Interview: Matthew Koma Talks Astrology, Context, & Winnetka Bowling League’s Debut Album, ‘Sha La La’

Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara
Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara
Matthew Koma sits down with Atwood Magazine to discuss Winnetka Bowling League’s debut album, ‘Sha La La.’ The artist touches on his journey from co-writer to frontman that started when he was only 16.
Stream: ‘Sha La La’ – Winnetka Bowling League

I think one of the things that make Winnetka songs qualify as Winnetka songs is they have to be rooted in an emotion that feels very real and true.

* * *

Winnetka Bowling League, founded in 2019, is relatively new to the music scene.

The band’s frontman, Matthew Koma, is not.

Millennials, who pinpoint summer 2016 as the best time of their lives, and Gen-Zers, who frequent spots like the Brooklyn Mirage, probably are – knowingly or unknowingly – die-hard fans of Koma. Others may be familiar with his hilarious – and sometimes unhinged – social media presence. But the artist does not want to be remembered solely for his successes in co-writing, electronic music, and niche memes. Enter Winnetka Bowling League, the passion project that the now 36-year-old Koma – alongside his older half-brother, drummer Kris Mazzarisi, and keyboardist Sam Beresford – has waited his entire life (he started songwriting when he was 9) to set in motion. The Long Island native returns to his pop-heavy, Americana roots with the band’s debut album, Sha La La, out May 31 – and he doesn’t care if you like it or not (but he hopes you do).

Sha La La - Winnetka Bowling League
Sha La La – Winnetka Bowling League

Atwood Magazine last sat down with Matthew Koma and Winnetka Bowling League five years ago, in the band’s fledgling days. With a few EPs under their belt, Koma was focused on building the band’s identity and “just doing what bands do, figuring out what it is, where it lives, and finding its heartbeat.”

When COVID hit, momentum flatlined for a while. Promoting an album during a global pandemic felt unwise at best and out of touch at worst.

“We continued putting out EPs because they felt like these noncommittal gestures,” Koma says, “Like, okay, we’re putting out music, but we didn’t mean it.”

As the world returned to a relative degree of normalcy, the band continued to wrap their heads around the idea of making an album. While pandemic-era EPs and singles felt prudent, an album – on Koma’s terms – required new levels of accountability and sincerity, prompting an intentional strategy for the first project in years that has felt personal to the singer/songwriter.

Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara
Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara

Matthew Koma felt the hunger to “get the f*** out of Long Island,” his place of upbringing, from an early age.

He, like many kids his age, channeled his desire for independence and change into music. Unlike many kids his age, Matthew had incredible talent. Years of bedroom songwriting led to Koma’s first record deal at the age of 16, but he was dropped by his 18th birthday. “There was a lot of ‘you’re not good enough,’ pretty early on,” Koma says. Now, he’s grateful for the initial rejections. “If it works the first time,” he says, “you think you’re a f***ing genius for the rest of your life. Or, it stops working by the time you’re 22, and that’s a hard thing to experience.” When he was 24, lightning struck twice, and Jimmy Iovine signed Koma to a solo record deal with Interscope.

Subsequent collaborations with artists like Zedd and Tiesto led to his songwriting and producing taking off in the electronic space. Far from the pop rock sounds that raised him, house music made Koma feel like a bit of a fraud. “I was like, Ok, well you can’t put a record out that’s the real you, or that’s true to the stuff you like, because that’s confusing to the people who are now discovering that you wrote ‘Wasted’ or ‘Clarity,” he says. Given the choice between struggling on the merit of pursuing his passions and taking the opportunity right in front of him, he chose to see how far his co-writing successes could take him.

Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara
Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara

His booking agent put it in frank terms, advising that, “Right now, you have one fist up in the air. You put two fists up in the air, you can go tour and do some DJ sets and play Coachella or Lollapalooza.” Koma pauses, then continues, “and I was kind of like, ‘You know what, this door is open, I certainly don’t want to do this forever, but f*** it, let’s go do this for like 3 years, let’s take all the money off the table, let’s write all these people’s hits, and then let’s stop.’”

Even while playing major festivals and touring Europe alongside world-famous DJs, Koma never forgot his true aspirations. Writing for other musicians felt safe – but unfulfilling. He reflects on the moment of clarity (no pun intended) he had at the end of what he knew would be his last DJ set in Puerto Rico.

“I was like, okay, cool. Now starts the new thing. I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to finally do what I want to do.” The problem with earlier bands, he postulates, was their derivative nature. “I knew how to make records that sound very much like a Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello vinyl,” he says.

