Rich Ideas and Rich Sounds: An Interview with Matmos
Matmos is taking part in the LA Phil's West Coast, Left Coast events at Disney Hall on November 21, alongside and in collaboration with Terry Riley, the Kronos Quartet; Incubus guitarist/composer Mike Einziger also premieres a piece that night. We gabbed on the phone with Matmos' Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt to get the lowdown on this thing called a West Coast sound...
Drew Daniel: I'm always very reluctant to sum up California, because when you do that there's gonna be aspects of it that you're gonna leave out of the narrative. And if you invoke something like the Frontier, it's kind of cliché at this point. Yet I still remember when I was making decision, Where do I want to go to college? Do I want to go to Ohio or California? Little closeted me associated California with freedom and independence, and San Francisco in particular with experimentation. It's because in the sequence from the '50s to the '60s to the '70s there was always a radical set of communities in literature, in music, in sexuality, that was based here.
M.C. Schmidt: There.
Drew: Yeah, sorry, I should say there, because now I live in Maryland. Martin was born in California, so I think he comes by it more honestly.
LA Weekly: Is there anything characteristically Californian about your attitude toward making music and the way you work?
Schmidt: The east coast historically gets associated with academia, I suppose because of the sort of old-school, hardcore Harvard Yale Ivy League business, and California, the West, was sort of uncharted territory, untouched by or less touched by Europe or whatnot. And certainly we are utterly untutored in the way of music. [laughs]
LA Weekly: When you started Matmos, did you regard yourselves as non-musicians?
Daniel: Yeah, I started with just tape recorders making cutups, because I was doing a punk rock scene and cutting up images with scissors, and then I read some William S. Burroughs, and his descriptions of his cutups, and it wasn't really because I had any right to make music -- I didn't have any training that gave me a way into an instrument, so I've always just been approaching this as an editor, rather than as a real musician.
Schmidt: We get into trouble using those terms. You know, throwing the term around "real music" and what that constitutes. We were yelled at by Bernard Parmegiani, sort of the senior composer of musique concrète in Paris. He didn't even introduce himself to us; he walked up to us at a show and looked us into the eyes - and he's a really intense looking guy - and he said, "I make real music!"
Daniel: It's very humbling and scary to suddenly be in an institution like Walt Disney Hall on a bill with people like the Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley, because as experimental and as out and as free as he can let himself be in some of his work, he's also deeply and richly literate in a number of traditions - in the Indian classical tradition, in jazz, and in notation. And we're much more hobolike, and kind of - you know, it's like parking a jalopy around these Rolls Royces or something, I mean it's just very strange to me that they've been so welcoming and encouraging. Don't get me wrong, we're grateful, but we also perceive a pretty strong difference at the level of where we're coming from.
LA WEEKLY: You draw a lot from literature in what you do. Your original ideas derived from cutting up à la Burroughs, then you've done these biographical works of Patricia Highsmith and Wittgenstein, etc. These are not typically rock & roll-type concerns.
Daniel: No, I'd like to build work that happens as an idea and happens as sound, and it hopefully also happens as music. But it doesn't need to be music first. I think hopefully it can survive as music when I'm not around to pontificate about it, but for me I often start at a conceptual level and I just find it perverse that by fixing what you do with one concept - like we're just gonna work with the skin of a rabbit - you know, it sounds just not very promising, frankly, but in fact it becomes incredibly freeing once you've gotten over that decision, 'cause there's so much that you can actually do with just the noises of the skin of a rabbit.
LA Weekly: How do you generate your music? Should I assume that you generally start with a concept rather than an emotion, say?
Schmidt: Yes. In fact I don't think we've ever started with sort of, "I'm pissed off today, let's make a pissed-off song!" [laughs]
Daniel: I think the emotion needs to be inside the form, and I think some people respond in a very emotional way to the music. We get letters sometimes that are very demonstrative about this, and I don't mean to sound cold, like it's all just their projection; I just think the emotion has to be in the form if it's really there; it shouldn't be about, well, I felt this way and that proves that my song is sad, that proves that my song is joyous and upbeat. There are things that I want the listener to decide for themselves; I think sometimes music becomes a kind of emotional porn, you know, people put it on to feel powerful when they feel helpless.
I've been listening to Schubert's Winterreise this week a lot, and I can't tell if the fact that it's doing the things to me that it's doing are because of the work; and with Matmos I think it can be distracting that people think they need to know this elaborate -
Schmidt: What do you mean, "the work"?
Daniel: Well, I mean there are a lot of different emotions in Winterreise, but because I know a lot about the circumstances of when it was made I tend to just hear it as all melancholic and I don't hear all of the other emotions inside it. I mean, I just think that sometimes the discourse can capture the work. I don't mean to say that in the interview that you're the bad guy, you're creating more discourse. [laughs]
LA WEEKLY: How strictly do you have to stick to a concept once you've decided on one? Do you ever find, since you're not just scientists, you're not cold people, the emotional element does take hold mid-process and carry the work through?
Schmidt: I think I'm probably the guilty one in that. I have more pitched music sort of training; I'm the one who says "Oh, this seems to go in a sad direction" and let's push that hard, let's use these particular chord combinations or whatever.
Daniel: When I started out we would use an object and I would just sample the object and I would stack it in octaves so that it was always more or less in whatever pitch the object itself was in. We actually got into trouble when we started to make a piece commissioned by Kronos Quartet, because we had them play this hubcap and the hubcap was in this really weird, dour not-quite pitch, and we had to adjust it so that Kronos could play along with it.
And I guess that's an example of starting with some material back of the object and not really worrying whether the outcome resembles standard music or not. But we have to be cool that Kronos are not gonna bring an extra set of four instruments just so they can play along to our piece, you know, to make it in the key of hubcap. [laughs]
LA WEEKLY: For your second record in the '90s you recorded the sound of a vivisected crayfish, among other things. In a case like that, was it the concept of what you were doing or the actual sounds you discovered in the process that was paramount?
Schmidt: You know, there are rich ideas and there are rich sounds, and if you're extremely lucky they're the same thing. [laughs]
Daniel: I often think maybe people feel we're gimmicky in over-sharing all this information, but it really does matter to me that's it's real, you know, that the basis really was crayfish nerve tissues, that the basis really was playing an actual Enigma Machine used in WWII.
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