I accidentally brought mushrooms into Singapore. It was in my tux and I didn’t find out until I was in Seoul when the lady at the dry cleaner's pulled out this baggie.
For his debut album, Blue Film, classically trained Matthew Hemerlein spent several itinerant years dragging his feet around places like Cambodia, Bali, Iceland and Tokyo, writing songs inspired by his deep soul-searching. Better known as Lo-Fang—a moniker meant to convey both tenderness and strength—the former music teacher plays every instrument on the album himself, among them piano, violin, cello, guitar, and bass. It’s a seamless blend of classical symphony and contemporary pop, immaculately produced. There’s no mystery as to why Lo-Fang and his breathy, contemplative compositions garnered wide attention, just as quickly becoming the jewel in Lorde’s crown last year. Blue Film is an exquisite album of smart juxtapositions and nuanced sonic details that explore the emotional territories at which the multi-instrumentalist’s lyrics can only hint.
More than a year has passed since the release of Blue Film and this is where we find ourselves: sitting across from Hemerlein for the latest edition of our on-going series of food and talk, This Course. The purpose of This Course is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over dinner at Jack’s Wife Freda in Manhattan’s West Village, a day after Hemerlein’s performance at (le) poisson rouge. Here, we discuss a myriad of things concerning, but not limited to, his current North American tour, his unexpected onstage antics, and some personal tidbits he’d maybe rather keep to himself—until now. Our dining companion’s in good spirits despite his jet lag upon returning from South Korea, and seeing as that Seoul is where this editor is from and stationed for the summer, it’s where our conversation kicks off.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.]
You just got back from Asia? What were you doing over there?
Yeah, this is going to sound so “bourgey,” but it was basically for these private shows that people in the Chanel community get to attend. It was for the core staff at Chanel and their VIP clientele. I got to go on the cruise portion of it in Seoul, too, and it was the first time they’d ever done it there. It’s this huge fashion show and the collection was amazing. It was supposed to be this summer lounge stuff that you wear on a cruise, but they were so ornate and really complex pieces. I can’t imagine wearing something like that on a cruise, but what are you gonna do?
I saw that you had a little run in with Tilda Swinton and Gisele Bündchen.
It’s not in my nature to approach these famous people, but Tilda and I were on Late Night with Seth Meyers together last year. Warren Buffett was on there, too, and she had remembered that. She was sitting right in front of me, so it felt pretty natural to just say, “Hello.” She told me about this afterparty for a film at a trans bar called Trans in Itaewon. It was pretty cool. With Giselle, we obviously shot the Chanel film together. She was like, “Your hair is longer!” She’s really nice, too. I made this joke on Instagram and people took it seriously. I captioned a photo of us talking: “Whaaaaat? You were in the No. 5 film, too?” People thought she actually said that to me.
It’s like talking in code.
Yeah, you have to be careful. You either have to be really obtuse or really obvious.
Was this your first time in Seoul?
Yeah, it was my first time. It’s such a great city. Everyone was so polite and I had some incredible food. But we were there to do a lot of shows, so I didn’t have a ton of time to explore. One of the cooler things we got to do was going to this place called Sanchon where they serve temple food. It was unbelievable. The produce and all the ingredients were so fresh. It had a great vibe.
Did you eat anything “weird” over there? I love stuff like live octopus because I grew up on it, but there are certain things I’m not even curious to try like fermented skate.
Everything was a little bit different for me, but nothing was too out there. I saw a lot of squid, but I didn’t have any of it. No dog. No octopus.
Allegedly, I tried dog when I was a kid. They raise those dogs like cattle on farms and most Koreans don’t actually eat dog. But some people definitely love it.
Honestly, it was a lot of salads and that’s what sort of blew me away. Korea’s such a salad culture. It totally redefined the way I experienced Korean food. You have amazing vegetable dishes.
Where else did you go on this trip?
We did a bunch of shows for Chanel in Singapore first. Then we had a week off and I made the executive decision to rent a place in Bali for eight nights—it was awesome. I was out in the jungle, meditating a lot and working on music. It was a really hard landing because we went from this total jungle zone in Bali and snapped back into high fashion in Seoul. It felt like all the oxygen was being sucked out. It felt like being vacuum compressed. You’re going to Cannes, aren’t you?
It’s one of my few yearly traditions.
L’Oréal wanted me to do something at Cannes, but the timing and everything was off. They wanted me to cover some French song. And I don’t speak French, unfortunately, although I could definitely learn it at this point. It didn’t end up happening, but I was really excited at the possibility of being able to go. Now I can live vicariously through you.
You can’t live vicariously through me. I already live vicariously through you! I’m really looking forward to hearing some new material, by the way.
