On the Soft Pink Truth’s Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? Drew Daniel, otherwise one half of the electronic duo Matmos, finds himself walking a fine line between personal frustration and musical ecstasy.
Outraged by the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the Baltimore resident and Shakespearean scholar didn’t want to deliver an expected collection of angry compositions that would serve as a literal reaction. What he emerged with instead is an album that demands nuanced listening and reflection from the listener: one that lulls as much as it enrages, soothes as much as it challenges, calls for reflection and action in equal measure. In some moments, it feels like a requiem; in others, a call for unity and personal resolve.
The title comes from a quote by Paul the Apostle and is one Daniel chose because it struck a balance between his creative and personal lives. Moreover, it reflects a question that resides in the listener throughout the experience of breathing the music in. Ultimately, we are not only asked to meditate upon the idea in the moment but well beyond when the last notes have rung out.
Speaking from Baltimore in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Daniel is deeply reflective in his answers to questions about the creative process, his love of black metal, and the importance of having close friends who championed a project he was initially tentative about, no matter his considerable talents and track record.
This album was inspired in part by Trump’s election but you decided to take it a different direction than some of your contemporaries.
The Soft Pink Truth has been an outlet for my mixed emotions about dance music; those mixed emotions show up at the level of, “What form does the music take?” In the past, Soft Pink Truth has been funk and glitchy and complicated and been filled with lots of ironic cut-ups of found sound and other people’s music. I wanted to try something that didn’t have that emotional stance, a stance of mockery. I wasn’t interested in that. Trump has weaponized a kind of insincere, smarmy trolling manner. I didn’t want music that similarly relied upon that stance. I wanted something that was, in a way, the opposite. Something that felt affirmative and warm.
It was a conflict for me to make this record because it forced me to step back from some habits as an electronic music producer that I’ve relied upon for so long. To kind of hit reset in many ways. I started thinking about what makes house music house music; it’s pianos and people singing in a repetitive pulse and a feeling of being safe and loved.
As corny as all of that sounds, when I say it, that’s what’s valuable about dancing with a group of people to house music in a room. I wanted to make music that drew upon that tradition but that’s also real in terms of who I am. I’m not someone who’s going to clubs every night. I’m almost 50. I spend most of my time listening to drone music and long-form music. How do I square the circle of ecstatic dance music and the places and context in which I’m listening? The result was this record.
I’m not the first person by any means to try and bring ambient and house music together. I remember the marketing of 808 State to Americans when rave was just kicking off was that it was called “ambient house”. The contradictoriness of that idea in 1989 was something that attracted me to it. It’s like saying “the round square”.
How did it feel to say, “I’ve got to work out what I want to say in different terms”?
It challenged everything. In part, it challenged my own abilities. If you’re used to starting from sampling things where you’re working with a groove or you’re working with all the sweat and fire and talent of somebody else’s content and then you take that and chop it up and slice it, then it’s very easy to get started. Whereas it’s very difficult to get started if you’re just sitting at a piano.
It’s such an overdetermined instrument, there have been centuries of people playing compelling music that way. I don’t have the skill. I’m not a talented melodic thinker. It was humbling. I just started playing very simple repetitive figures on the piano. It sort of crystalized quickly when I had a house guest.
I’m a metalhead and I love to go to Maryland Deathfest. Four or five days of death and crust and doom and black metal. This friend of mine, Mitchell Brown is in this hardcore band called GASP. They’d reformed and were playing Deathfest. He asked if he could stay at my house and I said yes. He had this Roland Space Echo that he had with him that he uses to process sound in GASP.
I said, “Can I borrow your Space Echo while you’re staying at my house?” He was fine with that so I started to play the piano through this Space Echo. It would skew the pitch a little bit. It had this slightly curdled quality, kind of like when you taste milk that’s a little bit sour. That’s part of the feeling of me playing the piano through this Space Echo. I would just the pitch relation to the delay to the original signal.
As soon as I did that I thought, “This feels compelling to me and this feels valid and this feels like a way to start.” I recorded a lot of piano through that Space Echo and then I decided to share it with friends, with people that can sing really well or with people that can play piano or play saxophone and I would have them essentially listen to five minutes of the same repetitive pattern and then try out variations.
I told the singers, “Don’t use any language. Just start with wordless responses to what you’re hearing.” I gave the phrase “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase” to Angel [Deradoorian] to sing. She got some language but Colin Self and Jana Hunter, the people who sing on the record, are people who have a very strong voice, they’re able to be the center of attention in a room, they have that power, didn’t. That was something I felt I needed but something I don’t have. I’m a barely-acceptable vocalist at best. I need a lot of processing and pedals and distortions to make it work.
These are people who, just the raw breath and utterance of what they bring to a microphone, that was really important to me in getting this music to where I wanted it to be.
What’s the connection for you between electronic music and metal?
[laughs] It’s complicated. There’s a long history of metal musicians who are also into electronic music. Fenriz from Darkthrone, the guys in Mayhem getting Conrad Schnitzler [Tangerine Dream] to do a synth intro on one of their first demos. Then there were all those Queen records that said No Synthesizers! There’s a sort of dialectic maybe.
I don’t see a direct connection. In fact, they’re sort of different parts of my brain. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. But I will say that being lost in the physicality of sound, of the pure joy that a blast beat gives you is not that different from Gabber. Or the textural crunch of a riff that locks in and goes and goes and goes. The minimalism of doom is not that different from the minimalism of techno.
