On a Sailboat in a Tornado: An Interview with M. Sage

Matthew Sage is a patient force, always moving in new and surprising directions, always with an ear listening for the heartbeat inside it all. His work is intimate and vulnerable, though not obviously so. When you listen through the stratigraphy of it all, there’s an order and a foundation, but the piece you remember, the reason Sage’s work resonates in such a deep, visceral way is the heart beneath those layers. His newest album, The Wind of Things, is a masterpiece of tinted childhood landscapes and physical memories. It’s one of my favorites of the year. 

Matthew and I talked in late April about the album, the stories and memories that inspired it, and more. 

So let’s talk about the new record. When did the idea to make an acoustic record start to come together? Because it feels so different than the last Geographic North album.

I love framing it that way because it makes it sound so different than what I ended up with. But I had finished Catch a Blessing, and Geographic North and I had no idea what the reaction was going to be. Those guys were really excited about it, when it was still sort of behind the curtain there, but I am certainly pretty neurotic, and would think, “Maybe it’s garbage. I don’t know.” It’s also a thing where their release rollout is pretty slow, so I had too much time to sit behind the scenes with it and over listen to it. 

I really threw everything at the wall with Catch a Blessing. Part of my approach was that I wanted to try all sorts of different stuff and layer analog and digital synthesis and field recordings. After that came out, we had moved into a new house where I have a bigger studio space, which was a huge impetus for the new album. I had been working in a really small room in an apartment for Catch a Blessing, and the walls were really this, and we had some neighbors that worked from home so I had to be pretty quiet. So that album ended up being built on headphones. None of the sound happened in the room almost at all. It was all in headphones. So then we moved into this new house shortly after that, Bobby [Power, who co-runs Geographic North] told me, “Hey, so your record sold out. Do you want to do another album?” Of course I was excited, and started thinking, “I can make noise now.” I told them that I kind of wanted to do an album with all acoustic sound, and Bobby said, “Are you saying you want to make an acoustic record?” I explained that that was sort of true, but that it sounds different than what I’m going to give them. So that’s sort of where it started.. 

I’d also spent so much time in Chicago and Catch a Blessing was very much about Chicago. When I started working on The Wind of Things, we had been like visiting family quite a bit, when I started, and I thought, “Man, it would be fun to make a record that sort of reflects where my family is from, and my in-laws, and where I grew up.” Because I was trying to get the hell out of Colorado for so long when I was younger, but now that I’m out I miss parts of it. So it felt good to invite some of that back in. I’ve joked with those guys at Geographic North that this is my Proust record. This is sort of like my In Search of Lost Time vibe, which feels right. Instead of it being a Madeline cookie, I listened to a lake and was like, “Oh yeah!” And then it took me down a rabbit hole. 

That’s awesome. I like calling it an acoustic record because it throws people off and it’s not at all what people expect when they hear something is an “acoustic record.” When you see that, you start thinking, “Oh man, is he going to make a folk record?”

Yeah! That definitely would have been a big turn. I think the label was a little nervous when I was pitching it to them that way. I was like, “I’m working on a record. That’s all acoustic sound. I’m gonna use a piano and acoustic guitar a lot.” They just said, “Okay. Send us demos when you’re ready.” Then as soon as I started sending them stuff, they realized, “Ohhhh… It’s THIS kind of acoustic record.” So from there it was all cool.

One of the things that obviously stands out is how many other people play on it.  There’s all the Fuubutsushi guys, for instance. So how did you figure out who you wanted to play on? And then how did you keep track of all of it?

Yeah, it’s also crazy, because I tracked this in 2019; so way before social distancing or anything. But I have been working in that way for a really long time, so I have gotten really good at file management for the most part. 

With a lot of these people, though –  like with Chaz… Chaz and I can collaborate, whether we’re in the room or not, and it just works like we’re two people who speak the same musical language. That’s the same with Chris Jusell, who is the violin player in Fuubutsushi. Chris has played on every M.Sage record that I put out, except for one. He’s essential, I think, to the studio M. Sage album sound to me. And actually, this was the first time that I’ve ever worked with Patrick [Shiroishi]. 

