Interview: Q&A with Matt Mansfield – Hunting for Subtle Things; Piper Street Sound on Mood, Texture, and Collaboration (May 2024)

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Ryan Rudolph

Whether you know him as Matt Mansfield or by his stage name Piper Street Sound, his open-minded, dedicated and welcoming approach to music has made him a standout figure in the global beats and reggae scenes. His time with the ZZK family and his deep commitment to reggae and dub, both as a musician and a producer, have solidified his reputation for delivering both vibrant Latin rhythms and electrifying Afro-Caribbean vibes.

Under the Piper Street Sound alias, Matt’s recent remix EP of his 2021 album Black Eyed Peace showcases his flair and openness for collaboration, featuring among the others, the exceptional guitar work of Andy Bassford, the unmistakable mellow touch of Victor Rice, and the dub genius of Mad Professor.

We had the chance to catch up with Matt and delve deeper into his musical influences, collaborative approach, and passion for exploring the frontiers of reggae, dub, and beyond.

Our first encounter with you was thanks to your dedicated work with the vibrant ZZK family. Can you share your musical journey with us, and what ultimately inspired you to focus on the Piper Street Sound project?

Thanks for noticing the work I did for ZZK. Working on the behind the scenes management side of an outside of the box electronic meets Latin roots indie label that started out as a dance party in Buenos Aires isn’t exactly high profile in Atlanta, and often doesn’t garner much praise. I think I spent most of a decade working for ZZK and few I met here knew what the hell I was doing for my ‘day job’. Actually Piper Street Sound preceded ZZK by a year or so. I started using the name in 2005, as an umbrella moniker for anything musical that I created that didn’t fit into any of the other projects/bands I was involved in. I came up with the name when I was living in a house on Piper Street in Decatur, Georgia and a festival wanted to hire me to provide a basic sound system for their event.

I bought ZZK’s first album, ZZK Sound Vol. 1, via eMusic in 2008 based on a review by the music writer Richard Gehr. I loved it and consumed anything the label put out. I was also becoming familiar with many other small web labels and producers of this time period who were creating similar combinations of latin and roots music with electronic music, dub, and dancehall. At this time I was already producing dub music, touring with a reggae/psychedelic/jam band called Dubconscious, and in my free time continuing to explore electronic productions, a process that started for me in high school around 1998 or so. After 2008 I started incorporating elements of cumbia into my own dub influenced music, whether in Piper Street Sound productions or with Dubconscious.

In this time I met a lot of great producers from all over the world via Soundcloud comments and Facebook groups. It was a time of expansion in scope but also a bit rough and chaotic in regards to copyright and audio fidelity. Then in 2010 I reached out to ZZK Records seeking to book Chancha Via Circuito to come play some shows in Atlanta and Athens (Georgia) with the help of Adrian Zelski, the frontman of DubConscious who was a promoter. I met Grant C. Dull (ZZK label head) on this tour and we stayed in touched since. Chancha did a remix of one of the songs I wrote, recorded, and produced for DubConscious’ EP These Dubs. It’s a bit of a rarity and went under the radar but I love it. I started interning with the label in 2012 or 2013, and by 2015 was digital content manager. In 2021 I became the label manager.

After years of balancing ZZK and my family and my own music, I decided last year (2023) to pass the label manager torch to my friend Dat Garcia, who now manages the label, and move on to more of my own things. I started a sync and publishing company called Frutful with my friend Hannah Lee Benson and put more emphasis on my own Piper Street Sound productions.

We read that you come from a family with a diverse musical background. How have those early influences shaped your sound and the path you ultimately took with Piper Street Sound?

I come from a family with very humble roots in the Appalachians and the Piedmont (foothill) region of north-western Georgia and north-eastern Alabama. I don’t recall anybody in the family actually playing any instruments, other than my mom playing the piano at home, and my father playing the harmonica occasionally, but that feeling of old timey spiritual music and country folk probably seeped into me when I was young and visiting with my grandmother in the countryside. It was throughout my pre-teens and teenage years that I really started digging into folk music and became quite aware of my region’s musical heritage. I worked in a public library while in middle school and high school and I really took advantage of the musical offerings there which fortuitously included a lot of Smithsonian Folkways releases and the like. I guess I had a sort of musicological bent from an early age. I must make special mention of my childhood friend Saude who was a constant source of blues music and turned me onto a lot of country blues, delta blues and the work of Alan Lomax. Starting from these field recordings I worked my way through a lot of my region’s musical past. By the time I started playing in punk bands in late middle school I was aware of a deep deep source of culture to pull from.

