I first ‘discovered’ Sieben about 18 months ago playing a Sheffield Live FM benefit show at The Harley and was totally blown away by his breathtaking set. It was unique and mesmeric, and having since heard some of his recorded work, which is first class, I think the live set that is a must see to fully appreciate his talent before listening to the albums.
He frequently plays gigs attended by hundreds of fans all over Europe, but in Sheffield he seems to have a relatively small cult following.
So what makes Sieben so special? Well he plays violin, recording different loops whilst the fascinated audience watch. He strums the instrument like a guitar, scratches it with his chin stubble to provide a percussive sound, plucks like a bass and finally plays it as its designed to be with hands that are a blur. On top of the music he sings or speaks and at a recent gig at Club 60 had the mainly young audience silenced and with mouths open, amazed by his performance.
“I remember waking up in a shopping trolley when I was 16, rather drunk in the local town centre and my Dad was stood over me saying ‘I think its time to come home now’”
I am meeting Sieben aka Matt Howden in his workplace local, the pleasant beer garden of The Rutland on the edge of Sheffield City centre. I am early and sipping a fine product of the local brewery as he rushes in, smiley though bang on time, and I’m immediately taken by his friendly, open manner.
We sit and begin with small talk then, despite having a mental plan of starting at the beginning of his career I can’t stop myself asking why he has a big following on mainland Europe but seems to be a closely kept secret in his adopted home city? Matt offers “I’m a lot better known in Europe but it’s a bit more sporadic in the UK. I played to thousands at the Leipzeig Festival and regularlyplay to over a thousand abroad but feel slightly excluded in Sheffield, maybe cos I’m local. I even played the National Portrait Gallery in London recently and some industry people were there plus the likes of Marc Almond.”
Still puzzled by the enigma I eventually drag myself back to my original plan and Matt is happy to fill in the blanks.
Born in Nottingham of Scottish and Lancashire parents 43 years ago, he says he “unfortunately” adopted Burnley FC as his team because (as with many football team supporters, including myself and then subsequently my children) they were his Dad’s team. He moved to Sheffield 22 years ago to attend University (drawn to the city by the likes of Cabaret Voltairre and Human League) and currently works at Red Tape Studios.
Matt’s musical journey began at school as a 15 year old he “wanted a girlfriend and thought being in a band would help achieve this, so I played a bit of guitar and a bit of bass. I changed to violin because it was more practical, I could take it with me on my bike to practice rooms.” Amazingly Matt was completely self taught and confesses to initially using the violin up as a route to learning the treble clef so he could play piano but never got that far as he fell in love with the violin.
Sieben was born when Matt realised he could loop the sounds and do beats himself, he explains “it came about because I worked in Lisbon with a producer called Chris Eckman, from US band The Walkabouts, he was using the loop for background guitar ambience, so I put my violin through it and realised I could make a kick drum sound behind the bridge and a snare drum by snapping on the strings, from then on I could be completely independent, not reliant on drummers. Then it developed in the sense that its much easier to go and do a solo show in Poland say, because its just one person and one flight seat, so it helped me achieve some of the 1,400 concerts I’ve done in my time and probably six or seven hundred of those were in Europe. The last few years I’ve been doing one every weekend, 50 gigs or so a year in many different countries.”
Matt initially did a lot of session work in various bands but felt as a songwriter he should be performing his own material more so he recorded some work then started to get himself out there. “I played in Europe for next to nothing for a few years and got known on the circuit. I then had to develop a better business head just to survive. I’ve worked with various labels but I feel the climate is more about doing it yourself nowadays. Enough people now know where I am now without the record company machine behind me. So now I make 8 times more for each record than when I was with a record company. I don’t really do it for the money but it helps.”
A multi instrumentalist, Matt confirms he still plays guitar on records and a bit of bass and piano with the students at work though ruefully admits to not having mastered wind instruments yet “because there just aren’t enough hours in the day.” Its seems inevitable if he made the time he’d be a wiz at those sooner rather than later too!
As Matt Howden he composes and releases instrumental work and recently wrote the music for a BBC 2 documentary about the Dambusters featuring Martin Shaw and also for a German Professor whose films are non verbal documentaries with images and music. Another project on the go at the moment too has Matt setting his fathers poems to music, it will include an illustrated book of the poems with a CD in the back of his father reading them to Matt’s music.
