Matt Drenik (Battleme): “I wanted to be like David Bowie”

Battleme is the stage name and band of Lions singer Matt Drenik well known for music in popular TV series “Sons of Anarchy”. Battleme is on tour named after recently released album “Cult Psychotica” and on list of cities are Belgrade, Novi Sad and Zagreb. That’s the main reason we wanted to talk to Matt. We also discussed new album, development of his own unique style and many other things. 

BR: The songs for the new album “Cult Psychotica“were written during the presidential race in the United States. Is this the reason why they are more political than any of the previous songs Battleme worked on?

Matt: Yes. There’s no doubt that these songs have more of a current political relevance than previous records. I’ve always believed that art should be a reflection of the artist’s personal space. With the US political system in turmoil and Trump trampling on everything that I believe in as an individual, I felt that it was necessary to take a stand.

BR: The album is also a big leap from the previous release “Habitual Love Songs”. What triggered such a change in directions?

Matt: I think that Habitual Love Songs had songs on it that hinted at this direction like “Shake Shake” and ‘’Post is Dead’’. The real difference in the overall vibe of this record compared to Habitual is that this record was recorded mostly live in a small window of time. We have ourselves two weeks to write and record the record. During that time, Trump was just getting into office and it was all we could talk about. It affected everything, from the lyrics to the playing. It seems like every day we would walk into the studio and he would do something that would make us say, ‘’fuck this guy. He doesn’t reflect anything we stand for.’’ So the intention was there to write this record as a unifying voice between 4 individuals who happen to be best friends in a rock and roll band that were disgusted by what just happened with Trump taking office. It was my job as the lyricist to connect the dots and create some kind of fluid rock storyline called “Cult Psychotica”. With that being said, I wanted to write the lyrics in order of the track titles, so some songs have references to others. You see the hero in “Hot Mess” make an appearance in “Misfit Honey Bear”. The same kid that screams the about “No Truth” is the one that begins to see the colliding mess of light in “Lowlife”. Where Habitual Love Song was a collection of stories from things past, Cult Psychotica is living, breathing reminder of where we were living in two weekmoment.

BR: Speaking of changes, although the band exists for less than a decade, you have had a lot of jumps between genres, including rock, folk rock, punk, and many others. Why is the fluidity of the genres so important for Battleme?

Matt: I think it’s important for artists to maintain a sense of freedom while making art. There are no rules when making a record. The only rules that one has are the rules that they give themselves. Jumping genres is just my way of making room for everything that I love about music to make its way into my life. I love Townes Van Zandt as much as I love the Clinic and they couldn’t be further away from genres, so it’s my job to bridge that gap. I never wanted to be like Chris Cornell. I wanted to be like David Bowie. He was fearless. Beck is fearless. We should all be fearless while making records.

BR: If you would have to decide for one genre that would match your personality, taste and style of expression the best, which would it be?

Matt: Pop.

BR: You have four albums, and all of them seem to have their unique style. Why are they so different? Is it because you grow and change in time or you have so many different things to say? Perhaps the reason is something completely else…

Matt: I just want to be fearless when I’m making art. Of course there are circumstances that can help create a sonic sound. On my first record I had limited recording abilities. I was living in a small apartment with a small amp and a microphone. So I made a folk record because it was what I had to work with. In the end, I was still writing about things close to me. I was writing about a woman that was soon to become my wife. And 8 years later, that same woman makes an appearance in Cult Psychotica’s “Lowlife.” If we are talking sonically, I think that the circumstances around where I make the record and what I have access to help to dictate the overall sound of each one.

BR: We hear and see a lot of stories about different kinds of rock and different bands from various cities and states of America. You lived in both Ohio and Portland. How does that affect the style you’re pursuing?

