Who killed Matt Maeson? Maybe the devil, who haunted his parents, two reformed teenage outlaws who played in religious heavy-metal bands and wouldn’t let him listen to rock on the radio. Or maybe it was the volatile spirit that brought Matt to prison the first three hundred times. He played shows with his mom and dad, proprietors of a prison ministry since he was young. The family lived on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and worked wherever the faithful wouldn’t feel like they belonged. They drove south to Florida and west to Montana, rumbling through maximum-security lockups with fire and benediction, drums and guitars. Matt spent years on the road to prisons and biker rallies: he played songs about salvation in front of strippers and Hell’s Angels at Sturgis, one of the biggest motorcycle rallies in the world.
Restlessness ran in the family, and it never went away. The men in Matt’s life—his dad and uncle—were most comfortable in the margins, whether that meant in glory or disgrace. They were all fighting an inner rebelliousness, against their own darker instincts as well as against a Southern community preaching that long hair brought men closer to hell. By the time he was playing with his parents, Matt had already gotten into drugs, and then into trouble—and then into drugs again, to pay off the trouble. For a year, he worked construction for twelve hours a day, doing community service on his one day off. “I was mad all the time,” he said. “People in my life were condemning me, and not with compassion. Not this is wrong, and we love you. It was this is wrong, and don’t ever come back.”
But he came back—unevenly, in front of standing ovations in prison yards, traveling across the country with a notebook and a guitar. He posted his first songs online at the nexus of 2015 and 2016, and the phone started ringing the next day. There’s a rare directness to Matt’s music: he sings like the dead singer-songwriters, full of troubled and tensile grace. His sound is spare and rich and restless. Vines of guitar weave around his voice; half-remembered melodies drift overhead like ghosts. “Tribulation” is a love song about when love feels impossible. “Cringe,” his debut single, feels like canon, as profound and arresting as Jeff Buckley or King Krule; it’s got the stark, urgent intimacy of a spotlight trained on a pair of sinners in the dark.
Since its release in March 2017, Who Killed Matt Maeson has racked up over 30 million Spotify streams. (“Cringe” continues to post over a million streams monthly.) Matt went on tour following the EP release, paired up with Vallis Alps in the spring and Jaymes Young in the summer: between those tours, he played shows in Europe and opened for Weezer at SXSW. For the first time, he watched crowds of people sing his songs back to him. It took until November to realize what the year had really been like—a blur of mutual recognition between the audience and him. But he had been keeping a record all along, it turned out, writing the songs that appear on his new EP The Hearse, out on April 27th. “Hallucinogenics,” the lead single, out March 30th—the desperate, elegant song that always turned the crowd rapt—came out of a ragged night in Seattle at the end of the Vallis Alps tour. It builds to a full-body peak, as Matt confesses: he’s the wayward man, he sings, with bloodshot eyes and shaky hands.
On The Hearse, as with all of Matt’s music, the saint and the delinquent wear the same face. If Who Killed Matt Maeson was a way of asking what needed to be left behind from a punishing adolescence, then The Hearse deals with the question of what Matt took with him: the instinct for self-destruction, the sense that he might not ever be free. Focusing his sound, amplifying it into new, commanding dimensions, the EP comes out as he heads to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, and opens for Bishop Briggs—the stages getting bigger, the prodigal soul unchanged.