PET POLITICS: How Guitarist Matt Elkin Met His Rockin’ Werewolf Pooch

COLUMNS|Monthly Mondays|Pet Politics

Matt Elkin is a super sweet dude and super nasty guitar virtuoso. You may know him as a longtime member of Brooklyn’s favorite pop punkers The So So Glos, though now he’s moved on to solo work and gigging with a multitude of Brooklyn-based bands like Snakeskin and Bueno. But there is one little guy that takes priority above it all: a little pup named Rocky. Rocky is a rescue chihuahua (and maybe part werewolf) that makes up for his small size with a big attitude. Matt loves playing Bill Withers records for his poochie pal (when they’re not going on road trips together) and has continued to raise money on behalf of BARC Shelter for those pups still seeking forever homes. Read on to find out more about Matt’s musical history and his best pal Rocky.

AF: Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to be a musician?

ME: No singular moment per se, just a total onslaught of music of every persuasion permeating my household from day one. My dad was forever bumping Steely Dan and Neil Young and Stevie Nicks cassettes in our old Clark Griswold-style station wagon. My mom was most keen on Motown and the like and would have me dancing around the living room with her to Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross before I could even really stand up on my own. They had this extensive, eclectic record collection from their high school and college years. They were also hyped on the advent of MTV and keen on so much of the new stuff coming through on the radio. My dad was the one that brought home Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, the “new alternative” stuff. They were just feeding my eager little ears nonstop.

Music equated to joy in our house; it was the constant I could count on in a situation that was otherwise generally rife with turmoil. But an enthusiasm for exploring music, that’s the big thing my parents bestowed upon me. I was a total sponge, utterly transfixed by everything I was exposed to. I had to listen to everything over and over again and then eventually determined I could go try and decipher what went into making this magic. My mom was a really proficient pianist and I have fond memories of sitting with her on the piano bench as she would perform these beautiful sonatas for me and let me tinker on the keys alongside her. I would try to mimic her playing and have my dad videotape these little recitals I’d put on for them, just endlessly fiddling around with whatever notes sounded good together to me.

And there was my childhood babysitter, Beth (insert the emoji with hearts for eyes here, lol). She gave me my first in-depth exposure to hip-hop, R&B, all the rad dance/house/techno stuff that was coming out in the early nineties. She was a high school cheerleader and she showed me how to make mixtapes. In doing so she effectively laid the foundation for my learning how to DJ as well. I’d sit there with her as she’d dub sections of songs onto cassette, pause the tape at a particular moment, go digging for another tune in the same tempo to swap in, play back the results. Flawless transitions every single time, blew my freaking mind. These were the megamixes for her squad’s dance routines. Everything But The Girl, La Bouche, Naughty by Nature, Monica, all the goodies. Still can’t believe her coach let it fly for her to pop that track “Short Dick Man” into the mix. Haaa. Oh shit! I just remembered that my dad took me to a Raffi concert when I was four and we waited outside his bus after the show so I could meet him. That was major. How’s about we call that THE moment.

AF: How long have you been playing guitar? Do you play any other instruments?

ME: There’s overlap here re: first question but I began taking piano lessons when I was three, from my babysitter’s mom, Mrs. Newton. She was the music teacher at the elementary schools. They lived right next door to us. My mom is Japanese (by way of Chicago) and although she wasn’t necessarily, like, the archetypal strict Asian parent, I’m pretty sure it was foretold long in advance of my exiting the womb that I was going to be subject to some sort of Suzuki method-ing. So I learned my scales and how to read sheet music and whatnot but mostly just kept on tinkering around on my own with what I thought sounded good, writing my own little ditties.

Then I was made to take up trumpet in elementary school. By that point I think I’d been resolved on playing guitar for years. My favorite band when I was really little was Guns N’ Roses. I loved Izzy and I don’t know why. He was just so chill and didn’t grandstand like Slash, just held it down, kept that cigarette dangling out of his mouth. I had all of their records by the time I was eight. I even had a Guns N’ Roses birthday cake one year. I remember learning to use the VCR and recording the “In Bloom” video off MTV and watching that one over and over and over again. I remember first hearing the Toadies song “Possum Kingdom” when I was nine or so. That song really did a number on me, made me feel weird feelings. It felt so sexual and uncomfortable and only in recent years did I find out that it’s about vampires and necrophilia? Yeah, that one really warped my little nine-year-old brain. And then there was Weezer.

