From their perch on the stage of the Bluebird Theater, the members of Matson Jones look almost like shadows. Drummer Ross Harada, limbs splayed, pounds a beat as bare as a rattling skeleton. Next to him, Matt Regan coaxes groaning notes from the belly of his upright bass. Seated before them are cellist/vocalists Martina Grbac and Anna Mascorella, scraping bows across strings like flint against stone. The instrumental friction sparks a flame that whispers of vengeance, violence and deeply buried secrets.
And then, with all the grace of a fallen angel, Grbac lifts her face to the microphone and unfurls her lungs.
"Wait! Stop!" she yells. Screeching and stuttering, the band piles up behind her. Silence. In a split second, the spell evaporates. The handful of people in the audience wander back into the box office or behind the bar. "Is there any way," Grbac continues, her voice echoing across the vast, empty room, "that I can hear some more of the other cello?"
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It's early evening at the Bluebird, and Matson Jones is finishing its sound check. Tonight is the group's CD-release show, one of the most anticipated local-music events in recent history. Which is odd, considering that the self-titled disc has been available for more than a year; recorded in a basement studio soon after the act formed in Fort Collins two years ago, the first edition of the CD came in sequined, painstakingly handmade packages. But after the group whipped up a huge buzz that culminated in a triumphant South by Southwest appearance and offers from numerous imprints, Matson Jones has been reissued by Sympathy for the Record Industry -- better known as the label that launched the White Stripes. And in May the quartet was featured as Spin.com's "Band of the Day" in a profile comparing it accurately to PJ Harvey and inexplicably to the Donnas -- that is, the author wrote, "if the Donnas had all been committed to the asylum."
"My mom was like, 'That was the weirdest article ever written about you,'" Mascorella says with a laugh. Having finished the sound check, Matson Jones is squeezing in a pre-show dinner at Enzo's, across the street from the Bluebird. Seated around a giant, steaming pizza, the players look like some indie-rock mafia: The men are buttoned up and sporting ties, while the women wear vintage sweaters, skirts and bouffant hairdos that would make the B-52's proud. "It also said we had the second biggest goth following in Colorado," Mascorella goes on, rolling her eyes
"Goth? I thought we were just whiney and melodramatic," Grbac jokes.
"We're lucky if there are five goth kids at our shows," Mascorella asserts. "Were they reviewing the right band?"
Probably so: With such a distinctive style and sound, it would be hard to mistake Matson Jones for anyone else. The most obvious analogy to draw is to Rasputina, though Matson Jones's penchant for cello-driven melodrama is much more heartfelt than thespian. "We've had people say, 'I really like Rasputina, so I came to check you out, but you guys are so different,'" Harada notes. Indeed, the group's dark, harrowing pulse owes more to the members' adolescent fixations: Joy Division, Tori Amos -- even Nirvana, a group not averse to using a tightly strung cello itself from time to time.
But within this framework of angst and tension, Matson Jones's music teems with warmth -- and sometimes boils over. On "N.E.S.F.T.O.," a whole Pandora's box of psychosexual sludge is emptied in under two minutes as Grbac metallically intones, "Make up your mind/Show me a good time, baby/These knees won't bend for anyone/These knees won't spread for just anyone." The cryptic title, never spelled out in the lyrics of the song, only adds to the aura of pained frustration.
"I don't know if we should tell you what that stands for," Grbac says. "We've never told anyone what the name of that song meant before. It's not a huge secret, but..."
"At least tell the S.E.P. story," Mascorella interjects, referring to Matson Jones's hushed, brooding closer, "S.E.P. Ruined My Life."
"S.E.P. stands for Summer Enrichment Program," Grbac explains. "Basically it has to do with a boyfriend going off to be a summer camp counselor and over-bonding with other counselors. I came to really despise this summer camp. It wasn't really a huge deal, though. When I wrote it, I was just kind of joking around. It's not as dramatic as it sounds. It's supposed to be kind of sarcastic."
"Yeah, most of the time, my lyrics are really ironic," Mascorella adds. "I like to write about really personal things, but my problem is, I sometimes find myself coming from the Morrissey school of lyrics. People just don't get it sometimes. I'm rarely terribly serious. Even if it's a serious song, I'm making fun of the situation."
But fun is the last word that springs to mind while being exposed to the CD's single, "A Little Bit of Arson Never Hurt Anyone." Smart-ass title aside, it's a brutally unsettling listen. Akin to Bikini Kill kicking Black Heart Procession's balls, the song smolders with insinuation before leaping into an inferno of unfettered rage: "I've got people to see and places that I've got to burn down/Secrets that I need to burn out of my head."
When it comes to burning secrets, though, Harada is the one with a dark history of playing with fire. As he confesses, "When I was a kid, I used to set a lot things on fire. But I only got caught once. I was lighting fireworks off in the field behind my parents' house, and it caught on fire. I tried to stomp it out wearing flip-flops, and I totally got burned. All the neighbors came out to see what was going on. It really brought the community together.
"The last time I ever played with fire, I singed off all my facial hair," he goes on, eliciting a round of laughter from the table. "We were doing mock marriage proposals in high school, and I was trying to make this flash-paper rose, like a magic trick. But the whole thing blew up in my face. No one noticed at first. I covered my face up with my hands, and then I was like, ŒWhat the hell? It smells like burnt hair.' All my eyelashes and eyebrows were gone. When that girl's future fiancé proposes to her, it just won't be the same."
Harada's bandmates had slightly less incendiary -- if no less embarrassing -- tendencies as children. Regan almost blushes at his disclosure of a clandestine past as a junior varsity football player, and Mascorella admits to being "pretty dorky" and performing dance routines in front of her grandmother to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" -- long before she was old enough to realize how blatantly obscene the song was.
"When I was little, I was a ballerina, just this prissy little girl," Grbac chips in as she meticulously picks every chunk of tomato off her slice of pizza. "Then in middle school, I turned into a tomboy and got painfully, painfully shy, which made it hard to perform at first. I'd always want to throw up and pee my pants. I'm not as shy anymore."
Indeed, the four no longer have the luxury of being bashful. With a hectic touring and promotional schedule ahead of them, they're scrambling to adapt to life in the spotlight. Still, they're trying to hold on to as many of their secrets as they can. They had to wrangle with Sympathy to ensure that the cover of its reissued disc wasn't plastered with their pictures; as it turns out, the CD has neither photos of the band nor lyrics. Which is exactly as Matson Jones wants it.
"I don't like having everything out on the table," Grbac says as the waiter at Enzo's whisks away the remnants of everyone's dinner. "Plenty of bands have had success without their photos everywhere. And I've liked bands that don't print their lyrics. I'm frustrated, but I like it at the same time. If you have a certain amount of vagueness, people have more to work with. If you completely spell everything out, then it has to be that. It takes something away from the people who are listening."
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"There's only so much gut-spilling you can do," Mascorella agrees.
"In general," Grbac sums up with an enigmatic smile, "we like to have mystery."
A few hours later, back at the Bluebird, Matson Jones is finishing up an intense, flawlessly ominous set in front of a packed house. The group doesn't even have time to exit the stage before a thunderous call for an encore is unleashed. People are losing their shit. Making their way back to their instruments to throw down two final songs, the players seem more awed than anyone else. They may wish for privacy and intimacy, but good luck. With fans already making that kind of frenzied noise over the band, there's no way Matson Jones is going to be able to keep a lid on things much longer.