That’s being really broad but I think it’s true. There’s parts of each world that I would align with each other and then there’s parts that just really aren’t the same. Metal aesthetics is something I explored pretty intensely in the black metal covers record that I did for Thrill Jockey, [2014’s] Why Do the Heathen Rage?. I wanted to step back from that emotion when making this record.
I felt like that was a very angry-white-guys-shout-at-you out the speakers [album]. That’s very cathartic. But in the age of Trump, when there’s the angriest white guy ever, there’s a different sort of energy. A different way of being. I wanted [the] music to model that in making this record. That’s why things are living up to the softness in Soft Pink Truth.
I hear the record as a continuous composition. Did you think of that way?
Side One’s material started as separate songs. Side Two was always going to be one sidelong piece. I do like pieces that do that, the sidelong second half of Throbbing Gristle’s Second Annual Report. It’s very common an ambient records, a 22-minute sidelong exploration. It took me a while to realize that I could take a number of disparate zones and fuse them into Side One.
What really allowed me to do that was Jana Hunter’s voice. Because the way he sings, the way he responded to the material I sent was very open. He was very good at gliding pitches. When I layered Jana’s voice together it would make this very mysterious high and alone on the moon sound.
I would layer that into foggy clouds of sound and use that as a transition device to bring all the pieces on Side One together. Ideally, I was just imagining a kind of drift and associative flow state for the listener. That they would allow it to rise and fall. I don’t think of this as fully successful ambient music, in the sense that that term is now used to mean a kind of reliable delivery system for plodding and uninteresting formulaic water colors that are set up to maximize your productivity.
I think there’s a lot of Spotify ambient playlist music that is pretty soulless and uninteresting. Who am I to say that I’m an exception to that rule? Obviously, it’s for the listener to decide if I am or am not in that trap. I wanted the oddity of the sour notes and the occasionally discordant crossfades and the shrill peak of the saxophones on Side One to cut the edges of what would fit inside so-called functional ambient music.
This is doubling down on Side Two because the peak of Side Two is really obnoxious. It’s way too obnoxious to be functional ambient music. That climactic moment about 17 minutes into Side Two is definitely too annoying to work as ambient music. That’s intentional.
Photo: Josh Sisk / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey Records
I was cheering with some of the more discordant moments.
[laughs] Cool! That’s the goal. It’s sort of a weird thing to say, “I want to relax you and then I want to throw ice water on you or turn on a fire alarm in the yoga studio.” That disruption or that moment of sudden, unexpected change was important to me too. Maybe just as important as saying, “I want a record that is warm and social and welcoming.” I didn’t want to make a record that was falsifying. Because we live in a world of radical, sudden, unexpected change.
Maybe it’s too on-the-nose if I’m saying, “This change in my music represents the world!” Whatever, dude. But that was on my mind, that I didn’t want something that was just reliably tranquil.
I have a very visceral reaction to bland music. I was at the doctor not that long ago and I heard something so bland, I thought, “This has to be praise and worship music.” There’s no emotion to it, no rise and fall.
I think it’s that problem of genre systems when they’re delivery systems for a guaranteed outcome, it becomes a kind of cynical emotional pornography. It’s music that’s designed to press a button and always deliver that exact feeling. I understand, from a listener’s point of view, wanting that but for me, that’s not what I want from music.
I think people are smart enough to handle music that has mixed emotions or that has red herrings in it. I don’t think that people really want to be condescended to.
When you heard the album, did you feel like it was successful or did you have moments where you said, “I don’t know if I quite achieved what I wanted to?”
Oh yeah. I had a lot of doubts about this music. I’ve never taken so long to decide, “Is this done? Does this work? Is this self-indulgent? Am I being deluded here?” I played it for people I care about and trust: friends, my brother, some musicians. I shared it with John Jones who does stuff as Geo Rip or Nerftoss. A Baltimore musician. I played it for my friend Wobbly. These are people I’ve known a long time and I trust their judgment.
I feel that they’re good enough friends that they’d say, “This needs more.” I think that’s the issue when you’re very repetitive and very minimal for a long time, you can pick it up from one handle and say, “Oh, it’s entrancing.” But you can pick it up from another handle and say, “No, this is just boring and self-indulgent. Keep working. I think that balance of proportions is something I really wanted to get right, so there were much more minimal versions of this music but I also had to realize that I would be watering down what I was trying to do if I just dumped a lot of distracting glitter on top.
It was not easy. It was scary. It is scary. You’re the first person I’ve talked to about it so … um … I’m kind of airing out all my anxieties here. [laughs]
I played one of these pieces live and that was really interesting, just to see what happens when you present the music and you sit with a room full of people as you all go through this experience. I did that in octophonic, eight speakers surrounding people sitting in chairs. I really enjoyed playing it and that was a good response and that kind of told me, “No, this isn’t just functional background music.”
That kind of stuff can’t stand up to the scrutiny of a live environment. Do you go out to hear ambient music? Yes in some cases, no in others. Someone who is a really good auteur of that sort of work has a way of making the process apparent. I’ve seen William Basinski do his thing and it was very moving because you’re just aware of that tape machine and the physicality of the way he works with his loops in real-time. It’s compelling.
I’ve got to think about how I might extend and share the music. Is it my goal to make people dance or is it my goal to have people trance out. They’re both valid. They’re just different social contracts.
Photo: Josh Sisk / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey Records