By Sara Bir
Willard's Canteen, Matt Pamatmat's one-man band, has released eight albums in the past two years. Depending on how you look at it, that's more albums than the famously prolific Ryan Adams; it's also about one album for every three of Willard's Canteen fans. This is what happens when you labor away in obscurity--yet obscurity is the soul of Willard's Canteen.
Knowing Matt Pamatmat is somewhat like having a free subscription to a Willard's Canteen fan club (full disclosure: I have such a free subscription). Every few months, a new Willard's Canteen CD will show up in the mail. "But I'm hardly through the last one!" you think, because Willard's Canteen albums are not the easiest to squeeze into a casual listening routine; they require patience, attentiveness and a certain level of forgiveness. People coming to music for escapist fantasies will find no solace in Willard's Canteen songs. They are too raw, too real.
The opposite of carefully crafted, studio-bred masterpieces, each recording is a snapshot of the moment it emerged, naked and gooey, from Pamatmat's guitar onto the 4-track recorder that roams from room to room in the rural Cotati house where he lives with his wife, Amy, and young son, Jasper. Their home is both a cozy cradle of domesticity and a blooming den of creativity. Pamatmat's embracing of spontaneity has resulted in over a hundred songs recorded at home in two years: "I have it all recorded, all four tracks, in one hour," he says in an e-mail interview. "I don't rehearse it to death. I almost always go with the first take, hence a Willard's Canteen motto: 'Alcohol-fueled first takes on ye olde 4-track.'"
Some are ambient instrumental meanderings with wobbly, flange-heavy electric guitar, while others are acoustic folk laments threaded with humor, profanity and philosophical ponderings featuring such titles as "The Whole Wide World Is Terrible" and "Jennifer Love Hewitt Litterbox." Pamatmat even dabbles in rapping in "The Oog," which includes a sample from the cult movie Time Bandits and the off-beat tapping of a tinny crash cymbal from a toy drum set.
But all Willard's Canteen songs share the same sensibility, a celebration of low-budget, lo-fi and late-night solitude. "I think loneliness is part of the Willard's Canteen sound," Pamatmat says. "My companions are keyboards from dumpsters and Radio Shack, a free version of FL Studio for computer beats, found instruments that wash up at Goat Rock."
Willard's Canteen began in the mid-1990s when Pamatmat, a student at Sonoma State University, was sharing a rented house with some bodybuilders. "They'd have the blender going off every 20 minutes making power shakes. I sampled the blender at one point." The band's moniker derives from a detail in a scene in Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, dumps out the water in his canteen and refills it with whiskey.
A live Willard's Canteen show has a good-natured but intentionally amateurish quality that can throw an audience off, though the resulting tension makes for a riveting experience. "People don't know how to react to what I do, say or play," Pamatmat says. "Should they laugh? Be offended? Applaud? And I think that's good. I can only imagine what it's like seeing a guy play acoustic guitar to a cheesy beat and sing, 'You've got a face I could / Come all over / So come on over.' I might not know what to think either."
Pamatmat's other musical dabblings include a stint of several months with Cotati space-rockers the Rum Diary as the band's projectionist (he departed amicably over creative differences) and an ambient music project, Mismatched Socks, with the Rum Diary's keyboardist, Schuyler Feekes. Mismatched Socks is still an active band, if you can call it that; it's more of an active intention. "Last time we got together we drank ridiculous amounts at Red's Recovery Room and forgot to make music," Pamatmat admits.
Some may question Pamatmat's ceaseless drive to create and record music. What does he get out of it other than the appreciation of friends and a few scattered fans he's never met? The gratification lies elsewhere. In its own odd way, Willard's Canteen creates balance in an imbalanced world. "I think it's funny," Pamatmat reflects, "that Prairie Sun Studios is just over the hill--this first-class, big-time, awesome studio--and this madman in a termite-ridden house within walking distance is recording all these songs on a 4-track."
Of course, that's just as it should be.
Willard's Canteen celebrates the release of its eighth album, 'Dark Side of the Scrapbook,' with two shows. Saturday, Sept. 16, Pamatmat opens for the Roadside Daisies at the Last Day Saloon, 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 9pm. $5. 707.545.2343. He plays in a Petaluma attic on Saturday, Sept. 23, at 7pm. Castle Graalfenstein, 1010 B St., Petaluma. www.myspace.com/willardscanteen or www.socolive.com.