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Doing Philosophy: Arthur vs. Matthew Barber

Canadian singer-songwriter Matthew Barber has a thing for retro sounds. His recently released self-titled album, which he made by himself, was recorded entirely from his basement on an analog 8-track machine. Now Matthew is on tour in support of it. This album pays homage to an unofficial album he made back when he was still a student. Before becoming a musician, Matthew was a philosophy undergraduate at Queens and an M.A. student at McMaster University. Hoping to embarrass him a little, and in keeping with this notion of throwbacks, I sat down with him to talk philosophy (and maybe a little music).

When you made your first album you were a philosophy student at Queens, and then you went on to McMaster to get your Masters degree in Philosophy…

MB: Yeah I did [laughs].

What did you do your masters degree in, specifically?

MB: Uh, well, specifically my thesis was on later Wittgenstein and incorporating what some contemporary people were saying about it, stuff like that. So philosophy of language I guess you could say, more generally speaking.

Which later theorists did you work with?

MB: On my thesis? Well I looked at a lot of John McDowell who’s a University of Pittsburgh guy who’s one of my favourite contemporary philosophers, I guess you could say. And a fair bit of Richard Rorty. And my supervisor, who was a guy at McMaster, named Gary Allen. Yeah, a lot of post-Wittgensteinian philosophy of language, and people kind of in pragmatism and that sort of thing. Yeah, it was a while ago now. But it was fun though; I really immersed myself in it for a couple years.

Would you ever think about going back and getting your PhD or anything like that?

MB: I have thought about it, but never that seriously, I suppose, because I’ve never really followed through with it, and at this point I don’t really see it happening. I don’t know, I think I’ve been far enough removed from the academic world for long enough now that I don’t know that I need to necessarily throw myself right back into it. But there was a time when I was thinking about it. Definitely.

Yeah, now it’s more about the music I imagine.

MB: Yeah. It’s more about music and just… I don’t know. Just being in the world outside of academics as well, because it can… It’s a great life, I think, if you’re really well suited to it, you know, being at the university all the time, but you can run the risk of just being in a little bit of a bubble and being obsessed with all of your little philosophical problems that your peers are all obsessed with, and kind of losing touch with the world outside of university a little bit. You definitely see that sometimes. I think I might be guilty of that myself.

Now, has philosophy or Wittgenstein played into your music at all? Is there any influence of his in your music?

MB: Um, not consciously, certainly not directly, but I think it probably, just thinking about things philosophically, quote unquote, whatever that means. I mean, that can mean all kinds of different things. But, you know, I think writing songs is just another way of just trying to make sense of, basically, existence, and trying to… we’re all sort of faced with this “What are we doing here?” kind of thing and I think different people have different ways of processing those sorts of thoughts and creatively expressing them and putting them back into the world. One way to do it is doing philosophy, but I feel like song writing is kind of a different, more abstract way of doing the same kind of thing. I think spending a lot of time in philosophy classes and reading, with my head in those sorts of books, has probably worked its way into my song writing, but definitely unconsciously. I don’t specifically try to reference certain philosophers or anything like that in my lyrics.

No, you didn’t strike me as someone who does that at all.

MB: No, no, my lyrics are not too heady or intellectual or anything like that. I’m trying to go for more of an emotional reaction usually, and trying to keep it from being too esoterically academic or anything like that.

Matthew Barber will stop in Peterborough in support of his eponymous album, Matthew Barber, October 4 at the Red Dog Tavern. Tickets are available in advance for $10 and at the door for $12. No word yet on whether Matthew will autograph your Wittgenstein books in addition to his albums.

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