Interview with Matt Fonda and Jason Lobell
Big Smile Magazine sat down with West Los Angeles based musicians Matt Fonda and Jason Lobell. Matt and Jason are both members of the progressive rock group Zookeepers Palace as well as other, separate projects. These guys have experienced the rise and fall of multiple prior bands and have toured throughout the United States in true DIY fashion. We set out to learn about their individual experiences as musicians and about some of the challenges that they've encountered along their journeys. The interview took place at Jason's recording space, Broken Wizard Studios in West L.A.
What projects are you currently working on?
Jason: Matt and I are both in a band called Zookeeper's Palace and I've recently joined a group called Perfect Beings. It's a prog-rock group featuring guys like Johannes Luley, who is a big producer and prog rock guy from Germany, and Sean Reinert who's the former drummer from CYNIC. We just got back from playing a gig at ROS fest, Rite of Spring Festival, which is a prog rock festival out in Gettysburg at the Majestic Theater which was super fun.
How did you get involved with that band?
Jason: I connected with Perfect Beings after playing as a session musician for a track on Johannes' solo CD. He had worked with a buddy of mine in Illinois who referred me to Johannes as an upright bass player. Johannes reached out and I played on his track.
It was super fun recording but then I didn't hear about it and didn't really think about it for some time. And then Johannes hit me up about a year later and said, "Jason, the CDs ready and I want to get you a copy of it". He lives over in Marina Del Rey, close by, so I went over to his place got the CD and we chatted for a bit.
Then he mentioned, "by the way, I have this other band, Perfect Beings, and we're signed to Inside Out records and we're going to be playing ROS fest" and he told me about getting Sean in and I've been a huge CYNIC fan for years, so all of that really sold me on joining.
What do you have going on, Matt?
Matt: For the most part, I've been writing for myself. I've taken a little bit of a hiatus from Zookeeper's and I've also been jamming on another project with two other friends. We're kind of just getting started so we're still throwin' around band name ideas.
How did you develop an interest in music and how did you get your start playing in bands?
Matt: I started playing music after my uncle had given me a guitar when I was probably seven or eight. I eventually started playing cello in school and that got me hooked, and I started studying and taking some private lessons. My parents were nice enough to spend money on me learning things like that so I had the advantage of being able to study with some great musicians earlier on and that kind of trickled into wanting to do cooler stuff like play rock guitar, drums, and all sorts of other stuff which later further evolved into more of a rock vibe.
Jason: I didn't come to music until I was already in college. I had done some music in junior high and I think they stuck me on the French horn and, not to name names but the music teacher was this older gentleman who was just kind of hanging out, waiting to retire, who didn't really care to teach us anything. How I even learned any music in that class I don't know but I was awful at the French horn. I didn't really want to try another instrument. I just thought, because this was my first experience with music, that I was just bad at music and that it wasn't my thing. I spent my high school and college years doing theater and a bunch of other stuff. Then I started playing music really randomly.
I was nursing a knee injury and one of my roommates had an acoustic bass. I had been on the couch for about three days and started goofing with it. Soon I knew a few songs, then I knew a few more, and then, just because I owned a bass, people were asking me to join their bands, and it's been off to the races from there. I just completely fell in love with it.
Was there a particular band that was your first or were you playing in several bands from the start?
Jason: Right off the jump I was in three or four different groups playing here and there, but my first major band was a band called Phavian which is a progressive metal group. I was in that band for five years and we did some pretty hardcore touring across the country and had a great time. But, we definitely toured the hard way: crashing on floors, crashing on couches, sleeping in the van, all the good stuff. It was a blast, and it was while I was playing for Phavian that I met Matt and Candice of Zookeepers.
Matt: Right. Before that, we had a connection through a former band member and so we saw Jason play and the three or four of us in Zookeeper's at the time thought "this bass player is fantastic" and we thought it would be great if we could get him in the band. It just happened to work out timing-wise. That was a big win for us.
Did you setup your tour through a management company or did you set it up independently? How did you decide where you were going to play on tour?