The Wind of Things  was actually the impetus for starting the Fuubutsushi group, because I thought, “Oh, we did this stuff and it works really well. Maybe we should try to do some stuff together afterwards.”  So even though the Fuubutsushistuff started coming out before this album, it happened because of The Wind of Things

And Francis Wilson who does music as teasips… She and I have talked a lot about collaborating in the past. These are just people that I know have like some studio savvy and know the sound that I’m usually going for. Plus everybody had home studios essentially. 

How the album worked was I would write a composition on the piano or the guitar and do kind of the first round of arrangements. Then I would send three songs to different players and say something like, “Alright, I really hear you on two or three of these songs.” And then they’d go off and work on some parts. So that’s how a lot of it happened. They’d record parts over what I sent and send them back. Then I would sort of mix it and I didn’t really cut a lot. A lot of the time, they would send me a file and I’d just drag it in and drop it and there we go. That’s it. That worked. 

There were a few cases like with Nate Hendrix, and Allison Shelden too actually, where we’d worked on some music together previously but those projects ended up getting scrapped or just not happening for whatever reason. But I still had these files on my hard drive and thought they would work really well on this record, so I asked each of them and they we’re just like, “Yeah, go for it!” So a lot of it was recorded specifically for this and some of it was sort of just me collaging stuff that I had. I am a packrat, so I have all this stuff that I just sort of collaged together.

Are your hard drives just full of stuff like this?

Yeah, I keep everything. And I have folders of field recordings to like that I will never use but I just can’t get rid of them. 

I’m the same way. I can’t get rid of anything. It’s starting to become a problem.

I can’t get rid of anything. I just find more and more hard drives. yet. But you know, this is a great example of how you never know if some random thing will come in handy. 

So how did you and Patrick Shiroishi start working together?

He sent a demo to Patient Sounds for that Danketsu 9 CD that we put out. It’s this nine person group. Ang Wilson is on that, too. So I met Patrick because he sent that demo and I told him I didn’t want to put it on a tape, but that I’d do it on a CD because I was doing CDs at the end of Patient Sounds. Then it hit me that Patrick plays saxophone and I was working on this material for The Wind of Things so I asked him if he’d like to try to do some saxophone stuff for it. So that was the very beginning of how I got Patrick in the loop. When he recorded his parts for this and it was instantly a realization that he was someone that I should keep working with.

That’s awesome.

And now I grouptext with the Fuubutsushi guys basically all day, every day. It’s ridiculous how much we text each other. It’s really cute.

That seems kind of wonderful, honestly.

It’s really nice. That group has been a very essential part to my passing the time in healthy ways during quarantine.

And you all just mixed the next one, right?

Yeah, it’s out on May 7th. It’s called Yamawarau, and it translates to like a mountain laughing covered in flowers, which I think is just so great. We keep changing it up, which makes sense because the albums are inspired by seasons, so it should change, but this one definitely feels different. We’re really excited about it. And now we’re working on the summer one, so it just never stops.

That seems like a fun project.

It is, but it’s also super exhausting. Chaz is also one of those people who like bites off more than he can chew every day. And it’s awesome. It’s part of what I love about him, but I’m always like, “Dude, I need a break!” So it’s great.

I feel like in my life, I have surrounded myself with people like that. I think I’m one of those people. I’ve gotten better at saying no over the years. Especially after having a kid – that forced me to  get me better at it. But even now I still go too far. With Foxy Digitalis, now that I’ve taken it from this newsletter to a website again, I feel this obligation to publish things every day even though I have a full-time job. It’s ridiculous, but it’s just kind of how I operate.

Memories of watching my dad race a boat into a tornado so that he could get another boat that sprung anchor.

Anyway! Back to the record, because that’s what we’re talking about. Yeah. So you mentioned you have some really good stories around the record. Where do you want to start?

I think one of the things is that this record has a weird backstory, which I think is fun. My dad grew up in a lower middle class family in super rural Nebraska. All there was to do in the town he lived in was basically play football, drink alcohol and go to this lake nearby called Lake McConaughy. It’s this huge, beautiful, manmade lake in the middle of the desert and it has sugar sand beaches. It feels like a mirage. So my dad grew up racing sailboats on Lake McConaughy because my grandpa got into racing sailboats since there’s nothing to do out there. 

