Roman Candle: Interview
The Ability to Overcome Evil
Someone needs to make a movie about Roman Candle.
Seriously. Their story has a whole lot of rock 'n' roll iconography (gospel
roots, out-of-the-blue discovery by a famous dude, major label screw-over,
brothers in the band, love) without any of the really nasty stuff (divorce,
suicide, drug-addiction). Hmm. Maybe I'm wrong about that. People do like bad
news, and even though this Chapel Hill band has been through a lot of crap, they
seem to have emerged smelling like a rose with their integrity intact, and a
pretty awesome new/old album of countrified pop that sparkles with
singer/guitarist Skip Matheny's vivid, sing-along stories about longing for a
lost love. Actually, it seems like every single song on "Wee Hours Revue," which
has just been released on V2 after being held hostage by Hollywood Records for a
few years, is about going somewhere, not fitting in, and longing for some girl
who left him, which is a bit strange considering Matheny's happily married to
keyboard player Timshel Matheny, and that they have a new baby. Rounding out the
band is Skip's brother, Logan, on drums, Nick Jaeger on guitar and Jeff Crawford
on bass. They sat down for an interview at Armadillo Grill in Carrboro, N.C.,
before their show at Cat's Cradle.
The first thing I wanted to get started with, looking back at your history as a
band, I don't want to use the word cliche, but there are so many iconic rock 'n'
roll things about your band.
Starting with, you and your brother grew up in a church
And you think about how so much great music came out of a church atmosphere.
Your father was the music director of the Wilkesboro Baptist Church, correct?
Skip: Actually the Hinshaw Street Baptist Church for a while, but he did spend
some time at the Wilkesboro Baptist Church.
Where is he now?
Skip: He's retired. He was a band director for 20 years, he was a high school
principal, and assistant principal for, like, 10 years, then he retired from
education. Now he is an Internet jazz DJ for one of the biggest Internet radio
stations in the world,
radioiojazz. It's the biggest station that's not connected to
like, Virgin Radio or anything like that. It's fantastic, and he's their jazz
How did that atmosphere growing up influence you and how you play?
Skip: I think that when you are associated at a young age with music that is
meaning, that has a very heavy meaning to it, it makes music a different thing
for you. Music is allowed to be a very profound thing as opposed to being just
something that your mom keeps on in the mini van and listens to Wilson Philips
when you're going to soccer practice. I guess having that at a young age is a
fantastic foundation. I'm not surprised at all that so much rock 'n' roll has
come out of church groups. I think Bono had the best quote about rock 'n' roll,
I think he said, "what are you rebelling against now with rock 'n' roll?" and I
think he said, "you're rebelling against the apathy in yourself." I think that
was a pretty accurate way to say where the spirit of rock 'n' roll is now.
The second thing is that you got screwed over by a record label.
Skip: [laughs] That is a rock 'n' roll cliche.
Let's run down your history:
1. Baltimore Ravens player Trevor Pryce heard it.
Skip: Fantastic. Love that guy.
What did you think when you got his e-mail?
Skip: I really thought he was like a white guy, a third-string kicker who was
into CMJ reports or something and was like, "I'm going to start my own record
label" or something. That was interesting enough because we didn't know anything
about, you know, we'd done everything ourselves up to that point and we still
did afterward on Trevor's label for a long time. The reason we loved him was
because he was a musician and he had a lot of instincts like we had. He's a
fantastic musician. He was doing his first record label and we were on our first
record label so we kind of learned a lot together.
2. So then you recorded Says Pop, and your contract was sold to
Hollywood Records. What was the biggest lesson you learned out of that?
Skip: You should probably have a great sense of humor if you're going into the
music business and you should keep separate your creative life from your
business life, which is hard to do. It's boring to hear people talk about it.
It's the most important thing because otherwise, there was a time when we were
on Hollywood where it wasn't as interesting to write songs because we thought
we'd never get out of the contract and we thought everything we recorded would
be owned by them. “If they're not putting out a record that we've already
finished, why would they put out anything else?” It's hard to stay afloat when
you're going through something like that but I think it made us a lot stronger.
I feel like we found our creative root in that way. It was a fantastic
experience in that way, even though on its own it was just extremely boring.
3. Eventually you were picked up by V2. How did you approach dealing with a
big label again?
