Matt Blankenship Jr., founder and lead singer of Los Angeles indie band The Sometimes Island, has a penchant for writing catchy hooks that carry messages far deeper than the average pop song. With the release of The Sometimes Island’s single “Succulent” it is clear that Matt has done it again. What at first listen appears to be a 4 minute ode to the front porch cacti is actually a treatise on the virtue of loving something that cannot love you back. Today we speak with Matt about the deeper meanings of his indie pop ballads, his production style, musical inspirations and more.
There seems to be a common theme throughout many of your songs and that is that they are very focused on relationships, and not just romantic relationships but really you run the gamut of relationships in your music. Why do you think you focus so heavily on this aspect of the human experience in your music?
I guess I just love people. All kinds of people. Love songs and the like are fairly common. There’s a lot of space to say something that hasn’t been said a hundred times before when I’m writing about a friendship, a relationship to a pet, or a reconciliation. Deep down I just want to be understood, and I can’t think of a worse way for me to do that than write a song about “who I am”, start bragging, or write some motivational nonsense. I don’t write about feelings themselves either, it’s so vague. Songs about relationships evoke feelings, and those feel true to me.
The imagery of the succulent as a stand-in for an interpersonal relationship is so bizarre and delightfully wonderful. Where did the inspiration for this song come from?
Thank you. I, like many in my generation, am a big succulent guy. They’re beautiful, and they’re survivors. I wrote this when I was becoming a caretaker for the first time in my life. I got a dog, and I was with someone I thought I would end up raising a family with. I wanted to localize those feelings into something I could easily get my head around, which was taking care of succulents. I talk to them and call them “little guy”. In Texas, where I grew up, you hear Texas mommas say “you poor thing” and that phrase had popped into my head as well. So I went for it, and I was happy with how authentic to me the resulting song sounded.
Your music has such an ebullient and optimistic gaze even when it comes to subject matters that most wouldn’t think that way about. Is that reflective of your own personality? Is it reflective of what you wish your personality was like?
It is very reflective of me. I am a relentlessly optimistic person. I think it bothers some people. It’s also the reason I have been able to stay writing and performing music, when it didn’t make sense to those same people. I feel like most of my songs are sad. I find a lot of meaning in the silver linings of sadness, and so I suppose that makes me an optimistic writer. I really admire those who can write a hopelessly sad song, because I find a lot of release in those myself. Townes Van Zandt is a great example, and I’d love to be able to explore the depths of despair the way he can. I guess I can’t help my optimism.
“Succulent” is about providing love, support, subsistence, essentially it is the tale of helping a helpless creature. While the message and the song both feel very sweet and loving, I think we all know someone who collects helpless people, plants, pets, etc. to make themselves feel better about themselves and to exude a sense of control over that helpless thing. Did this cross your mind at all while you were writing this song, or has it crossed your mind since then?
Whoa, that is a hot take and I like it. It crossed my mind right when you asked me this question and not a moment before. I feel that whatever one says yes to is a factor of what one says no to. If you say yes to everything, your yes has very little meaning. I am not personally a collector of helpless people or things, because that sounds like a ton of work. Secondly, attaching strings to the help one offers invalidates it. The act of saving people or things in order to control them is really gross. I frequently see people do this with money, or financial help. I’m starting to really enjoy this idea of the song’s narrator being a fake altruist. It’s a fun and subversive reading of the song, bravo!
The production on “Succulent” is lush and vibrant and full, it is far removed from a writer in a room with a guitar or a piano knocking out a quick three minute folk song. Where do all the small ideas that make this into a great production come from? For instance there is a kind of whooshing sound that climaxes into the very first words of the track, it’s such a nice touch but not necessarily an obvious choice.
Thank you, that’s a great compliment. The whoosh comes from my background producing a lot of house music from when I was a DJ. I love using risers and the like when I can make it work outside the EDM world. The rest of the small touches come likely from procrastinating, strangely enough. I never felt this song was ready so I added a bunch of little flourishes, thinking I was improving it. I’m happy to hear you think that I did indeed improve the production. I was playing a lot of them on this Roland Fantom G8 that I’ve had since I was a kid, it’s a sampling keyboard loaded with weird little things that I love to throw into my productions.
What were some of the musical inspirations for the production on “Succulent”?
It’s kind of a sped-up reggae thing I was trying to do with the beat that ended up sounding nothing like reggae. I kept the beat fairly straight-on, but wanted the instrumental parts to have little rhythmic hiccups in them. I wanted to make it sound more child-like that way. The beat was the grand pattern, and the instrumental parts the little kids that grow up with their own quirks and hang-ups. When I produced this I was trying to further develop this Matt Blankenship ghost choir thing that I’ve been doing for several years now. That was inspired by The Beach Boys. I layer my voice in four parts, EQ them so they sound disembodied, and add a bunch of reverb. I usually name them actual names, like Chad, Brad, Dad and Carlos. Dad does the bass notes, Carlos does falsetto.
There has been an incredible renaissance of the 80’s synth pop sound over the last 5-10 years and ‘The Sometimes Island’ does it as well as anyone out there. Is this a style you’ve wanted to play for a long time or has it kind of seeped into your music slowly?
Again, aw shucks thank you! It seeped in really slowly. I have always had a really hard time deciding on an extremely specific brand of music to make and sticking to that. The Sometimes Island started as a way to make live music again, but armed with all these plug-ins and production tricks I learned from when I was a DJ. I guess I went 80s instead of a hip-hop or glamorously modern pop sound.
What are some bands or artists from those original days of synth pop that you find influence your music now?
I suppose Gary Numan, A-ha, and to a lesser degree New Order, Soft Cell, Duran Duran and bands like that. I would also say David Bowie, Giorgio Moroder and even Kraftwerk as well, but I’m not sure they qualify as “synth pop”. They use synths and make pop, for sure. I feel the same about my music, and I had no idea what to call it so I suppose these comparisons are inevitable!
There is a synth solo towards the end of this track that has this almost kazoo like effect to it, that is hilarious and lovely and fits so perfectly, how did you land on that particular sound for the solo?
I put that sound in as a joke initially. It’s a patch on the Roland Fantom G8 that I’ve had for forever. It has what can only be described as a farty attack and pitchy vibrato sound. I think it’s supposed to be a synth bass, but I played the part in the upper register and thought it was hilarious. Somehow, it really worked, and it went from a goof to being the actual part.
Do you own lots of succulents yourself? If so, which one is your favorite and does it have a name?
I actually don’t name them. I do have a favorite, he’s an Echeveria Enon, which is a greenish purple, fractal sort of bloom. It’s a fairly common succulent variety, but little guy’s been with me a for a long time, lots of ups and downs. His name is Little Guy. I just realized that. He’s not doing so hot right now. I am giving him extra love. Also I’m not sure why he’s a he. Succulents are probably she’s. The mascot of our next upcoming single is a non-binary flamingo. I wonder why I do the things I do sometimes.