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An Interview with Matmos

[ELECTRONIC MUSICIANS]
“WE’RE ESSENTIALLY DOING LIVE MUSIQUE CONCRETE ON ‘LENO.’I MEAN, THAT’S PERVERSE IN THE EXTREME AND CERTAINLY I NEVER EXPECTED IT.”
Musical Fodder:
The Fourth of July
Birthday balloons
Latex clothing
Dice
Trapped rats
Medieval bestiary recitations
by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Matmos

[ELECTRONIC MUSICIANS]
“WE’RE ESSENTIALLY DOING LIVE MUSIQUE CONCRETE ON ‘LENO.’I MEAN, THAT’S PERVERSE IN THE EXTREME AND CERTAINLY I NEVER EXPECTED IT.”
Musical Fodder:
The Fourth of July
Birthday balloons
Latex clothing
Dice
Trapped rats
Medieval bestiary recitations
by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Matmos

Daniel Handler
19 Snaps

Matmos—Drew Daniel and M. C. Schmidt—have found a sort of fame as Björk’s backup band, creating the clatterings and blips behind many of her songs. On their own, they’ve forged a snakier path, including albums of material created from various surgical and medical sounds—A Chance To Cut Is a Chance to Cure—and their latest full-length, The Civil War, which throws medieval instruments and marching bands into their chewy laptop stew. I live near a record store, and on two separate occasions people have left my home to head directly to the store to buy The Civil War after hearing it on my stereo. Recently I’ve seen Matmos categorized as IDM, or intelligent dance music, which bugs me, because you can’t dance to their stuff at all, and “intelligent” seems like a not-very-subtle way of saying “difficult and arty,” when so much of their stuff is hilarious and instantly engaging. Maybe we should just call it M.

We did the interview at my house, and made it into an ice-cream social by blind-sampling several different kinds of Mitchell’s Ice Cream. Mitchell’s Ice Cream—located at 688 San Jose Avenue, at Twenty-ninth Street—has no commercial stake in this interview or in the Believer, but I’d like to say that they make the best damn ice cream in the whole wide world. If you live in San Francisco, you should go. If you don’t, you should come to San Francisco, and then go.

—Daniel Handler

I. “WE’RE DAIRY MUSIC, BASICALLY.”

THE BELIEVER: OK.This is the first ice-cream flavor.

[Spoons clinking, general ice-cream-eating noises]

M. C. SCHMIDT: Ooooh.

BLVR:What do you think?

DREW DANIEL: Is it involving coconut?

MCS:Yeah, it’s coconut.

BLVR: But it’s not a standard, run-of-the-mill coconut.

MCS: It’s baby coconut.

BLVR: It is. It is baby coconut. You have a skilled tongue.

DD: [Laughs] Oh, yes.

BLVR: You’ve been told you have a skilled tongue before?

MCS: My smug expression won’t make it to the tape.

BLVR:This is my favorite flavor from Mitchell’s.

DD: Have you tried them all?

BLVR: No, I haven’t tried every flavor, but I’ve tried all the ones that seem worth trying.This one seemed to me to be the most Matmos-like, because it has a very homemade quality to it.

DD: Okay.

MCS: What’s the difference between a coconut and a baby coconut?

BLVR: I don’t know.

DD: Maturity, wisdom, being around the block a few times…

BLVR: I’ve always wondered that about all baby vegetables, actually. Like baby corn isn’t baby corn, right? Anyway, I was wondering if you might be interested in talking about the homemade quality of Matmos’s music.

DD:We’re dairy music, basically.

BLVR:You’re the butter cream of electronica?

DD:Yeah. The Civil War was made entirely in our house and the house of some friends in Los Angeles, with the exception of some field recordings in Hoover,Alabama, on the Fourth of July.

BLVR: Field recordings of what?

DD: Fireworks and insects and people walking away from fireworks. A friend, Keenan Lawler, went into the sewer tunnels underneath Louisville, Kentucky, and tuned his guitar to the resonant frequency inside the sewer and improvised there—but mostly the music was made at home.

MCS: I think all our records are made at home.

