The Cover Story

blackbear: “A rock star used to be sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and now it’s mental health, appreciation and patience”

Growing up with a father addicted to heroin, Mat Musto (aka blackbear) found comfort and escape in music. Originally losing himself in the alternative scene, he soon found a career in R&B, but is now revisiting his punk roots and confronting his past on new album In Loving Memory.

blackbear: “A rock star used to be sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and now it’s mental health, appreciation and patience”
Emma Wilkes
Jason Landis and Jared Pearson

By his own admission, Mat Musto doesn’t have any real hobbies. When he’s not working on his own music, he’s working on somebody else’s. When he’s not working at all, he’s spending time with his wife and two children. It’s all he really needs.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a drumbeat in my head,” he explains from his home in LA. “I always knew that if I was going to make money off of something, it was going to be music. Music is the only thing I have. If you took it away from me, there would be no point living. It’s the reason I’m put on this earth. I’m a very spiritual person. I just feel like I need to be of service to be the most accountable to myself.”

Growing up, Mat's passion for music was nurtured through many different means. When asked what his musical upbringings were like, he responds, “It depends what upbringing you’re talking about.” One of them was more self-directed, taking place in his bedroom, where he listened to Something Corporate and Death Cab For Cutie and learned to play the piano. His elementary school babysitter later introduced him to the likes of MxPx, NOFX and New Found Glory. By the fifth grade, he’d attempted to pierce his own lip, started wearing his mum’s jeans and was playing in garage bands.

After dropping out of high school to focus on music, Mat started sending demos to people in the music industry. He only received one reply, oddly from the manager of R&B star Ne-Yo, who invited the young Mat to Los Angeles to spend a week writing songs together. He ended up staying for three years. This, effectively, was Mat's second musical upbringing, exposing him to a world of styles and ways of writing music (as well as some music theory) that he hadn’t previously encountered.

“They had me write a song a day – sometimes two or three - for those entire three years,” Mat recalls. “I had hundreds of songs. It was kind of like a bootcamp. It was interesting for me as a musician because I was learning from these people, but also learning from trial and error. I was an emo kid learning from the best R&B personnel in the game.”

Later on, singer and producer Mike Posner heard some of the music Mat – who took the name blackbear as a tribute to the animal native to his home state of Florida – was working on and took him under his wing. Together, they began working on songs for pop artists, perhaps the most famous of these being Justin Bieber’s 2012 teen pop smash hit Boyfriend. Later, they wrote songs for the likes of Maroon 5, Nick Jonas and Disney Channel’s pop-punk-lite boyband Big Time Rush.

“That was in my early twenties, before I got sick,” says Mat. “When I got sick, I started making darker music.”

In 2016, Mat wrote Digital Druglord, his first album on a major label (Interscope), while in hospital after years of heavy drinking and drug use took its toll on his pancreas. Since then, he has lived with chronic necrotising pancreatitis, a condition in which the pancreas has been so damaged by inflammation – usually from excessive alcohol consumption – that some of the tissue has died. “My pancreas is an asshole,” he sighs.

Mat's condition causes him chronic pain, and when he has an attack he has been known to throw up blood. He cites meditation and prayer as the things which help him best cope, as well as talking to fans and being involved in his community.

As might be expected, such an illness sometimes intrudes in his career – an attack is often enough to drag him away from the stage and into a sick bed. The rigour of touring and the demands of the music industry are hard enough for any musician to handle, let alone those with chronic health issues, and the extra difficulties it can pose are rarely discussed, meaning fans can be less than empathetic when Mat's health issues result in cancelling shows.

“It’s really tough when I have to cancel shows. I just wish that people were a little more understanding,” he says. “The world in general could be a little easier on people who have chronic illnesses.”

On top of this, he also become addicted to the painkillers he took to make dealing with an attack more bearable. “It’s a really hard game I have to play all the time, being a drug addict and also having to take pain meds. It’s really fucking tough,” he admits. Yet he perseveres, and proudly reveals that, at the time of the interview, he has been sober for 37 days.

Distancing himself from the lure of alcohol and drugs in LA helps to keep him clean. “I moved to the country and I live on [a 15-acre estate] in the mountains, so I’m really far away from Hollywood and the parties and stuff like that,” he explains. “I spend my days as a dad, with my wife and kids, and I keep myself removed from [that lifestyle]. When I’m travelling, I bring along a friend that’s sober as well.” He pauses and again raises what appears to be a central tenet in his life: “I always have accountability.”

