Atwood Magazine sits down with Matthew Koma of Winnetka Bowling League to talk nostalgia, the wistful pop of their new EP, and why the San Fernando Valley is where it’s at.
At some point, every artist reaches a crossroads. Do you chase bankable work that keeps you paid in your chosen field, even if it’s not necessarily fulfilling? Or do you pursue your art on your terms regardless of the outcome? Ignoring the lucky few who somehow find themselves in the thin overlapping sliver of that Venn Diagram, it’s not an easy choice. For Matthew Koma, that forking path arose a couple years back. Having made a name for himself penning songs for the likes of pop juggernauts like Kelly Clarkson and Zedd, and perhaps best known for his vocal feature on Tiesto’s “Wasted,” he found himself pigeon-holed.
“On one hand, I was grateful to have my words heard through those mediums,” he admits. “But ultimately it didn’t feel authentic to what I wanted to be doing. I guess somewhere along the way you realize you have to make the decision now or never to do the stuff you really love.”
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning in the San Fernando Valley, that flat stretch of suburbia just north of Hollywood made famous by Boogie Nights and the airheaded bleached blondes who from whom every statement sounds like a question. Having lived here for six years, I’m hard-pressed to name a more cozy neighborhood in LA. It’s the sort of place that invites observation. Sit on the curb along Ventura Blvd and you’ll see a world slowed way down. The details don’t get lost in the ceaseless hustle like they do just over the hills to the south. Here the mundane takes on a nostalgic quality. Everyday moments awaken an emotional longing because they’re a part of everyone’s experience. We’ve all fallen in love at the checkout counter, taken an impromptu road trip with friends, had our memories triggered by being in a particular place.
Having found success in the pop an EDM realms, Koma wanted to retreat into this mindset. He wanted to write about what he knew, what was real to him. That’s how Winnetka Bowling League was formed.
He began with a simple idea, to create something that sounded more suitable to who he is. From there he penned “On the 5,” an ethereal ode to the iconic California Freeway and the escapism it represents. It was so far out of the realm of what currently bore the Matthew Koma brand, that he didn’t even feel like he could slap his own name on it. “People had come to expect a certain sound from my name and I couldn’t stray too far from that on my solo releases,” he explains. “I never felt I had the opportunity to do something that was purely myself.”
The solution? Style this new venture as a band. It was both an act of liberation and a return to his roots.
“The act of having a band again and starting at ground zero without building on any existing fanbase freed me from all those expectations surrounding my name. It’s the purest and most true to myself thing I’ve ever done. I totally get to sit in a room and create stuff I think is cool.”
All that creative channeling falls under the new moniker Winnetka Bowling League. Though the name suggests that they’re a weekly bowling team in the Valley first (which is technically true), Koma and his team whip up a bevy of guitar-based pop that simultaneously sounds like an about-face from his songwriter days and their logical extension. Their self-titled EP last year introduced them as group set on baking wistful nostalgia into sweet three-minute packages (see the aforementioned “On the 5” and the Beck-worshiping “Feeling California”). With this week’s release of their follow-up Cloudy with a Chance of Sun, that palette only broadens. The hooks are aplenty and the bleary-eyed longing cuts deep. It’s the perfect second course for what is sure to be a long, delicious meal of a career under the Winnetka name.
Luckily, I was able to grab a few one-on-one words with Koma ahead of the release. We discussed the band’s formation, this glorious Valley we both love so much, and songwriting as a form of storytelling. Check out what he had to say below!
A CONVERSATION WITH WINNETKA BOWLING LEAGUE
Atwood Magazine: The first thing that pops out to me is the name “Winnetka Bowling League.” It makes it sound like you’re a bunch of bowlers from the Valley who pick up guitars between games.
Matthew Koma: That’s closer to the truth than you’d think. One of my best friends a couple years back asked me to join their bowling team comprised of him, his brother, his mom and dad, and now me over at Winnetka Bowl. We spend a good amount of time there competing in the bowling league.
When I first started writing this music and working on “On the 5,” I already had in my subconscious this idea that I want to make something that feels more suitable to me. But it’d been so long since I’d tapped into that. “On the 5” was the first song that I felt hit that mark, and I finished it the day before I went to meet up with the bowling league. I bounced the mix to iTunes, named it “Winnetka Bowling League” and it just kind of stuck.
