Last year, Matt Jaffe — who would now be a junior film studies major in Calhoun — chose to drop out of Yale to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a full-fledged musician. Mentored by Jerry Harrison, the lead guitarist and keyboardist of the Talking Heads, Jaffe seeks to carve his own musical path. He’s the lead singer of Matt Jaffe and the Distractions, a rock ’n’ roll band that also includes Paul Paldino on bass, Adam Nash on guitar and Thomas Yopes on drums. Jaffe spoke to WKND about his songwriting process, how his time at Yale influenced his music and his expectations for the future.
Q: How would you describe your band’s sound?
A: I would say in one word, just rock. I’m into pretty much anything that’s aggressive and simple. Punk rock is definitely a huge influence. Other [influences include] country rock or alt-country. But definitely just rock, primarily guitar-driven.
Q: Were there any moments in your youth that catalyzed your interest in music?
A: My [older] sister, who also went to Yale, started playing violin when she was 5. I also started playing violin when I was 5. It seemed like the thing to do. She’s a very strong role model for me.
But about five or so years into playing violin, I got interested in songwriting, which is a lot easier on guitar. I started singing at age 10, although I view it more as getting the words out. I wrote songs and performed for about five more years until I started working with Jerry. It was then that I started thinking of making [music] a career. I really loved it as a hobby and as a passion. Since it’s my favorite thing to do, I’ve looked into how I can make a living from it.
I view it more as something I love doing than as a career. If that balance flips, it would really be a problem.
Q: How did your relationship with Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads begin?
A: I’ve been a big Talking Heads fan since I was in about third or fourth grade. In fifth grade, I had to do a project for school — I think it was called a Passion Project. Little did I know, Jerry Harrison actually lives very close to me. I was walking around the neighborhood one day and I saw him. It was like I had seen a ghost. Years later, I had to interview him for a song I was doing and he very graciously acquiesced to that. Very shortly afterward, he saw me perform at an open mic. We’ve worked together a number of times since then, and he’s been a really great friend and mentor.
Q: From where do you derive inspiration for your lyrics? Can you describe your songwriting process?
A: It’s a theoretical versus experiential sort of thing. When I was in high school, I was really inspired by other people’s work — not only music but also books. “The Great Gatsby” or “Crime and Punishment” — I was really inspired by novels and poetry, and of course other songs. That really did change once I came to Yale and was suddenly surrounded by more people my age than ever before. This inundation of new people from all over the world, and this influx of new interactions, really inspired me to write more about people and how I view myself in relation to them. Once I got to Yale, I started grounding my songs more in experience than in concepts.
In terms of process, I’m sort of obsessive about trying to catalogue any ideas I have. Anytime I get any lyrical or melodic idea, I write it down or record it in my phone. I need a fair amount of time and space to write anything. I catalogue a bunch of ideas and find a four-hour block of time to sit — usually in my room — and to come up with something that isn’t terrible.
People ask, “What do you do first, words or music?” With songs I like best, it all comes together. [It’s a] less tangible formula. If I keep forcing a lyric onto a melody, it sounds wrong. For the best songs, everything comes simultaneously.
Q: I listened to your songs “Libertad” and “Girl from Buenos Aires.” Where did the inspiration come for those?
A: I was hugely into [writer] Jose Luis Borges during senior year of high school. Both songs, especially “Girl from Buenos Aires,” are inspired directly by a poem and a short story of his. [For] “Libertad,” some of the language is inspired by him. The idea of trying to blend Spanish into the song is from the Pogues, a great Irish band, who have a song called “Fiesta” that’s this drunken slur of English and Spanish — you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. Both “Libertad” and “Girl from Buenos Aires” were very much me saying I love how this person is writing. How can I write something that echoes that? They aren’t terribly motivated by experience.
Q: What has been your favorite moment throughout your musical career?
A: It’s hard to say. There have been some gigs where everything feels miraculously aligned. There are also times when writing a song seems to coalesce perfectly, or meetings with people that have been really special.
My band and I have been doing some new recordings in the last couple of months, and for the first time ever, we’ve been recording to analog take instead of digital. As simple as it may sound, a favorite moment of mine is listening back after a take and feeling happy and proud of how it sounds. We’ve been lucky to have a few achievements that sound like success to a lot of people. People we’ve worked with and places we’ve played, that’s all superficial if there isn’t a pure happiness with how the music sounds.
Q: Do you believe your brief time at Yale influenced your musical trajectory? How? Why did you leave?
A: There was no factor that was the last straw or anything. There were two paths: the more conventional academic one, or the more striking musical one.
We’ve gone on a few really great tours, including a national one last fall. I’m happy with all that I’ve been able to accomplish. There’s lingering but not crippling doubt. I don’t go through the day wondering what it would be like to stay at Yale. Any time you make a major life decision, you wonder what would have been. But it’s silly to worry about it too much.
My time at Yale energized me musically. In terms of songwriting. I started writing at a much more intense rate. When I got to college, all of a sudden my schedule was mine. High school is pretty regimented. You wake up, bike to school, go to class for seven hours, bike home, do homework, then play a show or go to an open mike.
At Yale at any hour of the day, I can determine what I want to do. I sat myself down and thought about what I really wanted to be doing with my time. The answer [was always] songwriting.
Q: Would you ever come back to Yale?
A: I think that’s the million-dollar question. I don’t even have a good answer. All I know is that Yale is pretty tolerant of people coming back with their tails between their legs. I hope if and when I do that, I would never consider it a failure — it would just be another road to take. Right now, I’m really happy with what I’m doing outside of Yale. I don’t have the arrogance to think I know what will make me happy in five or 10 years. It may well be that going back [will make] the most sense. For now, I’m still trying to dive headlong into music.
Q: What’s coming up for you in the next few months?
A: I’m always working on songs. We’re doing some more recording this weekend that’ll become the second half of an album — we’re hoping to put it out on vinyl actually. I’m not really a purist in terms of whether something needs to be on vinyl or recorded on tape. I do think music has been devalued, and a way to revalue it is to put an album out as a record and not just as MP3s. We have a lot of local gigs coming up, and we’re planning a tour for the summer. I’m also writing songs with other people to try new things, to tackle songwriting from different perspectives.