Arts, Culture & Media

Utah band blends American folk music with Chinese instruments

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Luke Williams, from left, on the guzheng, and Eric Chipman on the liuqin, or Chinese mandolin, are two of four members of Matteo. (Photo by Benjamin Bombard.)

The band Matteo, from Salt Lake City, plays songs that blend traditional Chinese and American folk music.

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While their inspiration is old, the results are something new. It’s Western songs interpreted on Chinese instruments.

Matteo is made up of four 20-somethings: Eric Chipman, his wife Brinn Bagley-Chipman, Luke Williams and Jordan Riley. Eric, Brinn and Jordan all speak fluent Mandarin Chinese. They were raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and they did Mormon missions in Taiwan.

“You just agree, I’m going to be a missionary and wherever you send me, I’ll go,” Bagley-Chipman said. “You just get a letter and you open it up and you realize you are going to be in Taiwan for a year and a half or two years.”

Bagley-Chipman is a talented violinist, but in Matteo she is often called upon to play the erhu — an iconic Chinese instrument, a fretless fiddle with a slender neck and just two strings.

She'd been to China, as an English teacher, but for her husband Eric, the thought of going to a crowded Asian city was overwhelming.

“Before I got assigned, I couldn’t have thought of a place I wanted to go least,” Chipman said. “I hated big cities, I hated crowds. I was honestly terrified of it.”

When he wasn’t proselytizing, Chipman spent a lot of time hanging out in music shops, checking out traditional Chinese instruments.

One of them caught his eye.

“The guzheng is the one I would always go to because I sounded better playing it than the other ones,” Chipman said. “It was just like you sat down and the people I’d be with would be, like, you’re really good at that thing.”

Shipping it home to Utah wasn’t easy or cheap, but Chipman began using the guzheng in his music. The first song it really worked in was “Sweet Sweeping Joy,” which is on the band’s first album, “The Morning Market.” When they recorded it, they weren’t exactly experts on Chinese instruments.

“We knew these instruments, we already felt like we were hacks at them,” Chipman said. “We were not trained in any way and so we wanted to do more justice to the instruments.”

Chipman and the rest of the band spent six weeks last summer studying music at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, and they learned just how incorrectly they’d been playing their Chinese instruments.

“There is just a very certain way to play the instrument,” Bagley-Chipman said. “Innovation and trying a different way isn’t necessarily valued. When we played things that were new or different it was just confusing to them, rather than being cool.”

Chipman said his teacher was a particularly demanding drill sergeant.

“The first four or five lessons I was sitting on this liuqin,” he said, plucking one string, “and thought that I am not going to learn anything except how to pluck the string over and over.”

The members of Matteo did eventually learn to play their Chinese instruments better and more authentically. They also recorded a new EP, which they called “The Sichuan Project.” The songs on the album are still rooted in American indie folk music, but Chipman isn’t scared of Taiwan or China anymore. He says on this new album, China’s just bigger.

“There is this thing in Chinese aesthetic that we really like, where if like you look at a Chinese landscape, it’d just be these big mountains and mists and waterfalls and just a really small person on some cliff,” he said. “We wanted this to be bigger than our personal lives.”