DD: Yeah, pretty much. Until we worked with Björk we had never been in a studio where you pay by the hour, and that makes you approach time and revision differently. You can kind of endlessly marinate sound files.

BLVR: Do you think that’s why you guys sound more organic, for lack of a less annoying term, than so much electronic music?

MCS: I’m going to guess that most electronic music is made at home these days.

DD: But I think the reason that you’re hearing an organic quality is because we use objects.

MCS: We don’t generate pure tones and then chop them up in a formalist way.We work with things that are literally sitting around our house, so it’s bound to be kind of homemade.

II. “AT A POINT THERE’S A CROSSOVER BETWEEN NAÏVE AND BAD.”

BLVR: Do you mostly record acoustically? I’m probably not using the proper terminology. Stephin Merritt, for instance, holds a microphone up to most electronic keyboards that he uses rather than wiring the keyboard directly into the recording device.

MCS: No, no. If I were using an electronic keyboard I would plug in the output from the keyboard. I don’t own any electronic keyboards with speakers on them.

DD:We kind of did that with the way we recorded the hurdy-gurdy.We didn’t just record the drum string, we actually built the whole percussive battery around it— out of the sound of Martin’s [aka MC SCHMIDT] fingers clicking the keys, which is not the sound the instrument is meant to make, it’s just the physical, tactile moment. I think capturing that is pretty important.We tend to favor close-mic-ing.We’re interested in a room sound, or a washy, Phil Spector grandeur. It’s more about something very intimate and close.

MCS: At a point there’s a crossover between naïve and bad.This album actually started out as an album about pianos. It didn’t end up being about pianos, barely at all. There’s piano on some tracks. But I’ve been very happy with my mic-ing techniques with guitar and banjo and the hurdy-gurdy, for example, and balloons and—

DD: —latex clothing, playing cards, sandpaper, dice—

MCS:Yeah, and all that stuff. But boy, get that piano, put some microphones around it—we have some nice microphones and some not-so-nice microphones—and it just sounds like crap. It doesn’t sound like a clever variation on what usually people do to mic a piano, it just sounds like somebody’s bad, stupid, stand-up piano recorded from a black plastic tape recorder from across the room.And we have some nice microphones. I tried three arrangements and they all sounded bad. I realized that I’m not a studio engineer and there are definitely times where that would be an appropriate thing to use. If I ever use pianos the traditional way, by playing the keyboard, maybe I’ll bring in an engineer or ask some advice. I looked up some things in a book…

BLVR: Books don’t help.

MCS:Yeah, you have to have the experience, I guess. So usually it’s generative, our homemade angle, but sometimes it’s a disadvantage.

DD:I tried to get around this by recording using the mic on my laptop: I stuck my laptop inside the piano, on the strings, and played it that way. I got some good sounds. But it is kind of humbling. Some people fetishize low-fi for its own sake, as a form of intimacy—because it’s nonprofessional, therefore you should trust it more—but in this case I think maybe we should glitz it up and just record like whoever records Elton John’s piano.

BLVR: No.

III. “… WE’RE BOTH LYING IN BED JUST PULLING AT THESE BALLOONS AND SQUEAKING THEM CONSTANTLY AND THAT’S WHEN WE REALIZE THAT THERE’S A SONG THERE.”

BLVR:Okay.We’re going to go to ice cream number two.

DD: I should eat with my tongue and not my eyes.

BLVR:You don’t necessarily have to guess what it is but you could give your impressions of it for our readers.I’ve never had this flavor before, but it tastes a little bit like perfume—but not enough like perfume to be irritating.

MCS: Giorgio? [Laughs]

DD: Is this some kind of cherry-walnut thing?

MCS: I think it’s more exotic.

BLVR:Yeah, I think it’s a million things all mixed together.It’s called “Hallow,Hallow”but it contains buco,which is grown-up coconut;lanka,which is some kind of melon; ubi, which is a kind of yam; pineapple, mongo beans…

DD: Beans! It’s the beans that threw me off.

BLVR: But the mixture of these different flavors inspired me to think to ask you about your collaborative nature.

MCS: Oh, boy.

