Tonight at 10:30 p.m. Matthew E. White will present what Hopscotch Music Festival co-director Grayson Currin calls “the biggest production that Hopscotch has ever done.” White and his 30+-person orchestra have arranged an all-acoustic rendition of his debut album Big Inner that, after tonight, will never be performed again. The final show of the night at Fletcher Opera House, White’s concert is billed under the moniker “One Incantation Under God,” which is an appropriately grandiose name for his unique blend of American spirituals, gospel music and dramatic arrangements of horns and strings. Recess Music Editor Dan Fishman talked on the phone with White about his new record, how he made his bones in the music industry and, of all things, White’s childhood obsession with Duke Basketball player Bobby Hurley.
Recess: So tell me a bit about how this concert came about. I hear it was a commission of sorts.
Matthew White: Yeah. When Grayson heard the record, he loved it and asked me to perform it. The record is almost completely acoustic—there’s electric bass and electric guitar but those aren’t overwhelmingly amped. So though it’s been complicated from an administrative perspective, musically it was quite straightforward to put together.
R: How did you find all of these musicians to work with you?
MW: Part of what’s so special for me about this night is that most of the people I’m playing with I’ve played with before at some point in my life. Lots of them played with me at music school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It’s basically a group of all of my friends. We’ve been getting really close.
R: That sounds amazing.
MW: It’s rich, man. Not having to hire people that I don’t know…. It’s so special that I can bring down 31 people who I know and who are good enough to do it.
R: You mentioned music school at VCU. How did that happen?
MW: In high school my mindset about college was to do the coolest thing I could imagine, and I couldn’t think of anything better than music. Looking back, that sounds ignorant and naïve. And I knew nothing about the kind of music I make now. I was rock ‘n’ roll. I was the hipster guitar guy. When I got to VCU I had to choose either jazz or classical. I chose jazz because I thought jazz was more open-ended. And so I learned a lot about jazz. Eventually I started this avant-garde jazz group to use the things I was learning in school. There were nine of us at the time, and they’re all involved in the Hopscotch concert. That group really helped me get into the music world. The university music scene can be very constricting. It’s its own world.
R: How’d you get from jazz to what you’re making today?
MW: Through working with the jazz group, I met a lot of people. I met the guys from Megafaun—who are out of Durham—and we got very close. I began to get some gigs as a music director. I had developed the skill set to communicate with musicians. I did this record with David Carson Davis—we basically backed him up—and I directed this thing with Megafaun and Justin Vernon at Duke Performances not too long ago [an evening based on songs from Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South collection]. I was interested in the idea that you can make music quickly and efficiently and do it well if you had the right people. I began to create this umbrella, Spacebomb [Records], so that I could have everything together. Spacebomb allows me a lot of flexibility. Even the most productive musicians can make only one, maybe two, records a year. With Spacebomb I can work on all sorts of projects at the same time.
R: Who’s on the label right now?
MW: We’re working with Joe Westerlund from Megafaun. There’s singer/songwriter Natalie Crass, indie folk musician Karl Blau and Ivan Howard from the Rosebuds and Gayngs.
R: Grayson told me that Big Inner is the best thing he’s heard this year. Others have been similarly hyperbolic. Were you expecting that kind of response?
MW: My idea was to release the record with little fanfare. I wasn’t making a record for an event. It was just supposed to be this thing that Spacebomb could produce. But people kept telling me how good it was and to put energy into it.
R: What else might a Duke student want to know?
MW: I grew up a huge Duke basketball fan. There’s this whole hilarious story about it actually. I told it to the last guy who talked to me from Duke. Did you want to hear it?
R: Yeah. I’m a huge Duke basketball fan, too. I’ve watched nearly every game since I was nine.
MW: Awesome. Well. 1991 was first grade for me, Laettner’s freshman year. I saw one of his buzzer beaters that beat UNC in a hotel room in Korea. At the time my older brother was applying to Duke and when it came on TV I was like, “I know that school.” And then I was hooked. The next year UNLV kicked them pretty badly, but I became the biggest Bobby Hurley fan ever. I had a wall in my room that was only Bobby Hurley. A few years later, he got into that crazy car accident and I was so upset. I tore out a picture of him from the newspaper that next day and I set it up on my wall. Then I prayed for Bobby Hurley every day so he wouldn’t die. There was a while there when everyone thought he might. Much later, when I was 25 and he must’ve been 40, I actually saw Hurley at a basketball tournament. He was scouting for the Kings. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but I went up to him and told him about how I’d prayed for him every day and how he was my hero. He was really weirded out. But I had to. He was my hero. I just had to tell him how much he’d meant to me.