Matt Maltese: “I actually don’t really drive anymore, which is the irony of the album. I live in London”

Matt Maltese‘s ‘Driving Just To Drive’ reconnects with his hometown roots, delivering heartfelt storytelling and colourful soundscapes for fans to cherish.

Words: Neive McCarthy.
Photos: Patrick Gunning.

It’s weird, that progression from being a passenger to being behind the wheel. Sitting in that driver’s seat at last, that hometown you know like the back of your hand, shifts in perspective. For Matt Maltese, retracing the roadmap of his youth has provided a new lease of inspiration. On ‘Driving Just To Drive’, his fourth album, he takes a closer look into the rear-view mirror in a way he never has before.

“Naturally, I am quite retrospective,” Matt explains. “Maybe more than I should be sometimes. I feel like it is about balances. There’s absolutely a good thing about looking at the past and seeing how it made you, and seeing what you did wrong to do better next time. There’s a lot in that. But it can be addictive, especially in a time when the present and the future is more scary. That’s something to be quite aware of. I even felt that with the third record. It was such a mental time, and the beginning of this new mental era, that I looked back a lot for comfort. It’s good and bad – a healthy dose, but it’s easy to overdose.”

His third album, ‘Good Morning It’s Now Tomorrow’, was a more lowkey affair – comfortable and quiet, it saw Matt settle into himself both as an artist and as a person. That journey of reconnection with the self continues on his fourth effort, but it’s a more vivid, colourful setting. A Reading boy at heart, the album saw him stepping back into that place and coming to terms with each version of himself. There’s a sense of a childlike twinkle sparking in Matt’s eye once more – as he navigates his mid-twenties, those different versions of himself take him by the hand and lead the way at different stages.

“It’s nice to accept who you were as a kid. You can hate your hometown in a straightforward way and never want to live there, but for me, it was a lot about being really thankful that it was my hometown, even if it was a bit dry. Just embracing the younger versions of yourself and feeling like it all makes one whole was quite nice. It sometimes explains a lot of your own behaviour as an adult. We’re all a mesh of these different versions of yourself.”

Honing his craft through a series of cynicism and sardonic comments on ‘Driving Just To Drive’, a new outlook seems to have grown over the years. Gratitude and joy are centred, and in making the album, a new light was shed on those earlier years. Matt’s always been brutally honest and earnest, but here he does away somewhat with the need to laugh it off – it’s sincere, devoted and more vulnerable than ever. In a way, this seems like a project that was an act of service to the self – a means of reconnection and relearning and refocusing. However, it wasn’t just a therapeutic means of finding his way back. Rather, it served a far bigger purpose.

“A good record has to feel good when you make it,” Matt muses. “It’s got to have done something for you; otherwise, expecting it to do something for other people is a huge expectation when it can’t even move you. My basis is: did this access something in me that moved me more than every day does? That’s the kind of music I like, and if I’m not making something that I want to listen back to on the bus when I’ve written it, I think it’s silly to expect someone else to want to listen to it.”

A legion of fans have stuck by Matt from the very beginning, and it’s those that he has in mind when creating. “The catharsis is needed, but I’m hugely aware that I’m making something for other people. That makes me treat it with more deity and respect. To be totally honest, if I was making these albums just for myself, I don’t think it would sound nearly as good. There’s a lot in treating the music you make as something that you and other people will want to be moved by. On a base level, it also makes you put more work into it. It is also work, and it’s how I pay my rent. It’s good to have it be a bit of a job, as unsexy as that sounds. It’s about trying to access and reflect human emotion in a very human, natural way, but also making something enjoyable, and that isn’t just a huge self-celebration.”

It’s a dutiful approach and allows the record to feel incredibly intentional. While much of it stemmed from a very natural, instinctual approach, there is an added layer of consciousness for what it might come to mean for his listeners. That reminder to leave behind a sense of jadedness and instead lean into who you have been, past and present, and really push your feelings to the forefront, feels even more prescient.

