Matthew Herbert is a man with so many guises it can be hard to keep up. My current inventory totals six; Doctor Rockit, Wishmountain (later to become Radioboy), Herbert, Matthew Herbert and the Matthew Herbert Big Band. Why the elaborate output under different monikers? It seems that in the beginning, his fractured identities allowed for creative freedom in sonic explorations. To break it down ever so briefly, Doctor Rockit focused initially on combining recordings from everyday life to create a personal sound diary of samples mixed with dance-floor friendly jazz beats. Wishmountain arose from slightly more concrete ideas about extending John Cage’s vision from 1939,
Experiment must necessarily be carried on by hitting anything – tin pans, rice bowls, iron pipes – anything we can lay our hands on. Not only hitting, but rubbing, smashing, making sound in every possible way. In short, we must explore the materials of music. What we can’t do ourselves will be done by machines and electrical instruments we will invent.
Matthew Herbert would later experiment with alternative materials for music making with his Plat Du Jour album, a critique of the modern food industry where the basis for all tracks came from the food/production line itself. I wonder if this would have made John Cage proud? Consider the opener, ‘The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialised Chicken’ for example: field recordings of 30,000 broiler chickens in one barn, 24,000 one-minute old chicks in one room of a commercial hatchery, 40 free-range chickens in a coop, one of those chickens being killed for a local farmers’ market and it feathers washed and plucked, a dozen organic eggs from Tescos along with a 21cm Pyrex classic bowl made in the UK, and you get the idea. This is not just about finding new sounds for arts sake, it’s inextricably entwined with political statements of the kind that were featured in his Mechanics of Destruction project. Taking objects deemed to be ‘shit’s (like Big Macs, Coca Cola and Disney videos) Matthew recorded the sound of them being trashed rather than consumed in the usual sense, creating spectacle on stage out of banal yet enduringly popular products.
Meeting Dani Siciliano added an extra touch of the sultry kind (an almost modern cabaret vibe) as her smooth vocals complemented his sharp digital edges on Herbert’s Bodily Functions. The album title itself is a result of a call out for fans from all over the world to send in homemade recordings of their favourite bodily functions, the best of which ended up in the mix. Picking up on this jazzy note, the Matthew Herbert Big Band realised the dream of working with a broader palette of acoustic sounds in Goodbye Swingtime where somewhat classic compositions were transformed through the Matthew Herbert glitch machine.
With the most recent Herbert release, Scale many of these ideas, approaches and sounds seem to have finally co-mingled into a multi-faceted whole, blurring the borders around the edges of the once separate projects. Yet, I am surprised to find myself reaching the same conclusion when listening to Doctor Rockit’s Indoor Fireworks a re-issue from the year 2000. It’s got all the trademark Matthew Herbert ingredients. “Welcome’ is based on a recording from a New Years Eve celebration with friends in Barcelona. “Roman Candle’ and ‘Spare Brain’ feature the kind of broken beats and squelch funk that Doctor Rockit is synonymous with. “You are the…’ has a Herbert feel, with Dani’ vocals prominent in the mix. “Metro’ is inspired by the environmental cacophony of Sydney’s traffic lights and “Hymnformation’ is a coordinated choir of friends in the pub preaching against tabloid broadsheets and the increasing lack of real information in the press. Finally, tracks like “Cafe De Flore’ wouldn’t go astray next to artists like Mo Horizons and Koop on a Cafe Del Mar mix. There’ clearly something here for everyone who has ever taken an interest in anything that Matthew Herbert creates and also an indication as to why Matthew Herbert decided to retire Doctor Rockit afterall – he just stopped being that different from the output of other Matthew Herbert projects. The revolution came and was subsumed into his broader practice. All that aside, fans who “like his old stuff better than his new stuff’ will be pleased with the opportunity to own it once more whereas others may appreciate a chance to discover this missing link in the Matthew Herbert chronology.