Instrumental: The Blood, Sweat & Tears In Matt Mays’ Thrashed J-45

On a cool day in early October, Matt Mays stands in the middle of the dim-lit Sonic Temple, a recording studio that lies in the middle of busy downtown Halifax. But to be up there, on the third floor, you’d never know it. Housed in a heritage building that’s nearly 200-years-old, this space on the third floor is incredibly warm and homey, with ornate rugs on the floor and walls, exposed, deep red brick, and instruments scattered all over the place. Even without the heritage property designation out front (the row of buildings began its life as the Johnson Drug Building), the place’s history is palpable. Which is not unlike the 1967 Gibson J-45 that Mays cradles and strums while he wistfully acknowledges its almost certainly eventful life before and after his time as its owner.

“Who knows?” Mays says about what the old acoustic guitar has been through. “Maybe this belonged to Elvis Presley in the ’60s. Old guitars are like currency—you never know where they’ve been. Musicians travel so much, it could be like a penny. You never know where it’s gonna turn up. It looked pretty close to this before I got it, so it’s been in a lot of hands and been played a shit-ton. Who knows where it’s from. But yeah, my career and this guitar’s reincarnation started together. I’d say it had quite a few lives before that. Which is one of the things I love about it. It’s got a lot of sand in it from different beaches that I’ve never been to, and a lot of beaches I have been to. I like that whoever had it before me didn’t really give a shit about how it looked. It’s funny how it works out—in general, the guitar that’s played the hardest usually sounds the best.”

Mays goes on to explain how the rough edges of a guitar, over a long life of not being precious and oh-so-careful with the thing, are sanded down and smoothed out just by decades of resonance and vibration. And eventually, what was once glue and wood becomes just one thing, melded together by years of making a racket. That’s when you get the sound that everyone is looking for—lived in, smooth, imbued with a little bit of melody from every life it’s touched.

I’ll say this: to the layperson, without a decent pair of rose-coloured glasses on to observe all the waxing poetic about the lifetime of tools and the spirit of machines, the guitar might look kind of like a really nice piece of trash. It is one of the most lovingly thrashed instruments I’ve ever seen. Mays says there are a number of recordings where you can hear a loose pickguard flapping about, getting caught on hands and sleeves during strumming. So, that pickguard has been ripped off. What was it guarding, anyway? There are chunks of the thing completely missing. The headstock is split, barely held together for the moment because Mays can’t bear to be away from the thing as long as he anticipates mending it would take.

“I find when I take guitars in to get fixed, you don’t get them for six months for some reason. So I’d rather just play it with a zip tie on it,” he shrugs. The tuning heads have been replaced. The string holders in the bridge don’t all match. It’s been dropped too many times to count. There are cigarette burns all over it. It looks like someone sanded down pieces of it.

“I find the more you protect a guitar, the more it gets fucked up,” Mays says. “My saying is that you’re not my friend unless you scratch my guitar, to let people realize it’s okay and it’s just a piece of wood, you know? I look at it like that—as more of a talisman.”

The secret to that lived-in, played-on sound, clearly, is to just play the damn thing. Make some noise. And man, it has worked. It sounds like a dream.

Essentially, Mays’ career started around when the J-45—named, he says, because they were first built in 1945 and sold for $45—came into his life one day at a shop called Gig Street in Halifax. He’d been playing, at that time, for about four or five years. To purchase his first two guitars, a Washburn 12-string and a Gibson ES-135 semi-hollow body electric, he mowed lawns in spring, summer, and fall, buying the 12-string one year, and the electric the next. But when he walked into Gig Street and tried out the J-45, he knew it was special, so he did a straight up trade: the two guitars he’d worked two years cutting grass for in exchange for this Gibson that looked like someone had thrown it around a basement and left it for death.

Since then, it’s been through good and bad times, on countless tours and captured on record in the room he’s standing in. He’s even pulled a U-turn in the middle of the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge to rescue it, realizing halfway to Halifax that he’d left it in the middle of the street in downtown Dartmouth, back when the “City of Lakes” had a well-earned reputation for its rough edges. “I used to play tons of open mics around the city of Halifax with this guitar, with a bunch of crowds not listening,” Mays says. “So we’re kind of in it together, you know?

Mays’ sound is, aptly, as lived-in as the guitar that has helped shape it. He grew up listening to his old man’s records—Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Gordon Lightfoot—and cut his teeth with country rockers The Guthries, immersing himself in the music of bands like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, The Jayhawks, Gram Parsons, and Gillian Welch. His electrifying Americana is dense with the naturality you can only achieve from spending years on the road, and its sharp dynamism is maybe the biggest testament to that. Sure, Mays and the band can melt faces, but they can dial it back, too. His latest release, Twice Upon a Hell of a Time, is a stripped-down version of the big and brash Once Upon a Hell of a Time.

“With Once Upon a Hell of a Time, I was really pumped on how we took some of the songs and made them more lively and happier because a lot of them are real bummers,” Mays says. “But I also really liked them in their original state, and I just thought, ‘Why not?’ Because I had them written, [I could] go back and do them and let the lyrics and melodies do a little more of the talking.”

Sometimes, the tool is doing as much of the talking, per se, as the songwriter. Mays is a subscriber to the idea that the life of a thing can affect, in an arcane way, how it sounds. That with something like his J-45, a talisman, vibes can be transferred, stories can be held and told, and it can operate as a conductor. The only way to preserve that magic is to keep making a din with it.

“If somebody gets it and picks it up and sees it and doesn’t baby it and goes and lives life and fills it with different grains of sand from different beaches, that’s how it’s gonna keep sounding better,” Mays says.

As much as that’s true, a tool and artist can only really achieve the apex of that symbiotic relationship when the latter puts in a hell of a lot of hard work. It can be difficult for a kid at 19 to look at a tool like this J-45, with all the rich decades of sound and life and love inside it, and feel like they’re worthy to take it on for the next part of the journey. But since that summer, Mays has put in the mileage, collected those grains of sand, and feels now like he’s earned it.

“I’ve spent literally blood, sweat, and tears on this from a lot of hard times and a lot of great times and shows. So now, I feel like I deserve it and it’s part of me. And I think, ultimately, it makes you work harder, to feel like you deserve the thing. I think any tool is like that. It’s intimidating at first, but once you master it and know what everything does, it really becomes an extension. It’s only time and experience that makes that happen,” Mays says. “You end up getting fused with the thing, eventually.”