Matt Garfield of Mose Giganticus on Creativity and Intellectual Property

A version of this interview was originally published by “The Woove,” a digital and print publication of WUVT-FM 90.7 Blacksburg in 2008.

Touring indefatigably across the the United States, Mose Giganticus‘s Matt Garfield has made a special place for himself in contemporary youth culture. Here in Blacksburg he has developed a small but enthusiastic following by playing shows at The Lodge, Champs, The Nuthouse, and The Lantern along side a diverse range of local favorite acts, including Social Studies, Lee Street Riots, Hostile 17, The Bastards of Fate, and Spiral Joy Band. Garfield visits with other loved underground synthesizer-based acts like the noise-industrial dance music of Abiku and fellow one member band The Emotron.   

His style is uniquely adaptable, drawing on underground punk, metal, and synthcore, but incorporating kitschy elements from chiptune, classic rock, and popular music from the 1990s. Over time his act has evolved from a simple setup with two mics and a keytar, with an automated rack-mount system delivering the background and beat, to a full rock band with a revolving cast of characters playing along to the pre-programmed element of each song.  

Between his 2006 Invisible Hand LP and the 2008 Commander! EP release, his lyrical craft developed considerably: while there were many compelling hooks on the Invisible Hand LP, the stand-out songs were probably the unusual covers of Styx’s “Mr Roboto” and Alice Cooper’s “Clones.” (Which of course, is not to discount the track “Connect that wire to the black wire,” which showcases Matt’s rhythmic sensibilities, his inner electrical engineering geek, his radical perspectives on technology and society, and his fine musical craftsmanship.) On Commander!, the lyrics are self-confident, well-developed, and more positive than the aggressive musical style might suggest: Mose Giganticus emerges as a band with a message of creative artistic empowerment.  

As the commander of Mose Giganticus and as a collaborator in the widely loved underground prog-metal band Hulk Smash, Matt has significant credentials as an independent touring musician. Perhaps equally important, from the perspective of this series of interviews about ownership, inspiration, and intellectual property, he has made an art of unexpected appropriations from popular culture and music, making for himself a sound that is both accessible and original.   

In this interview we talked at length about how appropriating from popular culture is different from appropriating from underground and independent culture, the importance of transparency in attribution, the role that cover songs can play in an act that isn’t simply trying to be a crowd-pleasing bar band, but which offers a special artistic vision, and his unique vision of creative investment in a leader-centered band.

Richard Todd Stafford: When we spoke after your Spring 2008 show in Blacksburg, you mentioned that you thought appropriation of your creative output would seem more okay with you if the performers involved were either your buddies, or someone that you liked or towards whom you felt affinity. Would you offer our readers the anecdote you told about contacting another band about appropriating a lyrical rhythm from one of their songs and their surprising response?

Matt Garfield: Heh, sure. I find that the bands I feel most akin to are those who are determined, but don’t take themselves too seriously. I use that as a compatibility barometer far more than similarity of musical styles. While I was writing songs for my newest EP, I went to a show to see a band I’ve been friends with around Philly for a while, Barking Spiders. They have one song that has been stuck in my head since the first time I heard it and I requested it at the show. Afterwards, I went back to my home studio and was inspired by the vocal pattern that seemed to fit perfectly into the song I was working on at the time (“Commander!”). I emailed Barking Spiders to ask if it was OK with them if I appropriated their vocal pattern into my new song. They loved the idea and said something to the effect of, “Yeah, no problem, we stole it from McLusky and Method Man.” And after the song was done and posted online, they contacted me and said “Perfect, you nailed it man.”

I have no problem with open sharing/appropriation/inspiration/stealing (if you wish) between bands, so long as people are willing to reference the original artist. I even worked some of the Barking Spiders original lyrics into the song when I play it live as a sort of tribute to their song (which is awesome, by the way). Give credit where credit is due. But music is bred on inspiration/sharing, so for artists to attempt to clamp down on their work and attempt to prevent it from being an inspiration to other artists is just plain counter-productive.

Richard Todd Stafford: In the case where an artist you don’t know might use some of your lyrics, or a sample from one of your songs, or imitate a stylistic element of your act, or perhaps something more abstract like a rhythm or a sonic texture, does the issue of attribution enter into your feelings — for instance, if another artist was like “I got the chorus of the next song from one of Mose Giganticus Matt’s songs off of the Invisible Hand CD” or “I was really inspired by Mose Giganticus’ cover of ‘Clones’ and here’s my electrocore version” or “I made this beat with the intro to a Hulk Smash song,” would you feel better about the appropriation? What if the artist was really bad, or had demonstrably questionable values?

Matt Garfield: Absolutely.  In my opinion, the crux of this entire issue comes down to open attribution. If bands are obviously using song elements inspired by or stolen from (however you want to look at it) other bands, it’s the recognition of the inspirational artist that I feel is important. If a band was using elements of my music, and was very open about where they got it from, I would be flattered. On the other hand, one of my pet peeves is lack of recognition of the inspirational artist.  Bands that refuse to admit elements stolen from other artists are not only being snakey, but disrespecting the bands they’re being inspired by. There’s no shame in it – just admit who inspired you!