I’m writing stuff, but I’m not actively in it right now. I’m still finishing this tour and taking a little break before really getting sucked into it. I’ve been writing in L.A. and trying out ideas. Hopefully, as the tour progresses, I’ll try out some new stuff that I’ve been working on, too. This is a farewell-for-a-little-while tour. I feel like I always end up doing a couple shows, even if I’m not on an official tour. The last time I did shows was in Paris and London at the end of January. It wasn’t an official tour at that point, but I did three proper tours last year. Other than that, I hop over to London or do one-off shows in L.A. or San Francisco. This current tour is the fourth actual tour around my first record and it has obviously changed a bit: I released a mixtape, incorporated new stuff into the set, and changed up the presentation of the songs. Last night was a bit stripped back from when we were touring with Lorde, for example, where the room was way bigger and you had to have instant gratification versus more musicality with a gentler flow to it.
Are you able to sort of make out what the next record will sound like?
I’m sure it’s gonna be different, you know? I’m in a different place, so the music can’t help but grow and shift a little bit. I can’t imagine that I’ll be writing about the same things.
What’s been inspiring you these days?
I don’t know if it’s inspiration, but I’m stimulated when I’m in really disparate environments. Luckily, I get to run in a lot of different circles with what I do and, as a result, you get these strong impressions of places and people. I guess whatever makes me curious is the inspiration.
Where did you find your tourmate Ethan [Colby]? It’s just the two of you, right?
Ethan is the younger brother of one of my really good friends. I needed somebody to drive the van to San Francisco for one of my shows and he was totally down to do it. Occasionally, we break into Griffith Park—not really breaking in—and put gels over lights at the base of it, take pictures, and just fuck around. I had a group of people do that with me and he came along. Ethan’s a good guitar player, but I didn’t know he could play keys and synths as well as he can. We spent a lot of time together, too, redesigning my pedal boards. I’m handy, but he’s extremely handy. Doing a duo show is really challenging and, in a way, it’s harder than doing it as a trio. As a trio, you have the drums to rely on and you definitely have the vocals to rely on, and everything else going on is kinda cool as long as you’re not totally fucking it up. Doing a duo show is way more about making constant decisions and reconfiguring who’s doing what. You alternate a lot between who’s taking the lead with the rhythmic stuff and the harmonic sounds, and try to find that balance.
So why not have that third or fourth person with you?
It just starts to get too crowded. I think three is a really good number. It just kinda made sense to have the two of us because I wanted to have a bit more improvisation in the shows and be looser. I also wanted to push myself to do more stuff onstage. It just fell into place like that.
Last night, you did a little strip tease onstage. I think we need to talk about it.
[Laughs] You just have a ton of restraint and then kind of let loose.
Yeah, but where the hell did that come from?
I remember the first time I opened for Lorde: Instantly, the crowd was so different from anything I’d ever played to. Everyone’s super young. They’d been pent up in their basement for way too long, and finally out! It’s Thursday and they’re freaking out. Every little thing I’d do would be the biggest deal to them. At one point, I was hot, so I casually took off my jacket and the place reacted as if Lorde had popped her head off—it was going crazy. At the end of that tour with Lorde, I could’ve pushed it a lot further, but I didn’t. I just started pushing it a lot further in my own shows for my own audience. People seem to get a kick out of it and I like doing it. I never know what the fuck I’m gonna do. I’m not the best at doing it, but I have a lot of fun with it. We’ll see where it goes. It can get raucous sometimes, but last night wasn’t too bad.
Did you take classes?
I should! One time, this woman in Portland took her top off and it was probably the most shocking thing. I basically stopped singing.
I’m surprised that doesn’t happen more frequently. You sort of invite it.
In a small room like that, it takes a very special person to unfurl themselves. I was doing that schtick at a Chanel show and this woman made such a scene. It was this five or six course meal and everyone was dressed in a tux and shit. It was a very, very polite environment and everyone was on their best behavior. Then I came out and did my dirty little dance towards the end—I’m just stripping and pumping shit, basically. And there was this woman, pretty wasted, around everyone else upstanding members of society. The person running the event had to coax her off. It was the elephant in the room. I knew there would be a memo because it was this record scratch. It was my fucking show so I could do whatever I wanted, and something like that lightens the mood and people really get into it. But in Singapore… Have you been to Singapore?
I haven’t. Singapore scares me. Maybe one day.
In Singapore, it can get pretty stiff. I did a really fucking dumb thing there, though—it was truly stupid. If you have any amount of drugs on you, you’ll get killed instantly, within 24 hours straight up. I accidentally brought mushrooms into Singapore. It was in my tux and I didn’t find out until I was in Seoul when the lady at the dry cleaner’s pulled out this baggie. It was like, “Oh. My. God.” That truly scared the shit out of me. It’s like getting hit by a bus that you don’t see coming. Check every bag. I don’t support taking any kind of drug across borders.
I couldn’t help but notice that you perform in socks.
Unfortunately. I’ve tried so many different kinds of shoes. I can’t do it, man.
Is it because of the pedals?
Yeah, the pedals. I went shoe-shopping in L.A. and tried all these different kinds of shoes. It’s a shame, trust me. I really did spend some time looking into this.
And you stand on this mini rug onstage. What’s the story behind that?
That’s been in my family’s house for as long as I can remember. I like taking it with me on tour. I’ve performed with it for something like seven years now. I just kinda like it.
