I wish I could ask more questions about the new record [Scale], but I actually just got it in the mail yesterday and I’ve only had the chance to listen to it a couple times. The one thing that really stuck out at me about the album was that it did seem a very conscious departure from Plat Du Jour, trying to go in the total opposite direction from that album. Reading the notes that came with the album, you say you set out to make a very chipper and sunny record. And you didn’t totally succeed, but still it sounds so much more poppy than the last one. Do you think you succeeded with what you wanted to do with this one?
I definitely think it succeeded at what I wanted to do. It’s actually a very different record, again, from what I set out to make, but I followed through the logic of what I wanted to do. And so I sort of have to be content with the end result. And I am content with it. Again, it’s very different ... in a way I’m still trying to do the same thing as Plat Du Jour, but in a completely different way. So I’m trying to make a record where I don’t tell people how it’s made, I don’t tell people where the sound sources are from. I try to seduce them into listening or dancing to some pretty strange stuff, and maybe in ten years’ time I’ll get around to telling them what it actually is. I’ve mentioned a few things that are on the record, but I haven’t said which tracks they are or how it’s all related. There’s very intricate planning that’s gone through this record, in a similar way to Plat Du Jour, except this one was done with a bit more of a lightness of step.
I was very much trying to remove myself and my ego and artistic voice from Plat Du Jour, in a way ... I was basically trying to use the medium to get people to talk about these stories in the music press. Trying to use music as a form to get people to maybe think about what kind of bottled water they drink and where it comes from, and if they should be drinking bottled water at all. And I wasn’t necessarily telling what the right answer was, either, and I think that’s what annoyed me again about some of the reviews ... that they thought it was political browbeating, whereas actually if you went through the liner notes [and read the information therein], a lot of it was very ambiguous because it’s very confusing to know what to eat and how to eat and where to eat. And what your choices are—do you choose between Aquafina or Dasani? You’re on a plane or on a train and you just want a glass of water, do you choose between Pepsi or Coke? That’s not much of a choice as far as I’m concerned. So with this record I wanted to do it with a bit more lightness of step—still look at the same issues, or look at the themes, I should say, that pursue me through my work, in the same way that the people behind Reagan politics just pursue me through the real world, or pursue all of us through the real world.
Yeah, we can’t seem to escape them.
Well, the good thing [is that] at least Dick Cheney is retiring at the next election, so at least that’s one down. I’m sure there’s plenty in the wings.
A certain train of reactionary thought never seems to die out. The specter of Margaret Thatcher just keeps rising up.
Oh, it’s frightening. It’s really frightening. But ... as I think I said in a press release or something, it’s impossible, really, in this day and age to actually write a completely chirpy record. I think you can make a beautiful record, but I can’t imagine making a record that’s just deliriously happy. I somehow can’t see that working, unless it’s on some very personal level and you’ve just given birth after having [In-Vitro Fertilization] treatment for ten years or something.
Usually—and it’s not a hard and fast rule—but usually when people write out of honest, genuinely personal happiness, the records are pretty insipid for anyone except them and their immediate family.
Yeah, I think that’s true. And I think even with the Beach Boys, obviously there’s an undercurrent of deep unhappiness in Brian Wilson, for example, even though he comes out sounding pretty sunny.
Pet Sounds is one of the most depressing albums I’ve ever heard.
Oh yeah ... I was thinking of some of the earlier stuff, actually. But I know what you mean.
When I first heard your music, which was five or six years ago ... certainly you’d been around for a while but I have to say it was “The Audience” [off 2001’s Bodily Functions] that really brought you to my attention. And then I started listening to your stuff and once I got into it it really stuck out for me because it didn’t sound like anything else that was going on at the time. I think the only people who were doing anything similar to you at that time was probably Matmos, and I think you even talk about them on your web site. But in terms of the way the record sounded and the way you made them, I don’t think there was anyone else really doing that same kind of thing. But now, fast forward a few years, and now it seems like a large part of all the new techno and house records I hear sound very similar to stuff that you were doing four or five or six years ago. What is your reaction when you hear that?
