They’re Blockheads, However, They’re Walking On ‘Sea Legs’May 16th, 2013 | By Rae Alton | Category: Feature
It’s Wednesday night and I’ve been invited to watch Matty Sheets & the Blockheads practice. Jessica “Lil P” Pennell is on a breeze like a gull as she pulls and pushes her accordion. Erin Hayes trills her flute as purposefully and sweet as a meadowlark. Emily Stewart hypnotically plucks her banjo, feeling her way through the song with her whole body. Jon Bohlen single-mindedly plays bass with an awe-inspiring and gentle deftness. Jerrod Smith is having a shit ton of fun on percussion one second, and next he’s contemplating a wicker basket shaped like a duck during a pause. Stefan DiMuzio is concernedly punching out a heart-felt op-ed on a typewriter, but really on a keyboard. And finally, Matty Sheets is standing up like a street preacher, delivering a sermon about discovering the true nature of things, from pretty girls to vegan fashion choices to french fries.
They are the Blockheads, and after two years and 250 hours in the studio, they’re finally ready to release their album, Sea Legs. Their album release blockbuster show is scheduled for this Saturday at The Flatiron, where they’re excited to have a full table of merch including t-shirts.
“Can we put a t-shirt in a bottle and put it in the ocean?” Emily Stewart asks her bandmates at practice.
To the unfamiliar, Stewart’s idea may seem left-field, but The Blockheads are no strangers to the ocean and all things nautical. The genres most often associated with The Blockheads are “aquatic garage rock”, “maritime folk rock”, or, according to drummer Jerrod Smith, “Tom Waits sea shanties”.
“To me, it’s all just rock and roll.” says Sheets.
Where genres like “aquatic rock” are a bit abstract, the band’s nautical theme is anything but.
“I’m amazed at how the moon and the ocean and women are connected,” notes Sheets, whose connection to the water is a lifelong theme.
Matty Sheets was raised on a pond in Connecticut where his Dad and brother would go fishing, Matty rowing the boat. He moved to Greensboro with his family as a teenager, although his parents now live in Cape Cod. He describes his mother bundling up in winter to go for walks on the beach. Somewhere between the pond, his familial inspirations, and the band’s own bonding experiences on the water, The Blockheads’ oceanic songs have become Greensboro favorites. It’s not uncommon to hear a performer at Open Mic Night (Tuesday nights at The Flatiron) cover the Blockheads’ tune “Swimming Pool”.
Based off of the Twilight Zone’s final episode “Bewitchin’ Pool“, Sheets wrote the song in ’04-’05 wanting to do something totally different. “The episode was about a boy and a girl who get transported to a pond through a pool, to an old woman who makes them cakes and treats and things. The lyrics ‘you’re made of tile, cement, and money,’ personify the pool,” says Sheets, “There’s actually a line in the episode when someone says ‘you ain’t no dirty double-crosser!’”
After one of his previous music projects – The Deviled Eggs – disbanded, Sheets began to write “more exposed” songs that required a different vocal style in order to convey their pain and realism.
“People responded well to them, so then I was less afraid to write about those feelings. I keep it in mind when I write new songs,” claims Sheets.
Responded well might be a bit of an understatement. In the Greensboro music scene, Sheets has hosted The Flatiron’s Open Mic Night for over 10 years and recently took over booking its shows. The Flatiron has positively thrived – but that’s another article for another day. Aside from being a mover and shaker in Greensboro, as a songwriter, Sheets is highly-esteemed among his peers.
“He’s a relatable songwriter,” says Taylor Bays, the frontman of Taylor Bays & the Laser Rays, who notes Sheets’s skill when it comes to collaboration because of his distinctive and companionable style. “It’s much more sincere than a lot of the bands I hear nowadays. He doesn’t take a martyr role; his hardship is believable and uncontrived. It’s authentic.”
Bays mentions that his Laser Rays sometimes cover a song written by Sheets in another of Sheets’s musical incarnations, Big Red Rooster.
“The song is ‘Bob Barker Blues’ – it’s about how everybody’s got the hots for my girl and I’m just sitting here watching The Price is Right.” says Bays.
His favorite lyric of Sheets’s, though, can be found on Sea Legs‘s fourth track “Slow Driver”:
Take the keys but please leave the tequila/I know why you wanna leave but I can’t stand living without it
As frontman, Sheets’s collaborative skill has been a definitive asset to the creation of Sea Legs and the evolution of his band. He might be known as a songwriter, but Sheets gives The Blockheads the autonomy to create their own parts and explore each song as a contributor. As all collaborations go, they realize the importance of “keeping it simple” so that nobody plays on top of each other.
