While this is not necessarily something that can be said for many electronic musicians, I think it is probably accurate to say that you can’t fully appreciate Matthew Herbert’s work unless you’ve seen him perform live. I’ll be perfectly frank about the fact that even though I’ve seen it done at a relatively close proximity, I have no idea how he does what he does. All I can say is that his style is quite distinctive—you aren’t going to mistake a Herbert composition for anything else.
Most electronic musicians who perform live use some kind of prerecorded samples. Herbert probably uses those, too, but the most exceptional thing about his live performance is how he uses spontaneously generated sound to create wholly new performances. Live, he usually begins by recording a noise onto a microphone and processing it on the spot to create the meticulously arranged, precise and dynamic sound that you hear on his records. An old trick of his—I don’t know if he does it anymore—is to take a brand-new CD and demolish it by banging it against a microphone. When I saw him, it was a Britney Spears CD. He began by making a big show of ripping the plastic wrapper—producing a series of crinkly shuffling noises in the process—and then systematically disassembling the jewel case until all that remained was a few shards of plastic and brightly colored paper (I seem to recall he threw the CD itself into the audience). From that, he had absorbed enough different sounds that he was able to create an entirely new song on the spot, all using only the specific sounds sampling from the ritual destruction of a Britney Spears CD. Later on, his wife—and a solo artist of no small acclaim herself—singer Dani Siciliano joined him on stage for “The Audience”, probably his signiture tune. Those who know the song can instantly recognize the opening bar, featuring a brief vocal snippet (by brief I mean a fraction of a second) pitch-shifted to become the repeated melody line that carries through the whole song. Well, Herbert was able to replicate this fairly intricate bit of programming in no time at all by simply grabbing a shard of Siciliano’s on-stage patter and morphing it on the fly, taking the recorded voice and breaking it down into small, rhythmically distinct units that could be turned into a brand new version of the same melody through some sort of midi interface. Neat trick.
As you may imagine, this is a pretty versatile approach. I’ve heard bootlegs of Herbert performing with his Big Band (which is exactly what it says, a big band that performs jazz songs with Herbert and Siciliano), and he is able to tackle a full jazz ensemble with the same spontaneity brio that he attacks a demolished pop CD. The key to understanding Herbert’s music is to see the degree to which interactivity and an enthusiastic engagement with the actual world play an important part in developing what might, on first examination, appear to be an extremely minute, meticulously hermetic style. He is fiercely political, dedicating a number of releases under numerous aliases to issues such as globalization and the environment. Destroying the Britney Spears CD was more than just a cheeky bit of prop sampling: it was also an effective performance art statement on the homogenization of disposible mass culture. While much electronic music is purposefully isolated, ascetic and apolitical, Herbert actively engages the world around him, both as a performer and as a political citizen.
Plat du Jour is a concept album of sorts, built around the general rubric of food. Food isn’t a particularly common source of inspiration for pop songwriters (unless you’re “Weird” Al), and the reasons for this aren’t hard to figure out: food is considered a transitory, even trifling phenomenon. We have to eat to live, and everyone eats every day (hopefully), but in most instances it never rises to the level of a ritual or sacrament. It is just a fact of life, and hard to romanticize in anything but the breathlessly stolid but nevertheless slightly deprecating tone reserved for gastronomic writers and erotic novelists alike. Food itself is an object, a thing, and therefore difficult to romanticize except on the terms of a fetish object.
But, of course, Matthew Dear doesn’t quite see the world in such concrete terms, and Plat du Jour is no novelty project. You get a small hint of what exactly he’s up to when you glance at the track listing and see that the first song is entitled “The Truncated Life of Modern Industrialized Chicken”. The track begins with a brief sample of what sounds like kitchen implements at work, before you hear the distant sound of birds chirping and chickens squawking en masse. The sound of seed being chewed changes into a spry percussive pattern. Jaunty melody lines emerge like wind chimes. But then, strange things happen: bass tones emerge from the mix, slightly sinister and vaguely ominous. The interplay of bass and melody creates a queasy kind of melancholy, and then the pecussion starts to introduce a harsh, industrial motif on odd bars. The chickens begin to sound upset. What was initially very simple becomes increasingly disturbing, until finally we are left with only the remnant of a chirping melody. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that Herbert is probably a vegetarian, and even if he isn’t he certainly doesn’t have nice things to say about environmentally unstable and inherently cruel factory farming techniques.
