When a band says they play “folk” music, you probably imagine them sitting around in a circle playing banjos, acoustic guitars and violins. For local band Matteo, though, their foreign-sounding name hints that something is different about the instruments they use. The four-piece group—made up of husband and wife Eric and Brinn Chipman, Jordan Riley and Luke Williams—blends traditional Asian instruments, such as the zither, horse-headed fiddle and Chinese violin, with more common, American folk instruments, like the standup bass and violin. Throw in some nice vocal harmonies, and you get Matteo’s unique sound, which is unlike anything else coming from other local bands.
Wanting to record an album, sightsee and get some in-depth lessons on their foreign instruments, the band recently took a six-week trip to the Sichuan province, which is located in the southwestern part of China. Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, the band raised enough money ($6,434) to also bring over two videographers to document a portion of the trip. Now back home in Salt Lake, the band plans on releasing an eight-song EP they recorded in China, along with some accompanying videos shot by Matt and Julie Walker, a husband-and-wife team that runs a local company called Tiger in a Jar.
It wasn’t too long ago that those same Chinese instruments Matteo now play were just sitting around the Chipmans’ house for aesthetic purposes, not intedned for playing. Brinn says, “[The Chinese instruments] weren’t bought with the idea to be played in a band, but more just for novelty, and to hang on the wall. I kind of gave up on the Chinese violin because it sounded really bad, and I just felt like I wasn’t going to take it seriously enough.”
Eric—who is a full-time graduate student and could not make this interview—and Brinn both served LDS missions in China, where they learned to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently, as well as make connections with the local people—something that would come in handy during their recent travels. Similar to the Chipmans, Riley served a mission in Taiwan, where he also found traditional Eastern instruments highly appealing. “I went to Taiwan and picked up a Chinese violin, and I took lessons with elementary school kids—like a bunch of seven years olds and I was 21. When I came back, I met Eric, and [we] became roommates [at Utah
State University],” Riley says. “I had collected a few different [Chinese] instruments, so Eric told me, when I move back to Salt Lake, ‘You should join our little band.’ He said, ‘You’ll just sit in the corner with Chinese instruments and just add Chinese [parts] to all of the songs.’ And so far, as it turns out, I don’t play any Western instruments in the band.”
Then there’s Matteo’s bass player, Williams, who utters the following statement when describing himself: “I’m recently completely unemployed and, like, homeless and stuff.” In his defense, however, Williams just graduated from the University of Utah in May, and he also had to quit his job in order to go on the China trip. Even though he mostly plays the upright bass, Williams is a multi-instrumentalist, just like the other band members, and he has adapted to playing the Eastern instruments. “I think, in the back of [Eric’s] head, he did imagine that I might learn the zither. But when I showed up, I brought a banjo, a mandolin and a drum and bass. I learned a bunch of his songs, and, at first, I thought I would just be backing up this singer-songwriter as a bass player, because I was doing that a lot. I knew he was married, but I didn’t know that [Brinn] played violin,” he says.
With a solid quartet of musicians playing together, the group came up with a plan last year to trek overseas to China and record an album. However, the Chipmans learned they were expecting their first child, and therefore put the road trip on hold until this summer. “We didn’t end up going last year, which for all sorts of reasons ended up being better that we went [this year]. We had lots more experience playing together. We kind of just made up what we wanted to have happen, and then just made it happen. There were lots of amazing things that ended up coming together,” Brinn says.
When the full band finally convened in China on May 22, the group spent around four weeks at Sichuan University, where they worked around a schedule that consisted of music lessons in the morning and afternoons spent rehearsing and recording. “We sort of had two weeks [to record], and we had nothing at that point. Writing it surprised me how fast it came, but even more so how good it sounded. I didn’t have a bass over there, so we couldn’t write the way we usually do. This was a much more collaborative process,” Williams says. “We knew [the recordings] were going to be looser. There’s some background noise, because we were just recording in a dorm room, so there’s some footsteps and door slams.”
Aside from their four-week stay at the university, the group also spent some time traveling around the Chinese countryside, where they picked up some memorable stories to tell. “During our road trip, about two or three days in, it was starting to get dark and we weren’t really close to a big city,” Brinn says. “This guy showed up on a motorcycle saying, ‘You need to come stay at this house.’ We obviously didn’t know him, but he talked to our driver and we ended up going to his place. It was raining and it was dark and we couldn’t really see, but it ended up being this really cool house. When we woke up, we went downstairs and all the townspeople were just sitting out on the sidewalk talking, and we played a little show for them, but we didn’t play extremely well.” Or as Williams delicately puts it, “Worst Matteo show ever.” Brinn continues, “It was just one of those moments where you felt like ‘Wow, I could never have imagined that I would be here doing this right now.’”
Those kinds of moments, however, would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the band being smart with their money and launching a Kickstarter campaign. “When we get paid to do things, we don’t take it for ourselves, we just put it in this box with the idea that we’re going to do something really cool with it. We wanted to learn about the instruments, but we also wanted to put ourselves somewhere where we were going to have a really interesting experience writing music. We had a goal of recording an EP there, which we did, and we wanted to play in China, which we had never done before,” Brinn says. One of the main goals of their Kickstarter was to hire professional videographers, Tiger in a Jar, to capture a few weeks of their trip. “We all understood that this is a big, fun, amazing thing that we’re doing, and we wanted it to be recorded in as many ways as we could. Just taking pictures, we knew we weren’t going to do it justice,” Brinn says. “We had this idea that we wanted to bring videographers, but it wasn’t until we actually saw what Tiger in a Jar does, and how good they are, that we all got really excited about giving them plane tickets to China and bringing them over. Once we found them, we were like, ‘Oh, they have to come.’”
At the time of this interview, the group is planning to release the videos by the end of August, around the same time as their EP. “Pairing the music we made with the films that they’re going to make, I’m as excited to see it as anybody. We feel like the more they can do their thing, and we can stay out of it, is probably better. They want our input and they want to make something we like, but we trust them a lot,” Williams says.
Although the unique sound of Matteo, with its mixture of Eastern and Western folk instruments, may seem like an odd concept at first, once you hear them play, you suddenly realize how well they blend all the different sounds together. With their recent trip to China, which resulted in an eight-song EP, it appears Matteo has nowhere to go but up. To find out the latest news about the band, check out their website, matteomusic.com.