I nagged my parents for a guitar. My parents got me my own stereo when I was five and they took me to the mall every weekend to buy a new CD at Record Town as my chores allowance. My first CDs were Funky Divas by En Vogue and Three Dog Night. I loved Michael Jackson and Metallica and TLC. My first crush was Left Eye. I wanted TLC albums so bad but I was all timid and awkward and embarrassed that my parents would somehow know about my crush! It took ages for me to build up the courage to approach the “Waterfalls” cassingle at the record store. Then I would put on these little lip sync concerts for my parents and friends and whoever else was around where I would try to do Mike’s lean from the “Smooth Criminal” video or headbang to “Sad But True” until I threw up.

Okay, anyway, a lot of begging and pleading and increasing opposition to my weekly piano lessons finally wore down my parents enough that my mom brought me after school one day to this music shop in New London Connecticut, my hometown, called Caruso’s. I believe I had just started the sixth grade. I was dead set on a Fender Stratocaster. We got to that shop and I picked out a Strat and there was no way my mom was going to spend $500 on the name brand when there were perfectly acceptable knockoffs so I came home that day with a Peavey copycat and a little 8″ amp. I was ecstatic. I never put the damn thing down. I took like six weeks of guitar lessons with this kooky dude who lived in his Volkswagen by the beach. He taught me the pentatonic scale and “More Than a Feeling” by Boston and we started getting through “Mood for a Day” by Yes when I decided that proper guitar lessons sucked versus my just sitting by the stereo or in front of MTV/VH1 and playing along to the shit I was really into.

I still have that Peavey. Matter of fact, I never went on to collect many guitars, and just recently that guitar has come back to being my mainstay. I mean, I learned absolutely everything on that guitar. Nothing else has ever felt quite as natural to play. My friend Amy Mills is this amazing luthier who lives a few blocks from me and a couple months ago she gave it a full tuneup. She sanded down the neck, fixed some spots where the frets had gotten banged up, replaced the whammy bar that I had long since lost, installed a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickup in the bridge(!). I wanted a Hot Rails pickup my whole life. Those Musician’s Friend catalogs made them look so appealing. No buzz, sounds great! I highly advise getting your gear souped up by Amy. Like anything though, my interest in guitar kind of ebbs and flows. Piano was square one for me and I still usually find myself way more inclined to begin the songwriting process on one of my little Yamaha toy synths as opposed to on the guitar. Other instruments besides that? I’ve taken stabs at mandolin and banjo before and got somewhat okay at those. My friend and former bandmate Jesse Rifkin let me bum around on his accordion for a while during college and I’d really like to more formally learn how to play that one of these days. I want to get my hands on a trumpet again and see if I can still play all the ska songs I learned in middle school.

AF: Can you give us a rundown of the projects you have played in and currently play in as well your role in each band?

ME: I play guitar and keyboard and sing really high falsetto harmonies and occasionally play bass and other stuff in the band Snakeskin, the brainchild of Shanna Polley, my friend who just happens to be my favorite songwriter in the universe. I play guitar in the band Bueno too. I also just recently started playing bass in my buddy Paul’s new band Substitute. Paul plays in Big Eyes. They rule. The So So Glos was my main baby for the past decade, but I unfortunately had to make the decision to step away for a number of reasons, primarily personal mental health stuff that was simply not manageable in the midst of the band’s perpetual touring regimen. I got increasingly burnt out and desperately needed to tend to my own shit. But we (Glos) got to do some really incredible stuff over the years, definitely far exceeded anything we expected we could make of our little group. I’m so grateful for all the experiences. We got to travel all over Europe. We made our last record (Kamikaze) out in San Diego with John Reis (from Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt)! He’s forever been one of my biggest influences, and it’s so crazy that now he’s like this musical father figure (cool dad) to me. We played on Chris Gethard’s show and did a filmed thing for Carson Daly and got to play a Lollapalooza and we even played on freaking David Letterman right before he retired. I think we all blacked out during that performance… I have very little recollection of that entire day. I do remember Jon Hamm’s hands were very clammy and that he and his partner were super nice. Hmm, what else. Right as I was finishing college I played in a band called Le Rug. I also do this solo thing sometimes where I sing over these tinny songs I made on Fruity Loops. Recently I’ve been learning how to make new tracks the same way on Ableton because I can’t figure out how to install Fruity Loops on my Mac. Someone please help me. That program is the best. So I’m spread all over the place with making music right now and I love it like this, getting so many opportunities to write and play in so many different ways and shapes and forms with all these supremely remarkable genius people, having so many transcendent mind melds on the regular. Collaboratively creating things is just like the most confounding thing there is. So the main focus this summer for basically every project I’m involved with is to write all new stuff and record, and that’s the shit I like doing the most. I have plans for some other stuff too. I have a lot of stuff written that I will one day soon, time permitting (life with a steady day gig/as a single pup pop makes for limitations), commit to tape and put a band together to record with and play out live. That “band” is probably going to be called either Credence or Sabbath because I am a dweeb. Or maybe Herbs, hard pronunciation (like, “hard”). I just remembered how people used to call each other that in middle school and still think it is the most hilarious diss.