What drew you to genres like reggae and dub? Who are the artists who ignited this passion in you, and how do these influences manifest in your production style?

I could guess myriad reasons that I was drawn to Caribbean music. I don’t really know ‘why’ it happened; providence, manifest destiny, fate, randomness. I could trace ‘how’ it happened a little easier. There’s something welcoming and familiar to me in the melodic and harmonic content of Caribbean folk music. There is something, also familiar, but distinct and distant about the the rhythmic content. The lyrical elements always toyed with me as a southerner. So many similitudes in folk expressions and idioms, but things got twisted a little different down there from how they were twisted up here. This gap in my familiarity intrigued me.

I actually got interested in mento and calypso before I got into ska/rocksteady/reggae by listening to what was available at the library. I got into punk which helped to pull me into ska/rocksteady around 95’ 96’. Then jungle and drum and bass (99’ 00) further familiarised me w/ elements of dub; huge bass lines, clattering high tuned snares, a sense of tenseness in the rhythms. I shouldn’t discount the effect of a heavy Wailers phase I went through towards the end of high school. By the first year of college I had found King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, Keith Hudson, Jackie Mittoo, and from there I was off to the races.

Your music skilfully blends traditional and contemporary sounds. How do you balance the classic elements of Afro-Caribbean sound with forward-looking production techniques?

Thank you! Luckily I don’t have to think too much about this balance. I just feel my way through it as I’m producing music. Generally I start my music from a very basic place, often some kind of rocksteady/reggae rhythm with drum set and bass guitar, piano, organ, and guitar. Standard instruments for Jamaican music from the 60’s through the 80’s. This process helps ground what I’m doing in a human element and definitely I’m very indebted to the reggae musicians that laid the foundations back in the 60’s. I’m not super traditionalist in my approach to Caribbean music, where I’m recreating specific patterns and songs note for note, nor could I even do this authentically, but I think that the basics of my music overlap with the basics of ‘classic Afro-Caribbean music’, and from there my music develops in an alternate path. Since I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and came of age as a producer in the aughts, my palette of sounds is larger than the classic era of Jamaican music and I’m likely to juxtapose somewhat unexpected elements over reggae and include forward looking techniques. Because I’ve listened to so much avant-garde music from jazz to experimental electronic music, punk, and all kinds of international styles my brain has become infected with these impurities and I’m pretty likely to veer in directions that make sense to me, without too much concern about whether the choices I’m making are traditional or contemporary. The producers and musicians I tend to gravitate to were idiosyncratic in their time, forging new paths; thank goodness or we wouldn’t have reggae music at all. It’s a very new music and is a combination of multiple styles, with origins both in the Caribbean, Africa, and the US. It was forward looking and I want to work in that tradition of pushing it forward while staying grounded in the roots. 

We know that your studio represents a central part of your creative process. Could you give us a glimpse inside it, describing specific pieces of gear that help achieve your signature sound?

My studio is my creative nerve core and luckily is part of my house. This keeps me close to a place to work and allows me a lot of freedom to create when I want to. It is a small studio compared to commercial studios but for me it is a perfect size. One room with a slightly tall ceiling filled with a drum set, percussion, piano, organ, bass amp, and guitar amp and a mixing board, analog effects units, a tape machine, and a computer. I think most of my sound comes from the choices I make as a producer rather than the gear, most of these choices come from the instruments, what notes, patterns, and how they’re played; but spring reverbs and tape delay are big parts of my sound too. I use three or four different spring reverbs in the studio, which all have unique sonic flavours: An Ekdahl Moisturizer, A custom built unit by Soon Come (aka Dan Brenner), A Gamechanger Audio Light Pedal, and the spring reverb in my Fender tube amp. I also use a Fulltone TTE tape echo unit. It sounds like a maestro echoplex more or less, a classic warm and blurry kind of echo, and I also use my AKAI tape machine to create a ping ponging echo (where the sound seems to bounce from left to right and back again across the stereo field).

You view Piper Street Sound as a platform for instigating musical interactions. Can you elaborate on this collaborative vision and how it fuels your creativity?

