

After this time together ended due to us both leaving town, I realised I wanted to try to preserve this creative spirit and guide it into producing an album by my own hand. That path became a solo guitar album. I’ve always found I’ve been more attentive to what music was making me feel rather than what lyrics were, so I began exploring this further with my own sound and tunings to express the way I saw the world.

Let’s talk about Spirits and Reflections. Congratulations, by the way - it's a lovely record. Can you tell us about the making of the album?

Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. Spirits & Reflections came into being during those first few precious months after my daughter’s birth. Time seemed to stand still. We were staying with my wife’s family in the French countryside where they had this beautiful old stone orangerie, which had such a beautiful peaceful ambience to it. I decided to set up a makeshift studio in there and began recording these guitar pieces I had held in my head over the years. They weren’t ever written down, or even really concretely formed. I would get up early before the birds to begin recording in the morning and over seven days I had recorded the album. Then began the process of listening, editing and mixing. I brought in some field recordings of my own and did some minimal overdubs, but the bulk of the album comprised of just those raw takes of acoustic guitar combined with the environmental ambience of the French countryside.

Are you more of a composer or improviser or a bit of both? Can you expand on your use of field recordings and ambient sound? And the decision to have a side of slow mixes on the tape (I'm going to disclose here that I love the slow side) - what was your thinking here?

I guess I’ve not put too much thought into it… though I suppose that composing inspires improvisation and vice versa. The way I find myself creating music is when there exists this synchronicity between my mind and the moment, and often this occurs when I’m out in nature, where I find myself contemplating. As a keen sound recordist, I often bring my microphones out with me and make recordings of my surroundings. When I pick up my guitar, it kind of strings these two spaces together - what’s running through my mind and what’s happening in the environment surrounding me. I pass a lot of my time listening to field recordings and ambient sounds that I’ve either recorded or discovered through other artists. The opening track of Spirits & Reflections - “Haguro” - drew its inspiration from the sacred mountain in Japan’s Yamagata prefecture. I was fortunate enough to visit there in 2019 whilst working on a field recording project for the British Library Sound Archive. You can hear this beautiful atmosphere of the mountain forest on this track.

I’m really pleased to hear that you enjoy the slow mixes. The idea to work on these for the album came to me from just listening to music on slower speeds and finding that when doing so, the recording really opens up and reveals beautiful delicate nuances that perhaps went unnoticed before, like a form of deeper listening. I created a tool using the audio programming software Max, that emulated RPM playback speed for audio files, similar to that which you find on a vinyl player, and from there I played around to find a speed that worked for each track.

It's quite a unique record for a solo guitar-based album, very different to the more overtly American Primitive influenced releases I often listen to, and has somewhat of an ambient vibe, with echoes of the better aspects of early new age music. Is this something you were consciously seeking to reflect in the sound?

I’d always been really tuned in to American Primitive music; John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Jack Rose were artists I really admired to name but a few. At the same time, I have found great inspiration in the British folk guitar of Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson and Nick Drake. I have my parents to give thanks for that. My father is a devoted record collector, and used to have his own record store in London, where I grew up, and my mother always sang very beautifully and I would often accompany her when she was learning songs, so I was submersed into a rich listening world from a very early age. One album in particular that stands out for me was John Martyn’s “Solid Air” which always fascinated me. His ability to blend folk/blues guitar with ambient music was masterful. With “Spirits & Reflections” I was quite conscious not to create an album that could say be labelled solely as American Primitive, but one that definitely cultivated the deep, meditative and pastoral elements of the genre.

I guess the ambient aspect is not hindered by having Ian Hawgood mastering. How did you come to hook up with him? I can't recall much in the way of guitar on the Home Normal albums in my record collection.

Ian Hawgood is someone that I have admired for many years. His name would just appear on all these releases was into and I just kept thinking how amazing it was that he seemed to have this scope and sensibility for such a wide variety of music. I recall the first time I listened to a release from his label Home Normal. It was a guitar album released by Japanese artist Asuna Arashi (ASUNA) titled “Tide Ripples”. It was one of those records that just held me every time I listened: it was just so beautiful and took me to this other world. When it came to choosing a mastering path for Spirits & Reflections, Ian’s was the first name on my list, and I couldn’t have been more pleased that he responded to my request so positively. He really is a master of his craft.

And how did you end up releasing it with Aural Canyon? Rootless notwithstanding, I tend to associate the label with modular synths and deep drone rather than guitars.

That really came about from a relationship between myself and Matthew Erik Hanner - Aural Canyon’s creator. Matthew was sending me his releases from the label for my radio show “Sonic Tapestries” and I was really finding that with each release I was hooked. When I first moved out to France, I would often take these long walks out in nature with my guitar and just sit and record myself playing these improvised fragments surrounded by natural sound and post them up online. Matthew was really into them and contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in putting out a release with Aural Canyon and the rest kind of flowed from there quite naturally. He has a great spirit and fascinating taste in music. I feel really blessed to have been welcomed so warmly into the AC family.

Can you tell us about Sonic Tapestries, your show on Resonance?

Sure! Sonic Tapestries began back in 2017 whilst I was finishing my studies. I became involved with the student radio station, which I’m fairly sure no one was listening to… but it was a chance for me to start preparing and programming my own show and invite friends to come and sit for a couple hours and play records. Then as time passed, I started pre-recording the show in my studio and working more finely on creating more thoughtful transitions between tracks. Soon after I joined London-based radio station Resonance FM as a studio engineer, I was offered a broadcast slot and the show has stayed a part of the family ever since. The concept behind the show very much draws on the idea of weaving sound like fabric. I used to share a studio with a dear friend of mine Tim Zercie, his art was incredible. He would create these beautiful fabric tapestries that really inspired me whilst I was working in the studio. Each month I would kind of collect what my ears encounter, be they current, past or future releases and weave them into 2-hour mixes which became the foundation of my show. As the show’s audience grew, I became friends and connected with some really great labels and artists who were open to sharing their music with me. This is one of the greatest powers of music, that it inspires sharing between kindred spirits.

Are you an equipment fetishist of any kind? If so, do you want to talk about it?

It feels almost naughty when you phrase it like that… but yeah, I guess I do have some objects in my studio that I hold sacred! I’m really into microphones, and I’m working on building up a little collection, but it’s very hard to choose a favourite. I often record takes using multiple mics just to make sure I have options in the mix. I bought a pair of Russian Oktava MK-012 mics which I pretty much use on everything. They are really detailed yet versatile mics that work with interchangeable capsules so they’re pretty interesting to play around with. I should also really mention my guitar which has been a fine companion of mine now for many years – a Martin LX1E, one of their smaller, compact designs. The sound is just beautiful, and we’ve travelled on some great journeys over the years. If you’re into reverb (and who isn’t…) then I’d definitely recommend checking out the SuperMoon from Portland based analog pedal makers, Mr.Black.

What do you have planned next?

In these unusual times it’s become really difficult to plan much in many ways… but it’s also been a period for incubating creativity and having space to ruminate. I’ve been working on some collaborative projects which I hope will bear fruit as the year passes. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to organise some live shows when it’s safe to do so. For now, I’m just looking forward to the arrival of Spring.