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A suitcase full of secrets: Matthew “Carefully” Loiacono.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Easy Does It All

Matthew Carefully makes his “debut,” backed by a community balloon of collaborators

By Josh Potter

Discreetly, Matthew Loiacono adjusts a setting on one of the various electronic whatsits he carries to performances in a red vintage suitcase. Casually, he taps a button and a frantic drum sample skitters out of the Caffe Lena PA system. His head begins to bob, unconsciously, and with a deft turn he’s swapping his lute-like octave mandolin for his trusty standard Kentucky mandolin, dexterously popping the cable into its jack just in time to pluck out the song’s opening riff, swaying. Diligently, the shaggy one-man band stacks layer upon layer of mandolin textures with a foot-operated loop pedal, patiently creating a nest of sound for his voice to settle into. Sweeping the mandolin behind his back, he briskly snatches a second microphone from the suitcase, punches another button, and records a high harmony for the lyric he’s already looped. Gradually, he builds a chorus of four-part harmony, eyes closed, crooning, but just as soon as it’s established he turns, abruptly, perhaps even maniacally, and slashes the whole thing down with a fuzzy, distorted mandolin solo. When the song ends, he steps forward to the microphone, sheepishly half-curtsies, and quips that when he wrote that last one he never thought he’d have to play it live. But this is a CD-release show, “so thanks for humoring me,” he says, graciously.

Loiacono is a man of many adverbs. Restlessly, he’s made a habit of starting new projects long before the last one gets cold. As a songwriter, the former Kamikaze Heart has sharpened his talent by posing conceptual challenges for himself: 2008’s Kentucky was recorded exclusively using mandolin; 2009’s Penny Riddle is a collection of one-minute songs. He’s recorded an unreleased album (Music for Message), a just-released album (Music to Fall Asleep To), and a film soundtrack in progress. In the late ’90s, he played some of his first local gigs as a jazz drummer with Brian Patneaude and George Muscatello, and since then has made a habit of playing with everyone and anyone: knotworking, Bryan Thomas, various B3nson projects, and most recently with Hunter Sagehorn of Alta Mira as Rosary Beard. He’s improvised live film scores, provided accompaniment to literary readings, and hauled his red suitcase anywhere they’ll have him to perform his solo act. All this, and Loiacono handles the day-to-day business of Collar City Records, a curatorial task that, he says, dovetails nicely with his personal music making, and has situated him at the gravitational center of the Capital Region music community.

“Carefully,” however, is the way he’s chosen to describe these actions. After years of hearing people mangle his last name and feeling like it never stuck with his audience at out-of-town shows, he’s swapped his surname for an adverb he says both describes a personal tendency and a complex he’s tried to overcome. Either way, it seems to describe the manner in which Loiacono approaches both his personal work and the community that supports him. For Community Balloon, Loiacono’s latest concept-driven record, the two became synonymous, suggesting that his new title might have less to do with cautious restraint and more with outward affection.

Every Wednesday morning for the past 82 weeks, Loiacono has sent an e-mail newsletter to a list of friends, family and fans. The Weekly Wahhh! started as a simple update of the goings-on in Matthew Land (, naturally), e.g., tour dates and recording plans, but soon grew into a bloglike avenue through which Loiacono was posting links and videos and starting dialogue with his subscribers. The list grew from 50 recipients to 250. “I’m really serious about that list,” Loiacono says. “I never miss a week. People come up to me and say, ‘I can’t wait for Wednesday.’”

The newsletter quickly evolved from a promotional tool to its own kind of songwriting project. “I thought, why not give people who had interest in the list something new every week? Why don’t I get them in on the process?” He started including one new track every week, specifically written for the list. Not only did it keep recipients engaged, it gave Loiacono a deadline to motivate for. When the song well went dry sometime late last year, he put out the call for ideas. Recipients were encouraged to submit anything they thought would make for a good song: lyrics, poetry, samples, chords, stories, photos, ideas, challenges. Anything.

It became Loiacono’s task to cobble the ideas into coherent songs. Although challenging, the concept wasn’t entirely unprecedented in his work. When Loiacono first picked up the mandolin in 1999 and began playing with the Kamikaze Hearts, his role was that of the sideman, writing parts that would complement and complete the songs written by Troy Pohl and Gaven Richard. “I tried to unify things,” he says. “If there was ever a point in the music where things slowed down, I would try to write a part that was repetitive and memorable. I love that role.”

