DIY Spotlight I: Jeremiah Matthews of The Ellie Badge

For a major metro area, Memphis has a strangely small-town feel.  It’s not uncommon to run into the same folks in passing, especially at shows, coffee shops, or your favorite Kroger (it’s a thing, trust me).  Luckily I’ve had the fortune of ending up in Memphis, surrounded by a handful of people who not only feel familiar, but are actually from my own hometown in Mississippi.  Chief among them and leaseholder of the two-bedroom house that has held countless wayward Clevelanders as we clumsily transition into the city?  One-man-band extraordinaire Jeremiah Matthews.

And luckier still, I was able to snag a few minutes to talk with Jeremiah about his ever-evolving project, The Ellie Badge.  Freshly minted as a 2018 Artist in Residence at Crosstown Arts and forever tirelessly hustling his dynamic OMB live act to midtown, infinity, and beyond, his energy is as effusive as ever here as he sounds off on the best of gear, the worst of shows, and the most important barbecue in Memphis.

HM: The Ellie Badge has existed in several iterations over the years–everything from full band to one other person to one man band kinda stuff.  How’d it all start out? 

JM: The Ellie Badge is really more like a pen name more than anything. A lot of musicians use different monikers and pseudonyms for different sounding projects or a different name depending on what other people they’re working with, but I’ve never really done it that way. It started out with me just wanting to be in a cool band and not having anybody to be in a band with.

I’m lucky enough to come from a pretty musical family so by the time I was in my teens I could already play a few different instruments a little bit. I was writing and recording music in my bedroom in junior high/high school and started uploading music to MySpace and I needed a cool name. I felt like no one was going to give a shit if some dude named “Jeremiah Matthews” was putting out music but they just might give a shit if a band with a cool name was releasing music. So that’s how the first iteration of The Ellie Badge was born… at least, almost. Originally it was called “Winston, The Crime-Fighting Office Manager” (I really thought I was SO COOL haha). That name was more of an homage to the somewhat anonymous alter-ego vibe I was going for by releasing music under a pseudonym. The style was a lot different back then, too. It was all really experimental and weird instrumental stuff. Lots of weird field recordings and really badly recorded guitar work.

Over time I decided I wanted to start writing lyrics and give singing a shot, so I decided that a name change was in order… And finally, THAT is how The Ellie Badge finally came about and from there on out anything I’ve put out has been under that name. A lot of more image-savvy musicians would probably use different names for different sounding projects but I just feel like it doesn’t so much represent that particular style or that particular style but rather it just represents anything that I make by myself. I guess I’ve been working on what would become “The Ellie Badge” since I was about 15. So, roughly 13 years.

What’s the origin of the name? 

The name comes from the Pixar movie, Up. There’s a moment at the end where (SPOILER ALERT) Carl, the old man, shows up at Russell’s boy scout ceremony to stand in for his absent father. He leans in and presents him with a rusty ole grape soda bottle cap on a safety pin that his late wife, Ellie, gave him when they were kids and Russell just loses it and it’s beautiful. In the movie it’s this beautiful moment where somebody shares something personal and meaningful with somebody that, to anybody else, would be a completely worthless piece of junk. I thought that was a really powerful sentiment and a pretty solid metaphor for these hand-made, unpolished songs I was putting out.

What’s your current live show setup?

Currently my live show set up consists of me by myself with a drum pad, keyboard, several loopers, and a custom guitar.

Speaking of your custom guitar, I’ve seen that thing and it absolutely rips.  For the audience at home–can you tell us a little bit about it?  And if I remember correctly, you’ve got another one in the works.

Hey thanks! It’s definitely a labor of love. I basically wanted to create a guitar that could also output a bass signal so I pieced together an offset style Fender guitar using a bunch of random parts (Startocaster neck, “Jagmaster” body, one Jazzmaster pickup, and a hot rails pickup in the neck slot) and then put in a special “duophonic” pickup. It’s really two tiny humbuckers that each pick up one string, the low E and A strings, and then sends that out to its own dedicated output. Also, I velcroed a Kaossilator pad onto the tail of the thing to use as a drum pad. It’s my special baby.  The only issue is that the “Jagmaster” body needs a specific scale neck that I can’t get a hold of so the intonation gets super wonky high up on the neck. I’ve tried a bunch of different things to fix it but can’t seem to work it out so I’m in the process a building a new guitar that hopefully won’t have those problems. This one is a hollow-body tele and I’m super stoked about it!