Matt: There’s definitely a “sound” from each area. I grew up in Ohio, so that guttural, blues-infused riff rock is second nature to me. Sometimes you got bands like Guided By Voices that leaned more into the 70’s power pop mentality, but if my brother was in the Hairy Patt Band. They were as beasty and guttural as you could get. He had songs about the Ohio River’s brown sludge, broken drug addicts, hell bent pimps. Texas had its own swing on things. That’s where I started to get into songwriters, specifically Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson. In Austin, the song was the king. The outlaw country thing was real and those players could really write a song. They knew how to weave lyrics in and out of focus so that by the end of the song, you understood just what they were getting at. It’s a beautiful thing. And when I got to Portland, it was more about finding what I loved about music and paving my own path. I didn’t want to be “the next….”. I wanted to have my own voice and Portland was my breeding ground for that. It creates a healthy environment to be an artist.

BR: “Sons of Anarchy” was a major turning point in your career. How did it all begun?

Matt: I was playing in a club during SXSW Music Festival with my old band Lions. The show was sweaty and packed and the music supervisor for Fox TV saw us with a soon to be manager of ours and asked us if we wanted to write some music for a pilot series they had developed about motorcycle culture in California. He sent us the pilot episode, we watched it in a bar, and started working on songs for it. Of course they had a brilliant songwriters and musicians already involved like Bob Thiele and Dave Kushner. Those two wrote the theme song and Bob was the show music supervisor. But in those early days, I formed a relationship with them that spawned into something bigger than I could have imagined.

BR: What was the best thing about working on a soundtrack of a hit TV show?

Matt: Playing with the Forest Rangers in front of what felt like 50,000 people at the Hardly Strictly Bluesgrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. It was at the height of the show’s popularity in the US. I think that summed up how I felt about being asked to play with them. Bob created a family environment and I always was included on these great shows they’d put on. It was fun.

BR: When we take a look at your complete discography, the songs we hear in the series are not something we would usually associate with Battleme? Are those two sides of the same coin for you or did you have to change and adapt for this occasion?

Matt: Well, the songs that I did for the series always had Bob Thiele involved. Songs like “Lights” and “Time” were co-written by Bob. And usually, when the show needed a slower male ballad, Bob would think of me and I’d get a call. As the series progressed, so did the songs I did with The Forest Rangers. They turned more into “rock” stuff. I was always making my own records, but the SOA soundtrack stuff was another outlet that I aligned myself with. It was fun. I got to record a tune with Slash. I got to play with some of the greatest players I could ever think of. And I owe that all to Bob Thiele.

BR: “Sons of Anarchy” really made a strong impact on the audience, and it is one of those series which first began popularizing anti-heroes. For you, is being the “bad guy” something you would typically described as rock and roll way of living?

Matt: I think it’s more about being misunderstood than being a typical “bad guy”. I’ve known plenty of shitheads in my life and I wouldn’t necessarily want to watch an entire series about them. There was something redeeming about the characters in that show. You felt for them because they were smarter and gentler in scenes than your typical villain.

BR: The distance from Portland to Belgrade is 8376.64 km (5205 miles). How does it feel to travel all that way just to “do your thing” and is it really worth it?

Matt: It’s an honor to be able to play music for a living. It is always worth it. I have the best job in the world. I’m thankful everyday.

BR: You already played in Serbia and this region, do you think there is something different about the audience here, and how would you describe the experience?

Matt: The people we met the last time in Serbia were some of the best people I’d ever met. I think it’s one of the reasons we are back again so fast. There’s something humbling about being so far away from home, and having a home cooked meal served to you from someone that you hardly know as if they are part of your family. Plus, you all LOVE ROCK n ROLL. And we love rock and roll. And of course, Nebojsa.

BR: I have been to one of your shows. You were playing in front of handful of people and you were giving your maximum in a way that it seemed you were playing in front of a packed stadium. On the other hand, I’ve been to concerts where performers waited for an hour or more to completely fill the venue so they could start singing. Where is this energy coming from? Is one fan as important as thousands of them?

Matt: One fan is all we need. I think that if someone pays money to come into a show, they deserve to get the best show they can for the money that they paid. It’s my job to not be worried about the crowd, but about the show, and if I give everything I have in that moment that we are on stage. We have to remember that we’re entertainers and artists. The show has to be a performance, a piece of art that people can take away and remember. There’s nothing worse than feeling broke after you see a show and the band gives up during the set because they don’t like the way the crowd is reacting.

BR: What can we expect in Belgrade and Novi Sad this month?

Matt: CULT PSYCHOTICA!

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