Motern, Meaning Excessive Creativity: An Interview With Matt Farley
He is a man of numerous talents and myriad names. Perhaps you know some of them: The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, Matt Motern Manly Man, and The Very Nice Interesting Singer Man, to name a few. Easily one of the most prolific musicians alive, his songs count among their thousands upon thousands of listeners names like Jimmy Fallon and Billie Eilish. To date, he has written and recorded more than 20,000 songs, a number that continues to grow. Beyond his massive success in the music world, he is also a screenwriter, director, actor, and podcaster, all under the Motern Media label. What is the identity of this chameleonic renaissance man? None other than Matt Farley, entertainment extraordinaire.
Less well known than his music are the Motern Media/Shock Marathons movies. Made on shoestring budgets with Farley’s family and friends, the films are most often co-written by Farley and Charles Roxburgh and directed by Roxburgh. Featuring titles such as Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Freaky Farley, Druid Gladiator Clone, Slingshot Cops, and Local Legends, the Motern oeuvre is inflected with an idiosyncratic charm and wit that has attracted a small but ever increasing fanbase. Following a five year hiatus, Motern returned to filmmaking this year with their smash hit drama Heard She Got Married and recently premiered a rough cut of their upcoming film Metal Detector Maniac at the 2021 Motern Extravaganza, both part of a plan to release two movies a year until 2025.
In preparation for an upcoming screening of Metal Detector Maniac at the University of Florida, I spoke to Farley about the movie, his inspirations, and what exactly ‘Motern’ means.
Match Cut: Quite a few of the readers haven’t heard of you or Motern, and if they have, they might not know the real extent of what you do. How would you describe the whole Motern apparatus?
Matt Farley: I think a good description is that it’s the homemade art that you did as a kid and then you just never stopped doing it. I think that’s a good description because I was even younger than a teenager writing books and making up songs and whatnot with my friends and it was so much fun. It’s just been a matter of figuring out a way that I can get by as a grown up and still spend most of my time doing that.
A lot of that early stuff, how much of that has transferred into your work now? Do you still have interest in the same things or has it evolved over time?
Not a lot, you know. In two ways, because as a kid I was like ten years old watching Alfred Hitchcock movies and Stanley Kubrick movies. Ten years old, studying Bob Dylan lyrics, and The Beatles. So, in some ways I had slightly advanced taste as a youth, but I also liked silliness as a youth and I haven’t lost that either. It’s been pretty steady. With the movie that you’re screening [Metal Detector Maniac]... Have you watched it yourself?
I haven’t yet. I’ve been holding out.
Good. That’s good. I feel like this is a real synthesis of everything that we’ve done in terms of being silly but also knowing what we’re doing. Specifically for Metal Detector Maniac we wanted the jokes to reveal the way we are in real life. More so than, say, Slingshot Cops, no one’s going to watch that and think, “This is reality.” You watch Metal Detector Maniac and you’re like, “I think this is how Tom [Scalzo] and Farley actually interact.” It pretty much is.
Where does the name “Motern” come from?
When I was in college, I wanted to write a 10,000 page book. That was my only criteria. And I would just type for hours and hours. At one point, I accidentally wrote the word “Motern,” it was just a typo and then I liked the look of it and I decided that would be the name of the book. The book, I wrote 2,000 pages, which is a lot, but then I was like, “What am I doing? This is a waste of time.” But the word kind of stuck and slowly became… The definition of it is just kind of “excessive creativity.”
What was the book about?
It wasn’t about anything, it was just a lot of words or short thoughts. It was just pure stream of consciousness babble.
So basically a James Joyce book.
It was my Ulysses. I have one copy in the basement, I want to ceremoniously burn it at some point.
That would make for a good event at a Ganza.
For the movies, you started making them a long time ago and you’ve really been making them forever, did the process change whenever Motern started to develop the cult following that it has now?
In terms of a cult following, it’s a stretch to even call it a cult, but I’ll take it. The cult, as it is, probably started after our last movie, which was Slingshot Cops. Basically, up through 2016, there was really no cult. We were just making these movies in a vacuum and mostly giving them away. Then, just because a lot of us had kids who were young, at that time, it was real hard to make a movie when you have a baby who’s got to nap twice a day. We held off on making a new movie for a few years and it was during that time that they [Justin Decloux and Will Sloan] wrote the book about us, which was pretty awesome. Have you read that?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve got a copy in my room.
