Matmos Interview by Bob Baker Fish


Matmos - by James Thomas Marsh - Matmos zaps - photo by James Thomas Marsh

Matmos are an eccentric forward thinking electronic duo hailing from Baltimore in the United States. Over the course of nine albums, their most recent being 2013′ The Marriage of True Minds in which they presented a musical investigation into telepathy, Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel have increasingly become known for their highly conceptual works that walk the tightrope between cross genre experimental musicality and a rigorous investigation into their chosen subject. It’s an approach that has the power to transform objects and find a latent musicality lurking in the most unexpected places. 2003′ Civil War saw them playing a rabbit pelt, whilst 2006′ The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth of The Beast had them recording snails and burnt flesh, whilst 2001′ A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure saw them playing around with the sounds of plastic surgery. Their recent Marriage of True Minds is based on parapsychological Ganzfeld experiments which group conducted with a series of volunteers who were put into sensory deprivation whilst Drew Daniel attempted to telepathically transmit the concept of the new Matmos record to them. Matmos then created audio representations of the resulting transcripts.

Bob: So who is responsible for the concepts?

Drew: The records that I do tend to be the ones where there is a concept and the commitment to the concept creates the work. I think for Martin it’s much more organic it’s about objects and people that are around and the songs crystallize.

Martin: The nice thing is that because of his work my work ends up conceptual too. The Civil War and Supreme Balloon were ones that were quote unquote my records and honestly the concept for Supreme Balloon was lets not sample stuff…

Drew: No microphones.

Martin: And dingus here, just like he just did crystallizes it into this extremely conceptual thing. So there can be no microphones so that’s what I’m going to say over and over there can be no microphones. All I wanted I wanted to do was “God can we stop sampling all these retarded objects?’

Bob: Let’s make same music with some real instruments.

Martin: No. No. I don’ know. I mean I’m kind’ve exaggerating a little to make it funny. But yes.

Bob: But is there ever an element of just doing it, not necessarily thinking too much about it and afterwards working out what the concept was?

Martin: We are so lucky that we have this conceptual shtick because of this process, right now, which is talking to you. I don’ know what the hell lets say Autechre, what do they talk about? Granted I’ve never read an interview with them, I’m sure they do fascinating interviews. If you make things that are completely abstract what the hell do you talk about in these conversations?

Drew: They’d talk about form and the things they hear in hip hop records or they’re aware of looking at graffiti and that gives them formal concepts. I think the irony here is the word conceptual or the phrase concept album implies that didactic story or some argument to make, but really conceptualism turns itself inside out very quickly and becomes a new way of being a literalist. You become very literal about what a concept denotes, what’s included in something like medical technology. You’re not necessarily making your mind up about is medicine good or bad, or do I want to encourage this form or that form. You’re not really taking a position like that. It becomes more like a scavenger hunt and once you determine the objects you’re going to work with it becomes about the objects as material things that sound a certain way and then encourage a certain way of playing and you’re already off and running constructing songs. The time of the concept is really a weird crazy intuition or hunch of commitment that happens early on and then you just let go. There’ a Kierkegaard quote that the moment of decision is the moment of madness and I think that “s true for a lot of the concepts that have become drawn to our albums. We don’ really have a way to justify it other than there’ some kind of personal magnetism. Whether its queer biography or medical technology or telepathy, these are things that speak to us. But the answer to why is really the music. I mean I hate that because I don’ want to sound like “oh it’s just the music man,’ because we’re not that kind of band.

Bob: I always assumed it was a way of considering how to construct the music. We live in this world where there’ so many options available to you that its easy to have option fatigue, or you can think about this history of music and you can create music that is a reaction to this or a homage to that. A way to create something new is to involve these new ideas, these interesting concepts that may not necessarily be related to music, and I assumed you used that as an inspiration point to jump off from.

Drew: That is also completely true. Quite honestly the last person who talked to us asked the same question, and that was the answer we gave that guy. So we gave you a different answer.

Martin: But they’re both true.

Drew: The irony here is that now you can now buy from Ableton a sound suite that is a bunch of metal objects, and plastic objects, there’ already been a pristine sounding of a lot of different material objects.
Martin: And what a sad motherfucker buys that. For god’ sake people it’s not about convenience. Go get a microphone. Half the fun for me is recording these things in the first place.

Drew: To me the point is the poetics of your commitment to a particular object is a compositional decision, why wouldn’ you want to make that yourself? There’ never going to be a reproductive tract of a cow sound kit that you can buy from Ableton. Your missing out of the sound of a cow’ uterus filled with air and squeezed. You’re only going to do that if your starting from different poetics or a different agenda. And letting other people speak for you or thru, sadly is what seems to be happening a lot with electronic production right now.