Turning 30 rattled his outlook on life and allowed him to refocus and redefine his musical legacy. After taking the time to think about what makes him tick, he landed on an examination of being in your twenties and trying to figure life out. “When you’re in it [your twenties], it feels very different,” he explains. “It feels very manic and chaotic, but when you get to the other side, you can look at the decade with gentler eyes for yourself and a little bit of that, ‘hey we made it!’ mentality.”

Sha La La chews up American idealism and spits it back out in catchy verses and pop-heavy melodies.

The title track and leading single captures nostalgia for simpler times like a faded polaroid, with Koma singing, “I miss the us where we were both excited / You could tell by the Verizon bill we’d talk all night and never sleep.” It’s the musical equivalent of the sentimental iPhone videos in the “For You” section of your camera roll that always manage to spring up during moments of intense vulnerability. It’s also Koma’s favorite song on the album. “Sha La La has a special place in my heart, it feels like the outline,” he says. “I’m really proud of that one. I like it and I like how it seems to make people feel. I like how it makes me feel.”

The album’s most recent single, “America in Your 20’s,” touches on the uniquely disorienting coming of age experience that accompanies young adulthood in the Land of the Free, pairing bright synths with candid lyrics:

Nothing as serious or as funny
Everybody hates me, everybody loves me
It’s kinda f*ed to think that it’s lucky
To be in America in your twenties

“Jesus Saves” and “Happy Adjacent” touch on the darker elements of growing up, highlighting the mental health crisis that plagues young Americans. “Finish line is always moving,” Koma sings over sorrowful pianos in the opening lines of the former track. In the latter song, he contrasts upbeat instrumentals against blue lyrics to shine light on the mask we all put on at times, singing, “Sometimes I’m happy adjacent / Sometimes it’s all decoration / Sometime’s I’m embarrassed I exist.”

Lighter tracks like “Breakfast for Dinner” and “Handsome” round out the spectrum of emotions that come with aging. The former track captures the feeling of having a crush and bottles it, with lines like, “It’s when I picture us in November, jackets matching, so sign me up / For cozy winters and a lifetime of breakfast for dinner.” The latter feels like dancing with your friends at 2 o’clock in the morning after a night out that you’re not ready to end. It’s giddy and sparkling, with Koma singing, “She’s so handsome / Take her out dancing / Take her out dancing / Love her or somebody will.”

Sha La La is strung together by truths embodied in deeply human characters and situations – some inspired by the band members’ personal experiences, and others inspired by stranger’s struggles. For example, “Astrology & Context,” one of the heavier songs on the album, is loosely based on the cancer journey of a TikTok creator that Koma follows. Admittedly prone to falling down internet rabbit holes, he found himself empathizing with the creator while also considering the implications of something similar happening to the people he loves.

“Like most things when you start having a family,” he says, “you can’t help but try to internalize it by putting yourself in the shoes of it being your partner or spouse.” In spite of Koma being an outside observer, the track is raw and compassionate, filled with lines that genuinely encapsulate the fear (“If you take a deep breath that you can’t catch / Tell them heaven don’t deserve you yet”) and blind hope (“I’m stringing lights on a hospital bed / And taping up pictures of Rome”) that accompany a loved one getting sick.

“I think one of the things that make Winnetka songs qualify as Winnetka songs,” Koma says, “is they have to sort of be rooted in at least an emotion that feels very real and true.”

Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara
Winnetka Bowling League © Paige Sara

Winnetka Bowling League’s commitment to authenticity does not stop at their lyrics.

While Koma’s Norman Rockwell style word paintings lend themself more to Springsteen songs, the music itself recalls the power pop anthems that defined the artist’s youth. Koma points to Squeeze, The Smithereens, and Marshall Crenshaw as inspirations for the band’s Americana sound. He doesn’t expect the band to be en vogue – “it’s not a wildly popular genre, but it’s based on the merit of things that I love that aren’t hugely celebrated” – and that’s enough for Koma. Thankfully, he’s found millions of listeners who feel the same way. Before we wrapped our conversation, I asked Koma how he would recommend listening to Sha La La. “I’m so weird,” he laughs. “I love listening to music on the iPhone speaker. Something about the way it compresses it sounds so rad. So, if people could listen to the record on an iPhone speaker in their quiet bed and pay attention to the words, I think that’s what I’d recommend.”

Koma is, above all else, a writer – “I don’t even know if I like music that much, but I love writing,” he admits – but he also happens to be a brilliant musician.

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:: stream/purchase Sha La La here ::
:: connect with Winnetka Bowling League here ::

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Sha La La - Winnetka Bowling League

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? © Paige Sara

Sha La La

an album by Winnetka Bowling League

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