I was trying to summarise what Piper Street Sound was all about. I think it is more of a process than a specific musical style like what a songwriter or band would present. And I didn’t want to describe my production process in regards to just one genre, because the music I work on can range and vary across many, but the elements of dub mixing are a recurring if not constant theme; a playful use of space, stark contrasts between wet and dry, density and emptiness, a manually driven continuously shifting and morphing sound throughout the length of a song, a focus on repetitive rhythms, usually syncopated and interlocking. But besides this aural theme I think everything else in my production is open ended. Rather than approach my music solely as composer/producer-as-autuer, or as recording artist, or mix engineer, I like to set up interactions between different musicians and leave space in my music for these interactions to grow in their own ways according to the combination of the elements. So in one case a Piper Street Sound song might be written, played, and recorded using live instruments, then mixed, and produced by me. Sometimes I record no live instruments, or allow compositional elements from collaborators to determine the instrumentation of a song. I will often record collaborators with only a rhythm track, no vocals or main melodic parts, and encourage them to expand where they want to go across multiple takes. Then I can sort through what they did and pepper the song with the parts that appealed to me the most. So in that case it can be like a cut and paste method and not all of the collaborating musicians hear what the others have done. So I’m isolating their experiences when they’re reacting to my basic rhythm track and recombining them into the final track. Sometimes I use parts that are recorded completely live in one take with no edits with a musician listening to the full song minus their part. It just depends on what creates contrast, tension and release, and what serves the mood of a song that I have in my head. Mood and texture are very important to my music and I’m hunting for subtle things in this process that go beyond tightness or virtuosity.

As mentioned, collaboration is a cornerstone of your approach. How do you select the artists you work with?

I have some artists that I’ve worked with for years and I tend to use them again and again because we’ve developed trust and it feels intuitive at this point. I played for years in various bands around Atlanta and Athens (Georgia) and initially recruited musicians from the pool of my bandmates or former bandmates. I would spend a lot of my time collecting musicians to record at my place. Over time I started meeting more musicians via the internet and my pool expanded. As now that many musicians can record remotely, and this process was hastened by the pandemic, my scope is much broader. I’m frequently reaching out to musicians that have something that inspires me to work with them regardless of where they’re located. If they can come record with me in real life that’s great, if we need to set up a session at another studio that’s fine too, but if they just want to email me their tracks that’s fine as well. I think my most constant collaborator is drummer Brian Daggett, who used to live in the Atlanta area. He is now based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and plays with the Carolina Opry. He’s a really tight drummer and has a good knowledge of reggae music plus many other styles. He’s on much of my work since 2019 and always fails to disappoint.

More specifically, how did your collaboration with reggae legend Andy Bassford come about, and what was it like working with such an influential musician?

In the case of Andy I just cold called him. It was actually an instagram message rather than a call but the same idea. I had been reading his social media posts for a few years, and I had come to realise how many recordings he had played on that I loved, so I took the chance during the pandemic to ask him if he wanted to record on some of my music. Luckily for me he liked my tunes and the stars aligned in his schedule. We instantly meshed, he really understood what I was going for with my music, which is rare with guitarists (I’m quite picky about how and what they play likely due to the instruments eardrum dominating reign of terror from the 60’s through the 90’s.) He was super humble and open to collaboration, but also very effective and delivered fantastic results. He’s like a teacher to me, even though we don’t discuss technical issues often, but rather in a larger social approach to the business of music. His experience and knowledge is vast. He’s played with everyone from Dennis Brown and Toots and the Maytals to Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Rihanna and Natalie Merchant. Since 2020 we’ve worked on 3 or 4 releases and continue to stay in touch. We’ve got more in the works, so be on the lookout.

Being based in Atlanta, do you feel the local music scene and its diverse influences have impacted your sound?

I suppose my experiences playing music in Atlanta have impacted my sound, the broader region of the South has certainly had a great effect, but Atlanta specifically has not had as much of an impact as you might think because I’m quite insulated in a zone of my own creation. I spend a lot of time exploring my memories and counterfactual versions of my southern heritage, so while I’m definitely rooted in southern cultural expressions with the looming presence of folk and blues music and rhythm and blues, I think I could be alone in the middle of the woods in this same part of the planet if Atlanta didn’t exist, and likely make similar music. I’m just as influenced now by the birds and plants and waterways as I am by human beings that I meet in my city. I don’t go out too much anymore and prefer the studio to the venue.

I spent middle school and high school in the suburbs of Atlanta playing in garage bands and punk bands, moved to the city for college and spent a few years time playing and interacting with Atlanta’s experimental music scene, and after that started playing with reggae bands. I toured for several years with a band from Athens called DubConscious. But since the birth of my daughter in 2012, I am more often at home or with family, and find myself attracted to remote musical scenes like electronic cumbia from Buenos Aires, or psychedelic music from Bogota, without needing to go to these places in person.