Jason: That tour was 100 percent DIY. We would set aside the dates that we wanted to tour and we'd map out where we wanted to go and for how long we wanted to be there. We kind of divvied up responsibilities a bit: some people were out finding venues in other states and then other people were looking for local bands so that we could put shows together everywhere we went. We'd play with two or three or sometimes four local acts to kind of build a good local show.
Our longest tour was about three and a half months straight on the road. Venues don't book shows three or four months in advance so we were booking the tour as we went. Whenever we had a day off, we would load in at a venue and basically sit around a table with our laptops like "All right, what do you guys got for Iowa? What do you got going in Oregon?" It was a lot of work but it was a lot of fun.
I should say the tour was a great success. And then we immediately broke up as soon as we got home. It wasn't personality conflicts, we didn't hate each other, it was just total burnout. Total, total burnout. So it's possible to tour in that way but you're going to hurt for it.
I should say the tour was a great success. And then we immediately broke up as soon as we got home.
The strategy that you used to reach out to local bands in areas that you wanted to play, was that an idea learned from past experience or were you figuring things out as you went along?
Jason: We pretty much did the research as we went. At the time we were using Reverbnation. That was how we were finding other bands. There were a few really helpful DIY music blogs and DIY databases that listed the venues that were really friendly. Some of them even listed places that you could stay or would mention a "promoter who lives in this city, they're super cool and if you get in touch with them and they're available they'll usually let touring bands stay with them".
At this point, Jason's alarm goes off. He has to head up north to the valley for another engagement. We continue with Matt Fonda.
What was your first band, Matt?
Matt: I played in a couple of bands in high school when I was maybe 13. In one band, I played drums and, in the other, I played guitar. That's kind of how I learned to play guitar; my buddy would teach me some things and I'd play rhythm parts as he played lead. In high school, it was very much about who's in your class that you know and get along with and you would just make a band together. That's how we rolled for a couple of years, playing with friends.
After that, we got a little more serious. When I moved to college I decided to study engineering, which is a bit different than music, and I got a little stir crazy the first year of not playing music. I immediately knew that I needed to start a band and needed to do something creative.
So I started my own band and got the best people I could find at the college. The band really evolved by my second or third year. That was the band Polymer. We played a lot on the East Coast: we played campus, we opened up for the Roots, we opened up for Common and a full lineup of other bands. We eventually recorded our own record in New York and then played more in the Philadelphia area. We did OK; we got put on the radio a couple of times and were playing with some good local bands like Hail Storm and Jealousy Curve to name a couple. It was a lot of fun.
When you were looking for musicians to join your band, were you doing it through your own personal network or were you creating fliers or some other method?
Matt: A lot of that was me just talking to people that I knew. When we started replacing members of the band and needed to find somebody outside of our personal network we put up a Craigslist ad. That's actually how we found Candice who is the drummer in Polymer.
At that time I was kind of against having a girl in the band only because my uncles had told me it was going to cause some drama. You know, the two musicians I know and look up to are saying "it might cause some drama having a girl in the band and this and that". So I was the only one who was against it. But then she came in for the audition and she just crushed the audition. She did so well, I was immediately said, "she's in, she's got to be in the band, I want her as our drummer" and fast forward a decade later: we're together now and we play music together. Thank you, Craigslist.
We had been together at that point over five years, maybe six. I think it ran its course. That's when I moved to California. It was kind of the next chapter for me musically.
But it was very much a close-knit group. We played local shows and we had a pretty good turnout for those so we kept morphing that into bigger and bigger shows. Eventually, people's lives change so the band kind of fizzled. Some of the members left, there were some personnel changes, there were some personality conflicts and those are the things that every band has, but you know it wears on the band. We had been together at that point over five years, maybe six. I think it ran its course. That's when I moved to California. It was kind of the next chapter for me musically.
How did you and your band figure out how to get on the radio and book shows opening up for larger bands?
Matt: Anytime you're trying to get somewhere, taking the shortest route and the most common sense route is a good way to approach it. For any musician reading this - you want to take the most direct approach. If you're trying to get on the radio, go contact the DJ. It might sound really dumb and simple but just find the simplest path to get to point B and try that.
The biggest difference between bands that succeed and those that don't is persistence. Some bands just throw something over the wall and hope. Then after a week, they don't hear anything and give up. Well, yeah, you might have to send your music in three or four times or you might have to give it to a friend to give it to another friend to give it to the DJ so by the time they hear it, from four or five different sources, maybe the sixth time, they'll remember you. Persistence is big.
