In Memoriam: Matt Shoemaker A tribute to the Seattle-based experimental musician

Matthew Thomas Shoemaker, the Seattle-based experimental musician, died in August of this year. Unfortunately, Shoemaker’s time on this earth was cut short, but he leaves behind an impressive body of work by which he will be survived by friends and fans. Shoemaker split his artistic time between music and painting, where over the course of nearly 20 years he created hundreds of visual pieces and released eleven albums and two EPs.

Shoemaker’s Instagram page is something to behold, showcasing an array of grotesque and beautiful artworks; the most exquisite of corpses at the mercy of a singular surrealist vision. And he was only getting better! A personal favourite of mine is not even a painting but an experiment in macro photography. Using only olive oil, water, food coloring, and salt on glass, Shoemaker captured a remarkable image that looks like a scene from some deep recess of the universe (It’s untitled, but I’ve come to think of it as “the fish head nebula”).

Untitled macro photography experiment

From an email interview I did with him back in March of 2010, and from online statements his friends have made about him since his passing, it’s become clear just how diverse and deep seeded Shoemaker’s passions were. Film was one of his main interests, and for a while he worked at Video Isle, a humble video store in Fremont, Seattle. In multiple statements, friends reminisced over hanging out with him there, and of “Matt’s Picks” being the ones to really watch for. One of my interview questions was about his love for avant-garde cinema, to which he was proud to say he had both a low and high brow, following up with a list of “a few favorites” that must have been something like 50 titles. I imagine him picking these off the top of his head, but years later here I am still referencing that list when movie night rolls around.

Beyond film, Shoemaker was a seasoned traveler, spending significant time in Indonesia. It was here that his love of Gamelan and traditional Southeast Asian music blossomed. He had a knack for curation, investing his time in documenting selections of music from places like Java, Bali, and Thailand on his blog, Brain Goreng. As a contributing member of Gamelan Pacifica — an American ensemble that have been active since 1980 — Shoemaker continued to keep his love for music alive wherever he went.

Shoemaker had a lot of passions, but they all informed one another. This is perhaps most evident in the music he produced, which was greatly shaped by his time abroad, his love of cinema, and his visual mind. Describing Shoemaker’s music has always been difficult, as anyone who is familiar with it will attest to its deep complexity and mystifying provenance — review any of his albums and you’ll quickly be at a loss for qualifiers. One thing that can be said for certain is that his work perhaps best exemplifies the no-pussyfooting tactic. His uncompromising vision left no wiggle room for casual tourism. Approach a Shoemaker work half-heartedly and you will be subsumed by it; its shear mass will swallow you whole.

Initially, Shoemaker was interested in releasing music on Anomalous Records after befriending label head Eric Lanzillotta, but he ended up finding a home for his first two albums, Groundless (2000) and Warung Elusion (2002), on Trente Oiseaux. This early work still sounds like Shoemaker in his element, both providing a microcosmic window into what would later become his bread and butter: a minimalist’s fusing of analogue synthesis with field recording. On these initial albums, however, silence played just as important a role. Progressively his music became more to the point, but in terms of what best typified Shoemaker’s understanding of balance and patience, one needn’t look past this early era.

2005 saw the release of the Cd-r, Forking Path Navigator (Oblast), and the very limited cassette, Mambang Kuning (Stentorian). This was an integral time for Shoemaker’s career, a transitional period that bridged his early era to his most productive years. On Forking Path … one can hear Shoemaker feeling his way through, as though we’re meant to conclude that navigator and artist are one in the same. In retrospect the album was not a huge diversion from the Trente Oiseaux material, but the inclusion of bowed string drones, and an overall grimier fidelity, certainly added a grace note to his song.

Mambang Kuning was the closest Shoemaker dipped into his Gamelan influence. It’s still basically a noise album, but his usual festering dronescape is mixed around other bizarre ephemera, like children’s voices and the occasional pang of a heavy bell. It was rare to hear something this short from the man — the whole thing is under 15 minutes — but even in small doses his music can snake its way into the strata of human consciousness and linger there for hours.

