BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI
When he isn’t creating intricate art involving skulls and various other creatures, Matt Stikker is pulverizing your soul with progressive black metal. Steffan Chirazi sketches this most righteous creative force.
For a man so in love with macabre images, Matt Stikker has to be one of the friendliest fellows you’ll meet. A cheerful smile, an enthusiastic answer, a sparkle in the eye, and a smile never too far away, Matt is yet more proof that you cannot judge any artist solely by the work of theirs you engage with. It is also clear from the opening minutes of our conversation that Portland, Oregon-based Matt is a creative multitasker of some aplomb. Besides his art career, which has seen his work featured in many different places, from skateboards to Sizzle Pie pizza, (where Matt was once the creative marketing director) he also enjoys a busy musical dimension through Drouth, a progressive death/black metal band he formed in 2014. Yes, their merch is pretty goddamn great! He also has another project, Iron Scepter, still floating, and has had several other bands prior, including Arterial Spray.
Matt’s “Trapped Under Ice” poster is a dual-level piece. At first glance, a very immediate and seemingly simple image, further inspection reveals layers and detail showing so many other elements and ideas.
Indeed, no conversation with Matt will lack enthusiasm or opinion, and you further get the impression that if he decided to try his hand at being a metal sculptor or a trombone player, he’d master said discipline perfectly. Put it this way; I’m afraid to ask him if he’s ever done any restaurant work as he will likely reveal a Michelin star under his t-shirt. Yes…the man is talented.
Here, in his own words, is an overview of Matt Stikker, artist and musician.
THE FIRST ‘SCARIES’ AS A KID
One of the first things I saw that really had an impact on me that I remember is a book called “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” that was illustrated by Stephen Gammell. And they are horrific! They gave me nightmares!!! I remember checking this book out in my elementary school library when I was probably six years old, and I remember vividly that the illustrations had a visceral vibe that chilled me and gave me serious nightmares.
I couldn’t say what it was that attracted me to that book in particular, but obviously, it had such an emotional resonance where I was horrified yet attracted to the macabre darkness. They’re all black and white ink drawings that all have this very ethereal, misty, cloudy but very, very unsettling character to them. And it’s still something I think that really profoundly impacted my aesthetic sensitivity.
CHILDHOOD SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
I grew up with the privilege of having parents that encouraged my interest in art and music, took me to music classes, and took me to art classes. That’s not something that everyone has, so I’m very grateful for them to have pushed me in that direction because it obviously ended up having a great impact on my life. My mom is also an artist. She’s a printmaker and does ceramics, so she had those interests herself, and I think she probably saw that I had artistic interests as well and was happy to help foster that.
I remember my parents playing Roy Orbison, the Traveling Wilburys, the Beatles, George Harrison, Tom Petty…a lot of that classic stuff. And my dad is a really big jazz head, so for my entire life I remember him just basically being a total nerd about jazz, much in the way that I became a big nerd about metal. So we have that in common, even if it’s slightly different. I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the stuff that he enjoys as well. I started taking music lessons and playing piano when I was about six years old, somewhere around first or second grade.
SCI-FI AND HORROR FROM A YOUNG AGE
I was really big into Star Wars as a kid. I must’ve been maybe seven or eight years old, and I had seen them all. I remember with my brother and our friends trying to remember which one was the one where Darth Vader takes his helmet off, and you see his gnarly face! I was also right at the age where The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, and those more adult things were entering the mainstream, but I was just a little bit too young. My parents wouldn’t let me watch Beavis and Butthead, you know, when I was seven years old. Maybe that was the right call? But there was this kind of, ‘cool big kid forbidden’ aspect to stuff like Beavis and Butthead that I was attracted to, and maybe made me more interested than if I had been allowed to watch it.
I was definitely into sci-fi, starting with Star Wars and then, as I was getting older, stuff like Terminator and Aliens. I remember being into The Matrix. In my middle school, everyone was going crazy for it, and Lord of the Rings was just a couple years after I was in high school.
I think, like many people who grew up in the pre-internet era, or at least in the pre-widespread streaming era, shall we say, going to the video store and picking out a movie based on the cover or the posters and promotional stand-up things, was the main thing. I remember seeing the Friday the 13th movie covers, in particular, the mask, that strong imagery, and seeing all the movie covers. I was nine years old, and I knew that my parents wouldn’t let me watch it, but I was drawn to the imagery. Which I think, from an artistic standpoint, has been a massive influence on what I do. That entire era of horror art is a huge influence.
A MUSICIAN IN THE RANKS
In middle and high school, after I started to develop my own taste in music (it was the ‘90s, so stuff like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana were big for me), I remember hearing the Weird Al version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when I was eight or nine years old, and it was really, really exciting. By the time I was in high school, I had gotten into Metallica. I had also heard Iron Maiden, and by the time I was in my first band when I was 14 or 15, it was Rush, Metallica, and Smashing Pumpkins; anything with loud guitars at that point, and then it just kind of degenerated from there!
