In 2007, Moses Mayfield signed a major record label deal. Since then, the band’s frontman, Birmingham native Matthew Mayfield, has had an interesting journey that has led to his current solo act. Or, at least, it’s an act under his own name; he’s backed by Brad Lyons, Clint Wells, Thomas Warren, and Will Drake (a constant band member since Moses Mayfield) — an all-star collection of Birmingham musicians.
Before taking off for a European tour, he’ll warm up at home — and he’ll bring along local up-and-comers the Burning Peppermints to his show at Iron City on Saturday night. Recently Mayfield spoke about the new record, the old records, and the evolution of the Birmingham scene.
Weld: How difficult was it to be noticed from Birmingham in the early 2000s, when Moses Mayfield was first trying to get attention?
Matthew Mayfield: The deals back then were absurd. It was almost like the housing crisis; they were were giving out loans to bands that hadn’t earned it yet. I had paid my dues. I had been playing in bands since I was 13 or 14, playing anywhere I could get a gig, whether that was a birthday party or a fraternity party, or the Nick. Wherever I could play.
We got signed when I was 21. The GM of Sony put his arm around me — we were playing with Pete Yorn, a sold-out show at Roseland Ballroom in New York City — and he puts his arm around me and says, “You’re going to be the next biggest rock band in the world, how does that feel?”
When you’re 21 and you hear those words, you believe them. I certainly don’t buy them anymore. It’s important, now that I’ve learned so much over the years, to respect the work that you have to put into it. The goal isn’t to be a rock star; it’s to be a career artist.
I have nothing but respect for Sony and Epic and Columbia; it was just politics. Rick Rubin came in to run the label; he fired all the people and naturally, like any corporation, when a new guy comes in and fires everybody, you’re going to get fired, too. That ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned that this is a blue-collar industry, and you’ve got to work from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Weld: Since you started performing solo, you’ve taken kind of a DIY approach. For a while, you’d put out five songs or so at a time on an EP. Why did you find that approach the best one?
Mayfield: The EP thing was simply a challenge from my manager at the time. He had said, “You’re a prolific songwriter. You really seem to churn them out. Why don’t we see if we can do an EP every month, because why not?”
It became a challenge, but at the same time, it was an honor to put out that much music on your own dime and to see the response from the fans. These days an album seems like a dime tour, but a lot of people still know the deep cuts. Loyalty from your fans is the biggest honor. At the end of the day, I do it because I want to find those people that can relate. They know what you’re talking about. It’s like a therapy group.
Weld: How has Birmingham’s scene changed over the last decade?
Mayfield: I’m really proud of everyone that has been a part of the musical culture here, even people that are stylistically really different than me. I have a lot of respect for their artwork. I have a lot of respect for my friends from Birmingham that are doing really well and keeping us on the map.
And I want to do the same thing. I want to make sure people know that we are representing a city and a culture and we’re really proud of it. Nashville isn’t the only place in the South for rock and roll and for music. There’s so much talent here. There are bands doing two nights at the Alabama Theatre, and that’s amazing. There are national acts that come through that could never do that.
It’s evolved. Everyone realizes you have to work at it. You can’t just be a superstar overnight. That happens occasionally — for the Justin Biebers of the world — but for the rest of us that believe in the art form, we’ve got to work our way up, continue to grind, continue to play every possible show we can and give the most passionate performance we can possibly give.
Weld: The new record is a little dark — maybe even really dark. What sent you in that direction?
Mayfield: Well, the lights went out. It was the hardest time of my life, personally, for about two months. The whole thing is set around grief, but grief doesn’t have to be bad. There are songs like “Indigo,” which are hopeful. You lose somebody you love; you see them on the other side. But then there are songs like “God’s Fault,” which is a fan favorite. It’s brutal. It’s a brutal song about betrayal. But people can relate. And “Turncoat” — people can relate.
“The Wolf in the Darkest Room” — that’s one of my favorite songs on the record. As a songwriter, I’m allowed to write as a narrator, even if it’s not me. That song should be called “The Wolf in Your Darkest Room (A Letter from Your Demons).” Because that’s what that song is about. It’s the voice of the things that haunt you and everybody’s got them.
The new single, “Raw Diamond Ring,” is upbeat. It’s one of those love songs that I wrote during the course of a relationship that didn’t work and it was too good to let go. So I kept it on the record so that the record would have a little bit of light in it.
Weld: Will there ever be a Moses Mayfield reunion? Even if it’s just a Birmingham thing?
Mayfield: If it was up to me, yes. But everyone would have to be there. It would have to be all five of us. I wouldn’t do it with a hired gun. We had a really special thing, and we spent a lot of long nights banging those songs out. Even though I was a young kid and I wrote all of the music, I’m still proud of that record. If they agreed to it and wanted to do it, I’d totally be in.
Matthew Mayfield comes to Iron City on Saturday, February 11. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. The Burning Peppermints open. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.