A Thousand Different Keys

A Lunchtime Conversation with Matthew Herbert

by Tim O'Neil


Part One

It’s easy to get distracted by all the conceptual noise that surrounds a Matthew Herbert release. Electronic music is not as a rule a very political medium, and Herbert sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb for his consistent engagement with ideas far greater in scope than what you might expect from the average house producer. Throughout his career he’s used electronic music as a powerfully evocative language with which to rail against political conservatism, rampant consumerism, environmental degradation and social apathy—stances which have placed him starkly at odds with the mainstream of dance music, most of which is blithely content merely to shut up and dance.

But regardless of his political leanings, he remains first and foremost a consummate musician, dedicated to expanding the stunted horizons of modern electronic music while pursuing larger ideas in the context of unmistakably beautiful compositions. A Herbert production doesn’t sound like anything else: chopped and clipped, intricate and meditative, he uses a multitude of small and unexpected sounds to create something larger and far more sublime than anyone could reasonably expect. A persistent critic of small-mindedness in all its myriad forms, Herbert leads by example, purposefully eschewing the use of conventional samples and drum machines in favor of mostly found sounds and acoustic instrumentation. Although he’s hardly a dogmatic idealogue, he likes to challenge himself, and this sense of impish provocation was the inspiration behind his Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (or P.C.C.O.M.), a manifesto for his own career that explicitly prohibits the kind of shortcuts most electronic musicians take for granted: no sampling, no factory presets, no synthesizers when a real piano will do. In contrast to the image of most electronic musicians as micromanaging perfectionists, the cultivation of happy accidents throughout the recording process is strongly encouraged. The strictness of such a doctrine might initially bring to mind the harshly astringent likes of Lars von Trier and his Dogme ‘95 manifesto, but Herbert makes two things clear: first, P.C.C.O.M. is for no one’s benefit but his own, and second, as circumstances dictate, he breaks his own rules all the time.

Matthew Herbert’s musical universe isn’t really about rules or manifestoes anyway. More than anything else, Herbert uses his imagination to reframe the boundaries of conventional electronic music. His particular influence can be seen in artists as far ranging as Four Tet, Akufen, and Bjork (with whom Herbert has worked, alongside his peers in Matmos), as well as the entire Kompakt label. Although he’s been recording, remixing and performing for over a decade, he remains singularly humble and seemed almost embarrassed at the implication that he has become a figure of influence in the electronic music world. During a full hour’s conversation, the topics ranged from his recent discography through to the unique challenges of recording polemical music and recording Radiohead covers. If every interview subject was as affable and cooperative as Matthew Herbert, music journalists would live privileged lives indeed.

First of all, I’d like to thank you for agreeing to speak with us, taking time out of your busy schedule.
That’s OK, I’m just walking around with Mara trying to find a restaurant—I haven’t had lunch, so I might be a bit delirious, if you don’t mind that.

I can certainly understand that. We all get a bit testy when we’re hungry.
You should do your best to get a rise out of me.

Well, I don’t think I’ll be trying to get a rise out of you [laughter] ... you seem pretty even-tempered in any event; I don’t know how easy that would be to accomplish.
It’s an illusion.

Oh, no it’s not. I’m pretty even-tempered. I’m just trying to negotiate the European live shows and shortfalls of money ... all very exciting business-related stuff. I think it’s very frustrating when you’re in your little studio making records, and you’re organizing the world how you like and how you see fit, and then when you come out and [sell it to] the world, once again you have to fit in around the world’s other organizational ideas.

That actually seques well into the first question that I had prepared for you—which was actually a more general stab at something you were touching upon there, which is the fact that electronic music has traditionally been a very, very apolitical means of expression. But your music has always had a strong political element to it, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on why electronic music and dance music in particular have always tended to avoid political statements.
I think it’s a very difficult thing to negotiate—a history like that—because I think in England it started off as very political, to the point where it was outlawed by Margaret Thatcher, with the Criminal Justice Act, which actually took the very bold step of trying to describe electronic music and calling it a series of repetitive beats. I always got the impression that if that [had been] punk—if the right-wing government had tried to outlaw punk—then all hell would have broken loose. It would have given some validation to it. Instead, dance music—I think maybe because of the drug connection as well—I think dance music in many ways was just happy to go inside and carry on the party, really. I think because of that drug element, people sometimes think they’re being subversive by taking drugs, or staying out late on a Saturday night, but I think the government loves it because on Sunday you’re not out on the streets protesting and writing letters. You’re [sitting inside] with your friends feeling a little strange and watching ‘70s TV shows. So I don’t really know where it went from that. Maybe it was because it was a technology-based form, maybe that attracted a certain type of insular looking person or something. I think it’s very sad when you think about the potential of the sampler and the potential of a form that is very much run and organized by under-thirties ... certainly, in the sort-of heyday of the late ‘90s, one would be flown all around the world by 25- year-olds to play parties thrown by other 25- year-olds. [It was a] very burgeoning thing, playing records on independent labels run by 25- year-olds, and so on ... Hello?

I’m just listening to your train of thought here.
Sorry, no problem. The phone started beeping on me, I didn’t know if you’d gone or not.