Your album Black Eyed Peace and its fresh-off-the-oven remix EP already carry multiple meanings, starting with the title. Could you delve deeper into their significance and the overall themes explored in the music?

Because my music is usually instrumental, the title of the song can be the only words used to directly express anything about the theme of the song. Because my songs aren’t literally about anything, I tend to use titles in a playful way, often using puns or wordplay. The obvious starting point of Black Eyed Peace is that it sounds like black eyed peas, a favourite food of the south, with roots in Africa. This title reminded me of my situation with music – southern music is a combination of elements with strong roots in Africa. I imagined the concept of peace, embodied as a dove, but with a black eye. Somewhere in peace’s past there was violence and pain. I was thinking of a hopeful future while realising that the world would suffer on the path to peace. The titles “Icemilk” and “A Shadow in August” relate to southern identity to some extent. The former being a frozen dessert like ice cream but thinner, perfect for really hot summer days without air conditioning (my parents never turned on the AC in our house to my knowledge until I was a father), and the latter being a play on Faulkner’s book A Light in August, but switching the light for shadow. The book also deals with themes of light and dark figuratively and in regard to race and social issues, but you’ll have to read it yourself because I’m not prepared to explain the book.

Black Eyed Peace was born during the challenges of the pandemic. Looking back, how do you feel about the album now and the environment in which it was created?

I am happy with the EP now. It’s actually grown on me, which is unusual. I can sometimes listen back to old work and become disgusted with minutiae that likely wouldn’t bother anyone else. I’m extremely attuned to texture and mood and it doesn’t take much for me to find fault in something I’ve released a few years later. I think with Black Eyed Peace I’ve come to appreciate my intuition more because Andy was so into it, which really encouraged me to keep going with my music. It was overall a sad time for musicians and the world and I faced it with something hopeful, properly lighthearted, and creative, and I think that was a pretty solid move. When faced with despair it is okay to respond with movement, and then that movement can gather momentum. Once you have some momentum you can direct and organise the energy. Sure you might not be solving the world’s problems by creating an EP of instrumental reggae music that nobody asked for, but you’re getting yourself up and moving and that’s a start. It’s certainly better than rotting around waiting to die. When you’re in the midst of a crisis you often can’t really deal with the broader implications or make sense of the complexities, so just getting the EP organised and released with all the difficulties that it entailed was quite an achievement.

We are pretty sure that your time at ZZK Records has been formative. How has that experience influenced your approach to music production and artist collaboration?

It was formative. I think initially I was a fan of cumbia digital, and other similar developments in electronic music around the early 2000’s. I was a fan of the artists that the label was releasing because in a broader sense I was doing something similar by combining roots music and electronic elements. I lacked Latinidad—as a central identity in my musical explorations—but overall I could relate to that heady period of Fruity Loops and ripped samples from obscure African hand drumming albums or old cumbia records. Over the years as my experience grew in management, and I became increasingly interested in understanding the structure of the music industry and how to keep a small label alive, my focus shifted from the music itself to the larger ecosystem surrounding the musicians. I started seeing connections between the different parts of an artist’s career; details that had previously seemed obscure became more and more important. I saw how contracts affected artists and labels. I saw how the bigger fish always try to eat the smaller fish. I started better understanding copyright law, and my approach to copyright became more nuanced. I saw possibilities existed in organizing metadata, registration, understanding contracts, and I started seeing how indie artists and small labels were short on time, attempting heavy lifting in lieu of major label support and funding. Without investment and organisational support to help with various tasks of registrations, metadata, paperwork, and day to day management, most artists and labels were left scrambling to find a foothold. My experience managing the label impressed upon me the desire to control my music’s rights, avoiding uncleared samples, registering all compositions, and using paperwork (split sheets, recording contracts) with my collaborators to create an open understanding of financial relationships. In the process of learning more about the music industry of the last 15 years, in regards to independent/underground artists working with roots music, I saw a lot of similarities with the time period in the US  where record labels were exploiting the folk cultures (particularly of the rural south) by releasing recordings by artists who had little knowledge of or power to control their rights. Labels with little regard for the rights of the creators or concerns for investing in structures that would sustain and nurture roots music, little concern for the deep musical culture that precedes and hopefully will extend long beyond capitalism. A wild wild west approach to profit without regulation or recompense.

I did make some great musical connections with artists along the way and will continue to explore my love for Latin American music, but the biggest thing I can take away from the experience is on the organisational and business side. I run the publishing wing of my company Frutful, and in that capacity I work with indie artists to help them register and collect all the royalties that are owed to them as songwriters. I am happy I have the chance to apply the knowledge I’ve gained in the last decade to help artists help themselves.

