When Matt Derda & the High Watts first started putting together the songs on this weekend’s EP release — “You Didn’t Know?” — six or seven years ago, the band wasn’t even the High Watts. They were The Disappointments. But somewhere along the line, the Wheaton musician, now in his mid-30s, said they didn’t want to be disappointments anymore.
“Midway through, we decided to change the name of the band. We kind of grew up a little bit personally and musically. Disappointments didn’t seem like a fitting name anymore,” Derda said. “I was growing as a songwriter, tackling a little bit heavier topics.”
With Derda on guitar and vocals, Michael “MJ” Johnson on bass and banjo, Steve Ramsay on drums, more recent addition Jason Benefield on guitar and lap steel and with an assist from adviser and former bandmate Joey Greene, the band showcases some newer tunes while also tapping into some of Derda’s earliest songwriting on “Betsy Lane” and “Moonshine.” But they also showcase the musical evolution of Derda and the band over the last half-decade.
“Both of those started off real punk rock when we first started playing them. But we’ve found our rhythm,” he said. “With ‘Moonshine,’ that was the first riff I had ever come up with, and I was essentially trying to be like, ‘What would the Old 97s, The Replacements and Social Distortion sound like if they all did a collaboration?’ And I feel like I got really close with it.”
Derda, who is in marketing by day, said even though the new EP had been started years ago, the band had no intention of releasing it until he started livestreaming and using his marketing savvy on Twitter to tap the music community during the pandemic. The first single, “Betsy Lane,” caught on, and the momentum grew to finish the release.
On the new EP, Derda’s taste in Eastern Kentucky bluegrass blends with his formative years steeped in ’90s alternative rock for a laid-back, yet dynamic sound. The band’s just-released single “Life You Didn’t Know” is alive with the vibe of ’90s heavy-hitters the Gin Blossoms, while other songs on the seven-track, alt-country collection dive into waters pooling around some of Derda’s favorite influences, Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. But all are punctuated with sharp lyrics and witty charm.
Derda, who originally moved to Chicago in the late 2000s to pursue a career in improv and stage comedy, said his training at the Second City Conservatory, improvOlympic and Annoyance Theatre gave him skills he later discovered applied to his songwriting and keeping his performances sharp, both live and livestreaming. But he leaned into music because his guitar gave him a more personal way to collect and share his thoughts than on the competitive improv circuit.
“The pressure wasn’t there, I guess. Playing this guitar is not going to get me on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ So it’s something that I could get out of me and be creative,” he said. “I could have that outlet and have a song, and nobody could take that away from me. You can write a sketch, and if you don’t have a place to perform it, what good is it? But having a song that’s mine, I could go sit down and play it. It fulfilled that creative need that I think I just had to get out of me anyway, regardless of whether or not people listened to it. And it feels fulfilling when it’s finished.”
Matt Derda & The High Watts celebrate the release with a show at Reggies Music Joint Saturday, Nov. 12, joined by Chicago rock-punk band Nora Marks and a one-night-only reunion of power-pop group The Tyme Machines.
• • •
Matt Derda & The High Watts EP release show with The Tyme Machines, Nora Marks
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12
Where: Reggies Music Joint, 2105 S. State St., Chicago, reggieslive.com
Tickets: $15; 21+