You get three wishes but you can only use them on getting new gear.  What’s on your list?

Well for one, I could really use an isolated power output brick thing for my pedalboard so that would be cool. They’re pretty expensive just for clean power so I find it hard to spend that much money on one… But that’s more of a practical thing. If I had a big ole fancy wish I’d probably go for a really nice amp set up. Like, maybe some fancy old Fender tube amps? Twin Reverbs are super nice. Maybe like… an invincible Twin Reverb!

Second, I would probably invest in a nice keyboard set up too. I’m using a Casio a friend gave me and, while I love it, it’s not meant for shows or anything. I’d love a Moog or even just a Microkorg. I need me a fancy keyboard setup.

And third, I’d go for a really nice drum pad. Maybe an Octopad or like a bunch of those new Boss drum pads. I just need something compact that sounds good that I can beat the crap out of on stage.

So a lot of things have changed about your band over time, but you’ve stuck pretty heavily to a DIY technique along the way.  Almost all, if not all, of your band-related artwork and merch has been produced by you, correct?

Yep! Almost all of it! I went to school for design for eight years, so I have the skill set to do all the design work myself. All the album art, t-shirts, stickers, etc. were done all by me alone for a really long time but eventually it started to be kind of a solipsistic thing. When I was in grad school I got really into the idea of collaborative energy and community involvement, so I decided to apply that to my music philosophy and invited some other people to be a part of my process. Since then I’ve commissioned some artist friends whose work I really enjoy to design a few things for me. It’s been really nice and I feel like it adds a lot to The Ellie Badge’s aesthetic. But, even then, yeah I’m still very much in charge of the artistic direction of everything. I’m way too much of a control freak to have it any other way.

The Ellie Badge’s submission to NPR’s 2018 Tiny Desk Contest

What’s been your biggest set of inspirations over the course of this project? 

That’s a tough one. I’m pretty spongey with the things I like and I tend to wear my influences on my sleeve. In the beginning it was very influenced by bands like The Mars Volta. Weird experimental stuff. But then as I got better and better at writing and at song structure, it took on a more pop-friendly sound. Bands like Motion City Soundtrack, Alkaline Trio, Taking Back Sunday, Los Campesinos! and especially Say Anything became my main influences. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot more under-the-radar stuff though. I’m really trying to focus in on a sound that is emotive and expressive without the need for that pop sheen or polish. I feel like the stuff I’m doing lately fits my home-made DIY recording style a bit more. Plus, since it’s just me when I play live now, I’ve been trying to write more specifically for my live show—so simpler and more loop-friendly stuff.

You run a pretty tight schedule of shows–it seems like you’re booked somewhere in Memphis or the tri-state area at least once a week, if not more than that.  How do you keep the burnout at bay?

I don’t, haha. I get super burnt out from time to time. Lately, I’ve been trying to play less shows and focus more on writing/recording new stuff. Mostly though, I’ve gotten pretty jaded about playing locally. I think Memphis is getting kind of tired of my stuff and we could both use a break from each other. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that jazz. <3

Speaking of Memphis–what’s your perception of the local scene in general?  Do you find it to be accommodating, or pretty tough to crack?

Memphis is a tough cookie. There’s a lot of really talented people out playing music and a lot of really driven people out there trying to book shows and make the scene a more nurturing place… but the sad thing is it’s still really hard to get people to come out to shows. I’m not sure if it’s the economy or maybe just changing trends, but it’s really hard to get people involved with the local scene. We’re still in a mostly low-income area and guitar-driven music isn’t really the zeitgeist anymore, so those are two possible factors, but for the most part, I think it’s a problem of there being too many little cliques and not enough crossover between all the different sub-scenes. Punk kids need to go to and feel welcome at metal shows. Hip hop kids need to go to and feel welcome at punk shows. I think it’s all a problem of community and we need to start reaching across the divide, ya know?

But yeah, also nobody has any money because the economy is garbage and rich people are monsters.

Now for the most important Memphis question—the best barbecue in Memphis?

THE BAR-B-Q SHOP ON MADISON. FIGHT ME.

I would never, because you are absolutely correct.

