Matmos Celebrate Their 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Drew Daniel
Drew Daniel of Baltimore-via-Bay Area pranksters Matmos discusses their new album Plastic Anniversary, homophobic Montana moms, and the difficulties of recording a breast implant.
15 March 2019
"I feel bad Martin isn't here to talk about the record," says Drew Daniel. "He'd be arguing with me, interrupting me, going 'no, no, it's like this, it's like that."
His partner—better-known as M.C. Schmidt, the other half of Matmos—is off in the Netherlands doing an opera. But Matmos, according to Daniel, has always been about the "chasm" between them. Both come across as men of rigorous intellect and mischievous good humor, but if Daniel's descriptions are accurate, Schmidt is
a little more of a hard-headed punk-rock realist, less interested in the poetic reasons for a sound's existence than the process of creating it.
But it's as clear from watching the two light-heartedly tease each other with plastic objects in the promotional video for their new album Plastic Anniversary as from listening to their extensive catalog of music together that Matmos is—as they titled a 2013 album—a Marriage of True Minds.
Since the '90s, the Bay Area-rooted, Baltimore-based duo has released ten albums (not counting collaborations and limited-edition EPs) made mostly from found sounds and typically based on a concept. Perhaps their most famous album is 2002's A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, built from squishy, gruesome samples of surgical procedures like liposuction. Their best album might be The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, a tribute to great queer artists made with sounds relevant to those figures: a track paying tribute to William S. Burroughs, for instance, is rudely interrupted several minutes in by a gunshot.
They've also made an entire album using the sound of their washing machine, which they lugged around on tour with them. A common wow-look-how-weird-these-guys-are soundbite involves the use of amplified neural signals from crayfish on a track on their self-titled debut. What's astonishing is that Matmos's music consistently transcends the concepts. Matmos albums can be sonically and academically challenging but are always sentimental, good-humored, and funky.
Plastic Anniversary, dovetails with their 25th year together as a couple. It's made entirely from the sounds of plastic—a material which, like their relationship, lasts an awfully long time. Via Skype, I talked to Daniel about how something as disarming as the longevity of plastic can tie in with something as beautiful as love.
It's interesting that something as beautiful as celebrating the milestone of a relationship is explored through something as alarming as the longevity of plastic. How do these themes converge?
It's all actually rooted in a jock strap. When Martin and I were talking about what the next Matmos album should be about, I said: "Our 25th anniversary's coming up; why don't we do something that's about us and our relationship and we can pick significant objects from our relationship and we can make a song with them?" And he was like: "Nah, that sounds really smug and narcissistic; no one gives a fuck about that."
But as I started to think about what objects I wanted to work with, I remembered this plastic jock strap that I used to wear when I was a go-go dancer at Club Uranus in San Francisco. It was in a box of old junk, and the plastic of the jock strap was starting to fall apart. I thought that was interesting—there was something romantic that was routed through this object that was plastic and yet also falling apart. That weird encounter made me think maybe there was a record there, but I needed to shift the emphasis from Martin and myself and our relationship to just plastic.
How much of the album is about your relationship?
There are songs I feel are, but that's the difference between Martin and myself. I'm more prone to imagining an allegorical or personal significance. The song "Plastic Anniversary" I structured to be as if Matmos was some kind of tiny village and we were having our anniversary as a village: quasi-people in a celebratory parade, maybe some Morris dancers in there. But I also wanted to have some sour notes towards the end, something kind of dysfunctional, because I didn't want it to have this smug, pompous feeling of satisfaction. I don't think anybody wants a techno midlife-crisis record, but I think the more you realize your mortality and the impact of your personal choices, the more it becomes a political question, an economic question, an ecological question. It's a lot bigger than "we've been doing this a long time, haven't we?"
One plastic object used on the record is a breast implant, which reminds me of the other ways in which Matmos has used body sounds in the past: the surgical procedures sampled on A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, the amplified crayfish neural activity famously used on Matmos. Why does the body figure so strongly in your music?
For me it's so intuitive and basic. The breast is the first object any person encounters. The whole school of object relations theory in psychoanalysis is about seeing echoes of the child's first encounter with the breast in pretty much everything that follows from that. Wherever you draw the line between what's you and what's the world, the breast is the first object that mediates that. And I think there's just a joy in working with bodies and getting listeners to imagine bodies and exploiting the mixed emotions that they create.
The fear of harm, the excitement of touching people—it's sexual, it's also comedy, it can go in so many directions. I suppose if I'm being self-aware it might also be that my father is a surgeon. I think maybe that weird relationship of imitation and supercession is going on. I want my own work to involve cutting up little pieces of bodies. I just do it in a different way.
It's easy to make an album about the environmental evils of plastic, but can plastic be good, even admirable?
