When reading the interview it sounds like Matt McDonald, lead singer for the Seattle-based The Classic Crime, is taking a bit of hard-line stance when it comes to his band and his music, he is coming by it honestly. Since the band formed in 2004 and found themselves quickly swept up by hometown label Tooth & Nail, McDonald and his bandmates have had to fend off all manner of folks trying to pack them into one of a dozen tiny boxes. But theirs is a music that is hard to compartmentalize. As heard on their upcoming album Vagabonds, the band is adept at chooglin’ Southern-style rock, sugar high emo and sublimely moving power ballads. The thread that holds it all together is McDonald’s brutally honest lyrics that lay out in bold-faced letters the struggles that he and those around him have dealt with over the years.
McDonald took some time out from the band’s current U.S. tour to speak to NXTLVL about these struggles and how they influenced the new album.
The band has been together since 2004 – how do feel The Classic Crime has grown both musically and interpersonally in that time?
We’ve grown up a lot. When we first started out, we were all 21 – 22. As you get older, your music tends to change. We’ve definitely progressed musically. We’re making songs and music that is more unique and more representative of our own musical journey rather than things in the industry or in our genre so to speak. It’s been fun to develop as we go along. We’ve also been blessed enough to not have any member changes. We’ve never had to back pedal or take a step back. We’ve always been able to push forward and keep creating.
I ask that because a lot of new songs on the record address getting older and seeing changes within yourself.
When we started out, we always said that we weren’t going to do this for selfish reasons or for fame or fortune or the reasons that most people pursue a career in music. We always said that we wanted to make music that we liked and enjoyed playing and that meant something to us. And, secondly, that we wanted to help people in some way and leave a positive impact on our world. I think just recently that whole idea has moved from our heads to our hearts. We’ve really embraced our place in this world. Whenever you do that, you’re able to do a lot more good because you’re not constantly comparing yourself to your peers. And you’re not constantly dissatisfied with where you are. You embrace where you are and ask, “What can I do with what I’m given?” So, a lot of the songs on the record are about being poor and having joy in the midst of poverty or having joy in the midst of struggle and being okay with struggle and being okay with poverty and being okay with being marginalized. It’s been cool because it’s self-actualizing in a way. We feel like we’re more “us” than we’ve ever been.
Do you feel that you as a band have been marginalized? There’s the song “Cheap Shots” with the lyrics about fighting off people’s poisonous attitudes. Is that coming from people shooting that stuff at the band?
That stuff happens but for the most part, we’re a band that people are generally nice to. You do face a lot of judgment and criticism being in a band and being on a pedestal. People expect certain things from you. It’s sort of a tongue-in-cheek reference to that: “I’ll be your punching bag, I’ll take your cheap shots. I’ve never been too proud to sin so go on and rub my face in it.” You can give me all you got. It’s not going to slow me down. We’ve seen it all and heard it all at this point. It’s about moving forward through all that stuff.
Do you think there are a lot of preconceived notions about the band, considering that you are signed to Tooth & Nail and some of your lyrical content?
Yeah, I think people expect a band signed to Tooth & Nail to be not be a band of five Jesuses and we’re definitely not that. We’re sinners and we make mistakes and some people are really bummed out about that. For the most part, people understand where we are and where we stand. But some people – usually the more conservative ones – tend to take things the wrong way or expect a certain lifestyle out of us that frankly we just don’t live. We try to be as good as possible and be as positive as possible. We want to be kind to the people that meet us. But it’s never going to be enough for some people. Those misconceptions are addressed in some of our songs because I think those people are listening to our music. And if I have any way to let them into our world and let them see where we stand it’s through our songs.
Do you guys fight with the idea of being a “Christian band” – is that an issue at all?
I think we’re just a rock band. There’s no four-point gospel in any of our songs. Christ does play a part in our music but the idea of a Christian band is subscribing to a certain piece of a market or an industry for profit. People subscribe to that label because they believe that it’s safe and its going to be clean for their kids or what not. In reality, they’re just feeding a machine that is, at its core, trying to make money. I don’t think you should mix faith and profiteering.
You tackle some very tough subject matter on this album, like on the track “Broken Mess.” What can you tell me about that song?
It’s about my brother I don’t want to too many specifics. He dealt with some pretty tough things in his marriage…infidelity. That’s how i deal with tough issues and tough situations in my life: a song will just come out. I’ll just put it to paper and put it music and it’s contained and it won’t eat away at me anymore. So with that one, I couldn’t sleep one night and I typed it into my phone and the next day I sat down and it was done. Luckily there’s been healing in his marriage and in his life.
Has your brother heard the song?
I did talk to him about it and I said, “Here’s the lyrics. I could change this here; I could change this there. I don’t want to disrespect anyone. He said, “No. This is how you felt at that moment and I want you to put that down exactly how you felt.” He was really supportive in that sense. He does respect the art for what it is even if it can come off a little bit offensive. At it’s core it’s honest, it’s real. It’s heartbreaking and it should be. Because it’s a heartbreaking situation.
What about the song “Different Now” – is that coming from a relationship that you have had or is that speaking for someone else?
That’s definitely about my wife and I before we were married. How we’ve come a long way through different struggles. We’re different now but it’s better than it was.
It sounds like it’s a very therapeutic thing to get these songs out – is that fair to say? Or is it tough to revisit some of these things night after night on tour?
Sometimes it’s hard. But usually they’re just markers in history: of places we’ve been and things we’ve seen and tough and good situations that we’ve experienced. They’re photographs of where we’ve been. It’s cool to be able to perform them and see them playing a big role in other people’s lives in the present time. That’s the most inspiring thing about performing live. You get to see people that are in tune with your heart and who are relating to the song in some way. That’s always a good experience regardless of how hard it can be.
With such personal lyrics like this, do you ever come to the band with a song that they feel is going too far or putting out too much information?
There have been times where I might have pushed the boundary out of anger and we didn’t put those songs on a record. But never out of sadness or heartbrokenness have we censored anything. They trust me and I’m really not open to change a lot of things because I feel like a piece of me will die if I have to switch a word around. Because that’s how I felt in that moment.
Where do you want the band to go or see the band going from here?
Our goals and dreams are tied into our philanthropic work. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of good being done in Haiti through the pre-order of our record and the profits being donated there. It’s rewarding to be able to give even though we don’t have a lot.
Be sure to check out the recorded interview featured on the NXTLVLMag.com NXTLVL Podcast, along with music from The Classic Crime and others!