If you live in Asheville, NC, there’s no doubt you’ve probably passed a fast-walking, t-shirt clad fellow with wild blonde hair and a smirk on his face, moving down some sidewalk anywhere downtown. Most likely, this guy is on his way to or home from a few beers with good friends, his current favorite restaurant GAN SHAN STATION, owned by family friend Patrick O’Cain or just headed out for some fresh air and exercise with his buddies. That’s one thing this guy is not short on, and that’s good friends and an insatiable appetite for the outdoors.
Most people who know Matt Gentling know of his musical career over the years with his band Archers Of Loaf, but there’s a lot more to Matt than just his phenomenal, animated bass playing, and that’s saying a lot because anyone who’s seen Matt on stage usually comes away mesmerized, amazed and totally crushing on him. The first time I met Matt was in 1992 in Raleigh at one of his shows. I’d only heard his band on a mix tapes my older brother Matthew gave me. Matt had shaved his head again, as he is wont to do, and I was actually sort of scared of him at first. He flailed around the stage with complete abandon and had this look on his face like he might sprout wings and take off at any minute. After the show my brother introduced me (they have been good friends for a long time), and though he was mobbed by a throng of people wanting to talk to him, he was gracious and extremely kind. Years later in 1999 when I had moved to Asheville, NC I met Matt again through mutual friends, and he’s been a good friend ever since.
One thing that I’ve always appreciated about Matt Gentling is that he has this amazing ability to constantly surprise me. Matt plays the bass guitar, but he also plays the stand up bass (playing with Eric Bachmann's band Crooked Fingers for stint)…and he’s good too, though he’ll never admit it. He reads French novels (in French for crying out loud), knows an enormous amount about history and music... and he cooks too. He’s incredibly talented as well as skilled, and though he’s incredibly humble, it’s usually to the point of being self-deprecating. Folks who know him lovingly tolerate it, all the while knowing that he’s really quite brilliant, no matter what he thinks of himself. For example, one time he explained Ulysses to me in great detail, praising the merits of the last section of the book with such enthusiasm that I actually read the thing myself. (Matt's also an avid reader, though he’ll tell you it takes him years to read anything.)
He’s also an incredibly skilled climber. Since I don't know the first thing about climbing except you have to be really strong, flexible and hang from ropes really high off the ground, I can't speak to that part of his skill set, though I am in awe of that as well.
He'll share his skills and resources to help others who show even the slightest interest in something he could possibly teach. He’ll take your friend’s brother bouldering, your aunt and uncle on an easy trail, (he knows all the best trails for any level you can imagine), your cousin on her first rope climbing trip, he’ll loan you his camping gear, his sleeping bags or snowboards, and he’ll give you some pointers if you ask him.
And if all that isn’t enough, Matt is super amazing to his friends and family and somehow manages to see the absolute best in just about everyone. He’s generous and kind, he’s smart and talented and if you ask his advice about something, I can guarantee he’ll have something gracious and wise to say. He seriously dislikes littering, and will make just about the meanest face you've ever seen when someone throws a cigarette butt out of a car window (especially in his hometown). He can grow just about any kind of vegetable you can think of, fix all manner of household appliances, clear a stack of wood in an afternoon, make homemade pie (and crust to boot). He can hold his liquor and remain astonishingly coherent when the rest of us are slurring our words, and he’s got a joke or story for any occasion. And I mean ANY occasion. If you’re ever hanging out with him and he begins a conversation with, “One time Mark Owen and I were…” I highly recommend you grab a beer and pay attention! He’s going to have some great stories to tell you, and I can assure you, you’ll never get bored… in fact, you’ll find yourself laughing and hoping you’ll hear another one. Buy him a beer and settle in. It’s more than worth it, I can assure you.
Here's my interview with Matt. Seriously, you'll enjoy this!
Let's start off with some music-related questions.
What are 5 songs in your “Top 25 Most Played” folder on your iPod?
Harvey Milk- Death Goes To The Winner. An amazing song, heavy and cataclysmic with such a great take on nameless dread.
Birdsmell- Thrift Storgan. Ben Bridwell’s side project. This song is so beautiful it sometimes brings tears to my eyes.
