Photo by Joseph Cultice
Ever since Avril Lavigne got herself crowned the scowling princess of skateboarders bent on self-expression, the music biz has had three new L.A.-based writer-producers to telephone, flatter and buzz about. The team’s members are Lauren Christy, an England-born singer-songwriter who during the mid-’90s recorded two albums for Mercury Records; Scott Spock, a St. Louis native and keyboardist/programmer; and Graham Edwards, a Scotsman who is Christy’s husband and in the ’80s played guitar with Haircut 100 and Adam and the Ants. Christy, Spock and Edwards collectively call themselves the Matrix. Seemingly all of a sudden, the Matrix have contracted out their talents to everyone, popping around with Britney Spears and Ricky Martin, giving Liz Phair a nice wallop of the prayed-for multiplatinum common touch, even ministering to the always-high needs of David Bowie. The Matrix have overseen actual bands, too, both fluffy (Lillix) and scruffy (the Mooney Suzuki).
The Matrix are white-hot. Temperamentally modest, they nonetheless can remember fond moments like this one, which occurred in a limo: “We were heading to the Grammys,” Spock, 33, recalls, “and our cell phone rang. We picked it up, and it was Ricky Martin. And he just said, ‘Hey, I want to say good luck to you guys tonight. It’s your night.’”
But megaproducerhood knows no real overnight successes. “We felt pretty desperate at the stage when Avril came out,” Christy, 33, says. “We’d been together quite a long time and had nothing on the radio. Our manager kept talking us up to everyone — ‘These guys, you gotta use them, you gotta use them.’ And everyone would be, like, ‘What have they had on the radio?’” The question received a dramatic answer in triplicate when the Lavigne releases “Complicated,” “Sk8er Boi” and “I’m With You” — each bearing that prized credit “Produced, Arranged & Recorded by the Matrix” — became No. 1 pop hits. The Matrix were radio’s newest owners.
The shift seemed fitting, because the Matrix crave what in pop terms might be construed as the musical and commercial art of The Grab. Christy phrases the Matrix’s aesthetic succinctly: “We like stuff,” she says, “that’s really emotional and really aggressive and really reaches out and grabs you by the throat. That’s what we love to hear on the radio and listen to at home, something that just explodes on the chorus and makes you want to sing along.”
“We are so diversified in our backgrounds,” Spock says. “We don’t just come from one thing. We fight each other until we’ve got something that we all like. And usually that’s something that fits into the pop world, because if she likes it and I like it and he likes it, that means, hopefully, a lot of other people will pool together and like it as well.”
You regard the Matrix as professional popheads deluxe. But Christy isn’t altogether sure about that — or, at any rate, she’s keen to make a distinction or two. “People keep saying that about us,” she says in her bright and friendly English accent, “but, you know, Scott comes from jazzworld, and I came from Kate Bushland, and Graham came from playing with lots of rock bands, including Jeff Beck and Mick Jagger. We’ve all studied so many different styles of music, and we kind of feel that we can do everything. But Avril was so poppy that we’ve been labeled as that.”
Spock continues, adding detail: “We think we can go from working with Christina Aguilera to Avril to Mooney Suzuki — which is Strokes kinda stuff. We try to do what we feel is necessary for the artist. We never try to go in and say, ‘Hi, we’re the Matrix. We’re just going to insert you into what we do.’ We do have a signature sound when it comes to rock-pop. People go, ‘Oh, that’s the Avril sound.’ No, it’s not; it’s the Matrix sound. We try to magnify the best parts of artists.”
But when reminded of the Matrix’s two-thirds U.K. origins, Christy doesn’t pretend to forget that not all nations are as skittish about pure pop hits as is the United States — a country in which, for any megapop success, someone always lurks in the background, often with access to print, to damn a megapop success such as Lavigne, branding her “that horrid teenager,” as the pop critic in the New York Observer recently did. Edwards remembers encountering a notably ashen expression after he told a local music journalist of his unironic love of pop music. “Definitely in England,” Christy says, “you get the real lovey critics who are only into the Strokes and stuff. But Bananarama will always have a place in history, you know. The English appreciate that, all that fun stuff. It’s all important.”
Edwards, 38, wonders whether that kind of pop appreciation isn’t becoming more of an American impulse as well. “I think it’s changing in a lot of ways,” he says, referring to the U.S. market. “Unfortunately, it’s changing through American Idol. It’s like exporting this huge pop thing to mass populations. And that’s kind of what England’s always had. And now it’s happening in America, where you have all these almost cabaret artists getting into the finals and making records and going out there. This has magnified pop to the American public the way it’s always been magnified in England.”
The members of the Matrix are not particular fans, they say, of the music that American Idol has given the world. But Christy cannot tell a lie. “I can’t stop singing that Kelly Clarkson song, ‘Miss Independent,’” she laughs. “I gotta tell you, I love that song.” The Matrix, she says, are all “song junkies.”
Here are the elements that a non-ballad Matrix production — something like “Complicated,” or “Welcome,” the great if little-heard Matrix track that kicks off Heather Nova’s 2002 South V2 collection — typically relies on: A short instrumental intro full of rhythms and beats and noises and guitar and/or keyboard parts going a delicious kind of crazy. Verses that slink out with that irresistible, promising, slightly shadowy big-melodic momentum sung by an alluring, though not necessarily virtuosic, voice. Bridges that, for a minute or two, tantalizingly remove the heat from the verses, building further the anticipation of some kind of pop éclat. Choruses that then take the listener not into a mere textural multiplication of the verse, but, in melodic terms, somewhere else entirely. The result is a series of high-impact aural events, all lined up logically, if not quite perfectly, in a bracing rhythmic row.
“And it doesn’t have to be up-tempo songs,” Spock says. “I mean, we do that on ‘I’m With You’ as well. It’s a ballad, and it reaches out to you emotionally, but it’s sort of aggressive, too. I remember when we were working on that song; every hair on my arm would stand up every time Avril came to the bridge.”
“Yeah,” Edwards says, “for a long time, it was quite boring, Middle America, droney songs with the hits. I think we had to take it to a different level.”
“We really do live for music,” says Spock, “and we get off on it as hard as we did three years ago, when we didn’t have Avril on the radio. It’s been really good for us.”
“By the end of doing ‘Welcome,’ the Heather Nova song,” Christy remembers, “we got it to a place where we were all jumping up and down.”
The Matrix’s work bridges the MTV and TRL generations. They are “song junkies” the way Prince and Madonna and ZZ Top were song junkies. Unlike hip-hop maestros, they are not exclusively in the hot-doggin’ rhythm business. Unlike R&B savants, they don’t bank 100 percent on groove and vibe. Unlike ’90s teenpop wonders architected by Swedish producer Max Martin’s zingingly suave technological buildups of South African producer Mutt Lange (now the éminence grise of international pop), the Matrix are crafty as hell but not overtly scientific. They are melody nuts who fit their skill and love of songs into all these new languages that have in common only the radio-sired need for the cool sonic series of pop explosions. The Matrix specialize in The Grab. And in their hearts and minds, they know that, as long as people drive around in automobiles punching certain buttons, Bananarama will always have a place in history.