Don’t Be Denied: A Conversation with Ol’ Yeller’s Rich Mattson

Rich MattsonFor 25 years Rich Mattson has delivered hook-laden garage rock, outlaw country, psychedelic freak-outs, Americana, boozy sing-alongs and traditional folk tunes. His unpretentious, north woods baritone has introduced fans of underground music to Waffle House waitresses, restless outsiders and space ships arriving to take us to a planet where everybody lives in their dreams.

I spoke with Mattson on a snowy night before a recent Bitter Spills gig in Downtown Minneapolis.

Craig Planting: “Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?”

Rich Mattson: “Yes, the very first one was called “Rocket in My Pocket” which I found out is the first song everybody writes. Then I wrote one called “Life Is Short (But Death Ain’t).” I still know those songs, but never perform them outside the basement in West Eveleth.”

“What music did you hear while you were growing-up?”

“Mom liked the Beatles, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Bob Dylan. Dad liked Johnny Cash, Waylon and Jeannie Pruitt. I listened to the radio all the time, American Top 40 with Casey Casem was my big weekly show. I’d fall asleep with the transistor radio under my pillow. Then I’d have to buy a new 9-volt.”

“In 1987, when you were 20, you moved down from the Iron Range to the Twin Cities. Did you move to Minneapolis because it was the hometown of your favorite band, the Replacements?”

“The Replacements, the Flamin’ Oh’s, the Suburbs, Husker Du. Before I heard the Flamin’ Oh’s I thought all music came from another planet. I didn’t think it was played by actual people, I thought these beings were gods. The first time I heard the Flamin’ Oh’s was a total revelation. I was twelve.”

“What are some of your other influences? Your bands have been compared to Crazy Horse.”

“Neil Young blew it all wide open for me. I learned how to play acoustic guitar, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass and drums from playing along to Live Rust. Then I got his songbook and learned how to read chord charts along with a tune. I knew a little about reading music from playing cello in the school orchestra from the 3rd to the 8th grade.”

“Eventually your Iron Range band, the Imports, came down and joined you in the Twin Cities. Were you dreaming the universal Rock dream of being the next Beatles?”

“I was. I never expected the bass player to stay with us though. I had that in the back of my mind that he was too smart to be a rock star. The drummer got his girlfriend pregnant and then they got married which produced a wonderful son who is now 22 and plays in a band with my nephew. But yeah, we had the rock and roll dream. We had no idea what that entailed though.”

“What was the Twin Cities music scene like during the late-Eighties? That was the tail-end of most of those legendary bands.”

“I was like a kid in a candy store, only I didn’t have five-cents for a gumball.”

“After the Imports broke-up you became a solo acoustic performer. Then, a year later, you put together the Glenrustles whom you’ve described as a cross between the Meat Puppets and Creedence Clearwater Revival.”

“I likened my brother’s drumming to the Meat Puppet’s drumming. A real meat and potatoes kind of style, but I think Glen (Mattson) hit harder. You always have to think up somebody to compare yourself to so prospective fans can try to relate to what you’re doing.”

“You built the first Glenrustles following by playing in the basement of the party house you rented in Uptown. Was it easier to book gigs after you established that early following?”

“Definitely. The first few gigs were hard to get, but then when they saw how much our people drank, it was no problem. The phone started ringing.”

“During the Glenrustles years you wrote a bunch of songs about or to the women who’d left you. Were you trying to get in the last word?”

“A lot of those are about dudes, too. I don’t get too specific, but I have the license to get my revenge through songwriting. It helps me to work things out when I write them down. I can tell you where I was at in any year by the album I put out.”

“In 1991 the Glenrustles toured for the first time. What were those early tours like?”

“We were totally irresponsible, drunk and belligerent. We wound up sleeping in the van or driving through the night a lot of the time in the worst vans. I don’t know how any of us didn’t wind up in jail. Not too many places invited us back. It was fun though and I’d do it again if I was 22.”

“Any Spinal Tap stories?”

