Musician Matthew Russell, member of the wildly popular electronic group, Cheat Codes, remembers being broke at 19-years-old. He’d recently moved to Los Angeles from St. Louis to pursue his dream of producing records. He’d also just dropped out of college. He’d enrolled to study music production but after learning it would be two years of general classes before he could touch Pro Tools, he quit. But walking the boulevards of L.A., he had an idea. He went into a bank, applied for a $10,000 loan, got it and bought his own equipment. He began learning from friends and YouTube tutorials. At the time, he was banking on hope. That bet would pay off as his soon-to-be trio would release songs that would earn millions of streams worldwide, including the band’s latest, “Heaven.”
“The lesson for me,” says Russell, “is invest in yourself. Even if you’re broke, try to find ways to do it. I walked into the bank and I was shocked. I had no idea if they were going to laugh in my face. They could have easily said no.”
That bit of brilliance led Russell, who, as a teenager would get jobs to save up for new musical gear, to a new life as a professional musician. It was the window that would open his world up to the fresh air of dedication and demystification. Coming from St. Louis, Russell, who had played in high school rock bands and loved music since 8-years, never knew how to break into the business. The idea of charting on Billboard, for example, seemed impossible. Nevertheless, step-by-step, he found his path forward.
As fate would have it, Russell met his future Cheat Codes band mate, Trevor Dahl, in St. Louis before hitting L.A.. Later, when Dahl was moving to L.A. in need of a place to crash, Russell was there to offer him a couch. Dahl, who’d already had success in music professionally, helped teach Russell the ropes. Dahl was already somewhat established, he had record and publishing deals and he’d worked with major producers. For an aspiring artist from the Midwest, this was staggering. And something Russell wanted very much to be a part of.
“Learning the process from a friend is always a great way to do things,” he says. “For a kid from Missouri, the idea of being in a recording studio and getting a song on the radio seemed like a crazy, magical thing. Having Trevor there to help was really cool.”
The duo, not yet a formal band, would make music together in their home. One of Russell’s many projects led him to the front man, Kevin Ford. Russell would make beats over which Ford would rap. The trio would quickly collaborate and, as Russell says, one song soon became six. The trio’s first popular release was the 2016 track, “Sex,” which flipped the famous hook from the hip-hop group, Salt-N-Pepa. To date, the video for the song boats over 170-million views.
“They were really nice, really cool,” Russell says of the legendary hip-hop crew. “They were super stoked about. And I think it helped them out some, too.”
The track was a product of significant work and time spent by the members of Cheat Codes. Russell subscribes to the age-old adage that greatness is some small part inspiration and a much larger part perspiration. For someone who has loved music since he was young, that appreciation and investment hasn’t changed – and it likely never will.
“You have to show up and do it,” Russell says. “You have to write the songs and do as many as you can. Sometimes you’re only going to write one good song for every, like, five. Or one great song for every ten. Sometimes it’s just a numbers game but if you put too much pressure on yourself to make everything work or fit in one specific song, it can come off looking like you forced it.”
Cheat Codes’ latest endeavor, “Heaven,” is a blissful song that celebrates those moments in life when you can be away from the travails of the world, snuggled up in bed with a loved one, limbs entwined. At first glance, the song may appear at odds with the turbulent protests and the global pandemic outside so many of our windows. But, Russell says, that’s the point. The song is meant to highlight the respites away from the fight. Those times in life worth fighting for when love is on the tip of two tongues.
“When lockdown happened, I didn’t see anybody for months except my girlfriend,” Russell says. “Helicopters were flying around constantly and every time you stepped outside it was like a zombie apocalypse. On the news it was just people fighting over toilet paper. So, for me, being with somebody I love and care about and feel safe with in bed together, that can be a sweet escape.”
Whether talking about two people or ten thousand, Russell likes that idea of connection. It’s what ultimately inspires him most as a musician. It’s the community of creative cohorts he’s always pined for. Now that he’s assuredly in the mix, the artist is truly cherishing it.
“I love music for its ability to bring people together,” Russell says. “I love tech, I love that everyone can have whatever music they want on their phones. I think that’s all great. But I don’t want people to just listen to music by themselves. To me, that makes me sad. I want people to experience it with friends and family at a festival. When all that comes back – man, it’s going to hit three-times as hard.”