Out of the Shadow: Ron Matelic's legendary bands

 

If the induction process for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was based solely on merit, then Indianapolis music legend Ron Matelic would be a serious contender for the honor. In the 1960s, Matelic co-founded Sir Winston and The Commons, one of Indiana's most revered garage rock bands. Then, in the 1970s Matelic formed the group Anonymous, whose independently released 1976 LP Inside the Shadow is widely considered a masterpiece by fans of underground psychedelic rock.

Stylistically these two projects are very different. But the uniting factor is Matelic's searing electric guitar work, creative compositions and visionary approach to crafting rock and roll music.

While the music Matelic created never rivaled the popularity of Hoosier rock superstars like John Mellencamp or Axl Rose, fans of Matelic's work would argue that the quality of his output is just as high. And the publication you hold in your hands certainly sides with that notion. When we assembled our list of 100 Best Hoosier Albums two of Matelic's projects made the cut: Both Anonymous' Inside The Shadow and a compilation of Sir Winston and The Commons singles were included in our collection of Indiana's finest LPs.

Matelic's frustrations with the music industry pushed the songwriter and guitarist to retreat deeply into his own musical world in the 1970s. The name Anonymous hints at Matelic's own view of his music-making activities at this time. During the recording of Anonymous' magnum opus Inside The Shadow, the band's public persona was virtually nil. That was a huge loss for Hoosier music fans as the epic guitar arrangements and swelling vocal harmonies on the LP rival the best classic rock music of the era. It might sound ludicrous to compare an album recorded in a garage by a group of unknown Midwestern musicians to Led Zeppelin or Fleetwood Mac, but the comparisons hold true.

For many years, Matelic's work was relegated to the collections of big league collectors who acquire original copies of Matelic's vinyl releases for upwards of one thousand dollars. But thanks to a recent reissue from Machu Picchu Records, releases by Matelic's two rarest projects Anonymous and J. Rider can now be easily attained in both digital and physical releases.

 

IN THE BEGINNING

NUVO: Do you remember at what point you were first interested in playing music?

Ron Matelic: I had a sister named Shirley who was five years older than me. When she was a teenager I was exposed to Elvis, Buddy Holly and a lot of rock and roll at a very early age. I would listen to her 45s. Plus my dad worked at RCA Records and he used to bring home records. So we had a nice stash of records to play.

At one point we had a boarder at our house. She was a teacher and she had a baritone ukulele. She said I could play it whenever I wanted. It had a book with it and I figured out some chords. A year or so later my sister went to a party and she said she saw a guy at the party playing an electric guitar. She asked me why I didn't think about doing that. So I thought, "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea." I ended up borrowing a guitar and finding out that the chords were real similar to the ukulele, there was just some extra strings.

Then I found out I could listen to records and hear what they were playing. I could play by ear to some extent. I used to sit with my little RCA Victrola and my guitar and play songs over and over. I was floored by the lead to Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." I don't know what emotion that struck in me, but it sure did. That was around 1962 and I was probably 14 years old.

Eventually I got my own guitar a Fender Stratocaster and I started taking lessons. That opened things up for me. Surf music was happening, and my first guitar hero was Dick Dale. The way he played fascinated me. I would sit there for hours on end trying to figure out what he did. I used to buy all the surf albums I could afford.

Read an interview with Ron's son Scott Matelic -- a musician himself -- and Irvington Vinyl's Rick Wilkerson -- who reissued Matelic's work -- here.

NUVO: So this was around 1963. You're a teenager developing your proficiency on the electric guitar. Just a couple years later you'd be recording with Sir Winston and the Commons. What was the next step for you?

Matelic: My drummer John Medvescek, he and I had been friends since kindergarten. When I started playing guitar he wanted to find some drums. He bought a used set of Gretsch drums. So he and I started getting together to see what we could do. We played a party or two, just the two of us. One night we went to a dance at the Municipal Gardens on Lafayette Road. I believe Joe Stout and Don Basore [future Sir Winston & The Commons members] were both playing. We asked if they were looking for anybody else and they said yes. We got together briefly for a few practice sessions during the summer of our junior year in high school. But we let it slide. Later we got back together. We started taking it more seriously and improving. We added another guitar player. We were mostly playing surf instrumentals.

At some point we started singing. I think the first song we sang was Buddy Holly's "It's So Easy." We started acclimating to adding a few vocals. But then The Beatles hit and the whole world changed. Our music and perspective radically changed. I was so impressed by all the British groups. Eventually we started thinking, why don't we write our own songs? That's how I got started. Just trying to be like The Beatles I guess.