When bassist Jon Bohlen joined the band, the autonomy took some getting used to. “It was always Harry’s left hand and Jerrod’s foot,” Bohlen says, describing how he built his parts off the actions of his bandmates. He jokes, “(Now,) they only let me play on the 1s.”
“Nobody could’ve done what Jon did on bass (on the record). It’s perfect to the songs and when I got the first listen – the first copy of the record – I sent him a text message saying “You are the best bass player IN THE WORLD.” And I couldn’t hope for better,” says Matty.
“Matty wrote the songs, the rhythm, and he gives input, but we all work to create it.” says Blockhead accordion player, Jessica “Lil P” Pennell. “We’re like a real…”
“A real family.” finishes drummer, Jerrod Smith.
“A real family. We love each other.” Lil P echoes, “We’ll play a song one way and then it’ll develop into something different based off of what we feel at practice or -”
“It’s organic!” whispered Smith.
“It’s the whole element of playing with a whole bunch of songwriters. That’s really special. When The Blockheads first got together, there was a time when we were all just inspiring each other with songs, left and right,” says Emily Stewart, Blockhead banjoist extraordinaire and frontwoman of Emily Stewart & the Baby Teeth.
“I think my favorite part is – I’d never worked with anybody who didn’t tell me what to do,” says flautist Erin Hayes. “So when I ask Matty, he says, ‘do what ever you want.’ So I ask, ‘how do I do that?’ and he says ‘just have fun’. It just got better from there.”
The Blockheads have a history of epic keyboard players: first was Harrison Barrow (frontman of Harry), then Mike O’Malley (of Holy Ghost Tent Revival and Village Tricycle fame), and now Stefan DiMuzio. O’Malley wrote most of the keyboard arrangements with parts of ‘Octopus’ written by Barrow. DiMuzio might not be the recorded keyboard player, but he certainly hasn’t been left out of the process. He’s the artist behind the back cover’s adorably amusing depiction of hamster pirates – yes, hamster pirates – which is derivative of his art project, The Year of the Hamster. He’s also credited as a member of the Confounded Blockhead Choir in the album’s liner notes along with James Marshall Owen, Randy Seals, David “Driveway” Moore, and the rest of the Blockheads.
James Marshall Owen also plays lead guitar on “Walking on Shark” after a somewhat interesting history with the song. Apparently, Sheets wrote the song at Emily Stewart’s home while Owen was present. Upon hearing it, Owen remarked that it was the worst song he’d ever heard.
“My side of the story is that Matty loves to make things sound more dramatic than they are sometimes,” Owen endearingly states, tongue-in-cheek. “I remember that I was in the living room hanging out when Matty started to write it and I did think it was a ridiculous song but I highly doubt that I actually said that. It is a ridiculous song. I still maintain that. It’s also a very catchy song and obviously one of the best-known blockheads tunes. So I was excited to get to get to play on the CD.”
When asked how Matty Sheets & the Blockheads have influenced him as a musician, he replies, “I could write essays on that!” Owen has a long history of collaborative work with Sheets, including previous bands Eating the Invaders and The Goodbye House.
“There’s a lot of various bands we’ve played in and we’ve each taught one another a lot of things we wouldn’t have otherwise tried or known, musically. We come from a lot of similar musical background and have a lot of musical differences,” says Owen. “The Blockheads, as a band, happens to be a collection of musicians that I have played with in different groups in Greensboro through the years. All of them have been influential to me in one way or another. They’re all great songwriters. They all have different approaches.”
His favorite lyric of Sheets’s is from a new song titled “You’re Not Dead”. It’s not featured on the album but it’s surely on the set list for the album release show.
Disconnect from your possessions, they’re not you / Think about all the places where you don’t look
Owen, who goes by the name James Marshall Owen on stage, is on the line-up for Saturday’s album release show. Although he now lives in Austin, Texas, Owen has flown in for the show and to do some recording at Randy Seals’s On Pop of the World studio, where Sea Legs was recorded.
Sheets’s own favorite lyrics on the album, taken from “Three Big Squids”, align with the nautical theme of the body of work:
I clutch onto the lifeboat with all my might/I turn to see that there’s three big squids that saved me/ They almost wink as they spin and swim away
As you can see, not all of Sheets’s songs are introspective. He describes the sound as having a sense of humor, citing “there could be a muppet-ish feel to it” with inspirations ranging from Tom Waits to Man Man to The Band. The resulting album, Sea Legs, is a worthwhile adventure, taking you from the grace of squids within the dark waters of the ocean to a lonely place where filling an ashtray or a trash can by yourself become profound evidence that someone is gone from your life.
Sea Legs will be released on Saturday, March 18th at the album’s release show. In addition to Matty Sheets & the Blockheads, and James Marshall Owen, are Jack Carter & the Armory, Harry, and Megan Jean & the KFB.