Kristian Mattson performs as The Tallest Man on Earth. His latest album, I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream. was released April 2019 via Dead Oceans.
This conversation between The Tallest Man On Earth (aka Kristian Matsson) and the roots duo Pharis & Jason Romero started with an Instagram post. Matsson covered the duo’s “Lost Lula,” which led to admissions of mutual admiration and eventually a Skype session. Pharis & Jason Romero’s new Bet On Love is inspired by their life in tiny Horsefly, British Columbia, where they operate a banjo shop.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Kristian Matsson: You know that I’m not a journalist but I am prepared. I made notes. Thank you so much for sending your amazing, amazing record.
Pharis Romero: Did you listen to it?
Kristian: I did listen to it, yesterday two times and then two times this morning. And this morning, I was kinda emotional… I wake up super early, way before my girlfriend. I’m an old man now. I go to bed really early. So I was listening to it and that reverb-wash at the end of “New Day” just teared me up. The song after that, “Roll On My Friend”—now I have to get a gourd banjo because that’s what it is, right?
Kristian: That dynamic playing there is beautiful. And then, my third favorite is “World Stops Turning,” it’s just so sad… [Everyone laughing.]
Pharis: You know what’s funny about that song? I wrote that song on the piano and I would sit and play it like a country ballad, and then I got it in my head that Jason has to sing it on the record. It was a bit of an adventure trying to get it to a place where we owned that song. We sat and we recorded that six times. I ran a really old-school ribbon mic. It was a pretty cool experience recording that song, kinda emotional, one of those things where you do a take and it’s not going to get used and then it turns out that it’s perfect.
Kristian: You can definitely hear it’s live, and I did see the microphone collection you posted on instagram. With an RCA and a C37 and whatever, so many.
Pharis: The C37, it’s such a crazy thing. The engineer showed with $100,000 worth of gear in a little Honda Accord and then set it all up in the shop.
Kristian: I don’t have a C37. I have two C38s, the solid-state ones, and they’re less fun.
Pharis: Do you use them for your guitar or instruments or vocals?
Kristian: I used that for vocals on one record. I used it on guitars too but I like a ribbon mic more on the guitar because I play so hard. I need something to make it prettier.
Pharis: Because you’re right-handed, are you bottoming out when you play? Are you pushing your guitar or the banjo really hard when you’re playing?
Kristian: I am, I am. It’s just my personality. Rhythmically, I’m so far in the front seat, I’m on the hood. When did you have the idea of making this album? Do you write a bunch of songs and all of a sudden thought, Oh, we should make this into a record? Or did you have time to make a record?
Pharis: With having two little kids, it’s hard for us to get time to make a record. We have to book it in maybe a year in advance. So we get everybody around and we book everyone in. That makes us focus. It’s not a spur-of-the-moment thing. It’s definitely something that we’ve been pondering for a while. It would be fun if we could do a little more spur-of-the-moment, I think the kids will have to be older. It’s a goal to work towards and especially a songwriting goal. I’m not a disciplined songwriter, I don’t sit down and go, OK, I’ve got to write five songs to be able to get them done for this record. I’m just waiting for a rhythm to happen or a turn of phrase or whatever to happen and then go from there.
Kristian: Can you paint a picture of when those moments happen? Where do you squeeze it in? Do you both write?
Pharis: The tune you learned, “Lost Lula,” to me is the hallmark sound. Sometimes I have this really deep desire to try to collect every version of “Lost Lula” we’ve ever heard and just put it into this collection because there’s so many cool interpretations of it. I feel like Jason channeled into something.
Kristian: It is magical. I can’t really learn it because somehow I can’t follow all the little… I can play the feeling of it and then I feel really good. You’ve been around each other for a long time. I watched you play it at Pickathon, and whoever is following whom, you guys know exactly where you are all the time. Is that something that just comes natural?