As mentioned, beyond reggae and Caribbean vibes, you’ve expressed interest in Latin American music and the musical roots of genres like cumbia and champeta, even reworking some tunes. Could you see yourself incorporating elements of these genres into Piper Street Sound?

Yes. I can imagine a Piper Street Sound release featuring my take on champeta, cumbia, or even Congolese rumba. In the last decade I’ve mostly produced reggae inspired music on my own, but I’ve done quite a few remixes where I’m taking a Latin American musical style and fusing it with dub and electronic elements. In these situations my experience in reggae/dub and my experience with Latin American folkloric music come together nicely. I have collected my favourite remixes in this vein—an albums worth—and would like to release them as an album that collects them all in one place: a Piper Street Sound meets Latin American at the Roots of Dub kind of thing. Stay tuned for more on that. In the meantime check out this EP I made for Colombia’s Palenque Records Piper Street Sound Meets Palenque Records – Afrocolombian Roots In Dub or this remix I did for Candeleros or Plu Con Pla.

Would you mind sharing a few lesser-known reggae or dub albums or up-and-coming artists that you find particularly inspiring?

These albums aren’t really lesser-known to dedicated reggae fans, but to the average reader/listener they deserve several listens at least:

Rhythm Shower by The UpsettersLee Perry productions consisting of versions and instru-dubs. This album could be viewed as proto-dub and preceded the release of the more known contenders for the title of the first dub album: The UpsettersBlackboard Jungle Dub (Upsetters 14 Dub), Prince BusterThe Message Dubwise, Impact All-StarsJava Java Dub, Herman Chin LoyAquarius Dub

King Tubby Meets Jacob Miller in a Tenement Yard (aka E-E Saw Dub) – BernardTouterHarvey playing synths mixed in a dubstrumental style by King Tubbys overtop of Jacob Miller rhythm tracks.

These albums stretch the boundaries of dub in a way that is refreshing and lack the performative and indelicate cultural expansiveness of some world music + dub releases:

Dub de Gaita by Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto – Legendary Colombian cumbia group with Diego Gomez and Adrian Sherwood (On-U Sound) producing. Mixed like dub music but the foundation rhythms are Afro-Colombian roots music. The album was recommended to me by Nicola Cruz when I met him in Houston back in 2015, prior to the release of his album Prender el Alma.

Imaginary Cuba by Bill Laswell – Various Cuban musical styles fade in and out with environmental/ambient recording interspersed, with deep pulsing dub baselines courtesy of legendary producer Bill Laswell. Executive producer is Paddy Maloney of the Chieftans.

A current artist I’d recommend is Soon Come (aka 100db or Dan Brenner). He uses synths and drum machines to create idiosyncratic versions of classic Jamaican rhythms. I highly recommend his social media to get a feel for what he’s doing, though I don’t think he’s (recently) released an entire album of this material.

Another artist that I really like is called Echo Selector, from Colombia. He’s fusing digital reggae with analog electronics and dub and incorporating some Colombian rhythms like cumbia too —a sound that I imagine is perfect for Colombian sound systems. 

Looking ahead, are there any new musical frontiers you’re eager to explore? Any dream collaborations on your wishlist?

There are so many. I would love to record some projects from scratch with all musicians in one place as I haven’t done this in a while. It is costly and time-consuming, but can create a certain spontaneous-yet-focused energy in the recordings that I’d like to experience again.

I would like to explore recording more Afro-Latin percussion particularly Colombian stuff. A group of percussionists playing together with a natural groove has a really special feeling which is hard to create by piecing things together in a DAW. I can imagine a lot of possibilities to explore new music atop a base of tight percussion and deep bass lines.

I would also like to record a full section of nyabinghi drums – baandu, funde, and kete. I’d like to make a full throttled dub album of nyabinghi drumming w/ booming bass lines and blazing horns, but lacking most of the other chordal instruments usually associated with Jamaican dub music.

I’d like to keep working on producing interactions between southern US roots music with Jamaican music and electronic explorations. The instrument I play most is 12 string guitar. Mostly old mountain music and folk songs. This part of myself I have yet to record or interface with my studio process. So far singing and playing acoustic guitar it is a personal place of retreat but I hope one day I’ll dig down into those roots and come up with a new place to take that music to.


The latest release from Piper Street Sound, Black Eye Dub, is now available for listening and purchase.
To find out more, follow this LINK



Photo ©: Ryan Rudolph