The last thing I'll add is that when you approach somebody like that, act as if their time is precious because it probably is. If you're prepared when you contact that DJ or you bump into them at the club and you recognize them, have something ready for them. Have music and have a little bit of pre-thought so you're ready to go.
Did you feel that you had to stay cognizant that this DJ or this promoter is being hit up by 100 different bands and that you had to do something unique to stand out?
Matt: Yeah, always. Especially in the music world. Especially now that music is easier to create so there's more good music out there and there's also a lot of noise. You always have to differentiate a little bit, you just gotta be creative.
What have been some of your favorite experiences with your bands or some of your favorite shows?
Matt: There was a surprise gig we had back east in Philadelphia where we played an outdoor festival. It was for a distribution company that had offered up, for a battle of the bands' reward, a drum set, two guitars, a bass, and a bunch of gear. So we played this big battle of the bands that our drummer booked randomly and we showed up thinking it was going to be at some weird outdoor pavilion.
There were actually hundreds of people there. Total surprise gig. We ended up leaving with all this gear because I guess we did well and they gave us a drum set and guitars and all sorts of cool stuff and I felt, 'I could get used to this'. But most gigs are the complete opposite of that. Most gigs suck. You lose shit. Somebody steals your guitar, you can't find a cable, you break a string in the middle of the last song.
How would you describe the music scene in L.A.?
Matt: L.A. is a transient town so I feel like the music scene is also a bit transient. Playing in L.A. is a little bit tougher than playing outside of L.A. because there's a lot of demand for people's attention in a big city. So when you say "hey we're playing a show" you might be a great band but you're competing with 20 other things that are going on that weekend, so you have to be really good.
A lot of venues want the bands to bring in a ton of people and they want them to pay up front for tickets and it's just a weird situation where outside of L.A., people are so excited to see any live music that they'll practically throw money at you for CDs. They're very appreciative of music whereas in the city it's like "oh man I've got to go out and pay for parking to go see this band" and I've got three other things I could do tonight. Or I could go to the beach or I could do this". It's more "L.A.".
Could it be a strategy for a band to start out in another city and later come to L.A.?
Matt: Absolutely. In fact, if I were to start over again, I would be outside in San Diego or outside of L.A. in maybe Pomona where there's a legit venue and there are ways to open up for national acts.
What bands are you excited about in the LA music scene?
Matt: Oh yeah. Well, a couple of friends bands that I'd give a shout out to - a band called Old Blood that we played with a few months back that are doing some cool stuff. Very vibey and moody live show. So check that out. In terms of bigger acts, there's a band called Knower. They're local and they're just awesome musicians but they also have a couple of funny songs. One called the "Government Knows". I love it. You got to check it out. Another one that comes to mind is the Marmozets. They're out of the UK, but they're touring and they're playing with a female fronted rock band and they're just fantastic.
What are some of your biggest musical career accomplishments?
Matt: Actually I wouldn't consider a lot of the accomplishments personal accomplishments. If I was going to say personally: just completing our last record for Zookeeper's was a real personal challenge because of personnel issues. But I'm really proud of the music that we put out.
As well as with Polymer, back east. We put out a record called "Start to Move" which we produced in a legitimate studio with a producer and I'm proud of that music.
From a show perspective, we played one sold-out show in L.A. not because we sold it out but because the band we were playing with was a really trending band and they were just fantastic. So we played to a sold-out Roxy which was a cool moment: we got there, the line was down the block, we were really confused and half of our fans couldn't even get in. It was a cool experience but very weird to play a sold-out venue being an early band.
What is your greatest musical aspiration? Is the work that you've been doing as a musician a journey where you're working towards something? Or do you feel that you are more focused on the creative process and seeing where things go?
Matt I think as a musician just the act of creating music is cool and it's part of a journey that can be ongoing. You don't necessarily have to have some magnum opus idea or concept. The act of just writing and playing is satisfying and rewarding for everybody involved including the listener.