Electric Owls- Kalispell. Another gorgeous song, and an eloquent kiss-off.
Neurosis- To The Wind. Been listening to a fair amount of metal recently; this song has a great feel to it.
Home- Chicago. Off my favorite Home album, XIV. “Better say goodnight to your dreams of a better life.” Dark and lovely.
That’s just what I’ve been listening to lately; it bounces around wildly; I’ve always been fond of the eclectic.
You played bass in that band Archers of Loaf (heretofore known as AOL), which hardly anyone has heard of (just kidding, we’ve ALL heard of it), but what some folks don’t know is you’ve played in other bands too. Tell me about 2 of them. Weren’t you the singer in one of them?
MATT: I was afraid you’d ask me that question! In truth, lots of people haven’t heard of the Loaf, but more people have heard of us than I ever would’ve expected. After Archers, I played in a noise band called Track Rabbits. The lineup was two bass players, a drummer, some homemade noise tape machines inspired by Steel Pole Bath Tub, and some hollering. I didn’t really “sing” so much as do a bunch of yelling, but I am the only person to blame for the vocals in that band. I’ve played in lots of other bands I’m proud of too, but I guess the only one many people would be particularly interested in would be Band Of Horses, in which I played bass for a couple tours. Wonderful music. They’re wonderful people too, and remain good friends.
You play the bass guitar. What other instruments do you play? (and don’t lie)
MATT: I can barely play bass! I also play a little upright bass, very little guitar, some penny whistle (believe it or not!) and a miniscule amount of keyboard. I’m not good at any of them, and I’m not being modest; it’s the truth. When I was a kid, my mom made me take piano lessons; I hated it, and it didn’t stick. I took clarinet for a few months, but never got anywhere with it either. In my adult life, I’ve tried- with zero success so far- drums and trumpet, and I did mess around with that cello of yours once, as you remember; I could wring an almost recognizeable tune out of that thing, but it was still pretty ugly.
What was the name of the first band you ever played in? Who was in it and what kind of music did you play?
MATT: The first band I played in was called Rain, (and later, Kanga Roo,) in high school with my friends Matt McMichaels and Clay Boyer. They taught me how to play bass, because they couldn’t find any bass players who liked the same music. Matt literally told me one night, “Man, if we’re all going to be hanging out together all the time, you might as well learn how to play bass.” Made sense to me. We played pop music, but we were very much into The Replacements and Big Star at the time. Come to think about it, I’m still very much into The Replacements and Big Star.
Did your parents ever come to your rock shows?
MATT: My folks have seen me play a few times, a couple times with Archers, and once playing bass with Crooked Fingers. They, unsurprisingly, were not really into the Archers stuff; my mom once said, “It sounds much better from the bathroom, Matty.” My mom calls me Matty.
What kind of music do your parents listen to?
MATT: My parents were folkies and classical music nuts. My mom listed to Cat Stevens, Charlies Pride and Rich, Gordon Lightfoot… My dad loved old blues: Josh White, John Lee Hooker, as well as old folk: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Janis Joplin, some others whose names I’m forgetting at the moment. When my dad was in college in Minnesota, his band The Folkmongers opened for an up-and-coming Robert Zimmerman who, according to my dad, was frosty and bitchy even back then. Also, my parents listen to lots of classical, all the greatest hits, Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, etc., and many of the romantics like Dvorak, Holst, Shostakovich. My dad has a taste for opera, but my mom does not; she calls it “the screechers.” I tend to side with my mom on that one. Also, don’t forget that my dad was in a band named “The Folkmongers.” So there’s that. I believe he played the gut bucket. Also, he played in a 7-piece band called The Four Skins Plus Three. Also, my dear, dear parents were once kicked out of a fancy Mayo Clinic party for playing dirty medically-themed songs; at the time, my dad was making about $70 an hour, and my mom was making much less as a nurse. My parents are way cooler than me.
If you could take up a totally new instrument, what would it be and why?