So you can buy a really old beat up boat and fix it up and start racing sailboats. My dad started as a teenager racing boats with my granddad and my dad became really, really good. He went on to become nationally renowned as a sailboat racer for small boats. So I grew up on boats with my dad. I just heard this story during our baby shower this weekend where it was confirmed that the first time I was on a boat was when I was six weeks old. I grew up on lakes and on the water. There’s like a very specific kind of mountain reservoir that sort of became like our home away from home. We’d live in an RV for weeks over the summer going from lake to lake and my dad would do these races. It was almost like being in a touring band.

I spent a lot of time just noodling around yacht clubs at these rundown marinas that were built in the 1950s. It was super formative to my youth. It was also that thing where when I became a teenager and got into punk and music and stuff, it was that part of my personality that was where I was like, “This is dumb. I don’t want anyone to know about this part of my life.” It was too authentic or whatever. So I pushed it away and moved to Chicago.

Now I’m in my 30s and about to have a kid. Family planning was happening during the tracking of this album, so I was like looking back on these times in my life and thinking how I can’t believe that was my real life. I spent so much time swimming in these freezing cold reservoirs and learning how to race boats with my dad. Also, my dad has had two heart failures since I started working on this record. So I’ve just been thinking a lot about my time with him. He’s doing okay now. He’s on a second pacemaker, and it’s working and everything’s good. But it made me really think about my memories with him. 

I think that for a long time, I was making music that was reflective of a certain version of myself. This version where I’m going to art school; I’m from a small town and I’m the first person in my generation to get a master’s degree and so I’m going to make a piece of music that references obscure paintings, or whatever, you know. That’s how Catch a Blessing sort of came around. It was fun and I learned a lot, but now I feel like I can be that person who went to art school, but I also don’t have to abandon this history that I have. 

I have all these crazy stories in my body that I carry around with me. Memories of watching my dad race a boat into a tornado so that he could get another boat that sprung anchor.

My god, what?

That’s a real story that happened! We were at this lake and a tornado came. So we had a boat that was bigger, it was a racing boat. Then we had a small 14-foot little dinghy. The racing boat was out on an anchor and it got pulled off the anchor and was getting sucked into the lake toward the tornado. My dad saw what was happening and got us in the car and then backed the car in between two sand dunes. He kissed my mom and I on our heads and jumped out and into this little sailboat  to race to get his boat – he’s on a sailboat in this lake with three waterspout tornadoes going across it – and my mom was just screaming. Twister had just come out so my nine year-old understanding of what was happening was very informed by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt racing into a tornado. I was watching all this happen through the windshield, just watching my dad race into a tornado. 

That kind of stuff, you carry that around in your body. So I felt like I really gave the part of myself that was into academia and aesthetics and art a lot of space with Catch a Blessing. So now it felt like it was time to give space to that memory version of myself and that weird kid with a cowlick sitting in the sand, it was his turn. It felt really good to make a piece of music that reflected that time in my life. And also during this time where I’m starting to think about being a dad too, and what that means for me.

That’s an incredible story.

Yeah. It’s very, very wild. There was this one time we went to San Diego for a race, and there was a playground at this yacht club. There was this guy there with his two daughters, and he obviously looked like a sailor. And he asked me if my dad was racing because I was there by myself, playing with his daughters. I was probably 10 or 11. So I told him my dad was racing and told him my dad’s name, and he looked at me, and he said,  “Your dad is fast.” This is a complete stranger. It freaked me out to know that my dad was known for being a good sailor, because it was always just this thing he did and so it was weird to me. I mean, none of my friends’ parents did this.

Right, and when you’re a kid, it just seems like this thing your dad does. It’s normal to you. 

Yeah, it’s like, “Wait, your family doesn’t do this thing? You don’t live in an RV for two months out of the summer?”

When I talk about it with my parents, my mom often says, “You are with your music, how your dad was with sailing.” And I think that that’s a really cool analogy. So it felt right to make this record. It felt like I should do a thing that sort of honors that.

Has your dad heard this record?

Yeah, he has and there’s a pretty good story about it. So I had the core of the album finished. It took me maybe four or five months to finish tracking it, so after it was sort of finished, I had the demos with me on my phone. I was sort of listening to them when I had a chance to and it happened that we went out to Colorado for a weekend or something around then. So we’re driving through Rocky Mountain National Park, and I was like, “Hey, you guys, let me play you what I’m working on.” So I played it for him while we were driving to Rocky Mountain National Park, and my mom fell asleep. Which, I think, is a compliment as much as it is a sort of burn. My dad was like, “This is really pretty. It’s really different than what you usually do.”

