Matt Lorenz, aka the Suitcase Junket, brings his ‘pile’ of homemade percussion to McCabe’s
By Bliss Bowen
It’s an odd vernacular quirk in our culture that when we’re heading to a concert, we generally say we’re going to “see” a band instead of, more logically, to hear their music. But in the case of Matt Lorenz, aka the Suitcase Junket, it’s a truer statement than usual because he has a history of building his own instruments.
At home in Massachusetts, not far from where he grew up in Vermont, Lorenz is known as “a magnet for broken things” (including the guitar he clutches underwater in the video for his song “Earth Apple”). Onstage he wisecracks that his job description is “pile driver” — thus the in-joke title of last year’s “Pile Driver” album — because of the size of the rig he hauls around and sits on while performing. In the past that included stringed and wind instruments he built, but right now it’s primarily constructed from homemade foot drums and percussion, and the suitcase he’s repurposed as a drum throne.
“There are a couple of can drums that work on bass drum petals, basically,” he explains. “One’s an old gas can, one’s a cook pot; they’re sort of mounted up on these old chair parts. You hit those together with the left foot to get a snare sound. Then there’s a circular saw blade — if you hear something that sounds like a boxing bell in the music, like a loud ding, that’s what that is. It serves as the crash cymbal. I sit on the suitcase, which I play as the bass drum with the right heel. This box of bones and silverware and trinkets works as a hi-hat; there’s a wooden box that serves as the bottom cymbal, and the top cymbal is like an 8-millimeter film reel with a bunch of things hanging off of it. Push the hi-hat pedal and all those objects drop into the box and create this great crunching, clicking sound.”
The guitar he usually plays is a junker ferreted out of a dumpster at his alma mater, Hampshire College in Amherst; he says he keeps it in open C tuning because “it’s the only place the guitar sounds halfway decent.” Like his junkyard percussion, it also imparts an earthier, freer feel to bluesy tunes such as “Swamp Chicken,” “Busted Gut,” and the color-outside-the-lines encouragement of “Seed Your Dreams” (“Seed your dreams/ With a long slow walk and a cup of coffee/ … Open up your eyes a little bit/ To the great unknown”).
“I love stumbling across new sounds or new forms — pushing the edges of my abilities so that I make mistakes, and then oftentimes the mistakes are more interesting than the plan,” he says. “So you sort of dig into those. I like that idea of music as an assemblage kind of thing; it’s a favorite hobby of mine to come up with different analogies for songwriting [laughs]. It’s such an interesting process, because there are a lot of different ways you can go about it and think about it.”
A curious and thoughtful songwriter, Lorenz generally performs solo on the road, with friends sitting in like guitarist/pedal steel player Eric Heywood, with whom he recently played while opening for Tift Merritt. He’s currently touring behind a new EP, “Live With Others;” the title’s first word can be interpreted as either an adjective or a verb (a double reading he says he especially appreciates “in these times when people get pretty worked up about others”). Released in May, it’s his sixth solo album in eight years, and captures performances from a Boston club residency he held a couple of winters ago. For the eerie, Joplin-esque “Spell On You,” he’s joined by one of his favorite collaborators: sister Kate (katelorenzmusic.com), his erstwhile bandmate (along with Zak Trojano) in folk-rock trio Rusty Belle.
He describes the EP as a “stopgap” unless his next studio album, produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, is released next April. Until then, he’s crisscrossing the country on several tour legs, then recharging at home before touring the UK in January with Chris Smither. He jokes that he stays in his New England neighborhood because the woods “smell right,” but staying independent outside the usual music meccas suits him creatively too.
“There’s a really good community of musicians down here,” he says. “I can’t really live in the city. I like to live in the woods and in particular, the woods here. I’m close to the highway, I live in the woods, and I get to travel all over the country.”
Suitcase Junket performs at 8 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 25) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 at (310) 828-4497 or thesuitcasejunket.com.