After 11 years as a band, Minnesota rockers Tiny Moving Parts have undoubtedly made a fistful of their time as a band. Following the release of the self-proclaimed family band’s eighth studio album, breathe, we had a chat with vocalist and guitarist Dylan Mattheisen to talk all things breathe, the band’s upcoming Australian tour, and a surprising amount about polar bears.
Hey Dylan, how’s it going?!
I’m doing great! Yeah, just in San Francisco tonight. About to play a show in a couple hours, so I’m having a great time.
First of all, congratulations on breathe! I gave it a 10/10 in my review and I think it’s incredible! But for you, how does it feel now that it’s out in the world?
It feels freakin’ great! Every time we release a record it always takes so many months for it to get out, because you know we gotta go through pressing it to vinyl and all that stuff and just the prep work to release the singles. We had it finished a while ago and it feels so good to finally have it out in the world and for everyone to enjoy. The reaction has been great too and the songs have been really fun to play live so yeah, it feels spectacular right now!
That’s sick! If you go back to 2008, breathe is your seventh album now. Do you still head into every album with the same excitement and preparation? Or does it feel different now?
Does it feel different? Well, when we’re not on tour we’re always writing. We’re just always writing at home, so the writing process has always been very similar. But with each record we still want to be different; from different guitar tunings to using different instruments, you know? I mean in “Vertebrae” we used a banjo, which was pretty awesome, and at other times we incorporated digital drum beats that I’ve created through computer programs. We still have, with this record anyway, the same TMP sound but there’s always new things we’re doing because we always want to stay unique and always stay creative. For us, we don’t want to get too wild or too left-field. I mean, maybe next record we might! We’re just doing what we think sounds the best and what we feel really comfortable releasing.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I could figure out, breathe was the first time you’d worked with producer John Fields. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the album seems to incorporate pop elements more than ever before. Was there a conscious effort to write and incorporate pop, or did that come to the forefront in the later stages of production?
So working with John, we were actually recommended him from Hopeless Records. We knew we wanted to do ‘breathe’ with our friend Greg Lindholm who has done Celebrate, Swell, This Couch is Long & Full of Friendship. Like there’s a bunch of stuff we’ve worked on together in our past. He’s our very good friend so we knew we wanted to go with him. But Hopeless recommended John because he’s from Minneapolis and we only live like two and a half hours away, so they told us to just go with him for a day and see what happens; try and do a song together, and if it works out then it works out, if not, then no big deal, you know?
That’s how it started and we just went with John and it worked so well. He has a history with bigger pop acts like The Jonas Brothers – like holy crap, that’s insane! And then also like Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and it was just really cool to see him work on some Tiny Moving Parts tracks and we just had a great time. He was just pushing us to do new things and if there was ever something we didn’t want to do, then he was like “Okay cool, we don’t need to do that!”. He was very good at finding a good balance between pushing us to the absolute most we could do out of anything but not pushing too far or overkilling us. John straight up is just a pro; he is such a professional and we had such a good time with him.
You mentioned that when creating breathe you all didn’t want to go too wild, but when you consider any stylistic changes to your sound, big or small, do you ever share a major concern for how it’ll be received by fans? Or do you focus more on what you want to do and hope that people enjoy it too?
I mean you’re always going to have that little bit of pressure and nervousness and think to yourself “I hope the fans enjoy these songs”, you know? But it all comes down to whether Matt, Billy, and I really love the songs. Obviously we want everybody to love it but if we’re writing songs that everybody loved and we didn’t, that’d be kinda messed up. It all comes from a heartfelt place, all the lyrics and stuff. They’re all meaningful songs to us and when people can relate to them and enjoy them it’s definitely a win-win. That’s what we’re all about; writing songs that we truly love, and that people love, and touring our butts off, and having that good connection with our awesome fanbase.
To take it a little more general on breathe, I found that “The Midwest Sky” seems to pick up exactly where you left off after Swell, while the last track in “Hallmark” really feels like the perfect summation of the entire album. How much emphasis do you put onto track listing?
As far as a track list goes, I think it is one of those things that is extremely important but you don’t realise it. We reconfigured that track list so many times before all three of us were set on what we did. I think originally we had “The Midwest Sky” at track seven and at one point I know Matt wanted the first song to be “Hallmark”, which is the last song. It was a lot of trying new ideas and then we listened from start to finish to see if it all just flowed nicely together. When we do these records, it always tends to be ten or 11 songs and we want a listener to listen to it all like one gigantic song that they won’t get bored or sick of it. We don’t want two songs to sound very similar back to back; we want to make sure they’re spread out and it’s one enjoyable listen from start to finish, like one thirty-minute listen. So opening with “The Midwest Sky”, we never even thought about it until after we finished recording and then it came to us that it had to be the intro track. It was a lot of trial and error but we’re all very happy with how the track listing went.