Now, if a band or artist that my music inspired was demonstrating “questionable values”— that’s a separate issue. We can separate this compound issue into the “appropriation” issue, and “questionable values” issue. I would still approve of the attributed inspiration elements, but disagree with the questionable values. I may not agree with their values, or want to be friends with them, but I can’t fault them for being inspired by my music – so long as they are not associating my personal values with their own choices.

Richard Todd Stafford: You use cover songs in your performance and on your recordings.  To a certain extent, I think audiences probably remember your unusual Styx cover as one of the signature elements of both your performance and your stage persona. Further, in our earlier conversation, you mentioned that you were working on a one member band 1990s cover song collaborative project. Can you talk a bit about the creative aspect of bringing a cover song to an audience who has already heard the original? Do you think it would be different if the song wasn’t well known by the audience?

Matt Garfield: Well, there are a few topics to discuss about cover songs. First off, it’s just another way to pay homage to inspirational artists. I would never cover a song that I didn’t already love and feel inspired by.  That point stands whether or not the audience knows the song. But of course, another fun reason to perform a popular cover song is that people already know it — so they can go nuts and sing along even if they’ve never heard your music before. People can enjoy your original songs, but if they’re never heard them before, and they don’t know what’s coming next, it’s more of a cerebral enjoyment than an emotional/physical enjoyment.  When a song they recognize comes on, people start to lose their inhibitions and let loose a little more.  Thirdly, I feel it’s important to put an original stamp on a cover song. People should be able to hear the cover and recognize that it’s “in the style of Mose Giganticus”— even if they don’t recognize the cover, they should still be able to enjoy it as a Mose Giganticus song.

Richard Todd Stafford: Similarly, you draw on a lot of pop culture in the promotional material you have on the Internet. Do you view popular culture as an open tool box for creative play, or do you see boundaries in what is acceptable and what is not?  Do you think there is a difference in the way we should treat independently produced “underground” culture?

Matt Garfield: To me, the difference between “pop” culture elements and “underground” culture elements has more to do with the intentions behind the elements than the elements themselves. The style of the elements has been overlapping in recent years — for instances Coca-Cola using stencils or “indie-looking” graphic design to advertise their soda, and underground artists have been appropriating pop elements into their art as either artistic commentary, or for irony’s sake. That doesn’t make Coke “underground” or the underground artist a pop-artist. Coke’s still trying to sell units (just targeting to hip indie kids), and the underground artist is still trying to express themselves. It depends on what the focus of the use of the element is. It’s a topic/aesthetic that’s difficult to verbalize the difference between, but usually easy to pick out of a line up.

Now, is there a difference between them?  Are there boundaries? Sure. But in the end, it’s up to the individual to decide where those boundaries are.

Richard Todd Stafford: Mose Giganticus has a unique and identifiable signature sound. But, at the same time, the project draws on a few somewhat well-established rock-oriented genres. In our earlier conversation, you noted how the expectations of what constituted appropriate appropriation were governed to a large extent by genre-boundary. For instance, many people would see a compositional-academic musician lifting a theme from Debussy as a hack, while if a Jazz musician was to do the same thing, it would be seen as an homage, or perhaps a parody, or even just an occasion for improvisation; similarly, in popular genres, the law recognizes a nearly inviolable right to lyrics, but only a weak and ancillary right to other aspects of the music, such as guitar riffs. Can you talk a bit about how genre convention influences your creative process, – and since you are pretty well-seasoned touring musician, how you think it influences your reception? Do you think this is different when you collaborate as Hulk Smash?

Matt Garfield: I definitely draw from well-established rock music. In keeping with the discussion of acknowledging, I’d be happy to, and even enjoy walking anyone through each of my songs and pointing out the various songs I “stole each part from” […] while The Emotron and I are driving around on tour listening to music, I tell him “Oh man, I’m gonna use this part for something” referencing a Melvins riff, or some Faith No More song. Hulk Smash does the same thing. We can piece together our songs from pieces of Devo, Black Sabbath, and Crucifucks songs.

But sometimes you can tell the difference between a part that was genuinely inspired by another song, versus someone who forces a reference to another artist because they think people would react to it. People who are paying attention can usually detect the difference between inspired art and forced art. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s genuinely inspired, it’s usually respectable, even if I don’t like it. However, music, as in most art, is very subjective and there are no hard and fast rules as to what’s right and wrong. Everyone needs to decide for themselves.

Richard Todd Stafford: In earlier incarnations of Mose Giganticus, you performed solo with pre-programmed rack-mount backing music. Can you talk about the creative investment of your live Mose Giganticus band and how this relates to your feelings towards your project as a whole?

Matt Garfield: In past years, when I performed solo, the performance was much more rigid. The backing tracks always play the same thing, so there’s only so much room for me to adapt the performance from show to show. Playing as a full band these days, we’re able to interact with one another. I strongly prefer to be playing with other musicians- it makes the show bigger, louder, and adds a little variety. Each drummer or guitarist I play with adds their own touch to the songs for each performance and I encourage that. Also, since I don’t have a set band, I play with different people depending on who’s available, so there’s a different dynamic to the band depending on the line up. It keeps things interesting. The other side to this arrangement is that every time Mose Giganticus gets a new line up, we need to invest a lot of time in practicing as a new band from scratch – learning the songs and feeling each other’s playing styles out.