Asheville is known for its beer, food, music and general quirkiness, which is why it’s endeared to so many. Because let’s face it: The best shit comes from those who embrace their inner weirdo, and dance to the beat of their own bucket drum. Maybe they hang out with giant stuffed pandas, even. At least, that’s what multi-instrumentalist and performance artist Mat Masterson does.
“The music scene in Asheville is all over the place,” he notes of his hometown. “Punk, indie, funk, rock and reggae all thrive here. That variety drives my own eclectic style.”
There’s a bit of performance art incorporated into Masterson’s work and live shows, too. He is known to arrive onstage with oversized pandas or an inflatable dinosaur.
“The inflatable ones pop sometimes,” he tells. “A 5-foot T-Rex exploded at the last Shakori Hills during the Dr. Bacon set. Some go ‘missing.’ I’ve learned not to get too attached, but I have enough now I can roll up with a solid, silly crew.”
Masterson’s inanimate friends will join him for his upcoming show at Juggling Gypsy on February 8. Yet, he promises he will go beyond the fringes of entertainment. His “stuffies” mainly serve as a backdrop, but he encourages folks to interact or play with them as they see fit.
It all started with an inebriated cyber trip to Amazon as he shopped for a gift for his niece. An inflatable plush panda popped up under “related items.”
“I began taking [the panda] to shows around Asheville,” Masterson continues, “and immediately could feel the joy his presence brought people. Who doesn’t love a giant fuzzy panda? I make art and music in an attempt to bring happiness to people. The props are just an extension of that.”
Yet, it doesn’t overshadow the integrity of his sound. According to Masterson, he is always in touch with raw honesty of performing.
“[It] is exponentially more prevalent and appreciated in the fringes of art and music,” he notes. “I often [do] solo acoustic performances in more traditional environments to keep from going broke. Still, I always prefer a situation in which I can share my whole self with the audience.”
Like so many musicians of Masterson’s ilk, it’s really hard to peg where his work lands on the indie-folk-electronic-jam-hip-hop spectrum. Upon listening to some of his music, it seems like a different artist is doing each song.
Take “Long Lost Friends,” “Coupe Deville” and “Fire in the Night,” for example. Each comes from a different time or collection, tells Masterson. Their diversity and distinctions come from channeling ever-changing moods, styles and settings in the creative process.
“A lot of people throw [around] the phrase, ‘I listen to everything,’ pretty loosely,” he offers. “There are very few genres I can’t find some form of beauty in. I was raised on classic rock from my dad, rap from my sister, and ‘90s alt-rock from the radio. My roots as a musician are in punk and hardcore, followed by Americana. But I don’t set out to work in different genres.”
“Long Lost Friends” is on his 2018 EP, “Just By Myself.” Instrumentally, it starts with a quick-paced guitar, evoking a sense of hitting the road. Then it hits hard on the nostalgic front, introducing electronic samplings and sounds of the ‘80s.
“‘Long Lost Friends’ came from an honest, deep longing for all those folks I was once close to before one or both of us moved to new places,” Masterson explains. “In my transient world, that’s a lot of people.”
“Fire In The Night” is from his 2015 release, “Without Borders.” It features collaborations with several artists, like Rell, Cyn Roc and Georgianna Harris. Throughout the album, he marries electronica, rock and hip-hop, with lyric-spitting rap, covering everything from politics to white privilege. His vocals even are reminiscent of Bowie at times (“Nothing Feels Real”).
While Masterson rarely performs songs live without original contributing artists, his sets remain robust with tracks off of “Just By Myself” and what he’s currently mixing in the studio. “Coupe Deville” is one of his latest tracks he already released as a music video.
“‘Coupe Deville’ has a more fun story,” Masterson recalls. “I was broke and needed a new vehicle. I was playing drums for a band in Johnson City, Tennessee, when I found an ‘88 Coupe DeVille for $500. I jumped at the opportunity, and could not be happier I did. I woke up a few days later, with the folk classic ‘Crawdad Song’ stuck in my head. By the end of the evening, I recorded it and shot an impromptu music video for it with my good friend Travis Eagledove. The mandolin player on the track, John Humphries, just happened to come by to hang out. It was literally all in a day’s work.”
Masterson currently has a few irons in the fire. While one album (tentatively dubbed “It All Happened So Fast”) is near completion, he already has the beginnings of a couple of follow-ups in mind. “I’m largely in the final mixing stage for two serious albums from harder times in my life,” he hints. “[They] more or less follow the structure of ‘Without Borders.’ They start folky and end in hip hop over the course of seven songs. . . . I am also working on some more light-hearted songs like ‘Coupe Deville’ to follow.”
In the studio, Masterson uses a grab-bag of live instrumentation, sound design and sampling during the creative process. Blurring the lines between various methods of production, each road to a new song can vary with vocal hooks, drum beats or synth riffs.
“About a third of the songs on my current set list are unreleased,” he says. “I have a lot of material I have been playing for years, some decades. But I’m always eager to give people that come to a live performance something [they] can’t hear any other way.”