MATT: Probably drums. Drums are awesome. I wish I could play drums. When I play drums, I sound like a toddler and a skunk sharing a cardboard box that is tumbling down a flight of metal stairs. I’d also like to learn to play trumpet, and I occasionally make a go at it, but it’s apocalyptically terrible. Gitmo quality.
Who’s your musical hero and why?
MATT: I would have to say Tommy Stinson. He was my inspiration for picking up bass in the first place, and has probably had the most influence on how I play. I got to meet the guy once, and I was embarrassingly, awkwardly star-struck, but eventually, I got over it, and we could actually hang out. Turns out he’s an absolutely wonderful guy. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him, and if I get another chance to hang out with Tommy Stinson, I’ll seize it. Super-nice guy, and great to talk to.
You’ve opened for a lot of amazing bands over the years. Tell us about one that blew your mind.
MATT: We opened for so many great bands, Poster Children, Butthole Surfers, Lemonheads, Luna… But the best story is probably from opening for the Flaming Lips. We toured with them on pretty much their last tour as a loud, heavy rock band. We were huge fans, and really excited about opening a lot of shows for them. When we met up at our first show together, we had already been out on the road for weeks, and those weeks had been quite tough on us: (1) dead van, a Ryder truck broken into and towed in NYC so we missed the next night’s show, the worst case of strep throat I’ve ever had… Some of the Lips guys must’ve overheard us bitching about the hardships we’d had up to that point because, after the show, I went out to the parking lot to fetch the van so we could load out, and I hear, “Hey, Matt,” in a very distinctive voice. It was Wayne Coyne. He said, “How are you guys doin’? Are you okay?” “We’re good, thanks, Wayne, we couldn’t be happier being on the road with you guys.” “Well, we have this crazy light show, and we try to pay all of our buddies good money to help us out here on the road, so we’re not making a ton of money, but if you guys are hurting, we’d happily help you out. Do you guys need money? Are you getting by okay?” He was so genuinely caring and helpful that I almost cried. At that point, we were doing fine, but to hear Wayne offer to help us like that really touched me, and I won’t forget it. The whole band and crew of the Flaming Lips were like that, just excellent people.
Tell us about an amazing band that opened for AOL.
MATT: There were so many. We used to love it when some band kicked our ass at a show; it was very motivating, and fun to watch someone just kill it live. One of my favorite bands we played with was Plexi, a three-piece out of L.A. Amazing songs, a little glammy/gothy, excellent writing. You can still find their stuff out there, and the quality still holds up. It didn’t hurt that the band were wonderful people. I still keep in touch with those guys. We were lucky that most of the music people we met were top-notch human beings. The drag about all this is how many I’ve had to leave out for the sake of brevity.
You spent a lot of time on the road with your band AOL. Most people don’t know what it’s like to go for weeks, cooped up in a van with a bunch of guys, playing night after night in different cities. You guys even toured overseas a few times. Tell me one of your favorite stories from traveling with those wonderful fellows.
MATT: As with any consuming occupation, it’s hard to know what it was like unless you’ve done it, and the experiences varied wildly from one band to the next. It was a difficult lifestyle, but very fun and rewarding as well. There wasn’t much decent food on the road back then, and no decent coffee at all outside of the towns. We had a lot of autonomy- no internet, no cell phones, we were completely on our own except for the people who were immediately around us. In retrospect, that might’ve been the most important aspect of it for me: that autonomy. We usually had incomplete/inaccurate directions to the clubs, so there was a lot of navigating involved, which I actually liked a lot of the time. Our first van had a CB radio, and you could almost always get on channel 19 and ask directions, and some random trucker would talk you in to your destination.
The overseas trips were great, but stressful. Frequent van breakdowns and some border issues now and then. It was fun eating different food, drinking different beer, trying to use foreign languages, and meeting people from other cultures. It still amazes me that our music found its way as far afield as it did back then, with no internet.