Addiction in the music industry remains rife in 2022. How many musicians can you think of who have had issues with drugs and alcohol? Inevitably, at least some of the names that might come to mind will have died because of their addictions. But while there’s still a heck of a lot of progress to be made, Mat believes the tide is slowly changing. At the very least, hedonism is celebrated far less, within the music itself and in the culture of the business.

“The new-age rockstar is not what it was in the '80s,” he asserts. “It used to be sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll, and now I think it’s mental health, appreciation and patience. I think the new rockstar is a person who really cares for their mental health and cares for their family.”

“We all probably know someone who’s passed from an overdose”

Listen blackbear talk about getting sober and connecting with people

On July 29, 2021, Mat’s biological father passed away – his life brought to a premature end after years struggling with addiction. He had been addicted to heroin for the entirety of Mat’s life, and barely participated in his son’s upbringing. He was later adopted by his stepfather.

Grief is a complex emotion, consuming individuals with crashing waves of anger, sadness, denial and confusion. Mat, however, had an atypical experience, made all the more complicated by the fact his relationship with his father existed only in blood.

“I kind of hate him for his drug use,” he says. “But I also have my own drug use issues, and I think I got those genetics from him, so I’m kind of angry at him. But I kind of love him because he put me on this earth. It’s a struggle; it’s like a push and pull.” Furthermore, because his contact with his biological father was so limited, he never got a chance to say goodbye.

Everything he didn’t say, however, he poured into the lyrics of his new album, In Loving Memory, a concept record that acts as the goodbye letter he never got to send. “I made this album thinking that this is what he will hear beyond the grave,” he says.

It’s a raw, wounded record, on which pain takes centre stage, as on the likes of Poltergeist ('You’re the one who went and fucked it up / You were never there when you said you’d hit me up'), but at other points, that pain is laced with fury, particularly on recent single Toxic Energy, which was released on the first anniversary of the death that partly inspired it.

However, the fizzing frustration it contains also came from a place of self-reflection, and the unfortunate point of connection, in the form of addiction, that he and his father share. Indeed, Mat spent much of the album’s creative process going through withdrawal, trying to get sober again. “It’s a song about having a relationship with somebody who is struggling with drugs,” he explains. “I was watching the people around me struggle to be around me and watch me go through it.”

Mat had always wanted to honour his emo roots by making a rock album one day, but part of the reason it's happening now lies at the door of the most omnipresent man in rock, and one of his personal heroes, Travis Barker. The two men met when they were both working with Mat’s longtime friend Machine Gun Kelly on 2020 single My Ex’s Best Friend (the three reunite on In Loving Memory’s lead single GFY), and when Mat showed him the chorus of a song that would eventually become The Idea, Travis encouraged him to explore other sounds in that vein. Before long, one song had morphed into a full-on collaborative project.

“Travis took the ideas that I had on acoustic [guitar] and put structure to them,” Mat says of the blink-182 drummer’s involvement. “He’s a genius. He’ll make moments in your songs when they didn’t exist before.”

The prospect of two of music’s most sought-after individuals working together was practically inevitable. Indeed, collaboration was arguably the thing that offered Mat his entry point into the alternative scene, and his CV boasts songwriting and producing credits on songs by the likes of All Time Low, Linkin Park, nothing,nowhere. and Avril Lavigne.

“I love collaborating. It’s a great way to dive into other people’s fanbases and they can dive into mine," he smiles. "I love collaborating with artists to pick their brains and see how I relate to them. I think I steal a little bit from everybody’s process.”

“I feel like I know these artists more than they know themselves”

blackbear reveals how he ended up working with New Found Glory

Mat took the opportunity to live his younger emo self’s musical dreams, reaching out to several 2000s pop-punk and alt. heroes for guest features on In Loving Memory. He managed to recruit members of New Found Glory, The Used and Bayside to lend their talents to Toxic Energy, Nothing Matters and Poltergeist respectively through almost manifestation-like means.

