Artist in Residence: Inside Cold War Kids' Matt Maust's L.A. Studio
Art is anything. As editors, we’re continually fascinated by both the process and physical space in which creativity is allowed to thrive. In our new Artist in Residence series, we’ll be touring the residences and studios that our top ranked tastemakers call home. Each month, we’ll select a singular and distinctive guide to take us down the rabbit hole of the American art scene. Our first subject is one of our favorite local muses.
Meet musician and mixed-media artist Matt Maust. The bassist and visual director of Southern California-based band Cold War Kids, Maust happens to be one of the most prolific, humble, and good-humored artists in the greater L.A. area. His mercurial tastes and abilities beget an adaptable style that runs the gamut from neon installations to splatter-painted VHS tapes. He’s also arguably the most gratifying person to shoot the breeze with about T-shirts and John Turturro.
Maust took us inside his artful East L.A. abode (which boasts one of the best gallery wall setups we’ve laid eyes on) and adjacent studio space—where he creates band cover art, massive mixed-media collages, murals, tees, lookbooks, postcards, paintings, and Instagram vibes for days. I sat down with him for a candid chat on artistic ambition, creative confidence, and why a sense of humor is the biggest ace up art’s sleeve. He generously agreed to let me record our musings.
JILLIAN KNOX FINLEY: Hey, Matt—introduce yourself.
MATT MAUST: My name is Matt Maust, and I’m a visual artist.
JKF: What mediums do you work in?
MM: Mixed media. It’s kinda Wild West–y, not so traditional. Whatever is around, I use—a lot of tape, a lot of computers, a lot of paper.
JKF: You have a visual arts degree, and Cold War Kids was the name of your art blog in college, right?
MM: Yeah, there was a graphic design class where the semester project was to design a website. You had to come up with a name for the site. I thought Cold War Kids was a cooler name than just Matt Maust. I also think the domain of my name was not available, but I didn’t think my name was that cool-sounding.
JKF: Matt Maust is a cool name, though. It’s both assonantal and alliterative.
MM: I guess so. Thank you!
JKF: Do you have a memory of the first thing you ever bought or owned that occurred to you as “art”?
MM: Yeah, I think so. I collected postcards as a kid. My parents wouldn’t let me have a camera when we went on all our family vacations at first. They just said, “Buy the postcards!” I started buying so many postcards that they realized, Oh, a camera might be cheaper than all the postcards he’s buying.
JKF: I saw where that was going. I’ve seen your postcard collection.
MM: Yeah. The first thing I think I owned that I thought of as kind of artistic was this monkey toy. My brother and I named the monkey Haus. It was a $10 gorilla monkey thing with Velcro hands. The amount of laughs we got out of that thing as a character was the first thing to maybe occur to me as art. I was probably about 6 or 7.
JKF: What’s the first piece of art you ever sold?
MM: I gave a lot away, but the first one I ever sold was a 5x5 of a Lincoln continental photograph that I xeroxed and tiled real big on a canvas. I painted the whole thing pink and wrote, I think, “Viva the Revolution” or something stupid like that on top of it. I sold it to the only person I knew in college who had money to spend on art. This rich girl bought it for maybe $100.
JKF: Where do all the phrases in your art come from?
MM: People’s mouths.
JKF: Real people or literary/movie people?
MM: Mostly real. If it strikes a chord in me, it’s usually real people.
JKF: I was at The Broad yesterday reading this insane quote about Basquiat and jazz. How, as he was a fan of jazz, his style exists in a structure around improvised lines. Do you think your visual aesthetic dovetails with your musical style?
MM: I think they’re totally different. I know far less about making music than I do about making art. I don’t really understand that much these days, either, because I’m not really a melody guy. Never have been—hence my monotone voice. I think if anything I’m much more visually inspired by comedy than I am by music.
JKF: I remember you telling me once you felt more creatively inspired from seeing a stand-up show.
MM: Yeah, music is fun to listen to. I don’t think it really inspires a lot of visual art—for me, personally.
JKF: So what kind of comedy inspires you? Mostly stand-up?
MM: Stand-up comedy is more of a form. For me, it’s more just real life. Just listening to people say dumb sh*t and laughing. It’s kind of condescending, I think. Nevertheless, it’s more about eavesdropping on people in reality.
JKF: Speaking of people saying dumb sh*t, your art studio is kind of a non–social media barracks. Is it important for you to be cut off from the digital world when you’re creating?