I find the best thing to do with these interviews is to give you musician-types a talking point and then just stay the hell out of the way.
The beep threw me off there.

I was just going to say, it’s interesting you mention that ... you were talking about the Criminal Justice Act, and I actually had, oddly enough, another interview yesterday where that came up as well. I was talking with Liam Howlett of the Prodigy. It came up in a totally separate context how the Criminal Justice Act was this huge spur for dance music at the time, but how that impetus just sort of faded away, for whatever reason, and for the last ten years or so dance music has sort of lost that political spark.
I think what’s really interesting is that people ... often say that music is sacred, like it’s a separate place free from the politics and free from those kind of influences, and yet what’s ironic is that in the same period it accepted reality of a different kind, which is sponsorship and promotion. So once dance music was safely established in clubs, then it wasn’t very long before Philip Morris had ashtrays on every table, and Lucky Strike was giving away cigarettes. It was to the point where, if you [went] to Germany, at certain clubs—I don’t know if it’s still going on—but Marlboro used to go around [putting] cigarettes in underage kids’ mouths and lighting them for them. And that was a way of getting extra revenue—Playstations in the corner, and adverts for Smirnoff vodka everywhere. So it’s interesting that in many ways dance music was accepting of a corporate version of reality, but very reluctant to embrace what I would call maybe a wider reality.

I can see that. Of course, on the flip side of the coin, you have it how it is in most of America, where dance music never really reached the kind of critical mass it certainly did in Britain and other parts of Europe, and it’s still very much under most corporations’ radar, so it doesn’t have any of the corporate taint, but on the other hand, there’s not a lot of money in it and there isn’t really—at least in America right now—there’s not really much sense of anything happening. And I don’t know whether that has to do with the lack of outside attention—
Sure. What’s interesting as well is that it’s an American artform, really. I mean, OK, there’s obviously very important European elements—Kraftwerk, for example. But obviously, Detroit, Motown, Chicago, New York, these are all real dance cities, whether it be disco or house music or whatever.

Exactly. If you go back and look at the origins of the whole thing, it all basically started—electronic music, dance, house, hip-hop—it all basically started back in New York at some point in the late ‘70s. It got away from that. At some point it became perceived as a European or foreign thing, and it has never really been cool here since then.
It’s kind of sad in a way. It’s sad not to take pride in all the diversity that’s been achieved. Particularly when you see Detroit as a city—I mean, this might be an absolute sweeping generalization because I haven’t [been there in a while], I was there a few years ago—that kind of recognition or lack of it in America doesn’t seem to have brought in any money. [It doesn’t seem] to have improved the lives of the people in the areas where the music grew out of, whether it be techno or what.

You’re definitely 100% right about that—it is a generalization but the sad thing is that it’s also a very true generalization. And that’s when you get the rather unpleasant situation we have now, with some of the godfathers of the artform, people like Juan Atkins and Derrick May, who couldn’t get arrested in Detroit. They’re actually very upset about the fact that their thunder got stolen by hip-hop, which came up pretty much at the same time and just metastisized all across the world. And here they’re selling their techno records and they couldn’t get recognized on the street if they had to.
Yeah, it’s very sad. [long silence]

Matthew Herbert - Scale: Cave Recording

Yes. [laughing] Not really a lot more to say to that ... Your last album, Plat du Jour was a very—I don’t think I’m saying anything new—was a very difficult album. [Herbert laughs] I reviewed it, and I actually reviewed it very positively, but I’ll be the first to admit it took me a lot of listening to really get my head around it. The interesting thing for me is that when I was reading some of your interviews that you’ve done recently, you even seemed to have ambivalent feelings about it yourself. Looking back on it do you think it worked as well as you wanted it to or would you have done anything different?
I think it’s a difficult one. I feel that about every record I’ve made, when I’ve finished it I always feel like it could be different or better. And I’m very proud of that record, actually, I really think that’s one of the best things that I’ve done. I think the problem is that I get defensive about it because I know that people didn’t really quite get it, and you’re right in the sense that it was deliberately designed not to be an instant sugary soda. It was designed to be, I guess, an anchovy, rather than a sweet cherry tomato. It was something that you needed to get your head around more, maybe invest some time in. I think it was a deliberate counter to the fast-food culture that we exist in. And I think what I found very difficult about it was that people were comparing it to existing music forms and I kind of felt a bit cheated by that. It’s like, well, let’s give everybody two pieces of bread and an egg, and let’s all make records and compare them to each other. And it’s hard for me to go up against the history of modern music armed with just a grain of sugar. No one seemed to be particularly impressed by the fact that I managed to find ways to get a lot of different sounds out of just one grain of sugar, or the process that went into that. But I can understand people’s reactions as well, because I certainly had no musical instruments whatsoever—traditional musical instruments—and at the same time I had musicians, so we were playing these sounds as well. And that was interesting to me, the fact that this was electronic music played by a band, even though there was no ... it wasn’t in any way traditional, the way that it was done. Maybe the drum thing was a bit more traditional because it was at least arranged roughly as a drum kit and the drummer would play those things. And someone even had the balls to say to me that some of the sounds sounded a bit samey. And I thought that was such a mean thing to say. No one says that about a guitar album. They don’t say the guitar on track four sounds roughly the same as the guitar on track one.

