It’s interesting to listen to Matthew Siskin (aka Gambles) speak about his debut album, Trust. Borne out of a set of circumstances that are nothing short of tragic, it is a record that is raw and poignant. Roughly three years ago, Siskin got engaged, then lost a child, left his wife, and turned to drink and drugs for two years. Much of Trust is addressed to his ex-wife of whom Siskin has previously said, “I wanted her to hate me. I did things to make her hate me. Because that would be easier than saying, ‘I have to leave’”.
Trust echoes with these sorts of emotional knots but despite this, Siskin does not come across like a person who still needs to get things off his chest – he speaks like a man who has said what needed to be said about a particular time in his life, and who is excited about recording and releasing music. He also thinks Angel Olsen is cute and has gone from doing drugs every day to cutting down on cigarettes. We spoke to him to find out more.
Hi Matthew. Could you tell us how the Gambles project came about?
Sure. It was totally unplanned – it’s funny to think about it now because it was such a weird time. I had stopped going out, and every night I would just sit at a little table and just record myself singing into a mic over and over and over again – It never really felt right. Then I think there was one night where I cranked everything up to the point where the mic was so sensitive, and I just sang and it sounded right, and in that moment ‘Schemes’, ‘Rooftops’…those songs happened. I was like ‘Oh shit, here’s a new way of doing things’. It’s less ‘writing’ songs and more like ‘singing’ songs. It came together like that, and from there it just kept moving.
Your story is obviously a key part of how Trust came about, but was there an earlier point in your life when you decided that you wanted to make music?
I think I’ve always wanted to, I think my whole life I always felt in my gut that I wanted to do that. It felt like I could do that, but at the same time it felt like I didn’t have any reason to do it yet. All of my favourite singers, they all have something very clear to say, and it’s kind’ve like a weird timing thing; I feel like a lot of music happens just because people want to do music, and I respect that, but for me it was always really different – I felt like I’m gonna do it when I do it, and I’m not knock myself over the head from trying. And I had done that – I would sit and just fail over and over again and try everything I could to sing and make noise and it just felt empty, with no reason. Obviously extreme things happened to me which at the time I didn’t think I would go on to write songs about, but then – going through that process of searching a little bit – that got connected to whatever was happening in my head and in my body. It felt like I was saying something clearly.
Do you find it difficult to perform these songs night after night whilst on tour? They all have a lot of raw emotion on show, understandably so.
I did – in February I was supporting the Maccabees in America and I’d never really performed before. It was more challenging then because I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to stand or I didn’t know how to stand and it felt like I was exposing myself. But yeah, it’s hard – there are certain songs where you have to swallow a little bit and breathe through certain parts. It’s like giving a speech at a person’s funeral, you’re like ‘I can do this’, then you go to do it and it’s like ‘Shit, this is really intense’.
Anyway, I’ve discovered this new thing where if I feel weird about the room or whatever it is, I find it easier if I get off the stage and take the microphone with me into the audience – then it’s like you’re talking to someone and it feels more sincere. There were times where it felt like I was putting something on, like a guy standing there with a microphone, with a monitor and all this stuff and everyone’s there to watch – it didn’t feel right. So the past few shows I’ve just been like “fuck it”. I think people connect to that because it’s one less thing between them, and I like that. It makes it easier but it’s also obviously still emotional – I guess it has to be.
Was there a turning point after your drink and drug problems where you felt like you had to get clean in order to take the music forward?
Not really, it was more that one replaced the other. I would still smoke tons of pot when I would write, and it would really help – I think I was stoned for most of my songwriting, all of my demos are pretty hilarious, in any single song it always starts with the lighter clicking. The other stuff just fell away because I can’t perform fucked up, so it wasn’t really a decision it was just like ‘Now I’m doing this so I can’t really do that’, and I’ve always had that way about me where if I feel like I’m getting too far into something I have that line – like I don’t think that I’ll ever kill myself or destroy myself with substance abuse. It’s not that I’m too smart, it’s just that I care about other things too much – I care about my mind and I care about being able to express myself.
I also know how it feels when you’ve been smoking pot for about three weeks where you just can’t feel anything – that’s not what I wanna do, so I think it just happened on its own. It’s the same with cigarettes now – I’ve started smoking a lot less because I just can’t sing as well, it’s less of a ‘Oh I should quit smoking’ and more of a ‘If I’m gonna sing ‘So I Cry Out’ and get through it I can’t smoke because I have to hold those fucking notes’.
Does critical acclaim matter to you?
I think every single artist will say that they don’t care – I know that every single artist reads everything. On every level I have friends who are pop stars and friends who aren’t and they say to me “I’ve never googled myself” and I’m like “You’re lying”. I think every performer wants to know that they’ve made someone happy, it feels good to know that. Last night I played a tiny show, the smallest show of this tour. There was maybe 10 people in a bar in Manchester and I didn’t have a microphone, I just sat in the room and sang. There were these four girls – I even know their names from the internet because they follow me and they’re always engaging with me – and they were singing along and they knew the words, and that for me goes hand in hand with any opinion anyone has; whether Pitchfork stick me on a pitchfork or whatever. I’m not gonna say that bad reviews don’t make me go ‘That sucks’, but it doesn’t make me feel anything different about what I’m doing, and I’m not gonna change anything.
