“The goal is to always create something better than what we were creating yesterday. Life is long, and I’m in music for the long game.”

– Mathew Rakers

In addition to their image-provoking name, Fistfights With Wolves produces a musical sound that stirs the imagination with their lightly psychedelic, totally artistic, progressive rock.

ListenSD talked with Mathew Rakers, guitarist and keys, of Fistfight With Wolves, about the band’s next album, the San Diego Music and Arts Cooperative, and their spring European tour. Fistfights With Wolves are opening at The Music Box on January 13th, at 7 pm. Free tickets are available at The San Diego Music And Art Cooperative 10am-5 pm the day of the show.

ListenSD: When listening to your last album, it felt like unfolding of a dramatic story. Do you think of the songs as a story, or, because of your classical music background and [bandmate] Ryan Bradley’s jazz background, is it the music that comes first? 

Rakers: I think of each piece of music as being the unfolding of an idea. In the past, there have been times where I’ve been more into the concept of creating a series of contrasting sections, however, over the past several years, I find myself to be increasingly concerned with development and seeing how far a single idea can be taken over the duration of a composition. If two or more musical thoughts are introduced in a composition, I like to see how I can synthesize them over the duration of a piece. As the band matures, and increasingly talented individuals have chosen to join the project, I’ve also become better at trying to guide their good ideas as opposed to composing each note. Generally, the music will come before the lyrics, but every once in a while I’ll mess around on an acoustic guitar and the vocal part will come first. That’s what happened in Sirens; I treat the vocalists each as monophonic instruments, integrated with the rest of the band.

The band was formed by you and Ryan (guitar) years ago. The band has taken some different formations including adopting a new name. Why did this name change take place? Is this 8 piece ensemble that it morphed into always the ultimate goal? How long has this current line-up been Fistfights With Wolves?

We were previously named Interrobang, and we played almost entirely instrumental music for a number of years. When I was younger I had an inability to keep my mouth shut about certain promoters and venues in the community and after four years Interrobang had issues being booked at a handful of different places around town, which ultimately led to our name change to Fistfights With Wolves. It is also a not so subtle reference to my dislike for figurative “wolves” and an homage to Ryan’s affinity for Liam Neeson in The Grey. Fistfights With Wolves has worked with around 20 cycling musicians in San Diego over the last 8 years since our formation. Sometimes we are a 3 piece, oftentimes an 8 piece, and we have even performed once as a 10 piece. I am fortunate to have contributed to creating a home base for a number of musicians and artists in town in the form of The San Diego Music And Art Cooperative, so Fistfights has the good fortune of being surrounded by a number of serious artists who are willing to contribute their energy.

When performing with Fistfights and a show is going well, what’s happening on stage and what do you hope to see happening when you look out into the audience? 

During a good show, we’re combining our musical energy into creating something that would be physically impossible for any one of us to do on an individual level. Through a group, it’s possible to create something that transcends individual ability. With respect to the audience, I want to create a communal idiosyncratic experience that is both authentic and uncommon. With that goal in mind, I try not to think about the audience until they’re in front of us. I don’t like the idea of other people to influence the creative process.

Matthew Rakers and Billy Petty. Photo by Anastasya Korol
Matthew Rakers and Billy Petty. Photo by Anastasya Korol

For the new album in the works, what stage are you in and how much involvement do you have in the recording and production of the album? What differs as far as intent, goal and vision on this album versus past albums? 

We’re currently working on recording Bone Script. This album will be substantially different from all our previous albums. It is the third album we’ve recorded as Fistfights With Wolves, and the first time that the entire writing process has involved a static ensemble. On Plot Armor, we went from being a 5 piece to being an 8 piece while the music was being written, and so there was a lot more of an additive nature to the composition. With Bone Script, the music was written with 8 people in mind, so the orchestration is much more concise. Where Plot Armor was more literary in nature, Bone Script pulls from a more primal nature with world music influences.

The goal however, is to always create something better than what we were creating yesterday. Life is long, and I’m in music for the long game. We are lucky to be working with our good friend James Page of Emerald Age Recording. He is one of the few recording engineers I’ve met who gives projects as much time as they need because of a desire to create art that all parties can stand by. This has equated to him spending enormous amounts of time on our music without asking for additional compensation, and as far as I’m concerned, I find him to be one of the most important people working in the music community right now. It will be interesting to see how the partnership between Emerald Age Recording and SDMAAC plays out over time. At this point we’ve only known him for two years and he’s already played a part in four completed albums involving SDMAAC musicians, and he is also working on another two upcoming albums; Phantom Twins’ self titled debut album, and Bone Script.

Is recording a fun process or an agonizing one, considering you are also running a business?

I believe in creating as much energy as possible and all of the work, whether it’s writing, practicing, composing, teaching, or running the business – it all feels meaningful. 

Speaking of The San Diego Music and Art Collective, it’s a beautiful space! What happens there, and what do you do? You emphasize that it’s not only a great place to take music lessons, but also a unique place to work for the teachers as well; How so?

The San Diego Music And Art Cooperative is a project I started in 2015 as a response to predatory studios that existed in town that were taking unfair cuts from younger musicians and artists while not providing anything of substance in return. SDMAAC’s goal is to provide comprehensive and high quality art and music lessons to students of all ages at an affordable cost while supporting a growing network of skilled professional musicians and artists. We are currently approaching 300 lessons a week with about 20 instructors in studio. When I was young, I was charged by the studios I worked at to practice. So the studio instructors can practice for free. When I started teaching, I was paid under 20% of what I brought in. So the studio pays more out to the instructor than it retains. I couldn’t afford regular recitals. So the studio provides free monthly recitals to the instructors. I couldn’t afford a rehearsal space. So the studio provides a free rehearsal space. I find music studios that take permanent finder’s fees to be utterly ridiculous. So we refer in-home clients directly to teachers. I know how difficult it is for artists to afford work spaces, so they get to use the space for free. My favorite bit of stoic philosophy, “What stands in the way becomes the way,” has become my business practice. Living on a floor in my early 20s taught me how to be poor, and that’s allowed me to reinvest almost everything I’ve made straight back into the business for 4 years. I don’t believe that people who are incapable of making music or art should be the gatekeepers, and my hope is that over the next ten to twenty years, we see a new kind of infrastructure in the community that in turn leads to a more vibrant and diverse creative community.

San Diego Music and Art Collective
San Diego Music and Art Collective

How many bands are currently rehearsing there?

We currently have six bands that rehearse and work out of the space. Fistfights With Wolves (progressive rock/math rock), Belladon (synth pop/ progressive rock), Latifahtron (progressive funk), Phantom Twins (math pop), Shrubravo (experimental), and Tardigrade (mathcore).

Following you and Anastasya Korol (vocals) on social media, I see that you travel a lot. Is your love of travel the motivation behind the upcoming tour in Spain? How did this amazing plan come about and why?

Traveling a lot would be nice, but it’s important to have a strong home base. Then again, I do what Anastasya wants. My friend and San Diego native, Andrew Bustamante, recently graduated from Berklee in Boston and has started a company called Bardic Management. He is currently in the process of booking our tour in Spain (and hopefully France). He previously managed the Harry Potter Orchestra and has been setting up national tours for various groups based out of Boston. I am hoping that as the studio grows, all of the music projects will grow simultaneously. I’m very excited about the prospects of the trifecta that The San Diego Music And Art Cooperative, Emerald Age Recording, and Bardic Management could potentially become in the future. My hope is to create sustainable careers for creative musicians that doesn’t involve going into debt to major record labels or compromising creative integrity for the sake of someone else’s vision.

Interview by Kristy Walker

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