BLVR: Because those who think of Matmos seem to think that you’re a mysterious duo, like the Quay brothers, that you hole up in your home and then you release these seamless works. And Drew, when you talk about recording inside a piano while he’s setting up microphones outside—well, do you want to talk a little bit about how you work?

DD: It’s changed over the years. Martin taught me how to sequence with computers. So originally he had his hand on the mouse and I was sort of barking suggestions. Now I tend to sequence and Martin tends to play the objects because he’s better with his hands. He’s better as a real performer than I am. How we work comes in spurts of intuition about an object, and maybe there’s a song there. But we don’t have a plan, and certainly not an emotion that we wish to articulate. I think that’s one of the big differences between how we work and maybe how other people do.

BLVR:You start with an object?

DD:Yeah. Somebody had a birthday party at our house and there were a lot of balloons around and we kept picking them up and just playing with them. It got to the point where it would be three in the morning and we’re about to go to bed and we’re both lying in bed just pulling at these balloons and squeaking them constantly and that’s when we realize that there’s a song there. Then Martin will take the object and make sounds with it for as long as we can stand it. I’ll take that recording and chop it into as many tiny articulate parts as seems useful.With the improved sampler capabilities it’s about ninety to a hundred samples per song, sometimes more. And then we’ll take turns playing patterns out of what we’ve created and Martin will play along with the patterns made out of the recordings of himself and it just becomes this kind of recursive cycle.

MCS: And we’ll listen to those things and think, “Oh, those squeaky noises sound a little bit like the squeaking of a door.” So we’ll record a little bit of door and how that pairs up with the squeaking of the balloon. It’s very, umm, I always forget this word…

DD: Free-associative.

[Laughter]

BLVR: So you do finish each other’s sentences.

MCS:Yes. Eleven years in October.

BLVR: Congratulations

IV. “I’M VERY ANTI-MYSTERY. I LIKE WHEN ALL IS REVEALED.”

BLVR: Do you care if people know what the objects are? I think you have a different experience with your music if you’re able to look at the booklet. When you listen to your previous album, at first it sounds like one thing, but then when you can say,“Oh, my god, they’re playing Martin’s skin,” it becomes an entirely different experience. Do you prefer the second experience? Do you prefer the educated listener?

MCS: I don’t prefer either.

BLVR:You hate them both. [Laughs]

MCS: I don’t prefer one over the other.

DD:They’re both potentially successful ways to receive the music. I like the idea that you can hear the same thing for the first time twice. That you can hear it as sound and experience it on that level and then when you get the information you hear it and suddenly you have a way in. Too much electronic music gets called “abstract” in a really lazy way and I think that’s really boring.That bothers me. I’m not interested in perpetuating that idea. But I also like the fact that you’re not free to determine how your music gets heard.

BLVR: Have you guys had your music played in strange contexts?

DD:A wedding.

BLVR: [Laughs]

MCS: During surgery.

DD:Yeah. My dad plays our surgical record when he operates.

MCS: And we’ve heard it from other surgeons, too. It’s interesting how many doctor fans we got from that last thing. We had a woman come all the way from New Mexico to a show in…

DD: Montreal. She was a brain surgeon and she flew to Canada to see us play the surgical material. It was really an honor. I mean, we got reviewed in the Lansett… But it’s not about us. I don’t mean to sound like I’m mystifying it, like,“Oooh, the objects make the music,” but in a weird way they do.

MCS:Yeah, I mean, that’s the way we do it. I’m very antimystery. I like when all is revealed. We never shy away from telling people exactly what our methods are or what we use.There is a point at which detail becomes—

DD: —oppressive or self-important.

MCS: —useless. An example we always use when talking about this is a song from our first record. The whole song is made out of my voice processed with a digital video tape recorder—but what I was reading was a medieval bestiary. It didn’t really matter because those words never came through. But at a point too much information is just kind of stupid.We actually curate the information to create a world out of each one, certainly.

DD: And those choices are conscious. We didn’t want people listening for the unicorn or the manticorn.It just wasn’t right for the feeling of that song.

BLVR: Or be dismissed as medievalist, Renaissance-fair hippies.