Pharis: Yeah, I think it came natural at first. The thing with Jason that I think is really amazing about him is he doesn’t say a word. I write a song; I bring the words. He’s just listening to the melodic flow and the rhythmic flow. He has no idea what any words are, and their meaning, none of that. So, I think in a song like “Lost Lula,” he’s just thinking about the flow that is happening and is completely in that flow because he and I have played together so much. It’s the first thing we did when we got together, we played music together. It’s like we hear the groove in the same place. You know how everyone hears the groove slightly differently and every banjo player is a little bit different in how they want someone to feel the groove? That’s why him and I love old-time music so much. Old-time music is not about solos or so many things, It’s about pulse. A friend described it as a surge. Once the fiddle rides on this wave of guitar and banjo and if the guitar and banjo aren’t pulsating together and cresting together, then it’s hard for the fiddler to find that center. Jason and I hear the groove in the same spot. Not the beat. We hear the groove in the same spot.
Kristian: That’s amazing to listen to and watch. I’ve been starting to feel something. I was starting to learn how to play Swedish folk music on the banjo. I never played much of that music myself. I grew up in the epicenter of it but I was a kid. I just became a punk rocker instead. But now it’s coming back to me. I heard so much of that music, so it’s in my body somehow. When I dive into it, I can’t really explain what I’m doing, why I’m going to that note, in that time. It’s fascinating.
Pharis: With he Swedish folk music and the minor movements of it… Because we’re such banjo geeks and such tuning freaks, are you going into other tunings when you’re doing it? Are you going into old melodic tunings or old modal tunings?
Kristian: No, I usually play in C major, when you play that in minor, that works really well for that kind of melodic minor. I played in what you call G modal tuning, that G tuning with a C you play like “Shady Grove” or “East Virginia.” Of course, I’m going to make my life harder coming up with new tunings…
Pharis: Join the club. That’s the thing that we struggle with. Playing live, we’re always doing a dance of me trying to come up with something clever to say, just to be present while Jason goes into some esoteric tuning that’s really, really difficult for the banjo to hold in that moment. But without the tuning, you can’t communicate the song completely because the tuning is so essential to the feeling of the song. It’s so funny because once you get into those old banjo tunings — and there’s hundreds of them — every one of them have a reason for being what they are. It’s really interesting trying to transcribe that into a live performance and keep the performance something where the audience isn’t looking at you and going, “Oh, god, not that banjo again.”
Kristian: Well, I am unemployed right now. I’m not sure what’s happening with my career after this. I could just become your guitar tech and your banjo tech because that’s how I do it. I have 14 guitars and two banjos. Because I fingerpick electric guitars and 12-string guitars and steel string guitars and now, nylon string guitars. I have two amazing guitar techs that I break one down and that one gets a rest and then I use the other one for a while.
Pharis: We’ve thought about traveling with a guitar tech. You should see us going through an airport. We’re already a comedy of errors because we have two small children, everybody’s baggage, all of our guitars. We bring banjos with us and then we’re trying to convince a flight attendant to let us bring all of our guitars on the plane. We’re always that family in security where everyone is like, “Oh, god, I…” They’re trying to avoid us in the line. But to have somebody who would hand a banjo to Jason already tuned… We could be your guitar techs and you could be ours. That would be perfect.
Kristian: Are you working on something back there right now, Jason?
Jason: I’m bending figured maple. I have a hot iron going.
Kristian: You posted that the other day.
Jason: Yeah, I’m bending the other pieces of that because they’ve been soaking for so long, I have to bend them today.
Pharis: It’s a new kind of maple for us. It’s called torrefied maple. What is it ?
Jason: It’s dried out. Have you heard of torrefied wood?
Kristian: Yeah, do you torrefy it yourself?
Jason: No. I think it might have developed in Sweden or Norway but it’s all the rage with acoustic guitar tops these days. I don’t think any modern builder is not using a torrefied top. There’d be no point in it. I recently got maple that I’m trying for banjos but it’s very, very stiff and doesn’t want to bend. So, I’ve had to learn how to bend it. I’m massaging it right now with a torch.
Kristian: OK. No violence, just be gentle. [Laughs.] Where’d you find the wood?
Jason: A specialist found me. He sells to the big companies and he’s also a fan of instrument builders. So he contacted me and said, “You should try some of this wood.” We just developed a friendship. His name is Hans and he runs a company called Tempered Tonewoods.
