Veteran local sideman Matt Batey steps out on his own with Ruler's impressive new album, "Winning Star Champion."
Matt Batey was coming to the (erroneous) conclusion that he wasn’t so great at music. The Montana native moved to Seattle in 2005 as an 18-year-old eager to connect with other musicians. He did the solo thing for a while, eventually linking up with a few other players and launching his former band, Conservative Dad.
Unfortunately, the crowds never showed and disillusionment crept in as Batey’s expectations became more “realistic.”
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“I’ve never really been very well received, musically, in Seattle until now,” says Batey, the songwriter behind local pop-rock outfit Ruler. “So, until I started working on this project and started playing the songs for it, I was accepting the idea that I wasn’t very good and that music would be more something that I had to do because I enjoyed it.”
What a difference seven years makes. His fortunes changed when the veteran Seattle sideman (Cataldo, Rocky Votolato) started working on the airtight songs populating Ruler’s long-awaited debut album, “Winning Star Champion.” Over the years of live shows, during which Batey’s joined by a rotating cast including Cataldo’s Eric Anderson, the crowds finally caught on, as did esteemed local indie Barsuk Records, which released Batey’s acclaimed new record this spring. Seven years in the making, the sessions were a series of starts and stops as Batey cobbled together the funds working various jobs from ice cream scooper to Microsoft project manager.
“I didn’t really think it would ever come out,” he admits. “I really just wanted to work on something and say if it never gets to the point where I really love it then I’ll never put it out, but I’ll try to have fun working on it. And then eventually it just got done.”
On the impressive new record destined to age well, Ruler — which plays the three-day Timber! Outdoor Music Festival on July 14 — delivers airtight pop-rock with mighty, upbeat hooks often contrasting with Batey’s darker lyrics tied to living with mental illness. “Trying to fit into the way the world wants you to be when your brain doesn’t fit into it — it’s what I spend all of my time trying to figure out,” says Batey, who deals with depression and anxiety. “So when it comes to writing songs, that’s what I have to draw from.”
One of Ruler’s earliest singles (which caught Barsuk’s ears a few years ago), “Unhindered Pace,” stems from a rough agoraphobic period when Batey was having trouble leaving his North Queen Anne apartment, making going to work or even grocery shopping difficult. As an “exposure therapy” exercise, Batey would run up to the middle of the Aurora Bridge — not slowing down for fear he’d turn around and go home — and lean over the edge.
“After I’d done that, and let the fear and anxiety and panic wash over me, I would go back and it made it easier to do normal things because by comparison they were not as bad,” he recalls.
Exuberant power-pop nugget “Cars and Houses,” with its crunch-and-slam chorus, touches on the 31-year-old’s anxiety watching his peers do the career-and-family thing while he pours his time and energy into music — a decision Batey’s currently at peace with, but constantly having to make. “It becomes more and more real that the dreams you had when you were younger, that you’re not going to be like the bands that you idolized when you were young,” Batey says.
Considering the warm reception to “Winning Star Champion,” one of the best local albums of the year, it seems Batey’s commitment hasn’t been in vain. But even if the record was trashed, it wouldn’t change his resolve.
“It’s validating and I do enjoy it,” he says of the praise, “but it’s sort of like when your boss tells you you do a good job. It’s like ‘Cool, I’m glad that you as my boss are happy. But if you told me I was a —-head or something, I would just be like, ‘Well no, you’re wrong [laughs].’ If you internalize the reception of what you do too much, you have to take the bad with the good. You can’t just take the good.”
Timber! Outdoor Music Festival. July 12-14, Tolt-MacDonald Park, 31020 N.E. 40th St., Carnation; $20-$99, $20 parking, $40-$1,000 camping, summer.timbermusicfest.com