DD:That’s what the new album is.

[Laughing]

MCS:We’d like to be dismissed as that.

BLVR:Well, I hereby dismiss you as such

V. “IT’S ABOUT BJÖRK’S MUSIC AND WE ARE THERE TO PLAY THAT. IT’S A VERY DIFFERENT THING THAN PLAYING A MATMOS SHOW. I PUT THEM IN TOTALLY DIFFERENT BOXES.”

BLVR: Is it true that the Soft Pink Truth album was the result of a dare?

DD: Pretty much. We played a show with Matthew Herbert in Paris and he asked me if I would make house music, and I don’t really own house music or listen to it much. It’s not a genre that I’m conversant in. I’m kind of a tourist. But it was really fun for that reason. It was a formula. It was making music that fits a functional formula. I don’t think I really succeeded in fitting that formula, but I had a lot of fun. And I think being able to fail and have it be someone else’s fault was nice.

BLVR: Can you tell me about The Civil War?

DD:Actually, the new record is more melodic that anything we’ve ever done before. It wasn’t intentional.We bought an autoharp, which lets you press down chords and create chord progressions, and I think the experience of playing Björk’s music for a few years soaked in subconsciously and now there is more of a verse-chorus structure, in an oblique way. I doubt we’re very good at it, so I don’t think we should try. People have a skill at making pop music and that’s exactly what they want to do so there’s no conflict. It’s very natural for them. For us, we would have to get up on our hind legs a little bit, and I don’t think it would work.

BLVR: When you’re playing with Björk does that fit into your own creative schematic?

DD: It’s not a fifty-fifty Matmos–Björk collaboration, so it’s actually kind of easy. There are sort of controlled bursts of being creative, and then a long experience of touring in which you’re responsible for representing the music—but it’s not a structure in which you can improvise.You can’t let a song collapse and then build it into something else. It’s about Björk’s music and we’re there to play that. It’s a very different thing than playing a Matmos show. I put them in totally different boxes.

BLVR: In terms of the size of the audience or the kind of appreciation… I think a lot of people would assume that you’re happy to be playing with Björk but secretly you wish you were the ones bringing a stadium full of people in.

DD: No. No, I don’t feel that way.

MCS: Artistically speaking, no, I don’t feel that way. But we’ve all got built into us,“Gee, shouldn’t this be more successful? Wouldn’t I like to buy a house? And wouldn’t it be foolish if I had the opportunity to not make the art necessary to make the money to buy the house?” I mean, of course you should do that. Every uncle from my last hundred years of relatives has been about making the money to buy the house. Of course that’s what you should be doing. But I’m inclined to think that once you mix your art with money, or you start changing what art you already make in order to make more money, you poison the entire thing. Some people, lots of great songwriters, are extremely fortunate in that—

DD: —what they naturally do gets them that audience. For us, we’ve been wildly successful, considering what we do.We have no right to be where we are and I always assume that at any moment it’s gotta crumble. Because it’s not something that’s going to appeal to a stadium full of people, although with Björk we have the weird luck of being able to represent a bit of our approach on a really large scale. I mean, playing a song like “Cocoon” on the Jay Leno show, where Martin is rubbing my hair with a contact lens and we’re essentially doing…

MCS: Contact microphone. [Laughs]

DD:Wow.I really need to ease off on the sugar.But we’re essentially doing live musique concrete on “Leno.” I mean, that’s perverse in the extreme and certainly I never expected it. But we’re there because of Björk’s melodic scale and who she is and what she’s done. We had the opportunity to open for Björk on this last tour, which would have been great, big shows—and we didn’t feel like it was right for Matmos.You should be sitting in a chair and able to hear everything and able to see what the object is in order to get the point.You shouldn’t have a beer in your hand with like fifteen thousand other people expecting to rock. It just won’t work.Whereas I did open for Björk in arenas as the Soft Pink Truth and it was fine. It was, you know, bumping. [Laughter] Our life is kind of starting to change now. We’re at home less and less.We thought we were going to be back in the fall but we weren’t.We went to Italy and did this festival.Then we went to Björk’s house in New York to work on her new record.You start to wonder why have a car, or why have a bed, why have the things that connect you to your home… I never thought music would do that because home has always been where we make the music.

