Around the local music scene, Matt Hembree is probably best known as the energetic bassist for several tribute bands, providing the low end and backing vocals for reggae outfit Pablo & The Hemphill 7 and Stoogeaphilia — a loud-as-hell juggernaut blasting the hits from the titular Stooges plus other proto-punk bands like the Dead Boys and Television — as well as Protect and Swerve (The Police). He also rocked in Goodwin, an original power-pop group whose soaring, infectious choruses evoked Cheap Trick and Foo Fighters. Before that, he was the replacement bassist for the long-defunct prog outfit Underground Railroad, in which he had to learn a lot of complicated parts. Hembree can play in pretty much every genre, so finding that he’s been spending the year recording and releasing his own stylistically diverse music was less a surprise than it was a function of “it’s about time.”
On the streaming services, Hembree goes by akaKatboy, and this year, he has been releasing a song a month, starting in early February with the reggae track “It’s True.” Since then, he’s put out eight others, most recently an acoustic rocker about the perils of groupthink called “The Village Idiot.” Hembree said his current production is the result of a challenge. One of his Goodwin bandmates, guitarist Daniel Gomez, essentially said let’s record a song a month throughout the year.
Hembree and Gomez, whose 2023 material is on YouTube under Puffymechanics and Dark Mooger, agreed on the parameters that the tracks could be solo or with other musicians and that they had to be originals.
“The intent is not to get rich or famous or ‘take it to the next level’ but to just finish some damn songs and set them free,” Hembree said.
The bassist recorded and performed all the akaKatboy material himself in his “spare room/home office/studio.” Tracking nearly all the guitars, keys, and vocals late at night after his kids had gone to sleep, Hembree funneled everything straight to his laptop. The project rules allowed for songs old and new, and Hembree’s notebooks date back over 30 years.
“The oldest is ‘Village Idiot,’ which I started on in the ’80s,” he said. “As far as I can tell from my notebooks, it took on its finished form with lyrics … in the early ’90s.”
“It’s True,” “The Concert Prelude,” and “Good Day” are fresh this year, and the tracks from the three-song Arga Warga EP he put out in July as part of the project come from the past five-ish years.
“The one I’ve got cooking at the moment is another fresh 2023 song,” he said, “then I think I’m going to finish up a prog-type thing that was suggested by one of my kids banging on my keyboard, or I might pull out one of the country-ish songs I have from the ’90s.”
Hembree said his recording software has a “nice, basic horn library that is fun to play” and that he has aspirations of “fleshing out one of the jazzy improv bits” that he tinkers with on his upright. “It all depends on which song keeps me up at night the most. I’m about a song-and-a-half behind for the year anyway. I need to get my ass in gear.”
Hembree’s musical influences are all over the place, and listening to his work is an interesting map to the sounds that have blown back his hair all these years. His all-time favorite band is The Replacements, which makes a lot of sense when you hear the wry lyrics and uptempo charge of “The Village Idiot” as well as the urgency of Arga Warga.
“I cut my teeth on ’80s punk,” he said. “Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag … . When I moved from ultra-rural middle Tennessee to college in ’82, it threw me into a whole, huge, wide world of music I’d never known before. That’s where I discovered The Replacements, punk, ‘real’ jazz, funk, soul, R&B, classical, pretty much all the music that wasn’t played on Top 40 rock radio. My parents had turned me on to bluegrass, folk, and blues stuff previously, but my options in Grundy County, Tennessee, were … limited.”
Fast-forward 40 years, and he’s perfectly happy to play around with all the music he’s absorbed since his arrival at the University of Tennessee. While his music hops across genres, his own stylistic hallmarks persist — jazzy, melodic bass runs; clever, polysyllabic wordplay; and Hembree’s voice, a tenor seated somewhere between Weird Al Yankovic and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle. akaKatboy’s songs make for a fun listen, especially given that Hembree’s ethos is making music for its own sake.
“For me, akaKatboy is providing a really important musical outlet,” he said, “especially as the various live bands are petering out and life as a middle-aged, a’hem, suburban dad takes over.”
To put it simply, making music makes him happy. “I’m 59 and have played/recorded forever, but it is still kind of a thrill to think that someone out there just listened voluntarily to a song I wrote! All I can say is to stop waiting and do it. The act is its own reward.”