It’s your security blanket.
Yeah, I like the feeling of it on my feet. Some people get really nuts when they have a full crew, so it’s like they make the stage into their room sort of thing. When I have more of an infrastructure, I’ll probably do something like that. For now, it’s the little touches that matter.
I can definitely feel “the maker’s touch” on the visual side of things. You seem very hands on.
It’s a very heavy hand, yeah. I had to fight with my label to have that cover for Every Night. Actually, it’s my ex-label now because I’m not with 4AD anymore. On the inside, you’ll also find photos that I took, but I’m not a particularly good photographer. They’re abstract photos that I thought captured certain elements of the music and balanced out the more monochrome album cover. The artwork for Every Night is by this Brooklyn artist named Charles Sheddon who goes by OWVBICS. I really loved this one image that Charles had and told him: “I love what you do. Is there any way you’ll let me use this?” He’s always creating and really prolific, and I would like to use some of his other works in the future in some capacity. I think I’m drawn towards keeping the visual aesthetic as timeless as possible, with a very specific color palette. Then you build off that foundation as the music matures. And it’s obviously been inspiring, too, working with Chanel.
It’s an interesting collaboration and it makes sense, but you’ve become so tethered to that brand. Does that worry you or was that possibility ever a concern of yours?
I thought it was perfect, and it’s not that I’m a fan of going into these corporate partnerships. I think it can definitely take the emotional resonance away from the music, but I didn’t feel that with Chanel. If anything, I think it added a little more emotional resonance to the song. It’s timeless.
And if Apple comes to you?
I mean, I don’t know. I want my parents to retire. [Laughs]
Since you’re being honest, what exactly happened with 4AD? Was it a creative clash?
Creative differences, yeah. I think that relationship went as far as it should’ve gone. We were just on different paths. There were a lot of great people who worked there, and there were some people I didn’t get along with that I continually rubbed up against. It’s good not to rub too much. But it’s cool, it’s all good. It was a pretty gentle, quiet release.
Why are you smiling like that? I wasn’t going to say anything.
[Laughs] I don’t really have anything bad to say, to be honest. You can always point fingers, but there really wasn’t anything to point at. Most labels will sign an artist for one record. It was like they almost didn’t want to option another record and I didn’t want to give them the option, so it took its course. It kinda reminded me of the time I got kicked out of private school, shortly after getting into private school. It wasn’t for any one thing, it was a lot of things. I wound up at a public school and had a much better time. I think I just needed a bigger pond to swim in. I was homeschooled growing up, so private school was jarring and constricting because you have a dress code, the teachers go on power trips, and they’re not necessarily exhibiting the kind of parental behavior I was used to. I think I was too used to being around adults and treating them as my peers—it was such a mismatch. Also, I was too much of a troublemaker and a rebel back then. I didn’t want to be controlled by anyone and I was constantly stirring the pot.
You were a shit stirrer?
And I didn’t mind doing it!
You told me before that you were forced into playing the violin. Was that the case for all the other instruments you picked up along the way?
The violin, yes. I was more into the cello, to be honest. It was actually a relief because I liked the cello much better. I liked my teacher a lot, too. The other instruments I willingly picked up.
How old were you when you started playing the violin?
I was five or so.
Are your parents musicians?
No, they’re not. They’re musical, but they’re not musicians. I think that’s why they were so important to have around when we were homeschooled: playing music was such a huge part of that experience. Out of all my siblings, I’m the only one that chose a life of music. My mom was really involved in going to lessons, tape-recording lessons, and making us listen back to it. So even though she couldn’t play the violin, she knew how to direct somebody to learn better and identify what’s wrong in their approach. And my dad is a musicphile. He has iTunes, vinyl, tapes and everything. He was definitely instrumental in introducing us to certain stuff.
They never look too deep into your lyrics or anything like that?
Now that you mention it, they’ve never done that. It’s not like they need to know, you know?
Do you have any pre-show rituals to calm your nerves?
I always take this one herb called holy basil. My nickname on the Lorde tour was “holy basil.” It’s great for calming your central nervous system down. I find it way more effective than alcohol or anything of that nature. I can’t always guarantee that I’ll have the extra ten minutes, but I try to meditate prior to going onstage and that tends to make a huge difference. Yesterday, I did both of those things. I also took a full nap.
I knew it! I’m onto you. You made that crowd wait uncommonly long last night.
It was the jet lag! I was knocked out cold. Do you have any pre-interview rituals?
Not really. As long as I do my research and genuine curiosity is there, it’s okay for the most part. This beer certainly helps. What’s the most annoying question you get asked?
Whether you like it or not, you get asked the same questions a lot. You pretty much end up answering them in a very similar way, unless you choose to be overtly loquacious. You just have to kind of get through it. I definitely get asked, “What’s Lo-Fang?” a lot. And I definitely kind of say the same thing a lot. There are only a couple ways to really define what it means to me and why I chose to call myself that. I mean, I don’t mind it. It’s not a heavy burden to bear.