Kristian: How is that with banjos? It feels like the new handmade banjos like the ones you are doing are such high quality and the focus on the wood and stuff. Guitars, like this is a D18 from ’65 that just torrefying in the… It’s the best D18 that I’ve ever played. It’s the most expensive one, but it’s perfect. But I haven’t felt that in a really old banjo. This banjo has really dried out. This rim has really dried out, but is that a common thing? You have a vintage banjo where you feel it’s really resonant because it’s dried out?
Jason: It has to start with a well-made banjo… all the early Gibsons that are so coveted these days with bluegrass players, your $40,000, $50,000, or $60,000 banjos. With those ones, I think folks definitely feel that the old wood in the rim and the neck are helping the tone, but there were so many other banjos that it was more about the metal. So that torrefying effect that you get with an old guitar, it doesn’t really translate to old banjos as much.
Kristian: I’m dreaming of a banjo that has a round, meaty tone but you still have a lot of sustain. You can play it really dynamic. I want it all.
Jason: I’m shooting for that sound also. Round, and I make them loud.
Kristian: The fretted gourd banjos — I’ve only seen yours in videos and pictures but I presume they are really good quality. They look amazing. Is that common?
Jason: It’s not common. No other builders do it, and I think there’s a few people who have put a contract out on me for having done that. [Laughs.] It’s basically what I grab around the house. It is all you’re gonna wanna play if you’ve played one. I put the tuners in that are geared. I put frets on it and I put graphite in the neck. Most gourd builders are just making fretless banjos and they’re great. But if you don’t want to learn how to play fretless or you want to play above the fifth fret, then there’s a whole bunch of people who aren’t gonna have the joy of a gourd banjo. So, that was my idea behind putting frets on it.
Pharis: The cool thing about a gourd banjo, you can put a pick-up in them and they pick up beautiful. Jason’s played one through an electric amp here with piles of reverb on it or interesting delays. They’re kind of amazing, the stuff you can do with them. So, the banjo on the record, that’s not a studio synthesized tone with that amount of delay, it’s not done with plate reverbs. We can get that tone live because of the interesting effects that you can get from a gourd banjo.
Kristian: Have you guys read The Overstory by Richard Powers?
Pharis: No, it’s on my list. Is it so good?
Kristian: It’s amazing! It’s fantastic! I get emotional because I grew up in the woods. I grew up with European Spruce all around. I played in the woods and even though Sweden is so logged, there are some spots here and there with old growth that are fantastic. You don’t have to be a tree nerd to like it. It’s just beautifully poetic. I’m trying to force it on everyone to read it.
Pharis: You have to do that with books where you find them. I’m a total tree nerd. I have an undergraduate degree in botany and entomology and I used to teach. I’m a nature geek.
Kristian: Talking about the giving tree… A Douglas fir, when it dies, sends out the rest of the nutrients it has. The book is a lot about that. It’s about the system of the fungi, how they’re connected and how they find DNA of salmon up in a tree. How is that possible?
Pharis: We live on a salmon-spawning river, and it’s one of the last pristine watershed. You gotta come visit.
Kristian: I have to!
Pharis: You asked a question a while ago about songs and where songs hit and I like it because it’s come full circle right now, talking about nature, and being out in the woods, wilderness and how important that is because that is. When I’m out walking, skiing, being, swimming, whatever it is, out in the woods, that’s where it seems like most songs seem to start. It’s like a rhythm of something happening out in the woods. If I’m sitting on a lake and a whole culture of swallows comes and flies around me, that’s when my brain stops ticking with all the other things that are happening in day-to-day life. My body is just a part of it, and then little bits of songs can start.
Kristian: I can totally relate, because that’s what happens when fly-fish. I don’t really care about the trout. It’s the moment when you’re just there! That’s where one should always be!
Pharis: It is meditation. Jason’s been fly fishing since he was 12. Banjos or fly fishing, this is getting pretty perfect. It’s not about catching the fish, it’s about the meditation. You are part of the cycle, where you are understanding what hatch is happening, what insect is coming up, what things are rising, the water temperature is rising, what time of year it is happening with the fish runs. I think it’s gorgeous.
