Retro-minded rocker Matt Jaffe didn’t intend to geek out on one of his musical idols. But when he saw Talking Heads founder and fellow Mill Valley resident Jerry Harrison at a traffic light, he acted on impulse and told his father “follow that car!” It was “just as creepy as it sounds,” says the guitarist, 22, who was in fifth grade at the time. “Jerry pulled into a hardware store, and I jumped out and asked him if I could interview him for this school project I was doing on Talking Heads.” Harrison not only consented, he took the kid under his wing and produced his early teenage demos, leading to his official full-length debut “California’s Burning” as Matt Jaffe and the Distractions.
What did you learn from Jerry Harrison?
In the studio, it was just a really steep learning curve. Prior to working with him, all I had really done was play solo acoustic, so one thing I learned was how to write for a band, which is a really different thing. And also how to play with a band. He had me work with some great session guys down in Tarzana. And I sort of had my own loopy notion of rhythm, and I had these weird songs with weird rhythms. But Jerry taught me how to write in a way that people will understand, how to be more direct and precise.
You even cover Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” on “Burning.” Do you long for a simpler musical era?
I do and I don’t. I love older music, but I don’t know that I’m nostalgic for an older time. Sometimes you might have the best idea in the world, but it’s really not better than something really simple. That’s something I’ve learned with lyrics. I come up with all these things that I think are so clever and erudite, but — even though I want to use the clever thing — something that’s really simple sounds so much better.
The Old 97s manage that trick really well on “Too Far to Care.”
Oh, that’s a great record. For a while, I was just trying to write my version of “Timebomb” — that record was a model for me, even though I’ve sort of drifted from the country/cowpunk phase. And also in terms of keeping things simple, whatever switch Springsteen flipped between “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River” really intrigued me.
How did you get into all these classic artists?
Well, if you start reading about Elvis Costello, you’ll hear about Graham Parker and Joe Jackson. I just love reading about the people I dig.
IF YOU GO
Shelby, Texas; Matt Jaffe & The Distractions
Where: Brick & Mortar Music Hall, 1710 Mission St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 20
Tickets: $7 to $10
Contact: (415) 800-8782, www.ticketweb.comCalifornia’s BurningJerry HarrisonMatt JaffeMatt Jaffe and the DistractionsPop MusicTalking Heads