MM: I still have internet at the studio. I’m still logged on. A lot of the things I make visually I totally get off the internet. I gotta search for stuff. If I’m thinking about John Turturro, for instance, he is a really inspirational character. There may be things I need to google about John Turturro to do a piece. I’m on the internet all the time. It is a Wild West kind of lifestyle where anything goes.
JKF: Do you ever get creatively blocked?
MM: I think I get creatively lazy.
JKF: How do you pull yourself out of a lazy stint?
MM: I just go to the studio and start moving things around. I think blocked is just another word for lazy.
JKF: Was there a specific moment in time you would pinpoint that was significant to you artistically?
MM: Probably. Let me think about that. The day I had to quit my 9-to-5 to go tour was May of 2006, I think? I was designing T-shirts for a clothing line and had to give up that job to go on tour with the band. The band was still not yet a full-time gig or anything at the time. We were only losing money with the band. When I gave up my 9-to-5 art job that was earning me money to do a job that wasn’t making money, that was that moment.
JKF: You tour quite a bit as a band, and you produce a lot of art on the road. Is your process different when you’re making art on tour than when you’re at home in your studio space?
MM: Yeah. It’s much more concentrated. It’s tinier. It’s more two pens and whatever I can find.
JKF: What kind of supplies to do you take with you?
MM: Oh, usually not much. I just buy it along the way, which is how I get so much stuff accumulated at home. I just put it in a suitcase. I usually don’t take anything with me. You know, you go to certain 99-cent stores in other states and work with whatever art-supply stores have or whatever a gas station has. You find stuff along the way. Then I’ll dump it off at home in my studio and go out and find new stuff. So a lot of it is whatever I find along the way. Which is why I love to walk so much. There’s a lot more—
JKF: What’s the greatest creative high you’ve ever had off the process of making art?
MM: I think it was one of the more underappreciated, under-attended shows we ever played. We did this long flight. It was in outer Strasberg. I don’t know if it was in Germany or France; it was around the border. We played this sort of music festival. I don’t remember the name of it. I think we were the only rock band on the bill. We played around 5 p.m., and it was a goes-till-4-a.m. kind of thing with mostly EDM stuff. It was like playing the Greek Theatre with only about 30 people watching. So the show itself wasn’t that great. Afterward, I stayed up all night. Our bus was parked there until 8 a.m. I had this big dressing room, and I had supplies with me. I made a lot of stuff that night that I was really into. That was probably the greatest high I’ve ever had. I had a great night that night.
JKF: Do you like everything you make? What’s your ratio for throwing things away you’re not happy with, or do you just sort of live with it for a while and repurpose it later?
MM: Live with it and repurpose it later. I rarely like anything right after I make it. You make something and then you forget about it. You rip it up. Then you put something on it.
If I don’t feel like I’ve found it in the vein of like, when you rip stuff out of magazines, you can say, I like this ad. This is a perfect ad. If it’s not that same feeling of finding it in my studio, I usually don’t like it—if that makes sense. I rarely have an idea, make something, and say, “I’m done!” That’s not the way I work.
I feel like you have to work really hard at something and then work really hard at forgetting about it, then finding it down the road, and then you’re like Oh! And it may take 10 years. You never know.
JKF: I’m the same with writing. The novel in my iPhone is similarly waiting to be forgotten. It’s decanting.
MM: Totally. Love it.
JKF: If you could sum up your artistic philosophy in two words à la Bukowski’s famous “Don’t Try,” is there an artistic philosophy you prescribe to as an artist—in five words or fewer?
MM: Yeah. I think it’s probably six words, but “Put a thing on a thing!”
JKF: Ha! That’s good. It’s sort of the pizza approach to making art.
MM: Sorry, it’s six words.
JKF: All cool. It’ll fit on a bumper sticker. I have another quote for you to react to. The Greek soldier Archilochus said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” Do you ever fall short of your own expectations as a creative? Have there been times where you have set out to create something and ended up with something entirely different?
MM: Yeah, I think so. I’m processing that quote. It’s a really good quote. If anything, I’m lazy and I have low expectations of myself artistically. That’s a huge problem that I have to deal with. I don’t like it.
JKF: That’s surprising to hear you say that. You’re so disciplined in approaching your work.
MM: Well, I’m disciplined with showing up, but I don’t love most of the things I make. If it was good, I could stop. I’m not proud of that problem.
JKF: Problems I’m Proud Of: Collected Essays is a pretty good book title.
MM: Yeah, totally. I love it. To my point, today I was in the studio all day playing bass on about four songs. I didn’t walk away super happy with my performance. It will be fine. It is what it is, but I don’t know. I don’t think I have very good confidence.