Now that you say that, it’s so weird to imagine anything else as the opening and closing tracks of the album. If the intention was for it to flow, you’ve done it incredibly, I feel. But to continue on breathe, the presser mentioned that the title is quite literal in that it references to your own practice of controlled breathing and I was wondering if you could run me through that at all?
Yeah for sure! We called the record ‘breathe’ because the whole record is basically about mental health and trying to stay positive while you’re hitting the bumps in the road. You know, trying to keep your head above water. I feel like a simple step in that is to just take a deep breath and breathe. Just to focus on your breathing can do tremendous things. Whenever I’m feeling anxious on the road or at home, even a simple thing like taking a deep breath can change my entire outlook on the day. We were just tossing around ideas and that one just struck a chord with us and we decided we had to call it ‘breathe’. As for the album art, Matt did the album art with the wolf and a beautiful scenery with mountains in the background and it all looks so peaceful and beautiful. We want the message to be that you can find your happy place through whatever crap you’re going through.
To shift into the themes of the album, and I know you touched on it briefly, but it seems to me that breathe is a celebration of small victories.
Yes absolutely. That can definitely tie into it! Just breathe and restart, get your head on straight, and focus on the positives. It can be a simple thing or a huge thing that’s going on in each and everyone’s lives, but just take a breath and try to have a positive mindset.
To take that a step further, and this stands for your entire back catalogue too, it’s impressive how the mood of your songs is channeled not only through your lyrics but through the album’s music and instrumentals too. Do you find that when you’re writing an album that you have to – or are expected to – convey a certain level of emotion in your songs?
When we write music we just do whatever we enjoy about music which we just cram into a song. We love the crazy instrumentation, the wild chords, the weird drum rhythms but we also love a catchy chorus and good singalongs! Even putting the lyrics into it; at the end of the day we just want to make sure we can find a connection when singing it live to an audience. You can’t really beat that feeling, it means a lot.
Another thing that I noticed is that it obviously shines a light on mental health and the issues surrounding that without glorifying trauma or sadness. How integral is it to you that those issues are communicated with both a sense of hopefulness and realism?
With the entire topic of mental illness, it’s extremely important. I didn’t realise I had pretty bad anxiety, especially being on the road touring a lot. But as long as you can take care of yourself, that’s the most important thing that you can do for yourself. Even if it’s a simple thing; I make sure that Matt, Billy, and I all drink water, we stay hydrated all day, we get at least eight hours of sleep, we just try our best to take care of ourselves.
I feel like staying optimistic is a big deal too. It’s easier said than done for others and everybody is different. I feel like if you try, and I don’t know if I want to say ‘fake it till you make it’, but sometimes if you just try there is some positive in things and not everything has to be negative and stressful. It depends on the situation, but I feel like just trying to be optimistic and by just trying to spread goodness to each other helps so much. Even if you just hold open a door for someone at a gas station and they say ‘thank you’, those little things can add up at the end of the day and really change one’s mindset. It’s the little things that are really important if that makes sense.
That makes so much sense! To shift away from your new album, you recently announced your first headline tour in Australia in January next year. How excited are you for that?
Oh we’re freaking stoked! We can’t wait! The first time we came to Australia was during your winter and it was still warm. Like we thought it was really nice weather. We’re a bunch of kids from Minnesota, so we thought “Oh this isn’t cold at all, this is nice!”. We’re excited to come back during some hot weather and just enjoy the sunshine and play some fun shows.
Last time we came it was seriously great, we didn’t know what to expect and it completely blew our expectations. It was so cool. We opened up for Luca Brasi and we’re so thankful for them bringing us out, because we were playing in front of like 400 to 1000 people a night and it was very cool to have that opportunity to play in front of all these new listeners. It felt like we definitely made some new friends and new fans on the whole tour and I can’t wait to see everybody again. Long story short, we’re extremely excited! [laughs]
“We want everyone at the end of the night to leave with a smile on their face.” – Dylan Mattheisen
Definitely get ready to pack some sunscreen because it is going to be the peak of summer when you’re down here! To keep chatting about the tour, you have seven albums now but this is only your second visit to Australia, what can fans expect to hear from your set? Will we see some old tracks thrown in the mix or mostly new songs?
Oh you know for the set, we’re going to be playing a bunch of new songs off breathe but not too many new songs! We’re just going to make sure we play a good amount of our whole catalogue and we’re just stoked to have high energy shows that are very fun. Some people say our music can be pretty sad and emotional, but we want it to be fun. We want everyone at the end of the night to leave with a smile on their face and think “Oh that was such a good time, I can’t wait to see them next time.” That’s why we do it. We’re living our dream by playing fun music and travelling the world and we want everyone to be happy when they come to our shows.
