Band Spotlight

    Rollin’ With The Punches: An Interview with Muskrat Flats

    24
    Jason Nawn

    Since October of 2018, Philadelphia-based Muskrat Flats has been blazing the trails for up-and-coming experimental jam bands, following the release of their first album, Field of Rays. According to founding member, Matthew (Matty) McCann, the album was essentially “born out of the studio”, which left the band with little perspective on where it would take them. Field of Rays became a screaming success among fans of the jam and southern rock genres, as well as those who like to get down to a little jam-techno and jam-tronica. And perhaps the greatest triumph of the album for Muskrat Flats, is that they had started something much bigger than they knew.

     Between 2018 and early 2020, the band toured religiously throughout the Delaware-Westchester-Philadelphia region, establishing a powerful bond between themselves and their newfound community. Along with the overwhelming support they have received from their East Coast crew, the success of Muskrat Flats lies within their exemplary musical knowledge and talent, their passion and creativity in performing, and their unmatched resilience and perseverance.

    In April of 2020, Muskrat Flats was set to headline Ohmfest, a music and arts festival that was to be held in Dover, Delaware. Due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, the festival was postponed to August. In the meantime, Matty and his brother, Patrick (Paddy) McCann got to work on their big plan: to bring the Muskrats West. Shortly before the pandemic began, Matty relocated to California to begin putting down roots on the West Coast, while Paddy stayed to pioneer the East Coast. And, in August, Paddy finally led the band through Ohmfest weekend.

    Following the festival, the band released a live album titled, Live at Ohmfest 2020, which features several tracks from Field of Rays such as, “Terrapin Terrace” and “Criminally Mine”, along with “And The Ladies Were The Rest Of The Night” by The Disco Biscuits and an incredible Help On The Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower by the Grateful Dead. The success of Ohmfest certainly aided the band in their quest, allowing them to dominate a Fall Tour on the East Coast.

    As 2020 comes to a close, Live Music News & Review caught up with the brothers McCann to discuss their personal experiences during Ohmfest, their victories in livestreaming, and where they stand in their endeavor to go West.

    LMNR: Last time we spoke, you guys were getting ready to do Ohmfest. How was it?

    PM: Ohmfest was a lot of fun! You know…everything had to be kind of retooled for all of the 2020 COVID provisions and social distancing. But regardless, for a first-year festival, it was a real success. I think a lot of people had no idea what was gonna happen as far as, you know, big bands, small bands, good bands, bad bands, but man! We knocked it out of the park as a whole-production-wise, sound-wise, and all that stuff.

    LMNR: What was the turn out like?

    PM: I think the Delaware capacity guidelines were 250 altogether, like total: staff, and all that kind of stuff. So, we got in the range of 220-230 people. We probably didn’t go to the full capacity there, but it was kind of a smart move doing it a little bit more lowkey and little bit more safely. The hosts, Web and Ruby did a great job of having people onstage to clean and to be on hand for any extraordinary circumstances, which there weren’t many.

    MM: Yeah, it seemed like everything went well and, you guys had a little bit of rain on Saturday morning?

    PM: Yeah! What’s a festival without a little rain?

    LMNR: Yeah, you know, sometimes it’s like that.

    PM: Yeah definitely, I remember at one point, watching clouds miss us and we’re all cheering, and we’re just like, “YES!” It was a good omen for Ohmfest. We actually ended up capturing the audio and some video from that which was really cool. The engineer for the whole weekend taped, helped us with the audio-lives, and he helped us with the audio mixing afterwards. The guy is like an all-in-one package and he absolutely made the festival turn. People like that, you want them every day of the year. The one thing I think a lot of us took from it too, was just the community support, which was really, really special. A lot of helping hands. I think, year one under our belt, we’re really gonna move forward and progress.

    LMNR: It probably raised a lot of new opportunities for guys.

    MM & PM: Yeah.

    PM: Yeah, it just had a great presentation to it overall, from the the online stuff to that day. It had a great package to it; I felt like I was truly headlining a festival! I felt like the man, you know. (Laughing) Like, man, this is so cool!

    LMNR: We loved the, “This is for the Deadheads!” before you dropped into Help>Slip>Franklin’s.

    MM: Always gotta throw it in there- ‘one for the Deadheads’-that’s important.

    LMNR: Of course! We appreciate that.

    LMNR: After Ohmfest, you guys planned to move on to a Fall tour, which you did. What were some of the highlights of this tour for you?

