Issue six: Matmos interviewed
Drew Daniel met M.C. Schmidt in 1993, when Daniel worked as a go-go dancer at Club Uranus in San Francisco. They soon after became a couple and formed the electronic music duo Matmos, named after a lake of sentient energy goo in the 1968 film Barbarella. In his go-go days, Daniel used to wear a plastic jockstrap in the shape of a fish. He found it again 25 years later in a box at home, flaking apart yet refusing to rot. Here was a totem of nostalgia and an object weighted with the symbolic dread of plastic-polluted oceans and landfill. It crystallized the idea behind their 2019 album Plastic Anniversary, composed entirely from samples of plastic objects being hit, scraped, bent, squeezed, and broken. These included billiard balls, synthetic fat, a silicone breast implant, polyethylene waste containers, PVC panpipes, bubble wrap, an emergency stretcher, a smashed-up record by soft rock band Bread, and a thermoplastic police riot shield.
Matmos—now based in Baltimore—make music out of the organic and material world. Over the course of 13 ingenious albums, they’ve sampled crayfish synapses, plastic surgery procedures, rustling Bible pages, a washing machine and garden snails moving along a theremin. The sounds have been sliced and diced, processed through batteries of synthesizers and effects units, and collaged into what is now a signature Matmos sound. Bright constellations of percussive pings, squelches, shakes and cicada-like shimmers. Sonic palettes that sound like bubbling liquids, chatty machines or finger-snapping insects. They’ve also written music using techniques from psychoanalysis and ESP research, beamed songs into deep space, and collaborated with a mind-bogglingly long list of musicians, from a Montana high school marching band to Björk.
One of the duo’s strengths is in knowing how to balance the heart with the head. The music is never desiccated by the conceptual apparatus they work with. Their albums possess groove and a poppy, melodic sense of pleasure. They use sonic texture and color to gross you out, make you laugh or get you to dance. In their own unique way, by building their work out of the objects that surround us and the bodies we lug around, they manage to express something far more wide-ranging about the human experience than many songwriters, bleating about a broken heart or exhorting you to have a good time, ever achieve.
This week, Matmos completed a live tour of Europe and North America, with support from Jeff Carey, to promote Regards/Ukłony dla Bugosław Schaeffer, a new album derived from the archive of the prolific Polish composer, playwright and graphic artist Bugosław Schaeffer. A few days ago, the tour came through New York, to Le Poisson Rouge, en route to their last stop back home in Baltimore. They played tracks from Regards… in six-channel surround-sound, alongside reworkings of older pieces. The show was cerebral, engaging, funny, and packed with a strange kind of funk. It ended with the duo telling as many people as they could in the venue “you’re on the team!” “You, in the black t-shirt, you’re on the team!” “All the bar staff, you’re on the team!” “You, with the broken Bread record, you’re on the team!” (They had twanged fragments of a Bread record on the side of a table for live sampling earlier in the set.) In other hands it might have been cloyingly earnest. Matmos made it feel simultaneously celebratory, tongue-in-cheek, and moving. Daniel—who, in his other life as associate professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, has recently published a new book titled Joy of the Worm: Suicide and Pleasure in Early Modern Literature—generously took the time to talk to me about the new album and what makes a good sound.
DAN FOX: How has it felt to be on the road again, post-pandemic?
DREW DANIEL: It’s such a strange thing to get to do this after years of setting up tours and then canceling them. It’s a real surge of joy to be among people, to see friends, to see people we haven’t seen in years. It’s also scary. M.C. got COVID this summer in Amsterdam during our tour and we had to slam on the brakes and cancel a show, re-schedule other shows and try to improvise around the medical reality that the pandemic is not in the rear view mirror. Our relation to it has changed, but it’s not gone. So you find ways to manage your risk factors and press on. The irony of tour is that you’re at once “free,” in that you avoid a lot of the day-to-day duties that people associate with the stuckness and entrapment of quarantine at home, but you’re also constantly attached to a pretty punishing schedule. So you’re not all that free to deviate from a pretty strict routine: wake up, load the car with gear, drive for four to six hours, unload gear into venue, set up and soundcheck, play, breakdown, gear into van, drive to hotel, gear out of van and into hotel, sleep, wake up, repeat. This time we’re doing the tour in a six-channel surround sound mode so we bring an extra four speakers to fill out the club PA systems. That introduces a ton of extra weight, schlep, care, and labor. So it’s a punishing test, but it’s also incredibly fun.
