Morgantown musician debuts album of songs written late at night while on tour with Southeast Engine
William Matheny grew up in Mannington, West Virginia, a small town about an hour south of Morgantown. He played his first show at the age of 9 and later performed in a classic-rock cover band with his dad, plus solo gigs at coffee shops and shows with a punk band in high school.
Morgantown had a college radio station, but back then it didn't quite reach Mannington. Then, as a teenager, Matheny's exposure to music expanded when he installed Napster on his computer. “That really opened my world up to discovering a whole other echelon of music,” he said recently by phone.
After high school graduation, Matheny moved to Morgantown and got a job as a dishwasher while playing in bands. Along the way, he traded shows with Southeast Engine, a cult-favorite Athens, Ohio band led by Adam Remnant. “I saw on Myspace that [Southeast Engine] was taking auditions for a keyboardist. I called them and lied and told them I knew how to play piano,” said Matheny, who was primarily a guitarist. “I holed up in my apartment and learned to play 15 Southeast Engine songs. That was all I knew how to play on piano.
“The only other person who auditioned was a Seventh Day Adventist, and she couldn't play shows on Saturday nights. And I just bought a van. … I think I played fine, but probably the fact that I was available on Saturdays and I had a van really tipped the scales for me.”
Matheny recorded and toured with Southeast Engine until the band went on hiatus in 2012. Along the way, Matheny found himself inspired by Remnant and other songwriters in the band's circle of friends — Jerry DeCicca of the Black Swans, Timothy Bracy of the Mendoza Line and others.
“The last year or so of the band I started writing songs again. I'd written before that but got so wrapped up in being a side person that I stopped,” he said. “So I started writing on tour. We'd usually crash at friends' houses, so I had to go outside to the van after everyone was asleep or go down to the basement of some random person's house and write in the middle of the night.”
Over time, the songs Matheny was writing started to feel like a real-deal record, so he recruited fellow Morgantown musicians Adam Meisterhans and Bud Carroll to make an album, later adding Rod Elkins and Ian Thornton. The band will play tracks from Matheny's solo debut, Strange Constellations, at Kafe Kerouac on Friday, April 14.
On the Elvis Costello-evoking “Living Half to Death,” Matheny reflects on his early days in Morgantown.
“I had this apartment where I used to come home every night from the bar at 2 or 3 in the morning. I would turn on the lights, and the roaches would be on the living room floor, so I would spray them to death, and then put on the Replacements and black out,” he said. “A lot of people feel very lonely and insecure in that period of life … and I expressed that by being really self-destructive and being a really terrible hang at parties.
“I was a fairly insufferable young man. I was that guy at the party. I was the worst guy. Everyone knows that dude. In hindsight, I'm not even sure what I was trying to prove. I was just really annoying.”
These days, though, Matheny is more at peace as he embraces the ineffable. “A lot of these songs I feel in the marrow of my bones,” he said. “But sometimes they present themselves in a way that there's some mystery for me, too — something I'm searching for. I haven't found it yet, but I'm on the right track.”