We chat to 23 year-old music supervisor and DJ Matt FX (Skins, Broad City) about his time in the industry so far.
Hi Matt, thanks for joining us!
Thanks for having me!
Can you tell us about your story and how you got into the industry?
Sure. Born and raised in New York City. I’ve got an old Jew dad, he’s actually a conductor and a classical music kind of guy, and a Chinese mother from Beijing. If you’ve ever seen Modern Family, I’m basically Manny growing up with an old Jew dad tired of raising kids and a foreign trophy wife with a quick temper and a thick accent for a mom. I was that kind of precocious, loved letter writing, coffee drinking, weird clothes wearing, dork.
But when I was eight years old, my dad put me in this boarding school called St. Thomas Choir School which is an all boy’s school in Manhattan – it’s 33 kids and it’s fourth grade to eighth grade. Basically the school functions as a place to house a professional boy’s soprano choir. So for five years of my life I was singing services Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and three times on Sundays, professionally, singing new music every morning and performing it in the afternoon.
Wow, they put you to work.
Yeah, it was a very Dickensian atmosphere – very little play, very little free time. By the time I got to high school I’d sung the ‘Messiah’ sixteen times front to back and had sung in the Sistine Chapel, and had some really crazy experiences. Then I went from a school of 33 to a school of 3,300 for high school and went to LaGuardia Music and Art. I really expanded my music taste – I went to school knowing The Beatles, ‘N Sync, Linkin Park, The White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and that was pretty much it. It was actually Azealia Banks who expanded my music taste and introduced me to everything from Interpol to A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. I remember the first day we met we actually cut three periods together and just talked about bands for three hours.
That’s a great way to start a friendship.
Exactly. So I wound up spending the next few years immersing myself in the DIY scene, going to shows at Shea Stadium, Market Hotel and eventually 285 Kent and getting to know that side of music, the kind of rough edge. I actually graduated LaGuardia as Senior Class President and from there I had this list of cities that I had looked at colleges at because I figured having had my crazy upbringing that I wasn’t going to be happy in a frat town in a classic college around the country.
So it was like Baltimore, Austin, London, Glasgow, and somehow by process of elimination I wound up at the in the University of Glasgow in Scotland which was a very, very cool place but not for me. I realised a few weeks in that I was being taught the same concepts that my father taught me, that St. Thomas had taught me, that LaGuardia taught me, and I didn’t really need to learn them a fourth time. My advisor was the one who said, “You don’t need a degree to write songs, get out of here.” And so my livid Chinese mother who I had just convinced to go to Scotland was now being re-convinced that I had to come home. She didn’t know what to do with me. I remember that first year after I dropped out I worked at a mailbox store, I worked as a nanny to a sixteen month old boy, I worked on the Highline Park running a food stand. It was like every weird, odd job a dropout could have, I had.
And then a year and a half later an opportunity kind of sprouted that I had unknowingly planted. In senior year of high school there was a girl who I had a big crush on, who is now one of my best friends, and at the time I invited her and her friends over to my house to watch the UK Skins, they had never seen it before. One of her best friends who was there that night was truly obsessed with Rent, she had seen it on broadway 133 times. And she became as obsessed with Skins as she was with Rent and a couple of years later tracked down the creator when he came to the States and became his intern.
So a year and a half after I’d left high school I get a random Facebook message saying, “Hey, thank you so much for introducing me to Skins. I’m working with Bryan Elsley now and we do this thing in the writer’s room where we bring in teenagers and young adults to potentially work on the scripts and tell their own stories from high school. Are you interested in coming in?” I came in with no real agenda besides from just meeting the music guy. Can I meet him and show him some music? Can I be his intern? Like, anything. I didn’t really know where it would go but Bryan asked me to make him a mix and then the next day he asked me to quit my day job.
Fantastic, that’s excellent.
Yeah, I remember, he called me in to his office the next day, and I was already surprised that the turnaround was that quick, and he asked me, “Can you do all the genres?” And I’m looking at him and I’m thinking to myself, “Maybe not jazz and country but I’m just going to say yes.” And then he goes, “Great! I need you to stick around. I’ve got three A&Rs coming in an hour and I need to know which one is worth sticking with.” And so immediately I’m plunged into this meeting with three of the hippest A&Rs from the major labels and we’ve figured out this hand signal underneath the table where I do a thumbs up if the band they are talking about is cool.
It was great, Bryan had my back from the beginning. There were so many times during that process where MTV and Viacom were kind of resisting against a song. I remember with this one song there was weeks and weeks of them saying, “Take it out. Replace it, replace it.” And Bryan saying, “No, we’re going to keep it in. We’re going to keep it in.” And I remember at the end of the season that we looked up on YouTube that that song, a DIY Rap Act from Brooklyn that no one had ever heard of, had been uploaded to YouTube twelve times and had over 300,000 plays.