Though he was most prolific as a solo artist, Shoemaker was no stranger to collaboration. His most notable band was Omake & Johnson, teaming up with fellow musical malefactor David Knott (the two were actually roommates for a time). The duo played their first show in 2002, but their first official release, the Cd- r Headiferous Unctibulum, didn’t surface until 2008. The group would produce only one more album, Every Room Has a Grotto (2010). Both were released through Shoemaker’s own Human Faculties imprint. If anything, Omake & Johnson allowed for Shoemaker to loosen the stringency in his music, working alongside Knott in sonic territory that ranged from guttural electroacoustic to deconstructed folk. In the aforementioned interview, Shoemaker revealed that Omake & Johnson had hours and hours of recorded material stashed away. Here’s to hoping those will see the light of day sometime in the future.

Shoemaker worked with the California label The Helen Scarsdale Agency (managed by the musical alchemist Jim Haynes, a prolific artist in his own right), who published the albums Spots in the Sun (2007) and Erosion of the Analogous Eye (2009). Timm Mason, who knew Shoemaker, shared a statement on his friend’s passing that included an interesting peek into his process: “It was not unusual for him to combine 30-40+ layers of audio — keeping all that sound from turning into formless nonsense is a feat and one of his unique talents.” Spots in the Sun is one of the supreme examples of this talent. Throughout the album, no matter how dense the audio, Shoemaker always maintained buoyancy, often toeing a fine line between form and chaos before elegantly steering a track into a quieter valley.

Erosion of the Analogous Eye took things even further, as David Knott has pointed to Shoemaker’s use of “inscrutable signal paths that fragmented and recombined through electronics and quasi-stable homemade spring reverbs.” To the average person, that might sound like a whole lot of nonsense — even I only get half of it — but I do know that the album utilized stretched out slinkies as natural conduits for reverb. So, you have to admit, the man was not lacking in creativity.

From here came the albums The Sunken Plethora Consumes All (Mystery Sea, 2009), Tropical Amnesia One (Ferns, 2010), and the EP Mutable Depths (Ferns, 2008). All were more focused on the field recording aspects of Shoemaker’s practice. His dronescapes were never without a psychedelic air, and it’s the recordings he incorporated from the tropical rain forest and Pacific Northwest mountains that helped elevate his music to that realm. In 2007 Shoemaker participated in a residency lead by Francisco López that took him to the heart of Amazonia. He spent morning, day and night recording the vast array of wildlife there, predominantly birds, dolphins, insects and frogs. Tropical Amnesia One is composed entirely of these recordings.

From this point until the time of his death, Shoemaker came to release four more albums, The Late Day Spectrum (Master Chemical Society, 2013), and three for Dallas, Texas, based Elevator Bath. Colin Andrew Sheffield — the man behind Elevator Bath — was a friend of Shoemaker’s and holds a very high opinion of his art, describing it as “some of the most singular, dense, carefully arranged, and hauntingly beautiful work one is likely to find in this realm […] Matt was a born artist if I’ve ever met one.” A closer examination of Shoemaker’s Elevator Bath releases provides clout to Sheffield’s claim. The Isolated Agent / Stranding Behaviour (2010) LP saw a back-to-basics approach, stripping away all but cold tonality and an ever-present churn from home-assembled signal patches. Soundtrack for Dislocation (2010) was perhaps the most stoic of his works that utilized his full range of sound, while Flight | Chromatic Splitting Injunction (2015) broke new ground with experiments in tape splicing and a form of techno residing somewhere in the vein of retrocosmic.

Pulling back the frame over Shoemaker’s canon one quickly gathers a deeper appreciation for his grasp of the bigger picture, his preternatural inclination for continuity. However, zoom in again and you might find that no Shoemaker work is ever quite complete without the listener. He once wrote, “I fully intend there to be an aspect to each release that’s really open to the listeners so that they can kind of complete the picture or give it their own meaning. It’s important to me that my music doesn’t say anything definite.” The music’s meaning was never the focus, but the music itself can be traced back to a man whose level of creative veracity was matched only by the lasting power of that which he created. At the very least, the talents, contributions, and spirit of Shoemaker won’t soon be forgotten.

In honor of his life and art, Elevator Bath and The Helen Scarsdale Agency are offering all of Shoemaker’s releases free to download on Bandcamp.

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