Throughout the album, the juxtaposition of Herbert’s precise, seemingly innocent and light-hearted rhythms with heavier themes of economic exploitation and death creates an effective and practical dialectic. “These Branded Waters” utilizes tribal drumming and and gradually saddening flute melodies to illustrate the concept of indigenous resources being exploited and commoditized by corporation. “An Empire of Coffee” is one of the album’s harshest tracks, turning processed percolator sounds into an industrial tableu that effortlessly brings to mind the diligent and never-ceasing efforts of the Starbucks corporation to infiltrate every corner of modern society. (It sounds like Herbert even sampled one of those frothing machines they use.) Eventually, the process of making coffee evolves into the aggressive, grinding repulsion of a military movement, turning what had been an intimate, small-scale act into an almost pornographically lurid industrial accident.
“Celebrity”, featuring an appearance by Siciliano, tackles the slightly off-topic topic of celebrities, and the way vacuous celebrity culture is sold and commodified as a desireable lifestyle accessory. The message here is pretty unambiguous: food is simply the tipping point, the first step in a chain that begins with the appropriation of nature by corporatized interests and ends with the cheapening of individual life around the globe. The album completes a full rumination on the cycle of life and death, beginning with the way we process food and ending with the natural decay and erosion of the same bodies that use this food as fuel. “The Final Meal of Stacey Lawton” takes the sounds of clinking silverware and audible chewing and transforms them into something profoundly bizarre, a densely packed collage of hyperattenuated samples built into a solemn—but not somber—implication of the unknowable final frontiers of mortality.
The album climaxes in “Waste Land”, which lays the album’s greater thematic preoccupations into a far more cosmic and holistic context. The industrial noises that slowly build out of a foundation of silence bring to mind the mining and waste disposal industries that transform so much of our countryside into vast tracts of wasted, unusable land—the ultimate expression of man’s dominance over his environment, but necessitated on such a scale by the heedless rate of consumption and convenience that places economic utility above long-term sustainability or, it goes without saying, a more considered view of shared moral welfare.
Plat du Jour is hardly easy listening, and the heady rush of politicized topicality and spry electronic music makes for an occasionally akward mix. The comparison that springs immediately to mind is the Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible. Although they could not be more different in their approaches to making music, both Herbert and the Manics approach music as a feasible outlet for social commentary. Of course, this means that said music can be imposing and frankly unpleasant on occasion—I’m not going to pull out The Holy Bible for casual Saturday afternoon listening, and despite Herbert’s deceptively placid exterior, I don’t think I’ll be pulling Plat du Jour out very often either. There are deep waters here, and anyone who comes expecting the same brand of approachable, quirky house music with which Herbert made his name will be disappointed and quite possibly repulsed. Like Matmos’ A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, an album famously composed of nothing but samples of grotesque plastic surgery operations, Herbert uses seemingly unassuming samples to create occasionally beautiful but thematically disturbing pieces of sonic activism.
As might be obvious, it’s not for everyone. Any project of this nature risks falling apart under the weight of its own preoccupations. But whereas rock stars can seem didactic or hectoring when they speak about African poverty or the plight of the rain forest, Herbert’s mostly non-verbal compositions speak eloquently in their sparse, unassuming beauty. There is something inescapably futile about the idea of creating pop songs—the ultimate escapist art form—with the express purpose of provoking thought. Thankfully, Herbert manages to sidestep this futility by wrapping his ideological agenda in pristinely-crafted and inarguably beautiful packages. Even when discussing the ugliest perspectives on human life, he manages to capture something perennial and enduring. Neat trick.