Matthew Armstrong has a broad view of American culture — of American poetry and literature, music and history. It sweeps far back into the past and pulses with electric jolts through the present moment. In conversation, Armstrong, who writes songs and sings for the Greensboro band Viva La Muerte, might make a connection between the Grateful Dead and Beat poets or between the energy of Walt Whitman and frightening chaos of Donald Trump. Armstrong writes songs that aim to tap into both the simple, mundane pleasures and the ecstatic, wide-eyed mystic vision of America as a place of raw, unrefined possibility and sometimes lurid spectacle.
Viva La Muerte just released their second record, The Eyes of Men, this summer. It’s an album of songs about romance, the mysteries of music and alarm over the state of the country. The record’s cover art features an image of an upside-down American flag (a signal of distress) embedded with a swirl of eyes, including those of both the band members and Donald Trump. Some of the songs conjure what Armstrong calls “a general dystopian vibe,” one that feels particularly of-the-moment.
I spoke with Armstrong by phone last week. The band recently did some shows in New York City, and they were preparing for other live dates this fall to help promote the record. This record, like their first, 2013’s All the Birds, was made with the help of a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign funded by fans.
Viva La Muerte does a lot of morphing and genre blending. The band is a quintet at its core, but it can bulk up to a seven-piece with the addition of banjo and other flourishes if the performance space allows. A listener might not stop to think that there are elements of rock — the driving beat, elements of folk or country, a bit of mandolin or pedal steel and a low, dark, almost ominous tone to the vocals can bring to mind artists like Leonard Cohen.
Armstrong sometimes describes the band’s music as psychedelic Americana. It’s a tag that the 40-year-old who teaches writing and American literature at Guilford College and University of North Carolina Greensboro, said has to do with an organic eclecticism and a relationship to an ever-shifting center of gravity.
Some might associate the term “psychedelic” with a surface freakiness, fun-house mirror effects, a general far-outness, but Viva La Muerte isn’t about trippy explorations and freeform weirdness. For Armstrong and his bandmates, the idea is as much about getting up close to the nature of things, so that one’s dialed-in perspective starts almost to distort what you’re seeing — the line between this and that might get lost.
“I think of the psychedelic as this space where categories blur, where categories dissolve,” Armstrong said.
The band initially took shape in 2005 when Armstrong and a colleague started talking about their fondness for the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground, and how both bands had had earlier incarnations called the Warlocks. The Dead and the VU might represent different poles of American music to some — an expansive West Coast vision on the one hand and a modernist, raw arty DIY proto-punk version on the other.
“We thought of our music regarding a continuum of American literature,” Armstrong said.
That’s a line of reasoning that might strike some as high-minded, but it wasn’t alien to the awards committee of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which gave the honor to Bob Dylan in 2016. There were many academics — even Dylan-loving academics — who weren’t thrilled when the songwriter received the literature prize, but Armstrong wasn’t among those wringing their hands over the award. He was all for it.
“Often times we don’t like when writers like Dylan, [Grateful Dead songwriter] Robert Hunter and Leonard Cohen get taught in our literature courses, but I think we should because that’s where people go to get their poetry,” Armstrong said. “You put a beat under these guys, and suddenly they get banished from the canon, but I think a lot of their work deserves attention.”
Armstrong and Viva La Muerte’s commitment to mixing things up also means a willingness to counterbalance weighty subjects such as creeping autocracy and the surveillance state, with the relatively simple pleasures of a love song or a sound that transports the listener.
“If our music’s about anything, it’s about trying to capture, on a given night or a given album, the full range of emotion,” Armstrong said. “When I go to a show, I’d kind of like to be taken through the emotions I feel every day, and some of them are basic and animalistic, and some of them are the kind of things you only experience if you live a certain number of years and read a certain number of books.”
But Viva La Muerte is about more than just responding to current events. The first song on The Eyes of Men is “Time to Play,” a song about recognizing and embracing the love and joy that surrounds us. Elsewhere, on “About Love,” Armstrong sings: “I wanna dream about love/It’s the only thing worth dreaming of.” It’s not all politics and rage.
“Some of these songs were written before the Trump phenomenon,” Armstrong said.
Still, the political landscape of 2017 has a lot to do with the scope and tone of the album.
“We’re not wild about the cult of nationalism and the cult of masculinity that seems to be sweeping the country,” Armstrong said.
Among the songs that appear to signal a connection to the Trump era, there is “Tom Waits Basement,” which opens with the question: “If crazy’s on top, what’s down below?”
Viva La Muerte will be playing at Scuppernong Books at 8 p.m. on Sept. 15 with David Gans.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.