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SIR WINSTON AND THE COMMONS

During the mid '60s, Ron and a group of teenage musician friends formed Sir Winston and The Commons. While the band released only two 45 RPM singles during their brief career, both of these singles would go on to wield considerable influence. The first 1965's "We're Gonna Love"is a raging fuzzed-out rocker. The song's belligerent tone anticipates the sound and attitude of punk rock over a decade before the genre's arrival. "We're Gonna Love" is considered one of the finest moments of Indiana rock in the '60s and received widespread attention with its appearance on the legendary garage rock compilation series Back From The Grave.

Sir Winston's second single 1966's "Not The Spirit Of India" explored a markedly different territory, and is quite possibly the first psychedelic song ever recorded in the Hoosier state. "Not The Spirit Of India" begins with quaint, harmony-laden folk rock, but the peaceful vibe is quickly interrupted by Ron Matelic's acid guitar solo. Sir Winston's brief discography hints at an expansive musical vision Matelic would mine to great effect in the 1970s.

NUVO: The name Sir Winston and The Commons certainly sounds very British Invasion-inspired.

Matelic: That was just business. Our booking agent at the time came up with that. Our first name was The Illusions. Then we changed it to The Suspicions. When we started playing during the British Invasion our agent said we needed an English sounding name so he could market us as being from England. We said, "No, that's not going to work." But he did briefly try to market us to colleges as Don Basore being the cousin of Ringo Starr. But we'd go to these colleges and see all the people we went to high school with, so that didn't work. [laughs] But the name stuck.

NUVO: In 1965 you went into the studio and recorded the pounding garage rock classic "We're Gonna Love." It was released on the Soma label which at the time had released a lot of hit singles by groups like The Trashmen, The Castaways and The Fendermen. How did you get connected to the Soma label?

Matelic: Our manager at the time Sonny Hobbs did all that. He arranged the recording. We recorded four to six songs at Columbia Studios in Chicago. He made the deal with Soma.

NUVO: In 1966 you released your second single "Not The Spirit of India," which was very unique. This was one of the earliest references to Indian music in rock and roll. I think at that point the Stones had "Paint it Black" out and The Beatles had recorded "Norwegian Wood." Do you remember what influenced you to write that song?

Matelic: Paul Butterfield's "East-West" was probably the biggest influence on that song. I was also listening to The Byrds "Why," which was described as a raga rock song.

NUVO: Where were Sir Winston and The Commons playing in Indianapolis?

Matelic: It's a shame that there doesn't seem to be the same type of environment today. There were tons of clubs then. Every part of town had a club and these were under-21 clubs. They had dances Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. In Plainfield there was the House of Sound, which was a great place. There was the Westlake Beach Club. You had the Whiteland Barn on the Southside. There was the Flame Club on the Eastside. You had Tiger A Go-Go on Madison Avenue. You had Le Scene in Fountain Square, which is now White Rabbit. On the Northside was Nora Barn. Even in Speedway you had the Straightaway. We also played a lot of college fraternities and probably honed our chops playing those fraternities.

Also we opened for The Beach Boys when they played at the State Fairgrounds. Herb Crawford had just joined the band and I believe that was the first show he played with us. After the show we were leaving in a van and all these girls surrounded the van and started screaming. Herb was like, "Oh my god, what is this? I'm in a major band."

We also played a two show date with The Byrds. One down in Evansville and the next night at the State Fair Coliseum. On that same night we also had a show booked at the House of Sound in Plainfield. So as soon as we got done playing we had to scurry. At the time the band's vehicle was a '53 Cadillac hearse. So we had a police escort from the fairgrounds to Plainfield. Here's these police motorcycles with sirens and red lights blaring as we're headed down 38th Street and there's a '53 hearse following. I bet it looked kind of strange to people. [laughs]

Later in '68 we moved to Los Angeles. We played on Sunset Strip at a place called Galaxy Club. It was two doors down from the Whisky A Go-Go. We were at the Galaxy and two doors down The Doors and all the big groups were playing. We played a lot; we played five hours a night. We were there for about six weeks. It was a good experience, but it started to be a struggle.

NUVO: So you decided to come back to Indianapolis?

Matelic: Yeah, then we lost a few members and we were down to a three-piece. Which was kind of an in thing at the time. There was Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. But after awhile it started to be drudgery. I thought it was limiting being a three piece. Why we didn't try to add people I don't know. [laughs] Eventually we just dissolved. I got married, started raising a family and had to get a real job.