Listening to the first EP, what strikes me immediately is that there’s a lot of California nostalgia baked into these songs. Is that where you draw a lot of your inspiration from?
Koma: It’s where I’ve been living for ten years, so looking back at my life and surroundings, it’s what I know. I’ve been living in Studio City for a good portion of the time I’ve been out here, so whenever I start drawing from experience and what’s real to me, it happens to have the backdrop of Los Angeles and California. It’s where I’ve been.
Ten years in Studio City?
Koma: Studio City, Woodland Hills. I’ve lived in the Valley as long as I’ve been here. Never Hollywood.
We’re in the same boat. I refuse to live in Hollywood because the San Fernando Valley is just plain better. What are some things you like about living here that only people from the Valley understand?
Koma: Man, it’s changed so much even in the ten years that I’ve been here. It’s a completely different place.
I think my initial attraction was to how quiet it is. I grew up on Long Island, so it felt like a sister city where you’ve got the proximity to everything but you’re still sort of out of the mix. You get a bit of the calmness of suburbia. I’m not one who likes to go out, so I like that I can avoid the Hollywood night life at all costs.
Over the years you’ve gotten all these cool restaurants and spots popping up everywhere, so it’s like the Valley has these little secrets if you’re savvy enough to look. The trope of people hating on the Valley is pretty much extinct at this point.
Absolutely. I have no patience for crossing the hills into Hollywood anymore. Just thinking about parking gives me anxiety.
Koma: Yeah, and there’s something to be said for preserved these places are the further up you go in the Valley to like Woodland Hills or even Oxnard. It’s still got a bit of a ’70s vibe. The buildings and the architecture feel a little bit like they’re in a time capsule and I appreciate that. I like going to mom and pop stores or strip malls that have been there since the 60’s. You can still get a little bit of that in Hollywood, but there’s such a turnover that the landscape changes even by the year.
I know that feeling. The further up the 101 you go, the more it feels like a place out of time. “On the 5” sticks with me especially because I’ve been on these road trips. Taking to the freeway with friends, blasting our favorite songs. Is there something about these highways that draws you to their imagery?
Koma: I think this speaks to writing about what’s real to me. It’s where I’ve been. It’s what I’ve seen. But they’re also pretty widely known places that paint a picture even if you haven’t physically been there. If you talk to anyone anywhere about the 5 or the PCH, they’re going to have some kind of feeling or imagery associated with them.
One of the reason I think your music resonates so much with someone like me who grew up in California is that I have a lot of memories tied to these places. I hear “On the 5” or “Are You Okay?” and I don’t hear a vibe, I feel like I’m reliving very personal events. Are they based on specific experiences or are they state of mind pieces that bring you back there?
Koma: Most of what we’ve put out is really autobiographical, so I draw from events that really happened. They’re not word-for-word recreations, but they’re pretty specific and confessional in nature.
“Are You Okay” seems like a great example of that. I have not heard a song that’s consistently moved me to tears the way it has in quite some time. What’s the story behind it?
Koma: I had this girlfriend who was probably one of my more serious girlfriends since I moved to California. First person I lived with, first person I started checking all the boxes with when you start sharing your life with someone else. As wonderful as it was, it was equal parts tough, uncomfortable, and traumatic, and it ended in a way that most sad songs are based on. In that particular case, it was with a girl who would continuously reach out after everything had crumbled.
In writing that song, I spent a lot of time looking back and thinking about what exactly that means. When you come to an ending, whether permanent or something more temporary, what are people reaching back for? Are they reaching back for that version of themselves or are they reaching because they truly care if that other person is doing okay? It’s interesting to think about because when something ends, usually it’s for a good reason. I think that song was my way of examining that.
I think one of the reason the imagery stands out so much is that these are emotions we’ve all had about failed relationships. For me in particular, I’ve struggled to articulate why there can be so much turmoil and ambivalence with wanting to reach out after something’s ended. Do I really want to know if they’re okay or do I just want to leave the door open? Was that relationship really as good as I remember it, or have I changed some of the details in my mind to make the narrative more convenient?
Koma: Totally. I think it’s a really common story. The details and backdrop may be different for everyone, but it’s those emotions that persist.