I don’t know that my parents get it or understand it, but they’ve always been really supportive. And now they’re starting to understand that they can make jokes about ambient music around me. That’s okay. Because they didn’t get that for a long time. They just thought, “The music you make is weird. It’s cool, though.”

It’s such a weird chasm. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a bridge across it, but I think they can see across it. And that’s at least the better part. They’ve come and see me play shows before in Chicago, and they’re always shows that went really poorly. It’s not because I’m nervous or anything, but there always seem to be technical difficulties. But they’re really supportive. My dad cries anytime he watches me play music live, because he’s just so supportive. He’s a big giant ice cream cone of a man. And my mom, she’s also super supportive. She was the one who was like, “Oh, you don’t like sports? Here’s a drum set.” She was the one who sort of started the whole thing. They’re both really proud, but they definitely don’t quite understand it. It’s not the trajectory they expected me to take with music.

That’s where it came from; this idea of capturing that vibration, the wind of things.

That’s wonderful. I can relate to a lot of that because my parents have always been supportive even if they’re also kind of confused by it. And my dad is a big softie, too. Ha! Anyway, I’m still thinking about your dad racing into this tornado in a boat. How long did he race boats and all that?

He started when he was 12 or 13, and he raced until he was in his 40s. So it was a long time. His day job was that he was a commercial horticulturist. And in Colorado, half the season is spent snow plowing, so he spent four months out of the year in a truck pushing snow. It did a lot of bad damage to his back because you have to turn all day to look out the back window and stuff. So he got a back surgery and then realized that he couldn’t race the same after that. They tried to pivot into a boat that’s more just for cruising and hanging out and less for speed, but I had gone to college at that point. I was really part of the people that helped them crew the boat and move stuff, but I just wasn’t around as much either. So they decided to put the boat away. He still gets sad when we talk about it because it’s a part of his life that’s over. It really was his whole adult life. Anytime we’re at a lake and there’s boats on the water, he just freezes. It was a huge part of his life. My grandparents, too. They were on boats until they were in their 60s, so it’s like a big part of our family. It’s part of our DNA. Which is weird because we live in the high desert, so I don’t know how these people got so into being on the water. But it really has been a huge part of my family’s life.

Do you ever go out on a boat?

I think the last time I was on a sailboat was right before my folks sold their cruiser boat. Lynette and I weren’t married yet, so I think it’s been about eight years since I’ve been on a sailboat. I mean, we’ve been on Chicago riverboat tours or whatever, but I haven’t been on a sailboat since then. And I absolutely miss it. 

It’s also one of those things where, my dad and his friends, they were kind of pirates back in the day. They would find cheap boats and fix them up. When it comes to sailing, there’s two different groups: yacht club dudes with their Sperrys and their polo shirts. There’s that side of it. And then my dad and all of his friends were more like pirates. We would go to the lake for the weekend, and if they weren’t racing, my dad’s friends were, you know, smoking doobs in the grass and then coming out and hanging out around the campfire.

That sounds like the plot of an 80s comedy or something.

It was very much like Meatballs on a lake. That’s totally what the vibe was with my childhood; a bunch of friends and beat-up campers hanging out at this lake in the middle of Nebraska. getting sunburned, and hunting for toads. It was very picturesque and awesome. 

It was always a weird reality shock to go back to the suburbs where we were living and be in the suburban culture there. I would think, “I was just a pirate for a week, and now I have to take showers and go to church? This sucks. This isn’t who I want to be. I like that person that was living in the RV.” And now as an adult, I can’t even imagine going on tour anymore. It’s a thing that I don’t have in my body anymore. I think I got all the touring out of my system, living in an RV with my parents and dragging a boat around.

So what’s the story behind the name, The Wind of Things?

I really like this poet. He’s in the same group as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. I got my undergraduate degree in poetry, of all things. I spent a lot of time working with a scholar who was really into mid-century modernist American poetry. It’s all of those guys. Kenneth Rexroth is part of the same group too. George Oppen is sort of the most underground in that group. He was the one that my instructor was really, really into, and he got me into George Oppen. 

