Matthäus Embraces its Founder's Inner Nerd | Chicago Tribune

The challenge I present myself with is to get out of my own way," says Benjamin Montalbano, founder and frontman of Matthaus. "At the end of the day, that's my MO and my reason for doing this project: to present songs that are digestible but also satisfy my own inner nerdiness."

Montalbano'snerdiness stems from his background in the classical music world. After getting an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in music composition, he briefly attended graduate school in San Francisco. Although he chose the location because of a professor who once studied under classical composer Nadia Boulanger, the overall experience proved to be too rigid for the musician.

"It was very classical. And when I say classical, I mean Beethoven. It was very, very steeped in all of the classical traditions," Montalbano says. "I think having that knowledge base is really important but it just wasn't the right fit for what I was trying to do." He left graduate school after one semester.

Chicago was a unique challenge for Montalbano, and a surprise. Despite growing up in a small town in central Illinois with, as he claimed, about 4,000 people, he was hesitant to call Chicago his home. He did not believe the city could offer much creatively and artistically. "For some reason, I was just turned off from Chicago," he said. "I didn't realize how great of a city this is for art and culture and music. I guess the grass is greener."

Four years after his move to the city, Montalbano appreciates what the city has offered him, namely room to grow and experiment as an artist. "I like that Chicago is sort of an underdog. Everyone talks about LA and New York and Nashville and having been to those places, I prefer Chicago," he said.

There are multiple, burgeoning music scenes in the city. For young artists especially, Chicago offers a place to test new sounds. A wealth of performance venues, underground spaces and accessibility to information and technology have made the city a prime spot for breeding successful musicians of all genres. Montalbano might be one of them.

On his latest EP, "Effigy," Montalbano takes his classical, orchestral roots and transfers them to the chamber pop world. Listeners will hear an array of influences, from folk and chamber music to rock, emo and bluegrass. On paper it might seem strange but Montalbano makes it work, precisely because he (and his bandmates) are willing to dig deep into their sound, inserting and removing what does and does not work. The result is a nearly 20-minute epic, filled with airy vocals, acoustic guitars, softly rumbling percussion, sensuous brass elements and effective melodies.

And despite his current music's distance from the classical world, Montalbano includes those compositional practices in his songwriting. "I like having all of those different colors," Montalbano says about his large collective of musicians. "We've been working and writing more, sort of just exploring the different ways we can manipulate those textures. And I see, for me, all of these people."

Many elements work in tandem to create a Matthaus song which, upon first listen, sounds simple and straightforward. Each song, he says, is its own universe. There is great effort to make the result sound rather effortless. For Montalbano, that is the goal. "No one at our show at the Empty Bottle is going to go, 'Oh, I see what he's doing here'," he says. "The most important thing is that it sounds good and doesn't sound nerdy. Like that's always the most important thing."

Britt Julious is a freelance writer.

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When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.

Tickets: $10–$12;(21+);