    MM: Yeah, I mean I think, being the guy watching from the outside, I think that the theme of the year, if we had to put a name on the Fall Tour, it’d be called, “Rollin’ With The Punches”, or something like that. ‘Cause I’m sure everyone would attest to the fact that this year has been like, “Alright, guess we’re gonna figure out how to deal with that.” We’ve just been getting more resilient and doing what we can with what we’re dealt as a country and as a world right now. I think the guys did such an awesome job. I think I was in San Diego at the time watching Ohmfest and cooking dinner for my family, and I was like, “This is so cool!” You know, I was watching my band play my music on the other side of the country, and I’m sitting here jamming out making food. Yeah, it was a pretty wild experience. And, picking up a couple great shows at 118 was a big highlight as well.

    PM: Yeah, absolutely. Last year, we were able to play two shows at 118 North in Wayne, PA. Those guys are owned by Ardmore Music Hall, which is one of our favorite spots in the area. We were able to link up with them for some outdoor tent-shows, and it was an awful lot of fun. Doing the whole outdoor experience in the cold, I think, every musician’s experience has been unique, and we’re all learning our boundaries, and how we can clasp our drumsticks or picks or guitars.

    LMNR: We caught your last show on December 3 at 118 North and were blown away! It seemed like you guys really enjoyed playing there as well.

    PM: It was a great atmosphere there. They bring in a great crowd, and everyone’s really receptive. We bring in our friends, but there’s a ton of people who just know to go there for the good music. We’re just happy to be part of the good music that’s happening. It’s been an interesting year of kind of putting plans on hold and readjusting. We played places like The Red Lantern, in our hometown of Glenolden (Pennsylvania) as well, and that was a really unique experience.

    LMNR: Was there anything about playing the Fall Tour through COVID that was just too weird?

    PM: We definitely had some plans fall through, but nothing that we’re ever gonna get bent out of shape about. I don’t think we really knew how to handle it at first, and we were doing some livestream type of stuff to get the energy out of us. It’s really tough to go from, “Okay we’re gonna be playing these many shows, we’re gonna be doing so much”, to have to put it all on hold.

    MM: I think we’re pretty lucky given that we did only have to cancel one show. You know, I’m sure a lot of other people had to cancel many more.

    PM: And, like I said, a couple of livestreams in different studios have really made for some cool experiences. We did like a Day of The Dead thing with our buddy Justin out in the Brandywine Music and Arts Collective. And he had a whole huge HD-4K, multi-cam video set up, and it had a real professional, state-of-the-art feel to it. And we’re like, “Well, if we can’t be playing in front of people, this is a pretty good bridge, here. This is a good experience.”

    MM: I think livestreaming has gotten a lot better this year. So, if anything came out of it, we stepped up our livestreaming games.

    LMNR: Tell us about some of the studio work you guys were doing back in October, was it?

    MM: Yeah, the studio we do a lot of work out of, we do a lot practicing out of there. And I think, what Paddy’s gonna mention is the livestream that we were able to do, which turned out great. Hopefully there will be more of those to come from Speed of Sound.  We’re gonna be bringing music to the fans in between shows, and in between tours and albums. Additionally, we’ve been working on a new album of course, so that’s super exciting. We got about 15-20 tracks that we’re sorting through, you know, seeing which ones are working out the best, seeing which ones have the goofiest lyrics.

    LMNR: So, you’re sticking with the goofy lyrics?

    *Everyone laughs*

    LMNR: Given everyone’s experience in quarantine, do you think that the new album will be different, lyrically and style-wise, from Field of Rays?

    PM: Hmm. You mean like a darker sort of thing because it’s been a dark year?

    LMNR: Maybe so.

    MM: Mmhmm.

    PM: Despite all of the quarantine stuff going on, we’ve had kind of a different, patient approach to this album. Because we’ve had an initial album, it’s a breath of fresh air. You have a blank canvas you can re-create you can start anew. You can find new avenues, and one of them [for us] has been a little less ‘in-your-face-all-the-time’. I feel like we’re kind of maturing a little bit with our sound. It’s been a unique experience, and definitely different from the first album. For sure.