JKF: When you say lack of confidence, where do you feel that stems from?
MM: I think it has something to do with the fact that for the last 13 years, I’ve played in front of audiences. With a live performance, you know if you’re nailing something or not. When you’re doing something that doesn’t have those eyes on you, it’s a big question mark. You don’t know if you’re nailing it. It’s not normal to be in front of people most nights. I think that’s kind of warped my perception of myself.
When you’re doing things that you love and making art, it’s probably good that you have no gratification or people affirming you in the moment. You can get used to that affirmation. Even though when you’re playing in front of audiences, you could play a terrible show, it doesn’t matter. I think you get used to that kind of pat on the back. Most people at shows are half drunk or fully drunk, so they’re gonna like you no matter what.
JKF: That is true of comedy shows too.
JKF: Do you think that’s because when playing to a live audience, there’s room to recalibrate and course-correct? It’s a bit of a continual dialogue. You’re getting feedback. Theoretically, if you’re not nailing it, you could shift something. There’s not that back-and-forth when it’s only you.
MM: Yeah, and when you’re in front of an audience, just the fact that you’re up there means you’re nailing it. Even if you’re not nailing it, you think you are because your adrenaline is going.
JKF: And they usually paid to be there. They showed up.
JKF: It’s still surprising. Creatively, you have such discerning taste. I know you to be very decisive. You know what you like, and you don’t waste time fixating on what you don’t. The way you talk about art, if you don’t like something, you don’t want to talk about it. I think that’s something of a rarity. People love to tear things apart, especially in today’s culture. You strike me as an artist who is very positive.
MM: Yeah, I think it’s kind of pointless to spend time on things you don’t like. Why would you want to rip something apart? It’s more exciting to try to make something than it is to tear something down.
JKF: It takes more energy to create than to destroy.
MM: I think so.
JKF: What does the phrase “2EZ” mean to you?
MM: I have a neon piece in my living room that says “2EZ.” We were in Australia on tour. They say that there a lot. I think for me it’s kind of the thing you say when you have nothing else to say. It’s not positive. It’s not negative. It’s kind of this filler word.
I have these friends who play in a band, Tijuana Panthers. I remember one time they opened for this other band at El Rey. When they came off stage, I told the singer, “Hey, man, that was really vibey.” I really liked the show. I thought it was great. One of the guys from Tijuana Panthers thought it was my way of saying—
JKF: Something derogatory?
MM: No, not derogatory. He thought it was like the equivalent of a thumbs-up, A-for-effort kind of thing. But I really did like it! I think that’s kind of what 2EZ is. If I would have told the guy, 2EZ that would have maybe been condescending.
I don’t know. It’s kind of just this word that doesn’t mean anything, but it’s a thumbs-up, I guess. It makes me think of Cooper in Twin Peaks doing the thumbs-up. He’s not condescending, but he’s not not condescending.
JKF: It’s a neutral sense of approval.
MM: Yeah. It’s a Ya did that!
JKF: Just an acknowledgement that something has occurred.
MM: Keep goin’!
JKF: Good job in that you finished something. Switching gears to your house. You have a whole lot of cool vintage. I think you told me once you were a sort of $30-cap thrift-store guy. You weren’t gonna throw down more that $30 at a thrift store.
MM: Yeah, I think so.
JKF: What would you really throw money at?
MM: T-shirts. Definitely T-shirts. Definitely framing. Those are about it.
JKF: I find framing to be one of the hardest things! I have at least 50 unframed pieces of art in my house. How do you go about choosing how to frame all the things you collect?
MM: When I was 11 or 12 years old, I just decided I was going to wear T-shirts and jeans every day. I was probably 12, maybe 14, actually. I just decided. It’s the same with framing. I probably only have two or three ways I frame. If it’s art—and I’m only talking about my own art—I float it on a white background with a white frame. If it’s a vintage poster of some sort, I frame it with a thin metal frame, not floated, no matte, no border. If you eliminate all the options, it’s too easy. You don’t have to think about it that hard.
JKF: Let’s talk about your enviable book collection. What’s the most prized title in your library?
MM: My favorite book mentality is Deiter Roth’s Tischmatten. You can find it for about $40 on Amazon. That’s my favorite book. That book had a lot of influence on me as an artist. It’s pretty rich reading.
JKF: Have you ever gone without eat, sleep, or drink to finish a piece of art?
JKF: No? [Laughs.] You’re very methodical. You treat it like a job.
