A Q&A with Butcher Knives’ Nikko Matiz

As a native New Yorker, some of my experiences are likely uncommon to most of the country, but what I managed to cherish was the diversity that was just considered a daily part of life. As a schoolboy, my crew consisted of a Nigerian, a half-Cuban, half-Jewish kid, a goofy and incredibly tall young brother, a younger kid from one of the Francophone African countries, and a kid from Trinidad, and back then, man were we a goofy bunch of kids. And you’d hear meringue, hip-hop, rock, and about a dozen other genres and sub-genres of music while roaming the streets.  

With each member of the Brooklyn-based septet of Butcher Knives originally hailing from different parts of the world, the band naturally claims rather diverse influences including Mano Negra, the Clash, Johnny Cash, Gogol Bordello, Bob Marley, bluegrass, flamenco, Eastern European folk, rockabilly and psychobilly. And they’ve managed to mesh all of these influences into a sound they’ve dubbed “gypsybilly” – a sound that manages to have a punk rock energy and vitality. This adeptly mixed sound seems to represent the old New York that I remember as a child; in fact, it manages to sound both familiar and alien. 

The forthcoming release of the Brooklyn-based septet’s debut EP, Misery will likely put the band on New York’s world music scene as their sound and live show compares favorably with the likes of acts like Gogol Bordello, Astoria’s Bad Buka and others. After all, they all specialize in exceedingly passionate yet incredibly danceable music. If you don’t get swept up into it, you have a cold, cold heart. However, unlike their contemporaries songs like “American Dream” captures the plight of the legal and the illegal immigrant with a sensitivity and unflinching honesty that’s rarely been heard – and on another level, the concept of the American Dream is questioned and viewed with a healthy cynicism. Their lead single “Tell Me Why” focuses on the heartache of dealing with a fickle, distrustful lover; a rather familiar theme that transcends genre, language and culture. 

I recently chatted with Butcher Knives’ vocalist and guitarist Nikko Matiz about the band’s forthcoming effort; their film-noir inspired video for “Tell Me Why” and the multiple influences behind it; how much their personal experiences and those of others immigrants directly inspired the EP’s second single “American Dream”; and of course, much more. 

Check it out below.

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was what you needed to do?

Nikko Matiz: I’ve been drawn to music since early in my life. My older brother taught me a few chords on guitar and from there I was hooked. I started college studying music but it wasn’t what I expected so I decided to study audio engineering instead. That’s actually partially why Butcher Knives started – one of the reasons Nacho [Segura] and I started writing together was that I had a laptop and some recording gear. 

WRH: Who are your influences?

NM: I grew up on a wide variety music. Bad Religion, U2, The Clash, Bob Marley, Muse, Mano Negra, Willie Colon, Biggie…. you get the idea. Too many to count! 

WRH:  Who are you listening to now?

NM: I’ve been listening to a lot of Gaslight Anthem and Bedouin Soundclash lately. 

WRH: How did the band meet? And when did you everyone know that you were right for each other creatively?

NM: Nacho and I met in Miami while he was on tour with his former band. I started getting involved with them as their sound tech and eventually we started writing music together. We came up with what ended up being our album Misery. We had the idea from the get-go that New York was the best place to launch Butcher Knives, so Nacho moved to NYC while I finished school. He and my friend Yoni [Benshlomo] (our upright bass player) hooked up in New York and assembled the band. For more than a year I was flying up from Miami for our shows. Assembling the current lineup took a couple of years but we get along very well musically and we are all close friends.

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

NM: The idea from the beginning was to fuse all of the sounds we grew up with into some sort of punk rock. We have gospel organs, French accordion melodies, hillbilly banjo licks, swing guitars, etc. all over a simple punk structure – we call it Gypsybilly. We wanted to make something very simple, yet powerful and diverse. I was tired of going out to see live bands and seeing 4-minute guitar solos I’ve heard 40 times before. I find putting on a simple but great show much more challenging and interesting than showing off musicianship.

WRH: You have a sound that’s difficult to pin down. What has the response to you and your music been? Have you had to deal with people who haven’t quite gotten it?

NM: It’s been great. People do seem to have trouble categorizing it but that’s ok. I don’t really think you have to ‘get it’ in order to enjoy it. If you listen to it and it moves you, either positively or negatively, I’m happy with what I’ve done. 

WRH: The video for “Tell Me Why” is heavily inspired by old spy and crime movies. You think of movies like The French Connection and a host of others. And it fits the song perfectly. How did that concept come about?

NM: Nacho directed and shot the video. The song itself came from a breakup he went through years ago and the concept and storyline came from that experience. Being a film nut, Nacho was inspired by some of his favorite movies. 

WRH: A song like “American Dream” manages to describe both the legal and illegal immigrant experience in a very empathetic fashion. It’s also one of the more political songs you’ve done to date. What influenced that song? And how much of your work comes from personal experience?

NM: Almost all of us in the band are immigrants. When I arrived in the US, it took me 10 years to become a ‘legal’ alien. I started working illegally at a car wash when I was 13 years old and have worked many other jobs where my co-workers are ‘illegals’. I’ve known a lot of people who were not lucky enough to have the chance to become a legalized US citizen like me – people who have lived here for 20 years or more, working below minimum wage in poor conditions, being taken advantage of because of their ‘illegal’ status, living away from their families, and sending half their income back to their home countries. I was touched by the vast number of people like that I met. All of them were running in circles trying to achieve the American dream, but never actually reaching it. So when Nacho and I wrote the song, we wanted to share not only our experiences as immigrants, but the experiences of others we have met along the way. 

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?

NM: Rehearse and get better everyday. Then record yourself, listen, critique, and rehearse some more.