Those numbers speak for themselves. Regardless of the fact that MTV Skins wasn’t a commercial success, I think I did my thing. After the show got cancelled I was a little disillusioned with supervision. I remember taking the money and thinking, “Alright, I’m going to record an album and just go back to what I always wanted to do.” Eventually I ended up shelving that album and realizing that it wasn’t good enough. I had this idea that I could play all the instruments and create a record that sort of existed around Little Dragon, Twin Sister, Foals, Wild Beasts, bands at that time that really knew how to lock in groove.
Those bands exist because every single member is totally necessary for that group to work and I was thinking I could do it all myself and realized eventually that I couldn’t. As that was happening, the electronic music bubble was just starting to inflate, especially out here in New York. A few of my friends had been DJing and I had started DJing, so we sort of took the plunge into a Brooklyn warehouse party, a different level of production than the DIY world because you’re running a cool bar with cool drinks, and booking the right DJs. That was a lot of fun too for a couple of years but as you probably remember there was that summer where Electric Zoo had a few MDMA overdoses and immediately following that, every single Brooklyn party was getting busted. My friend ended up spending a weekend in jail for running the door and we took, I think, $5,000 or $6,000 in losses over two months and it was too much.
I still play a bunch, but at the time it was just obvious that that wasn’t going to be my path. I remember during a random afternoon in December, my girlfriend and I were having lunch, and this is like three months into her paying for most of our things, and I remember getting a call from the assistant editor of Skins saying, “Hey, how’s it going Matt? Long time no talk. I’m working on this new show and it goes to air in three weeks and it’s not going to work out with our music guy. Can you come in and play them some music? ” And that was Broad City.
Excellent, that show is genius.
Yeah. I describe both Skins and Broad City as crates attached to parachutes kind of at the time I needed them. The perfect kind of saving opportunity. I remember I came in on a Tuesday and by the end of the day they said, “Can you stay until the end of the week?” And then Friday I actually had a DJ gig and Ilana (Glazer) came with her boyfriend and a friend and I think that was sort of the final test. And then on Monday morning I had an offer and I was just racing to get the season done.
As soon as I met those girls I realized, “Yes, I’ve never met you, Abbi (Jacobson) or Ilana (Glazer), but I went to high school with you. I’ve had iPod duty at your house so many times. People sort of question the authenticity of Girls in the wake of Broad City’s success and I think the thing that I’m always quick to point out is – it’s not that one is more real than the other, I just think that our generation, by and large, just happens to relate a little bit better to the Broad City girls.
Do you think with your work on Broad City that there’s a general tone to kind of keep it real?
Sort of. I think in the Venn diagram of my taste and Ilana and Abbi’s taste, that middle circle is very, very large. And I’ve been blessed with the fact that the music that I generally lean towards is stuff that they also admire and that works. Of all the supervision projects that I’ve worked on, I’ve done the least amount of replacements on Broad City. Very few times do I have to go back in and find something else. To be honest with you, normally it’s at the behest of one of the directors who’s got, in their head, this vision for the episode. With the girls it’s a lot of trust. And even beyond that, the editors of the show are all brilliant. Alex, Laura they’re so great, their taste is invaluable. I’d say a third, maybe a quarter, of the music on the show is coming directly from them and that’s great too. The alt-j and Ana Tijoux syncs, which are two of the big things that people talk about in the first season, both came from Liz Merrick, one of the directors.
What projects are you excited about at the moment?
There is a show going to air very soon that’s going to be on Hulu – it’s called Difficult Peopleand it stars a female comedian named Julie Klausner as well as Billy Eichner of Billy on the Street. It is executive produced by Amy Poehler as well and it is the antithesis of Broad City, it is like the polar opposite. Instead of two bright eyed, bushy tailed 20s women, it’s two very cynical, sarcastic and depressed mid-30s comedians who have already seen their careers not happen. The music is also about as opposite as you could take it. It’s all DIY rock, it’s all punk stuff. There’s Ted Leo in there, I think Lightning Bolt, we’ve got three different Lightning Bolt tracks. It was cool to have the opportunity to go back to those DIY routes having been Djing for so long now and immersed in the electronic side of things.
Beyond that there is a film called Urge that I’ve begun working on which is kind of a thriller, it’s really interesting. It’s about a drug that makes people act on their inner most urges. A group of friends go on a kind of reunion vacation and they go to this club and discover this drug and it all kind of falls down. They all represent an inner deadly sin and they wind up killing each other and by the end of the film not many people are still alive.