On our first tour across the U.S., we thought we’d stop at Mount Rushmore on our way through South Dakota. A gas station attendant said, “Yeah, they light it up at night, so you should be able to see it now.” It was around 9:30pm. Up we went. We found a dark, empty parking lot, with one puzzled ranger. Much to his consternation, we walked up the pitch-black trail to the overlook, yep, the monument was not lit. We might as well have been at the bottom of a hole for all we could see. Presently, here came the ranger, “You boys been good today?” We all nodded nervously. “Okay then,” he said and he unlocked the door to the visitor center and turned on the lights; within a couple minutes, the whole tableau was lit up. I was flabbergasted, in spite of my mixed feelings about the monument in general. We thanked the ranger profusely and gave him a T-shirt, which he held like an unidentified road-kill, looking a little non-plussed.
Some of my favorite times from those days were the unremarkable times. For instance, we usually slept on the floors of hospitable people who came to the shows, we rarely stayed in hotels, so when we did, it was a special occasion. We would sneak all 6 of us- four band members, a sound guy and a merch guy- into one double room. Everybody would finally take showers, and the room woud get gnarly, jungle-humid, but we’d be clean and happy. It was like family: two to a bed, and two volunteers in sleeping bags on the floor. We’d watch TV and talk and laugh about whatever. Like a contented rock and roll family who cursed a lot. Also, the quiet, long drives where you’re behind the wheel, and your people are asleep in the loft, or playing cards or reading in the back, nobody’s talking, it’s just nice and quiet and you’re surrounded by loved ones you feel comfortable with, and with whom you know you can solve any problem or handle any situation that comes up, and you’re screaming down the interstate, far from home, at some insane hour of the night, I loved those times. Too old for that now, I guess.
Who’s your favorite female musician?
MATT: There are very many, too many. Probably Shannon Wright. I love her songs, and she’s incredible live. Another wonderful human. And I have to add one more: Rose Marschak from Poster Children; she’s one of my favorite bass players of all time, and I’ve stolen so many ideas from her it’s ridiculous.
Who’s your favorite all-girl band?
MATT: I’m so out of the loop, and there are a lot of amazing all-female bands out there, but I’ma be old school and say Turfola. A three-piece band from WA, who used to be a punk rock four-piece from Canada called Bite. Cool songs, great people, excellent bass player. Again, it’s tough to limit myself to just one band.
Here are some miscellaneous, non-music questions:
What’s your favorite food right now?
MATT: The food that’s within my reach. I eat too much. But that’s probably an unsatisfying answer, so I would have to say the pork dumplings at Gan Shan Station here in Asheville.
You are quite the world traveler. Tell me about your most favorite place in the world that you’ve been.
MATT: Aaarrgh! Too damn many! I love Barcelona, Spain, I love Cataluña in general; I haven’t been bewitched by a city like that ever. The Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo is one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been. The wildlife is unique and mind-bending, and the Malaysian government is pretty great at protecting it, and the people and culture there just seem light years ahead of anywhere else on earth. The average Bornean would make Buddha want to try again from scratch, some of the kindest, most fully-developed souls I’ve ever met. The North American desert in general is also one of my favorite places, total magic. If I feel really broken, I’ll go to Utah, or Arizona, or some such area for a couple weeks if I can, to get myself (more or less) right again.
If you could spend one week anywhere in the world (that you have NOT been), where would it be and why?
MATT: Patagonia, maybe? I’ve never been to South America, so I’d love to go. South America just seems so culturally diverse. Also, the climbing there is awesome, if you can catch some good weather. Also, I’d love to go to the Balkan peninsula in general: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, that whole big area. While I’m at it, let’s throw Romania in there too. And Hungary, but I spent an afternoon in Budapest, so I guess Hungary’s out. But then I’d like to go to St. Petersburg, Russia, Crimea, Mongolia, Lake Baikal, Tuva, Uzbekistan, Kyrghizstan, Siberia, Mongolia, Mali, Botswana, Finland, New Zealand, Antarctica, sorry, I can’t answer this question.
MARY: You are a very seasoned mountain climber. Tell me one of your favorite climbing stories.
