MATT KRAMER – Keeping Life Small

By Carl Begai

Saigon Kick vocalist Matt Kramer doesn’t merely step outside the box, he lives outside of it. This was readily apparent when he and his bandmates – Jason Bieler (guitars), Phil Varone (drums) and Tom Defile (bass) – stomped onto the scene in 1991, releasing a self-titled debut that dared to be obnoxiously different. Adrenalized punk-flavoured tunes, Beatles-styled vocal harmonies splashed over walls of guitars, a kazoo solo, acoustic and straight-up metal influences served with groove and attitude, Saigon Kick were the owners of a playground that was both intimidating and welcoming. Kramer’s departure from the band and the war of words in the years that followed don’t need to be rehashed here, suffice to say he went and did his own thing. The 2002 release of his retro-flavoured solo album War & Peas caught the fans off guard, and the 2007 appearance of his first of several proposed poetry books, An American Profit, left his diehard followers with their jaws on the floor.

As in, Is he out of his mind?!

Kramer has never apologized for the path(s) he’s taken and never will. And while An American Profit didn’t catapult him to the literary bank, it gave him enough ammo to justify a second book of poetry.

“An American Profit did well in my eyes because it got some good feedback,” he says. “When you’re putting out a bunch of personal lyrics that don’t come with noodling guitars and bashing drums, you’re kind of out there on your own. And I’m not even there to sing the stuff. It was a challenge for me because it was a different side of me – a lot of different sides, actually – that I don’t show as a frontman. But you know, we’re all in our undies drinking coffee at 6:00am and not big rock stars (laughs).”

“I just started writing, because I wanted to write a book,” Kramer adds. “It was really hard for me to finish a single poem, but the next thing I knew I was finishing 10 in a day once in a while. That’s a lot of work. I sat down to make the book and realized I had five different books, and I knew it wouldn’t be appreciated in one volume.”

Kramer unwittingly borrowed a page from Devin Townsend’s recently executed assault, in which he wrote four albums simultaneously – each one completely different from its partners – and released them over a period of two years. Then again, Kramer has been chipping away at his five book project since 2007, so maybe Townsend is a mind-reader. Kramer’s second volume, A Book Of Poems From The Smallest Of Towns, is even more of a surprise than An American Profit.

“This new book is just my time, a lot of it spent in Nebraska,” Kramer reveals. “I went to Nebraska and stayed at a cottage. I spent a lot of time there, took many vacations there with family, and it just turned out that I wrote and wrote and kept on going. Not just about my surroundings, but about other small towns that I love as well. I was in this town of 340 people, and it’s a throwback to yesterday that is just so unique and different and charming. I made the best of it, I wrote about it, and made a charming little book. I don’t think I’ll ever put out something like this again, and I really don’t know how it came out of me. It’s a really cool book, and it doesn’t talk about fucking, or bucking religion. I’m always creating some kind of lyrical trouble, but this book doesn’t do that (laughs).”

“It was a really great experience for me – and I’ve told you this before – because it was me being totally out of my shoes. I was able to step back from me and have a snicker like everybody else does, and see where I’m at. It allowed me to see that there are other roads I can take, which is very important. I see a lot of guys, my colleagues, travelling the same old roads and coming across the same footprints; I don’t know if that’s healthy. I think you should do other things, not just the same old stuff.”

In Kramer’s case, it means writing poems like ‘The Old Whittling Bench’, ‘Granny Apple Seed’ and ‘Pancakes, Crepes, And Hog Jowl’ to name a few. Pretty far and away from the ‘Bodybags’ and ‘What Do You Do’ Saigon Kick eras, but when he reveals the foundation for the new book things become a little clearer.

“My grandfather was a big inspiration on my life. I lost my dad when I was a kid, so my grandfather stepped in, and it was kind of a culture shock. He was born in 1902 in a tiny town in Tennessee, so I grew up in Miami – which is a big cultural city – with a country upbringing. That’s what made me what I am today. Believe it or not, pancakes, crepes and hog jowl are what we used to get for breakfast (laughs).”