And that’s going to be fun to because I think with Broad City Season Two, that was the first time that I felt confident bringing in some of these producers who I’d worked with on just a sync level to say, “Hey, let’s compose. Let me be the person between the network and you and I’ll give you notes and we’ll work something out.” Whereas Season Two of Broad City was 80% existing, 20% new music composed for the show, Urge is going to be 80% composed and 20% remixes of existing music. So hopefully it’ll be a chance to really do something interesting and new with something a little bit more sinister and a little bit less playful.
Is this your first film credit? How have you adjusted to the scale and the scope?
This is going to be my first film credit. You know, I’m not far enough in the process to give you retrospective insight yet. I can tell you that looking down the barrel of a two and a half hour film is kind of like stepping in to an entire season, there’s just a lot to do. Ask me again in three months.
Are you leaning more towards liking bespoke composition?
I think that there is a time and a place for everything. I’ll tell you one thing, I’m so tired of covers. I think as soon as Beyoncé covered herself, it was over, especially in trailers. A cover as a trailer thing was a brilliant idea, when it was a brilliant idea, and I feel like it’s diminishing returns now. I know that if I get to work on any trailer, whether it’s Urge or something else in the future, that’s not the direction I would go in.
What’s your process for sourcing music, both as a music supervisor and a DJ?
I can tell you now that I haven’t listened to music for my own joy in quite some time because with supervision it’s all about music that you can afford. Especially in my place as a supervisor as I’m not working with big film studio budgets. It’s all about making it work under the budget. And for that reason I haven’t listened to the new James Blake album, you know what I mean? There are plenty of artists out there who are doing incredible things that I can’t really get around to. The really annoying part is that as a DJ I’m almost looking for the opposite, I’m looking for music with samples that people remember, with things that people kind of gravitate to. So I’ve got these two equal but separate libraries that are totally uncategorized in the same light. Oh man, my music is spread out between three or four hard drives now and laptops. It’s terrible, it’s really awful.
Is there any logic to it?
No, there’s none. It is the most illogical. But talking about supervision, when I was on Skins it was much more about getting acclimated with everything and at the time I didn’t really have my own network of artists so it was mostly just people I listened to, people I liked, just cold-calling and cold-emailing. Moving into Broad City, coming directly off of three years in the DJ circuit, I definitely came armed.
All of these producers and artists and bands that I had known for years now, this was my opportunity to help them. Everyone wins when it’s an artist no one has ever heard of and it’s a network that can’t really afford to pay a ton but would love to use the song and the artist gets exposure. It really is kind of an ideal situation. To be honest with you, I think 75% to 80% of what I sync comes from my Facebook. It comes from messaging people or seeing things. I’ll also get stuff off Twitter and my email is up there, it’s really the only place people can cold reach me.
I can’t promise I’m going to listen to all of the music I get sent. I can’t promise I’m going to get around to it right away. And especially if you’re a major labor or a major publisher I can’t promise that I’m going to write you back. I didn’t get where I am now working with you guys and you’d eat up my whole budget on a single song so what’s even the point?
Do you think that because you’re young you’re really trying to push new music?
Sure, yeah. I’m very much a subscriber to the “it takes a village” philosophy for anything. I think I really learned my lesson trying to do it all by myself a few years ago. As the ventures are continuing to expand and as I continue to be needed in more places it’s all about working with other people. I’m going to keep working with as many people as I can and keep trying to help out as many people as I can. With my artistic project and with what we’re planning to do beyond that it’s all about putting on new people and all about helping them get their foot in the door.
That’s a lot of what your project Scooter Island is about right?
Exactly. I think there are twelve producers who contributed to the record and there are six female vocalists, five rappers, a couple other male vocalists, a secret feature or two. And even beyond Scooter Island, with some of the artists who show up a bunch on the record, we’ll be releasing a few EPs from them and hopefully helping them build their brand and their career so they can then go off to the label that they’ve always dreamed of. Whether that is Fat Possum or Interscope or Bad Boy, let us help you get started and then let us know if you’d like us to stick around.
I don’t know if you’re a foody at all but I’ve come up with a name for the label, and this is a little too soon to be announcing and you guys are the first. If it doesn’t happen then I apologize. We’re going to call the label Amuse-bouche.
Nice, little bites.
Exactly, it’s the perfect bite to set the tone for the entire meal or in thia case hopefully the career.
That’s awesome. Who are some of the artists you’re most excited about working with?
So there’s a girl names Synead who sings on Scooter Island 1 and 2, she’s got a couple tracks on both sides of the record, and her EP is most likely going to be the first one that we’re going to produce and release. I’ve known her since high school, I met her on the first day of freshman year and we’ve been friends since. She was actually a dance major then, she’s from Harlem, Trini origin. It’s cool because in the years that’s we’ve known each other we’ve always wanted to collaborate.
