Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with guitarist/vocalist Matthew Walley of the local blues rock band Cadillac Saints about the group's origins, why their rehearsals are like being back in youth orchestra and what they've learned about putting on a stellar live show.
CP: Walk me through the origin of Cadillac Saints. How and when did you guys get together?
MW: You know, my brother and I have been playing music and guitar since we were little kids. We both started as classical violin players. We've been in and out of other groups before and helped form other bands, but we thought it was time to take all our original material we've collected over the years and put it to work.
We started making phone calls in late spring 2009 around town to find other musicians to work with. We made the right phone calls and got the right people. Jeff, our lead singer and bass player, played classical orchestra with us. I knew he could sing really well. We took his original ideas and merged them with my brother's and mine. We started rehearsing in the summer of 2009 and started playing shows that fall.
CP: Was the chemistry between you immediately there or did it take time to develop?
MW: I think the chemistry was kind of always there. You can have chemistry outside of playing music together, and that helps, too. If the people you work with are people you get along with, that will automatically create positive energy.
It helped that we were already classically trained. Once you work with those people, it's easy to fall in and have things mesh well. Part of it, as far as stage presence and what the audience is going to see live, is definitely something that has been acquired over time, for sure.
CP: You and Jeremy had a long time to become comfortable with each other, musically, before Cadillac Saints formed. Did Jeff slot in well, when he joined, or did the three of you have to compromise and find a middle ground?
JW: I think everything kind of worked out automatically to begin with. Jeff has an incredibly powerful voice. Many of my brother's and my influences are from bands like Zeppelin and Allman Brothers and The Dead and Pink Floyd. Our music is of blues origin with grass roots, soulful appeal to it. Jeff's voice just has this crispness about it, and I tell people all the time that he is like the male version of Christina Aguilera; he can do all that really cool stuff with his voice.
If you imagine the emotion that will be put off in a blues tune adding that powerful voice to it, it works well together. From the beginning, the vocals were nailed right on the head. I do my fair share of singing, but I can tell you that's where Jeff's forte is.
CP: Who were some of the band's shared influences?
MW: Jeff is one of those weird people, as far as his influences go, in that his influences are far different from my brother's and mine. He didn't grow up listening to some of the greats, as far as classic rock goes. His early music experience, I believe, was Boys Choir and classical and church music. That's where a lot of his influence came from, predominantly from church.
Stylistically, as far as the music goes, Jeff's influences are definitely a lot different from ours, but when you look at it as a whole, with religious music, you've got soul and power and there's that emotion there. That's why I think it works well in the architecture of a blues song.
CP: Do you still hear that musical background in his voice?
MW: Absolutely. It resonates with that soulful impact that he delivers. As far as the old EP goes, a lot of those songs have been songs my brother and I have been playing since I was a teenager 10-12 years ago. They have been recycled and reformed and remade with what Jeff put on top of it. They became this new entity. Instead of one person bringing in something that's old, we took some of those old ideas and made them new with everyone's input.
CP: How is the band different now than when it formed two years ago?
MW: For me, playing a lot of these same tunes for so long, it's completely different. Until you dive out in the scene, you don't know what people are looking for until you go out and meet them and see them and they are you're audience and you get feedback from them. That molds you as an artist and what molds what you do when you sit down to write a piece of music.
Based on feedback I've received from fans and critics and other artist and seeing what other people on the scene are doing and taking pointers from them, we're gearing now toward things that are slightly more modern, maybe more soundscaped. We've always done a lot of instrumental work, but gathering all those ideas and merging them into something unique, versus just throwing songs out there. We're trying to make things unique to what we do instead of doing what we did two years ago with taking old work and moving forward with that.
We're really thinking about what we're taking on stage and giving to an audience. From two years ago, it's a completely different ball game. It's a lot more fun moving past a lot of the old things and stepping forward from the darkness slightly. It's definitely a lot of fun. We're having a good time with it. [Laughs.]
CP: So you're trying to find your voice?
MW: Not necessarily find our voice. We know where we stand as far as our overall sound goes. We're just trying to push the limits now, trying to figure out how we can make it more appealing and push it so we can have a whole, impactful show that is a "wow" moment.
We're trying to focus not just on what the ears are hearing but what the eyes are seeing an people are feeling. We're trying to gear toward making that connection live and writing new material geared toward that. We're being more picky and choosy about what we put out there.
CP: What are some of those lessons you learned about making that live show more engaging and connecting with the audience?
MW: Some of my favorite artists were those who made their careers not just off album sales but off their live performances. They were bands who did it the right way and went out and took fans one by one by one at live shows.
One thing I've learned is that, when you're on stage, there is no asking for permission. You can't ask permission for people to move or put their hands together. You have to command that it be done. Having that kind of presence and energy has almost be a religious experience when you're up there. You have to have the people in the back row believing what you're saying.
