Twenty-eight-year-old Matt Vaughn leans his slight frame forward as he sits across the corner of a table in the bar and drinks an iced tea. His bright blue eyes behind wire-frame glasses hold yours. (He took off the glasses when you took his picture.) He is quick and articulate and speaks in complete sentences with carefully chosen words. When he thinks about an answer, he compresses his thin lips until they nearly disappear. He knows who he is and what he wants, but he does not push it on you. In fact, when you ask about his background and his favorite bands and genres, he is empathetic. He wants to know about your background; he asks you what you think of bands and songs that he names. It’s hard to keep the conversation on him: you say something that interests him and he wants to understand your perspective before he talks about himself and his interests.
At age five Matt imagined himself to be a cowboy, so when his mother took him to the music store to pick out an instrument he could learn to play, he wanted a banjo. She talked him into a guitar instead. He began lessons with a teacher from the folk/country tradition, more because his mother wanted him
to learn to play an instrument than because he was interested in music. Later he switched to a teacher more focused on rock. Along about the same time he promoted himself from the acoustic guitar to an electric guitar. The staples of his lessons were Beatles songs. After the Beatles, it was the Beach Boys for a while--"I loved my tape of Kokomo." He joined both the BMG and Columbia House music clubs, and started a music collection. What he liked was greatly influenced by older siblings of his friends. Attending concerts at the WorldMusicCenter (Now First Midwest Bank Arena) just ten minutes from his Flossmoor, Illinois, house, was a regular pastime for Matt and his friends.
The guitar lessons lapsed when he was about twelve; his heart was never into it; he would rather listen to music than practice. He jumped back into performing a few years later when his buddy Dave bought an old drumset and they began playing together and jamming for their tight circle of high school friends, who would come over and listen, or sing along or pick up a guitar. They had fun but Matt decided he would leave stardom to others, and dropped the band to give himself more time for little-league baseball, basketball, flag football and golf. He thought of himself as a good athlete and only a so-so musician. In retrospect, though the ambition to be a musician himself faded, the guitar lessons, and the basement band experience, imbued Matt with a respect for good musicians and a basis for confident opinions about how good they were. Matt wishes he had been more serious about the guitar lessons. Even now, however, he can pick up a guitar and play chords relevant to a song he likes.
Matt’s group of friends in high school were known as well-behaved jocks, motivated to do well in school., but not averse to having fun.They were cool but not the coolest group in high school. “Every wants to be cool,” he observes. “I’ve always had close friends but I’ve always been able to do things on my own. I usually tried to find ways to be with my friends, to take trips with them. My friends influenced what I liked, but I had influences on them as well; my values, in the sense of how I spent my time were consensually defined.” Listening to music was part of how they spent their time, but only part. During grade school, Matt and his friends would ride their bikes to one another’s’ houses, or to the baseball card shop. Then after they were old enough to drive, they spent a lot of their time listening to music while driving around. There was the occasional party, when someone’s parents were out of time and the whole high school class would show up. “But that was not a big part of our social scene. There were about twenty of us that were especially tight, and we would go together to the bowling alley, or to the movies or to a concert. I wouldn’t say we were rowdy. We knew that was not what we were about so we chose not to associate with the rowdy crowd—the football jocks; we were scholar-jocks.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he shifted his concentration to harder rock: Bon Jovi, Poison, Led Zeppelin. He began to discover new bands, such as the Dave Matthews band, which Matt discovered before it became popular. The Dave Matthews band is regarded as embracing the style of the Grateful Dead, with more pop influences, also incorporating aspects of Paul Simon and the Sting’s approaches. It initially concentrated on touring, especially on college campuses, rather than recording, but later releasing an album that sold four million copies in the U.S.
Matt kept in touch with his high school friends, especially the tight group that was interested in music, pledged SAE—the fraternity at the University of Illinois known to comprise jocks and other cool guys— but also valued diversity.He made new friends, a subset of whom were interested in music. Matt tended to follow fashion regarding genres, and would gravitate to a new group when he got a tip from one of his friends, but once a band became highly popular, it usually would lose its luster for him.
Matt has never approached new music casually; when he embraces it, it’s like adopting a child or pledging a fraternity. He remembers riding home from a ski trip when he was in elementary school and insisting that the driver and all the other passengers in the car listen to a Beatles tape over an over again until he was sure he could identify which Beatle was singing each part. Later, Phish became his favorite. He became a huge Phish phan, and followed the group all over the country. He and other phans got together to listen to live shows and discuss concert experiences. Phish was famous for following the free-form eclectic approach popularized by the Grateful Dead, emphasizing jazz-style improvisation more than the folk tradition. Its on-stage antics were famous, with the drummer often running a vacuum cleaner on stage. It was enormously popular on college campuses. Phish, and its jam rock, were huge obsessions for Matt. "My friends and I traded tapes of live shows, and traveled around to see shows- I must have been to 20+ shows. Their appearance and their stage performance was nothing special; it was their improvisational talent; their 300+ song repertoire; the mystery; and the experience."