Bob: You could approach Ableton and suggest the cow patch.

Drew: (laughs) That’s a very poetic discovery, the cow patch. We’re friends with some of the people involved in that package. I remember Robert Henke showing me a prototype of that package a long time ago. I admire the people that create these tools, and I use them. I just think there’ so much more out there and that’s also true formally. It’s interesting to watch dance music production comes to grips with the idea of the snare on the 3 instead of the 2 and the 4. Like holy shit, what happens if the beat doesn’ go like that anymore? Things move in this oddly glacial way with certain assumptions that everyone makes and it just takes one person to come along and say “no you idiot a wall,’ and then it can go off in a new direction.

Bob: Just as you were talking I was thinking that a lot of people are ruled by the technology they use and by having these conceptual ideas it prevents that from happening for you guys.

Drew: Hopefully. I think a big part is how do we get from the concept to a particular musical form. And that’s where it matters that we’re a band, because I come up with a lot and Martin has the unfortunate job of editing me and saying this is not really clear enough or this doesn’ really go off the concept enough and there’ a lot of stuff that we make that gets thrown away. It’s thrown away if its musically not compelling or if its not expressing what the concept has put in place. It has to jump not one but two hurdles. It has to be driving the album and it needs to be worth your time if you don’ care about any of this conceptual balderdash.

Bob: I came to your music through Matthew Herbert when you gave him some samples for his Bodily Functions album.

Martin: That’s funny because we came to our music through Matthew Herbert too. (laughs)

Bob: What does that mean?

Martin: It means he was extremely inspirational to us under the moniker Dr Rockit.

Drew: I started going out with Martin and we were together about a year and a half making music and then I went to school in Oxford and while I was there I bought a Dr Rockit 10 inch on clear records and it was a huge influence on me. Those early tracks, there one called Cameras and Rocks that was clearly made out of cameras and rocks. That was a huge influence on me and a real light coming on. And when we got to know Bjork apparently she had bought a bunch of Matmos records and flogged them on her London friends and had forced Matthew Herbert to listen to Matmos at a party in London and then he wrote us and said we’re on the same wavelength. So we’ve been friends with Matthew for a very long time and he happened to be working on Bodily Functions at the same time we were working on a Chance to Cut and I always considered those two records as very much in conversation with each other. We gave him our recordings of Laser Eye Surgery, but of course he makes it so utterly distinct from what we do. We’re very different people.

Bob: But you are operating in similar worlds. His Plat De Jour album was pretty conceptual. And he’ using objects and transforming them in a musical manner to change our understanding of what they are.

Drew: It’s a natural overlap. When I hear his music I can hear his ability as a pianist, his ability with jazz and his understanding of the history of house music. But when I hear our music I can hear Martin’ love of Krautrock and Kosmische music and my love of industrial music.

Martin: And both of our fondness for electro.

Drew: So there’ different genre home bases for Herbert verses for us as a result of our different history. Even though often we’re starting from the same sensibility where you’re aware that it’s not innocent to get out a microphone. That decision carries all kinds of weight. He’ much more attuned about how to bring politics to bear in his work. Martin and I are slightly more interested in the perverse, I don’ know, about erotics of sound. Maybe what politics is for Matthew queer radicalism is for Matmos? I don’ know, maybe it sounds like we’re just writing PR for ourselves.

Bob: I understand the difference. I hear Matthew’ One Pig and it’s very much a political statement where I hear your Ganzfeld EP and I’m not hearing a lot of politics in it. I’m hearing ideas about ESP…

Martin: It’s not political or not in a direct sense.

Drew: Sampling as a practice is a way of remembering and storing events. So there’ a historical and memorial function to creating samples and playing them back and manipulating them. It’s a way to think about memory. I think for me my first political experiences crystallized around coming to California from Kentucky and coming out of the closet right around the time of Act Up. The queer radical politics in the shadow of Aids had a lot to do with grief and mourning and it’s a different take on what it means to be political with respect to preserving the past. I think Matthew’ different, and I have to say more ambitious, in the engagement with how to make the process of recording and disseminating sound into something that’s politically directed towards the future and directed towards change. It may mean that we’re a little more backward in our orientation.

