My hometown has one venue and I'm banned from it," deadpans Mat Cothran. As he remembers it, he once played a noise set in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with Justin Blackburn, his longtime friend and musical collaborator. Before the gig, he had read online that a person could hallucinate by eating nutmeg. So in the spirit of showmanship, he stuffed fistfuls in his mouth while jamming down a C chord on a cheap Casio keyboard. After the show, the incensed sound guy told Cothran and Blackburn that they were never welcome back again.
"I was laughing because he was like, 'you don't take your noise art seriously!'" Cothran recalls.
Cothran, who resides in Asheville these days, has long been one of the Carolinas' best-kept secrets, an endlessly prolific and darkly humorous indie pop songwriter with a deep cult fanbase. Though his lyrics traffic in the macabre and alienated, he's an easygoing person at heart, quick to self-deprecate and talk up the things he likes. Chalk it up to his Southern roots. On Monday, he begins his first leg of final shows under the moniker Coma Cinema at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, almost fifteen years after the project began in 2005.
But how do you even know to start a lo-fi project in a place like Spartanburg? Cothran credits a small circle of knowledgeable family and friends like Blackburn who put him on to weird culture at a young age. He found himself particularly inspired by an early online find, the self-recorded work of songwriter Chad Matheny, who releases music as Emperor X.
"I didn't even know you could record your own music before Tectonic Membrane/Thin Strip On An Edgeless Platform. I thought you had to be wealthy," Cothran says.
Inspired, he began to experiment with recording scuzzy downer pop on whatever gear he could acquire. Most of it was financed through via a series of day jobs, including a $5.25-an-hour stint at Publix. He laughs remembering these formative days.
"When I started, laptop recording wasn't really a thing yet, so my early stuff was more like Ween than anything," he says.
Over the next thirteen years and several records, Coma Cinema would become an influential node in the American lo-fi indie rock revival and something of a secret handshake for underground kids of the era. The word "influential" is key here—although indie rock tastes and the surrounding industry were shifting rapidly in those years, the current industry marketing machine for all things "DIY" and "lo-fi" didn't exist yet. Like many other artists in those post-recession days, Cothran had a small, devoted, largely online following, much of which was other musicians. He got on where he could. In 2009, his debut Baby Prayers got him attention from prominent East Coast blogs like My Old Kentucky Blog and Get Off the Coast, which eventually led to coverage from bigger outlets like Pitchfork. And unlike many blogged bands of the era, Cothran regularly played shows, too.
"There was definitely a lot of excitement touring in the early days, wondering what the venue was going to be, like a hollowed out office space, or the top of a radio tower," he says. He remembers being thankful for early North Carolina bookings at venues like Wilmington's Gravity Records, as gigs in his home state could be rare. "Most musicians in South Carolina refused to listen to other musicians, especially someone younger. Indie rock was filled with people born into wealth who wanted to seem sophisticated. There wasn't much of a punk mentality of people making music on their own terms in their own spaces."
Coma Cinema had a few devoted local supporters, including fellow South Carolina export Chaz Bundick, who became a 2010s synthpop mainstay as Toro y Moi. Bundick, Cothran says, gave him the initial encouragement to send his music to blogs and helped get him on bills when Cothran was struggling to find gigs.
As the band got more press and indie rock trends began to gel around home-recorded pop like his, he was inundated with offers, for better or worse. He was asked to compose music for a friend's wedding. He toured the country and released records, including 2011's excellent Blue Suicide. A number of middlemen who "wanted to make indie rock a job" attempted to court him, one of whom illegally uploaded his music online and pocketed the profits. This led to stressful legal proceedings that coincided with a prolonged period of heavy drinking. His problem escalated to the point where he doesn't remember most of the shows he played around that time.
But by 2013, Cothran was getting back on a more stable path, which he credits to members of the band TV Girl, with whom Cothran recorded Posthumous Release.
"The paranoid side of my brain back then was like, 'Don't go, you're gonna get killed in the desert,' but to this day I think that trip and record recording saved my life," Cothran says.
Re-energized, Cothran put Coma Cinema on hiatus soon after, partially because he had opportunities with his popular Elvis Depressedly project with Delaney Mills, his wife, but also because he thought he had said all he wanted to say. In that sense, the final Coma Cinema record, December's Loss Memory, is a way to round out the project's shape and history.
"Every artist has the real life story and the narrative story," Cothran says, adding, "Part of the fun of being an artist is crafting your own narrative—I didn't want to end Coma Cinema as a David Lynch cliffhanger. I wanted to give it a proper sendoff."
The album went through six or seven iterations, with production help from Mills and Erik Phillips, a young songwriter and mentee of Cothran's based in Richmond. Cothran has been adamant for years about supporting younger musicians like Phillips with his platform.
"Putting on new artists has been so important to my life. Fuck paying dues," he says. "If you're good, I want you to be where I'm at and go even further. Many people did that for me. They didn't just let me sit in the dregs and pay dues forever."
So is Cothran going to pull a James Murphy and resurrect the project eventually for quick cash? He laughs at the idea.
"Definitely not. My band [Elvis Depressedly] with my wife, my stuff under my own name, whatever projects I create in the future, they're all parts of a greater whole," he says. "Coma Cinema started when I was in high school, and I'm thirty. It's time to send it off."