Matthew Herbert is one of those rare artists who transcends his discipline and actively taps into the larger social milieu.
He initially developed a reputation based on his idiosyncratic and seductive electronic house infused music, though he has begun to move away from the safe confines of the genre and incorporate unique, experimental and unpalatable techniques into his music. Of late, he has focused quite heavily on field recordings – using the environment rather than synthesizers and drum machines as ingredients in his music – though in parallel he has also begun exploring big band jazz in a project that marries all of his primary concerns: equal parts brass, electronics and discordant sound objects that wind up sounding suspiciously like show tunes.
Midway through our conversation, I confess to Herbert that I’d actually contributed to his 2004 Plat Du Jour album, a concept album exploring the politics of food. It was about five years ago when during a DJ set at an inner city Melbourne club Herbert had produced a box of apples and asked everyone to take a bite on the count of three. I did and the apple tasted terrible. Herbert begins to laugh, “thanks so much,’ he says, “the album wouldn’t have been the same without you.”
I confess to him that I was a little disappointed that the sound of a club full of Herbert devotees all chomping down at the same time was actually as bland as the apple tasted, and figured there’d be no way that he’d actually ever use it on his album. He did.
“I had no idea what it was going to sound like before I did it,” he says. “I love the sound of the apple in this experiment. It actually typifies why I like to work with sound. I had this idea of getting 365 people to eat an apple, which was supposed to be an apple a day, but then it spiraled into 3,555 and then over time it ended up being 10,000 people. I thought it would be the world’s biggest sound, I thought it would be huge. But the point is when you eat an apple, you have this incredibly loud crunch inside your head and it’s a very crisp and satisfying noise. But when you listen to someone else eat an apple it is quite small sounding, just the smack of wet lips.
“It’s a fantastic way to learn one of the basic lessons of life,” he explains, “something that seems very important or special and unique to you can be a very temporary and fairly unimpressive moment if you’re looking from the outside. I loved it. It’s a way of learning about life: the anticipation of thinking something is going to be huge, but is actually part of a much bigger thing and it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things.”
Which leads us back to his approach. His most recent album from his big band, There’s Me and There’s You, is filled with these kinds of experiments, 70 condoms being scraped across the floor of the British Museum, 100 nails being hammered into a coffin, 100 credit cards being cut up, a sound collage of 100 people saying ‘yes,’ even ex-Prime Minister John Major and field recordings (including gunshots) from Palestine.
“Until the sampler was invented, if you wanted to write a piece of music about the Australian countryside you had to evoke it through timbre and texture and pitch,” he says, “whereas now you can take a microphone out and go and record sounds out there and then make the piece out of that. It’s revolutionary in the sense that music doesn’t have to pretend to be about something. It doesn’t have to evoke something, it can actually be that thing. What I’m trying to do on this record is to try and use that as the basis or the supporting framework for the rest of it.”
There’s something more immediate, more tactile in actually using the object. With Herbert, it’s more often than not a tactile real world metaphor. Given some of the lofty political overtones to much of his more recent work, the act of going out and making field recordings or conducting sonic experiments almost becomes a compositional tool, an opportunity to fully immerse himself in that world.
“For me it’s about the idea that instead of music having to just be an abstraction or fictional or emotional response it can actually contain within it the thing itself. Instead of having to write lyrics about the houses of parliament I can actually go in there and record the sounds and actually use that themselves. I find that it gives weight and support to the position that you take.”
To hear Herbert speak like this, you get the sense that for a long time he has been frustrated about his inability to get as tactile he wished. It wasn’t an issue with process, however; it was content, and when the technology became available everything changed.
“I think I was frustrated certainly at the beginning of my career, because I hadn’t really worked out how my music could be political,” he says. “The narratives that were most important to me always seemed to touch upon the political. I made a record a few years ago which I gave away for free called the Mechanics of Destruction which was made of Big Mac burgers and Starbucks, Disney and Coca Cola and all these brands. It wasn’t until I made this record that I realised that everything bad in the world also made a sound as well. Because up until this point i just recorded my friends, interesting places I’d been, just these special and unique sounds. Looking back, what I was missing, and what was staring me in the face, was [the fact]that everything that was polluting and what I thought was semi-disastrous for the planet also made a noise.
“I think there was an earlier frustration that I hadn’t found a way to discover a viable political voice in my music,” Herbert continues, “and it’s very much this technique that has allowed me to look again at the world, to auralise everything, to bring everything to life through sound or to use sound as a starting point to look at something. For example there’s a track on the album called ‘One Life’, where one bleep represents 100 people killed in Iraq and that bleep goes very fast for six minutes through the piece. That bleep represents something, because it’s the bleep of a life support system, but then it’s abstracted again into a musical form. It brings with it layers of meaning, which I found very useful when putting this together.”
The sound from the life support system actually came from his son’s incubator, who was born premature. Equating this extremely personal sound to the death of 100 Iraqis may initially seem a far fetched link to make, possibly sensationalistic, and at the very least cold. It is, rather, Herbert’s attempt to reconcile the value system of a government that can keep his son alive whilst waging war and being accountable for the deaths of thousands of others.
