Aetheric Vehicle: An Interview with Matmos

The Marriage of True Minds
Thrill Jockey

In the world of music, the term experimental carries a meaning so broad and vague as to be almost useless, a catchall to describe the unpopular regions of any given genre — jazz, rock, classical, EDM — form or context not mattering as much a vague sense of seriousness and difficulty. In that sense, Matmos are not experimental. They are, however, experimental in the one meaningful sense of the word: They actually conduct experiments.

Over the course of four years, the duo of Martin Schmitt and Drew Daniel patiently gathered material for their new album using what are called the Ganzfeld method, a technique to test for Extra-Sensory Perception. Participants are placed in a dark room and their eyes covered and given headphones through which white noise is played to muffle all outside noises. A person, who is designated sender is shown a set of geometric patterns which the receiver, shut out from all external stimuli, is supposed to guess. Instead of concentrating on simple shapes, Matmos instead attempted to transmit musical ideas directly from mind to mind. Call it an attempt at artistic telepathy.

That artists should be interested creative aspect ESP shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the direct method through which Matmos used produced surprising results, resulting in what became their latest album The Marriage of True Minds. I called them as they were en route to a gig in Los Angeles. Both of them seemed pleased by the record and the unexpected directions that the concept of ESP took them. More than anything, they wanted to clarify how restriction and the rigorous pursuit of an idea can be liberating, in other words, the opposite of clinical.

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Your albums are often based around themes or concepts. How does that develop? Is there a moment where you think, “Ah ha! I know, ESP!” or is it more deliberative than that?

Drew Daniel: It’s something that really got going with A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure. And ever since then, there’s been something — I won’t say a chore wheel — but kind of a crop rotation idea: Martin [Schmidt] and I would take turns being more or less in charge of an album — just as a way to share the process. And I do find that when it’s my turn, I wait until there’s something that feels to me capacious enough but juicy and focused enough to guide an album. I like having that. In a way, it compensates for the fact that I’m just not a musician. I’m not somebody who sits and writes a melody and thinks melodically or in terms of organizing pitches. So instead, for me, it’s about what am I interested in that I think could produce sonic results?

In the case of this record, it’s a little bit even more up its own ass than that. [laughs] I think about, well, what is our reputation? Oh, they’re those guys who make those big concept albums. So I thought, how could I make a concept album that was itself about that very premise? What is the premise of the concept album? It’s the premise that some inspired artist has a vision, knows what they want to do, and that generates everything, that everything follows from some interior moment of inspiration or private recognition.

And I thought the scene of the telepathic experiment is almost a parody of that. Because it’s like one person sits and attempts with their mind to act upon the world. So it seemed like the telepathy project would let me be simultaneously totally faithful to the idea or concept of this interior thing, that only one person could think, and yet also it would inevitability — this was my gamble — lead to lots of surprises and lots of unforeseen, strange collaborative encounters with other people. I found that just as appealing.

I understand that you did around 50 of these Ganzfeld sessions. My understanding of it is that the process is a lot like sensory deprivation. Did anyone have an attack of claustrophobia or any other kind of adverse reaction?

We didn’t have that. But there really were people that we had to reassure that it’s not a prank. We’re not going to dump ice-cold water on them. I’m not going to perv-out and like make-out with you. It’s a vulnerable position. You’re sprawled on a mattress in a weird house. You’re under our spell.

So we kind of had to massage people’s anxiety about what it was that we were and were not going to do. But nobody flipped out about not being able to handle it. Some people reported very strange physical symptoms or side effects of the experiment. People would say things like, “I feel like my eyeballs are becoming pressurized,” or, “I feel like my body is expanding.” People’s sensory perception got kind of weird. And I liked that about it, that it wasn’t just mental. The mind and the body are always in this kind of feedback loop of affecting each other. You change the amount of information and the whole experience reflects that.

A lot of the voices and vocals on the album are taken from those sessions. Were there any other ways that those sessions determined the content on the album?

Oh sure. For example, there’s a melody on “Very Large Green Triangles” which was created by Ed Schrader when he was humming: [hums the melody]. That’s a very direct case of taking something that somebody hummed and turning it into a melody and transcribing and treating it as a source of musical information. There’s also things like, say, in the case of the song, “Aetheric Vehicle”. Pete Wilson heard this snaking pentatonic melody. He didn’t really hear which five notes but that determined what the sort of intervals that we were going to use.

And there were also points in creating the song “Just Waves”, which is on the Ganzfeld EP, where, because in the content of one of the sessions, Mary Clare Brzytwa heard screeching — high, dilated squeaking. We decided to take that idea and deliberately set the musical parts at the absolute top of a soprano’s range — really high, Minnie Mouse squeaking. What’s happening is that the voice arrangement is a reflection of the content. Even though in the session she heard that as a violin, we felt free to transpose musical ideas so that they just become guides to how to approach arranging and how to approach constructing.

