Sample Idea

A boy and his electric toys are the source of Self's soundscapes

Not long ago, Matt Mahaffey's world consisted of a college dorm room, a few instruments, a four-track recorder and a mountain of bad grades. An undergraduate at Middle Tennessee State University near Nashville, Mahaffey had enrolled to learn the business side of the recording industry, but it was only a matter of weeks before classes took a back seat to musical distractions. When he wasn't playing drums in various bands, Mahaffey was forging an identity as a campus recluse, holing up for hours on end in his closet-sized accommodations with a small pile of electronic playthings and stacks of homemade tapes.

Mahaffey's obsession was -- and remains -- sampling. With a few basic mechanical aids, Mahaffey borrows whatever he feels like and toys with it until it's his own. Sometimes, his homemade sounds find their way onto tape to color a finished idea; at other times, they result in whole songs.

"I've always had my little sequencer. It's basically like a tape recorder; you toss something into it, and you can lay it out on a keyboard," says Mahaffey, doing his best to translate the sampling process into layperson-speak. "Then you push a key and play it back; you can slow it down; you can speed it up; you can reverse it."

It was just such tinkering that spawned Self, a two-man recording project that, in turn, spawned Subliminal Plastic Motives, a bright, busy, big-hearted 1995 debut that brought to full flower the intricate spirit of Mahaffey's cloistered experiments. The apparent absurdity of the CD's title is worthy of Self's often dense brand of art-pop, a wise-guy mixture of hummable hooks, crunching guitar and resilient beats that Mahaffey likes to call "buzz-hop." With all music written and produced by Mahaffey, who enlisted help from his brother Mike on guitar and bass, Subliminal Plastic Motives is masterful in its resourcefulness -- so masterful, in fact, that its merits surpass the lo-fi tag often used to peg such self-made affairs.

"It's prehistoric, actually," says Mahaffey, in a halfhearted attempt to belittle the methods used to achieve such a full-bodied sound. "I plug in everything live as the tape is going down. It just gives it a better feel. It doesn't sound like a machine gun or a computer geek sitting down and trying to write a song."

No matter how well-executed his intentions, the 22-year-old Mahaffey is still, at heart, a music fan with wildly eclectic tastes and a severe attention deficit disorder common to guys his age. Self's numerous asides to hip-hop, rock and contemporary jazz, combined with a persistent undercurrent of quirky Brit-pop classicism, begs comparisons to everyone from the Beatles and XTC to Steely Dan, De La Soul and Prince. Mahaffey holds the most reverence for the XTC comparisons. "It's amazing. I never thought I would ever be able to associate myself with anything [XTC's] Andy Partridge ever did," says Mahaffey, who also boasts of a closet love affair with Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagan.

It's amazing, though, how much of his own personality Mahaffey is able to squeeze out of Self's morass of influences. While milling about in Subliminal Plastic Motives' gaggle of clever hooks, fat grooves and genre-bending side steps, a listener hears frequent jolts of grunged-out electric guitar, smooth, jazz-shaded transitions, strummed acoustic interludes and vocals altered with various disturbing special effects, sometimes all within the frame of one four-minute song. Yet what could easily be a patience-trying barrage on the ears comes out sounding organic, humanized and, perhaps most important, profoundly catchy.

Some may find it odd that Mahaffey has invented something so warm and cozy from ingredients often regarded as systematic and cold. It even surprises Mahaffey, especially when he takes into account the unorthodox way in which many of the songs on Subliminal Plastic Motives were conceived. Take, for instance, the ominous synthetic rumble on "Superstar," Self's underhanded tribute to the various icons of sex and rock and roll who grace the posters plastered on teenagers' bedroom walls the world over. "That's my CD player on search mode," he says. "I just slowed it down, and that became the melody of the song that I wrote around."

And what of that strange music-box-like tinkling that opens the CD finale, "Lost My Senses"? "We took a spring reverb out my friend's Fender Twin [amplifier] and bashed it around the room, stuck a mike on it and got this 'pling,' " he proudly confesses. "We sampled it, and it became [part of] the song."

Though it may surprise some that Mahaffey got his start concocting beats for hip-hop groups, his attraction to the form was quite natural, considering sampling's dominant presence in rap over the years.

"I would make tapes of beats; I was always making instrumentals because I was a huge fan of hip-hop, but I didn't want to be a rapper," Mahaffey recalls. "I tossed a few tapes out there, and pretty soon I was getting calls."

Sometimes being paid as little as $30 a pop, Mahaffey joined aspiring rappers in studios all over the Nashville area, and within hours, he would come up with foundations for their songs. At first, Mahaffey says, it was just a hobby -- a way to earn fast cash doing something he loved. But as time went on, Mahaffey's hobby began taking over his life, and by his junior year at Middle Tennessee, academic work was squeezed out of the picture. Upon leaving school, Mahaffey relocated with some friends to a house in Murfreesboro and became a sort of musical jack-of-all-trades, doing his own stuff, working with local hip-hop artists such as Count Bass D (now with Columbia's Work label) and drumming in assorted bands.

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