The Big Chills ( left to right) Clint Morris, Ed Fritz, Matt Cheplic, Robert Fulton and Pietro Ciliberto.
The Bitter Chills Warm Up White Eagle Hall
By Timothy Herrick
As a singer songwriter and solo performer, Matt Cheplic may have always had leanings towards what many consider folk music, but it wasn’t until several years ago when he hooked up with mandolin player Pietro Ciliberto, that the more encompassing, neo-Americana sound of the North Jersey-based The Bitter Chills was born. By this time, both were veteran musicians and fulltime high school teachers. Matt – a native of Weehawken and alumnus of Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City – credits listening to authentic roots music, such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson – as well as bluegrass courtesy of Pietro – as the catalyst for the reimagined Americana of The Bitter Chills. The duo soon found other collaborators to round out their evolving roots sound – Ed Fritz (organ, accordion), Robert Fulton (bass), Christian Kisala (drums), and Clint Morris (electric guitar) – and released their 2013 debut LP, Birth of the Cold. The follow up released in 2017 – Feel-Good Songs for Feel-Bad People – on the prestigious independent label, Mint 400 Records – finds the folk-rock band adept at poppy hooks and more melodic arrangements. The Bitter Chills are writing a new chapter in Americana music highlighted by a compelling blend of acoustic and electric instruments, including a unique, musical dialogue between mandolin and organ. Having attracted a regional cult following with consistent gigs at clubs and festivals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, The Bitter Chills are now preparing for the next milestone in their musical journey, sharing the bill with the one-man-jam band himself, Keller Williams on March 1st, 2018 at White Eagle Hall.
Timothy: What is your favorite time of day?
Matt: My favorite time of day is the gloaming. Sunset is my favorite time. I love the light at that time of day, especially in the summer. I also like using the word gloaming.
Timothy: On your website, you are wearing pressed shirts and ties. Is this your image or was it just for the purposes of a promo shot?
Matt: At some point, I gave the guys a directive to always wear a tie whenever we played. It’s not a strict dress code, but I felt that we should always wear something uniformed. The only time we don’t wear ties is when we play festivals outside in the summer, because it’s so freaking hot.
Timothy: It seems to harken back to a time when country and folk musicians dressed in suits for performances. It echoes that that old showbiz saying, always dress better than your audience.
Matt: You totally nailed it. The tie thing was a quick and easy way to project a more dressed up image. We are keeping alive that the classic, pre-rock and roll era sense of style among musicians. Jazz musicians too, we’re not a jazz band, although we love jazz and some of our songs have leanings towards jazz, but we learned from the jazz and folk and country artists, in terms of how we dress. After that era things changed, became more causal and grungier.
Timothy: You told me in the pre-interview that listening to classic country music – you cited Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and bluegrass music – inspired you to change your musical direction and form The Bitter Chills – can you tell me a little bit about what you heard in that music and what changed in your music because of your discovery of this older Americana.
Matt: I would also add somebody who is more modern, Lyle Lovett. After I stopped doing music full time [the early 00s] as a singer songwriter, I took a break and I felt like I need to inject more humor into what I am doing. I started thinking of songs and lyrical ideas that were more tongue in check, and those old country songs seemed a natural fit, they had a sensibility that I like, an ironic tongue in cheek approach. It seemed a natural thing, a progression of ideas I was working on that felt very rootsy to me, and those classic old school songs dictated the new music I began making.
Timothy: You started as a solo act, and now lead a group. What is the best thing about being in an ensemble?
Matt: I really love, on a basic level, the comradery. I love their musical ability and our mutual respect. They also appreciate the same music you do, so it is fun to be geeking out with friends over music. It feels good to be collaborative as a musician, to bounce ideas off people. I can put down a bare bones version of a song and the band contributes ideas to the arrangement.
Timothy: Worst thing?
Matt: The worst thing logistically is that it was easier for a gig when it was just me and a guitar and a coffee house. I could do whatever I wanted. Now we always have to practice and set up. But the good definitely outweighs the bad.
Timothy: How do you describe the music of the Bitter Chills?
Matt: I call it Americana – roots pop maybe. A lot of it is poppy and melodic, but still roots music. The Beatles and Elvis Costello were two huge musical influences on me as an 18 year old kid, when I got into music seriously. That becomes a gateway drug to other songwriters, like Nick Lowe and Joe Jackson.
Timothy: While your music has a rootsy feel, it is very distinctly folk rock. Do you think it is more folk than rock or more rock than folk?
Matt: That really changes on a song by song basis. Our second record is more straight ahead rock stuff, but sometimes I am in a mood that is more folky. If had to answer, the music is more pop and rock and a little bit less folky.
Timothy: It seems most of your songs are love songs.
Matt: I like love songs that are neurotic and dysfunctional, for sure. I’ve written straight ahead I love you songs, but I am much more attracted to the perils of love and the darkly humorous pitfalls of love. There’s nothing original about writing songs about love. Human relationships are eternally fertile ground for songwriting.
Timothy: What is your favorite color?
Matt: Light icy blue. I just always liked that tone of blue.
Timothy: Complete this sentence – When I begin to write a song, I always…
Matt: Try to have the title first. For me, that gives you a compass, a direction. Once I have a title, it feels the song has an identity and I can write in such a way that I am arriving in that direction of the title. Psychologically, now that I got a title, I can make sure the song is going to get finished. It’s like naming a child, having a name means it’s real now.