Martin: My inclination is that politics is not terribly effective if it is subtle at all. Calling ourselves political, when you take that idiotic song Royals (Lorde) that seems so popular around the world right now. This is the kind of political discourse that is effective right now. Dumb simple baiting of “I am not rich, the people who are rich talk about being rich, I am never going to be rich.” All the subtlety of One Pig, and even the more subtle stuff, I’m afraid we’re all sort of preaching to the choir a little bit. Just in terms of successful politicking.

Bob: Yeah because I wouldn’ have said One Pig was subtle but I take your point in comparison with more mainstream music. What I wanted to ask though was the using non-musical objects to create music, is it about moving away from conventional musical instruments and trying to demonstrate that each object has multiple uses?

Martin: Yes certainly. There were many factors and are many factors at work. When we first started working together, forming a boy pack with each other the way boys do, we were never going to use presets. I think Drew’ gone back on that a little bit lately. But anyway. So that leaves you with what are you going to work with if you’re not using a preset and that was one of the factors that was guiding us to using the objects. If I don’ know what I’m doing with a guitar then there’ no more value sampling a guitar than sampling that little clicking noise I can make on the dashboard of my car or by creaking a door or something.

Drew: I stand accused of using presets.

Martin (laughs)

Drew: I think the point is that you need to be mindful of what you include in your music and everything needs to be saturated with the strategic intention of why it’s in there. So for example on the song where I use fake strings and a fake choir Very Large Green Triangles, that was because I was illustrating the transcript of a psychic session where someone was describing something looking very old and also plastic as in looking fake. So in illustrating that transcript felt I was licensed to use something that was simultaneously impressive but sort of flimsy and fake. i.e. virtual choirs and virtual orchestral patches that are used to make Hollywood soundtracks. I mean its an interesting moment right now in sound production because people like Onehtrix Point Never and James Ferraro are really fetishising particularly naff tacky instrument sounds like general midi orchestral sounds very markedly fake sounds. I think in a way it’s a reaction to the cult of authenticity that prevailed ten years ago when something like the PCCOM manifesto of Herbert was first deployed. Production is going to flow and change and I think its more important that people realise why they’re using what they’re using than if it comes from category A or category B. We find that we like to work with objects but there’ always a dialectic about whether you’re letting the object be itself or whether you’re cropping it and filtering it to make it sound like kick drum. At a certain point why don’ you just use a fucking kick drum if that’s really what you want?

Martin: I’m sorry Drew I was just being provocative.

Drew: The point is that you’ve got to see the tension between habits of listening and the giving of what’s around you. Not that there’ a right way to make music or a morally suspect way to make music. I don’ bring to bear an ethics about it. I think it’s about choice and what you really want.

Martin: We’re happy to bring to bear an ethics on it, but only on a song-by-song basis. (laughs)

Bob: I was wondering if you were going to let that preset comment fly Drew, or whether you were going to say something about it. I’m glad you did.

Drew: (laughs) There was a great t-shirt that Kevin Blechdom made that said I heart presets. I think it’s a language.


Bob: It means a lot in our society. So many people are using them. I take your point in being strategic about them. I’ve heard fantastic stuff done with presets that I’ve really enjoyed and the knowledge that it is a preset is part of the humour.

Drew: You use language right, and language is communal and social, it precedes us. Nobody speaks the language that is the equivalent of I sculpted it all myself.

Martin: Occasionally you see them and they’re standing on a box in the corner of a park screaming and people are avoiding them.

Drew: I guess that what’s interesting is that every time someone speaks they’re using these socially available terms or words but the grain of their particular voice, their body, how loud or soft with what kind of emotional inflection, that’s how you make the social personal. It’s the same with music, so often people are communicating with particular rhythmic forms that are shared by a community of people whether its gay disco or a tribal form that’s lasted for hundreds of years. I think the cult of distinction around sound design, always facing this tension about are you defining yourself or are you part of a bigger community. For us we like to deliberately seek very unusual sounds, but on the other hand we’re very influenced by the records we worshipped as teenagers, and we are often unconsciously reformulating things that have been done by Holger Hiller or by Brian Eno or by Tangerine Dream or by Throbbing Gristle. That feeling of oh my god we’ve just recreated the On Broadway bass line for the 9th time, it’s kind’ve humbling that so much of the musical DNA is elsewhere.

Bob: But that music now is unconscious in you now because you’ve consumed it and its now coming out in your work.

Drew: Sure. I think dance music cultures are interesting in the pleasure of a preset because there’ a certain kind of rush you get from the mentasm synth sound or an amen break that is about getting something you do already know. I just like those moments of breakdown and surprise you don’ get what you want and it’s still amazing. That’s my goal.

Bob: That’s the hardest thing to do; you’re battling against the collective consciousness.