One of the hardest things about being a band at a local level is that when you're working a 9-to-5 and the show lasts until 1 a.m., it's hard to gather the energy and emotion to give the people right in front of you who have paid to come see you everything that you've got. You really have to put all of yourself out there or else no one will believe you. That's really the No. 1 thing at our live show right now, having a presence and making people believe what you're saying and making sure there's a message there.
Many of the people in the audience might not have a music background, so all they're connecting with is the English language through that vocal line. They might not connect with a 4-5 minute instrumental, but they will be hanging on those words. You have to make it really count for everyone. One thing I've realized playing out in this scene is that you have to make your mark and make your connection.
CP: What is Cadillac Saint's message?
MW: That may be something we're searching for as a whole, but I think overall, our message is that we take pride in the fact that we've put a lot of time into our musicianship and into the music we create. Our real goal is just to get people back out there and enjoy a band again. It's hard to convince people of that.
The way music is out there now, it's so much easier to get a DJ and dance to that. I've seen that at live shows where you're competing with a DJ. The dance floor might be packed for the DJ, but when the band comes on, everyone decides to leave. That's one of those things that goes back to having that connection.
Overall, our message is a positive one. I can't put my finger on what we're trying to communicate, but overall, our message is just having a good time playing and listening. [Laughs.]
CP: How has this year been for you, so far? You made it to the finals of the British People's Music Awards, right? What were some other highlights?
MW: My mom and dad used to drop me off at Nightfall at Miller Plaza every Friday night. I also remember going to Riverbend when I was five or six years old sitting on my dad's shoulder.
I've been playing guitar since I was four, and growing up, those were huge goals of mine. I told the whole band when we started that if we're going to be a Chattanooga band, there's no reason we shouldn't make it a goal to play Riverbend and Nightfall.
Last year, we got to play Riverbend, and that was a dream come true. I take a lot of pride in it because I love being from Chattanooga. I love our city and everything about it. Riverbend is one of those great things that happen that people can look forward to. Some people use it as a social event, but if you're there to see great music, that's the time to go. Usually, I'm not even watching the Coke Stage. I watch the smaller stages, and to have the opportunity to play Riverbend was a tremendous honor.
We all felt really great about that, so to turn around this year and play Nightfall was huge. There was a huge turnout, and the turnout at the after show at Market Street Tavern was a time to remember as well. Playing Nightfall this year was a highlight, something I've dreamed about doing since I was a kid. I wasn't sure we'd ever get a chance to do it, but that was definitely a blessing. I'll never forget it.
CP: Before Cadillac Saints, what were you all doing? What other groups comprise your musical DNA?
MW: The Saints is my first official project. I did several side projects in Knoxville and played with a couple of bands like Red House Project and a few other projects when I was there at university.
I was pretty much a street musician for a long time. I could always play electric guitar, but I love the portability of acoustic guitar that let me take it everywhere with me. I would play Coolidge Park or the bridge or at UTC. I didn't want to get any fans or anything like that, just the experience of playing in front of people. That's when you know you can do it, when you can show up anywhere and not be afraid. That helped me out in my younger years as a teenager driving around and doing it. When you're out there on the fly and have a chance to fall on your face, it teaches you to keep your composure.
My brother plays with another local band called Howdy Joe Get 'Em. They rarely get out and play, but they have a great time doing what we do. He and I also played together for several years for smaller acoustic gigs and festivals.
Jeff sang in Boys Choir, and he and I both were in Youth Orchestra. Us all being in orchestra really helped us. It's a more militant music style. It helps prepare you to be perfect, really. It's just a different atmosphere on stage, but we still carry that around with us at rehearsals. We rehearse as if we were a orchestral unit. We're serious on stage and everything has its order and flow.
CP: Tell me about this latest album you're working on.
MW: I'm really excited to hear some of these tracks. We had a lot to choose from, and I'm happy the tracks that were chosen got put on there. There's an instrumental of mine that's probably one of the oldest songs we have on our books. I wrote "Singer Slingerm" which has origins to when I was 15. We've always enjoyed playing that song, and we finally got a chance to record it.
We've got another song called "Finally Free," that's got more of a Latin beat. It's very moving, very powerful, very emotional. It's a great live song. We've enjoyed playing that live to see people's reactions. It gets you movement. It's got so much of a slap in the face that you can't help but pay attention to it. I love that song.
We've got a soundscape song on there that I sing along with Jeff called "Into the Darkness." It's one of those songs that's just slow enough but has enough power to carry it. We've got another transition track that is actually two tracks in one called "Daybreak" and another song called "Spirit." We merged the two together. "Spirit" is more of an instrumental.
Collectively, it's a powerful piece of work for an EP. We put five pretty hard hittes on it. We're looking forward to getting it mastered and available to people as soon as possible.
It'll be a good thing to add to our collection of work. We'll keep moving on from there. We're in the works now of working on new stuff, so it's kind of a constant work in progress.
CP: When will it be out?
MW: I'm hoping to have it finalized at least by the end of fall, early November to mid December. We were talking about getting it mastered last night. I'm hoping no later than early December. We've not named it yet. Once we have the album art together, we'll start picking and choosing.