MATT: In, I think 2002, my friend Thomas and I went to Chamonix, France, to climb in the Alps. We were determined to climb all the famous snow/ice routes from the old days. The weather did not cooperate. The area experienced the highest temperatures in years, and rain fell even at high elevations, making snow, ice and rock all quite unstable. After very little success and lots of failure, we set our sights on the Jäger Couloir, a channel of snow and ice on the east side of Mont Blanc du Tacul. It shouldn’t have been so tough; people ski it in winter, for crying out loud. We left our tent on the glacier around 1:00AM, and hiked to the start of the route. The snow was not in good condition, and we moved fairly slowly. By daylight, it felt like Springtime; everything was melting and running with water, and I was sweating. With increasing frequency, rocks were tumbling down the gully at us. I got to lead the crux, which was melting out as I climbed; I was too scared to stop and place protection. Eventually, Thomas had to climb some steep rock to get us out of the bowling alley that the couloir had become. We shed layers down to our long underwear and put away our ice tools and rock climbed another few hundred feet higher until we were stopped cold by a blank wall. During this time, slides of large stones and slush were scouring the mountainside. We decided to retreat. We started rappelling, leaving gear behind as anchors, most of the anchors were in loose, suspect rock. At one point, standing in the gully with no protection, I heard an earthshaking rumble, way up on the mountain, coming toward us fast. Fortunately, we were descending the gully next to the one we had just climbed, as an avalanche of slush, snow, ice, and rocks, some the size of filing cabinets, scoured clean the route we’d been trying to ascend earlier in the day. If we had stayed in that gully, we’d have been pulverized. Hours later, wet, chilly and exhausted, having dealt with a few more minor hindrances, we reached the glacier at the foot of the peak, just in time to enjoy sunset; we had made 13 rappels to reach the bottom of the mountain. By around midnight or a bit later, we crawled into our tent, melted some snow for water, and crawled into our sleeping bags very relieved.
What’s the hardest climb you’ve ever done?
MATT: They’re all hard for me, but the most technically and logistically difficult was probably the Pacific Ocean Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite. We climbed it in September of 1995; it was a bit over 3,000 feet of vertical granite, and took us 8 days, (7 contiguous days.) It’s a gorgeous route in one of the most amazing places in the world. Most of the hardest climbs I’ve done have been in Yosemite, with some tough, scary ones right here in NC.
If I asked you to make blueberry pancakes for 5 people, how long would it take you?
MATT: Well, I’d have to make a run- or send one of my guests- to the store for milk. I never seem to have milk around, because I rarely use it. But if you don’t count the time it takes to get milk from the store, I’d say about an hour. I do like to make blueberry pancakes. Oh, and I might be out of syrup too, so get some of that just in case.
Have you ever fixed your own washer and dryer?
MATT: Ha! Yes. I just fixed my dryer, and was amazed at how cheap and easy it was, except for the fact that all the parts are very sharp, and even being careful, I still managed to lay my knuckle open right to the gristle. As for my washer, years ago I had an older, front-loader that stopped working. All the repair places said it wasn’t worth fixing, and I should just buy another, so I thought, well if I’m just going to buy another, there’s no harm in my taking this one apart out of curiosity, is there? By the end of the day, I had the entire thing completely dismantled. Turns out the main drum axle was bent at the weld. I called the manufacturer and they said I had to pay a field guy $60 to come look at it. Seemed reasonable. When he showed up, he almost fainted when he saw my washer completely disassembled into its constituent parts. I assured him I could put it back together. He began interrogating me on how I did it: how had I figured out these fasteners, and why had I removed this piece, etc.? By the time I had explained everything, and showed him what was wrong, he was happy and enthusiastic. He got my drum/axle assembly warrantied, and said I could re-assemble the whole mess for free, or pay him $70 more to do it for me. I told him it was worth another $70 just to have him stand over me and make sure I didn’t mess it up. Sure enough, when the part arrived, he showed up psyched, and we put that thing together like a NASCAR pit crew. Afterwards, he said, “Have you ever considered doing this for a living?” I was flattered. He was a good guy.
Who influenced you the most growing up?
MATT: My parents. I’m lucky to have amazing parents. It’s tough in some ways, having parents that great, but if I can be half as good as them, I’m doing alright I guess.
You have an incredibly artistic and talented family. Tell me about them!
