Matt Douglas looks pretty bright-eyed for having just returned from two weeks in Australia on tour with the Mountain Goats. His role in the band on keys, guitar, and sax is just one of several hats the thirty-seven-year-old Raleigh musician wears these days, and they're all balanced rather cunningly. If anything is throwing things off-kilter, it's the babies.
"It's not twice as much work," he says about his four-month-old twins, River and Jude. "It's more than twice, because when one is screaming his ass off, the other is asleep, and once you figure that one out, the other one does their thing. They reach these stages, but not necessarily at the same time."
There are times when his work syncs up better than the babies do. This week, Douglas gets to celebrate the release of a new album from his band The Hot at Nights. He'll follow that up next week with another LP featuring his handiwork: the Mountain Goats' Goths, which Merge Records issues next Friday, May 19.
First and foremost, Douglas plays alto sax. Growing up Alexandria, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., his youthful dream was simply to be "a burnin' saxophone player," as he puts it. But his vast musical training—which has ranged from jam sessions in Budapest while on a Fulbright scholarship studying regional folk music to sitting in with heavy hitters in New York City—has taken a form that little resembles the mythical jazz archetype he once aspired to be.
Douglas grew up in a musical family: his mother is a symphony-level cellist, and his father played guitar and sang in rock bands, and collects folk instruments like dulcimers. But somehow, he says, he got it in his head that he wanted to play jazz. So he picked up the saxophone.
He latched on to Cannonball Adderley's "Autumn Leaves" solo on Something Else and Ella Fitzgerald's scat soloing in "Mr. Paganini" from an early age, but the teacher he stuck with from elementary school through high school focused only on classical music. Summers meant Douglas could fully dedicate himself to jazz, attending workshops at Eastman School of Music and Skidmore. There, he'd work on shaping his tone and honing his improvisation skills.
His desire to master his instrument led him to other teachers, too, including some Navy Band Commodores players who were obsessed with bebop sax man Jackie McLean. Among the lessons he came away with from his time spent under their idiosyncratic tutelage was the knowledge that he wasn't interested in working that hard just to replicate the sound of another player. Jazz, he says, was his first love, the kind that colors all the others.
"Speaking about women, my first love was incredibly formative but also created a lot of my relationship issues, and that first love kind of scarred me. A lot of the mistakes I've made since then were probably because of that, but for me, it never would have worked out," Douglas explains. "That's what jazz is like for me. I don't know if I loved it enough to say, 'Jazz is gonna be my life.'"
Triangle audiences first met Douglas through his sax work with the Chris Boerner Quartet as well as his own band, The Proclivities, which played around the area and released four LPs in the mid-aughts. As he continued with the Proclivities and with Boerner, Douglas's roots in the musical community continued to deepen. A one-off night of vocal duets with Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown led to the formation of Small Ponds in 2010, a winsome pop duo that emphasized harmonies and sharp-eyed narratives in the course of a two-year collaboration.
The INDY lumped The Proclivities in with a then-current clutch of "young, pop-centric, starry-eyed singer-songwriters" that included Josh Ritter. But Douglas, a self-professed Ritter fan who recently added horns to a forthcoming Ritter record, scoffs at the suggestion. To him, The Proclivities were happily slapdash, "three verses and let's call it a song," he says, noting that he was never really a frontman anyway.
"I happened to be the songwriter and the guy singing the songs, but I don't know that I have the desire or the personality for that," he says.
In more recent years, Douglas has found a comfortable home with The Hot at Nights, the shape-shifting instrumental jazz combo he's co-led with Chris Boerner since 2011. Last January, the band issued an EP, Cool It, of reinterpreted songs originally by North Carolina bands: solid, melody-driven tunes by the likes of Sylvan Esso, Hammer No More the Fingers, and even Delta Rae. Douglas says that sensibility informs the band's new record, Three Kids, due out this Friday, which he says he's more excited about than its predecessors.
"There's such a fine line between, 'Oh my god—the best music,' and 'I wanna kill myself listening to this music,'" Douglas says. "I don't necessarily know where that line is, and I think we dance around it in The Hot at Nights, not always on the good side, but you have to risk that to play instrumental music."
And on top of his main musical ventures, Douglas has been juggling side projects ranging from long-distance work with Portland's Anna Tivel to doing horn arrangements for Carrboro producer Jeff Crawford. His work with Josh Ritter ended up gracing a song featuring a vocal by Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. Clearly Douglas's star is on the rise, but even a gradual ascent can feel disorienting.
"Every time I get into something, I always have—this is not weird modesty, but I get into it, and I'm like, 'Oh man, I don't know if I'm capable of doing this. Somebody just asked for something really big, and now I don't really know,'" he says.
- photo by Ben McKeown
Shortly after his wife, Ellen, gave birth to his daughter, Maeve, in 2013, Douglas and his brother-in-law completed work on transforming a backyard shed into a recording studio. Sunlit and wood paneled, it's stocked with high-quality mics, a ProTools setup, mic preamps, and compressors, enabling him to do high-quality recording. Recently it's been the site of sessions with people like M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, Josh Ritter, David Wax, Bhi Bhiman, Ivan Howard, Chris Stamey, American Aquarium, and others, providing an income stream and a creative outlet just thirty feet from his back door.
Additionally, the arranging skills that had lain fallow since college have been bearing more fruit. He's constantly fielding requests from various artists for him to do an arrangement for strings or woodwinds. Douglas will work something up and send it back. Maybe there will be a revision. Whether it's pop songs or jazz or instrumental music, Douglas applies the same general approach: he wants to get to the guts of a good melody and be done with it.
"The real trick is not to figure out how to play the most complicated line, but how to write the simplest arrangement to support a good song," he says.
A few years ago, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats enlisted Douglas to add woodwind arrangements to the band's 2015 LP, Beat the Champ. Douglas was soon invited to join the group on tour, hopping between guitar, sax, keys, and other instruments.
That association has only grown deeper: his instrumental prowess has left an indelible mark on the Mountain Goats' forthcoming, guitar-free Goths; Douglas recorded the audiobook for Darnielle's Universal Harvester in his studio shed; and he and Darnielle produced an EP of ambient remixes of songs from Goths, to be included in the deluxe vinyl edition of the record.