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Bay Area Beats: Matt Jaffe & The Distractions

Mill Valley's Matt Jaffe, of Matt Jaffe & The Distractions.


“You know, you can only paint a painting once. But a song, you can replay, re-envision, re-imagine virtually an infinite number of times,” says Matt Jaffe. And that’s one reason he wants to devote himself to music.

This Mill Valley singer-songwriter has opened for the legendary Mavis Staples and will do the same March 7th for Megan Slankard. One thing he couldn’t do, if he wasn’t on stage, is legally attend many of his own shows; Matt Jaffe is only 19.

Jaffe, a fan of the Talking Heads – and unaware at the time that former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison lived in his hometown –was shocked to encounter his musical idol at the neighborhood hardware store, “you know, just picking up screws and nails or whatever.” Their paths crossed again a few years later when Harrison saw Jaffe at an open mic performance. Harrison has since become a friend and advisor to Jaffe.

“Starting in the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, we started recording together,” Jaffe remembers with a nervous laugh.  “ I went into his studio in Sausalito and just did the 50 songs I’d written, all in a row. Just totally acoustic. Acoustic guitar and voice.” 

Harrison and engineer, E.T. Thorngren, selected about 16 songs that were then recorded with a band of studio musicians, including Steve Ferrone, known as Tom Petty’s drummer. “Which is very thrilling to me since I’m a big fan of Tom Petty as well,” says Jaffe.

But this teen performer couldn’t expect to tour with these established musicians, so he has developed a backing band: Alex Coltharp, Sammie Fischer, and Alex Newell. They’re called Matt Jaffe & the Distractions, a nod to Elvis Costello & The Attractions, another one of Jaffe’s musical heroes.

While Jaffe “still thinks of [himself] as a boy,” (all the members are under 20) he’s confused when asked if this could be considered a “boy band.”

“That’s a cultural phenomenon that I’m not even that familiar with, to be honest,” says Jaffe. For one thing, boy bands typically don’t play instruments. And, Jaffe stresses, adding his boyish laugh, that “the driving factor behind new band members has been their musical contribution and not their dance moves or their hair style.”

He’s hard pressed to choose between performing live and working in a recording studio. While “there’s a personal connection to seeing and hearing and engaging with a performance that is one of a kind,” it’s the recordings “that provide the milestones of their career.”

Regarding live shows, Jaffe wants them to be just that.

“There are a lot of people who use computers and triggered piano or percussion parts,” he says. “More power to them if that’s what they want to do. But personally I’m a huge believer in everything that the audience is hearing coming directly from the people on stage.”

While Matt Jaffe & the Distractions play everywhere from benefits in Marin County to clubs in Los Angeles, they’ve yet to go on an actual tour.

“It’s difficult to feel you’re on tour if you spend every night in your own bed,” he says, adding with a smile, “I’m sure only someone who has never really toured would look forward to this – you know, going through some of the trials and tribulations of a touring band, whether it’s having to pull off the side of the road and sleep there that night or, you know, eating PB&Js for five days in a row.” Ah, youth.

Another reason the group wants to hit the road, beyond the sheer experience, is to play for people they don’t know. Plus, playing every night fits into Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours of practice” theory – meaning they’ll become better performers and musicians through the experience.

No matter what, the band wants to remain focused on the “playing” of music, an idea from Matthew King Kaufman. (Kaufman ran Beserkely Records in the 1970s and ‘80s, and is producing their first album.)

According to Jaffe, the concept “that it really should be fun has helped usher our music to a point where – it really is fun, hopefully, and not just for us.”

Matt Jaffe & The Distractions will perform at Sweetwater Saloon in their hometown of Mill Valley on Saturday, March 7th, opening for Megan Slankard. 

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