Kristian: Yeah, the season actually just opened here and I don’t have any gear. I should just drive out and stare a river because that’s what I was going to do anyway. Maybe you could yell over to Jason. Where do his tunes come out, like when bending maple?
Jason: It usually starts with the tuning. You know how banjo tunings can just inspire you? A lot of times it will start with a tuning and then a feeling, just like a sunny day or a snowy day or just life here really. Banjo tunings and just the feelings I get from living here in the woods. Sometimes, one tune will start around even just a couple of measures of something. I’m sure you can understand that. If you play something that you feel is good, but it’s only a couple of measures, but it’s worth figuring out the rest of the tune just so you can get those two measures in.
Kristian: When I started to learn about Americans and banjo, it was Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Have you listened to him at all?
Pharis: A lot.
Kristian: I read the story of him traveling around and collecting songs and documenting it by playing his weird banjo style, just to get it on tape. I actually love his singing so much! On this record you can hear it. It starts with the first song where you laugh and say, “chicka, chicka, chicka” or something. It just pushes me into this world. It feels really warm and inviting and personal. It’s going to be out in May?
Pharis: May 15, it’s coming.
Kristian: There’s a Swedish artist named Daniel Norgren.
Pharis: I know the name.
Kristian: There’s something in Jason’s voice that there are similarities. I know he’s played Pickathon a couple of times. I think it would be amazing if… He’s a dear friend.
Pharis: I would love to meet him. I’m the artistic director for a singing camp that I’ve been teaching at for a long time, for almost 15 years now. He came up as one the folks that we’d really love to have come and have teach at some point.
Kristian: Yeah, good luck. He is a mad genius. He’s a recluse, he lives on the southern countryside of Sweden. He’s really popular in Sweden. I was listening to your record and I was reminded of Daniel, and then I went on Reverb and bought an electric guitar yesterday because I’m here and I have only my D18 and I have a banjo and a nylon string because I didn’t think I was going to be here for more than a couple of weeks. I found one really cheap. I was a little wine-drunk and emotional after listening to your music, I just bought it off of Reverb. so, it’s going to be here in couple of days. [Laughs.]
Pharis: That’s what Jason does. “I don’t have anything to do right now. I’m just gonna look for some guitars.” There’s a list always going somewhere in the back of his brain of the next guitars he’d be interested in having. My birthday present, two or three years ago, I really wanted one of the little 10-string Martin tiples.
Kristian: I have one; it’s being serviced in Brooklyn right now because the bridge broke.
Pharis: They’re so cool. I was really obsessed with the idea. Jason found one in a pawn shop in Buffalo. Mint 1936, Martin tiple, mahogany, beautiful, and so cheap! You know how expensive they are.
Kristian: I have the same one. I think I paid $1,300 for mine.
Pharis: He paid $500 for this!
Kristian: That makes me happy. That makes it even more valuable when you find it like that. My bridge started to come off. It’s getting repaired at RetroFret in Brooklyn. I live around the corner. Have you been there?
Pharis: No, but I look on their website. We follow them on Instagram.
Kristian: I can’t go there because I just buy a guitar all the time. Actually I bought a 1954 Del Pilar classical guitar there, made in Brooklyn in 1954 and it’s just magical. I bought it before this tour. For the first time in my life I brought two instruments that I traded in, because I am a hoarder. I’m getting a little disgusted with myself, how many instruments I own. So I took a Gibson 330 that my front-of-house hates because it kinda squeals. So I brought that and I brought a Hagstrom, it’s a Swedish brand, 8 string bass, that I’ve had, that I bought one time when I was sad after a break-up… So I just brought those two and just handed them in at RetroFret. What’s your next guitar, Jason?
Jason: I’ve kind of tamed my wandering eye because we just got these pre-war guitars last year. These guys in North Carolina make just fantastic reproductions, and those are our travel guitars. They’re out of this world. We got them because our travel guitars, our old ones, our pre-war guitars…
Pharis: The actual pre-war guitars.
