After a lifetime in Sacramento, Matt Sertich is taking his solo act to L.A.
A healthy crowd gathers in Midtown for an early show in celebration of Matt Sertich’s first solo record, The Only Way Out is Through, a collection of stripped down, powerful pop songs that speak to love, pain, loss and all the other weird shit that creates the human experience. The vibe is mellow in Harlow’s, a room that can transform from an intimate singer-songwriter cave into a Latin dance extravaganza in the blink of an eye. The bartender is nowhere to be seen. Security guards stand leisurely, making jokes. Toward the back of the club, a table full of dedicated fans who have been following Sertich for decades, from his time in the pop-punk outfit Pocket Change to his 10-year stint in The Generals (with drummer/keyboardist/programmer Kirk Janowiak) to his present day solo career, let out a collective scream when the 37-year-old musician finally sits at the piano.
Sertich wastes no time. He breaks into “I Won’t Let You Down”—a strong, earnest ballad with an atmospheric background—and the room falls silent. His voice is loud and confident, with a thin string of pain that runs deep through his soaring melodies. Sertich is an interesting musician in that the songs he crafts are not exactly what count as popular today. In an era when singers either emulate rustic Americana or stare at the ground feigning disinterest in the world, Sertich chooses to face emotion head-on and write songs that celebrate life’s loftiest themes—pop-y ballads about love and hope. And what he creates comes from an almost childlike approach to music. “As a kid your dream is to write stuff like U2 or Whitney Houston … or what makes you feel so good inside,” he explains. “And as you get older you start getting into scenes and you start reverting backwards, kind of.”
After some soul searching, Sertich realized that he doesn’t have to cater to a scene or a trend. He’s going to make the kind of music that he wanted to make as a kid. And he does it well up there on that stage, singing like he’s trying to win back the girl of his dreams. The crowd, of course, is transfixed.
But Sertich hasn’t always had such good fortune with his music. In fact, much of what he’s faced is enough to make a weaker-willed musician smash his guitar, get a state job, crank out a litter of children and exit without so much as a whimper into the eternal bucket of KFC in the sky. But some of the stories he tells of his frustrating misfortunes are actually pretty funny. You know, once the heartbreak settles in.
For instance, there was a run-in with a Sacramento radio guy a few years back after he wrote “Keep the City Alive,” an ode to the the Sacramento Kings. Naturally, Sertich was excited about debuting his song on-air, but the radio guy played the song and immediately said it was horrible, that it sounded like Say Anything or Peter Gabriel. For Sertich, it was a confusing put down. After all, in his mind, a Peter Gabriel comparison isn’t quite the end of the world. But, still, it was a slight. And it was meant to be harsh.
Or there was one time he went to Los Angeles to be on the popular Heidi and Frank Show (95.5 KLOS). He was super excited about the appearance. That is until he arrived at the studio and found out he was booked for a “love it or hate it” episode, where the hosts would play your song and critique it (along with random callers) live on the air. They played The Generals’ “Just Because,” a fast-paced pop ballad about hope in the midst of darkness. The calls came in. One-after-another. Heidi hated it. Mike said it sounded like a Cure cover band. The song played through and Sertich sat through scathing, seemingly endless criticism. “It was so painful,” he says. “They were just ripping it.”
Anyway, Sertich somehow ended up garnering six votes, enough to sit for the rest of the show. Still, he was discouraged. But that situation—the uncomfortable, nearly unbearable awkwardness—made him stronger, more determined than ever to succeed.
“But I never want to play ‘Just Because’ again,” he admits. “I hate that song.”
Finally, after a weird run-in with The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, where he was promised thousands of dollars to go on tour, which turned out to be a scam, The Generals decided to amicably call it quits, and Sertich decided to get his solo career off the ground. “I think with Kirk that was the last straw,” Sertich says. “It just depleted him.”
So, as The Generals winded down, Sertich worked as hard as he could on music in between his full-time job waiting tables at Tower Café. He practiced literally every day for a year—no matter how tired he was or how uninspired he felt—and came up with six tracks of piano-based ballads that became The Only Way Out is Through that he performs by himself with a synthesizer and drum machine. In the spirit of The Generals, Sertich’s solo songs are powerful, ’80s-tinged melodies that stand out, especially in 2014’s musical landscape of throwaway pop songs that rely more on tricky production than emotion.
“I grew up loving ballad singers,” Sertich says. “Like cheesy love songs that people make fun of.”
But oftentimes, people make fun of things that are memorable. And popular. Sertich’s obsession for ballads and his ear for powerful, larger-than-life arrangement results in a cinematic vibe, songs you might hear at the end of a movie where the protagonist screams triumphantly in the rain, even though all his friends are dead.
Since Sacramento might not be the best place for an artist like Sertich, he’s packing up his belongings, leaving Sacramento, the only home he’s known for the past 37 years, and taking his movie-ready songs down to Los Angeles, just to see what happens.
When I ask what he’s going to do down there, Sertich points to his CD. “There’s my business card,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff going on out there. Just to reach out to as many avenues as I can when I’m out there, whether it’s playing as much as possible, networking, going to see a show.”
It’s not going to be an easy road. Sertich knows that. He’ll probably rent a room in Silver Lake, work as a parking valet and do his best to get his music into the hands of the right people. A scary prospect, but for someone who obsesses over melodies and arrangements, it makes perfect sense.
“I’m going to be full of fear because I’ve lived here all my life. There’s a lot of ups and downs. I get it, but it’s just going out there focused,” he says. “I’m not going out there because I’m trying to run away from anything, I’m going out there because I want to make it happen. It’s what I want to do. I don’t have a choice in the matter anymore.”
At Harlow’s, Sertich sits at the piano in the middle of the dark stage, red lights casting an eerie glow against his pale skin. He plays the song “In the End,” written as a letter from his father who passed away in 2005. It begins, “Son, I’m leaving now/ My time has come/ to say goodbye/ Son, I hope you know/ I’ve done the best/ that I could. I never meant to do you wrong/ Never meant to leave you there/ Leave you all alone.”
When Sertich sings, it’s not just the voice. It’s every atom in his body. In his muscles. His skin. Emotions stir in an aura that surrounds him, both joyful and dark. “And I only meant to be your friend,” he sings. “Hope you knew me better in … better in the end.”
Catch Matt Sertich on Thursday, July 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the Hot Lunch Concert Series at Fremont Park: 16th and Q Streets, across from Hot Italian. To buy The Only Way Out is Through, go to Mattsertich.bandcamp.com.