Matmos, with Wobbly, at the Echoplex on July 13, 2008
(All photos by Timothy Norris)
The tear that collected in my left eye was a long time coming, and began clouding my vision around three minutes into “Supreme Balloon, the 24-minute climax of the Matmos’ most recent album of the same name. It was generated by beauty, by wonder at the ability we humans have at creating tones and microtones, rhythms and microrhythms to touch emotions and microemotions so deep and rich that they at times can be overwhelming.
That the little wellspring of a tear arrived due to synthesized sounds often so cold and distant is even more wondrous. Violins and guitars are made by humans in workshops, so it makes sense that their sensual bodies create human sounds that hit human feelings. Electronic gear, on the other hand, is created in manufacturing plants by machines; it’s gonna be hard to touch the heart with it. Not so Matmos, the Baltimore-based experimental electronic duo who for the past decade-plus have consistently breached the wall between the distant sounds of synthetics and the warm feeling of homo sapiens banging and plucking on things.
Experimental sound sculptor Wobbly opened, and it was the perfect introduction. Wobbly consists of one man, Jon Leidecker, and three or four little machines that generated swooshes of samples, scattershot rhythms and gorgeous washes of digital noise. He's been doing this for over a decade, and it shows. He's so obviously mastered his tools that despite their robotic look, they become the most beautiful instruments in the world. It was fun to watch his feet, too, because they moved the way a pianist's do, or a pedal steel player: twisting and contorting with the sounds coming out of the boxes.
“All electronic instruments lead you in directions,” dapper looking Matmos co-founder M.C. Schmidt told SF Weekly recently, “and we try to take the water course way and do what the sounds tell us to do. I realize that sounds hopelessly cosmic … but it would be very hard to make cold, forbidding techno with an ARP 2600.” The machine he refers to is a classic analog synth from the 1970s, and generates oddly futuristic sounds that seem from a distant future-past. Live, the Arp (though I'm not sure if it was generated by a sampler for the performance or not) rumbles your bones, gets deep with its tones. The evening was filled with such moments and sonics.
Matmos began their set in the crowd. The lights were turned off, and the two of them creeped through the audience with laser-pointers aimed at a little blue box on the stage. Each time the red dot would hit the cell-phone sized module it would emanate a digital burp. The two kept aiming it as they got closer and closer to it, the noise growing louder and more abrasive as they hit their target more frequently, until it overwhelmed the room. Then they hopped on stage and got to work.
Matmos' most high-profile gig has been as a collaborator with Bjork, and you could hear the connection. Both like treading the boundary between structure and chaos, between sonic warmth and digital distance. Matmos best illustrated that when, for example, Drew Daniel tinged on his triangle, and the tone pushed through the room with as much power as an electric guitar. Or when Schmidt strapped on his acoustic guitar for “Sun on 5 at 152,” from their fantastic “The West” EP, which conjured the spirits of John Fahey and Kraftwerk. If more electronic musicians would follow Matmos' and Wobbly's lead, the sonics of the genre would be greatly advanced, and a generation of producer/performers who do nothing but stand onstage staring at their computer screen might come to realize that a little variety goes a long way, and just because you're using computers doesn't mean you can't massage the human heart.