Buzz: Matt Sucich — The Tragic Comedy of Thousand Dollar Dinners

Listen closely to Matt Sucich.

At first, you’re taken by the hauntingly honey-voiced singing that spins tales of broken hearts and stilted dreams, societal woes and pangs of deceit. At the same time, you’re swept away by dulcet melodies that float gracefully above solemn arrangements. There is rock ‘n’ roll here, but mostly folk, and in the most surreptitious way the songs leave you pleasantly fulfilled with the slightest hint of melancholia. All of these wonderfully crafted musical dichotomies are on display in his latest collection of songs, Thousand Dollar Dinners—deeply personal and yet eerily relatable expressions of maturity, hurt, love, and loss, which he brings to the stage as a libretto for his emotionally charged performances. It is where these observational vignettes come to life, so we can better learn something new about ourselves. “I’ve begun to notice the theme of contradictions running throughout my songs,” Sucich told me with a knowing chuckle when we spoke recently. “I need to make myself laugh, and then I know I’ve got something.”

At 38, after twenty years of mastering his vividly rhythmic style of guitar playing, half of which was spent studying, refiguring, and fully understanding the moods and magic of songwriting, the Queens native emerges with a generational statement of inner turmoil and the eternal search for something more, something real, something worth singing about. The songs of Thousand Dollar Dinners are blurry visions of just-misses in happiness, success, love, acceptance, and fulfillment unlike any I have heard in some time. And while his melodiously languid deliveries harken Paul Simon, it is in the storytelling, the passing on of lyrical density, that makes listening deeper to Matt Sucich so rewarding.

Like Simon, or the early New York voices of pre-Dylan Greenwich Village such as Phil Ochs or Tom Paxton, and later reflected in the early works of Billy Joel—songs that reveal an undercurrent of alienation and the deprivation of sensitivity in an ever-changing world—Sucich taps into how our subconscious deals with the inevitable realities of the day-to-day which compromise our dreams and relationships. “I want everything to lose,” he sings in “I Want Everything,” a notion that may come off as myopic but is quite the opposite. The way the music and his phrasing seduce the listener to at once be enamored with and revolted by despair is quite remarkable. These are siren songs to stir our slumbering ids, such as my favorite track on the record, “Over My Head,” in which Sucich frames the end-game of self-awareness with the simple but concussive refrain: “I’ve been over my head since I learned to talk/And I’ll be over my head until death comes a’ callin’.”

“I picked up a guitar, and after a dry spell of writing it just came to me,” Sucich says of the song. Decamped at his friend and fellow songwriter Amy Vachal’s home in California to burn off the angst of an agonizing breakup, he channeled his pain as creatively philosophic as he could in a single two-hour jag. “It all came out after months of the shit I was going through, and it just hit me that I clearly needed to say something… and I said it.” He sings, “How this goes is not my business/I did not ask for this beating heart/But now I know the facts were mistakes/They’re always mistakes until they’re art.” This moment of creative clarity was revelatory for Sucich, who told me, “In the end it speaks to the faith in yourself as a writer, and it’s that kind of moment, when you pick up the guitar and write something top-to-bottom without stopping, that really drives that faith home.”

This similar sense of loss and alienation runs through Thousand Dollar Dinners, a title taken from a line in the opening track, “Saturn,” a superbly performed talking-blues rap about an artist caught in the subsistence of commerce, playing a game for which there are no rules or winners, just roles to play. The key line repeated throughout—“It’s all relative”—is sung with such resolve it acts as a curse on rationalization. The song concludes with the biting, “I’m just using you for your thousand-dollar dinners/‘Cause none of this really matters.

I was first moved by the sonic and ideological contradictions in Sucich’s oevre with his 2017 release of “Montauk,” a song so pretty that my then nine-year-old daughter walked around humming it for days. Yet, as I would soon find out, there is something not quite right here. He sings with steely purpose, “I don’t want to go to sleep/I don’t want to be awake/Don’t want to go someplace that I cannot escape/I don’t want to be sideways, I don’t want to be straight/I don’t want to go right now, I do not want to wait”. It was the visually arresting video for the song that nailed it for me. It follows a twenty-something hipster glued to his smartphone wandering through his life around Astoria, unaware of his surroundings—which turns out was the songwriter’s old apartment and stomping grounds. Sucich’s black humor comes to the fore, when at the end, the hipster’s phone loses power and he is forced to see where he is, a high-energy corner tavern at happy hour, alive with young and gregarious patrons. He smiles, and just when we think he’s going to finally discover a life-affirming connection, he pulls another phone out of his breast pocket and begins surfing in his own world again, ignoring his humanity to return inward.