MM: Yeah, art isn’t that important. That kind of just happens no matter what. I’ve definitely gone without lunch to see a movie that I want to see.
JKF: Ha! Of course you have.
MM: Like when The Hateful Eight came out. I think it was Boxing Day at 7 in the morning; I went to see it with no breakfast. I had coffee in the theater, but I definitely didn’t eat until 11:30 or so. So, yes, definitely with movies.
JKF: Is there a particular movie that had an influence on you aesthetically as a kid? Can you name one that really imprinted on your young mind as an artist?
MM: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
JKF: That’s a great one!
MM: It was the first realization of the idea that traveling was more important than being home. It’s about that feeling of being open to randomness and the kindness of strangers.
JKF: I never thought of it that way.
MM: That movie really holds up. It’s a really, really rich, great movie. It’s John Hughes’s masterpiece, I think. The music is maybe not timeless, but the film itself is timeless.
JKF: Agreed. So what’s the weirdest thing in your house?
MM: I don’t smoke, but I have this deer-hoof ashtray on my coffee table that is very much in the vein of the liner notes from Tattoo You. I’d say that’s the weirdest.
JKF: What’s the most challenging piece of art you’ve ever made?
MM: The most naked and challenging I ever had was probably in 2003. It was in front of the Long Beach art museum at night. It was the night I met my friend Richard Swift. Richard was playing an hour and a half on piano, just solo music. He asked me to make four pieces of artwork live on the spot in front of an audience while Richard played. I had never met Richard before, but I really respected his music. My friend Eric arranged this thing where it was like 7 to 9 p.m. to have Richard playing and have me making art. I was terribly nervous about it. That’s probably the most challenging in terms of me being like, I gotta just do it anyway. Richard and I have been friends ever since.
JKF: What themes do you explore the most in your art?
MM: In the way that like William Eggleston takes pictures of whatever’s in front of him and that’s his aesthetic, I don’t try to go out of my way to give any answers. It’s just take whatever is in front of me, mix it up in a blender, and put it out. I don’t want to ever feel contrived or as though I went out of my way to make this thing. I want to feel like it just happened in the natural course of my life. I think I want anything I put out there to feel natural and like it’s always been there. That’s why I like walking so much.
JKF: You’re big on walking. Nobody walks enough in this city. It is my biggest complaint about Los Angeles.
MM: Yeah, exactly. It’s also like the book I mentioned, Tischmatten. If you look at that book, it’s all based on happenstance. It’s not intentional artwork. It’s more the happenstance of life. That book could probably describe it better than I could say it.
This isn’t a disservice to artists I love, but there have been many times where I’ve been more inspired by happenstance. For instance, me and my friend Nathan, we went to The Broad and MOCA in one day. We liked what we saw. Then we walked to Echo Park from The Broad, and a lot of the trash we saw on the ground in the strip malls was far more inspirational than the stuff we’d seen in the gallery. Like, a crumpled-up bodega bag a lot of times is more inspirational than a finished painting.
JKF: I likewise went to The Broad, loved what I saw, but the descriptions of the art itself blew me away the most. The Broad has incredible copywriting! It is truly the best copywriting I’ve ever enjoyed in a museum.
MM: Yeah, totally. I’ve noticed that. They use great fonts, too.
JKF: Your Instagram is one of my personal favorites. I quit social media for 40 days, and the vibe on your feed was among the only things I missed. I think you have achieved the art-in-the-bodega-bag aesthetic.
MM: Love it. That’s the only social media I do besides my Twitter, which is literally a garbage can. I feel like I don’t have anything else to add to that, so I guess we’re done.
JKF: Great, you don’t have anything else to say about art—ever.
MM: Yes. I’m done.
JKF: We didn’t talk about your tees!
MM: Oh yeah! As of this month, my T-shirt line, £UV, is being carried exclusively at Maxfield in L.A. There’s an Instagram for that too. It just started: @LuvSickLuv. We have one follower, so that’s cool. I think I’m the only one.
JKF: I’ll follow you.
JKF: Too easy.
"2 B Finished Would B a Relief" by Matt Maust (price upon request)
Ed. Note: This interview has been condensed and edited (mostly Finley’s laughter).
Styling by Jillian Knox Finley & Laura Martins
Matt Maust is repped by Paul Loya Gallery in L.A. and M23 in NYC. His solo exhibit 1 of These Days I’m Gonna Do It opens November 5 at Paul Loya Gallery. Cold War Kids are currently on tour.
Have a favorite artist we should know? Shout out their Instagram in the comments.