Matt Ernst on Self-Sufficiency, Steely Dan and “[Doing] it on Your Own
Punk rock veteran and multi-talented creative Matt Ernst has been through multiple facets of the entertainment industry and knows how difficult it can be to find your so-called “big break.” Through perseverance, a constant creative attitude, and a commitment to the arts, Matt has found a way to turn his dreams into passions and continuously create art that inspires others. His latest musical project is Titanic. A yacht-rock band with long-time friend Dave Klym covering iconic songs throughout the decades-mainly focusing on the 70s and 80s. In addition to his musical endeavors, Matt has also pioneered many scripts and TV pilots that never quite made it past pre-production but has remained a staple of his career.
His original art pieces have been showcased across New York City where he grew up, perfectly blending into the crowd of creators and simultaneously standing out. After lending his artistic talents to numerous bands and writer’s rooms Matt is now taking matters into his own hands and not waiting for the ok to jump onto a new project. Their cover of “Dirty Work” by Steely Dan features an accompanying video that takes the classic in a whole new, more sinister direction. Utilizing his musical ambitions and film skills, Matt has created something for classic rock fans new and old alike.
Q. “Dirty Work” was originated by Steely Dan and has been used in multiple films and TV shows. What was the goal in mind when putting a spin on this classic?
I’ve heard it so many times, going through the editing process. When I hear the song pop up on the radio or I listen to it side by side I think we did a good job of keeping true to the song. It’s a lot faster. The original version is so chilled out. Dave and I had this dream project of doing this yacht rock thing. Steely Dan is one of my favorite bands. They are sort of yacht rock but they’re also a cut above. The level of musicianship in that band is spectacular. As a music geek, I’m a big fan of them. So that was one of the songs we decided to come up with. I was pretty confident that we could do a different take on it than what’s been done before. It’s just such a good song. I can listen to that song over and over again. It’s structurally really well built. We really wanted to honor the musical quality and not just make a trashy punk rock version. We wanted to make it a little darker and that’s where the idea of the murder story sort of followed it. “Dirty Work” can be interpreted many ways so we did a darker version of it.
Dirty Work Video by Titanic
Q. The music video features a circular narrative. Is this an element you play with often in your films/videos?
Not really. The Coen Brothers movie Blood Simple was sort of an inspiration for this, and I had a longer narrative that I had started with and I produced it down. In talking with my co-director who’s a good friend of mine, we kinda came up with this way of tying it together. It’s a very particular form because you only have 3 minutes to tell the story and to give a surprise punch at the end without too much setup. I thought it was a really clever way to do that, to give people a bit of a narrative jolt at the end. Music videos are something you watch over and over again potentially so it has that circular quality to it.
Q. What was the video-making process like?
Super fun! It was my first time really going through this whole process. My girlfriend, my producing partner on this, Audrey Costadina, she’s a documentary film producer so she had important knowledge that helped a lot. Getting the actors together was really important. I was also a boxer in my life, and I found former boxer John Duddy who’s now an actor and he played the first killer. He was spectacular. When I met these guys it was really exciting to get everything together. Our cinematographer was fantastic. He worked for almost free, he brought his Steadicam crew and everybody so it was just really fun pulling all the pieces together.
I worked with my friend Ben who has experience directing so he was able to interpret what my desires were he had his own input and it was really fun. We shot it all here in my house and then the grave digging stuff we did upstate at Audrey’s; my partner’s mother lives in Woodstock so we went up there. We shot over two days. We shot for a 14-hour day here on a Friday and then went upstate on a Saturday. It had to be at night so we shot all night long and then got home at 4,5 in the morning. Everybody was just so collaborative and helpful and nobody complained. Funny story, Audrey’s stepfather is an excavator so he has all this heavy equipment. You can kinda see all the junk and stuff around the grave in the video, that’s all his equipment so it was a really great cinematic spot to do it.
I was like ‘ok we can just dig a grave up there’. Well it turns out the soil on the hill they live on is like concrete. So we got up there in the middle of the night, all of the crew had driven up there, we had the trucks and everything. So I had to build a hole. I built that whole hole above ground. We scraped as much as we could off the surface with a loader and Audrey’s stepfather got soil from other parts of the property and brought it over and I had to like build this rim around. But it was fun. Audrey has a friend who’s a drone operator so we got drone shots of the car coming up the road. I did a whole storyboard for it which I’m gonna release as a separate fun video. Every shot that I had planned came out exactly as I had planned it.
Q. In addition to music and filmmaking, you’re also a writer/scriptwriter! What are some writing projects you’ve worked on?
