Discover more from Abandoned Albums
Matt Mahaffey of sElf
Our interview with a musical polymath.
I am about one year in now, and I’ve done more than a couple of episodes of Abandoned Albums. The one comment I hear the most is: “Huh, I’ve never heard of that artist.” I typically follow up with: “Yea, you have; they’ve done (insert whatever well-known piece of work the artist has produced).”
“OHHH, that’s them?”
A big sigh as the words fall out: “Yes, that’s them.”
Of all the interviews I’ve done, I can now put Matt Mahaffey in the same category as Danny Wilde and Phil Solem of The Rembrandts. These artists and their work transcend their chosen professions and have embedded themselves in the larger canvas of popular culture.
You know Danny and Phil because you’ve seen the television show Friends… and if you haven’t seen the entire show, you’ve seen the intro… and if you haven’t seen the introduction, you’ve listened to the radio in the 1990s. As The Rembrandts, they wrote the theme song for the hit television show - a top ten hit in every country in the western world (for real).
And Matt Mahaffey? His accomplishments, influence, and successes are as varied as the colors in a Jackson Pollack painting.
On this episode of Abandoned Albums, I’m joined by Geoff Calhoun as Matt Mahaffey stopped by Thunderlove Studios.
Matt Mahaffey was destined to be a musician.
Beginning his career as a drummer and performing at Dollywood by the time he was 11. Take a beat and think about what you were doing at 11 - I’ma go ahead and venture to say it wasn’t anything like that.
By the time college rolled around, Matt had elected to attend Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for its RIM (Recording Industry Management) program. He quickly realized he was further along than the curriculum and some of his fellow students. He boldly decided that smokey barrooms and cramped recording studios would provide more of an education for him than sterile classrooms.
And good thing he did.
After forming the band sElf, which included Matt’s brother Mike, he partnered up with his manager Rick Williams and Seth Timbs to start a record label to capture the sound of Murfreesboro - a sound and scene that Matt Mahaffey helped create and shape.
The label was Spongebath Records.
At its peak influence, Spongebath Records had bands as varied as the music scene in middle Tennessee. Its roster included Mahaffey’s band, sElf, his partner Seth Timbs’s band, Fluid Ounces, the Katies, The Features, and Count Bass D.
By the mid-90s, the grunge scene from the pacific northwest was winding down, and with record label coffers overflowing with money, they sent their A&R reps out to find the next big thing.
Historically, the recording industry loves nothing more than zeroing in on regional pockets of the country and sending in its minions to exploit them (although creatively focused, the music business is still a capitalistic endeavor). And after Athens (R.E.M.), Minneapolis (Prince, The Replacements), Los Angeles (hair metal), and Seattle (grunge) had been bled dry; they landed on the progressive, eclectic town of Murfreesboro.
Because Mahaffey and Spongebath had created such a scene, it led to a cover story on Billboard Magazine in 1997, which dubbed Murfreesboro “an emerging music mecca.”
The Matt Mahaffey-led sElf was one of the first to break out when Spongebath inked a deal with DreamWorks Records. The label was part of a big media start-up of heavy hitters Steven Speilberg, Jeffery Katzenberg, and David Geffen. The DreamWorks label hoped to set itself apart by giving artists tremendous creative freedom.
The partnership between Dreamworks and Spongebath led to a creatively fertile period for sElf. As major-domo of the band, Matt and his crew released the EP Brunch and the full-length album Breakfast with Girls in 1999.
Giving the kids the keys to the kingdom didn’t quite lead to the success the label had hoped for, and Universal Music Group acquired DreamWorks Records. Subsequently, sElf was dropped, and their follow-up to Breakfast with Girls, Ornament, and Crime was shelved. Arguably, this is the real abandoned album here, but you’ll have to listen to Matt talk about it to get the story.
However, because DreamWorks wasn’t just a record label, and having relocated to Los Angeles, Mahaffey had made contacts and inroads into other areas of their business - primarily movies, television, and advertising.
Most notably, a little franchise known as Shrek. Included for no extra charge is an insanely funny story about music biz legend Mo Ostin.
This would all lead to an insanely productive and successful period for Matt Mahaffey, which continues to this day.
Geoff and I begin our discussion with Matt talking about the scene in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in the 90s, and, spoiler alert, we conclude our discussion with Matt talking about Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Although, if I’m honest, that ain’t much of a spoiler because Matt’s stories in between are the colors on the canvas.
While I pitched Matt on discussing the album Breakfast with Girls, like every episode of Abandoned Albums, that album is just the entry point.
Geoff and I spoke to Matt about his career up to his current work. And listening to Matt talk about all of it is a real treat. This guy respects his talent, the people he works with, and the people who enjoy his work. In short, he’s a nice fookin guy… and funny af.
His work has always been eclectic and even at times cheeky - sElf’s 2000 album Gizmodery was created entirely with children’s instruments. Matt Mahaffey is so creatively gifted and curious and genuinely funny I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move into comedy.
I promise you this much, if you don’t know or recall the band sElf, you know Matt Mahaffey’s work. And if you have a child? You DEFINITELY know Matt Mahaffey’s work. And if you know Matt Mahaffey’s work, I would bet dollars to donuts that you like the episode.
How can you not?
Abandoned Albums is available wherever you get your favorite podcasts… and below.
“The only music podcast that matters.”
John Mullaney on Murfreesboro