DF: What was the origin of the new album, Regards/Ukłony Dla Bogusław Schaeffer?
DD: A Polish friend named Michal Mendyk sent us Bogusław’s music and first asked us if we would be interested in chopping it into elements of a “sample kit” for the Ableton software community to use. We had never done anything like that and honestly felt ambivalent about it: on the one hand, you’re directing people’s attention to music that is unsung, and that’s a good thing. But there’s a risk of watering something special down by focusing upon the zippiest, juiciest bite-size slices and zaps and honks from compositions that are very nuanced, dynamic and careful. In the end, we decided that being ambassadors was better than being purists and snobs about it so that’s the way it went. After making the sample kits, Michal upped the ante and asked us if we would be up for a commission from the Polish government to make a new album of music using Bogusław’s work. We were delighted by the oddity of this, and it felt like a natural progression in some ways from the last Matmos album, in which the overwhelming majority of the sound material was sent to us by 97 guest musicians. This was just one guest, but a very accomplished one. So we had permission to work with a large array of his pieces and to build new compositions out of elements sampled from his work. It was both daunting and freeing.
DF: Was Schaeffer a composer you were already familiar with? His musical curiosity as a composer seems to share affinities with your work.
DD: No, we didn’t know his work at all before Michal approached us. We came in cold, not knowing the music, but we were already fans of musique concrete and the electroacoustic generation of the late 1960s and early ’70s. There’s a sound that the pre-amps, reverbs and processing gear of that era shares, broadly speaking, so it felt natural to us as soon as we heard it, and some of the pieces, Heraklitiana and Monodram in particular, struck us immediately as very powerful works of art.
DF: An obvious question, perhaps, but when you are working with material created by another artist, such as Schaeffer, do you approach it with a different sensibility than you would when generating sounds from inanimate objects? A certain ethics comes into play I presume?
DD: We tried not to make “fake old-sounding music” that would simply be a pastiche, and tried to slant instead toward music that kept sliding around in its generic location. I think we knew that we didn’t want to make it sound like some of cynical “dance music remix” cross-marketing campaign. But Schaeffer has a lot of disruptive moments in his work, and humor too, and that was also worth considering. Neither blasphemy nor piety seemed appropriate. We tried not to worry about his angry judgmental ghost being in the room and giving us a thumbs down, nor to presume to know if he would smile on what we were doing either.
DF: Does putting the music out live change your relationship to a studio recording? For example, does it make you want to go back and tweak or rearrange things on a record?
DD: M.C. made a completely new version of the song “Few, Far Chaos Bugles” for the tour, and we lead a procession of tiny speakers playing elements from the song through the audience in the room according to very didactic model, to present the idea of “sound-in-motion.” That’s the cue for the start of the six-channel section of the show to commence. It leads into six-channel diffusions of material that are stereo on the album. In the case of two pieces, what is “live” is simply the presentation in the space of a six-channel diffusion synched to a video. It’s not “live” in any traditional sense. Other pieces that we do involve lots of improvisation and live sampling, so over the course of the evening the extent of what is “live” keeps shifting. You’ll what I mean when you see us do this, I hope!
DF: Over the years you’ve received commissions from some highly prestigious cultural organisations. Neither of you is a conservatory trained musician. What sort of advantages does not having formal training give you in these establishment contexts?
