Portrait of an Artist: Matt LaJoie ’05
April 21, 2023
Despite the nearly two decades that have passed since his graduation, the Bowdoin that Matt LeJoie ’05 inhabited as a student wasn’t all that different from the one of today. He was a DJ on WBOR, played in a student band on the weekends and even wrote a couple of articles for the Orient. In June 2022, LaJoie returned to campus as a Circulation Assistant in the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library. He is also a guitarist of “commanding technique,” as music publication Pitchfork puts it.
Music had long been central to LaJoie’s life. He was born and raised in the town of Van Buren in Northern Maine. A stone’s throw away from Canada, LaJoie started playing trumpet in third grade and guitar in seventh. In high school he played in a cover band, modeling the grunge-rock groups that had a chokehold on the ’90s.
When LaJoie arrived at Bowdoin he played at open-mic nights, eventually catching the eye of Mirza Ramic ’05 and Max Lewis, who asked him to sing for their band.
“It’s kind of ironic cause I don’t do a lot of singing anymore,” LaJoie said. “But that was the start of me being involved in a band that was focused on writing songs more than covering songs.”
The band went by the name of “The List Exists,” and its songwriting was inspired by the likes of Radiohead and Sigur Rós. LaJoie, an English major and Film Studies minor, was also influenced by his participation in Bowdoin’s World Music Ensemble.
“[The World Music Ensemble] really broadened my horizons, and a lot of that stuff has crept into the music I make now, as far as the use of polyrhythms and the way that things kind of layer on top of each other in complex ways,” LaJoie said.
During his senior year, LaJoie started a solo folk project called “Cursillistas.” At the same time, on an independent study offered through the Music Department, LaJoie interned for the Portland-based independent record label Time-Lag. There, he learned the craft of running a small record label, and, at the end of his internship, he garnered further motivation to pursue a career in music when he showed his boss his music.
“I basically burned a bunch of CD-Rs in my dorm room, made the packaging for them myself, and gave them to Nemo—who ran the label—on the last day of work, and he loved it. He wanted as many copies as I could give him to sell through his distribution network—and they all sold out in a day,” LaJoie said. “I got my first really positive review about my music, from someone who didn’t know me at all, and that was all the encouragement I really needed to go for it.”
“The List Exists” started to grow apart both geographically and musically after graduation. As LaJoie delved further into folk, Ramic and Lewis were attracted to a more electronic sound. Ramic and Lewis would go on to form the ambient duo “Arms and Sleepers,” and LaJoie continued with his solo folk project. Under “Cursillistas,” LaJoie would release around 20 albums, tour the US and even perform at a festival in Amsterdam in 2008.
With his next project, a psychedelic rock group called “Herb Craft,” LaJoie started to release his music on other labels. However, he soon missed the small-label style.
“I missed being involved in that process of actually putting together the whole package and having that one-on-one interaction with people who were ordering the record,” LaJoie said.
LaJoie proceeded accordingly, creating the label Flower Room in 2017, which he still runs now. At Flower Room, LaJoie is involved in every step of the process: designing the album art, mixing, mastering, etc. Flower Room has released 90 albums since its conception, and LaJoie is on all but one of them.
Today, LaJoie draws from a vast and varied well of musical influences: from the United States’ Sandy Bull and Alice Coltrane to India’s Ravi Shankar and Ali Akhbar Khan to Niger’s Bombino.
However, LaJoie’s playing style is a distinct one, from first note to last. He uses a guitar, an amp and a looping pedal to create a winding stream of sound.
“I try to prepare as little as possible, is the truth,” LaJoie said. “I generally don’t write anything. It all comes out of improvisation, and I like to embrace—I wouldn’t say mistakes, more like—accidents.”
LaJoie presses his live-looping pedal when the urge strikes, creating a backtrack for further improvisation.
“It really feels like traveling down a river or something,” LaJoie said. “It eliminates the possibility of perfection in a way that is really healthy for me. If a mistake happens, it’s in the loop, so it’s like, ‘How am I going to make this fit into the environment that’s been created?’”
Another component of LaJoie’s sound is his unique approach to tuning his guitar. As a student, inspired by the likes of Nick Drake and Skip James, he started to turn away from standard tuning.
“It was really about trying to find a sound that was unique to me, where I didn’t feel like I was being redundant with music that already existed,” LaJoie said about the tuning that soon became a signature of his.
It is not uncommon for LaJoie to record or perform live in a tuning that he has never practiced in before.
On Saturday, April 8, LaJoie played live at WBOR, which both broadcasted and recorded the guitarist’s snaking riffs and loops.
“It was like nothing I had heard beforehand,” Mason Daugherty ’25, a member of WBOR’s management, said. “It was really cool to see him do these live effects—experimenting and mixing.”
In 2019, LaJoie released the album “The Center and the Fringe,” the first of five in his elemental-themed album arc. On May 5, LaJoie will release the fifth and final piece, “On Garudan Wing.” Following the release, LaJoie intends to go on tour across the U.S., his first since the pandemic.
The only guarantee that LaJoie’s philosophy leaves for his listeners is that his music will be unlike anything they’ve heard previously.
“There is an infinite amount that can be created when you start from that place of open-ended possibility,” Lajoie said.
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