    MM: Yeah, I think there will be more of a ‘band approach’ to this album than the first one. The first one was really born out of the studio: I got an invitation to make an album from the studio owner, we were able to put together a band, and then Paddy came in and helped me with many things. But that was kind of the beginning of the band, and that was three years ago. Wow! That’s like, a million years ago. Fast forward to now, we’ve had a couple different people play with the band, we have people who come back and sit-in to play shows. I know Isaac had to miss a couple shows this Fall, so we had Teddy [Ted Wagner] fill in a couple times. And that’s a whole new thing, a whole different thing, you know, ‘cause Teddy plays different than Isaac, and so that show might be a lot funkier. So, you have things like that, and now we have a band going into the studio, and different people starting the songs, different people saying, “Hey, I have this thing here, what should we do with this?” I think that alone is gonna be a huge asset for the album. Right now, we’re not ruling anything out; we have a lot of new ideas and we wanna try some new aesthetics. We’re not trying to stick to any formula or anything like that, we’re trying to take it to different places, and, I think, trying to start something new.

    PM: I think the other thing that’s cool is that because we’re on to a second album, because we already have a couple of songs under our belt, and we’ve had setlists for about two years now, which are built around those songs from that album. And we’re like, “Oh you know what would be cool? What if we had a song that plugged into the setlist perfectly right here.” So, now we’re writing from the perspective of a band that’s live.

    MM: I think that’s a really good point too, given how the first album came about. Nobody had heard the songs before, and they went out into the world and had to ‘mingle’ with people we know, and maybe people we had never met before, and I think that the songs themselves started developing when we started playing during the first year or so. Maybe it developed in a different way, or maybe it took a different direction than we thought, but that’s the exchange that we hope for with the crowd. We’re trying to project something outwards, but we’re also trying to take things in too. We’ve had an incredible amount of hanging out with people after shows, talking to people online, especially within the last 9-10 months. That’s the amazing thing about the genre of music we’re in; there’s this really great give and take with the fans of the music scene. So, there might be a color palette that comes out onto this next album, and maybe we won’t even know until it’s out there.

    PM: A great way of thinking about it, is that because we’ve played as many shows as we have now, we’ve kind of experimented with different sounds within jams and that sort of thing, so we have a certain idea of what the audience vibes on. Also, it’s kind of like, if everything is always going a hundred miles an hour, our fans are gonna get tired. You can’t dance a hundred miles an hour for three hours straight, you know? Everybody needs that take a breath song, everybody needs the Stella Blue, everybody needs a reprieve moment. I think a lot of bands, especially in the jam scene, their first album is very angsty, almost like all creativity all at once. But we’re starting to see like, “Oh, okay this is what needs to be here for this moment.” So, I feel like we’re going more on energies than we were when we just had to get songs into place. The fans are definitely complicit in the whole thing; you can’t have it without them.

    MM: Hey! Hey, Patty! Did you hear this thing out yet? You guys need a song like this!

    PM: (Laughing) Yeah! Absolutely.

    MM: It’s a beautiful thing, you know? It definitely makes us think.

    PM: One other thing that’s been fun over the past few months is, I’ve been doing a lot of acoustic guitar performances on this Delco Quarantine Open Mic, which is a Facebook group. It started with a couple friends of ours who just created it during the first week of quarantine, and it grew to about 15,000 members; it just blossomed. And every three days they put out a sign-up sheet and it would be filled from noon to night. It was incredible, and on top of that, I was just somebody who would play a lot of late-night sets, and when some of these newer songs were coming about, there would be like four people watching and I could kind of test out my audience and try some different things.

    LMNR: Sounds like a great platform for that.

    PM: Oh, yeah! I feel like we have a whole new family that’s part of our band. It’s just incredible how many people from that group are die-hard Muskrat fans now. I can’t thank them enough, bless ‘em.

    LMNR: Last time we talked, you guys planned to move the Muskrats to the West Coast, is that still the plan?

    MM: Yeah, big time. That was part of the plan: to move out here, to begin establishing some roots here. Of course, so many of our musical ancestors have roots out here. And (gestures to a large tree behind him) you’ve got these big Red Woods that have deep roots. You’ve got the Grateful Dead, right up the road, you know, where they came together. Something that I didn’t know until recently, is that the Disco Biscuits actually lived in Santa Cruz for a little while. That’s pretty cool, man.

    PM: Is that why they played all those Santa Cruz shows in 2000, for like half a year?

