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Last week, Paste magazine released an online-only issue documenting their favorite 25 up-and-coming acts, which included a fascinating anti-folk artist with some D.C. roots: Chad Matheny, aka Emperor X. For close to a decade, Matheny has amassed a cult following with his visceral yet intimate tunes and charismatic live performances. His bio says he’s from Jacksonville, Fla., but as the Paste profile made clear, Matheny has bounced around the country, living in one town or another. So, curious as ever, Arts Desk decided to call up Matheny to discuss his time in D.C.
Matheny went American University and studied physics, a subject he selected based on its difficulty. “I figured, ‘At what point in my life am I ever going to have to do the hardest thing possible,'” he says. “‘If I don’t do it now, I probably never will.'” Matheny says he had an interest in physics from a philosophical perspective, and his education gave him the confidence to tackle any kind of subject, not to mention given him some grounding as an artist.
A.U. also happened to be where Emperor X got its foundations. Matheny lived at Hughes Hall during his first semester, in the fall of 1997. That’s where he first began creating music, recording whenever he had time to himself in his room. But with a roommate who stuck around a lot, Matheny had to get creative, using a “secret compartment where they would store cleaning supplies” in the elevator shaft to do his thing. “That’s where I learned how songs work,” he says. Matheny also had a friend taking drum lessons, and made an illegal copy of his friend’s key so he could teach himself how to play drums and piano.
During that school year, Matheny wrote and recorded what eventually became his first album, The Joytakers’ Rakes/Stars on the Ceiling, Pleasantly Kneeling. The following summer, he assembled all his tapes to get pressed onto vinyl, adding an additional song later on in the fall while studying abroad in Buenos Aires. When he heard the full thing in the spring of ’99, Matheny had a change of heart about his songs. “I tried to cancel the order ’cause I hated them so much.”
He hid all 300 copies under his bed until he mentioned the album to Adam Witt, a friend he met while studying abroad. “I forgot when he told me about the record,” Witt says. “It became sort of this thing where I really really wanted to hear it.” As the Paste profile details, Matheny and Witt had a peculiar standoff when Witt tried to grab a copy of the record, which resulted in a bloodied hand and shattered vinyl.
As Witt recalls, he finally saw his chance to snatch a copy at the end of 1999-2000 school year while hanging out in Matheny’s dorm room. “Chad doesn’t have very good eyesight, so I thought I could hide it under my shirt and he wouldn’t see it,” Witt says. Matheny didn’t miss a beat, and chased Witt outside where the leftovers from winter were still thawing out on the ground, which Matheny decided to use for his quest to get his music back. “We were running around my car and he’s holding up a giant chunk of ice, threatening to throw it at my car,” Witt says.
Witt jumped into his car, and Matheny followed suit: The two called a truce and drove off to Witt’s house in Tenleytown. Once Witt lulled Matheny into a false sense of comfort, he bolted for the house. “My plan was just to stonewall him and keep the record, and Chad starts banging on the door,” Witt says. Eventually, Matheny broke the door’s window and hurt his hand, which is when Witt realized the fun had really died. He let Matheny in and went to grab supplies to fix Matheny’s hand, not thinking Matheny would find the record: When Witt returned, he saw Matheny snapping the vinyl over his knee.
Though the Witt and Matheny’s takes on the events differ slightly, they agree on the ending: Matheny decided Witt could hear the record and left him a new copy, with a humorous note scrawled onto the vinyl sleeve: “On either side of this lame record is the Regal Albatross. He will poke your eyes out if you play this record for anyone else without first clearing it through me.” The sleeve isn’t the only thing Matheny wrote on. “There’s one track that he actually scribbled a pen, took a pen and went into it so that it doesn’t play right because he hated the song,” Witt says. Still, Matheny wanted his friend to listen to the record and like it, and Witt certainly did. “I listened to it, I don’t know how soon afterwards, but it’s amazing, it’s awesome,” Witt says. “It’s very flawed, but in an amazing way, it totally works.”
That early support is just what Matheny needed to eventually take to doing Emperor X full-time, a task Witt helped out with as well, playing bass for Matheny on a couple national tours. Witt’s got some local music roots as well, having played in a old-school D.C. screamo band that’s better known for its parts than its sum. In Amalgamation, Witt played with Jacob Long, a future member of Dischord post-punk act Black Eyes, and Matt Safer, who went on to join The Rapture (which he left in 2009). Witt, who is studying to be a nurse in New York City, is just about the only person from that band not pursuing music full-time. “One guys is a jazz musician now, and another guy has a hardcore band in the Phillipines,” Witt says. “These guys are all still doing music stuff. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to play with good musicians.”
Musicians like Matheny. It appears that after touring the country for years and cranking out album after album of gorgeous anti-folk music, people are finally starting to come around to what Witt first understood about his friend decades ago: In October, Bar/None will release Emperor X’s latest album, Western Teleport.
It’s certainly been a long road for Matheny to get to this point, one which brought him back to D.C. a couple years after graduating to briefly teach freshman-level engineering at Howard University. With Matheny revisiting that long-lost first record, perhaps now is an excellent opportunity to listen to “The Coursebook,” a cut off The Joytakers’ Rakes that Matheny says is the best example of where he would take his style and approach in the future. It’s warm, a little rough around the edges, totally genuine, and perhaps the best thing ever created in an elevator shaft at American University.
LISTEN: Emperor X – “The Coursebook“
Photo by Jennifer Hope McCharen