Matthew E. White didn't release his sweeping and soulful debut, Big Inner, to launch a successful solo career.
But, awash with tender strings and reassuring brass and landing somewhere between the anxious odysseys of Randy Newman and the romantic funk of Al Green, the record earned international critical kudos and pushed White directly into an unexpected spotlight. He's spent much of this year touring around the world and releasing a follow-up EP.
Still, this music was never intended as a showcase for White; rather, Big Inner was to be a coming-out party for Spacebomb Records, the unorthodox label and production house he co-founded with several Richmond collaborators. White, bassist Cameron Ralston and drummer Pinson Chanselle form the backbone of a house band fleshed out by horn and string sections and a choir. They're mimicking a model famously followed by such soul and funk factories as Motown and Stax Records, using the same players to back different singers. Now, they've added an important update to their philosophy.
"There's a lot of reasons why this structure didn't last," White explains. "Some of them are cultural and stylistic. But another one was basically that the payment and credit structure was a little bit twisted. For 10 years, they weren't putting any songwriting credits, any musician credits. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On from 1971 is the first Motown record to have credits on it. There's a culture in the music industry of covering up what the real story is."
But at Spacebomb, each of the label's core musicians is also a co-owner, making them entitled to a share of any earnings. All players are always credited. The model is meant to foster collaboration on a grand scale, with 20-plus instrumentalists with disparate talents collectively arranging and performing songs that another singer has written.
Spacebomb takes an essential first step toward that diversity with Howard Ivans, the funky nom de plume of The Rosebuds' Ivan Howard. White met Howard through mutual friends in Megafaun. The pair discussed the concept for several years before Howard entered Spacebomb's Virginia studio, cutting two songs released last month as the label's second single. "Red Face Boy" rides a dogged groove reminiscent of Quincy Jones' early work with Michael Jackson. The music is dense and demanding, not only contrasting Big Inner's languid swells but also verifying Spacebomb's versatility. The tunes move Howard far from his typical electro-lush and indie frontman comfort zones.
"Some people hold on so tight to their idea," Howard offers. "They just can't let it go to somebody that might be better at doing it than they are. With The Rosebuds, we've been doing a lot of things, playing a lot of instruments ourselves. With this, it was like, 'What if I don't play any instruments? What would these songs evolve into?'"
Howard plans to make a full-length with the Spacenomb crew, but for now, they're touring together as a sort of revue, with Howard opening for White's headlining set. Early next year, the label will issue its second album, with material that should push Spacebomb's aesthetic boundaries further still. Grandma Sparrow is the bizarre alter ego of Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund. Leveraging those same incandescent strings and horns that grace White's more traditional epics, Westerlund weaves a dysfunctional fairy tale where hummable tunes twist into a mind-bending sprawl, and cute characters hint at dark secrets. Spacebomb's supple sound has yet to be so bold.
"Joey's record is a pretty extreme example of what it means to be the house band for somebody and how that can be adventurous," White says. "It's not a house band in the sense that we always have to sit in a room together and record it to tape. It's basically a brain trust of musicians, and that can be a lot of different things."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A place in space."