Backwoods was one that I did with Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart. If you look it up you can actually see like ‘Oh Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart are gonna be together in Backwoods’! It was all this pre-production hype. That got optioned and then it got optioned again actually to Wes Craven’s producing partner. We were in development for a year but that never quite got there. I had these few years where I was doing all this stuff and being in these crazy rooms coming from no Hollywood experience to kind of being thrown into this thing.
I had another script called Good Vibrations about a guy with this telepathic ability-it actually exists. The idea is if violence happens on this desk, the object retains the energy from the thing and people who have this ability if they bump into that object they can feel the thing that actually happened. So I created this where this guy has this ability but he can’t go anywhere cause he’s so freaked out by what’s happened. So that was in production for about a year and we pitched it to Sony and Paramount and Fox and it just never got picked up. Then there were a bunch of little ones. There was a Jesse James biopic that a guy hired me to do. I wrote the treatment and the script for that and it never happened.
At the same time I was playing with The Tracy’s and The Tracy’s started to pick up so I started focusing on music for about 6 or 7 years. I was writing all the way through that but we were touring and rehearsing and playing around every couple of weeks in the city. So that just sort of took over and then covid(laughs). I decided, coming out of covid, ‘I need to make this happen for myself’. Shooting this video was the first step on that road and for doing things for myself instead of waiting for someone else to tell me I could do it. You know I was a painter for a lot of years and it was the same process you know, get a gallery to accept you, you know show it in New York.
My works are all over the world and all these collections and stuff but it’s like you’re always waiting for someone to tell you you’re good enough and I give this advice to people all the time now; if you can do it on your own – do it on your own! I find that very fulfilling. It’s great if someone accepts your script but it’s better if you can do it for yourself.
Q. You’re a Brooklyn based musician. How did growing up in this setting advance your career?
I’m kind of new to Brooklyn although my grandparents lived here all throughout my childhood. It’s always easier to get rehearsal space here. We used to share this space on 6th street. The biggest thing is the talent here. You’re meeting people with like minds. That’s why people come to New York, it’s a creative hub. It’s hard having to quantify being in the city my whole life. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I didn’t grow up around here. It infuses your whole being, I think it’s part of my DNA. It encourages you to be really good at what you’re doing because there’s so much competition. There’s a million other bands, and million other drummers, a million other guitar players, a million other filmmakers. There’s support there, there’s an inspiration, but there’s also like, ‘I gotta get my stuff together’ (laughs).
Q. Your EP is all “yacht-rock” covers. Do you make original songs too?
Dave and I have a lot of projects together. We have The Tracys which is on permanent hiatus but hopefully we’ll get back together at some point. I have a band called The Sparkles. We just released our first EP, the other two guys from The Tracys and me. It’s very different. It’s all originals and It’s kind of a mash-up of 80s synth pop and punk rock if you can imagine. That’s available now on all platforms. Dave and I have another project called WinWin that we did with another collaborator John Bendik who was in a band called Cash Registers which were a punk rock band back in the 90s. I played drums with [John] for a couple of years. We have another project with John, his stage name is Tee Tee Summer, so we did a record that Dave co-wrote with John and I produced with Mike Abiuso at Behind the Curtains Media. Dave and I arranged and played most of the parts on that record. I’m excited to release that at some point it’s about John. John grew up in the rust belt in Pennsylvania. It’s a really powerful and poetic story about his childhood.
Q. Talk about other projects and bands you’ve lent your talents to.
Going back to my college days I was in a band called The Bohemian Angels which was in Berklee College in Boston. My friend Steve, who was the songwriter of that band, lives in Austin, Texas now and he’s a musician but he’s also a musical mastering guy. He did like Snoop Dogg and a bunch of other people. I was percussion, I was the drummer of that band. It was a kind of punk rock/world music influenced by African artists from the 70s kind of mixed with 80s new wave and punk rock. I went to art school after that and got married young, and had two kids. I was a painter and had a show at the 511 Gallery in Chelsea. I was completely in that world for 23 years. I kind of hit this crossroads and that’s when I formed The Tracy’s with Dave and John and Larry. I have four records that we did during covid from different bands(laughs) that I have to release. I didn’t sit idly by during that time.
Q. What else is in the works for Titanic?
Well I’m working on a 30-minute short that’s on a bigger scale, and that’s gonna be expandable to a feature, hopefully. The next thing [for Titanic] is the record gets released. The video’s going up at the Coney Island Film Festival this weekend. And then it’s just releasing the rest of the EP, which is 7 songs.