It’s difficult, really, because you don’t want to ... I find it very hard to think of myself in that way, as any kind of leader. I shy away from that, even though I’m happy to stand up and nail my colors to the mast, even if everybody else starts coming with axes to try and chop the mast down. But no, I hear it from time to time, I tend to keep my head down. It’s a bit depressing to be honest. I’d much rather people just were a bit more honest with themselves. Either that or I accidentally discovered a great new way of making records, but I think that’s highly unlikely. But ... I don’t know. I think there was a real movement, and I was even a part of it at the very, very beginning with the very first Herbert stuff, where it was very minimal and very, very pure, and it was kind of a reaction to some of the noisy breakbeat rave-y stuff that first started at the time. So there was Basic Channel, Underground Resistance music that was very simple, and had one or two very carefully chosen elements that were very finely balanced or something. It was like a simple homemade pasta with an olive oil or something like that ... it was very un-fancy and un-flashy. And then as we went on I think people realized the world’s just not like that. The world is messy and confusing and music should be full of surprises. Actually, in dance music it’s very boring to listen to very clean and simple musical lines for six hours. I think people are really ready to start showing a bit of humanity, and I think in a way maybe it’s a very, very subtle expression of a political feeling. It is extremely subtle, but I think there is a sense of that nevertheless. And so I think as the world has gotten messy, music hopefully is starting to get a little more messy as well.
Well, certainly right now in electronic music, to use the example that springs immediately to mind, right now it seems like the big thing—in fact, the only thing that is really getting any kind of critical acclaim and attention here in America is stuff like the Kompakt label, the microhouse, the really intricate, well-built but sort-of small sound. It seems to be that if those guys weren’t influenced by you on some level, it would surprise me a lot.
Yeah. One thing that I really hate in music, and I’ve really gotten bored of in electronic music, is that kind of airless world where it’s kind of sucked out ... not the life sucked out of it, that’s not fair at all, but it’s very, very closed, the sound of computers talking to each other. And I think that post-1950 the idea of computers talking to each other was very exciting and modern, the idea that computers would bypass us and would actually just talk to themselves or make music themselves or communicate with themselves, and not need us, and that we would somehow be surplus to that. Whereas, actually, computers just aren’t that cool anymore. They’re just not exciting anymore. In actual fact, they’re pretty much a pain in the butt. We use them for e-mails, we use them in all sorts of different ways now, and actually they’re not quite as frightening as we thought they were. And so consequently in music, I think computers should be used as a tool, to express what we’re living and what it’s like to be human now, rather than what we think one computer might be saying to another computer.
Matthew Herbert - Scale: Water Recording
Well let me ask you, have you heard Richie Hawtin’s most recent album? [2005’s DE9: Transistions]
I haven’t, no. Is this another one of his DJ cut-up computer things? I haven’t heard that yet.
In the last few years he’s definitely gone more towards the ascetic side. The phrase you used is “computers talking to themselves”, and I listen to his stuff and I love it, but on the other hand it does have such a hermetic feeling to it, like it’s totally removed from any conception of reality as we know it. And on the one hand I can appreciate that, and sometimes I can really dig it, but then it also seems like a very limited palette that he’s imposing on himself.
I agree. I think Richie at his best has and does provide some staggering dance music. When it is airless like that, if you play it in the middle of a set, for example, of music that isn’t like that, it has a profound effect. It’s quite shocking and it can be quite emotional in a different way, and quite primal. But for me I come from somewhere else. I have this romantic narrative in the back of my head that oneday I’m going to get stuck in Siberia, on the Trans-Siberian Express, snowed in, and the train breaks down and we find ourselves in a village with three people, and we have no money. And they ask, “What do you do?” And I say, “I’m a musician” and they point to a rusty old piano in the corner, and they point to it and say, “Go on, then, play a piece of music”. And I kind of feel like at that point I should be able to. And I wouldn’t want to reach that point and say, “Well, have you got a G4 laptop running Logic with a twin processor and an 800 gig hard drive?” There’s that romantic part of me that ultimately I think music is—for it to be meaningful [for any] length of time—music should be shared.
Definitely. And in fact, listening to the new album, there’s actually a track on there where you play piano and sing.
Heaven forbid. [laughing]
I’m just wondering if you were hesitant to do that?
I definitely was. I was singing all over the album originally, and then gradually track by track I took it off. There’s no point in employing some of the best musicians in England, getting 80 of them together at Abbey Road with the best mics, recording onto the best board, and getting me to sort of croak my way over the top of it. It seems a bit foolish, I think, and almost a bit egotistical. But it actually got to the point—the album’s called Scale and I finished those eleven tracks, and I did write 12 tracks, because it’s called Scale I just had to have twelve tracks on there. And so I just wrote that piece in half an hour at the end. I really can’t possibly release an album called Scale and not put twelve tracks on there. I just put it on the end.
I appreciate the impish mindset that would make you have twelve tracks.
It was a day before mastering. I’d already diluted one idea, which was that I wanted to do an album called Scale where each of the pieces was in a different key, and then you could really examine the difference. Historically, different keys have different qualities, like D sharp minor is the key of death, and late Romantic classical composition. Historically there are relationships between certain moods and emotions and keys, and I wanted to see if that was still relevant today. But in the end I had to do what was right for the song, and relax about that. Maybe the next time.