“Our first tours were with Dog 994 who were complete maniacs. One time we took off from Chicago and the Dog 994 lead singer had these gold lame pants on. We got over the border into Wisconsin and were pretty tired so we hit the rest stop and the singer slept out on the sidewalk. (laughs) In the morning the sun’s up and people are getting out of their cars and there’s one guy sleeping on top of the van, the lead singer is still sleeping out on the side walk in his gold lame pants and the rest of us are all crashed-out in the van with the doors wide open.” (laughs)

“The next year you built, Flowerpot, your first recording studio. Was the plan to have a place where you could record whenever you felt like it, or were you hoping to support yourself by recording other bands?” 

“Both. I felt a natural inclination to dials and buttons and getting sounds. It’s something I love to do, and I love bands and musicians.”

“In 1994 you formed your own label, SMA, and put-out In Stone. The album received good reviews and by now you were packing shows in the Twin Cities, but you still hadn’t received any attention from the major record labels.”

“I don’t think the labels understood at all what we were about. I don’t know if we understood what we were about. I mean, what do you think of when you hear the word Glenrustles?”

“I think of a Glen Campbell tribute band playing in Branson, Missouri.”

(laughs) “Right. And being from the Iron Range we were a bunch of weirdoes.

“Throughout the Glenrustles albums there are songs where you’re vocals are buried beneath churning guitars. Were you intentionally obscuring your lyrics?”

“I knew the words. I mixed the albums. I didn’t like the sound of my own voice. That was before I had a good talking to by some good producers about vocal levels. I was learning.”

“The Glenrustles put out two more albums and then the band folded when the other members settled down into straight jobs. Have you ever been tempted to give up your dreams and settle down, too?”

“Yes, but I don’t know what else I would do. I’ve been playing gigs since I was 14 and have never stopped. I’ve been tempted to drop it and become a sandwich artist.”

“Next you formed Ol’ Yeller. Did you feel like you were starting from scratch?”

“I wanted to clean up the sound, clean the slate, and play with serious musicians who would work with me on goals and sounds. I wanted to get more serious about my music career.”

“You’ve said your first goal was to tour relentlessly. Were you still chasing the old dream of rock stardom?”

“Certainly. The idea was to start over and do it right.”

“In 2002 you put out Nuzzle and for the first time you were breaking even on your tours. What had changed by this point?”

“I had band mates who were dedicated, who wanted to tour and were fun to travel with. We endured.

“How would you describe Ol’ Yeller’s sound? You seemed to roar and growl more during the Glenrustles years.”

“I found my voice with Ol’ Yeller. With the Glenrustles I would lose my voice after a show. I’d be three days into a tour and I’d have no voice left. I abused myself, drinking, smoking, not sleeping and not letting anybody else drive. The songs I wrote for Ol’ Yeller were songs I could actually sing night after night. And we had a little “Americana/Country” style mixed in. We had Keely Lane, the best Country drummer in town…not that we didn’t rock, too.”

“In 2004 you put out Sounder which received great reviews and Ol’ Yeller won the Minnesota Music Award for Best Americana Group. Sounder is a killer album.”

“It’s all
my big influences. I was really getting into the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo and their offshoots. And Waylon Jennings, his tapes got us through a lot of storms out on the road.”

“In 2005 you followed through on all the songs you’d written about leaving the Cities and moving back to the Iron Range. What sparked the move?” 

“A lot of things, personal things. The place I found and the opportunities and potential it showed at first sight were overwhelming. I became obsessed with the idea.”

“You bought an old church and built your current recording studio, Sparta Sound. Did you consider it a big gamble or were you confident Twin Cities’ bands would make the 200 mile drive up to the Range?”

“It was a leap of faith. It’s working out pretty good. I’ve had bands come here from as far away as Indiana and they want to come back. Nobody has complained about the drive. It’s just a great place. It’s very conducive to making a record.”

“What denomination was the church?”

“Old Apostolic Lutheran. They believe they’re the only ones who are going to heaven and their women aren’t allowed to wear pants. They also don’t believe in music or dancing.”

“That’s pretty ironic.”

RM: (laughs) “Right.”

“What is the biggest difference about living on the Range compared to the Cities?”

“The woods. How dark and quiet and isolated it can get. It can be frightening.”