Skip: Well, V2, they're actually an independent label, and we met with the
president, who's Andy Gershon, fantastic guy, and Jeff Woody was another guy
there that we just love and Scott Graves. They were the three that we met, and
they were most excited about having our vision and our art come out however we
like it. And you can tell when you talk to people if you've talked to a lot of
music people throughout the years, you can tell if people mean what they say,
kinda. We were just really very comfortable with them. They liked Chris Stamey
too, and Chris is like family for us. It's a lot more of a family atmosphere
than having like a foreign label owned by, I mean it's owned by Disney, who has
to pay attention to all their stock holders.
But even though they're an independent, they're a larger independent. Do you
worry that you might get screwed again?
Skip: Well, we definitely see where you stand. I understand that any independent
label, as much as they might love your art or art in general, they have to make
money and that's how they stay afloat. Going into it with that understanding and
liking the people you work with changes the way that you approach your own, I
mean, this business is rough. All business is rough. You can't get mad at a wolf
for acting like a wolf, know what I mean? So, if you're in the music business
you know what it's like.
You guys are kind of like a Partridge Family in a way, you're brothers, you're
Skip: We've got a redhead in the band!
So are you Danny Bonaduce?
Skip: I hope so! That's what we're shooting for.
How do you deal with each other? You guys are, I would imagine, together all
the time. Don't you ever want to kill each other?
Skip: We're our own best friends. Creatively we listen to the same records and
we turn each other on to different music. The four of us here and Jeff, we all
get along a lot. A lot of bands like to keep their separate space when they're
traveling. I don't know, we all sort of act like brothers and sisters. We're
How do you deal with childcare? You guys have a baby!
Skip: Yeah, that's fantastic. Last fall we travelled all the way across the
country and we would either have friends in the towns where we played who could
watch him for the two hours while we did our show. It's an organic thing. Every
show is different. Tonight we have hired out a babysitter so we can play Cat's
Timshel: Skip's parents come with us too. They're very excited grandparents.
It's fun for them. They love to travel. They've just gotten their passports.
Skip: Yeah, they're ready for us to go international right now. They're like,
ready! Take us to France! Take us to Norway! We'll watch that baby!" It's
definitely more like an old country band from the '40s or '50s. We like bands
that have really teased out hair and do weirdo rock 'n' roll habits and things.
If anybody's looking for that in us they're going to be so disappointed.
Timshel is such a cool name. What is the origin of it?
Timshel: It's in East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and it's a Hebrew word. It
means the ability to overcome evil.
How did you end up in the band?
Timshel: These guys were playing togehter as they were growing up. But we
actually formed when we got married. We got married in '98.
Skip: She's had more musical training than we've had by a long shot. We wanted
her for selfish reasons.
Timshel: When I graduated they told me that the best way to use my degree was to
join a rock 'n' roll band.
So you've got a music degree?
Timshel: No, I'm being sarcastic; I've got an English degree.
So, I was wrong. I thought you guys were in a band, and touring together and
then realized your love for each other.
Timshel: Oh, no, no, no. We got married first. We really encouraged each other.
We were married and at the time we were in school, and Skip was like, "I want to
be a songwriter," so I said, "you can take a semester off to write songs. So he
wrote a whole bunch of songs and recorded the album, and I was there with them
and got involved that way.
So how does The Wee Hours Revue differ from Says Pop?
Skip: We recorded the first one in our basement in 2002, and mixed it and did
everything on this kind of crappy computer environment. Even though we had some
nice gear and got some really exciting sounds that we loved, we had a bad
monitor. It's all very dorky studio talk to get in the technical end of it. We
did this stuff, and when we got the first copy of Says Pop back, it
wasn't exactly like we wanted it, but we were like, “Ah, whatever.” It's never
exactly how you want it. Then when we got our contract sold to Hollywood, even
before that Chris Stamey had contacted us, he came to one of our shows, and
said, "If anybody wants you to re-issue the record, I'll work with you." So we
immediately hit it off with Chris. So when Hollywood wanted us to re-do the
record, our A&R guy, who is a music geek, I mean that in the best way, we said,
"Do you mind if we work with Chris?" And he was like, "Have you ever seen that
man play electric guitar?" I was like, "No, I haven't," and he said, "It's a
revelation!" So he was very excited about us working with Chris. We went in and
went through every track of that record with Chris, and took things that were
very poorly digitally recorded, like acoustic guitar tracks, and we would re-dub
that guitar. We kept all the grit and the fun, or what we thought of as grit and
fun, off the original Says Pop and re-did stuff that we would have liked
to have re-done anyway. When we did it we thought it was going to come out like,
in a month or two months, because we were like, "Hey, we've been touring, we've
got the momentum, let's do it." Then we got caught up in that major label world.