It always seems that when people set out to do concept albums like that they either end up breaking down and totally throwing the rulebook out halfway through, or if they stick to the concept it comes out airless and unsatisfying.
Yeah. I think just because I’d really gone out on a limb with the last album, in terms of sacrificing everything to the narrative that I wanted to pursue, with this one I wanted to be a bit more relaxed about it. That’s why on the album notes it says “Almost written according to the rules of P.C.C.O.M.”.
It’s good that you allow yourself the flexibility, because a lot of people who set themselves rules like that end up painting themselves into corners, and they don’t know how to escape.
I think you’re right.
Now, unless I’m totally mistaken, the project before Plat Du Jour was the Matthew Herbert Big Band album [2003’s Goodbye Swingtime, correct? Are you planning on recording anymore with the Big Band any time soon?
You know what, I cannot get away from how satisfying that is, playing the live shows of that. It’s possible that we’ll maybe do a live record, because when I recorded the album, the band saw the music five minutes before they played it, whereas now they’ve played it a few times in all sorts of places, from Syria in the Axis of Evil to the Montreaux Jazz Festival, the the Hollywood Bowl, to the Roskilde rock festival. So the music has been—
(Conversation is briefly interrupted as Herbert orders lunch. He orders Shepherds Pie with duck and salmon.)
I have to say I’m a bit surprised that you’re not a vegetarian.
No, no. I’m not a vegetarian. I eat meat, provided I know where it’s come from. With duck, they’re generally raised outside, for example. So it’s generally a wild animal. And because it’s not in a Chinese restaurant it doesn’t have the preservatives in it.
I’m not a vegetarian myself, I’m not trying to judge you or anything.
No, no, that’s fine. People sometimes think that I’m a vegan warrior.
Well, listening to Plat Du Jour, you could easily come to that conclusion. I was surprised.
I think that’s why, as I was saying, I tried to make it a bit more ambiguous than that. So, the salmon there, it says “organic salmon”, so I know that even if it’s been raised on a farm it hasn’t been fed pink dye just to make it look pink for example.
I’m not a vegetarian, and I can tell you flat-out that the reason I’m not a vegetarian is because I don’t have the strength of my convictions. Because I think that vegetarianism is the right thing to do, but I can’t imagine living without that wonderful meat that makes me feel so guilty.
The great thing is that when you find out where the meat comes from, if it’s been raised in a local farm, or organically or healthily, and lived a good life, or what have you ... you can really enjoy it, instead of feeling guilty. You can just feel guilty on one level, instead of eating cheap sausages where you’re desperately confused as to what’s actually in it.
You feel guilty on every level.
Including gastrointestinally. Well, hearing there is a possibility of a Big Band live album makes me so happy. Because I have to tell you I’ve got a ... let’s say, a “friend” ... who came across a, shall we say “unauthorized recording” of the band live, if you understand what I’m saying…
Whereabouts was that? I don’t mind bootlegs at all.
To be honest with you, I don’t remember. I don’t have the CD with me, my ex has it. But it’s a soundboard recording and it’s simply gorgeous. And you end the show with an encore of “The Audience”, and you have the whole band and Dani [Siciliano] there, and it just sounds beautiful.
No, the live show is really something, and we really began to nail it towards the end. It was very exciting. I definitely want to do it again. I just want to do it for the right reasons. I didn’t want the Big Band to become a novelty act, or [for it to seem like] I’d just given up electronic music and just started doing electronic big band or something ... in the same way that I don’t want to just start a disco live show or what have you.
I can see that. You don’t want to become pigeonholed. But certainly if you look back at the variety of records you’ve made, you’re doing so many different things but it’s all very distinctly you. It has a stamp on it.
And it is related as well. There is a logic to it. Even if no one else can see it, I know that it’s there myself.
I saw you in ... what year did you do Coachella? Was it 2002?
Ok, that was quite a long time ago. It probably was 2002.
That’s the only time I’ve ever seen you. I have to say that you go to Coachella and you see dozens of acts, but you are one that has really stuck in my mind, because it’s one of the most unique live shows. This is basically you—this is when it was you by yourself ...
And Dani and Phil [Parnell]. It was the three of us, wasn’t it?
Yes. It was pretty much like nothing else I had ever seen before, before or since.
That was good, actually. I enjoyed that show. It was a pretty stiff festival, though—it was pretty anodyne. It’s not like Glastonbury where you’re up to your ankles in mud and no one’s washed for four days. It was all very prim and proper.
