By Timothy Behuniak EBS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
Mathias’s passion for performing originated when he received a guitar on his 10th birthday. Today, the Bozeman-based singer-songwriter has been playing music in Big Sky Country for over two decades, but is also known around the world for his lively performances, powerful vocals and percussive guitar style.
In 2010, Mathias released his debut album, “Walk Alone,” after working in the studio with Emmy-award-winning producer Jeremiah Slovarp. The following two years, Mathias traveled internationally, entertaining crowds in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Chiang Mai, among others. Mathias, 41, spoke with EBS about his music career, reasons for moving to Montana and his love for the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
Explore Big Sky: Why did you start playing music? Is guitar your main instrument?
Mathias: When I was a kid I always had a song in my head. I could often be heard humming a tune, whether it was a Billy Joel song or the theme to “Star Wars.” I guess it was a natural progression to pick up an instrument. There was a catalyzing event involving a friend and myself playing air guitar on hockey sticks to Twisted Sister’s, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” That sort of sealed the deal. I went home telling my parents I had to have a guitar. Eventually I received one for my 10th birthday after fulfilling an agreement to take piano lessons as a prerequisite. Shortly thereafter I began playing percussion in band as well. I feel piano and percussion were the ideal foundation for playing guitar. Your right hand keeps the rhythm while your left works with the chords and melody.
EBS: How long have you been playing for?
M: Just over 30 years. It’s been my sole occupation for over nine years now.
EBS: Did you grow up in Montana? If not, where are you from originally?
M: I grew up in Williston, ND, but my family homesteaded on both sides of the border, so my Montana roots are deep. And save a couple years, I’ve called Montana home since I graduated high school.
EBS: What made you decide to come here?
M: I originally came out here to study film and to live simply in the mountains. Bozeman and Big Sky had been common stops on family vacations en route to Yellowstone when I was young. My older brother attended Montana State University, which furthered my connection to Bozeman. By the time I moved here, I was already in love with the area.
EBS: How would you describe your style?
M: Ah, the dreaded question. I suppose I would say it’s acoustic folk and rock with everything from country to funk mixed in. My guitar style is very percussive. If there’s something that sets me apart stylistically, it’s my utilization of open strings to produce a fuller sound—it’s a sort of faux 12-string technique. I feel my vocals can run the gamut from the airy and intimate side to a more full and assertive voice.
EBS: Does the Montana lifestyle affect your songwriting and playing? If so, in what way?
M: In some ways I’ve gotten slightly more Americana and country over the years. While I don’t think the average patron of a local watering hole in rural Montana would classify me that way, they hear it instantly in Europe or Asia. And of course, I’ve written a lot of my lyrics about Montana and my experiences here.
EBS: Where have you performed?
M: I’ve played all over Montana, especially the Bozeman, Big Sky and Livingston areas. When I hit the road it’s usually for a run of gigs around Flathead and Whitefish, back home to North Dakota or down to Stanley and Ketchum in the Sawtooth’s of Idaho. I’ve also played a couple seasons in the Florida Keys and one on Koh Tao in Thailand. In addition, I try to work a few gigs into my travels and have now performed in a dozen countries around the globe.
EBS: What are some of your personal favorite songs you enjoy performing?
M: I love the songs that lend themselves to a flow state. For instance, I do my own rendition of “Norwegian Wood.” It’s actually about 80 percent original material that I’ve gradually written around the Beatles’ classic. It’s in drop D [tuning] so there’s a nice drone to improvise over. The song just creates a great space to explore. I have half a dozen little variations and jams I’ve written off of it over the years, and it’s constantly evolving. I love that about it. Some nights it’s not a matter of whether I play “Norwegian Wood,” but rather which version I should do.
EBS: Which artists or bands do you draw influence from?
M: Dave Matthews Band, Paul Simon, Coldplay, The Beatles, Weezer, the Grateful Dead, Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons and Phish.