Too often artists are afraid to complicate their creations, allowing themselves to fit into a box and afraid of confusing the listener or taking on too much. Fear is a powerful force. Sometimes, it’s necessary, though.
Take Matt Kourie, aka theWhen, for example. He was fearless in his quest to take on an epic musical journey – a synth-laden, high energy retro-electric rock trilogy that takes the listener deep into a fantasy world that he created, complete with an inspirational protagonist named Alex Wonder.
With the second EP, Layer Zero, set to release on June 30th after the big Record Release Show at Pianos in NYC on June 24th, theWhen has already dropped two singles from the new record, leaving his fans – The Dreamers – waiting for more of the story to unfold.
We had the opportunity to talk to Kourie about his latest creation – the follow up to the highly acclaimed Cycles of Time EP – and learned about what makes this release unique, what it adds to the trilogy’s’ story-line and what inspired this meticulous work of art. Let’s get into it:
SIMGE: So, Layer Zero comes out on June 30th and is the second EP in a trilogy. Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to do a three-piece series and what makes this second installment special?
MK: When I looked at all the material I’d been writing over the years, I noticed a pattern. The music started to develop this retro-future style. I was a telling of the story of Alex Wonder. Through him, I got to understand more about how my life has changed and things that have gone on with me. Over time, all the pieces became clear – sort of like leveling up in an RPG (role-playing game), or journaling chapters of your life into stories.
At the end of Cycles of Time, Alex Wonder meets his consciousness in a dream, who tells him that he is everyone in his world and is generating all reality from his thoughts. He gives him the powers of premonition, a gift that he will need to learn how to develop. What’s so special about Layer Zero is that he begins to tap into his potential and we see a metamorphosis take place.
SIMGE: Who exactly is Alex Wonder and is he actually you?
MK: When I was a kid, I had chronic nightmares and they were so real. I thought about my dreams often and was compelled beyond the norm at the feelings of
déjà vu and what it all meant. Three of those dreams always stood out. In one of them, there was a boy, who’s that red character you see on the cover of Cycles of Time.
That is the exact character that came from a dream that I had as a kid…that boy’s world crumbled around him…and that boy was me. So, Alex Wonder is me in the World of Dreams.
SIMGE: What’s so inspiring to you about the fantasy genre and will this EP trilogy ever become a comic book series, TV show or movie?
MK: I loved fantasy movies growing up, so there’s definitely a nostalgia factor there for me. The genre taps into your imagination and I’ve always been a dreamer. The idea that “Fantasia has no boundaries” was a very compelling thought from The Never Ending Story, and that sentiment of ‘no boundaries’ is what most inspires my music. I like to mix genres and styles and I do that with the intention of creating in a free space.
Also, there are some really important and exciting things that can happen in the fantasy genre, and we will delve into the ideas of dreams, lucid dreaming, synchronicity, time-travel and déjà vu. Right now, theWhen is telling the tales of Alex Wonder in the World of Dreams through folklore, but taking the story to another medium is definitely on the horizon.
SIMGE: What films, music, books and other media inspire you most?
MK: I mostly indulge in comedies and sci-fi fantasy action like TRON, Legend, Blade Runner, Donnie Darko, The Butterfly Effect and Teen Wolf from the 80s. I can be pretty nostalgic, haha. I always long for the golden eras and storytelling of the past.
I’m a retro gamer at heart and Street Fighter is my jam. Charlie Chaplin was my childhood hero. I admired his work and methods – and pretty much wanted to be him.
My playlist is all over the map on shuffle mode from M83 to MegaDeth, The Beatles to Billy Joel, Faith No More to Frank Sinatra and Big Band Music.
SIMGE: The first single from the forthcoming EP is called “Learning to Try” and is about overcoming self-inflicted fear that holds you back, correct?
MK: Yes, there are so many things in this world that are trying to conquer your perspective. This is about getting control back of your perspective and putting it to use for you, instead of against you.
Everything can be broken down in steps and for some of us, who have been in the depths of despair. Learning to try is a necessity before we make bold steps to overcome and achieve things we are meant to.
SIMGE: What was the hardest obstacle for you to overcome in making this EP, becoming an artist or in life in general? How did you conquer your fear?
MK: Time has always been against me. In life, you want to do and have time for everything but you can’t. In life, you realize that time goes by and that you’ve missed out on certain things. I’ve always been prone to wanting to spend time with the people I love and I’ve had to sacrifice a lot to work on the things that I’m passionate about.
I realized that I had become my own worst enemy because of the way that I thought and that thinking process was creating a lot of problems for me. I changed my inner dialogue and got fed up about being complacent and wasting away. When I realized I could shape my world view just by choosing how to focus my thoughts, it became a powerful force for steering the ship.
SIMGE: You also just released the EP’s second single called “Better Than Now” – explain this track to us a bit. What influenced it and what’s it about?
MK: Truthfully, I missed the memorable themes and film scores of the 80s. Ones you could remember and sing the melody to, like Superman, The Terminator and Back to the Future. They are very rare, if at all present today. So, I wanted to write a retro synth theme for a worthy character.
Although I would never consider myself a comic book person, like some die hard fans, I’ve always related to The Incredible Hulk. So, I wrote it because I was inspired by the new films of the day and a theme for that character.
The song is about having a hind sight perspective of your life from the vantage point of layer zero, a state of mind that is without bias or perception. It is within a dream, at the center of all space and time, where you see things for what they are and decide to make yourself better and harness your ability. “Learning to try” appropriately follows it on the EP.
SIMGE: What’s your favorite track on Layer Zero and why?
MK: I tend to switch up favorites… when I want to get amped – it’s “Learning To Try,” and if I want to imagine that I am becoming the Incredible Hulk or flying on Falcor, it’s “Better Than Now.” Haha. There’s werewolves and other adventures to be had on layer zero so I like to indulge in all of it and escape for a while.
SIMGE: What can The Dreamers (your fans) expect from this EP that’s different than the first installment, Cycles of Time?
MK: theWhen’s sound is a fluctuating fusion of retro sonic synthesizers, liquid melodic embellishments and hard rock to metal undertones. On this second installment, I balance out on the heavier, rock side as lyrical themes get more intense and charged. I break out into more guitar based rhythms, leads layered with synths and heavy beats.
I also got more thematic with throwback film score feel and some Pink Floyd-esque tastes. As always, there’s electro-pop and other grab bag electronic influences that help paint the full picture.
SIMGE: What can fans expect next from theWhen?
MK: Thematically, things are going to get deeper into what the Living Story is all about, while the music will expand more into the fusion of my influences, without boundaries, so I can let the paint drip and spin on the canvas. I will be developing my live show to incorporate some new elements and hope to hit the road this summer, before continuing work on the third installment.