Matt Lorenz is The Suitcase Junket, a one-man-band who does it the old-fashioned way. No tape loops. No digital tricks. Just a bunch of junk — literally — on stage with him making noise.
Lorenz is touring behind “Pile Driver,” his fourth album showcasing that he’s got songwriting chops equal to his odd creative vision.
He’s the headliner on Sunday, May 28, at Work/Release for the conclusion of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Norfolk Fringe Fest that also features harp virtuoso Deborah Henson-Conant on May 26 at The Robin Hixon Theater, the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Wells Theatre May 26-28 and the Joey Alexander Trio at TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center on May 27.
Lorenz handled an interview smoothly while driving through upstate New York on his way to a Friday gig in Albany.
Tell me about the genesis of The Suitcase Junket and the one-man band approach.
It sort of spun out of a band I was in with my sister and another fellow. I found this guitar. I pulled it out of a dumpster and strung it up and fixed it up. It was a real beater, only sounded good in open tuning. I started pulling all these songs out of it that didn’t fit that other band.
I’d started drumming with my feet a little bit already, sitting on a box. I started building more foot drums to fill out the sound. The idea was if I’m moving my body, I might as well be getting sound out of it.
One thing led to another. I’m a tinkerer. I enjoy doing projects with my hands. It was a natural progression of what else can I do? How much sound can I make without going into the looping world?
What’s the oddest instrument you found in the garbage?
A lot of what I build instruments out of are old chairs. What else? A gas can. A cook pot. The oddest is I have a circular saw blade. It sort of sounds like boxing bell. Probably the weirdest little pile of things is I’ve got this little old wooden cheese box and I’ve got it hooked up on a high hat stand so that the box is a bottom cymbal. The top cymbal is an 8mm film reel with bones and silverware hanging off of it. You push the high hat pedal and all the bones and silverware will drop into the box with a crunching kind of rattle. People will sometimes contribute to the box. I get some pretty odd items.
You grew up in New England, right?
I grew up in Vermont. I’ve been in Massachusetts for a while now. My parents were very encouraging. Neither of them really played, but the house was always full of music. When the town library was getting rid of a piano, my parents got it. My sister started taking lessons. Then I was just like off on music. They helped encourage that, got me lessons.
Was there a high school band we should know about?
There was Red Flannel Hash. I played keyboards and sang a little bit. It was mostly a rock and roll cover band.
You went to college. When did you think music might be something you would do for a living?
I went to a weird hippie school where you design your own major (Hampshire College). No grades. All written evaluations. I was sort of interested in natural science and art and music. I remember a turning point where I decided I had these natural proclivities with music and I figured just go with that, you’re already pretty good at it. Then after college it took a while to figure out how to make a living from it. It took a little while working, fixing houses and working on farms and doing jobs where I didn’t have to think that hard so I could daydream.
You seem to stretch on the new album, “Pile Driver.” There’s a big range going from “Seed Your Dreams” to “Beta Star.” Was that the intention?
Definitely. Ideally that is where I want to be when I make a new album, right at the edge of my abilities. The most exciting stuff happens when you mess up. That’s where all the new ideas come from. I added a keyboard in there. It adds a whole other ingredient. That’s been a fun part of these live shows. Also pushing out a little more stylistically into the pop sensibility and then into the swampy sound.
It keeps me interested. One of pitfalls of being a one-man band is often they start sounding the same. I want to stay away from that for listeners and for myself.
Was there someplace you messed up that lead to a song?
I think the first track was one that was not really written when I went in but I knew I wanted to have this combination of keyboard sound and singing to guitar. I had lyrics to a pretty simple song. There were seven or eight takes of that altogether and not one of them sounded like the other. It was completely seat of the pants. Almost every part of that song was a surprise that came out of me just barely able to get my hands where they needed to be.
Where did the album title come from?
I’ve been considering myself as a pile driver because I drive my pile around. Then when I’m playing I feel like I’m driving a pile. Also it’s a wrestling move, which I thought was kind of funny, so be looking out for some wrestling video.
Swamp Yankee pile driver was the working title for the album for a while. Swamp Yankee is what I consider my genre now.
I was getting to that. Explain it. Remember, I’m from the North, but you’ll be appearing in the South.
The term got coined when I was playing a show in West Virginia and a guy came up to me after the set and said you remember that song where you ate a muskrat. I was impressed that he noticed a mention halfway through the first verse of a tune. He said are you a swamp Yankee? I was like, yeah, I hope so. First of all, I was thinking a Swamp Yankee sounds like a good thing to be. Also to my ears being a Yankee in the South of all the kinds of Yankees to be called, Swamp Yankee has to be the best kind.
Ever since then, when people ask what kind of music I play, I tell them Swamp Yankee music as though it’s a very well-agreed-upon genre. It’s evocative enough that people look at you funny, their head with a sideways tilt and say, I never heard of that, but I think I get it.
I hear a lot of old blues and old folk in your music. That may be my bias, but I wondered if that was something you were into growing up.
Definitely. I grew up listening to my parents’ record collection. Hendrix. The Who. The Rolling Stones. The Beatles. The Band and all that. The Stones were basically a blues band and I started listening to what they were listening to — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, that sort of thing. I put electric blues away for a long time. I was really just digging into that acoustic stuff. The Alan Lomax collection. I got kind of obsessed with the field recordings, that raw pure, honest music you play when nobody is listening. That really got to me.
You do some throat singing on this album. How did that come about?
That was kind of by accident. I took a South Indian cooking class in college. I learned words that have retroflex R’s where you touch the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth. It’s a new mouth shape I was driving around trying out. I heard this really quiet overtone and basically shaped it in the car over five years. I sounded really bad for a really long time. I did not share that with other people. I tried working it into music for a while, but it wasn’t until I found that shitty old guitar that I was able to hide the weird singing with the weird guitar and they sort of had this marriage of oddities. They sounded well together. I spend a lot of time in the car practicing. That’s my main location for that.
In my research, I found you were once featured in a publication titled How to Grow a Mustache. Is that a hipster dream come true?
I don’t know. I’ve always wanted a mustache. There are pictures of me as a little kid and I’ve always got burned-cork facial hair. But I could not grow one (for a long time). I had a Charlie Chaplin, which is also a Hitler. That does not fly. So the first 27 years of my years of my life, did I have one? Nope. Once I could grow one, I haven’t trimmed it since.
So it grows the same way the instruments grow, organically?
Exactly. You just got to let it happen.