Few musicians can identify as scene veterans by the age of 23, yet here is Cody Matlock, a guitar-slinger since his early teens considered by some an elder statesman of the Atlanta club scene. Perhaps it’s his chosen form– the blues– a music that runs deep with history and strips away the contrivance of modernity, leaving only an essential groove, a timeless ache, and just enough chords to do damage.
Matlock is celebrated as a collaborator, sharing the stage and studio with another blues upstart, Eddie 9V, as well as Stax soul legend William Bell, and as an in-demand regular at Atlanta stalwarts like Fat Matt’s, Darwin’s, Blind Willie’s, and the venerable Northside Tavern. He’s also at work on his long-anticipated solo studio debut. A string of recent singles– “Rains in the Summer”, “Give It All Away”, “Don’t Lie”, and the brand new “Real Good News”— showcase an artist who can capture on tape his in-the-now improvisational urgency, offering a version of the blues that speaks to audiences young and old.
Matlock plays Grant’s Lounge on Thursday, September 1st, and he’s more concerned about taking journeys than sticking to set lists, a philosophy that ensures this show will be a unique experience.
CF- I first heard your name when I interviewed Eddie 9V last year and he talked about working with you. What’s been going on with you guys since then?
CM- He’s one of my best friends– I love that dude! When we were 15 or 16… It’s funny, I was at Northside Tavern, and he walked up to me and said, “You’re Cody Matlock!” and I was like “What?”, because I’d never had anybody know who the hell I was, at that point! So we immediately became best friends. We still are this way– we push each other. If I see him killing it, I go to work, and I try to work as hard as I can because we have a friendly competition. Yeah, we’re brothers, man– I love that guy!
How do you inspire one another? Do you introduce each other to new music?
Yeah, absolutely. We definitely have different tastes. I’m looking out for different things and he is, so when we find cool stuff, we always tell each other about it. There was one time when we were at his uncle’s mountain cabin, just listening to music, and he’s like, “Give me something stanky and funky and soulful that I’ve never heard before. Give me something!” So I looked up Little Beaver because Little Beaver is the man, and Eddie was so excited.
You’re a regular performer at Northside Tavern, Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, Blind Willie’s Blues Club, and Darwin’s Burgers and Blues. Do you have a separate approach or philosophy for each venue? Does each venue have its own separate vibe that you can work with?
A lot of places give off a different vibe. My bottom line is to read the crowd. I never really write down a set list unless there’s a specific list of songs that I definitely want to play, and even then, I’ll feel the crowd out and figure out the best time to play each one. The thing with music is if you go in with a preconceived notion that the show is going to go exactly like this, it rarely ever does. It’s better to learn how to react on the fly to people and how to drive them where you want rather than plan it out beforehand. That’s pretty much my bottom line: Just read the crowd. Sometimes it’s a bunch of younger people, and we play more high-energy, get a little experimental. If it’s an older R&B crowd or a blues crowd, we play what we think they’ll be into and try to take them on a journey.
Do you feel you’re educating the younger crowd, giving them music and experiences that they might not get elsewhere?
Definitely, because the thing is, if no one tells you about some of the stuff, you’re never going to find it. The thing about getting into blues first is you become a historian because whoever you’re influenced by, you learn who they’re influenced by. Then you’re in the 1920s, and you’ve learned all this stuff. I love to teach people about stuff like that and play songs that they’ve never heard. A lot of people think I wrote some of these songs that we cover, and I have to tell them, “No, it’s a Little Beaver song,” or “It’s an Isaac Hayes song.”
Speaking of teaching, did you have some mentors who were critical in your developing a love for the blues?
There’s a few. The first was my dad for sure, showing me all kinds of music on the way to school as a little kid. He’d be playing Bob Dylan, Marshall Tucker Band, and all kinds of cool stuff. He taught me about the Allman Brothers before I was even old enough to talk. Then was the people that I started playing blues with, like The Cazanovas, The Electromatics, and Stony Brooks. I still play with Stony Brook today. He’s one of my life coaches; he’s taught me a lot. And then William Bell is another one who’s taught me and showed me a lot of cool stuff. Just everybody in Atlanta is always trying to help you out.
Why is it important to you to preserve this music? And why has it persevered for so long?
I think it’s just timeless. I think at the end of the day, it’s music to make you feel a certain kind of vibe. Some music makes you want to do an activity– like some music makes me go party; some music makes you want to go make love or something. But some music just makes you want to be a cool person. Does that make sense? Some old R&B music creates this super-cool world around you, and you just feel like you’re in a movie. I think that’s why it’s never going to grow old– it’s timeless!
What’s your history with improvisation? Did you begin with formal lessons, get enough basic knowledge, and go from there?