As a Saigon Kick fan and a metal fan, reading poetry about small towns that could have been yanked straight off the Dukes Of Hazzard lot wasn’t on my to-do list. Once inside, however, the sense of real world feelgood authenticity squeezed out a smile or a chuckle more than once. People can often tell when an artist is playing the bullshit card, and it’s clear Kramer is not.

“I think that if you don’t put yourself out there as an artist – musician, writer, actor, painter – you’re not going to get your adrenaline running. And if your adrenaline isn’t running you’re going to be boring. If you’re boring and you can’t stand it, how do you expect anybody else to stand it? I try to keep that philosophy. There are a lot of things I want to do; poetry is one of those things I could do. I look at it as a craft, and the next thing I know I have five different books. ”

Certain poems in the new book hint at Kramer thinking in musical terms while he was writing them, which is only natural given that he started his career as a songwriter. The same was true of An American Profit, which features the lyrics from the song ‘Spinning Around’ from the War & Peas album as one of the poems. Kramer admits his inner musician was with him a lot of the time while writing.

“You’re pretty dead on with that. A lot of the stuff is song material that you haven’t heard, and you picked that up because you love music and you read lyrics all the time. I’ll release them eventually. There are a couple of my jazz songs already published as poetry. It’s called self-piracy, where you steal from one part of your catalogue and recycle it in another (laughs). Some songs don’t lend themselves to poems, and some wouldn’t be fully understood. ‘Spinning Around’ is a lot to take in as a song, for example, but it’s a good heavy read so I wanted to make sure it ended up in print.”

“Most of it is poetry, and that was a hard thing to differentiate creatively in how to go about doing that. Normally I would put things down on paper with a melody in my head, get a rough line, and then change it and change it and change it to death until I ended up with a new thing. That’s always how my lyric process always started, whereas poetry is just sitting down with pen and paper; hopefully you’ve got a good window to sit in front of, or a good window in your head to see something you want to reflect on. The way I lay it out, I try to have my style go in many directions in poetry, and hopefully people catch on.”

The next logical step would be, of course, an audio book or two. Something to be tackled in the future?

“That’s a good question,” says Kramer, “because I don’t like to read poetry out loud. For me it’s kind of like yoga; you don’t go and do yoga in a crowd. People get up on benches shouting poetry, and I’ve been up on high places shouting for so many years I don’t have the need to do it anymore. Doing an audio book, it’s like… who can I get to read these poems? I’d love to get Phil Varone on ‘The Three Stogies’ (from An American Profit) because he’s just so funny, he’d be great on that.”

“I have one finished and it’s beautiful. It’s called ‘Buffalo And Casinos’, and I have a very good friend named Keith Secola, who’s a very famous Native American singer; the Johnny Cash of the Native American world. He likes coming down to my studio, and this one time he suggested that I produce a track of his, and he’d produce a track of mine. I asked him if he’d do an audio track for a poem I had. He agreed, and Keith is on the track playing guitar, native flute, native drum, chanting, he lit sage in my studio (laughs), and had one of his Native American background singers who is also a poetry lover come in and speak it so beautifully. I think that’s why I’m afraid to record myself for an audio book, because she did such a good job.”

Prior to this interview, Kramer offered a bit of insight on his next book, which he gleefully claimed would scare the bejeezus out of all but the strongest of backbone.

“That’s why it had to be many different books. The last book goes on the nightstand, this new one goes on the coffee table, and my next book is probably better staying on the shelf (laughs). Although, I don’t know if any store owners are going to want to have it due to the title alone. It takes a long time to make me happy enough to release anything. I’d love to kick the next book out in six months, but I took a look at it and it’s got the framework, but it really needs to be filled in. It’s going to take a while, but it’s brutal. It’s a forensics book of murder. There are going to be things where you’re going to put the book down and go ‘Maybe I’ll read that later…’ (laughs).”

Go to this location to order A Book Of Poems From The Smallest Of Towns and An American Profit. Click here for some verses from the books.

Check out my recent interview with Kramer about Saigon Kick here.