As far as writing music, I've had a personal goal to write my own album and to produce my own record. So I've started on that and I've written a couple of songs towards that. That's something that is personal because I've always wanted to do it and being a multi-instrumentalist I have the capability to do it. So I feel like I owe it to myself to just put out an album. There's no real big concept behind it, I just want to write my own album.
You don't necessarily have to have some magnum opus idea or concept. The act of just writing and playing is satisfying and rewarding for everybody involved including the listener.
I know you have a full-time job apart from the work that you're doing making music and so, is it an aspiration to be able to make music full time or is that not necessarily a requirement as long as you're able to have enough time to be able to create music throughout the week?
Matt: I've thought for a long time that just writing music full-time would be the end all be all best thing ever and I'd be super happy all the time, but for the longer stands, where I've written for two weeks at a time, I actually didn't enjoy it as much. I think some of the magic in songs has come from stressful experiences at work. A lot of those work experiences can parlay into good songs. And I think just about any life experience can parlay into a good song.
I would love to just do music full-time, but I think it would have to have enough variety and be intellectually stimulating enough where I could keep doing it. So that's the upside of having a job. The downside is that you have time constraints so you really have to be planning ahead when you want to write and put it on the calendar.
I've worked with some other musicians that write early in the morning. That way they're writing at their freshest time of the day and being creative and then they go to work. That's something I'm trying to integrate where I'm doing a little bit more and more each morning in terms of waking up a little bit earlier.
Still not there, but yeah I think the best way to be creative is to immerse yourself and have a four hour block rather than just saying "I'm going to write for 10 minutes". Maybe you'll get something. I mean if I could do it for ten minutes one night that's great and 20 minutes here and there will add up but the four hour chunk is best for me on a Sunday or a Saturday knocking out an entire song.
Do ever feel resentful of having to have a full time job?
Matt: When I was younger I would definitely feel a little bit like "the man's trying to keep me down, I have to get this stupid job". I remember reading in Canada they have some subsidy where if you're a young artist you can take a year or two and actually write music as an artist. It's as if you're unemployed or something and you get a subsidy to write and create art which I think is fantastic, but if somebody started saying that in the US, like a politician started spewing that anywhere outside of California, it would get shut down and they'd say "get a job you hippie!"
Do you find Spotify, SoundCloud, and other online services as a benefit or something that stifles your ability to maybe profit and live off of your music?
Matt: I think the answer is, a little bit of both. Some of these tools have really helped starting musicians get their music out there. They help market and syndicate and just get their music out to people who may not have enjoyed it or heard it. So as far as getting your music out there and syndicating it, that's a good thing.
Spotify has already taken over the digital world. I think musicians are going to win in the real world, playing to people in person. That's the next big thing.
Technically yeah you're making money but as a whole I feel like streaming services have undermined the traditional ways of making money from music. I'm not saying that this evolution is a bad thing I'm just saying that I'm ready for the next iteration of that where musicians actually make income from producing their own songs. Right now on Spotify, if we go and play our songs right now we'll make maybe two cents if we play it through the entire album. We're never going to make a living doing that and I feel like 20 years ago you could.
Live music and just any music that produced or played live is more and more a precious commodity. And I think that's why you see ticket prices kind of creeping up. Ticketmaster is taking huge fees because they see the money there. Live music is so beneficial to human beings in general that people may not know or realize it but it kind of feeds you creatively and if you had a bad week you can go see music and be completely refreshed within an hour, maybe even ten minutes if you see a good band. So that I think needs a better system to capture value for the musicians and pay musicians. Spotify has already taken over the digital world. I think musicians are going to win in the real world, playing to people in person. That's the next big thing.
As in music recording and distribution, are there the same type of middleman issue with live performances where the band ends up getting a small cut of whatever money that the performance brings in?
Matt: It varies. So we have a booker that we're working with who is fantastic and he takes a small cut of every gig that he books. Sometimes the venues will take a larger cut because they have expenses - they gotta pay staff, they gotta pay a bartender, they gotta pay a bouncer. And those people in that business are making more money than the bands across the board everywhere in L.A. If you find a venue that's paying bands well, let us know.