    MM: Mmhmm. We would very much love to be able to plan stuff here, once stuff is normalized again. At the same time, I’m not wasting much time, I have a solo album that I’m working on. I’m working with some pretty cool producers out here, so lots of stuff going on. But it kills me that I can’t have my guys out here enjoying the sunshine and catching some rays.

    PM: We’d definitely like to hit some of the ‘Denvers’ and places out West in California. Our mother and some of our family are from California, and they spent a lot of time there, so the West is part of us already.

    LMNR: You guys have followed through on everything you said you’d do this year, and it shows your perseverance as musicians. We really appreciate that!

    MM: Somedays we wake up and we’re like, “Did you hear what just happened? Like, what just happened in the world today?” And then we’re just like, “I don’t know. How’s that new mix sound?” or, “How are things coming together with the booking?” You kind of have to try to separate yourself.

    PM: The one thing I’ve been absolutely enthralled by this year, has been the circle of the Muskrat Family; the community who supports us. We’ve had so many people help us this year, and not even just within the band. We’ve had help with merch, pictures, graphic design, lighting, live sound, with vending. We’ve had people across the board helping us, just wanting to be part of it. It’s so humbling to have people setting up lighting before the band even gets there, because it shows they believe in something like this. It’s really, really special. And, the proof is in the pudding, you know? You see how amazing the pictures and videos are that come out, and it’s like, that’s not from nothing. That’s a lot of people who believe in this, and that’s not to be understated.

    MM: Yeah, definitely a lot of hard work. I think a lot of people see the highlights, they see the shows and the pictures, and it’s kind of like any other social media. But behind the scenes, you got a lot of hard work going on. I think Patty is definitely the guy on the ground right now; he’s the one making the wheels turn. But we’re still just trying to fulfill everything we set out to do at the beginning of the year. Took a couple months off, wrote some new songs, and started working on the branding of the new logo for Muskrat Flats. We’ll be able to launch the new merchandise around September.

    PM: Matty also just helped build our entire website and our mailing list, which we’re gonna be completely pushing forward with, but it’s no small feat in itself. But it’s incredible to have the power. We’ve got it all at our fingertips!

    MM: And again, I didn’t do it alone. I had a lot of people helping me out, we’ve got a lot of people who work behind the scenes. When you have something come up, you have a lot of people who are willing to come out and do these things. It’s amazing, you know, starting from playing just a couple of locations: Philly, Westchester, Delaware, and there would be like five people at the bar. And each week, or each month, we would show up again and play, and we don’t like to pull stops. So, we like to have every show we play be very unique. We want the fans to get out of it what we get out of it. We always wanna have something really cool happening, maybe some surprises.

    PM: (Laughing) It’s not an easy feat! It’s sleepless nights, it’s long hours at the studio, it’s driving crazy distances.

    MM: Well yeah, hour and a half to the studio, hour and half back. Getting home at 3:30 in the morning, getting up at 6:30 with the kid, and all that stuff.

    PM: Rock n’ Roll.

    MM: Yep, Rock n’ Roll.

    LMNR: You guys do have an immense amount of support from the fans. Recently I saw a Facebook comment that said, “Muskrat Flats is my new favorite jam band!”

    PM: Humbled. It’s beautiful. I always say that if people are having half as much fun as we are onstage, they’re having fun.

    MM: Yeah, this one guy was like, “You guys have great jam band songs” and I was like, “Whooooo! Victory!”

    LMNR: Just keep doing what you’re doing!

    PM: We’re just looking forward to 2021. The Muskrats are gonna be pushing hard, whether that’s on a stage, or a livestream or an album, an EP, a single, on the West Coast or the East Coast. It’s happening. It’s all going down this year.

    MM: I’ll add to that and say that we do have a lot of surprises coming this year. Where’s the camera? (Looks into the camera) I’m talking to you. We’ve got a lot of cool things going on this year, and hopefully the world goes back to somewhat normal. Muskrat TV: I’m saying that out loud, so we have it on tape. Muskrat TV coming soon! And, for all the people who have been shouting at us, or, I think, cheering us on, we’re listening to you. Just hoping to have a happy, safe 2021.

    PM: We can’t wait to talk to you next, I mean, who knows where we’ll be?

    MM: Well, I’m gonna do a little visualization exercise here. How about the next interview is like, on the tour bus…

    PM: We’ll say, the tour ‘vehicle.’

    MM: Outside of the tour car…

    LMNR: The RV…

    PM: The wagon.

    LMNR: Can’t wait, guys!

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