Jason: We just get so stressed out flying with them. I needed a reason to buy more guitars and it was very practical. I might buy another one of their guitars next year when I turn 50.
Kristian: Wow! Yeah, you should.
Did you have any tours planned?
Pharis: Yup. I think for every one of us, it’s hard to feel too overwhelmed by it because everyone’s in the same boat. Nobody is special in this situation. We’re all in it together. There’s all this magical support happening. I feel very grateful for where we live right now for the support for the arts.
Jason: Yay, Canada.
Pharis: Yeah, Canada’s rockin’ it right now. It’s been pretty amazing and BC is rocking it right now too. And it’s really cool to see people who have some money being willing to pass it around to people who don’t have any money right now. It’s been just awesome watching the generosity and the spirit happening and the balancing.
Kristian: Yeah, I’ve heard about that in Sweden too. And my dad… his heart is not very good. He’s been sick a lot the last couple of years. So, he’s really fragile right now. I’ve been so worried for him. They have an organization they just started. They live in a small town of 15,000 people but they started this organization for them. “We’re going to grocery shop for old people and the risk groups.” The good hearts come out. Because I can get bitter and cynical about the world all the time. I felt like Swedes, the past couple of years, we were so spoiled and everyone complaining about everything. We just don’t realize how good we have it with everything. And with me being in America a lot, where there’s no security net for people — the Swedes don’t understand that. I’m happy to hear about Canada.
Pharis: I think there are new opportunities for creativity and that seems to be happening for a lot of people right now.There’s an interesting pressure. We’ll get emails from camps or festivals that are cancelled. Everything is more or less re-booked for next year. Every festival that we were supposed to play at this year, we’re already booked to play at next year. I think that’s an experience a lot of people are having but it’ll be funny to get an email that says, “We can’t wait to see what new songs you’ve written, what new instruments you’ve learned.” I’m just like, “Fuck, NO. I don’t have time for that shit.”
Kristian: Fuck no, I’ve been on my phone and I’ve been reading news for five hours!
Pharis: I’m homeschooling my kid while trying to promote a new record and work from home. Jason and I, we pair off during the day. He works a major part of the day and then I come in about 3 o’clock and come in and do all the work. We’re a full 24/7 mom and pop kind of operation. We do everything ourselves, so it’s pretty funny trying to imagine having more time right now. I have excellent time because I’m at home with my family and so happy to be so. That part of it is such a gift!
But you think about, “What’s the immediate future of music?” It’s 50 people or less. That’s a whole moving backwards to smaller, intimate style of performing then if you’re used to being on a stage in a huge theater where you can’t see anyone, and that gives you comfort because, for a lot of people, that is a comfortable place, right? You don’t see any faces. You can’t hear any of the conversations going, so you can be in your own artistic zone. But to be in a room with 50 people or less, where you can feel what every person in that room is feeling, you may even be playing acoustic, it’s a whole other style of performance. I get excited about that, thinking about really interesting concert series, for artists who that’s the only way they can perform there.
Kristian: It just started to change just before the tour got cancelled. I was going to play small venues for a bunch of nights. I played Old Town School Folk in Chicago, I was going to do four nights there. I did two nights and that came from the tour before that, a month before we were going to play 2500-cap venues. I started to feel like I was happy that that was coming to an end, like I needed to change something because I was starting to climb out into the crowd, climbing balconies, singing unplugged, just climbing up on the thing and having sing-a-longs. “I’m turning this into a circus because I am a little bored with those things.” Then, those two nights in Chicago were amazing. And then we had to leave.
Pharis: Was it just boredom, do you think? Or did you want that personal connection with people?
Kristian: I want the personal connection and actually that’s because it’s a different show, especially if you play all acoustic. It’s harder; it’s a little scarier. You can get into this comfortable thing of having this million-dollar PA where everything sounds massive and big but I was starting to feel like I didn’t get challenged by that anymore. I’ve never been bored on a stage, but I felt it was starting to get harder to feel that crazy, nervous fire, the good fire that should be there because I get comfortable in this thing. Now, there’s no choice. Now, we’re going to have to do that.
Bet On Love is out today.