How is working with a parent? Matt laughs “bizarre, I get vocalists in the studio and I assess the timbers of their voice, but I can’t do that with my Dad, it’s the voice that told me to go to bed when I was 5 ” his memories prompt a tale “I remember waking up in a shopping trolley when I was 16, rather drunk in the local town centre and my Dad was stood over me saying ‘I think its time to come home now’” We joke that at least he wouldn’t have to carry the young Matt home – he could just push him in the trolley.
“It was a really, really good experience working with him again, I think what he does is brilliant. He also paints now he’s retired, he’s got an exhibition in February 11 in Todmorden “then a smile returns again “and I think I’ll be playing at the opening.”
So a truly artistic family but what other influences have there been on Mr Howden? “That’s also bizarre cos although I now teach music and music composition, I have never ever learnt music by playing other peoples songs. I made a conscious effort early on not to do it, so consequently I think I’ve got my own style. Most people pick up instruments and play to their favourite bands but I’d end up sounding like someone else if I did that. I think the direction I’ve taken with the looping means I can’t do that anyway.”
He confesses to being influenced by “everything from Mozart to Kate Bush, Nick Cave to The Streets, Eminen, anything that I think is intelligently put together. But I get board of indie guitar bands playing the same old chords, some of it is brilliant but most is limp and lifeless.”
Now in control of his own recorded music destiny Matt has in the past been signed to a Lithuanian label, a German label, plus an Italian label based in Rome then another Italian label based in Naples and a few English labels. “I even signed with a Portugese label for a while, so with various projects I’ve gone wherever life has taken me really.”
In the Sheffield music community Matt is far from a secret, he has collaborated with the likes of In The Nursery on their epic film scores and “Neil McSweeney, a fantastic artist” he enthuses “who I’ve played with and done some recording. I’ve played a few concerts with Fallen Trees, of whom Paul (Littlewood) is a real hidden gem of Sheffield too.”
Where does Sieben still have ambitions to play? “I’ve played in some wondrous places, in a cave under Rome, in castles, on a boat in Stockholm harbour, so somewhere like that.” After musing over the question for a while he offers “the Minnack Theatre in Cornwall, (which he namechecks on the first track of his new album). Its an open air amphitheatre built into the rocks by an old pier, a real labour of love.” Prompted he adds “if I have to choose someone to accompany it would have to be Tom Waits” he grins “stuff like his stands out like a gem to me.”
The highpoint of his illustrious career to date? Matt plumps for one of his first solo gigs abroad in Turin, “I’d been pulling down ceilings the week before for my landlord in lieu of rent, and when I got to Turin there were only 70 or 80 people there but some of them knew the words and music and some had the album and it was so satisfying. There was an opera singer there who loved it too. I also played a castle in Denmark and the old security guard and those who were doing the catering loved it as much as those who had paid to come and see it” he pauses for thought then adds “one of the nicest things is the broad spectrum of people I get, and I think I’ve never really fulfilled that in terms of getting out to those people properly with records.”
He adds “I also particularly like playing the Lantern Theatre in Sheffield, and really enjoyed Club 60 too.”
Matt’s latest album which he proudly states is “my best yet I think” is Star, Wood, Brick, Firmament. He admits “many people who want music download it for free so I like to make something nice that people want to own and keep. If I come across an artist I always try to buy something from them directly because that’s how you keep music going, most of the indie labels are hand to mouth these days too.”
The album is stirring stuff but Matt agrees with my earlier comment (unseen by him) as he says “I think people get me fully when they see me live, they appreciate the albums but they appreciate them even more once they have seen me live and realise its the violin making the beats and it all done on the fly.”
He adds philosophically “I love Sheffield and it would be nice not to have to travel so much to get an audience but it seems its all about indie bands here still.”
I can highly recommend going to a Sieben gig and catching the breathtaking live performance. His travels have taken him recently to perform in Rome, Antwerp, Munich, Athens, Salzburg, Utrecht and London so next time he graces Sheffield make an effort and get down to see him, for an experience you’ll never forget.