DD: In hindsight I’m now rather jealous of that training and wish that I had it, and I don’t want to pooh-pooh it at all. That said, I think that the conservatory or apprenticeship model can often become stifling because of the way that grad student and advisor relationships can, if not managed in a truly open-ended and nurturing way, wind up painting people into corners about how they absorb and work their way free from the style of the person they studied with. Being self-taught, we approach sound-as-sound and sound-as-idea, and musical pitches come later in the process. That fundamentally alters the outcome. But lately I am trying to think more carefully about, and work with, pitches, and now my ignorance strikes me as a burden and an obstacle. Musicians hear little melodies in their head and then work them out. We mostly never do that.
DF: What makes for a good sound, a sound you want to work with?
DD: The beauty of constantly making new music is that the relational parameters of what makes a sound worth using can totally change when that sound is transplanted from its origin and placed into a new context. Sometimes I want sharp bright sounds and sometimes I want murky sounds. Murk is desirable in some pieces and to be avoided in others. If I caricature myself, it’s true that I’m often interested in sharp, bright sounds with a fast attack and an intriguing texture that isn’t entirely obvious, rather than, say, long tones. But it’s all about what a particular song, moment, or pattern needs. The same pattern played on a clave or a kick drum or a glob of human fat is not the same pattern. As an experience, they are not the same because the pattern shows up in a specific sound that has a timbre and associations and cultural baggage. That shifts from sound to sound. But the glob of human fat can be pitched up or down, filtered high or low, stretched short or long. Sound is plastic in the etymological sense: capable of being molded. And that’s what I love about it.
DF: When you’re creating a palette of sounds, then assembling a track, how do you strike a balance between the symbolic value of a sound, on the one hand, and its sonic qualities on the other? Or, put a different way, between what the mind wants and what the body enjoys?
DD: I want things to work on both registers or hit different pleasure centers at the same time, ideally. It’s hard because sometimes a sound has a great deal of personal significance or poetry, but as a sound it’s weak. Some sounds are banal at the level of meaning—an 808 kick drum for example—but intensely pleasurable at the level of just sound-as-sound. There are sounds I probably wouldn’t use because they’re tied too tightly to someone and signify that person, such as the “hoover noise” associated with Joey Beltram, or the downtuned Linn drum snares that Prince used, but I wouldn’t rule any sound out necessarily. Some compositions get overdetermined by the conceptual commitment driving the album in which they have to live, but we try to avoid that happening too much. It was an issue when working with the sounds of a police riot shield, for example. There I think the symbolic value overpowered the sonic fact of the object as an object. It happens.
DF: One aspect of your work that I love is its sense of humor. This is something which used to be a lot more common in popular music 40 or 50 years ago, but seems to have disappeared in the last few decades, shunned in favour of serious, earnest affect. I think something of what music can express of the human experience has been lost in the process. Can you talk a bit about the role of humor in your music? Why is it important to make us laugh as listeners?
DD: I’m going to blame my partner for that. M.C. has a certain personality that simply comes through and there’s no avoiding it. He is skeptical of seriousness and prone to a certain kind of deflationary humor. Left to my own devices I’m at risk of being overly self-serious but he keeps poking holes in things, gently and not so gently. So it comes about as part of the push-pull between us. We listen to a lot of big band music from the 1940s and space age bachelor pad and orchestral pop from the ’50s and ’60s, and that divides into music that is itself comedic—Spike Jones—and music that is so over-the-top in the way that it is orchestrated that you cannot quite take it seriously: David Rose, Al Hirt, Claus Ogerman, Enoch Light. But we genuinely love that music and appreciate it too. It’s hard to talk about camp without wielding a kind of over-strong sense of mockery and that’s not our stance as listeners or our foremost goal when assembling Matmos songs. Leaving humor out seems unduly restrictive. But it needs to slither into view. If you’re too broad about “trying to be funny” that’s pretty narrow, also. Make it available as a possible response and let the listener decide.
DF: Now you’ve been making music for so many years, when you look back over your body of work, can you identify any defining themes or characteristics that you can only spot with the benefit of hindsight?
