Most formulas for success in the music industry don’t include exiting the lime-light at the pinnacle of one’s career, but Matt Malley (bassist and co-founder of the Counting Crows) did just this in 2004. Matt retired after 14 years with Counting Crows just as the band was celebrating an Academy Award nomination for their song “Accidentally In Love,” which appeared in the motion picture Shrek 2 Soundtrack.
Matt now follows another path, one focused on the home-front and family. He’s now a full time father and husband as well as a record producer, session bassist, ashram keeper and student of the Mohan Veena or Indian slide guitar. Matt is a student and friend of Grammy winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and when chance brings them together, is either learning from his music “guru” or recording Bhatt’s guitar in his home studio at the family ashram.
Matt has also just released his first solo record titled The Goddess Within. As a longtime student of Sahaja Yoga meditation Matt has infused The Goddess Within with sacred sounds, rhythms and harmonies, but don’t expect this collection to be a velvety venture into serene, mystical realms. Matt rocks out when he’s blissed-off and proves higher states needn’t be all sanctified-sounding. One can be on the edge, pushing the boundaries both cosmically and musically at the same time.
In this exclusive interview with RockOm Matt speaks about the reasons he left Counting Crows, Kundalini energy and Sahaja yoga, learning the Indian slide guitar, his debut album and his musical intentions for the future.
Tom: You’re an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated songwriter and a co-founder as well as a 14-year member of Counting Crows. The question is, why does one leave a band as successful as the Counting Crows?
Matt: Good question. Actually it was fatherhood. But when my second boy was born in January of 2004 I just couldn’t handle being a missing-in-action dad. My first one was born in 2000 and I missed the first three or four years of his life because we lived in hotel rooms out touring. That was really hard. So when the second child was born I lasted about another year and then I just had to get out and push the eject button. I haven’t looked back. The money was good but money doesn’t mean anything. We’re still friends and the guys in the band are all like brothers, but I didn’t need to be away from home anymore. It was grating on my soul and that’s why I left.
Tom: How does something that you love so much turn into something you have to get away from?
Matt: When I first joined the band I wasn’t married and wasn’t a father yet so my life was better suited for touring and traveling like we did. I’m still a fan of ol’ Adam; he’s a great songwriter and that’s why I stuck with him so long, but family came along and it outweighed my enthusiasm for being the bass player in Counting Crows. I didn’t want to be the dad that comes home once every four or five months and visits for a couple of weeks and the kids don’t know me that well. Even though the band was still fun, my life on the outside changed.
Tom: How did you get started into music?
Matt: When I was about seven years old a guy came to our grammar school and tested everyone in the class to see who had musical talent. He singled me out and told my parents that I needed to start taking piano lessons. I took classical piano when I was seven or eight and also went through trumpet and violin in the school bands through grammar school. That was my first exposure to music. Honestly, I didn’t really like classical piano because it was kind of like typing. I had to memorize these pieces and I didn’t feel it in my heart, I just had to memorize things with my brain. I wish I had stuck with it because classical music is an incredible art form.
Tom: When kids discover music for the first time and have the opportunity to play an instrument, especially alongside other kids, they discover something about themselves that’s brand new. What did you discover about yourself through music that you may not have otherwise?
Matt: It was my first taste of collective awareness or collective consciousness. You’re with a group and you all are achieving something harmonious at the same time. That was new to me as a kid… as I imagine it would be to any kid. [Laughs]
Tom: Tell us about your debut album The Goddess Within. How did that come about?
Matt: The lady on the album cover founded a type of meditation that I’ve been doing for over 20 years. Her name is Sri Mataji. She was born in the center of India in 1923 and is still alive today but is elderly and quiet and has stopped giving public programs. She’s was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the late 90s, though she didn’t get it. [She teaches] a technique and a knowledge of the spiritual machinery that we’re all born with. It’s a universal truth and not from one religion; in fact it ties a lot of the prophets’ teachings together. It involves an awakening of what’s called the Kundalini or what in the Orient is called the Chi and it resides at the sacrum bone at the base of the spine. Sacrum is Latin for sacred, so whoever named the bone knew that it contained something. The Kundalini is regarded as the feminine aspect of divinity and so the Goddess within is kind of like my term for the Kundalini, the Goddess. The masculine aspect of God or spirit is in our heart as a spark called the Atman in India. The Kundalini is like a gas that rises up and unites with the spark, carrying it up to the fontanelle bone area at the top of the head. Fontanelle is French for fountain, so whoever named that area named it auspiciously as well. This teaching just connects a lot of the world’s religions. Even in Christianity, the saints at Pentecost had tongues of fire coming out of the top of their heads but Christians have just seen that as a mystery.
