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.
The most serious of those groups was a skewed little pop outfit called Ella Minopy ("Like 'L, M, N, O, P' but spelled like a girl's name," Mahaffey says). Never Ella Minopy's primary songwriter, Mahaffey had a heck of a time convincing the band to play his stuff, so he resigned himself to his duties as drummer and backing vocalist. "I'd play my songs for friends on the weekends, and that was about it," he says. "They'd come over, and I'd be like, 'Look what I did!' "
Eventually, someone with vision took notice of what Mahaffey was doing. Richard Williams, a fellow student at Middle Tennessee State with hip-hop ties, heard Mahaffey in action at a small Nashville recording studio. After an informal listening session at Mahaffey's place, Williams convinced Mahaffey to pitch his material to record companies. Soon after tapes were sent out, Mahaffey was surprised to find himself up for bids, with Williams as his auctioneer. The resulting deal with Zoo Entertainment (Matthew Sweet's label) couldn't have been more beneficial all around. Williams worked out a choice agreement with Zoo for an indie label, Spongebath Records, on which Self would be the flagship act. Today, Mahaffey and his pals in the like-minded bands Gumption, Fluid Ounces and the Features are signed to Spongebath and looking at healthy production budgets and national distribution through Zoo. Not a bad arrangement for a bunch of guys who spent the last three years struggling to make the rent.
"The last year has felt like ten [years]," says Mahaffey. "It makes us feel so good about what we've all worked really hard for."
With all the messy record company logistics taken care of, Mahaffey has been able to concentrate on making Self's multifaceted sound work on the road, which he does with the help of a five-man touring band that includes his brother Mike. Most important to Mahaffey is retaining the live feel; on tour, nothing is pre-recorded or sequenced, and any samples are triggered by the players themselves, which, Mahaffey says, gives the group more freedom to move with their emotions. To properly direct things on-stage, Self's leader has given up his beloved spot behind the drums to sing and play guitar.
Mahaffey also says that he needs time to mature as a songwriter -- especially where lyrics are concerned. On Subliminal Plastic Motives, much of the prose is disjointed and somewhat sloganistic, as if Mahaffey were merely looking for words to go nicely with his intricate soundscapes. And while he claims there's more to most songs than ambiguous couplets such as "Unwrapped and bitten / An invitation to your side," he does admit that the words have always come second.
"I'm really into rhythm, so it's easier for me to come back to the song and jot some lyrics down," he says. "I talked to some lady in Italy the other day, and she said something like, [Mahaffey goes into a horrid Italian accent], '["Cannon," Subliminal's first single] is really about the ancient Druids and their war with the Somalians.' And I was like, 'No, it's about Richard Williams from Spongebath -- just playing on the saying that your mouth is like a loose cannon.' All the songs make sense to me, and people draw their own conclusions. But I never really thought that anyone would read that much into it."
Welcome to the music business, Matt.
Self performs at 9 p.m. Monday, March 11, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6; 18 and up. The Jinkies open. For info, call 869-
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