That surprises me, because once you actually sit down and devote some time to listening to the album, and trying to get your head around all the different kinds of sounds in there, I can’t imagine how anyone could say—even if you don’t like the album—I can’t imagine you would say it sounded similar, because there are so many different things going on. There’s still so much variety and so many things which were honestly unlike anything I had ever heard before, even from yourself.
I found moments particularly exciting in the record, and particularly performing it live where there were moments—on stage we were taking everything live, all the samples. We’d pretty much go on stage with nothing. And we’d play a piece of music with sounds that hadn’t existed ten seconds before, and played by musicians instead of computers. And when it worked it was just fantastic, but no one seemed to quite engage with it in the way that I had expected or the way that I had hoped or the way that I had planned. So in a way I’ve become a little defensive about the record, even though I’m very proud of it. It’s quite a funny position to take.

I think it might be one of those records that ends up sitting on people’s shelves for a while, and then maybe in a few months or a couple years they end up pulling if off the shelf and putting it in, and maybe at some later point it’ll click, the light bulb will go on above their heads, and they’ll realize, “Oh, that’s what he was trying to do. Now I understand it.”
I hope so. It was such a rigorous process by which it was made—I tried everything imaginable not just to do something for the sake of it, not to do something out of habit or precedent or anything like that. And of course I’m going to sound like something else at times, or it’s going to be repetitive, or it’s not going to work. Just undertaking those procedures doesn’t make it an amazing record. I did consider the process to such a high degree that I really hope that people would at least acknowledge the process ... even if [as the end result], they go, “You know, that all sounds fantastic but the music didn’t work for me.” That is something I’ll have to accept.

And also, I think there’s a certain portion of your audience that maybe will just never come around to it simply because of the heavy political content.
Also, for example, after Bodily Functions, I know that album got played a lot in hairdressers—fun bars and things like that. I know that this is not a record for either of those places.

That’s definitely true, you’re not going to play “The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialized Chicken” while you’re sipping on your mocha latte.
Exactly. [laughs]

I don’t know whether this is a comparison that you would find flattering or not, but the record—it didn’t sound anything like this—that seemed most similar to me in terms of vibe was actually the Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible. Have you heard it?
I haven’t. I’ve obviously heard singles off it, tracks off of it, but I should check it out.

Obviously we’re talking about two different things, because that was a rock album and this is an electronic album, but you have two albums that had politics as a very strong part of them. So you get this album, it drops and all the fans are asking, “Where’s all the tunes, man? You’re singing about the Holocaust!” or whatever.
That’s the thing that I found really intensely liberating—and intensely frustrating—about this record, is that I was making a protest record, but without lyrics. It’s like providing a thousand different keys to the same lock for the audience, to try and get in. They might be very tiny keys, but…

That’s one of the things that is so liberating about electronic music, that there’s so much potential that has gone ... electronic music has really only existed for a few decades but there’s still so much potential that has yet to be even touched.
I absolutely agree with that point. I think particularly with a sampler, because now there’s no distinction between sound and music, or noise and music, and I think that’s a liberation that musicians have struggled to find for years. We finally have it and instead people are using it to rip off their record collections, which confuses the hell out of me.

Matthew Herbert - Scale: Air Balloon Recording

Well, I was reading your manifesto online [the P.C.C.O.M.], and you obviously frown on heavy sampling—there’s a lot of smart sampling out there, but so much of it is just dumb. I heard a new track by the Black Eyed Peas (“Pump It”) that was basically just built off of “Miserlou”, the old guitar song by Dick Dale. They didn’t just take a loop, they didn’t just take the hook, they took the whole song and rapped over it. It was the most blatant thing I’d ever heard in my life. I couldn’t believe it.
I think what’s really disappointing is that you’re right, there is some incredible music—I’m not anti-sampling music per se. I mean, I [think my ambition] is to be original. If someone else’s premise is also to be original, I think you’ve shot yourself in the foot before you’ve even started. But I do think you can some incredible music with it. I love DJ Premiere’s stuff, I love some of the old Todd Terry house music. There’s some incredible music out there. Particularly something like Three Feet High and Rising by De La Soul, I thought was such a joyous romp through their pasts, their influence ... almost like a random record collection, put together in a slightly shoddy way that acknowledged that it was out shopping, and grabbing things whilst running through a supermarket. I love that approach. But it seems to have just become a shorthand for [being] authentic, in so much sampling these days, and I find that very frustrating.

Well, there reaches a point where—like you say—Three Feet High and Rising is a great example of a fantastic album, but that was released seventeen or eighteen years ago.
I know. Phenomenal.

And the sample-based records they’re producing now don’t sound anywhere near as good, so we’ve actually gone downhill.
I agree with that. It does make me sound like an old fogey, so I should probably not say that in public.

Next page: In the second part of our interview, Herbert discusses his new album, Scale, and the messiness of music.
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