I've had some gigs that have paid well especially in Philadelphia where we played really great gigs at great venues and they feed us, they treat us well, we have a bar tab and it's a really great experience for everybody. I wish venues in L.A. did more of that. Some are better than others but for the most part, bands get not a lot of money based on the value they're bringing which includes fans that they're bringing who are paying that money to the venue. So you've got fans and the music and the experience itself. But I hope that would change as time goes on. I think live bands are going to become more and more of a precious commodity. Good live bands.
Is there any type of consistency with how much you can get paid by playing a show or is it just always going to vary show to show?
Matt: It depends on how desperate the band is to play. I've seen bands take really crappy gigs because it's just slightly better than the other crappy gig down the block. So if they have a booker they can maybe have some pull and negotiate a little bit. Having just enough knowledge or having some self-respect to say that, "hey we're not going to play a gig that's really crappy, we're only going to play gigs like this" and just deciding as a band that you can do that and you don't have to take every gig that shows up on your doorstep and be a little bit choosy.
If you're starting out it's a little bit of a different story: you kind of have to just get out there. But there are free venues to play. You don't just have to pay to be up on stage.
Yeah and again, that's not the end goal. I think as a musician the goal should be to create great music and great art. But the thing that allows you to keep doing that sometimes is having a little bit extra money. In my case, and for a lot of the other musicians I play with, we have other jobs and side gigs and we just make it work. We just dump as much time and effort as we can into something that we love. It's like a hobby on steroids in a way.
Do venues also take cuts of merch sales?
Matt: The venue will try to take a cut of merchandise. We've always tried to negotiate that out of contracts and just laugh at it and say "no there's no way we're doing this". Some venues that we're tight with will still do it if we get to keep roughly 85 percent of what we're selling and a lot of the venues don't even enforce it. When we go to sell merch they never come up and ask us for the five dollars that they're owed. At most shows, we're only selling a couple items so it doesn't really make that much difference monetarily and venues don't always enforce it. But most gigs we've played have allowed us to sell 100 percent to a fan and we don't have to give the venue a cut.
You mentioned that your band has a booker to book shows for you. How different or similar is that to what a band manager might do?
Matt: It's different. So they're not there to direct the band creatively or career-wise. They're there to find gigs when you bug them. And, by the way, our booker is awesome. I'm a huge fan of what he does for us because he's helping us so, for the record 'bookers are awesome' please write that down.
However, if I bug our booker and we need a gig and we haven't heard anything in a while, he'll show up and book us a gig and sometimes we'll get paid a couple hundred bucks for this gig or that gig and it's good. But we're directing ourselves, he's there for support. He's not steering the ship, we're steering the ship and he's just there throwing us some help every now and then. It's on us to book our own shows too. It's not just on the booker. It only works when you're bugging them and you're saying "hey we need help".
What advice would you give someone who is interested in making their own music and sharing it with the world?
Matt: I would say that if your focus is going to be writing the music, find someone to partner with who is good at sharing it. A lot of musicians I've worked with are better at the creation part and are very much in the craft which is I think the better spot for a musician. But there's a whole side of music around sharing it and getting it out there that a lot of musicians neglect.
So if you're going to just throw it up on Spotify and forget about it and never promote it or advertise it and get it out there, you're doing everyone else a disservice by not getting your music into people's hands. It's almost as important to syndicate it and get it in people's hands and get them listening to it than it is actually creating it.
And it's really tough as a musician to put down the writer's hat and then pick up the music business hat and do something effective with it. Focus on one of those two things. If you're not going to be the marketer get someone who's good at sharing music and who can syndicate it.
What advice would you give bands who are going into the studio to record for the first time?
Matt: The best thing you can do is to chat with a producer or someone you're interested in recording with, find out their rate, and then ask them their advice on how to prepare because they're going to tell you slightly different things depending on who they are but it's always better to spend time practicing and rerunning everything until it's tight before going in the studio.
I've seen a lot of bands going into the studio that have most of their songs fleshed out but then they spend a lot of time figuring out that last 10 percent of the song. They spend half their recording budget trying to finish a song when they could have figured that out at home, for free, on a Saturday or Sunday with one more rehearsal.
Keep an eye out for Matt Fonda and Jason Lobell producing more great music from Southern California. Big thanks to the two musicians for sharing their knowledge and experiences with Big Smile Magazine.