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Matt shredding with The So So Glos

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Matt rocking out in Bueno at Union Hall for a Cinco de Mayo celebration (Photo Credit: Natalie Kirch)

AF: Did you have pets growing up?

ME: No! And it sucked! Well, we had fish. That hardly qualifies. I remember one of our fish, Shaq, cannibalized another one of our fishes overnight. That was so gruesome. My dad was severely allergic to cats and dogs and I was pretty sensitive to them too. Fast forward to present day, my dad’s remarried and my stepmom is a retired veterinarian and at the house we’ve got two dogs, two cats, and they even adopted two horses! Our older Weshie’s named Twizzler, she’s eight now I believe, and she never leaves my dad’s side. She won’t let anyone else snuggle with her. It’s adorable how betrothed she is to him. Regular immersion and the occasional Benadryl totally helped my dad defeat his allergies. Same went for me I guess.

AF: Please introduce us to your furry friend!

ME: Rocco Noah Katz Cacciatore (Rocky for short) is my long-haired Chihuahua/werewolf who is presently approximately five years old. Me and my partner of the time adopted him a little over two years ago. Took him home on March 11th, 2016. So that’s when we celebrate his birthday, which technically makes him a Pisces. Oy, what can(’t) I say about my little doofus? He’s a bit of a troubleman. He can go from being the sweetest, bubbliest, belly rub-loving Furby to a nasty curmudgeon with an axe to grind in a matter of seconds. He is such a fierce guardian of what he deems his territory, which at this point is like six blocks in every direction from my house. Gets a little frustrating sometimes, like he’ll go lunging out of the blue at a stranger’s ankles without warning, but all in all I have learned to manage him and we’ve really made strides in keeping his aggression in check (no one that knows him/me will fully agree with that, heh). But I appreciate this mercurial nature of his. He is my child and I only wish for him to express himself however he feels fit to! Just, he was in a really awful situation for the first part of his life, which I don’t want to get into the specifics of or I will not be able to continue on this interview, so fucked. Thankfully he was surrendered by whomever was (not) caring for him and I just try my darn best to make a life for him that is the awesomest he can possibly have. Maybe someday we will live out in the country and he will have acres upon acres to claim as his own. That’s the dream. He goes nuts for an open field of tall grass. He is keen on soft surfaces and squeaky toys, aggressively befriending dogs four times his size or more (not so much interested in dogs his own size/breed), sleeping with his butt pressed firmly up against your (my) butt, sharing mushy bananas and string cheese with me (you), nosediving into bird poop and dead worms, and watching skate videos. He hates rain but loves getting the hairdryer treatment. He always smells so goddamn good (save for the Chihuahua breath, of course). He is going dress up as Sid Vicious this coming Halloween. I call him Walter when he acts distinguished. He has pretty intense dietary limitations, kind of a bubble boy. He is allergic to, among various other things, beef, pork, fish, wheat, potatoes. Craziest thing is that he’s allergic to COTTON. Took a really comprehensive allergy panel to determine all this and my vet in Queens was even kind of baffled about the cotton thing. Like, he’s gotten pretty bad dermatitis by sitting on cotton sheets just for a brief period of time. But we manage! I’ve got to say, polyester bedding gets a bad rap. It is actually quite soft and breathable. Me and Rocky are both incredibly comfy at night thank you very much.

AF: Can you recommend some shelters for future pet parents?

