As the creative force behind genre-hopping alternative band Self, Matt Mahaffey played an integral role in the founding and growth of Murfreesboro’s Spongebath Records scene of the mid ‘90s and early ‘00s.
In the ensuing years, he also found success as a studio wiz producing other bands and composing for films and commercials. After a decade in Los Angeles he recently returned to his Tennessee roots with his family and built Fresh Imperial, his new home studio in Franklin.
“I realized I get most of my work through my email,” he explains of the move. “I don’t really need to be sitting out there [in Los Angeles] because it is so expensive and we couldn’t afford to buy a place. We were just renting for 10 years. But we could buy a house here and build a studio. My daughter will be two in February. [Tennessee is] way more kid friendly and the schools are amazing. It was a no-brainer for us.”
Mahaffey originally relocated to Los Angeles while Self was making records under DreamWorks, a short-lived deal that nevertheless earned him a following and his first production clients after the label folded. He found early success with Hellogoodbye, whom he co-produced with Jeff Turzo (of ‘90s electro rockers God Lives Underwater). The group’s “Here (In Your Arms)” eventually hit platinum status and earned him a steady string of work.
“We would just tag team bands just one right after the other for a good 6-7 years straight,” says Mahaffey. “It was a lot of work and as the industry was dissolving, budgets kept getting smaller so for us to split things 50/50 just became impossible.”
Mahaffey was also moonlighting in the film and commercial business, thanks to his DreamWorks ties. He’s contributed to many of the studio’s early animated features like Shrek and Shark’s Tale as well as producing the surprise musical endings for all the Shrek DVDs. He also did two seasons of music for Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, a Nickelodeon show about a Chinese-American household, and (along with his brother Mike) composed the unforgettable Expedia.com tagline. But trying to produce records and write music for film/tv in LA proved exhausting.
“It was like three jobs all the time,” he recalls. “So one of the main reasons for the move was just to slow down a little bit. It was just brutal, constant, around the clock work.”
The return move to Tennessee afforded him the ability to build Fresh Imperial, with the aid of studio designer Mark Wenner. The space totals 1100 square feet and offers large control and tracking rooms.
“I’m used to operating out of a bedroom or office room and running cable,” notes Mahaffey. “Now I can actually have a drum kit set up, keep it up, and keep tweaking my sound—change out mics, try different EQs, different pre amps, as opposed to being like ‘Okay we’ve got two days to do drums,’ throw it up, then move that because we have to do bass.”
Mahaffey says the large tracking room set up is conducive for songwriting work and creative jam sessions.
“My whole thing is to eliminate the demo phase,” he explains. “Have everything up, let’s make a master right when we’re thinking of it. It’s spontaneous and you’re never going to capture that again if you keep re-recording it, massaging it, and lacquering it.”
Also helping to get the creative juices flowing are interior design motifs pulled from sci-fi and music geek heaven.
“The control room is Death Star-themed, like if Darth Vader wanted to lay down some ill beats,” he laughs. “It’s gray and clinical and then there’s a life size Darth Vader. The floor is black stained concrete. There are these two huge red things that give it this Imperial feel. The tracking room is colorful, with graffiti, more of an ‘80s Keith Haring hip-hop vibe.”
And despite the geographical separation, Los Angeles and points further abroad are still calling for Mahaffey’s expertise. He’s currently composing music for a Disney cartoon that has writers in Dublin and producers in London.
“It’s all just synching it up and working together,” he says. “There’s no need to be on the phone all the time when you can just email or Skype and see someone.”
And importantly, it allows Mahaffey the freedom to spend time with his family and see his daughter grow up.
“When were moving I looked at places to have a spot,” he says, “but if I did that I really wouldn’t see my family. It’s important that you’re around. I try to treat it like a job—I try to get up and be in the studio by 9 and be out of the studio by 6:30-7.”
Mahaffey’s next couple months will be focused on writing songs for his upcoming Disney cartoon, and another Hellogoodbye album is reportedly on the horizon. Self fans also have cause for celebration, because Mahaffey is currently working on a new album for his old musical guise.
“I’ve got half a dozen songs done already and I just started this month,” he says. “I’m just forcing myself to write. I saw a really good Ira Glass quote and the gist of it was you have to force yourself to write everyday, be creative everyday. No matter if it’s good or bad, you have to do it. That just seems to be the smart thing that any writer should do.”