Backstage at San Francisco’s Treasure Island Music Festival, Matthew Dear appears distracted. He’s standing in front of a camera, answering interview questions from a disheveled young woman who appears to be working for a music-television network, and who’s joined by a sloppily dressed cameraman and an anxious-looking sound guy with a jumpy gaze.
A few hundred feet away from Dear, hip-hop icons Public Enemy are performing onstage, and Chuck D is angrily and passionately interacting with the audience between songs. “Fuck urban radio! Fuck BET! Fuck Viacom,” he yells, as the audience roars with applause.
Dear takes all the distractions in stride. In fact, he seems to be having the time of his life. Known as a luminary of minimal techno—a restrained style that’s a marked contrast to louder, less artistic, more rave-ready fare—this 33-year-old DJ, producer and label co-founder has reached a point where he isn’t sure what’s going to come next for him.
“I kind of felt bad for [her],” he laughs about his interview with the disheveled woman. “It was nuts. There were, like, five things going on at once, and I couldn’t help but listen to the set.”
Two hours earlier, Dear and his three bandmates played a polished, crowd-pleasing set that consisted mostly of songs from his widely acclaimed new album, Beams, which came out in August via Ghostly International, a label he co-founded. With its thick electro-pop beats and glistening, tech-house production, the album signals a departure from the darker, goth / industrial sounds of his previous album, 2010’s Black City. But even with this new effort, Dear’s baritone is as undeniably sexy as ever.
Even if you aren’t well-versed in the nuances of electronic music, with all its genres and subgenres, it’s easy to get into his catchy songs. Even the darkest moments on Black City have a buoyant, dance-floor-ready feel (case in point: the grindingly seedy “You Put a Smell on Me”), and he takes a more pop-oriented approach on Beams, his fifth album. With his songwriting, he says he strives for straightforwardness, taking inspiration from artists like David Byrne and Beck.
“Peter Murphy, too,” he says, name-checking the singer of Bauhaus. “With all three of those guys, the simplicity is inherent in the music. There’s a pure melody in songs like—.” He pauses for a moment and closes his eyes.
“I’m trying to think of my favorite Bauhaus song. The one that’s completely stripped down,” he says. Then, he opens his eyes and begins to sing the notes to Bauhaus’ “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything” in a syncopated rhythm.
“Stuff like that is so golden,” he says. “Those moments exist in many artists’ careers. Maybe that’s what I’m influenced by. Simplicity.” He trails off. “And pop melodies, more importantly.”
But it’s apparent that Bauhaus’ influence doesn’t just end at music. Dear’s quite the dapper dresser, looking sharp in a Peter Murphy-style, slim-fitting black suit jacket, along with black skinny jeans and shiny black boots. Arguably, he was one of the best-dressed musicians at the festival.
Dear says he’s always had an interest in fashion, even as far back as middle school.
“I remember going shopping with my mom and I was buying a silk Generra button-up, blousy man’s shirt,” he recalls with a laugh. “I told my mom that I wanted to look like Corey Feldman from License to Drive. I was probably 11 or so at this point, but I knew that’s who I wanted to look like.”
Dear was born in Kingsville, Texas, and moved to Michigan as a teenager, where he got into the original Detroit techno sound. Eight years ago, he moved to New York City, where his fashion obsession was fed by Atelier, a clothing store that turned him on to designers like Commes des Garçons, Julius and Carol Christian Poell, who’s become one of his favorites.
He’s particularly thrilled with the wardrobe for the Beams tour.
“We’re going to be wearing the clothes of designer Alexandre Plokhov,” he whispers with feverish excitement. “He used to have a fashion line called Cloak, which was a really inspirational, militant line, with wonderful coats, jackets and suits.”
Now that the first leg of the Beams tour has kicked off, Dear says he’s achieved a certain level of aplomb that, until recently, would have never made sense to him.
“I know that I’m heading in a direction of unknowns, and I’m so completely comfortable with that,” he says. “This is the first time that I can do what I feel, and do what I really love.
“In that sense,” he adds, “I know that I’m going toward a state of open randomness, and that’s amazing. I love that. I love not knowing what’s happening next.”
Matthew Dear plays with Light Asylum at The Casbah on Saturday, Oct. 27. matthewdear.com