That’s the thing — people think that we tie ourselves into these conceptual knots and that it’s about being restrained or constrained by a commitment. But it’s always so free how you choose to interpret these things. So I feel like it’s a perfect balance between having a place to start and also not really having your hands tied.

There’s also a more direct approach to the material that you chose like the Buzzcock’s song “ESP” and with the opener, a cover of Holger Hiller’s “You”. Those songs seem to use ESP as a metaphor for interpersonal relationships, for emotions like love.

Sure. It’s true that we’re conceptually uptight except for when we’re not. I wanted the record to be looking at things that were maybe a bit more didactic about the appeal of telepathy and why would anyone care about that. What’s the emotional payoff? I don’t want to say that in a gross way, like I’m scripting in advance what people learn. It’s not like that. But I do want a record that flows, that doesn’t feel like a sterile report. It’s not science. It’s meant to be art. Maybe that’s the last refuge of the scoundrel.

I read that on the vinyl edition of the album it has a locked groove of white noise and that listeners are invited to do their own Ganzfeld experiments. Has anyone come back to you with the results of that?

It only came out about three days ago, so it’s a little soon. In fact, we sold the last of the vinyl we brought with us on tour last night. So I await that. I will say — this might sound ridiculous — it’s not just any white noise. Martin filters it so that it’s sort of tranquil and relaxing — not a Merzbow-style wall of noise, like bacon frying. We sculpted the white noise. We attenuated it as far as volume too. It’s just there to be enough sound so that you’re not hearing nothing, but it’s not interesting or compelling either. It’s just sort of a flatline. We tried it ourselves. We left the record go in its locked groove and just sort of lay on the couch. And it certainly is entrancing. So at least there is some use value in the record, even if you hate all of our songs. We guarantee a nice nap. [laughs]

But it’s still more compelling or at least more interactive than Pure Moods or some other type of relaxation record.

I get a lot out of that Nearly Nothing stuff. I don’t know if you’ve encountered that. It’s 24 hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation ambiance. I found it really productive.

Now that Martin is free, I want to pass the phone to him. He was driving before, but now he’s available to talk with you. And I think we ought to share this interview because — I don’t know if you know this — but on our tours we have a little habit of doing what we call an “awareness day”. For different people it’s their day. It’s like a mini-birthday, when that person gets to jump to the head of the line at the truck-stop bathroom. They get to hear what kind of music they want to hear. So it’s Martin’s awareness day. So it’s only fair that he gets to spread some Matmos awareness.

On the closer, have a lot of doom metal riffing. But also you and Drew sing together for the first time, am I right?

Martin Schmidt: I think the absolute honest answer is that Drew has been listening to a lot of doom metal and basically wanted to do some. It being not directly related to a psychic session, that song being a cover, left things wide open to how we were going to interpret it. I felt like we needed to do the vocals because the song was a cover. And when you’re doing a cover, you’re trying to do some kind of justice to the song. I’m afraid I don’t have a snappy exciting answer on this. That’s sort of what I got. Maybe that’s the song that we made the traditional way — we did whatever we wanted.

On the musical side, is that something that you’re interested in? Drew described himself as a non-musician. Would you go so far as to say that?

If you asked me to play “Happy Birthday” on the piano, I absolutely could not do it. It would probably take me an hour and forty-five minutes to pick the tune out. So I don’t know. Yeah, I’m really not a musician either. I don’t read music. I can’t play the same thing twice very consistently. I think you could ask any of the proper musicians in this band, and they’d say, “Yeah, not so much.” Musically creative? Maybe. But musician? No. I had piano lessons in 5th and 6th grade. It barely merits mentioning, I think. I did learn my scales. And when Matmos first started, I lorded over Drew like I had graduated from Julliard.

In this album and others, you’re heavily collaborative and work with people that have a more conventional musical background. How do you work with them? How do you bridge between those worlds? How do you communicate with the other musicians you’re collaborating with them to get your musical ideas across?

Usually with audio. We play them something and then, I guess, poetically describe what it is that we want. We substitute a musical education with a vast amount of record listening. We have a large record collection, and we both listen to a lot of records. Drew can actually remember a lot of them. So we pile associational information on people. As in, “Play something like this or like this,” until they seem to get it or do something that we like or something that we can cut into something we like. I’ve often thought this: It’s sort of a weird substitution for a musical education — just a sheer volume of data, the sheer number of records that we listen to substitutes for actual knowledge.

What were some of the records that you used to guide that process along?

Oh, we’d have to go specific section by section, song by song. Owen — he’s sitting in front of me so I can’t say anything bad or weird about him — is the guitar player on a lot of the songs on the record. He’s a clever fella, so simple references are enough for him. He picks up on our brainlessly simple melodic ideas and carves some timbre of some kind. And off he goes. And then we cut, cut, cut.

We also do a weird thing where we end up taking people playing and then cut it and then re-ask the people to play what we cut out of what they originally played, which is sometimes weird, not necessary arranged for the real world fret-board or whatever. It’s a curious business, this translation between music to Musique Concrete and back to music again.