Mathew Lee Cothran
judas hung himself in america
words by tom johnson
photography by delaney mills
Like listless of days lost to weather and circumstance, where the world seems to shrink to only things you can touch and feel, Mathew Lee Cothran’s music has always felt crushingly restrained, faded like the wallpaper where the sun sometimes reaches. Channelled through various outlets, from previous work under his own name, to his Elvis Depressedly and Coma Cinema projects, Cothran continues to be a key voice within the world of alternative music, holding a mirror up to the listless, restless underbelly of a country seemingly split in half.
After the success of 2015’s beautiful Elvis Depressedly LP, New Alhambra, Cothran returns this week with a brand new record under his own name, the eight track “judas hung himself in america“, which will be released this Friday via Joy Void.
A beautifully delicate record, it flips between the personal and political with solemn shifts in the light. Recorded during a time of personal loss, following the passing of his Grandfather, and with Cothran attempting sobriety for the first time in a long time, the record feels like a tender and important part of his puzzle, like zooming in and out on a waveform, watching time stretch and then compress, fold in to fold in to fold.
Alongside a new interview below, in which Cothran sheds further light on his new work and the themes and ideas that informed it, you can stream the album in full here.
What was the initial spark that started “judas hung himself…” and what informed that early work?
As I’m getting older I’m becoming less self interested and more interested in the world around me. I was writing a book that had the same title as the album, “judas hung himself in america“, and it was a kind of alternate history of the story of Judas coming to America to commit suicide. I had this idea in my head that America was sort of grown out of the shame of the world, kind of how when you’re guilty you sometimes lash out and act crazy trying to cover for your own guilt. The book was going to explore that in different characters but I got impatient with it and wanted to see how these ideas would play out on a record instead. I may go back to the book at some point, but by that point America may be irrelevant.
What’s the over-arching theme to the new record; if there is one at all?
The three songs that for lack of a better term I call political are “america forever“, “judas in america“, and “who did pull the pin of the people?”, and those are all very connected in the sense that they kind of expose my worldview from the perspective of being American and living with that reality. Those are bigger songs that talk about things that have little to do with me as a singular person, and the rest of the songs are more personal.
I wanted to tell stories of day to day life between the ideas of American shame, and fear mingling with a sense of social responsibility. That’s why the political songs are placed as they are in the record as a beginning, middle, and end. You really can’t deal with the world until your inner world is set right though, and the rest of the songs deal with that, more or less.
There’s a very middle-of-the-night feel to so much of this new work – do you tend to work at night?
One of the reasons I clung to drinking for so long was insomnia. Without some kind of aid I can’t sleep and that can make you crazy. Sobriety brought back the challenges of being unable to sleep and worse, being unable to rest, but I did use the night to work. I’m very lucky in that my house is located in such a place that I can pretty much work at all hours of the night and not worry about bothering anyone.
I spent many long nights tracking things, and getting opinions from my partner Delaney while she worked on her own art (or played Stardew Valley). It was helpful to have a goal to chip away at when I couldn’t sleep, instead of just lying in bed wishing I had a drink. I took the cover photo deep in the middle of the night as well. I was trying to occupy my mind by going through our closet, just to kind of remind myself what was there, when that spider appeared in front of me and something about it was just so beautiful and indicative of what I had been working on at all hours of the night.
Your work has always felt like a mirror to America’s stifled/fractured underbelly – do you think that’s a fair assessment? Do you feel attracted to that unrest as a form of inspiration?
I think life is just a state of unrest, and everywhere in our society reflects that. I grew up hard in urban and rural poverty, and I’ve been inside mansions and there is chaos in all of it. Human beings, for all their attempts at taming themselves, have a way of bringing the wilderness out of everything they touch. I’ve grown much more empathetic as I’ve gotten older and reconciled a lot of things that made me ashamed or angry when I was younger, like poverty, in that sense I’ve realized rage alone won’t solve the problem and positive action can upset the systems of oppression too. I won’t say they work better but they do work.
I don’t have the kind of love for America that politicians pretend to, or that the heretic evangelical church claims to work within. I love America’s people and its places, the things about it that are tangible and real. I don’t have much patience for the ideologies, or the pageantry, and I think most of America doesn’t have time for it either, maybe the fracturing stems from things like that.
We’re sharing “Cherry High” above – what can you tell us about that track in particular?
That song came about during a panic attack late into the night, when over-the-counter sleep aids weren’t working and my mind was racing. I think it best represents the album as a whole, mixing big ideas of the world around me with the ones that run through my mind in reaction to being surrounded by the big chaos. Musically it was inspired by The Homosexuals, a band I’ve loved since I was a teenager.
We’re also sharing “Farah Abraham”, which seems to showcase something more sadder. Where did the idea for that track come from and why did you choose to cover Farah’s work?
I don’t see it as sad, to me it’s a song about empathy. Farrah put out this really incredible album called My Teenage Dream Ended and it was very influential to me, but many people were very cruel in their reaction to it. The record is otherworldly and manages to depict a very real picture of personal chaos amidst a society deeply entwined with superficiality. I wanted to express gratitude for her music and how it’s helped me in my own struggles, and to hopefully open up people’s eyes a little.
You play around a lot with your voice, on this new record especially. Elliott Smith said that he double-tracked all his vocals because it made them sound less like himself. Is that something you’re sympathetic with?
I’ve heard Elliott say a lot of things about double tracking, including that, but I don’t know if I relate to it much. Your voice is always going to be you, you’ll remember tracking it. For this album I was really inspired by artists like Lil Yachty and Chief Keef and the way they use things that are ubiquitous with pop music now, like autotune, in ways that kind of subvert that and touch on the avante garde.
This record was recorded during your own period of grief – was your grandfather’s passing a direct influence on the work or was it more of an abstract one?
Losing my grandfather was the hardest thing I’ve gone through in my life. I thought that would break my attempt at sobriety immediately but I held on because he would have believed I could. I had a different upbringing than some. My parents loved me but were young and wild, and they did their best but my Grandfather raised me. He was my whole world, my biggest advocate, and shaped who I am.
He himself drank hard for many, many years, and one day he just quit. He went into the kitchen, poured his beer down the sink and he never drank again. He had more love in his heart than anyone I’ve ever known, but he never showed weakness, all the way up to the end he was strong. His last words were “God is good“. He informs everything I do. I think he’d be proud of me and this music, that thought motivated me through the recording.
How big an impact did your own sobriety impact the work? Had you been meaning to attempt such a thing for a while?
Going sober opened my mind back up to creating. It’s really reignited the fire, absolutely. I’ve attempted this over the years and I may fail again but right now I feel alright, and motivated, and that’s about the best I can hope for.
‘judas hung himself in america’ is released on Friday, via Joy Void