ME: BARC Shelter all the way. Nonprofit, no-kill, angel-managed creature haven set right in the heart of Williamsburg. Miracle workers. Shoutout to my man Rop. They have taken in hordes of pups and kits from near and far. They brought in 30-odd dogs after Harvey hit Houston, same with Puerto Rico, and on a too-common basis take in animals left at their front door. Desperate shitheads abandon their pets under the cover of darkness. BARC scooped Rocky from the ACC in Harlem, and I met him two days after he arrived. I was there visiting other pups the day I saw this blur of black and white fur wearing a cone of shame getting swept through the door. I had to go back immediately to see about this strange little demonic vision I so briefly got a glimpse of. Rop warned me that he was temperamental but as soon as he came out of the kennel he ran like 50 feet straight to me and we just clicked! For my last eight or so birthdays I have tried to raise funds for BARC. This is the first year I have used the Facebook donation feature. It’s cool, but I think BARC’s own website makes it really easy to donate to and the money gets to them faster. You can even sponsor a specific animal if you so desire, you can get them specific supplies they need off Amazon… I’d forever recommend going that route over the Facebook thing. But my fundraiser link will still be up in my Instagram bio until July 11th. They have public pup-walking hours! Get your fix! Check their site!

AF: If Rocky could be in a band, what genre would be and what instrument would he play?

ME: This is a digression from the question but there’s this interesting thing I’ve noticed which is that Rocky seems to find gravelly singing voices really appealing. I’ll put on Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Bill Withers, Nirvana, and Rocky’s interest is fully piqued. He gets into this unique mode where he seems at once very soothed and relaxed but still super attentive. It’s so bizarre! I see his ears perk up and then his eyelids get droopy. He’s entranced. Similar thing happens when my roommate is playing bass in her room. And maybe the gravelly voice thing doesn’t so much apply to her stuff but he also is really engaged whenever we’re listening to Scout Niblett. Also, my dear friend and longtime So So Glos bandmate Alex (Levine) recently sent me his first solo record which he JUST put the finishing touches on (and is getting really close to releasing! Keep an eye out for Alexander Orange Drink) and Rocky really loves that one too. He’s heard Alex singing in my house before and I can tell that he recognizes Alex’s voice. I cannot emphasize how great this album is. It’s brilliant, frenetic. So much of what I love about Alex’s songwriting and all that I know that he loves about being both a creator and complete consumer/absorber of music is in there. It’s wild.

AF: Favorite non-human animal-themed song?

ME:Little Bird” by Annie Lennox. How incredible is that song? Sheesh. “The Bat’s Mouth” by Bat for Lashes is another gorgeous one, absolutely perfect. Oh and “The Puppy Song” by Harry Nilsson! “Dolphins” by Billy Bragg.

AF: Favorite daddy-doggy outings or parks?

ME: Irving Square Park is right by our apartment and that is where me and Rocky go every morning so he can have his meeting of the minds with the other neighborhood pups. They’re permitted go off their leashes before 9am or after 9pm. I haven’t gotten penalized yet for ignoring those parameters, but you gotta stay vigilant in the rare event that some asshole comes through to write tickets because it’s like $200! Sucks. I am aware that there are folks in the area that have been petitioning for quite a while to establish a designated enclosure/run at Irving Square like the one that was created at Maria Hernandez. I don’t know who these people are but if anyone out there reading this can connect me with them I would love to get involved in whatever capacity. Rocky also loves the open road. He’s content riding alone shotgun but prefers to be sprawled out in my girlfriend’s lap. We went upstate a couple weekends ago, about three hours north of the city for our friends’ wedding. He alternates between sleeping and perching by the window, taking in all the smells. He could drive forever. We listen to a lot of Bill Callahan in the car. I hope Rocky and I can travel across the country together someday. Reluctant to fly with him because of his skittishness. I wanted to find a way to transition into talking about how Rocky is certified as my ESA (emotional support animal) but I don’t really know what to say about it besides that I am happy to answer questions anyone has about what exactly that means and what the process of getting that designation entails because I had to do a ton of research on it.

AF: Name the first word that comes to mind when you think of Rocky.

ME: Dingleberry.

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All photos of Rocky courtesy of Doggy Dad Matt

Matt’s next show is with Snakeskin @ Cat Farm on 6/30.


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