“In 2006 you put out Good Luck which contains “Lakes,” one of your most beautiful songs.”

“Thanks, that one is all me, nobody else played on it. I was thinking about future generations and hoping they’ll still have clean lakes to swim in.”

“Then in 2008 Ol’ Yeller went the same way as the Glenrustles when Keely Lane went off to be a drummer in Nashville and the other guys settled down into their own businesses and family life. You responded by recording your only solo album, Inspiral Notebooks. Was that time period as dark as that record sounds?”

“Yeah, it was dark. My wife of 10 years divorced me. I was facing the reality of being a 40 year-old single guy on the Iron Range which was not a good prospect.”

“But, instead of fading away, you formed your current band, the Tisdales. When you record now with the Tisdales do you feel any pressure to live up to your earlier albums?”

“We just go in and get really high.

(laughs) “In 2008 you put out Baker’s Dozen the first Tisdale’s album, which you’ve described as a cross between Neil Young and Sonic Youth. I also hear the Ramones. Now you’re about to release the second Tisdales album.  Is it as psychedelic as its predecessor?”

“Indeed it is. I’m in a place now where I want to play loud rock and roll. Nobody plays loud rock and roll anymore. We’re going to take the kids to school! This is Rock and Roll. This is not Heavy Metal, this is not Americana, this is not Emo, this is not Punk Rock, this is not the Blues, its Rock and F***in’ Roll, see? This is what it’s supposed to sound like, and if you want us to turn it down, there’s the door! The Who played the Super Bowl and half the people in the bar I was at didn’t have any idea who they were! True rock and roll is dying out, but not if the Tisdales have anything to do with it! We’re the real deal, Holyfield.”

“And you’re still willing to drive three and a half hours through a snowstorm to play a Twin Cities’ bar on a Tuesday night.”

“It’s more fun than it looks. I have a lot of freedom, so I take advantage of it. And now I let others drive once in awhile.”

“Besides the Tisdales, you play hard-driving folk tunes with Baby Grant Johnson as the Bitter Spills, you’re in the Iron Range cover band, the Prodigal Sons and you’re doing reunion shows from time to time with both the Glenrustles and Ol’ Yeller. How do you keep it all straight?”

“I fill in the blanks on my calendar and live accordingly. The hardest part is keeping two days off after a weekend to recover. I can go the whole weekend playing sober as a judge but it still beats the hell out of me. I’m just beginning to feel my age kick in. I think I put out too much sometimes, but if I’m on a stage with a guitar in my hands it just feels so good I can’t help it.”

“You’ve supported yourself through your music and by producing others since 1994. You’ve written over 500 songs and are about to release your 21st album. Do you consider yourself a success or are you still dreaming of being as big as the Beatles?”

“I wouldn’t turn down a big pile of money. There are plenty of avenues I haven’t explored that lead to that pile of money, but we’ll see how desperate I become in my 50’s. I’m pretty confident I’ll figure it out. If not, I’ve got a lot of gear I can sell on eBay. After that, I can fulfill my dream of being a sandwich artist. I don’t need the pile of money, especially if I have to pay it back. I’ve paid my dues. The secret to my success is keeping a low overhead and shredding all credit cards. And the Tisdales are going to get freaky. We’re not going to stop. The Bitter Spills are going back to work on folk tunes. I’m pretty happy to be where I’m at. I can’t complain.”

“Is there anything else you want to say?”

RM: “I had a friend once tell me that you only write two songs in your life. The rest are garbage. I’m still going after those two definitive songs. Maybe someday I’ll write a hit.”

Author’s Notes 2014:

If you’re looking for an entry point into Rich’s music check-out Ol’ Yeller’s excellent, 2004 album: Sounder.

All of the bands mentioned in this article are still gigging and Rich is also currently performing in an acoustic capacity as Rich Mattson and the Northstars. His partner Germaine Gemberling is singing harmonies and Rich’s nephew, Curtis Mattson is playing percussion. The Northstars perform songs from every era of Rich’s career.

Ol’ Yeller re-formed in 2012 and put out a rocking, country-tinged album called Levels.

Read more about Rich Mattson here.
Listen to Ol’ Yeller’s Sounder here.