Mathis Enlists Mike Gordon, Marco Benevento & More To Re-Imagine The Classics

Words by James Farrell

One night, 20 years ago, bassist Reed Mathis was listening to Beethoven with the volume cranked up. He had always loved listening to the legendary composer, ever since he was a kid. He “relates” to him, Mathis said, and remembers singing along to his music at age three. But on this night, the music struck him differently.

“Suddenly I felt like it was the most comprehensible language, like he was speaking directly to me,” said Mathis. “Not from the grave, but like he was sitting there with me.”

And the seed was sown for Mathis’ latest passion project. On Sept. 30, the project, referred to as “Electric Beethoven” will release Beathoven, an electrified, jam-infused re-imagining of Beethoven’s Third and Sixth symphonies, a project that has spent twenty years in conception and two years in production.

And as the fantastical story of its origin might suggest, this latest release is no cheap novelty—it’s not just a reworking of classical songs for the sake of playing games with genres. Rather, the project aims to explore the universal truths inherent in Beethoven’s music by allowing each musician to improvise and find their own truth within the music.

“The only way you can hear it [Beethoven] is to go hear somebody do an impression of him. And that just seems like such a waste because he wasn’t doing an impression,” said Mathis. “I wanted all the musicians involved, every single time we played it, to be themselves. To express their truth, their experience, their nervous system.”

The explorations of truth inherent in Beethoven’s music—the human condition, the response to suffering—are the real core of Beethoven’s work, Mathis says. In that way, Mathis considers Beethoven’s work to be folk music—“of the people,” he says—meaning that its greatness and universality transcend the particularities of genre.

“If you planted a bunch of trees indoors, and one of them got real tall and broke through the roof, that one wouldn’t be indoors anymore,” said Mathis. “And in the same way, I feel like when artists are truly transcendent and universal, they’re no longer in their genre. Like John Coltraine isn’t a jazz musician. He’s passed that. Led Zeppelin isn’t a classic rock band, they’re passed that. And that’s Beethoven’s relationship to classical music in my opinion, he’s not like the others. He’s passed that.”

The album took two years to create, and features a long list of renowned musicians including Page McConnell and Mike Gordon from Phish, Stanton Moore of Galactic, Marco Benevento, Joe Russo and more.

Mathis put together a different group of musicians to match the mood of each movement, and then recorded with them in their home city. McConnell and Gordon, for instance, were recorded in Vermont, while Moore was recorded in New Orleans. The album is littered with improvisation.

“I tried to get everybody in their natural environment with their engineer on their turf,” said Mathis. “I was like, ‘don’t study an orchestral recording, don’t make any attempt to sound classical, just be you.’”

Mathis says the musicians involved took this to heart.

Drummer Joe Russo, for instance, learned “In Memory of A Great Man,” based on a movement from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, by ear from Mathis’ demo and then played it in one take. By the end of the second take, he was bleeding on his drum set.

“I have never seen Russo play so ferociously,” Mathis said.

Meanwhile, Andrew Barr of the Barr Brothers, assembled a makeshift percussion kit of every day items, including a water bottle, a suitcase and coconuts, for “Scene By The River,” based on the second movement from the Sixth Symphony.

“Everyone just knocked it out of the park,” Mathis said. “it was incredible.”

Looking forward, however, Mathis anticipates that the real project will begin in the fall, when he starts touring the album with a newly assembled Electric Beethoven outfit. The new group includes drummer Jay Lane from Primus, Clay Welch on guitar, Kung Fu’s Todd Stoops on keys and Mathis’ former bandmate from Tea Leaf Green Cochrane McMillan on percussion. The band will face the challenge of learning every movement in the symphonies, as opposed to a select few, like the recording musicians did for Beathoven.

There will, of course, be improvisation and complex musical exploration each night of the tour. It’s part of the spirit of performing transcendent music.

“The record is incredible, but it’s just a means to an end,” said Mathis. “What I want to do is actually improvise, night after night, so they are completely different from the night before and the next night. To take risks, to push these songs around to see how far you can bend them before they break.”

“Because they’re masterpieces, so you know, you should be able to bend the living fuck out of them.” | RPF