We’d started writing these Scooter tracks with her around this time last year. She’s always kind of had an activist side to her, very justice inspired if you will. With all of the current events it sort of struck a chord in her to really do something with it and she’s actually one of the two founders of Millions March NYC which was recognized by the NAACP this year as a history maker. We’re really looking forward to trying to address some of that tastefully and not in a way that is going to feel overbearing and still develop her as her own artist.
There’s actually one more guy who I really can’t say much about but when Scooter Island Part 1 comes out in a few weeks the last track you’ll see it reads quite long on the metadata and there might be a few bits of silence in between once the track is stopped but just keep listening…
Secret track, nice. Can you tell us more about your DJ experiences?
I do honestly feel as at home inside in a DIY venue as I feel inside of a bottle service club. And there are sides of me and sides of the music I like to play that I think are appropriate in both. I think that that expands even to the different kinds of festivals that I’ve had the opportunity to work at. I’ve played Mysteryland now two years in a row and obviously that’s a completely electronic music festival. A week later this year I played Sweetlife Festival which was Kendrick Lamar and The Pixies and Billy Idol and every live act that’s worth seeing but not a single DJ. They had a small DJ tent of local artists. I actually had the honor of doing all the transition sets on the B Stage which was a lot of fun playing before acts like Wet and Vic Mensa and Banks and Tove Lo. My favorite DJ experience was back when I had this DJ crew and we played at Hampshire College and it was the most money we’d ever been offered to DJ. We had a friend on the performance board or whatever.
We went up there and our gig was in the student barn at 8:00 pm and three people came and that was it. More people showed up to just be like, “Hi, what are you doing afterwards?” And so later that night an old friend of mine wound up saying, “Hey, if you want to keep the party going at my house you can.” And he had this tiny living room and there were fifteen people in the room, it wasn’t a huge thing, but those fifteen people stayed for two and half hours and it was one of the most magical experiences because every transition everyone was like, “Ohhh!” I haven’t played for a crowd like that since, the air was just perfect.
The next day they said, “Why don’t you stay another day? There is a party in the woods tomorrow.” And we played in the woods the next night and that was equally as amazing. This was 200 people in the middle of nowhere with flood lamps and the noisiest speakers you could imagine. Those kinds of memories are I think the ones that will stay.
That’s awesome. Is there one particular track you can play anywhere?
That’s an interesting question. There is a remix of ‘CMYK’ by James Blake by a producer spelled eLDOKO. I think it’s just some random SoundCloud producer but it’s a very classy, tech-housey remix. It totally works in the bottle clubs because of how rich it sounds but at the same time I think the ‘CMYK’ aspect of it always works with the hipster type. That’s something I think to this day I could still drop pretty much anywhere and people would dig it. There’s also a Fetty Wap edit that I have of ‘Trap Queen’ that I’ve played pretty much every set the last eight sets that I’ve done.
What else do you have in the works, from DJing to music supervising?
Yeah, everything in between. I love the notion of the old school producer who can lie on the couch and say, “Maybe change that and maybe do this.” On all the Scooter Island stuff, most of those melodies are mine and save for the rapper’s lyrics, all the lyrics are co-written. In the larger sense of what we’re trying to do with Amuse-bouche, if you compare it to the Marble Cinematic Universe, I think Scooter Island is like The Avengers in the way that you kind of know walking in to an Avengers film that’s going to be action packed, it’s going to be very “collaby” with a big team, and that it’s going to be funny. And in that same way I think Scooter Island will be poppy, it’ll be summery and it’ll be “collaby”. You know that it’s always going to be kind of a summer jam. We’re not going to write sad songs on Scooter Island. And even if they are sad they’ll be wistfully melancholic in way where you come up to your roof for a cigarette hungover.
But beyond that there is so much more music to write just beyond that one aesthetic. And regardless of whether it’s going to be kind of under my umbrella or label or for just another artist, I’m so excited to get in the room and give my two cents regardless of whether or not they want to take it.
Do you ever thing about working with full on rock bands?
I’ve thought about it. There is a band that I spent most of high school obsessed with that I would put one of their records on my top ten any day of the week and the vocalist actually asked me recently if I’d ever consider producing something with him. That was an honor and a half. I actually missed him the last time I was out in LA and feel terrible about it. But hopefully one day soon. I’d love, love, love to give it a shot.
Yeah, that sounds awesome. It’s been really refreshing to talk to you Matt, thanks so much.
Of course. Thank you.
Scooter Island’s debut EP will be dropping on Apple Music & Spotify on September 4th. We’d like to say a huge thanks to Matt for taking the time to speak with us. To listen to our interview with Matt in full, head over to our SynchStories podcast.