“With some of the fanbase I have, it’s younger people who will listen to those emotions and maybe want to feel or act that way too. It’s a lot less pressure to try and think about them too much with the feelings you’re expressing, and rather just being completely open because it often makes people feel less alone. That’s a much easier scripture to follow than to paint an image of yourself. I have often felt the best music, and the best thing to do, is to be very open about yourself, even if it makes you look pathetic sometimes, or even if you listen back and cringe. For me, to sand off the edges of the frail human mind we all have has never really interested me.”

Those innermost feelings spill out of Matt. From the need to believe everything will work out on ‘Suspend Your Disbelief’, to admitting to being a coward in love, to recalling a world-shaking gig he attended as a teen, his storytelling is richer than ever. Quickly, ‘Driving Just To Drive’ becomes its own storybook-like world. Its lush greens and the sepia-haze of nostalgia hanging heavy, a more vibrantly colourful world than its predecessors.

The sonic sphere of the album undoubtedly amplifies the overflowing joy and vivacity of the tracks, but it’s an aspect of the album that marked a different way of working for Matt. Working with Josh Scarbrow, it was the first time in a while that Matt had brought someone else on board, but ultimately was a decision he is truly grateful for. “I wanted to push things sonically by having someone come in and do stuff I just can’t do. With Josh, it was working with a producer with lots of experience and ability that I don’t. I didn’t have strong ideas about how I wanted it to sound at the end, but I knew what his style was, and I knew it would blend, and having a bit of both was going to be great. I loved his guitar playing, and that was a huge, huge part of it. I wanted a bit more going on with this record. I wanted these songs to be more luscious and intricate production-wise.”

They became deeply cinematic tracks, in the end. ‘Hello Black Dog’ has the sort of building piano that feels as though it is dramatically draping over you, whilst ‘Florence’ streams through the room, buoyant and jangly guitars giving it a sunlight-like glow. It’s all heightened, perhaps with the larger-than-life joy of that childhood version of Matt inside or him that rears its head here. There’s more energy and more joy to be found. After two albums where Matt found himself situated quite at ease in his own comfort zone, this different way of working allowed him to stretch out in different ways that equally pushed the sonics to new levels.

“I felt a lot like the second and third records were made in a huge pool of time,” says Matt. “I maybe didn’t have as busy a life. This one, and maybe this was in a self-inflicted way, I had a bit less time to think about it all the time; it was more just doing. When you’re with someone else, you’re also aware you’re using their time, too. The environment that working with someone else brings is a lot more productive. It’s also a lot less comfortable. I think that was really what I was craving. I wanted that for this record, and I feel like it was more interesting to me this time around to make something that I didn’t know what the last 30% was going to look like.”

It began to look something like this: returning to the place you were made, hopping in your old car that you haven’t driven in a while and watching the world stream by as you aimlessly make turns without ever getting lost. It’s breathing in fresher air than you’re used to and thinking about how you still pull that face you spotted in a childhood photo the other week. Some things don’t change, but lots of things do – you’ll always know those roads like no others, though.

“Driving does give you this clarity, and I used to do that a lot when I was younger,” remembers Matt. “I actually don’t really drive anymore, which is the irony of the album. I live in London. The driving just to drive thing, you’re kind of watching live TV out of your windscreen, and if you’re listening to the right music, it’s perfect. It’s a really perfect experience. I think it’s like our little animal minds that grew up in caves and had to run to catch the food; now they’re in a motor vehicle, everything is really fast and being able to control the speed. There’s something strange about that feeling.”

It is a weird time capsule of life, and as much as the album lingers in the past, it never asks for the world to stop. Things have to keep evolving, continuing, or we wouldn’t be able to grow, and that’s something Matt prioritises here. It’s an endless road, and it will wind and twist, but it will continue somehow. It serves as a reminder to recall the past in order to be more present – ‘Driving Just To Drive’ finds Matt more appreciative than ever, and more at home in himself and with his past. In many ways, it feels like an important album for him to make – one that has afforded him a wealth of lessons and knowledge to take forward.

“I think it had to be now, really. There’s been enough time between now and my childhood to make genuine peace with it, and feel far away from it, but closer just because I want to be closer. It’s definitely a case of, it has to be now,” Matt concludes. “Maybe in ten years, I’ll make an album about being in the womb, if I keep going back.” ■

Taken from the April 2023 edition of Dork. Matt Maltese’s album ‘Driving Just To Drive’ is out 28th April.