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ANONYMOUS AND J. RIDER

After the demise of Sir Winston and The Commons, Matelic put some distance between himself and the music industry. But he continued making music with friends. A series of informal jam sessions led to the formation of Anonymous. The band's name was a reference to the group's low profile. Anonymous eschewed playing live gigs, as Matelic was frustrated with Indianapolis audiences' lack of interest in original music. Fortunately that didn't stop Matelic from documenting the band's music via recording.

In 1976 Anonymous independently pressed 300 copies of the LP Inside The Shadow. Filled with complex harmonies, rich guitar textures and unforgettable composition the LP is now considered an unheralded masterpiece of the rock genre. But in 1976 there wasn't an established network for independent music releases and Inside The Shadow languished in obscurity for many years before it was discovered by underground rock and psychedelic music collectors.

Following the release of Inside The Shadow Matelic decided to give his music career one last push. Anonymous transformed into J. Rider, which cultivated a much larger public profile. J. Rider gigged regularly in Indianapolis. The group also recored a handful of new tracks along with reworks of Anonymous-era compositions. But by the late 1970s Matelic's '60s-inspired psychedelic explorations were out of step with new wave, disco and other developing music trends of the era and J. Rider eventually dissolved as the 1980s approached.

NUVO: You mentioned that you had to get a day job after Sir Winston called it quits, but you kept playing music on the side. What was your next project?

Matelic: After Sir Winston John Medvescek and I formed a band called Cock Robin, playing mostly original material. I wanted to keep writing. I wrote some of the songs from Anonymous at that time. But that was short-lived. It was hard getting jobs doing original music.

After that I joined a group with Joe Stout, the original keyboard and sax player from Sir Winston. He had a cover band called Madison Zane. Marsha Ervin who would be the vocalist for Anonymous was in the band at that time. We knew Marsha from the Sir Winston days. I always knew her for being a great singer. Her and I could really sing harmony together. But eventually Madison Zane ended up dissolving.

I also met Anonymous bassist Glenn Weaver while in Madison Zane. When I left the band, he did too. He and I started getting together every so often to play. We used to have jam sessions on Sunday afternoons at my house. That's where we came up with a lot of the stuff from the Anonymous album. That's essentially how Anonymous was started. Anonymous never really performed live anywhere.

NUVO: So how did these weekly jam sessions lead to recording the Inside The Shadow album in 1976?

Matelic: I had a friend named Jim Spencer who used to live down the street from me during the Sir Winston days. At some point he got married and moved to Milwaukee. He'd always come down to Indy to visit his mom and he'd give me a call and we'd get together and share songs.

One day he called me and said, "Hey, do you want to do an album?" He told me he had a studio in Milwaukee and we could go up there to record and it would all be taken care of. I agreed to it and we started putting the pieces of the songs together and practicing how they'd be instrumentally. We went up one day and recorded all the instrumental tracks. Then we brought those tapes home and Marsha, Glenn and myself rehearsed vocals over the recorded tracks. We went back a couple weeks later and recorded vocals on the tracks.

Inside The Shadow was literally recorded inside a garage. It was a studio built inside a house in a garage. It was a nice garage, though. [laughs]

NUVO: In 1976, you pressed 300 copies of Anonymous' Inside The Shadow LP. What was your expectation when you pressed the record at that time? Were you just interested in documenting the creativity of the band, or were you hoping the LP might fall into the hands of some record company or agent?

Matelic: Well you're always hoping that someone will hear your music and think, "Wow, that's the greatest thing I've ever heard." But that's always a pipe dream I guess. I had boxes of the record in my basement for a long time. We'd sell them to friends or give them away.

But then I got a call from these brothers in Illinois. They said, "We heard your album and we like to buy some copies." I said, "Oh, really? I've got a couple boxes I can sell you." (laughs) That was the start of the network of collectors who got interested in the album. That was a few years after the LP came out, maybe in the '80s.

NUVO: By the 1990s original pressings of Inside The Shadow were starting to sell for upwards of one thousand dollars on the collectors' market. How did it feel seeing the album skyrocket in value after you'd basically given so many of them away?

Matelic: It was insane. But I always say had I never sold the records like I did, they probably never would've been distributed like they were. Because I couldn't have distributed them. It was funny. I'd get a call from somebody in Florida asking if they could get a copy. Then somebody from California or Texas. I remember got a letter from someone in Sweden who was interested and I sold one to him. It just went crazy after that. But it's been reissued since then.

NUVO: Did it surprise you to find this international audience developing for your music so long after the recordings were made?

