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‘We’re Good With Challenges’: Mattiel Take on the World

There are hundreds of colorful lightbulbs behind the stage of the dive-y Brooklyn venue Baby’s All Right, winking at the crowd gathered to see rock duo Mattiel. Then, suddenly, the room goes dark and a new image comes up to replace the lights: the projected face of Jeff Goldblum.

“He came and met me in the bathroom,” croons singer Atina Mattiel Brown, also known mononymously as Mattiel. “A little like a younger Jeff Goldblum/About to take my heart and break it pretty soon.”

Beside her, multi-instrumentalist Jonah Swilley plays guitar along to a throbbing, danceable backdrop of New Wave keys as scenes from the Jurassic Park actor’s oeuvre play on behind them. The song is “Jeff Goldblum,” the lead track off the Atlanta group’s new album, Georgia Gothic, out this week, and Goldblum’s effigy looks pleased.

So does the crowd, which quickly sheds its New York cool and starts dancing, fully embracing the mood by a few songs in. Other than a gig the night before, it’s been months since Mattiel played New York, and the city seems to have missed them.

“That was our favorite show on the tour, I think … maybe ever,” Swilley says a few days later.

“It kind of reminded me of some of the first shows that we played in the U.K. in 2018, when we were just breaking through,” Brown says. “It’s taken a long, long time to feel that in the States.”

Brown and Swilley almost never got to this point, since they had to abandon a tour promoting their excellent and overlooked second album, 2019’s Satis Factory, due to pandemic shutdowns. Before that trek, Brown had recently quit a lucrative gig as a designer for Mailchimp and Swilley had left his job at his friend’s antique store; they were ready to be full-time musicians. Instead, they found themselves anchored in Atlanta, collecting unemployment while they attempted to navigate their music career themselves, as they’d recently cut ties with their manager and booking agent.

“We’re really good with challenges,” Brown says matter-of-factly. “Challenges just make us want to work harder. We’re pretty gritty people.”

Brown and Swilley, both age 28, reset themselves by decamping to a cabin in northern Georgia near the Appalachians and embracing music as their full-time occupation. Each night, they’d enjoy dinner and a movie and then, at about 1 or 2 a.m., begin writing music. They used to take three months to write a new song, but they composed nearly all of Georgia Gothic in the space of a week.

And where Brown thought that Mattiel (the band) had been towing the garage-rock line a little too heartily on past LPs, Georgia Gothic shows they can do much more than that with waltzing, lost-love songs (“Blood in the Yolk”), melancholy, dubby elegies (“Boomerang”), and stomping, end-of-the-world-party rave-ups (“How It Ends”).

“Spanning several different sounds is really important to me,” she says. “I don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over on every song.” With its dense musical arrangements — nearly all of which Swilley played himself, from the drums to echoey ear candy — and Brown’s bold, commanding voice and uplifting lyrics, the album represents just how far Mattiel have come.

It’s the day of the Brooklyn show, and Brown and Swilley have posted up at a coffeehouse a few blocks from the venue. It’s freezing outside, and the Atlantans are dressed accordingly in layers; Brown clutches her blazer shut to keep warm, smiling coyly from behind her black bob haircut, while the baldheaded Swilley tucks himself into his long-sleeve shirt. Despite the drafty environment, they relax, chuckling when they recount how they met at a 2014 recording session.

“We were, like, 20 or 21,” Swilley says. “I was in a band at the time [Black Linen], and we had just gotten off tour as a backing band for this guy, Curtis Harding; he was on tour with Jack White. Mattiel was familiar with my bandmate and hit him up.”

“I just kind of asked about the session,” she says.

“We met at like, midnight, and recorded our first song,” Swilley says. Practically in unison, they name the song, “Send It on Over,” a smoky, tempestuous blues nugget that recalls moody Sixties acts like the Animals and Them, as well as similar minded modern acts like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. “I’d never had that experience before,” Swilley says, smiling.

He and his production partner, Randy Michael, liked the session so much they decided to work with the singer on an album that became her self-titled 2017 debut. That record foreshadowed the way Mattiel could blend dancefloor-ready rock that could feel heavy, like “Send It on Over,” or lighthearted, like on “Bye Bye.” “I don’t write ‘sad girl’ songs,” Brown says. “Humor is important.”

Despite her strong voice, Brown never intended on becoming a vocalist. She grew up on a farm in Fayette County, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. The name Mattiel once belonged to a friend of her Aunt Linda’s, but she says she never met her namesake. “I’ve been called Mattiel my whole life,” she says. “It’s a name I’ll take with me wherever I go.”

