My interview with Matt Tuton felt more like hanging out with a new friend than an actual interview, and I can only imagine that a lot his recent success producing and recording music can be attributed to the laid-back vibe that he cultivates in the studio. When I spoke with Matt, he was set up in an at-home studio rig on James Island, but he was excited to tell me about the new studio (called The Lab) that he built from the ground up on a John’s Island property.
Even with his at-home setup, though, Matt has recorded what I consider to be some of the best pieces of South Carolina music to come out in recent years, including Walter Brown’s IMOW, Tourneforte’s Staring at the Sun, Quinn Cicala’s (now just Cicala) Dream I Had, and more. He’s got some exciting projects lined up for the future, too, including another Walter Brown album, a full-length release from Cicala, and even some of his own recordings as a solo artist under the project name MAT.
Our conversation started with a little history lesson, in which Tuton told me all about his musical roots, how he ended up in Charleston in the first place, and what initially got him started on producing hip-hop, which I would say is one of his biggest strengths as a producer today.
“I played in a hardcore band called The Hundreth (vocals) when I was in high school. I didn’t want to go to college, but my family wanted me to get a good education,” Tuton explains. “They drove me to Winthrop in the upstate, dropped me off and took my car so I couldn’t get back home. I still found ways to get back to practice and stuff for like, two years. Eventually we parted ways and I went through this period of not knowing who I was anymore, because I didn’t have music.”
Over the next few years, Matt continued his studies at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC. Eventually, he started playing again, learned guitar, and started to immerse himself in the idea of producing his own music. In 2010, around the time that Circa Survive released Blue Sky Noise, Matt started to explore his vocal talent again, feeling inspired to chase that dream once more.
One day, while urinating in front of the Johnny Cash poster that hung above his toilet, Matt looked at Mr. Cash and said, “Johnny, if you can provide me with an opportunity, I’ll take it.”
The next morning, Matt received a message from a post-hardcore band in Charleston who wanted him to come down and play guitar and sing with them. With that opportunity, Matt dropped out of college, packed his stuff into a U-Haul, and moved to Charleston to play in This Is Home.
This Is Home broke up about a year and a half after Matt joined the band. With that chapter closed, Tuton went through another period of trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, and settled back into making music in the form of a solo record. While working on the solo record, which is called Low Tide and was released in 2013, Matt enrolled at The College of Charleston to study Compositon, Orchestration, and Theory. He attributes much of his current knowledge as a producer to his time at CofC.
“It has really led me into my new sound, which is often orchestra-based,” Tuton says. “Whether it’s noticed or not, I’m normally reaching for orchestra elements.”
From there, we talked about his work with Charleston hip-hop artist Walter Brown, who you might have seen closing out Extra Chill Fest back in September. Walter came to Matt’s studio with some mostly fleshed-out ideas for songs, and the pair worked together closely until they were finished with Walter’s newest record IMOW. The album was released in June and has been making rounds in the local and national hip-hop scene ever since.
“Building your own brand and your own identity as an artist the most fucking valuable thing that you can do, because if you can prove that your model works, then it’s way easier to get in doors,” Matt says. “It’s really hard to approach a bigger entity with a new concept. They’re not going to give it the time of day, because they’re worried about the bottom line.”
“With Walt, that’s been the whole brand, man. When he first started, it was just like any other Charleston rapper. The time that we spent together, bouncing ideas back and forth, has benefitted both of us creatively. You know, he’d bring stuff in, we’d change vocal parts, I’d add harmonies and shit. I added a lot of instrumentation on certain beats, like strip them back to just the drums and recreate the song, or create a bridge in a song or rearrange it.”
As a segway into the new John’s Island studio, Matt told me about another Walter Brown album that they had been working on together with local DJ and producer Dblcrwn before they even started with IMOW. Walter, Matt, and Dblcrwn went up to Matt’s family cabin in North Carolina, and spent several sleepless days and nights building the album from nothing. According to Tuton, the next release from Walter Brown will be even better than already the hard-to-beat IMOW.
“We would just stay up for three days, get super fucked up and just geek out on stuff. I love that model,” Tuton says. “That’s why I’m excited about the new studio, because I’ll be able to do that type of session. It’s like ‘hey, come here, we’ll buy groceries, you’re not leaving ’til the record is done’. The way I work, and the way I feel about music, that’s what I love. I want to know that I’ve gotta put my head into it, think about nothing else for like a month, but then I get like two weeks off.”
The release of Walter Brown’s IMOW has presented Matt with a ton of new opportunities. People are hearing the studio magic on that record and contacting to him to see if he’s down to record with them. His reputation is snowballing, and so are his technical capabilities. The new studio will enable him to have the creative freedom that he strives for, with plenty of space and time work things out.
“At this point, with me controlling my own decisions still, it’s very much that I’m working on building the model that I want for myself. As my reputation grows and as things grow for me I’m able to do that more and more, because people trust my vision.”
Matt currently has several projects lined up, but the one that he’s perhaps the most excited about is the new record he’s working on with Myrtle Beach rapper Illmortal called Deviants. To get things started, Matt has asked Illmortal to send him landscape pictures that represent how he wants the record to sound. By doing so, Matt is able to put himself on the same wavelength as Illmortal, and they can use that connection to craft an album that sounds exactly how it was pictured from its inception.
“So, let’s say he sends me a desert landscape with a metal car in it. It’s about working out keys around the color palette that he’s interested in, and then developing all new sounds for that,” Matt explains. “I’m not going to reach for Metro Boomin’ or 808 bank for something like that. I’m gonna go into my DeepMind (analog synth) and I’m gonna create all kicks from scratch. I’m gonna build new instruments from scratch. For me it’s about building records that are truly, sonically different from everything else.”
If that sounds a little out there, then you’re starting to understand the point. Tuton enjoys immersing himself fully in a project, centering his universe around it and turning it into a unique creation that only he could have come up with.
“Those types of ideas are already inherent with me, but it’s just a matter of technically achieving them. That’s where the studying comes in, and all the experience.”
In addition to setting up The Lab, working with musicians, and trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible, Matt (or MAT) is steadily chugging away at his solo record. A lot of things are coming together in the life of Matt Tuton right now, and in the next few months we’ll get to see and hear it all.
“I’ve made some cool records in the past,” Tuton closes, “But now things are really starting to feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.”
Follow Matt on Instagram to keep up with his progress over at The Lab: @mat_thescientist