DD: Yes, there are certainly little sub-families or “kinds of Matmos songs” that seem to keep recurring. Latin percussion jams, acoustic guitar fluttery cut-ups, electro workouts at 133 bpm, and now we seem to have realized that many, many Matmos songs from across the albums have all along been at 99 bpm. There are types of synthesizer solos that M.C.’s hands just want to play, and types of snare, kick, hi-hat relationships that I never stop wanting to program. I blame the breakdancing of my eighth-grader self for that.
DF: Does work outside of Matmos—your academic work, for example—feed into the music?
DD: Not in any direct way. I would say that the opposite is true. Things that I value in a musical performance setting can creep into the kind of classroom rhythms and relationships that I hope to generate with students. Listening, thinking about pacing, being open to changing tempo and density; those are musical values but they can be pedagogical goals too. I don’t often connect these worlds, I’m more likely to hopscotch between them than link them. Maybe I try too hard not to “cross the streams”.
DF: The last date of the tour will be on home turf in Baltimore. How has that city fed your music? Do you think it might have developed differently if you’d remained living in San Francisco all those years ago?
DD: There’s no question that Baltimore radically altered our thinking about musical tools and genre. When we moved to Baltimore we met a lot more improvising musicians and we became much more aware of people in dialogue with jazz improvisation and with playing free improvised music. The economic reality of Baltimore as a poor city was apparent in how many people were playing instruments they had built, and how few used laptops. It’s just totally different. I don’t think we really understood how wealth permeated the San Francisco context. We’re grateful to SF and loved what was going on there, but we’re also glad that we made the jump to Baltimore because it made us question a lot of our habits and ways of working.
Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, Laura Fairrie’s documentary about the life and career of the best-selling romantic fiction writer, has been out for a year now, and if you haven’t seen it, why not? The story of Collins’ career is eye-popping, with over 500 million books sold worldwide, according to the late author’s website, and a life of highs and lows. Also eye-popping, for a variety of reasons, are some of the film’s talking heads, which include the gravel-voiced literary agent Morton Janklow, whose assessment of his client was: “There are people who use language beautifully, which is the direct opposite of Jackie.” Everlasting true love here.
You probably know this one, but if not, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, made in 1978, is a beautiful, funny, understated film featuring Melanie Mayron as Susan, a young photographer trying to start a career while coping with drifting friendships and disappointing romantic relationships. It’s also an evocative snapshot of New York City at the end of the 1970s, and features a pre-Spinal Tap Christopher Guest in a supporting role. Girlfriends plays this week at Metrograph, New York, alongside a Q&A with the director. But if you’re at the beach you know how to find it otherwise.
One of my first encounters with the Western literary canon was on the lid of a tin pencil case I had as a child. It depicted Fungus the Bogeyman browsing a library of classics including Wuthering Bogeys, Memoirs of a Bogeyhunting Man, and À la recherche du bogeys perdu. Fungus was created by writer and illustrator Raymond Briggs, who passed away this week at the age of 88. Briggs was recently the subject of a particularly moving episode of the Backlisted books podcast, which covered the writer’s life and major works including Fungus the Bogeyman, The Snowman, Father Christmas, Ethel and Ernest and When the Wind Blows (to this day, the most upsetting work of art about nuclear war I’ve ever encountered). Backlisted has always taken children’s literature seriously, just as it has with genre fiction—mystery, sci-fi, romance—alongside capital-’S’-for-Serious poetry and literary fiction. For each episode, a guest chooses a book they have a deep connection with, and which they believe deserves a wider audience. I suspected I would enjoy it when I saw that their first episode was about J.L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country, for which I have a great fondness. I am now a Backlisted convert, and I find that I am at my most receptive to their smart, enthusiastic conversations about Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Patrick Modiano, Raymond Chandler, or whoever it may be, while doing the ironing. Their latest is on Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt and you can find that and other favourites from Fungus’s library here.