I have to say that except for the acts themselves, I have always been disappointed with the Coachella festival, and I’ve actually got something of a boycott against it myself. That’s a long story ... But you always see good acts. Seeing you there was amazing. It really brought out another level in the music, because listening to it on the record it could easily sound like something that had absolutely no element of spontaneity or life to it. But seeing you produce it pretty much there on the stage on the fly, with no net, proverbially speaking, it was really something else.
It was good, but you have to remember half of that’s an illusion as well, half of that’s magic. I definitely have a safety net. I’ve learned from years and years of gigging that you need a safety net. If it’s not working or the technology lets you down, it’s the worst feeling in the world being up on stage. When it’s not working and the audience knows it’s not working. So there is a safety net. I don’t think we needed it particularly at that gig. But there’s something quite romantic as well, with it just being me Dani and Phil, there’s something I like about it. I’m a bit bummed—our new show’s fifteen people including the crew, so I kind of want to go back to that point, really. But ... I don’t know. The problem is that I’ve got to try and condense an 80-piece orchestra and big band section into two horn players—a trumpet player and a saxophone player. It’s already pretty thinned out, you know?
Well, that’s where technology comes in.
Exactly. But I don’t want to just reproduce it. I don’t want to put the band on tape, or I don’t want to have the strings on tape. I’d rather push what we’re capable of to the limit, and try and get it to be expressive in as many different directions as possible before doing that.
Anyway, I have to tell you, my “friend” was me, obviously…
Obviously. [laughs] But that CD—if you could wear the grooves off a CD, we would have worn the grooves off of that.
That’s interesting. I’d like to maybe get a copy because I don’t ever really record stuff. I’m not a big believer in recording live shows, because if I knew it was being recorded…
You freeze up.
Well, no, I’d do something differently if it’s going to be a recording. But if it’s a live show it’s done differently and the music’s constructed in a slightly ... not actually constructed but mixed in a very particular way, I think.
Now is your food coming? Do you need to stop talking here?
I think I’ve got about five minutes left before it arrives.
Matthew Herbert - Scale: Car Recording
Alright, then I’ll ask a good wrapping-up type question. You’ve always worked with a number of different people—obviously you’ve worked with Dani Siciliano, and you’ve produced other people. You’ve done programming for Bjork, you’ve produced another couple albums. Do you have any sort of collaborations like that in the chute? Anything that you would like to do?
Well, there’s plenty I’d like to do. I’d definitely like to do production on a bigger scale now. Someone like Radiohead, I’d love to do something like that, some guitar band. Either that or someone like Lil’ Kim. Something black and confident. I like the idea of doing that and trying to sneak some of my more subversive ideas onto a bigger platform like that. I think that’d be most appealing.
I think, personally, that would probably be one of the greatest things I can ever imagine hearing in my entire life.
We’ll have to see. They have to reach the same conclusion themselves, otherwise we’re off to a non-starter.
It’s interesting that you mention Radiohead because they’re a group that has become very ... well, on their last album [1993’s Hail To The Thief], some of the tracks almost sounded like you did engineer them. They were going for a similar type of microscaled sound.
I do think there is a link there. I know that they’ve always worked with Nigel Godrich, so I’d have to wait until that particular relationship calmed down and reached its conclusion before I stepped up and knocked on the door. I don’t know if they’d have me anyway.
Well, if they did it’d probably be worth hearing. Just for the sheer novelty value if nothing else.
There’s a new BBE compilation of Radiohead covers and I did do a cover version for that.
Yes, I saw that. Which track did you do?
“Nice Dream” from The Bends.
An interesting choice.
Yeah. I mean, there’s so many you could choose from, actually I do like their work.
Did you get to choose that track?
Yeah, we did. I worked with a singer named Mara Carlyle, and I had a choice between that and “Everything in Its Right Place”, from Kid A, which is one of my all time faves, such a phenomenal piece. But I’m not entirely sure what I could have done with that, because it’s so great.
It’s already perfectly conceived.
It is, yeah. I think the structure goes slightly awry at the end, but yes, it is ... sonically, everything about it is fantastic. Whereas I do think “Nice Dream” is a little half-finished, or didn’t reach the full potential that you might expect from a Radiohead song.
I haven’t listened to The Bends in a while.
Yeah. It’s curiously slightly disappointing in general, I think. Obviously with some outstanding moments of course, but that’s often the case with Radiohead albums.
I’ve never understood the people who say they peaked with The Bends, and everything after isn’t worth listening to.
Oh God, no, no, no, no, no, no.
That is almost as infuriating for me as the people who say that Wilco should have stayed with the alt-country sound. It doesn’t make any sense at all—are they even on the same planet as the rest of us?
Yeah, exactly. It’s very strange.
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