Of all the unsung heroes of Memphis Music, Pete Matthews truly is a hidden gem. He’s got a track record longer than a Pink Floyd concert, more know-how than a seasoned mechanic, and one of the most wicked beards to ever grace a face.
He’s of a calm manner and tamed ego that doesn’t come close to hinting at the size of his knowledge base. Matthews has stories of tracking Cody Dickinson and working with Paul Simon. With a laundry list of work that includes the likes of Saliva, Sister Hazel, Dust For Life, Against Me!, Smalltown Poets, and North Mississippi Allstars, he’s built a reputation for doing efficient, reliable work that has a touch of magic to it. I got the chance to chat with Pete about his winding career and some of the adventures it has entailed.
Matthews had an early start in music production. While most kids were worried about finding a date for the Halloween sock-hop, Matthews was putting in time at a local studio dedicated to an intriguing venture. “My trumpet teacher at the time had a small studio where he wrote jingles for local business, and I started to spend all of my free time working there.”
As Matthews became accustomed to working at the studio, he saw an opportunity. “My teacher didn’t want to record bands; he hated bands, but he was only in the studio during the day. I told him to let me in at night, record bands, and we’d split the profit.” These late-night studio sessions provided Matthews’ with valuable experience.
Matthews left his hometown of Springfield, Missouri to study music at the University of Memphis. Matthews’ initial interest in jazz trumpet transitioned to a passion for music production. It was at the University of Memphis that Matthews had a chance encounter with a pivotal figure in Memphis Music. Matthews had the opportunity sit in on interviews to hire a new professor of recording technology. John Fry [the founder of Ardent Studios] was also at those meetings, and according to Matthews, “apparently, during the process, [he] liked what I had to say.” Fry instructed Matthews’ superiors to have Matthews get in touch with him.
After working for several years and doing well in the 901 area code, Matthews scored a job under Eddie Germano at the Hit Factory in New York, whose fame was built on the shoulders of giants ranging from Blue Oyster Cult to The Notorious B.I.G. Although the work at the Hit Factory kept Matthews busy and introduced him to a slew of new equipment and production techniques, he felt the pull of Memphis.
Around this same time, Matthews began harboring “projects”—bands with potential that he felt he could bring to a bigger audience. Matthews’ return to Memphis and Ardent introduced him to his next effort: Evanescence. “There was a guy named Brad Blackwood that used to have a room [at Ardent] where he mastered music. I was cutting guitars in the studio one day, and he called me saying he thought he was working on something I would like. I went to his room and listened to the demo of ‘My Immortal’… it blew me away.” Matthews contacted Evanescence. Taking weekend trips to Little Rock, they began work. “We started working on their demos in makeshift studios while they were still in high school… They were so young.”
After investing months into their project, Matthews built a demo he began shopping to the ears of the industry. “I ended up having 12 to 14 meetings [across the country], and no one would take it. It was either too huge, too goth, too dark, or needed too much production.” Matthews got his break in New York with Diana Meltzer from Wind-Up. Matthews’ demo of the same song that inspired him some months earlier, “My Immortal,” hooked Meltzer, and she swiftly signed the group whose album, Fallen, would eventually go platinum several times over.
Riding the wave of success of his golden ear, Matthews has bounced from artist to artist, expanding his ever-growing catalog of material. His most recent effort is that of Alex du Ponte. With her sound ballparked somewhere around a raw Tegan and Sara and a heart of gold, du Ponte’s potential seems a lock. “[The first time I saw her perform] I was just spellbound by her. I thought she was so different, and I believed her and what she had to say. She had a confidence about her that was different.”
Matthews works on promoting his projects from the comfort of his production room in Ardent Studios. He’s called the audio haven home for the greater part of the past 17 years. “Ardent is my home. I can’t imagine my life without it. The people here have always been amazing—they are like a family to me, and I can’t imagine leaving that.”
You might not recognize Pete Matthews as a rock star if you were to pass him at the local grocery store. Sitting behind a thick beard and some frame glasses, Matthews modestly shares his wealth of knowledge and talent with anyone interested. Hard working and dedicated to the bone, the impressiveness of his body of work is only surpassed by his humility toward it.