“It’s very easy to make a point that war is bad,” he says. “It’s much harder to personalise it. In my case, I’m the one paying for it financially, rather than through the loss of my friends life or my life. My son was born early – he was born eight weeks premature – and my government spent about half a million pounds keeping my boy alive, and at the same time it was involved in a war spending a similar amount of money on killing people. So I thought, wait a second, how do we get into a position where we decide that my son’s life life is worth 100 Iraqi lives?”
“You can then amplify it into something like bottled water, which appears at the beginning of the start of ‘Breathe’. There’s supposed to be 100 people because everything’s a measure of 100 on this record but only 70 showed up in the true spirit of democracy. It was supposed to be 100 people blowing over empty plastic water bottles. I can go into my corner shop and buy five different types of water bottles, despite the fact that the water that comes out of my tap is perfectly acceptable, and yet there’s 122 million in India that don’t even have access to a toilet, let alone clean drinking water. That discrepancy in the world, between the haves and the have nots, has got to the point where it’s intolerable.
“One of the tracks that didn’t make it contains the sounds of Bling H2O, which is the world’s most expensive bottled water. It’s $40 a bottle. How can we have water at $40 a bottle? And that $40 will probably buy clean water for someone for a year somewhere else. It seems to me there’s something very out of whack with the world when we can have such vast discrepancies, and there are people in our society that know about it and don’t seem to care or don’t seem to do anything about it. Perhaps I’m thinking about the music industry, which seems so happy to just pretend that everything’s okay.”
Herbert is determined not to pretend. He is constantly agitating whether it’s through the content of his music, the experimental techniques he uses, or his outspoken opinions in interviews. In fact, the cover to There’s Me and There’s You is a petition dated September 5, 2008. “We the undersigned,” it states, “believe that music can still be a political force of note and not just a soundtrack to over consumption.” Herbert’s is the first signature, followed by the rest of the band. It’s sad that in this day and age such a statement reads more like a message of hope than anything else. Herbert laughs when I say that.
“I think it’s part of an optimism that music can and should regain some of its political self. Look at the sixties, when protest music existed and music was seen to be part of a counter-cultural perspective where the idea of selling out existed still. Even in the ’80s we had Margaret Thatcher and we had a great deal of anti-Thatcher music and we had punk. We had dance music and house music that was political to begin with, and it was outlawed by the government. So music has, in living memory, been a political force. It just seems now to be happy to be the soundtrack to advertising on TV, or in airports, and doesn’t seem to wish to engage. In the last five years, there’s been a war going on that has been the most defining event of our generation, as well as climate change. Both those things are entirely absent from the music. If you’re an alien listening back in 50 years time – listening back to the body of music that has occurred in the last 50 years – there’d be virtually no sign of it. It’s a very strange place to have got ourselves into.”
For Herbert, the big band is a huge undertaking. It’s the second big band album recorded at Abbey Road, a curious mix of his sonic experiments and meticulously arranged orchestrations. It’s music that draws on show tunes and musical theatre, as well as those large ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’ golden era smooth swing concerts. It’s funny, camp, silly, mischievous and at times a little bit sad. Yet woven throughout are the bizarre sonic detritus, the outcomes of his experiments, his metaphors, his agitation. It’s a peculiarly dichotomous relationship, yet somehow it manages to work. Not only did the research for the record take about a year – as well as six months for the arranging and big band harmony work – it also took six months to actually record all the sounds, the choir and his aforementioned orchestra of 70 people making noises. But, seriously, a big band, in this day and age. Is he mad?
“I like the metaphor of the positive organisation of the community,” he explains. “It’s the largest ensemble I know of in the western canon, where each instrument is playing something different. For example, in an orchestra you might have 32 violins playing the same lines. But in a big band, each trumpet player plays a different part. So you end up with 18 or 19 people playing their individual part. There’s no doubling up, it might be for a bar here and there, but it’s basically playing their own thing. I feel that’s how life should be, that everyone can express themselves in their own little way, but we have to pull together for some common cause, otherwise we’re all going off in different directions and creating some kind of sprawling mess. So I like the metaphor of it. I like the visceral quality of it as well. It has such a physical impact that is a great foil or counter to the more heady preparation of the noises or the thoughtful attention to detail in how it’s put together. ”
But none of this explains why he would he would undertake such a huge project that would take two years out of his life.
“It’s easy to be critical of things,” he says. “It’s much harder to be positive and come up with positive responses to things. So I feel it’s important I try and take things to their logical extremes. So why not get 100 people instead of me just blowing on a water bottle? Why not on the next record get 1000? It’s the idea that music can still be a valid expression of community, which is something that seems to have got distracted by the ego. Like so many aspects of art, media and literature, it’s so distracted by itself that it’s forgotten what it’s like to be part of a community.”
Bob Baker Fish
There’s Me and There’s You is out on !K7/Inertia.
Matthew Herbert Big Band plays live at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival 2009. Book your tickets!