Matelic: I'm really not exposed to it. I don't get in touch with that. I know there's interest, but I'm not exposed to it on a daily basis.

NUVO: I've hear the sound of Anonymous compared to everything from Fairport Convention to Fleetwood Mac to The Byrds to Television. Do you remember what were you listening to at that time that might have influenced the sound?

Matelic: Definitely The Byrds. I was a big McGuinn follower from the beginning. Fleetwood Mac as well. I was always a fan of vocal harmony going back to the doo-wop days. Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Beatles infused a fondness for vocal harmony in me.

NUVO: The harmonies are certainly one of the greatest elements of Anonymous. But so are your guitar textures. There's some amazing guitar work and guitar interplay on Inside The Shadow.

Matelic: I guess I did most of that and it was mostly ad-libbed. It was sort-of rehearsed, but most of it was done off-the-cuff. We'd do one track and I'd say maybe we can add another track and I'd try to do something different. The only effects pedal I had at the time was a phase shifter so that's prevalent on Inside The Shadow.

NUVO: Also Marsha Ervin's vocals are a major part of the Anonymous sound.

Matelic: She's just a great artist and a great singer. She has a knack. She can hear vocals and that's why I like to work with her. We used to have parties and we'd sing Crosby, Stills and Nash songs. She'd sing the Graham Nash parts with ease. It always made us jealous. She brought out my vocals better than I could do by myself.

NUVO: After Anonymous the band morphed into J. Rider. What was the reason for the change?

Matelic: We thought we'd take another shot with our music. J. Rider played live shows and we even had some publicity photos made. We played as J. Rider at Crazy Al's, the original location that was in a strip mall. We'd also play some shows at The Patio. We recorded the J. Rider album cuts at the Neon Cornfield studios out on State Road 37. It's changed names since then but the studio is still there.

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During the 1980s Matelic retreated from the music scene to focus on family life. Ironically, this would be the time when his music began to develop a large international following as Inside The Shadow began to circulate amongst collectors around the globe. Demand for Anonymous' Inside The Shadow LP and interest in Matelic's work reached impressive heights after record collecting and conversation moved online. The LP routinely traded hands among collectors near the one thousand dollar price mark, making Inside The Shadow one of the most valuable Hoosier LPs ever issued.

NUVO: You mentioned earlier that you'd stopped pursuing music full-time in the '70s to get a day job. What was your day job?

Matelic: I first got a job at Mayflower transit. Around 1980, I switched my position there to the IT department. I got into IT and programming and stayed in that. Eventually I transferred to a retail company downtown and I'm still there. I do programming essentially and that's what I've been doing all these years.

NUVO: After this period in the '70s with J. Rider and Anonymous ended did you stay connected to music, or were you more occupied with your family life in the '80s?

Matelic: Pretty much the family life I'd say. I played music by myself at home and I still play. I've got at least a double album of material I want to record. Some of it's new from the last few years; others are older songs that were never recorded. I'd like to get them recorded for posterity at least — or so I don't forget them.

NUVO: Was it difficult for you to give up playing music?

Matelic: Because I was starting a new business then I think that was more interesting to me at the time. Playing music got to be kind of drudgery because I couldn't play what I wanted to play. I guess I didn't have the audacity or willingness to pursue my own original stuff enough. If I could go back and do something different I'd try to be more of a go-getter on that. Like John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." Music was always in the back of my mind but it never seemed to materialize much.

NUVO: How do you feel listening back to the Sir Winston and The Commons and Anonymous recordings?

Matelic: I really don't listen to it. [laughs] I'm more concerned about today, writing new stuff and going forward. The next one is always going to be the best one. My most recent project is always my favorite.

NUVO: I'm really curious if your coworkers and friends today know about your past as a legendary figure in underground rock music.

Matelic: To an extent some of them know, but not all the details of what really happened. I usually like keep to my music side and business side mutually exclusive.

NUVO: Any final thoughts you want to share as you look back on your extraordinary contributions to Hoosier rock music in the '60s and '70s?

Matelic: It was a fun time. Everything was new and everything was spawning. Back then I played music, listened to music, thought about music, and I wrote music. Music pretty much encapsulated my life back then. For me, that was fun. Music was a central part of my life.

Hear the full interview with Ron Matelic along with samples of Matelic's music this Wednesday at 9 p.m. on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio. Join A Cultural Manifesto column writer and broadcast host Kyle Long at The Hi-Fi on Thursday, July 16 at 9 p.m. for a dance party featuring sets by Afro-Caribbean band Sweet Poison Victim and DJ Kyle Long. RSVP on DO317.com for free admission.

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Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.