Nice! So, basically, we did the opposite of what you should do when you get a cult: we didn’t give them what they wanted with Heard She Got Married. It’s like, “Finally, people are interested in us! They love the style of humor in [Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!] and those movies. Now let’s give them a contemplative psychological thriller.” Why not? Frankly, the cult is made up of hardcore film fans who probably would appreciate us pushing forward instead of placating them with more of the same.
The reaction to Heard She Got Married was huge. People really loved that movie.
I scour Letterboxd a couple times a day to look for new reviews and I find them. It’s outrageous how everyone who watches it really, really likes it. We put a lot into the script. We were talking about themes and stuff, you know, really hoity-toity things and some people have noticed little lines that seem like throwaways, but actually are pretty meaningful to the whole thing. It’s pretty awesome when people notice that.
Heard She Got Married is sort of a departure from this, but a lot of your earlier movies covered all the bases when it comes to satirizing and parodying the charmingly incompetemt homemade movies of the past, but there’s so much love on display, especially in stuff like Riverbeast and Freaky Farley. The sincerity is what really makes them sing. How do you keep the movies from ever becoming satire in a negative way? How do you make sure they stay earnest?
One is that we sincerely love the movies that we’re emulating. I don’t even think I’d call it a parody or a satire, I would just say that they’re in the tradition of these movies. Because we’ve always made movies, we could watch ineptly made film that most people would laugh at and we’d just be like, “Man, think of all the work that they put into that.” You don’t think of it unless you’ve done it. A lot of horror movies take place in the woods and just getting any human beings to come to the woods with you to film a scene is an accomplishment. And then, getting them to stay and hoping it doesn’t rain and leaves getting stuck in the equipment and dirt, we’ve experienced it and we can envision what people have to go through. We know how hard it is to make a movie and we love the weird way that these movies turn out. There’s what’s accepted as good acting, because basically we’re trained to accept that Sean Penn and Timothee Chalamet are good actors, because they act in the way that’s been told to us is “right,” but frankly, if you think about it long enough, there’s no wrong way to act. It’s all fake anyway. We like watching untrained people doing their thing. We just like it! It’s fun and everybody’s having a good time and I hope we’re not being mean. Everyone’s having a good time, everyone’s in on the joke. I wish I could make movies as amazing as the ones people mock from the 80s.
I don’t think there’s a mean bone in any of the Motern movies’ bodies. Even with Heard She Got Married, with how dark it is, there’s something that’s just so warm about it.
Yeah, because all the people are just real people, in their real setting, too. Like I said, I scour Letterboxd; I read one review that mentioned the front sitting room of my parents’ house in Riverbeast. In the review, they were just like, “You can’t fire a set director who can create a room this distinct,” because this is just my mom’s home furnishing style.
Of course, there’s the restaurant in Heard She Got Married which, if I’m not mistaken, is your garage.
Yeah, I just hung up a bunch of curtains, so the whole garage is curtains all around, and then I put some rugs on the floor. I ordered four high, tall tables and chairs. I had to assemble them myself, which is no small feat because I’m not handy at all. It ends up looking so rinky-dink and rundown. I think we can sell it, because it’s supposed to be a dive bar, so I think it just barely works, but even if it doesn’t work, people know we’re doing the best we can.
Back to the subject of earnestness, especially in your music, you do a lot of gimmick work, but you also do quite a lot of sincere work, as well. You’re jumping back and forth between name songs and poop songs and then a lot of the more Dylan-esque stuff. Particularly in the movies, I find the gimmicky and the sincere very hard to separate. The Riverbeast Warnings are probably the most endearing part of that movie for me. You have those William Castle style gimmicks from the 50s and 60s that you’re calling back to. How do you think of that binary in your work? Or is there a binary at all?
That’s the thing, Tom Scalzo, who stars in Metal Detector Maniac with me, he and I were in a band: Moes Haven. So many weekends, we would just spend the entire weekend in my apartment writing songs. By Sunday, we had thirty, forty brand new songs that we had finished. What we slowly determined was that our goal was for there to be no line between comedy and drama and tragedy and anything else. The best work of art is hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes at the same time, sometimes maybe just the next time you listen to it or watch it and you take it in a completely different way. That’s the ideal. I definitely don’t get there. The “Bobby Poop Song,” I think, is only funny. Actually, it might be a little sad, too, for someone to say, “This poor man, this great artist, forced to sing ‘Bobby, poop.’”
There’s an element of tragedy to it.
There really is. There’s that, but big time in the movies, especially Heard She Got Married where I can find something funny in every scene, but also something heartbreaking about it. More so than Riverbeast, which is just all fun. Again, I memorized every Letterboxd review and one of them says, “Somehow, no matter what, at some point in one of these movies, I start caring about the characters.” No matter how ridiculous the plot, we still get a little heart in there.