What’s the worst show you’ve ever played?  Spare us no detail.  The world wants the truth.

Ugh… There have definitely been a few. One time I was playing a house show and a drunk girl accidentally knocked the power strip out of the wall… and then did it again… and again… for a total of three times in one 30 minute set. It was absolutely brutal.

But I’d say the very worst gig I’ve ever played was this one time at Sounds Good Memphis. I was playing their Cooper Young fest and I played after this upbeat old blues band. Now, I don’t know how familiar your readers are with my stuff but, just to paint this picture as vividly as possible, my live show is very somber. You might even say it’s downright dour. There’s not a lot of levity apart from my occasional banter. So anyways, I had played a few songs and decided to chat up the audience while I was tuning. I did the whole “thanks for coming out…” and what not and then asked, jokingly, “So you guys wanna hear another sad song?” expecting to get a few pity chuckles. But no. All of a sudden, the bartender lady chimes in… “UGH I am SO SICK of all you GOD DAMN MILLENNIALS with your SAD SACK suicide music!! Play something we can dance to! JESUS!!”  …and I’m like “…ummm… well alright.” I was legitimately flabbergasted. Like, this middle aged bartender lady literally just heckled me for being too sad. It just made me think of that scene from The Wrestler where Mickey Rourke was listening to Motley Crüe or something and says something along the lines of “Man, this is REAL MUSIC! Music used to be about having a good time! But then that Cobain pussy had to come along and ruin everything!” But anyways, I just smiled, started up my next song and said, “Here ya go. Hope this one’s not too sad for you” and made a kiss face… It’s such a cartoonishly ridiculous situation that I’m not even mad about it anymore. Looking back, it’s just hilarious.

Yikes, she sounds like a delight. What are the most important things you’ve learned over the time you’ve spent working on this project?

The most important thing I’ve learned has got to be that you’re not owed an audience. No one owes you their attention. It’s up to you to make them pay attention and if you can’t do that then you need to reexamine what you’re doing. Is your music really any good or are you just too close to it? Is the recording quality listenable? Are you marketing yourself well? In the end, it’s on you.

So you recently received an artist residency at Crosstown Arts.  First off, congrats on that! Do you have any goals for the time that you’ll spend there?

Thank you so much! It’s definitely a huge honor and I’m extremely excited to be a part of Crosstown Arts’ residency program. As far as plans, first off I’m planning on finishing up the album I’m currently working on. After that I hope to record new versions of old songs in the style in which I play them live now. I’m also hoping to bring in some friends and fellow musicians and record some random fun projects that they maybe couldn’t otherwise afford to do on their own. Give back a little, ya know? Maybe make a video series about working with local musicians. Live performance video series maybe? I’m here from late July to mid-December so I’m hoping to get a lot done.

What’s your creative process like for making art and music?  

I don’t think I’ve ever really refined my process. Mostly I just get an idea in my head and go over it thousands of times until I feel like it’s refined enough to record. Maybe I’ll figure out a cool riff and record it real quick on my phone or write a quick lyric idea in my Notes app, but those usually don’t turn into anything for a while. Eventually I’ll dig through all my ideas and then be like “OH COOL, I COULD USE THAT FOR THIS PART!!” Same goes for art. I have a whole folder of unused doodles and ideas that I dig into for ideas and inspiration. It’s not very scientific.

What’s your favorite album or song you’ve ever made?

Oh I definitely think …Again is the best album I’ve put out so far. It just came together so perfectly and says everything I wanted it to say. I’m not 100% pleased with the mixes or the mastering job but it’s definitely my best and most cohesive work yet.

But if I had to pick just one song I’d go with “Penelope II: Return of the Penelope – From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness (It’s Kinda Like ‘Dragon Heart’).” It’s a cute little song I wrote for the most important person in my whole life. I surprise released it on our four year anniversary and it just went super well. It’s also just a fun and happy song and I usually have a really hard time writing happy songs, but that one just came out really smoothly. I’m very proud of it.

Where can people listen to your music, buy your merch, or look at your art?

You can find The Ellie Badge on Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, iTunes, and all that fun stuff. You can also find me on Bandcamp where you can buy digital copies of stuff (which is kinda pointless honestly, you can just stream for free my dudes) or buy physical copies and other merch (depending on what I have made at the time).

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