Words, stories, thoughts, and what I believed to be hard-boiled eggs, with Mat Vuksinich of The Sarcastic Dharma Society.
“Like the Giving Tree, I need to be useful to be happy.”
I always get the same argument whenever I go back to the area I am from. It’s Wilkes-Barre, PA, a small, wanna-be city that was a coal baron town back when the term “black gold” didn’t sound racist, for those keeping score. No, this argument wasn't “why don’t you visit anymore? Huh, Mr. Always-Wears-A-Scarf,-Even-In-The-Summer? Do you even call your mother? She’s fine by the way. Not that you would know.”
No, it’s “Why aren't there any good bands anymore? You know, right after [insert classic rock or eighties hair-metal band, depending on who you ask] stopped touring… why does new music suck, heyna?”
For those not from North Eastern PA, “heyna” is absolute
gibberish and slang exclusive to that region, apparently a
product of people that are broken fundamentally
in some actual way.
Putting “heyna” on the end of a statement makes that
statement a question, regardless if it is a question or not.
I am not making this up.
Do you know what I tell these people? I tell them nothing.
Instead, I find a CD player or computer and I show them
I have changed people’s minds like a short-haired
Charles Manson, if Charles Manson was Chaotic Good.
Since 2003, Mat Vuksinich has been recording
music as the Sarcastic Dharma Society
either by his lonesome or with a revolving
number of other outstanding gentlemen.
“I started playing under that name when I was, like, 15? It was a dream I had… where I was on this road trip with Woody Allen, in the desert or somewhere. And then the car breaks down. And then we’re walking. We’re trying to find…something? Ha, ‘cause I don’t know. But we’re in the middle of nowhere. And we come to a stone building, like…like a library or something… and there was this big, stone archway, and it had “The Sarcastic Dharma Society” written across it….so I stole that from the dream. It doesn't really mean anything, I guess…At least, it didn't at the time.”
The Sarcastic Dharma Society, whether just a cool name for the band or an actual road sign pointing you to the kind of music which you will immediately and honestly think you have never heard before, has been nothing short of prolific since its inception. The band, or at least Vuksinich, has recorded no less than 5 full studio albums, a small handful of live records, and several guest appearances on various “various artist anthologies” hosted on Cllct.com. He has played numerous tours throughout his non-native Portland and has gained wide-spread recognition for his covers of artists ranging from The Beatles and Pedro the Lion to Clem Snide and Meyercord. Vuksinich is not a man to “just dream,” as Ghandi once warned us against.
Yet despite his audio wandering, Mat never seemed to forget where he came from.
“My dad and I were doing some tracks earlier on this month… We’re working on a sort of instrumental record, where I play guitar and he plays mandolin. We’re just a little bit into it, just a couple of songs, but it’s a really fun thing….When I was a kid, they had me take piano lessons, like when I was really young, you know? And I hated it. And I never practiced or got any better or anything. Moonlight Sonata? I played that. Later, when I was like 10, I took guitar lessons, sort of concurrently. But I never practiced, or even cared about it. I played saxophone, I played jazz saxophone...I thought that was where it’s at.”
Vuksinich’s music covers a laser-like focused range. His original works scream with a kind of brutal sincerity that covers a wide range of topics. This, this fact is my own secret weapon. When I win the arguments I have with old school-mates and/or girls I wanted to sleep with but never could, it’s because of this fact alone: Vuksinich’s music, his wandering guitar pluckery, his emotionally-strained vocals, all a kind of raw honesty, an actual and accounted for integrity, that most modern music completely lacks.
“I’m lying in the grass at 3.AM.” he intunes in the aptly name 3. AM. “I don’t know what I’m waiting for, or where I am. I’ve no direction, I have no plan. But I can’t think of a single reason that I should stand. So I’m watching these clouds blow by the moon, and I’m trying, or trying not, to think of you.”
His songs, like the aforementioned 3 AM, showcase not only his songwriting ability, but also hints at the musician's own inspiration.
“Dashboard Confessional was a big deal for me. But, the Beatles were also really big for me. I feel like everbody’s song writing is trying to do what they did.”
Mat’s song writing honesty should surely come with a price, though, right? Any artist would be hard-pressed to put forth such personal work without some larger, felt-tipped event preceding them. Even Eric Clapton famously penned Layla about his unrequited love for George Harrison’s wife.
Vuksinich is not bound by such tethers.
“Yeah, I got my heart broken a bunch. You ever have that happen? …But I don’t want to write about me in that situation, I want to write about THAT situation.”
I should mention here that Mat’s question was not rhetorical. His songs, like the questions asked to him, come across as real life conversations and not just the same standard formulas you’d get from the same, standard big band names. The Sarcastic Dharma Society knew no radio dials. That same honesty carried over to his own business model, as Vuksinich has almost every track he had ever recorded available either at his Cllct site, or his own website.
And, it would appear, his songwriting shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.
“All the songs that go with 3 AM, all the songs I’ve been playing out with, all those 10 songs like Empathy and What You Need, are all part of these 10 songs I wrote over the past year that will be the next record. I want to do a full band sound. I don’t want another year to go by where I haven’t finished something.”
Before we ended the interview, we came back to The Giving Tree, The Sarcast Dharma Society’s ode to both Shel Silverstein and our own, collective impotence, and talked about how a singer/ songwriter can top what some of their best work, and the pressure to even try.
Like with so much, Vuksinich simply appeared appreciative.
“No, no, thank you. Thank you so much. That’s really, really awesome. I hope...it's that good, I don't know about that, but thank you!.”
Because he honestly appreciated that kind of feedback on the work he did. Because Stryper, or Van Halen are not that open, that honest, with what they want to get across. Because maybe, maybe that’s what the music of this generation, and the next, really need.
"Like the Giving Tree, I need to be useful, to be happy."