Timothy: You went to St Peter’s University in Jersey City. What were some of the old haunts that you and your fellow students hung out at?
Matt: It’s funny, I went to St Peters in the 90s, I remember we would get the PATH at Journal Square to go into the West Village and my friends and I would go to record stores and coffee places, most of those places are gone now. I remember taking the PATH at Grove Street, and Grove Street was so different then. Twenty years ago it wasn’t hard to park around Grove Street, compared to now. A big haunt was Maxwell’s in Hoboken. We saw bands there all the time. Citizen Kane up on Montgomery was a dive bar that was a regular spot. We would walk there from school and I’m sure I got served there before I was 21. Everybody did. I wonder if that is one reason it closed. That diner, what is it, on Sip.
Timothy: VIP on Sip, it’s still there.
Matt: We spent many a late night there.
Timothy: What was different about Jersey City back then that more recently arrived residents might have a hard time believing?
Matt: The biggest change is that people now think of it Jersey City as a hip place to live. Downtown Jersey City is awesome, all the other neighborhoods too. There’s so many great restaurants, great coffee places, great bars, it’s just a cool place to hang out and see live music. When I went to college, I didn’t think of Jersey City as a destination at all. One of the biggest reasons I chose Saint Peters was I got to be close to the city. Why would I go to school in the middle of Pennsylvania or Ohio? No disrespect to those places, but being close to the city seemed a pretty good deal.
Timothy: You studied the short story as an undergrad. What is your favorite short story?
Matt: I love the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners. The Dead sticks out for me and Araby. I love the writing of James Joyce, especially his short stories.
Timothy: Do you have a favorite novel?
Matt: It’s so hard to choose. As a teenager and college kid, I read every Kurt Vonnegut book, but I haven’t re-read him because I don’t know how they would stand up. I loved his books, but a big reason may have been I read them as a teenager. I absolutely love Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and one of my favorite books is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Timothy: What was the most recent book you read that you loved?
Matt: I just read All the Light We Cannot See [by Anthony Doerr], it’s gorgeously written book. It’s a World War II story about a blind French girl and this young German solider. It follows their separate lives and eventually they meet.
Timothy: What is your favorite film?
Matt: It’s a clichéd answer, The Godfather. I also love Casablanca, and I love the films by Wes Anderson.
Timothy: The Bitter Chills play Americana music. A Mighty Wind, Inside Llewyn Davis, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story – which film parody of Americana music do you like the best?
Matt: I liked all of those movies, but I really loved Inside Llewyn Davis. I just watched it for the third or fourth time a couple of weeks ago. I love the character, who just wants to so desperately connect through his songs, but everything else in his life is falling apart and dysfunctional. I sympathize with that. I remember reading this quote by Oscar Isaac, the actor who played Llewyn Davis, I’m paraphrasing but he said that Llewyn Davis is a really nice decent person, but not this week. I’m a big fan of the Coen Brothers.
Timothy: What was the first record you bought?
Matt: Michael Jackson’s Thriller I remember the price, $5.99. I bought it on vinyl at the Pathmark in Weehawken, in 1983. Pathmark actually had a pretty big selection of vinyl records. I was with my mom and I saw it and I remember asking my mother if I can buy it. I had allowance money and I said I would use my own money and she said it’s your money. I listened to that record constantly. The second record I bought was Mötley Crüe, Shout at the Devil.
Timothy: What records do you remember listening to growing up?
Matt: My parents had pretty cool tastes. My mom and dad were teenagers in the 60s. Beatles and Stones, for sure, the Beach Boys. There was also crooner music, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis too.
Timothy: I love the title, Birth of the Cold, the takeoff on the Miles Davis classic [Birth of the Cool], is there more to the joke than just clever word play?
Matt: Our name, Bitter Chills, invokes cold imagery, so the Birth of the Cold seemed in keeping. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but the songs explored a pessimistic viewpoint in a lot of ways and there is something figuratively cold about that.
Timothy: Is winter your favorite season?
Matt: Fall is my favorite season. I’m a big autumn weather guy. I like the chill, in the air, I like sweater weather. Visually fall is beautiful; I love the light in fall.
Timothy: How did you come up with the name of your band?
Matt: Something I heard on a weather report, I heard the weather guy say ‘high winds and bitter chills’ and I thought to myself that bitter chills sounds like it could be a band name. It took me probably like 20 years to actually get around to using the name.
Timothy: What non-musician do you respect or admire the most?
Matt: Barak Obama, definitely. I loved that Barak Obama was always good at maintaining his dignity in the face of absolutely ridiculous, obnoxious statements made about him. I always respected how he was interested in talking about issues with nuance and complexity instead of boiling everything down to overly simplified sound bites. He was never afraid to approach things intellectually, and our media culture didn’t respond in the same way.
Timothy: What are you most looking forward to about playing White Eagle Hall?
Matt: I’m just really excited, I think it is fantastic there’s a place like this in New Jersey. The sound system is absolutely awesome. I saw the Mountain Goats there. I had seen the Mountain Goats open for Jason Isbell prior to that, but they were better at White Eagle Hall. I am psyched to play there and open for Keller Williams.
See The Bitter Chills Open for Keller Williams, Thursday, March 1/Doors: 7:00/Show: 8:00
For more about The Bitter Chills visit: thebitterchills.com