MCS:We’ve always just thought it was laughably unlikely that anyone would like us at this level.We’re literally wondering from day to day when this ridiculous fluke is going to end, and mark my words, one day it will. [Laughs]

DD: But it’s still fun to do.That’s the thing that surprises me. I was cutting up sound files last night until two in the morning of this recording we made of a rat that broke into our house that we trapped in a “Have a Heart” trap.Then I woke up this morning and had a cup of tea and kept chopping the sound files until I got in the cab to come to your house.Time kind of vanishes when you’re doing something that you really enjoy. It may be for a thousand people who go to cool record stores or, in the case of programming for Björk, it could be programming for a single that millions of people are going to hear. It’s not that there’s no difference, but you’re still cutting and pasting. In the moment, they are the same.

BLVR:It seems that in the case of Björk and a few other artists there is an enormous audience made up of people who perceive themselves to be part of a small, individual cult audience.

DD: [Laughs]

BLVR:That strikes me as strange. I feel like that with my books. I meet a lot of people who are often disappointed if they come and see me someplace and there are a lot of people there. [Laughter] It’s like I’m their secret— they’re usually pretty young, so I don’t have the heart to tell them that I sort of prefer having a lot of people come so my child won’t have to grow up in a cardboard box.

DD: It’s weird, the emotional investment some people put in.

BLVR: And certain kinds of private emotional investment, which again makes it unlike classic rock, even though Björk is drawing classic-rock numbers.

MCS: It’s funny… the weird clubbiness on a national scale.We were in Moscow the other day with Björk and her new baby, Isadora, and two giant Russian security goons in black suits talking into their sleeves who had been rented for us by the local promoter to protect us. So we’re buying an ice cream in the park and someone takes a picture of her.And Jöga, her buddy, is like,“No!” to the people taking the picture. And they go, “But we’re Icelandic.” [Laughs] Obviously they thought they belonged to the club somehow. It was weird how it can collapse down to these strange levels like that.

BLVR: It always seems that celebrity culture becomes this strange, vicious circle where someone takes a photograph of a celebrity surrounded by security guards and you think that the celebrity’s being pretentious for having all those guards when the guards become necessary because they’re photographed because weirdos see the photographs and want to get more photographs…

MCS:Yup.

DD:Yeah. It sort of feeds on itself. She doesn’t actually live that way.

MCS: I’ve never seen her with security guards before.

DD: But it makes a better story.

VI. “WE USED LOTS OF BANGING AND HAMMERING AND SAWING. BUT IT WASN’T ACTUALLY THE BEST PORN MUSIC.”

BLVR: Alright, we have one last ice cream and then we’re done.

[Spoons clinking, general sounds of ice-cream consumption]

MCS: God, that avocado is just nasty.There’s some left on my spoon.

 [Pauses, more ice-cream consumption sounds]

MCS: It’s vanilla.

BLVR:Yeah, it’s vanilla.

BLVR: I thought I’d take advantage of vanilla to ask you about your work in porn.

DD:We only did one vanilla porn movie, called Hot to Trot, and we tried to apply our technique of thematic objects to it. So for the pool scene we used ice cubes in a jar and for the sexy-construction-worker scene we used lots of banging and hammering and sawing. But it wasn’t actually the best porn music.

BLVR:Well, tell me how the whole doing-porn-music thing came about.

MCS: I have a friend who does lighting. He’s a lighting director, or something like that.

BLVR: A lighting designer?

MCS: Lighting designer! That’s what he is. Richard Bored, who really is quite an excellent lighting designer, came out of college and couldn’t get a job to save his life. He ran into somebody at a party who did porno and he was like, “Oh, I’m a lighting designer. Do you need a lighting designer?” and he was like, “Sure, kid. You can come and try it.” I think it was half gruntwork—just lugging the lights around—but he really is a good lighting designer and they’re the most beautiful porn films you’ve ever seen. [Laughs] He was applying every bit of his aesthetic to it that he could—as well as, like, “Get some more light under those balls!” Those were the kinds of orders that were shouted at him. He’d spend twelve hours a day on his back lighting up the low in a room full of Crisco and fisting.