When recently debuting one of the songs from the record, “Patient Man” (in keeping with his playful duality, it is a song about impatience), he caught the reaction from a friend, a comedy writer, in the audience and was sure he was onto something. “He laughed out loud at the line, ‘I’m not reinventing the wheel/The wheel is doing just fine,’” recalls Sucich. “And that was all the gratification I needed, I knew this song is a keeper.”

Last June, Sucich gathered his beloved dog Mabel and piled all of his musical tools into his car and headed to Amagansett—a sleepy Hamptons beach hamlet founded in the late 17th century—to record the bulk of Thousand Dollar Dinners over a five-day long weekend with his compatriot, multi-instrumentalist and award-winning songwriter, Kiyoshi Matsuyama, who co-produced the album. Matsuyama and his wife Lilly also sang many of the distinctly redolent harmonies throughout. Sucich told me in no uncertain terms that he had the right songs for the right time— composed over a two-plus year period—that he needed to get down. “I know there are other songwriters that can write an absurd amount of songs, they go into the studio with like seventy songs, but I’ve never been that person,” he says. “Maybe they think ideas are songs and that’s fine, but I don’t tell myself that. I like to finish it completely and consider that a song. A good example of that is “Beach Town,” which I wrote right before my trip out to Amagansett. I was so happy with the concept of recording in a beach town, and it just kind of came.”

Sucich underlines the joy of escape in “Beach Town” with another dire warning of allowing geography to realize contentment: “Now, do I move to a beach town for the beach all year ‘round?/Do I move to a beach town for that sweet ocean sound?/And if I move what will I do/When the beach town gets me down?” How far, he asks, do we go to escape ourselves before there is nowhere else to go? “And how much are you willing to spend?” he queries in the chorus.

Sucich confronts dealing with the loss of love and the crisis in confidence that comes from disintegrating trust with strikingly confessional songs like “Back to Zero,” which he says is “probably one of the most honest songs I’ve ever written,” and “Nothing About Me Wants to See You Again” (probably the most infectious melody here), that resounds with coping to understand what that means in the most severely tempestuous way. “Of course, ‘nothing about me wants to see you again’ is a lie,” concedes Sucich, again playing with contradictions, this time emotionally charged ones. “Nowadays with social media it’s impossible for us to not see everything that is going on in our ex’s life and the people that surrounded our relationship. Breaking up in this day and age is a fucking mess, even for a guy who doesn’t even know what the hell Snapchat is.”

Sucich made sure I understood that these songs do not hide behind too much metaphor. He is coming to grips with the agonies and elations all at once. “When you’re at your darkest point, you need to admit to yourself, I am not OK,” he says. And this is what he sings in “Back to Zero,” one of more than a few breakup songs that get to the core of Thousand Dollar Dinners. “Let’s get this straight/It’s not the end of days/We may live, but I’m not OK”. But it is within two agonizing lines that Sucich reveals a man no longer in control, “The trouble is I’m restless in the darkness / The trouble is I’m just a witness to my own unraveling,” and in so doing, obliterates poetic subtleties.

Having said that, the symbolism in tracks like “The Morning Song,” a moment-in-time respite from the Snapchat/Instagram bombardment of this generation, can be stark. “This is the best example of my translating emotion onto paper and then into song,” he said when I relayed to him how it reads like the unfurling of burdens in each verse, as if he is giving himself a pep talk. He laughed at this, and said, “I’m telling myself, ‘Don’t give yourself such a hard time that something didn’t work out.’ It’s this feeling of when you wake up, you know, sleeping things off—it’s crazy how the demons come at night and a lot of times you wake up to a new day and it’s rejuvenating, and it gives you a new perspective on what was killing you the night before. On this particular morning, I wrote about how it just takes time to roll off. I sing, ‘It rolls away, it rolls on’. What was killing you a year ago… maybe not so much anymore.”

It is, again, on stage, when listeners can understand Sucich’s sense of ironic humor and inner dialogue best. Seeing him perform this past autumn, I was taken by his ability to get lost in the spotlight and yet draw the audience in. It is almost as if he’d embodied this dodge and parry with contradiction and shared it song by song with the room. He can take an intimate setting for his back-and-forth with not only his songs’ diverging subjects, but the people before him, and make it far more personal.

It is this honesty, and the courage to share, that resonates with Thousand Dollar Dinners, the cover of which is a photo of Sucich sitting alone, seen through the greasy front window of his hometown’s Jackson Hole Diner; hardly a place for high class dining, but one for meeting friends and colleagues, crossing the social lines, and breaking bread. Yet, there he is, glancing across his shoulder at what might come next to fill his notebooks and become a song.

Catch Matt Sucich at Rockwood Hall on Feb. 28 and Asbury Park Brewery on Mar. 3!