In learning about the Kundalini, I’ve approached it like a scientist… no blind faith. Smart people don’t just believe something that they’re told; they have to find out for themselves. When the Kundalini is awakened you feel it as a cool breeze on the palms of your hands and out the top of your head. You could say that the central nervous system becomes integrated with the spiritual nervous system or the parasympathetic, the seven chakras. The knowledge that [Sri Mataji] teaches is really in depth. She’s spoken to the Jungian Society and she’s a Nobel Peace Prize nominee… you could say I’m a disciple of hers.
Tom: Did you ever get a chance to meet her in person?
Matt: Yes, a few times, but it was very formal. You don’t just talk casually with her. I let her do the talking. Back in the late 90s I got to sit with her a couple of times. She knew I was in a rock band so the way she saw that was that I was helping bring vibrations into the music industry. She had asked me about Kurt Cobain who had killed himself a couple of years before. I remember responding, “I think it was drugs that made him do that.” And she said, “I think he was frustrated.” She asked about a lot of things related to music with me; it was very interesting.
Tom: I suppose she felt you could reach a lot of people.
Matt: Yes and by reaching them it doesn’t mean preaching about her yoga. It’s just that the presence of being out there puts vibrations into where you are. Wherever you put your attention, the Kundalini will follow.
Tom: So for this CD, did you go into meditation or prepare in some other way?
Matt: I didn’t do any exercises or anything like that. We live in an ashram; in fact, I own an ashram with three buildings and our friends who do our meditation live here. We kind of live in vibration so I don’t meditate or anything right before playing music. We meditate every morning at day break. The record was just done during the day somewhat spontaneously and when I felt good I would go work on it.
Tom: What are the intentions for this album?
Matt: Rather than clobber people over the head with my one practice, I’m hoping to continue to introduce spirituality to the Western world. I’m interested in Indian culture, the Hindu deities, the great religions of the world including Christianity, Mohammad was a great teacher… I’m just hoping to continue what a lot of artists are doing by introducing a spiritual outlook – without being religious – to the Western world.
Tom: You’ve expressed interest in Qawwali as well. How did you get interested in that?
Matt: I discovered Qawwali in the 90s and fell in love with it. It’s a very aggressive Indian vocal style of singing. When I would do pilgrimages to India and I’d be at my Sahaja Yoga get-togethers, they’d often have Qawwali artists or bhajans or lots of Indian classical music and the Qawwali artists always stuck out to me. They would be almost frightening and wearing their matching hats; I almost consider it the heavy metal of Indian classical music. [Laughs] When I learned about the translation of the words, I was blown way. Qawwali music originated in what was Persia about 700 years ago as Sufi devotional music and has a connection to Islam but it’s beyond just that now. I’m just a big fan of that art form.
Tom: You’re also studying Indian slide guitar. We interviewed Debashish Bhattacharya last year when he was in Savannah, GA with Derek Trucks, Bob Brozman and Jerry Douglas. It’s a difficult art to learn. How long have you been studying this?
Matt: It’s really not easy at all. [Laughs] After ten years of learning it, I’m still on the tip of the iceberg. I know that when children start playing in India they’ll be doing what’s called the alankar for two or three years which is just exercises up and down the major scale before they actually start learning anything. They spend all that time just getting their pitch right. Slide guitar is like that; it’s hard to get the pitch just right unless you practice the alankar for a long time.
Tom: Are you going to continue to move forward with spiritual music or get back in with the Crows? What does the future hold for you?
Matt: I’m not all that interested in a rock band anymore. It’s a very blunt art form. Not to diss it or anything; a lot of the great rock records are also spiritual records. “Stairway to Heaven” is a Goddess song. I don’t know if it’s age or what but I’m getting more subtle. I’m reinventing myself and I’d like to give Indian music concerts on my slide guitar some day; I don’t know when. I’d like to spend the rest of my life doing that.
Interview republished with the permission from RockOm.net