BLVR:They were all gay porn films?

MCS:Yeah, all gay. He asked them if they needed any music and they said to bring in a CD, and he brought in one of our CDs, and they asked if we could make normal music, and we told ’em,“Sure.We can make normal music.” So our first assignment, and we could tell that it was them kind of trying us out, was doing music for a Dutch fisting video that was basically a camera on a tripod in the corner of a room—

DD: —where there’s a drugged-out sex party in Amsterdam in the cellar of a leather bar.

MCS: And the soundtrack was the boogie box in the room where they’re doing this and so the song ends and they’re like,“Oh! Zee tape iz over!” So they go over and change the tape and turn it back on again and then they go over and back to their business.

DD: So we had to do the moans for that one.

MCS:Yeah, it was total overdub.

BLVR: Not music?

DD: No, we had to do music and moans.

MCS: Music and moaning and groaning.

DD: But we couldn’t look at each other so we would sit with our backs to each other…

MCS: Because we would crack up laughing.You cannot seriously sit with a microphone and go “Ooooaaaahh” without laughing.We spent more time editing out the laughing than working on the music.

DD: So they liked our music but they told us not to bother with the moans next time.

MCS:They weren’t sincere, I guess.

DD:That was Screwgang and Fistful Thinking.Those were the first two. And I thought they were supposed to be scored. So I wrote down a description of what minute and second the guy with the face mask walks in on the guy in the sling and holds up the poppers… we had keyboard climaxes to accentuate the action.

MCS:We worked on it.

DD: Oh yeah.We didn’t know they were just going to pick the three-minute loop that they liked best and cut and paste it.

MCS: Loop it.

BLVR: So did you get lazy on your later work?

MCS: Oh yes.We got much lazier.

DD:The peak was the Hole Punch film…

MCS:We had a couple films after Hole Punch and we did a darn good job, I think.

DD:We got to indulge in a sort of tacky genre exercise. Kind of Nine a Inch Nails parody, kind of a Portishead parody. Production music. It was dirty.

BLVR:Are you going to release them?

DD:We did,in a very limited edition,on a Canadian label. It’s called A Viable Alternative to Actual Sexual Contact.

MCS:That’s the name of the album.

BLVR:That’s catchy.That’s up there with Foreigner.

DD: Yeah, it’s in the fine print that scrolls before the films.

BLVR: It’s not as Matmos?

DD: It says, “Vague Terrain Recordings.” That was the name we did it under for the porn.They told us really ridiculous things, like not to be too interesting.

BLVR: I used to work in radio, and we had stacks and stacks of incidental music for CDs… it sort of surprises me that they would hire anybody.

MCS: Me, too. I thought it was really noble of them to actually commission original music. I had a friend just coming out of art school in the eighties who edited straight porn.What a hellish, hellish job that is. For a gay man to edit straight porn. They just bought the fanciest Casio keyboard you could buy because they make Casios with, like, five hundred bass lines and five hundred drum fills and five hundred drum lines and with a few touches of a button you can make a five-minute song automatically—and if you want, you can solo on top of it. They just bought one of those and that was always the music.

DD: I’ve discovered some brilliant porno soundtrack music from the late seventies. There’s this amazing porno movie called Heatstroke from 1979 that has brutal vocoder-synth disco that would burn up a party in Williamsburg if you played it now.

DD:There were some really retarded business meetings that we had to attend while making these soundtracks. We were invited to the home of one of the directors, who wanted to show us rough cuts of the work in question. He hadn’t warned us that he was actually a member of the cast as well and we were sitting next to him on a couch and he’s showing us these films in which he’s getting fisted on this wide-screen TV that’s like four feet wide. We’re sitting next to him and his roommate is watching TV on his computer screen— watching Star Trek and the news, in the nude, about fifteen feet away—and we’re trying to have a serious business meeting. He’s telling us that he wants soft, classical music and that he himself is a composer and understands music—

MCS: —so he’ll know if we’re bullshiting him.

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