If I’m remembering correctly, that review is by the great film critic Will Sloan.
Will Sloan. [laughter]
That’s the [Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas] review. We often quote that to people whenever we’re trying to explain to people what it’s like watching one of these movies because you say Riverbeast is all comedy, but there are moments at the end that are very touching. Specifically with Frank Stone, former professional athlete.
Did you hear the news about the sequel?
I did! I’m very excited.
What’s it called? Oh, Melancholy of a Merman. That’s the sequel title.
I can’t even imagine what that would look like. I’m just ready for it. No matter what it ends up being, I’m sure it’s going to be a bomb! It’s going to change cinema! Everything is not going to be the same after Melancholy of a Merman comes out!
The title of that is the Japanese translation, well, Google Translate told us that the Japanese title of Riverbeast is Melancholy of a Merman and we were like, “What if we take that title and use it for the English title of the sequel?” What will happen then? It might just cause some great backfiring in translation. That’s where we came up with it.
Your Japanese audience is going to be very confused.
Yes! Both of them. [laughter]
This brings us to the new film: Metal Detector Maniac. Speaking to a potential new audience, what is this movie and why should they see it?
This movie was a big step in our approach to comedy, for one thing. Like I hinted at before, I was saying to Charlie [Roxburgh] and Tom, “We are hilarious when we’re all talking to each other.” And they were like, “I guess so.” And I was like, “No, we really are and we need to somehow recreate that on the screen, so that it’s funny because we’re funny. And that’s it!” It’s kind of a bold step, because we’re always able to hide a little bit behind the fact that we’re like, “Haha, we’re doing a bad job with our own dialogue.” But in this movie, we were like, “No, we’re going to really, actually try to make a straight, funny, comedic movie that highlights what we think is funny about us.” That’s a big, sort of risky move to make on our part, but I think it worked. We’ve had one other screening and it was non-stop laughter. Plotwise, it’s about two songwriters who investigate a guy with a metal detector. It’s got mystery and investigatory elements and it’s got a lot of great music moments, too. I feel like this is the one, if you wanted to sit someone down and get them into this whole Motern movie thing. I think this is the most welcoming one that they can actually get their head around, and maybe stick around for more after that.
If they wanted to watch other ones, either before or after this upcoming screening, what Motern movies or albums would you suggest people view or listen to?
Well, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is currently on Tubi. T-u-b-i. A lot of people use that. It’s a free streaming movie app. That’s the one that people seem to like a lot, so I recommend that. Then, you can go to moternmedia.com to find all the other ones. Musically, that’s a tough call. Once you watch this movie, you’re going to be interested in Moes Haven because Moes Haven is the band that we’re actually in and we make it part of the movie, too. Just look up Moes Haven, you’ll have a grand old time. There’s like twenty, twenty-five albums to choose from.
Is this movie a teaser for the last Moes Haven album?
It gets complicated because the last Moes Haven album will be released in 2023, but within the movie, we’re releasing this fictional album. We’re caught in some confusing timelines and I think I’m going to end up contradicting myself a little bit. There will be an album from this movie, as well as the last Moes Haven album, separately.
I haven’t seen Metal Detector Maniac yet, like I said, all the characters could die and I could be totally wrong, but will there ever be Metal Detector Maniacs?
I never thought of it until now and now my mind is going crazy with the possibilities. Until about five seconds ago, it was not a possibility, but now it’s a probability.
Oh, boy. Numerous detectorists.
A Halloween 4 situation, where the girl at the beginning, by the end, the evil has been passed on to her. There’s a lot of possibilities now. Thank you. We’re going to have to give you a story credit.
This is very exciting. [laughter] Alright, well, thank you very much!
Great! Thanks for screening it! We appreciate it, it’s still a labor of love, we still lose money on every movie, but if this cult can grow maybe twenty times as big as it is, we might start breaking even, and that would be nice.
Ready to drown in all that Motern? You can listen to Farley’s gargantuan catalogue of music, well, just about everywhere you can listen to music. The Motern movies are available for digital rental and purchase on Vimeo. Both Local Legends and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! have been put out on Blu-ray by Gold Ninja Video, with a Metal Detector Maniac release forthcoming. For the readers among you, Justin Decloux and Will Sloan’s exemplary book, Motern on Motern, is available on Amazon.
Finally, to those at the University of Florida, I encourage you to attend our early access screening of Metal Detector Maniac at the Reitz Student Union on Thursday, December 9th, at 6:30 PM! More information is available via the University Film Society social media pages.