“When I feature someone on a blackbear song, it’s usually because I was thinking of them while [writing the song],” he says, admitting that he writes guest parts specifically for the artists he wants to work with. “I feel like I know these artists more than they know themselves because I was such a fan growing up.”

And Mat has a pretty high hit-rate of getting bands on board, even when he revealed in an interview that his album would feature New Found Glory before frontman Jordan Pundik had even been asked. The only time this approach hasn’t worked was when he tried to get Elton John a guest feature on Queen Of Broken Hearts, and that was only because it was the middle of the pandemic and making it to a studio might have been too much of a risk for the 75-year-old pop legend. Still, it might happen one day. “We started a relationship and he told me we’ll be making music soon, so I’m really excited for that.”

Away from guest spots and emo nostalgia, is there anything else we can learn about Mat Musto from this record? “I can mould and wear whatever mask I want to,” he asserts. “You’re getting a piece of me from this album that is so true to who I am and how I grew up. It was bound to happen at some point. This was the right time in my career to do it.”

In recent years, rock – frequently the pop-punk and emo-adjacent kind – has found itself at the epicentre of a Hollywood goldrush. While homegrown alt. superstars are pushing our scene to be more diverse and musically open-minded than ever before, at the same time, musicians who have grown their careers in other genres have decided they want a piece of the pie. Miley Cyrus released the rock-inspired Plastic Hearts at the tail-end of 2020, and barely a couple of weeks ago, Demi Lovato became the rock queen she’d always wanted to be with her new album Holy Fvck. Arguably this trend all started with someone Mat has been friends with “since we had no tattoos on either of our bodies” – Machine Gun Kelly, who pivoted into pop-punk with Travis Barker in tow on 2020’s Tickets To My Downfall, having hovered on the periphery of the scene ever since he collaborated with Sleeping With Sirens almost a decade ago.

As the latest artist to burst into the alternative realm, Mat has some ideas about why 'mainstream' artists are seeking a new home in our world of misfits. “I think we’re all really starving for something real, with raw emotion,” he says. “[Rock] has never been short of raw emotion. It’s resurfacing on places like TikTok because it’s real.”

Nostalgia for a simpler time, one removed from the trauma of pandemics, climate change and war, is something he also believes factors into the resurgence of pop-punk and emo in particular. When asked if it also gave him a sense of comfort, given the difficulty of the emotions he was trying to process during In Loving Memory’s making, he firmly agrees "one hundred per cent."

“Nobody can gatekeep me from being the most genuine I’m being to myself”

Hear blackbear on ‘imaginary gatekeeping’ and why he’s a ‘valid kid’

This trend of ‘non-rock’ artists switching genres is in its relative infancy, so its effect on the alternative world mostly remains to be seen. However, after the release of March’s Mainstream Sellout, MGK decided to return to hip-hop. It’s unknown whether other artists who have done this will follow suit. But it begs the question – are these artists using rock as a cash cow that they can exploit and dispose of when they’ve got what they want from it? Is it for the clicks or is it for genuine creative expression? Is it authentic?

When it comes to himself as an individual musician, Mat is keen to emphasise that he’s a real one. “I am a valid kid. You can do your research and see that I had all these MySpace friends. I was in a band called Polaroid that signed to Leakmob Records, and we toured all over. I had black hair. Nobody can gatekeep me from being the most genuine I’m being to myself.”

That said, he plans to return to his R&B roots after the In Loving Memory era winds up. While this might raise some eyebrows, Mat wants to make clear that, as every emo kid has told their parents at least once, this isn’t a phase. “I think I’ll always use live instrumentation in blackbear music. I think that’s something I’ll always take with me from now on.” Even if he doesn’t do it straight away, he also wouldn’t rule out making another rock album in the future.

But Mat isn’t just vouching for his own artistic authenticity – when it comes to artists who are following his path, he perhaps sees their intentions as purer than alternative fans, perma-conscious about the presence of posers, might assume at first glance. Why put limits on artistic expression and relegate everyone to the musical camps they came from for no good reason? After all, when a musical experiment has been as healing to him as making In Loving Memory has been, denying anyone else that opportunity seems futile.

“If you want to rap, just go ahead and spit some bars. If you want to get a guitar and rock the fuck out, do it,” he concludes. “There are no rules to art.”

blackbear's new album In Loving Memory is out now.

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