The Georgia Gothic song “Blood in the Yolk” recalls the singer’s farm upbringing. “We had chickens and occasionally, you get an egg with blood in the yolk; it’s just like a little spot of blood,” she says. “And it’s fine. You can eat it. It’s not going to kill you. It’s just kind of weird.” She used the repulsiveness of the imagery as a metaphor for a relationship breaking down. “My love isn’t dead,” she sings. “I’m just cracking an egg and checking the blood in the yolk.” “It’s, like, maybe there’s something here that is worth saving,” she says.

Her only musical experience growing up was singing along to the four or so CDs she owned — Franz Ferdinand, White Stripes, Ramones, Duran Duran, and a few she’s forgotten. “I remember turning on the radio and hearing instrumentals on certain stations and practicing improv with my vocal,” she says, “while driving around this rural area that I grew up in, in my little Ford Focus that I only recently junked.”

But rather than pursuing music, she made graphic design her career; and even though she no longer works at Mailchimp, she still occasionally provides design services to other artists or Atlanta restaurants. Singing was just something she thought she could do if she met the right people.

Swilley grew up outside of Atlanta, in Covington, a small city where, he says, “they shoot the show Vampire Diaries.” The multi-instrumentalist kept safe from bloodsuckers, since his father was a minister, and he could play drums on the church’s kit nearly every day. He later picked up the guitar and other instruments, following in a musically inclined sibling’s footsteps.

“As a kid, I saw my brother play, and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. But even as he learned other instruments, drums remained the backbone of what he does, citing Atlanta hip-hop, the Dust Brothers, and Beck as inspirations. Outkast’s The Love Below is his favorite album.

One day, his brother told him that Curtis Harding needed a drummer for a tour, opening for White, which allowed Swilley to meet more musicians in Atlanta, eventually leading him to Brown. In and around 2017’s Mattiel and 2019’s Satis Factory, they kept the ad-hoc group going with a series of singles and EPs and gigging, occasionally performing cover songs that show their diverse musical DNA, including songs by the Clash, Beastie Boys, and White Stripes. Within a few years, they were opening for White again, for a short run of shows in 2018, this time as Mattiel.

“When I met Jonah, I was still terrified to sing in front of anybody — or you,” Brown says, turning to Swilley. “It was scary. It’s not like that anymore. But yeah, it’s very vulnerable.”

With growing confidence, her voice developed from sharp and cutting (perfect for the White Stripes-y garage rock of the Mattiel album) into something much more full, deep, and resonant, occasionally recalling Nico on Satis Factory’s “Millionaire.” On Georgia Gothic, she croons, howls, and belts, depending on what the song needs. “It feels like a cohesive album,” she says, implying the word “finally.”

Nowadays, Mattiel are still mapping their career mostly by themselves. They hired a new booking agent (“It was looking kind of dismal for a second,” Swilley says), but they’re currently on the road — just the two of them — without a manager or a road manager, touring in Brown’s 2006 Honda CR-V, passing the time listening to audiobooks and playing a ZZ Top tape over and over. (“I have a lot of nostalgic memories,” the singer says, defending her love of that Little Ol’ Band From Texas to Swilley. “My dad loves ZZ Top. He played it all the time.”)

Swilley got the idea to use a Tascam sampler to play the drums, bass, and keys for them, while he played live guitar, after seeing Ty Segall play a set by himself with a similar setup. “It was inspiring to see him do that, because he’s so band-oriented and he’s always trying to update his sonic identity,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, we can actually do that.’” The first shows were nerve racking, but eventually they grew to like the consistency of playing to the sampler.

What’s hugely impressive is how natural they make it look, with Swilley swinging his guitar to the rhythms and Brown striking Olivier poses with her arms stretched out in front of her. At the Brooklyn show, she dresses in black leather (about the only gothic thing about Georgia Gothic, though she cites Poe as an inspiration) while he wears a mesh T and red leather pants, as he did on the cover of the album, which looks a bit like painter Grant Wood’s American Gothic with a Mephistophelean twist. Because they likely know that merely describing their stage look doesn’t do their live performance justice, Mattiel filmed a live video for the album’s “Cultural Criminal.”

“I think it’s a good representation of what to expect in a live show,” she says. “If we had a giant semi-truck, we’d probably travel with a screen that’s, like, 30 times as big. And that’s maybe what it would look like in big, big spaces.”

But after the past couple of years, Mattiel are happy to be performing anywhere. “We’re in a pretty unique position right now, because we’re not a huge act like Adele, where we have to pay 4,000 different people to work on the live show for us, and then it all gets canceled because one person gets Covid,” Brown says. “We don’t have the requirements that a huge act has, and we also have the resources to tour the way that we want to with our own plan and our own setup that is lucrative for us. So we’re kind of in the middle. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do this.”

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