This time, though, the song fragments would be tougher to stitch together. Poems submitted by Alex Muro and Ben Karis-Nix all made their way into songs (“The Age of Reason II” and “The Old Stream” respectively), but other submissions were more open-ended: photos, simple ambient samples, the town of Poughkeepsie, lines like “made my life at the top of the stairs,” hating James Joyce for being able to precisely capture human emotion, suggestions like “how about space nurses?” and simply “aubergine.” Some ideas merged with others, some inspired original lyrics by Loiacono, and some were discarded altogether. The strangest submission may have been a long chunk of prose submitted by author Rick Moody, which eventually became “A Description of Things Rick Moody Could See From His Desk.”

“I’m not like crusading for my community,” Loiacono says. “I loved the stuff people sent in and loved trying to harness that. After six or seven songs, it started to feel like a record, and I got kind of obsessed with finishing it.” By the end of the winter, he’d amassed enough material this way for a proper LP. The finishing touch was “All Day Long,” the only track for which Loiacono can claim full authorship, and which contains the project’s lyrical mission statement: “Since I started writing to you every Wednesday in the morning, I’ve been holding up a candle in my mitts to light/Picking out the best bits around just to show you, hoping that you’ll come back and stay awhile.”

The Community Balloon re lease show, last month at Caffe Lena, was a rare occasion on which a good number of Loiacono’s e-mail list recipients were assembled in one space. He performed the album back-to-front, deferring at times to members of the audience to tell the story behind the ideas they had submitted. While it was exciting and even “cathartic,” Loiacono says it was the hardest program of music he’s ever had to play. This mostly has to do with the unique technical considerations of how he performs and the challenge of translating material for the stage.

Loiacono’s work bridges a very 21st-century gap between computer-era methodology and traditional instrumentation and songwriting. On tape, this may be less apparent, as anyone with ProTools and a decent microphone can track a full, multi-instrument record all by their lonesome. Re-creating the sonic complexity of these recordings live is another story, though.

“The kind of pop music I really dig starts with this repetitive thing,” he says, “and then other elements get added to it that change the whole feeling.” It’s a concept he refers to as “cellular music,” and a passion he traces back to when he first heard Arto Lindsay’s Mundo Civilizado. “You’ve got repeating cells [simple motifs] that are doing their thing and other cells that are interlocking or clashing. You’re dropping them in and pulling them out. Then you’re singing over it or playing.” The effect is strange and slightly psychedelic. By performing something in real time, isolating the cell with a loop pedal, and performing something new on top, he’s literally altering the listener’s perception of linear time, a technique not unlike some techno, Steve Reich’s minimalist compositions or Indonesian Gamelan—not to mention folks like Andrew Bird, Zach Deputy and Keller Williams, who have popularized their own versions of the craft.

This concept becomes tangible while watching Loiacono perform. Unlike most electronic performers who risk alienating an audience with the specialized knowledge of their gear, and despite the mystery of Loiacono’s red suitcase, his use of mandolin, guitar, banjo and voice gives the audience a concrete reference for where his sounds are coming from, even when the number of sounds coming from the stage exceed the number of actions he’s performing. He says, “It’s such a fine line between overdoing the looping stuff, composing on the spot, and having people be engaged with it.” Even harder, though, was figuring out how to build many of his new songs live with the loop station. The payoff is watching Loiacono navigate his equipment, carefully constructing each tune in the manner of live painting or sculpture.

“I hope I’m putting forth something that’s intriguing,” he says, “that people can go home and ruminate on. But I don’t want it to be so heavy that it’s hard to get into.” On this night, surrounded by the people that helped write this music, the concern is less pronounced, but still he admits, “When you’re playing alone, it’s hard to be in that place” where you’re present, responding to more than just yourself and the audience. “I also love the opportunity to improvise and kind of wish I could be all of that.”

Not surprisingly, this desire already has him working on a song cycle for his next solo album, writing instrumental tunes with Rosary Beard and scheming to start a new band to satisfy his more raucous inclinations. And all this manic activity might betray a bit of his new namesake. “I’m trying to remind myself to not be so careful about some things,” he says. “That’s kind of how I am, and maybe I’m trying to get over that.”


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