Do you see your songwriting as a form of therapy for you?
Koma: I feel like you hear that a lot. Some people talk about being grateful for their ability to write songs, or for their poetry, or art in general. But I don’t know if I’ve really had that experience. I don’t know that writing songs has made me feel better on a consistent basis. It’s more a means of communication. I sit down to write every day and that’s the way I’ve communicated since I was a kid. So all the things I experienced naturally became the topic of my art. I don’t know that I’ve ever walked away from a song thinking “now that’s closed” or “now that chapter’s over.”
I understand that. When I create my own art, there’s this sense of exorcising my feelings into some sort of physical form that I can turn around and look at, but it doesn’t necessarily make any of these feelings better. I can just separate them from myself and study them a bit.
Koma: Yeah, creating is a form of taking pictures in a way. When you look back, you don’t just see the song, you see everything that went into it. I don’t think of it as cathartic, just a way of preserving in a sense. But that’s just me.
I just got a chance to listen to the new EP, and it seems like there’s a lot of that going on. Let me know if I’m off base at all, but are you a fan of Fountains of Wayne?
Koma: Favorite band on earth. I love them to the point that my friend Matt and I got Chris Collingwood’s [the band’s lead singer and songwriter] cell phone number and started berating him through text to become our best friend. It worked! We got Chris to come out to our friend’s birthday and play a Fountains of Wayne set backed by Matt and me.
That’s so crazy. People tell me I’m nuts when I say that Welcome Interstate Managers is a perfect pop album.
Koma: They don’t get it. Beyond “Stacy’s Mom,” nobody knows that they are songwriting geniuses. “Troubled Times,” “Hey Julie,” and “Somebody to Love” are all classics that everyone totally slept on.
I think the moment where it started to click for me was the first time I heard “On the 5” and you name-checked a ’92 Subaru, which was my favorite song off Traffic and Weather. But I was convinced no one listened to that album except me.
Koma: You weren’t wrong. I texted Chris and Adam when I wrote it and told them I had a little Fountains nod in there.
I really like how the lyricism in your new EP does a lot of what they did. It’s very confessional and captures the ennui of everyday living. I used to call that perspective “the lost suburbia” and I think Fountains did it best on albums like Traffic and Weather and Utopia Parkway.
Koma: Totally. Those were the records I grew up on, so they’re in my DNA. I remember the very first time I heard “Radiation Vibe.” I remember when I got Utopia Parkway. And similar to what you were saying about your experience listening to Winnetka music, I grew up in New York listening to their records and hearing them sing about all the places I knew. I think from then context became immediately important. I liked being able to relate to what he was talking about because I’d been there and had my own experiences tied to those backdrops.
Right. They sing about specific locales, but it ends up evoking universal emotions.
Koma: 100%. Even if we’ve never sat on a planter at the Port Authority waiting for a bus, we know what it’s like to feel that character’s sense of disarray in their life.
Definitely. And I really appreciate someone like you keeping up that tradition in your own music. It’s a type of songwriting I feel is mostly missing from the pop landscape right now. Everyone cares more about broad strokes and less about intimate storytelling.
Koma: If you ever get a chance, see Dawes. He’s another artist who tells stories that blow my mind. His music draws you in because the situations he sings about are so specific and personal. You just don’t hear that a lot anymore. Everything feels so general, and artists like Fountains or Dawes are talking about things so personal to them that you can’t help but subscribe and say “okay, I want to hear how you see the world.”
What are you most excited for your fans to hear off the new EP?
Koma: I love “Kombucha” and I’m so glad it’s out already because it’s a good introduction into what the new EP sounds like. I think on the first EP, I was really desperate to staunchly feel and sound so different from anything I’d done previously. Now I feel a bit more comfortable in my skin and I think the music reflects that. “Kombucha” is a good example of that.
“Something in the Air” is also a really important song to me. That’s kind of the “Are You Okay” of this EP in terms of drawing from something so personal and so real.
Can you describe your feelings about California in three words?
Koma: Traffic, warmth, and space.
And for fans of Tunes & Tumblers, Matt would describe Winnetka music as “a Shirley Temple, because it’s sweet and for all ages.”
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📸 © Ebru Yildiz