Once he had adopted a band, he nurtured the relationship, spending hours to organize his album collection. Even now he pauses before he leaps into a commitment to a new group. He almost never buys a single, instead checking out the musicians and, if they seem worthy, buying one or more of their albums. He studies liners and album art and is disappointed when there are not lyrics to all the songs, or less than a fulsome acknowledgement section. “It’s a bonus when the album art or other commentary reveals something about the musicians’ outlook on the world. I wanted to identify with the groups I made part of my collection, in some sense.
It’s hard for new musicians to break into Matt’s club. That’s not because he disdains pioneers or those who travel alone or in small bands of fans. Always he has prided himself of being a discoverer, and felt some sense of betrayal when one of his favorites made it to the big time.
His first iPod was life changing. Now he could have all of his music with him all the time. The new technology was not a cause to leave part of his life behind. The first thing he did was to load his collection onto his iPod. New technology was no cause for disloyalty. He would not betray the musicians he had grown up with.In fact loading all his old CD’s onto his iPod actually rejuvenated his interest in some bands he had lost track of.
Matt recalls that Napster was big when he was in college; he would use Napster to find music that intrigued him, then if he liked the band he would go and buy the CD. Once iTunes became available, he stopped using filesharing networks; iTunes is simply more convenient. He's downloaded twenty or more albums from iTunes.
He listens to music two or more hours per day, when he's commuting, when he's at the gym, when he's performing household chores on the weekends, whenever he's in the car. He listens while he is at work and when he's studying --usually to familiar songs; new ones break his concentration. When he’s in his car he primarily listens to the radio as the radio seems to tie him down less.The radio also keeps Matt current with what’s new in the music world and is his primary source when mining for new artists.
He's never used MySpace or any of the other social networking sites. He relies mostly on the radio and tips from a handful of friends at work who are into music.
He doesn't care what the musicians look like, but he likes the art and commentary that comes on album liners. He never has bought a CD at a concert; he usually buys them before seeing a group in concert. He disdains bands in which the lead singer does not also play an instrument; somehow if you don't play an instrument it seems like you are not a real musician. He’s never been after the story; lyrics take a back seat. It’s the music. It has never been the personalities or the appearance of musicians that mattered; only their music and how they played it.He has high standards. More than once he has gone to a concert and the music did not measure up to the same musicians’ recording. That says to Matt that the studio recording was overproduced, possibly to cover up a talent deficit. He listens to albums straight through, from the first song to the last, because the musicians put them in a particular order and thus the sequence reveals part of the art.
Now, music has been upstaged and pushed to the wings of his life a bit. Other things like law school, job promotions, and his marriage, are downstage. But he still has his iPod, and his collection is still on it. He hasn’t forgotten that music is part of his life and that’s it is still there. He went to only six concerts over the last two years, down considerably from his college years, when he was a regular. In the last year or so he's been to concerts at Park West, Wrigley, Schubas, and he went to Lollapalooza, for Pearl Jam and My Morning Jacket this year, and for Red Hot Chili Peppers last year. He rarely goes to smaller venues, except his wife’s friend, a music reviewer, is in town. Then Matt, his wife and her friend all go and they always have a good time, sometimes discovering a new band that they all agree has promise.
His favorites are, for the most part, bands who have “made it”—who have major label deals. The Chicago indie scene is only dimly audible to him. His all time favorite is Phish, but also on his list of favorites is Widespread Panic (Southern rock, and blues), Moe, and Kanye West. He likes Wilco (alt country, alt folk and experimental) and Smashing Pumpkins (layered, heavy guitar alternative), but not LinkenPark, which he finds to be too heavy. Also on his favorites list are The Shins (Indie Rock), Sam Roberts Band (traditional rock), My Morning Jacket (reverb-heavy mix of jam, country, and psychedelic rock), The Raconteurs (heavy indie rock), The Red Hot Chili Peppers (rap intermixed with melodic vocals; improvisational). His favorite genre is firmly rooted in rock n’ roll, “brushing the edges of hard rock," but recently he’s gotten into hip hop. He was unfamiliar with The Academy Is and Bound Stems, had heard of My Chemical Romance but not listened to their music. He likes Fall Out Boy, in part because Pete Wentz went to high school with his wife.
Music has always been closely tied to Matt’s memories.To this day he can still remember where he was when he listened to certain albums or songs for the first time.Before taking vacations, Matt typically bought a new album for the trip.Billy Breathe’s by Phish reminds Matt of walking through the airport in Sydney Australia; Pearl Jam’s Daughter reminds Matt of Thanksgiving at his aunt’s house in Evansville, IN; Stone Temple Pilot’s, Purple reminds Matt of a high school trip to New Mexico; Travis, The Man Who reminds Matt of his study abroad experience in London, specifically his dailyjogs through Hyde Park; and Galactic,Late for the Future reminds Matt of a trip he took to L.A.
Matt Vaughn is an explorer and a discoverer, but he knows what he likes. When he likes new music, it becomes a part of his life.