The fact is, it's coming out now, and we're such different people, but it's
still very exciting.
At this point, these songs are several years old, and you're having to tour
behind them as if they're brand new songs. Are you tired of playing them at this
Skip: Thank goodness not yet. That's where the whole family live band thing
comes in. Because we have fun playing music with each other and we can make
different stuff interesting. A lot of times we'll vary it from the record,
sometimes we try to get it just like the record because we haven't played it
that way in two years.
Logan: We're not good enough musicians to get bored with it. I imagine you'd
have to be a jazz musician to get bored playing rock 'n' roll. For us, it's like
brand new every night.
Timshel: Said by the best musician in the band! Logan is really the best
musician in this band.
Logan: Well, then we're in trouble.
What's the concept album you're working on?
Skip: We have a couple of songs tonight that we're going to stick in the show.
It's called "Love Songs for an Empty Room." We just started writing all these
songs during that down time with Hollywood. That's kind of our habit, is to
write. Timshel and I went to England earlier this year and spent some time,
about six weeks, in a manor house in East Yorkshire. We actually stayed in the
stable, it was like a writers-in-residence program. It was a dear friend of ours
from college and her sister and husband kind of owned this place. So I was
looking at all these songs we'd written and I was kind of writing some new
stuff. And I just saw this stuff kind of fall into place, and I thought, “My
gosh, I've got kind of a concept, or at least a song cycle.” They're very
connected songs about empty rooms from totally different angles. An empty room
meaning every possible meaning you can come up with. Figurative, or literal or
whatever. That's something that's actually a complete thing that we started
recording a few weeks ago. We're working them out live too, so we're just having
fun with it. Since everyone's hearing our other record for the first time now,
we're just taking our sweet time. There's no pressure to arrange the songs we've
written quickly so we're letting them have a sort of organic, nice development.
You also have a collaboration with Timshel's brother, called
So, who are The Sparrows?
Skip: The Sparrows are basically anybody that backs up Keegan DeWitt.
It's like you guys are The Band and he's Bob Dylan.
Skip: Exactly. That's our blueprint.
Timshel: He has a real backlog of songs, and we were excited to get back in the
studio. We had him down to our house for five days ...
Skip: We recorded 13 songs in five days, and we didn't even actually do anything
for the record. It was fantastic. It was the most fun recording we've ever had
because we knew we had a set amount of time. I think we even had a stat sheet of
number of burritos ate or cans of beer that got smashed into somebody's head,
but it was all very exciting.
Have you ever thought about just having him join your
Skip: He's too good on his own.
Timshel: He was in the beginning; he played guitar when we first started
playing, but he's an actor. He went into acting. But it's cool to have different
projects come together like that.
Skip: We wouldn't want to take him away from the world and stick him under our
Is this the first time you've played Chapel Hill since the record has come
Skip and Timshel: Yes.
What's this show going to be like for you guys?
Skip: We played the night after the record came out. It's going to be fantastic.
We're just going to have a good time. We love The Whigs, who we are playing
with. We've got their record too, so we can't wait to see them play. We've
played a lot of bills with a lot of different bands. When you want to have a
good time, and you like the evening, the whole event ... When you're in a band,
you go to a show, it's an all-day thing, loading in. It's a whole experience.
We're having a great time now. We're very excited to play in front of a bunch of
people who are hopefully excited to see us.
Are your parents going to be there?
Skip: Oh yeah. Probably wearing Roman Candle T-shirts.
Timshel: Your mom is. Some people from Skip's work are here. He works at a
Skip: I'm a bartender at a, well, it's sort of a posh old-person's home/campus.
It's very nice. I make a lot of cocktails that no one would even know in other
bars because they're all from the '40s. Likewise, I wouldn't know how to make a
Sex on the Beach or anything like that. I only pour Chardonnay or make martinis.
Sounds like there's a story in that.
Skip: There's a million stories in that. People are facing their mortality.
There's also some amazingly funny tragicomic moments.
Have you ever checked out the book Duplex Planet by David Greenberger?
Skip: I think I have heard about that. I'm going to have to check that out,
because as civilized as people try to be, we can't help but be nuts.