Part of your what makes your sound unique is its stripped-back nature. Have you, or would you ever consider adding more instruments or playing with a live band?
I think it’s impossible for it to always just be me and my guitar, because the songs that I’m already writing for my second record are very percussive. I can see them [possible future band] in my head; brothers or best friends (there’s two of them) , maybe they’re sisters, maybe whatever – but bass and drums, and they want to be in a band. I don’t want to hire musicians, but all of these songs are put on a plate for simple arrangements – I love the Clash and what people like Jonathan Richman did.
I think it’s a natural evolution, I think it would be insane to say ‘No I will never do that’ because I’m already getting quite antsy and I mean, how long can you go on tour and do this? It’s satisfying but it’s also challenging. It’s limiting too- it happened the way it happened, and I had an acoustic guitar and I had to write, and I didn’t have anyone I could call and be like ‘Hey can you come to practice at 7pm?’. I had to just do it when I had to do it and I think that’s why it sounds the way it does. But I mean, I want to play festivals. I want to burn rooms down and channel new things and a lot of the new shit I’m doing will have bass and drums but still maintain that thing – whatever that thing is – that I think sounds like me. There’s a space between things that I can hear in my own music that I always wanna make sure is there.
Are there any artists in particular that you would say influence your style?
Yeah, I mean I think it would be crazy of me not to say Leonard Cohen isn’t very dear to me, and probably more than Dylan sometimes. Dylan’s songs are crazy, they paint crazy things in your head. Also the craftsmanship, the way he’s taken things and changed them subtly – I’ve done the same thing like what he did in taking phrasing from old Irish folk songs. There were songs that he would take and make the minor chords major, but it’s not because he’s stealing, he’s just making it his own. On my song ‘Angel’, it’s weird – I love Angel Olsen and I think she’s so great. I was sitting in New Orleans and took her song ‘Acrobat’ – I had kind’ve a crush on her for like an hour, I know it’s creepy to say that – but if you look at the phrasing of ‘Angel’, you could put ‘Acrobat’ over the top of it. I got that from Dylan.
I think with Cohen, I felt like I wanted to sing to people but I didn’t have any songs, so the next best thing was just to sing Leonard Cohen songs, so I learned all of them and could sing them on cue. I think the best way is not to think about it too much and to keep exploring – but what you listen to is in your head when you’re doing stuff whether you know it or not.
The album is often tragic, and at times heartbreaking. Would you say that you’re a sad person?
No, not at all. I’m definitely a moody person – all my girlfriends can testify to that. It’s hard to spend time with me sometimes I think because I love being alone so much. I’m not a dick, but sometimes I just get really quiet. Sometimes I’m like the brightest, happiest person, and people that have met me and done interviews and stuff say things like ‘Oh shit I didn’t really expect that’ and it’s like ‘Well what did you expect?’.
I think people expect the dark, gloomy, solemn, shrouded in mystery songwriter. I’m a happy guy, I feel good. That was a time in my life, and in these songs are strange little bubbles from that time, and when I step into them, I’m in them – but as soon as I finish the song, I usually laugh or smile or make a joke. I’ll play ‘So I Cry Out’ and then I’ll make a joke. I think you kind’ve have to do that, otherwise it’s like going to watch a car accident – nobody wants to do that.
Do you feel satisfied that – with the album and touring and interviews – you’ve said all that needed to be said about that time?
I think so, I don’t really know. I always get new questions – like you’ve asked me questions that people haven’t asked me yet. It’s just me, the record is me. It wasn’t like I had some grand concept. I think the record says everything I needed to say to that person, and I don’t know whether they think that it’s insane and cruel that I’ve done this – and I do worry about that sometimes – but at the same time I think that if you’re going to date an artist or marry an artist (and she knew that when she met me) then you’re kind’ve in for it, and that’s gonna happen.
There’s also stuff that I haven’t said because I can’t say it – ‘Animal’ is about somebody else, and that happened very recently. I can never really talk about her because she’s kind’ve a public person and it was a crazy thing. She’s incredibly dear to me, and she knows it’s about her. There’s definitely hidden corners in the record, but I don’t think I have anything more to get off my chest.
What does happiness mean to you?
I think happiness is truth, being honest with yourself. I know what it feels like to have either, and I think if you’re doing what feels right for you, then fuck everybody else. You just have to forget everyone, forget your parents, forget anyone that has any idea of you. It’s your world and it’s your life and if you don’t feel good about it then you won’t be happy, and even if you’re alone in a basement -if you wanna be there, then cool. It’s trial and error, but you’ll figure it out, right? (Written for the Thin Air, here)