Sometimes, we don’t know whether to take things lightly or seriously. Or when to focus on our personal lives versus the surrounding world. It’s all pretty arbitrary, and we can endlessly rack our brains debating the margins.
Alternately, we could kick back with our tall boys and jam along with the most esoteric Canadian former physics teacher to grace the 21st-century lo-fi indie folk punk scene.
But that overgeneralizes Chad Matheny’s appeal. Chad, who goes by Emperor X, writes songs so absurd that they must be authentic. So personal that they form a larger-than-life, immutable bond between us, Chad, and his tiny fandom.
He loves cassette tapes, the black sheep of the audio playback family. So much that he buried 41 purple translucent cassettes in mostly unknown North American locations to accompany the release of his 2011 album “Western Teleport.”
Chad drives home this novelty concept in the release, as it breathes with a cheap tape sound. Lo-fi music only works with the right delivery and instrumentation; “Western Teleport” meets this challenge by providing cozy shelter to guitar squeaks too shy and innocent to irritate.
The standout track “Canada Day,” best exhibits this sound. It also features a signature vocal performance of a certifiably odd set of lyrics involving some lake they’re draining or something. Who’s they? Who cares, because when Emperor X tells us, “Let’s send a message they’ll hear … let’s … scream,” we scream with him, since we assume this man ripped straight from an L.L.Bean catalog doesn’t get this yelpy over nothing.
This is far from the only time Chad has us singing in unison. Some tracks are downright anthemic, like the tempestuous “Allahu Akbar.” The song airdrops us into a vague middle-eastern conflict involving militant groups, real and fictional. This strife is a backdrop for his attempt to unify us around our systems of belief. Emperor X centers it all around the titular Arabic phrase because he admires “the persistence of faith and of virtue and of kindness as acts of quiet, relentless defiance in a world so fractured,” as he said in the video’s Youtube comments section, of all places.
Chad, “raised in a deeply conservative, negative, fundamentalist version of Christianity,” wants us to settle our differences, and that may be appealing or annoying depending on the listener. Personally, I prefer to leave the nuances to his limited base of Genius annotators. Still, his political fervor is a draw in the vein of our friends’ passions we don’t really get but wholeheartedly support.
Politics takes a backseat in the following track, “Compressor Repair,” easily among the top-10 most tender songs about air conditioners. Swaddled in a tape-delayed piano line, Emperor X intimates, “Compressor repair is not in my skill set / And that’s why the floor’s wet.” The song is a beautiful example of trying in a relationship when you know you’re not perfect, told with a level of idiosyncrasy we can empathize with. “It wasn’t Energy Star, it wasted BTU’s / It wasn’t right, but it was there because I wanted you… to be cool.”
That’s Chad for you: he’ll make you laugh, he’ll make you feel. The album’s emotional centerpiece, “Erica Western Teleport,” makes you laugh that you’re feeling, amid killer marimba riffs. As you start the track, you’ll realize she’s dumped you. It’s okay. It happens. The key thing is: don’t think of her. “Don’t think of her running in an old t-shirt.” Oh, you’re still thinking of her? “Don’t think of her, go get some exercise.” Repeat ad nauseam.
Sometimes, the situations are less relatable. See: “Don’t think of her porous membrane.” Okay, guy. But it’s that personal flair that gets us so invested, because authentic individuality resonates much more than an artist dialing it back to reach a greater audience.
There’s far more to Emperor X than what I’ve mentioned here. I could write another column on his wacky brand of political satire on 2017’s “Oversleepers International.” It was made after Chad, who’s lived in Berlin the past few years, survived a bout of cancer. He hasn’t had the most straightforward career path.
Yet, he’s carved a niche in my library, and it’s not just because his music is sonically brilliant, well-written, or just plain weird. It’s not that I feel like I know Chad personally. I’ve never met Chad. But I identify with him, and his music adds color and meaning to the obscure thoughts I’ve had, or the odd things my friends do — the stuff that will never even reach 16,812 monthly Spotify listeners.