Plastic saved my life. Using condoms during the AIDS crisis. Having bags that keep blood uncontaminated during a surgical procedure. There are ways that plastic can protect and preserve life, but whether it's riot shields or 3D-printed handguns, plastic can be used in deeply oppressive ways. The word "plastic" in Greek just means the capacity to be molded, and it's all down to what are we molding. Are we making condoms or are we making guns? It's about the choices people make with plastic. But we seem as a species to want cheap shit and not realize that the long-term price of cheap shit is that we're soiling our world with the pointless multiplicity of single-use items.
Did you choose objects to use for this record based more on their sonic or poetic qualities?
In some cases, there was just a salad bowl that made a really beautiful tone. In other cases, like a breast implant—I thought it was so loaded, but it doesn't make a lot of sound. It makes one good sound. If you nestle a contact mic inside a breast implant and pull it taut on the surface and then lick your thumb and kind of stroke the breast implant, you can get it to make this rubbery squealing tone that works pretty well as a bassline if you drop the pitch down. It was a process of splurges on eBay and looking around for the perfect comb that sounds good when you pull it. When our friends knew we were doing this record, they started to say "we found this plastic thing and you might wanna try it", so we kinda crowdsourced it a little bit.
Plastic doesn't have the natural resonance of wood or metal. Were there any difficulties in actually recording plastic sounds?
There was a real struggle to find bass. We found these large plastic packing cases, so when you stomp on that or smack it with your fist, you get this huge deep bass sound. When we were in Montana [recording at Snowghost Studios in Whitefish], we went to a recycling center and found these huge blue plastic waste containers, and when you turn them upside-down and strike them, you get a nice bass. But the best bass I got was from sheets of styrofoam. If you have a long panel of styrofoam and you have it close to a microphone and strike it with a mallet you get this huge sub-bass. You wouldn't think that was something styrofoam could do.
Photo: Theo Anthony / Thrill Jockey Records
While at Snowghost you worked with the Whitefish High School Bulldogs marching band. Did they have any difficulties playing these unusual plastic instruments?
The difficulty was we were supposed to do a talk at the school about Matmos, but I think one of the parents of one of the kids looked us up and saw that we'd been naked in Butt magazine and flipped out that these evil homosexuals who do pornography are gonna come speak at the school. Honestly, that was just one kinda close-minded person. The rest of the actual students and players were totally chill about it; they were cool, so I don't know: je ne regrette rien as far as posing nude for Butt magazine goes. That's fine. Fuck 'em.
There are a lot of horn sounds on the album, but some of them are from real plastic horns, while some of them might be from other objects. How did you decide when to use plastic instruments versus found objects?
I started with the Internet, looking at a lot of people demonstrating plastic horns on YouTube and isolating individual notes and building this library. Everything's got that silvery MP3-artifact sound, that sort of watery washed-out sound, and I started by building a lot of horn noises out of that. Then in the studio in Montana, we got actual plastic horns, and we had the Whitefish Bulldog horns actually play along with cut-ups of the Internet horns because I wanted the music to keep moving out of sweet and sour feelings. There are some things that are really nicely-recorded and then there are things that are heavily mediated Internet garbage. I wanted to have both; that was definitely part of the goal. There just needs to be movement.
For the album's opening track, "Breaking Bread", you and Martin recorded yourself breaking records by the '70s soft-rock band Bread. Do you think a little bit of Bread ended up in the music?
Martin would hate it if it had, because he hates Bread. It's just kind of an old punk rock reflex. He's despised that band since the early '80s, when he was going to Flipper shows and being a naughty kid, so he's had this kind of lifelong war against that band. I've seen him go to record shops and buy a Bread record and as soon as he's paid for it smash it on the counter. His antipathy towards Bread precedes making this song. I don't hate Bread the way Martin does, but I don't wanna say that we would get a different result if we had broken a Van Halen record or a Ray Charles record. But I might be wrong. There are times when I'm scraping the grooves with another piece of vinyl and who knows—maybe on this tiny level I'm sounding the audio in those grooves, so the joke might be on us. And if the members of Bread want to break Matmos records, that's cool with me.
It'd be funny if there was some ludicrous Matmos/Bread beef in the press, like the Raffi/New Pornographers beef.
Bread will win. They're platinum artists, they've sold millions of records. We were smashing Bread records at the WFMU Record Fair last year, and people were fucking pissed, they told us "you're like the Nazis, this is like a book burning, this is so evil", and I just thought that was absurd. I mean come on, we're not gonna impact Bread's imprint on the charts. That was won a long time ago.
What's the biggest misconception people have about Matmos?
There's a sense some people maybe have that we're snickering at the listener. I think of what we do as really kind of literal and also something that's mostly driven by pleasure. We're not trying to trick people into feeling something we don't feel. I'm not trying to say we're these super-sincere songwriters. I guess I'm just trying to say I don't think of it as condescending or as a Trojan horse. When there's a humorous element in your music it can lead to people think you're being facetious and that therefore you aren't committed to what you do. I don't want to really worry about the work at that level. We wanna make music that has a set of poetics behind it, but there isn't some didactic "right answer" that only some listeners get and that others fail to get. It's not structured to be like that. If I wanted to make an argument I would write a book.
Photo: Theo Anthony / Thrill Jockey Records