George Oppen was also a sailor. He spent a lot of time on boats as a kid too, and he and his wife, Mary sailed a lot. So when I was tracking the album… This is the thing I do a lot. Even though I don’t really necessarily put words into the music, I’m reading a lot when I’m working on something to sort of give language to the ideas that I’m looking at. So I was reading a lot of George Oppen, and he has a poem called “This In Which,” and he has a really good way of using really simple language in a way that’s playful and sort of doubles back on itself. So I thought it was sort of funny to call an album that’s 100%, acoustic The Wind of Things because it’s literally just an album that’s just recordings of wiggling air. That felt good to me. That felt right. 

Also, this is the thing that I think was in my consciousness, but it was not at the forefront of my mind, but that phrase, “The Internet of Things“ was going around a lot when I was working on the record and I didn’t really think about it until afterwards. Someone mentioned it to me, and then I thought, “Oh, yeah, maybe that’s part of where that came from.” But I didn’t really think about him at the time. So really, though, it’s about this idea of everything has a sound and it’s there to be caught. 

It’s also the field recordings. The longest process of the album was actually capturing field recordings from these places that I grew up. I finished the music in four months, and then I spent almost another four or five months while we were traveling, getting field recordings. For example, we went to Colorado and I had like a checklist of places to get field recordings from. I needed to get field recordings when we were on a family road trip through Nebraska. We were on a dirt road to go see my grandma who lives in the middle of fucking nowhere. We were driving along, and I just stopped and turned the radio down and was like, “Hey, can you just stop the car?” 

And my dad is going, “What? Something wrong?” 

“No, I need to get out of the car for a second.“

And he was just like, “What are you doing?” That’s that picture where I’m standing in a field, just pointing into the microphone. Actually, that was where I was thinking, “The wind sounds really good out here.” And there were crickets, and my dad… on the one hand, he just kind of rolled his eyes, but I also think sort of got it. After that, there was a time where he watched me walk out into a field and just listen for 10 minutes and get a field recording. And he’d ask, “Oh, do you need me to turn the car off? “ He got kind of excited. So that’s where it came from; this idea of capturing that vibration, the wind of things. 

I really love that. I think that’s great how it kind of ties back into your childhood and these memories that you carry, kind of brings it full circle.

Yeah, it felt really good.

So what’s next?

So what was next after The Wind of Things, was that Free Dust record that came out in January. That was really nice. That’s the thing that I always do, but I don’t share a lot of that. I’m a critical non-sharer. It’s funny, because it seems like I put a lot of music out, but I sit on so much material, and I don’t put so much of what I work on out. So when I get an invitation from a label – Free Dust was on Past Inside the Present – I told them I couldn’t do a M. Sage record because I had too much stuff in the works, but told them about this pseudonym I use where it’s just electric guitar and tape machines and how I’d love to do something like that with them. That ended up coming out sooner just because of COVID. So that was what happened immediately after. 

Then I actually have a new record coming out later this year on a label called Florabelle. I really like that label and what he [Ned Milligan] puts out. I told him, “I have so much going on that’s solo M. Sage work, but I love to do something so I’m going to do something kind of weird. Let me know how you feel about this.” So I asked 30 or so people originally to do this, and then only 15 or 16 responded, or maybe it’s 17 in the end. Anyway… I asked a bunch of people to make a piece of music in response to a line of poetry by Wallace Stevens. I asked them to make instrumental music and send me a piece of music that was inspired by a single line of this guy’s poetry. Then the plan was for me to play on top of whatever they sent so that every song is a collaboration with a different artist. So there’s 17 songs and they’re sort of like vignettes. It’s a full length album, it’s almost 40 minutes long, but it’s sort of vignette style where each song is two or three minutes at most. That’s coming out after baby time, so August or so.

That sounds great.

I’m really excited about that one because the list or artists is insane. It’s got Lee Noble, Claire Rousay, Theodore Cale. Schafer… Patrick Shiroishi is on there. It’s a lot of people who I love and who I’ve been working with for a long time. The gang’s all there.

Of course there’s more Fuubutsushi. We’re finishing the summer record. Hopefully before the baby is due, we can get it all mixed and ready to go. We’re maybe halfway done with that.  I’ve also been talking to Claire and Natalie Chami, who does TALsounds, about trying to book some time in Chicago at a space together to record a trio record. We’ve been talking about this since the middle of COVID, and it’s just never happened. I don’t know if that’s ever gonna happen, but I hope it does. So there’s a lot of stuff in the works. 

That really is a lot, Matt. Dang.

It always is.