I took a couple of lessons. I took lessons for a few months when I first started playing guitar from this guy named Joey Golder in Adairsville, Georgia. He taught me a lot of songs. When I started getting into blues, that’s when I realized that, going to these blues jams, it’s all improv the whole time. No one really plans out what they’re going to do. That’s the way I always did it; I don’t really know any other way to do it. I don’t ever write a solo and play it the same way every time. I like to improv as much as I can because it creates a moment, and it lets people leave the show feeling like they saw something that no one else did.
What roles does improv play when you’re writing songs that you want to record?
I always want them to be pretty simple conceptually and harmonically so that if I wanted to improve whenever I want, I can. The song has usually such a solid structure that it’s like, “All right, here are the chords, but do whatever you want.” I just feel out the crowd. I can tell if it’s a guitar crowd and they really love the guitar, so I can milk it, but some crowds want the show to keep moving. It’s different every time.
How do you know when a song is done? Or is a song ever really finished for you?
That’s something that I’m in the process of learning at the moment. I think I get to a point where I just listen to it and I would say, “I’m conveying everything that I wanted to. Everything sounds cool. Everything is where I like it. I can’t think of anything else to add. Let’s call it done.” I really try to make sure things are finished because it’s hard so hard to do things as a musician– you get caught up in that loop of adding and adding and adding.
What’s the typical day for you, at least when you’re in the creative mode?
Usually, I try to be in the studio as much as I can during the week, like Monday through Thursday. I go to the studio here in Decatur– it’s actually my bass player and good friend Trey Lander’s home studio called Fantasy Lane Studios. There’s a whole collective of people who come through here, and we record and stay creative all the time here. I try to come here as much as I can– or else I’m just going to sit at home and play Call of Duty all day (laughs)! So I try to come here often as much as I can. If I’m not here, I’m in the studio with William Bell. If I’m not there, I’m at home taking care of the dog or being lazy, getting rest. Rest is important.
You mention the Fantasy Lane collective. What’s the key to a successful collaboration?
I would say to trust everybody in that way. Obviously, you don’t want to trust somebody and let them put your name on something that you don’t feel happy about. But if you’re collaborating with somebody and you don’t trust them, you can’t finish anything. And at the end of the day, remember that nothing has to go out to the public. So if you’re collaborating with somebody else and you trust him fully, and you let it happen, and you have a good time, and at the end of the day you still don’t like the product, you don’t have to endorse it. It doesn’t have to come out. But finishing the process, you learn so much, so if you don’t trust them, you won’t finish.
What’s the biggest takeaway you’ve had from a session that was fun but didn’t yield the right results?
Really, the best advice I could say– and this just came from William Bell– is no one’s going to do it for you. You have to be the one driving it. I come over here and record, and all these people who are helping me want me to finish these songs, too. But if I’m not making it happen, they’re not going to make it happen. They’re waiting on me. You have to be driving; you have to push everybody; you have to lead by example; you have to be the one who’s willing to work when everyone else is tired, so they know, “This guy wants to work.”
Is there anything you can do to get into the zone?
I think it’s something that happens with consistency and practice. I think if you are creative every single day, that thought of being able to do it or not starts to go away. You just do it. It’s just like breathing, you know? It’s all just practice. Being creative is a muscle. You just have to work it out.
I know collaborations have been your forte, but you do have some solo work out there, some singles, and a live album. Is a studio full-length on the horizon?
Yeah, we are finishing up another single that’s going to come out, probably around Halloween time. Then we’re finishing the album in the meantime. I’m not sure exactly about a release date, but as soon as possible because I want it to go out there. I don’t want to hold onto it no more.
Given your background with improv, is it difficult recording these songs for the record, in essence setting them in stone?
Yeah, absolutely. The struggle with that is I play music for a living. I don’t pay my bills unless I’m playing gigs. It’s hard to play gigs all the time and learn everybody’s set list and be ready for every rehearsal and every gig and record your own music at the same time. It’s really hard to do. So that’s why that first record is live. I said, “Let’s just record us live and put it out because I got to be put on the map somehow.” Now I’m just at the point where it takes scheduling and consistency to be able to record a studio thing and still play gigs to pay my bills. It’s studio Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and gigs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
I feel like every conversation about the blues is grounded in the past, yet here we are in 2022, and the genre is alive and well. I’m sure lots of people, even the casual listener, know the classic blues artists, but who are some contemporary people that you’d recommend to someone looking to hear 21st Century blues?
There’s Eddie 9V, of course. There is a guy out there named Xavier Lynn who plays guitar for MonoNeon. He’s just an incredible all-around musician. He has a whole blues album that came out a while ago, but he’s also kind of doing some gospel-type stuff, too. There’s a dude named Jackson Allen who’s an incredible harmonica player and singer. He’s working on a lot more stuff. He’s from Atlanta. Skyler Saufley is another really good one. I’m just saying all my Georgia homies, now (laughs)!
There’s a lot, man. You got to look out there. A lot of it isn’t going to be what people want it to be. People listen to blues and think they’re gonna hear Muddy Waters, but you’re not going to hear Muddy Waters unless you listen to Muddy Waters.