I’m still a huge Rush fan. When one of my band’s last albums came out, one of my buddies said it sounded like Rush doing extreme metal, and I took that as a huge compliment. I like progressive song structure, the wider approach, not just verse/chorus/verse songwriting. I was first exposed to that in bands like Rush, but also by Metallica. “Master of Puppets” songs with different ‘acts,’ and different structures; they take you on a journey, and that’s the stuff that I started responding to.
TRAPPED UNDER ICE
With my art, I enjoy having a composition with a lot of depth, not focusing on one singular object, but placing the main subject in a certain context. It’s typically a horror, fantasy sci-fi type of framework, so I’m not necessarily concerned with verisimilitude. I tend to start with the main subject, draw outwards, and come up with complementary aspects of the composition afterward. So for this piece, in particular, the first thing I thought of was “Trapped Under Ice” - a hand reaching out of ice. Where do I go from there? I decided to travel downward and see what’s trapped under ice. It’s not merely the ice; it’s the hand grasping and pulling him down. Is it a physical hand? Is it a metaphysical hand? Is it a metaphorical hand?
PERSONAL CONCEPTS OF ART
I absolutely find the practice of doing artwork to be therapy for myself, to be really important to my general well-being, and being able to lose myself and focus solely on the act of creating and the act of drawing is the most crucial aspect of your artistic process of that journey is learning how to maintain your focus and concentration while being very present in the moment of creation. And it’s something that you absolutely have to work on. I’ve been drawing seriously for almost 20 years at this point, and it’s something that takes a lot of time to learn, but I think most artists that I know would agree that it’s just simply the act of drawing and creating.
If you were to see the process by which I create, ink drawing in particular, I would come up with a sketch, a very loose sketch, to get an overall high-altitude view of what I plan on doing. When it comes to the penciling, I sit down with the final piece, and my pencils are (I think) pretty loose in comparison to a lot of artists. Many artists work with a light table and will very meticulously pencil out every aspect of the composition and then very carefully replicate that in ink. I, on the other hand, almost always pencil quite loose, especially when it comes to organic forms, and I really enjoy the process of letting the ink tell me where it wants to go, sitting down and letting the texture emerge very organically from the ink. I use a brush most of the time, I do also use micron pens as well as markers and a few other tools, but a brush is my main instrument.
We’ve been going by Drouth for about eight years now. We’ve done a national tour. We tend to tour more the Western US because it’s obviously a big logistical undertaking for us to travel, but we’ve done a bunch of Western US tours. We had a great tour of California, the Southwest, and down to Texas back in 2019, right before the pandemic. We played in February 2020, and did not play again until September of last year. Regular shows didn’t resume until about February or March of this year. All of us love to play live, and I think for a lot of musicians, that really is what keeps you going. And not knowing when you’re going to be able to play is very demoralizing. I know that many, many other people had the same experience. I started questioning, “What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? Do I even enjoy this? Am I crazy? Have I Stockholm syndromed myself into believing that I actually enjoy this?” And then we got an outdoor show in September of last year, and as soon as our drummer counted it in, I went, ”Oh, fuck, I love this. This is my favorite thing.” It came flooding back. I love that immediate ‘in the moment’ sense of satisfaction playing live, and with art, it is a delayed gratification, because it may take me 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 hours to complete a piece that I’m working on.
I have done mural art, and I’m in the middle of working on a couple of pieces. There’s a guitar pedal manufacturer called Catalinbread that is based here in Portland. They do awesome guitar pedals, really cool stuff, and I use a couple of their pedals in my work. So I did a really big mural, about 40ft by 20ft, for their workshop last summer. I had a ton of fun being up on scaffolding and up and down all day for a couple of weeks. Then this year, they expanded their workshop, and just in the last couple of weeks, I went and splashed up a couple more smaller pieces on the interior and the front of their workshop; I love doing it. There are one or two other big pieces I’ve done in bars here in Portland, and I have a lot of fun doing those. I really like working at scale like that because it opens up a different area of my brain. It’s one thing to get lost in little details in a small piece that is sitting on my drawing table, and it’s another to stand in front of a wall and get lost in that level of detail. I love doing it, yeah, and I look forward to hopefully doing more.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-ACCOUNTABILITY
I have a disciplined mentality when it comes to my work, keeping myself on a schedule, and keeping myself engaged. I am very much a creature of habit. When I start to lose the thread, when I start to procrastinate, it becomes more and more difficult to sit back down and engage my mind.
THERE WILL BE NO SILENCE AT WORK!
Yes, I absolutely can’t have silence when I’m working, so I listen to music and podcasts. My Spotify account has playlists on it that probably total about a month solid of music, all kinds of different genres too. I’ll send you a broad overview playlist; how’s that?!
Check out Matt’s website, playlist, Instagram, and Drouth!