MATT: Lots of artists in the family. Tons of natural talent. My mom’s mother wrote plays and stories as a kid, and did some pretty cool oil landscapes from memory of the Connecticutt coast where she grew up. My aunt Suzy was the only family member to get a legitimate art degree, and is a good painter and an excellent pastel artist. Her older brothers, my dad’s younger brothers, were Scott and Stuart, fraternal twins, and they were extremely gifted. They studied under Andrew Wyeth, and mostly painted in drybrush watercolors, though they also did some oil, acrylic, lithography, sculpture… Scott was a talented portrait painter; he got to paint portraits of Andrew Wyeth and Jane Goodall, among others. My dad caught the painting bug, and learned a lot from his brothers and sister- mainly Scott. His painting keeps getting better continuously. The visual art talent seems to have stopped short of me, I’m afraid; as most visual artists (yourself included) will tell you, there’s a specific sensibility and way of seeing that a visual artist has, that no one else has. I respect this quality hugely. My sister, Anne, has some of this skill too, and has done some pretty great drawings and paintings, but she doesn’t devote her life to it.
Tell me about your uncles. They were incredibly accomplished in many areas. I’ve always been incredibly fascinated by them. I mean, who in the world speaks Nahuatl anymore?!
MATT: I’ve already said a lot about Scott and Stuart in the preceding paragraphs, but still more could be said about them. As youngsters, they were precocious and troublesome. They almost died in a black powder explosion when they were kids, making multi-stage rockets out of soda straws and gunpowder. They designed and built a glider which they launched at a quarry near their home; Scott almost killed himself in that one. He also barely survived a ride down the steepest hill in town in a baby carriage that they’d rescued and refurbished. Stuart used to load his own shotgun shells, and once they loaded some harmless, but loud and smoky black powder shells, and staged a fake gangland-style murder in front of a crowded movie theater. Years before, they had made a startling lifelike mannequin of an old woman, clutching a purse, and attached her hand to the bumper of a city bus. The ensuing uproar almost caused several wrecks. In all cases, of course, cops were called, and in all cases, they knew where to look first. When they were kids, Scott and Stuart financed many of their hijinks by selling fake Jivaro shrunken heads, which they’d made out of the pelts of neighborhood squirrels they’d killed. Their first one they named Minerva. Scott made a beautiful harpsichord from scratch; it was barely days old before their cat climbed inside it and emptied his bladder. My uncles were also scholars of pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. They spoke a bit of Nahuatl, and learned how to read Aztec heirogyphs. They became instrumental in helping archeologists find key temples in Mexico City, which was built on the former Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlán. That’s just for starters. Those guys were unlike anyone who’s ever walked the earth. They’re both dead now, and I miss them.
Lastly, tell me one thing about yourself that most people would be surprised to know about you.
MATT: Uhh… I fear everything. Absolutely everything. I’m a rational person, and I know this does not make sense, and sometimes that veneer of rationalization is my only bulkhead against systemic, panicked meltdown- that and the calming assurance that eventually, I will be dead and it will no longer matter, and suffering cannot be infinite. It’s absolutely ridiculous, especially given the charmed and sheltered life I’ve lived, but yet there it is. I can’t seem to make it go away. I’m pretty much afraid of everything as long as I’m awake, which I think explains why I sleep so much. For a lot of people, the fear keeps them awake, but not me. Above all, I fear people, which is perplexing; I seem to get along with folks pretty well, but if I’m talking to you, rest assured, that fear is there, I just have gotten used to it and keep it out of play, because it’s so irrational. The only reason I even mention this is because I think a lot- and I mean a lot- of people feel this way, more than would normally admit, and it doesn’t behoove us to hide it, really. It’s just one of those things. Hell, I feel like Jean-Paul Sartre made a whole career out of it. If you want to watch me be miserable, just tell me to call somebody on the phone! Anyway, the feeling comes and goes in intensity, and when it’s bad, it’s sort of an overwhelming, baseless sense of impending doom, disaster and/or failure: Something Is About To Go Horribly Wrong. I call it The Dreads. So, if you’re wondering why I act weird all the time, that could explain a fair amount of it. And I suspect I’m probably in some very good company… I’ve gained a working relationship with it, and can laugh about it, so I guess it’s cool.