Drew: And it’s always a risk too. We just played at Carnegie Hall and after our piece was over there was seriously 14 seconds of total silence. It was really fucking awkward where we thought maybe they’re not going to clap. Maybe they really didn’ like it. I love those awkward moments of fear. As a human being with ego I’d love a lot of applause. It’s sort of a struggle now because people are so encouraged to brand themselves and be on message and live up to expectations that its harder and harder to be surprising. I think that’s especially the case when you’ve been a band for 9 albums like we have. It’s an interesting dynamic. How do you startle people when there’ a precedent and a history?

Bob: That was actually something that I was wondering. Do you feel a pressure to live up to the expectations that people have?

Drew: I’m a little scared honestly about coming to Australia because we’ve never played there before and people might not realise that when we play there’ a lot of improvisation and a lot of risk and we don’ really sound a lot like the records. We might play a few songs that people might know but even then there’ something raw about it. The records are very control freak records. They’re very worried about and fussed over and very baroque with lots of details, and live we can be pretty raw. I hope people are ready to roll with that. I feel like that’s more compelling because they can stay home and listen to the records if they want something really precise and sharp. I think that what we do instead is let ourselves be pretty vulnerable up there and I think that’s where live music gets a lot of its oxygen, from seeing people on a tightrope, figuring it out. Virtuosity has its place, but because we’re not virtuosos (laughs), we decide to bring more exposure and vulnerability to electronic music than I think people are used to.

Bob: I wanted to check in on what you did to those poor people at Carnegie Hall.

Martin: (laughs) Man we made up a really weird piece. We were supposed to do a remix of a David Lang piece…

Drew: The So Called Laws of Nature.

Martin: I don’ know, the thing we came up with was very dense and strange. We didn’ edit ourselves for the situation. Nobody spanked us. It sort of made us sad that there’ not more spanking that goes on. You read the Youtube dismissals a lot. I mean at the bottom of every Youtube clip in the universe there’ some moron saying horrible things about stuff. I don’ know I sort of wish there was more intelligent criticism of stuff that went on.

Drew: Be careful what you wish for.

Martin: At the after party for this thing. It really beggared my belief that every single person I spoke to was like “oh that was brilliant, what you did was great.” And I was really wonder whether all those people thought it was brilliant.
Drew: Well there was probably a lot of people who thought that fucking sucked but they didn’ want to come up and talk to us about it.

Martin: I’d be fine with that. Then I could start a conversation like “what didn’ you like about it?’ That would be a lot of work for them so it’s much easier to say “no that was great…’

Drew: Honestly a lot of the music on the program that night was melodic and major and what we did was deliberately put two melodic ideas on top of each other that were very sour with each other.

Bob: That’s nasty.

Drew: Deliberately quite not pleasing in terms of what happens to each melody when it is overlaid.

Martin: It pleased us. I thought it was nice. But when we listened back I was like “that’s pretty weird.’

Drew: If you want a point of comparison there’ certain records by the Residents, and Renaldo and the Loaf, that kind of era a similar place, the slightly shrill stacking of ideas that are not interlocking “correctly.” But I think that sometimes that can give you a real burst of energy, like sucking on a lemon.

Bob: I’ve got some very sweet lemons growing at the moment. I actually do that.

Drew: (laughs)

Bob: I find it hard to believe that people coming to a Matmos show wouldn’ have at least a vague idea what to expect though.

Martin: Our audiences can be quite mixed, there are the cognoscenti and then there’ the poor people who got dragged along by their friends. (laughs)

Drew: We’ve played some festivals where there were a lot of people on ecstasy with Day-Glo clothes who were absolutely sure that it was about to turn to turn into techno. They sort of listened to a 10-minute synthesizer improvisation with occult whispering and strange musique concrete noises and were totally fucking stoked for the techno that they were sure it was about to become.

Martin: Here comes the drop.

Drew: But that where’ the drop thing, I mean we aren’ babysitters, we treat people as if they are capable of having all kinds of experiences and all kinds of emotions, we don’ really do this porn like here is the focus, here is the climax and I think that’s a trade off. We’re trading off certain kinds of acceptability. But I honestly think that at this time in 2013 there are so many people who are purveying that kind of work, there’ not some terrible shortage of music that has a drop in it, we’re not robbing the world of something.

Australian Tour Dates:
January 15 – City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
January 16 – The Soft Pink Truth DJ set @ Paradiso Lates, Paradiso Terrace Bar, Sydney
January 18 – MONA FOMA, Hobart
January 19 – Howler, Melbourne


About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.