When I wrote my review of breathe I used the words “gut-wrenchingly heartwarming” and I definitely think that’s how I’m going to feel watching you play in January.
“Gut-wrenchingly heartwarming”? That’s like the perfect terminology for TMP, I’ve never heard that, that’s awesome.
So before last year, it had taken you a while to get down to Australia – and fortunately you’re coming back again so soon – but was there any specific reason for it taking so long? Because it sounds like it’s been something you’ve been wanting to do for a while.
I don’t know how it all went down. We have an international booking agent and I know there was some people working down there in Australia that were wanting to have us come back. So I feel like they got in touch with them and then our manager asked us, you know, we have an opening this part of the year. Would we want to fly down and tour there?
The thing is anytime we get offered things, Matt, Billy, and I we just say ‘Yes, let’s do it!’. Then it comes down to the financial side; You know, can we afford to do it? Does it make sense in our schedule? We want to tour 365 days a year, but we know that’s probably not the smartest thing to do. It’s got to be tasteful and you can’t burn yourself out. We’re just trusting our management, our agent, the promoter, and everybody and just going with what makes the most sense, you know? What’s the smartest way to get there and back, if that makes sense.
For sure! I appreciate that on the tour there’s some all-ages shows mixed in as well. In Sydney especially, for what is the biggest city in Australia, we don’t tend to see enough live music accessible to younger audiences, so it’s great to see younger fans are being given the opportunity to go out and see live music.
Yeah definitely! Crap, I remember when I was like 15 or 16 and I couldn’t get into watching some of my favourite bands when they’d come through my town or Minneapolis. So the older we get, we don’t ever forget that crappy of a feeling. We want to make sure anybody is welcome at our shows and welcome to come and have a great time.
Obviously it’s important for live music to be accessible to younger audiences but for you, could you see yourself where you are now if your ability to watch live music had been inhibited or just non-existent?
Honestly, it’s crazy. Because our goal when we started this band, we just wanted to play a full United States tour; playing house shows and basements and come home breaking even. That was it. That was our goal! [laughs] We did that and we completed that six, maybe seven years ago, and that was so inspiring and it just motivated us to keep making new goals.
Now it’s asking ourselves “what’s one more step that we can do?” We wanted to do international touring. We wanted to go to Europe and the United Kingdom. We wanted to come to Australia. And its things like that where we’d just keep setting new goals. Honestly, we did not expect to be where we’re at and we’re very thankful, we’re not taking it for granted, and we’re just really enjoying the ride.
You made mention on this earlier and I’d love to flesh the concept out a little more. The theme of nature is consistent throughout your music, whether it’s lyrics or song titles, is there a certain power within the imagery for you? Or is it an analogy that you find easily accessible?
I guess with songwriting and our lyrical content I always try to make sure it’s kinda metaphoric and vague so that I give listeners the tools and they can paint the picture themselves. I always enjoyed writing about wildlife, polar bears, and uh yeah, a lot about polar bears! That song “Whale Watching” from Swell, that’s about being a fish and getting swallowed up in a whale’s stomach. I just find it to be a fun, creative journey that I keep putting myself through, and it makes sense on a human level as well. I just truly enjoy doing it that way and it seems fitting with Tiny Moving Parts with what we do. I was looking at our merch designs today on this tour and I think every single shirt has an animal on it, which is kinda crazy.
I completely get that! Taking that into consideration I think it makes it easier in a lot of ways to contextualise your music and for listeners to be able to picture the themes in the form of metaphor or analogy. If anything, it makes it more accessible.
Yeah absolutely! A polar bear is a perfect example; you can imagine the graphic imagery of a polar bear eating a seal or being almost evil looking, but then you can also imagine a polar bear being really cuddly and cute with its cubs. That’s just kinda human nature too, it’s just very relatable on a lot of levels and I feel that it works really well with the lyrical content of our songs and I truly enjoy it, it’s cool!
One final thing before you have to go, how many takes did the video for “Bloody Nose” take?
Oh gosh so that was a one-shot deal, but we did a bunch of practice runs because there’s stuff getting put on fire and more. We did it in one day but it took forever, it probably took us like 13 hours to get everything set. It took many days to get it set up, but once we had the whole crew there moving things and everything it took about 13 hours. It was a lot of pressure because we had three minutes to fill and one shot to do it and we’d spent all these hours making sure we knew exactly what to do so we didn’t screw it up. I guess the answer is just one, one take but it took a long time!