Mattison Keeps on Truckin'

Ask any serious musician what they plan on doing “for a living,” and you’ll likely be rewarded with awkward, side-long glances, sweaty palms, and a hushed, “I don’t know…uh, maybe consulting?” For in a time-honored tradition, both at Harvard and beyond, it has continued to be difficult for musicians—and artists in general, for that matter—to declare a creative calling: forget about the money, what about the social implications?

Yet, for some, music becomes a career almost unintentionally. One such individual is singer Mike A. Mattison ’91, lead vocalist both for the Derek Trucks Band—a group known for its instrumental inventiveness and diverse tonal array—and for his own blues and soul project. The latter, called Scrapomatic, derives from Mattison’s interest in “roots music of all kind,” he explains. The group, which features Mattison and collaborator/multi-instrumentalist Paul Olsen—the two “met each other in Minneapolis in ’93 at a P-Funk Show” before relocating to New York—recently released its second album, “Alligator Love Cry,” on Landslide Records and is now touring behind it.

But Mattison wasn’t always focused on music as a career. Indeed, when asked if he was involved in the arts at Harvard, Mattison responds, “not really…I studied English.” He elaborates: “I played in all kinds of bands and stuff in junior high and high school but it’s just kind of this assumption that music is not a very serious way to make a living…I had always hoped I could do it, but in college I focused on studying…I wasn’t very good at it so it took me awhile to get the hang of how college worked.”

After graduation and a brief stint singing in Budapest, Mattison—who began as a stand-up bass player—found himself working a variety of jobs, including a reporting gig in Saint Paul followed by a day job in New York. Fortuitously, producer John Snyder, who would produce Scrapomatic’s first record in 2002, heard and admired the band and recommended Mattison to Derek Trucks, whose singer had recently left the band. Snyder’s recommendation, among others, inaugurated the artistic partnership between the Derek Trucks’ Band and Mattison.

In part because of his pivotal role in two successful bands, Mattison says that “it’s been hard to do Scrapomatic stuff because we haven’t had whole blocks of time.” Thus, Scrapomatic’s latest tour features Olsen and Mattison sans accompaniment, although Mattison says that “for higher profile gigs [they] can bring on additional musicians.”

And yet, more than anything, Mattison seems simply happy to be making and performing music. When asked about the potential for international performances, he responds, “hopefully, hopefully,” and outlines a bright future for Scrapomatic, saying that he and Olsen have written nearly “two more records of original stuff.” He cites committed artists such as Tom Waits and Taj Mahal as primary influences, noting of the latter that “he has managed to find a place for himself in the American music scene and in his own way has been a touchstone for bigger groups…Paul and I both love him to death.”

But Mattison is careful to specify that these individuals—in addition to Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and others—are “people [he and Olsen] look up to, not just musically but also in how they behaved and how they got what they needed to get out of the music industry.” One gets the distinct sense that, for Mattison, while music may have emerged as an unexpected occupation, it won’t be a temporary one. For this, we should all be grateful.

—Staff writer Nathaniel Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at nhafrey@fas.harvard.edu.