Posted on Aug 20th 2008 12:02 am

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PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

Before meeting with Matmos, Martin Schmidt called me to dispense some words of warning: ‘just so you know, we tend to go on’.  This would certainly be the case, as Schmidt, along with Drew Daniel, kept me thinking on my toes for the better part of an hour, traversing such topics as aestheticism, synthesizers, and, well, Zac Efron.  Presently on tour supporting their latest release, Supreme Balloon, Schmidt and Daniel, joined intermittently by tour mate (and longtime friend and collaborator) Wobbly, gave themilkfactory an engrossing earful, which is shared with you now, with great pleasure.  Do read on…

[As the recording of the conversation starts, Drew has been talking about how far Matmos have come.  Meanwhile, Martin is buying some mineral waters for the group]

Drew Daniel: It felt like, oh my god, I can’t believe we’re playing with some of the people we’ve shared a bill with.  Just recently, it was kind of a ‘pinch me’ moment for us to be playing a concert and sharing the bill with Chris and Cosey [Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, formerly of Throbbing Gristle], so, you know, that was something we got to do in London and Berlin.  It’s one of those reminders of how unpredictable… life is [laughs].

Speaking of Chris and Cosey, one of the interesting things that I find, in terms of the concepts behind music, is where does politics and social responsibility fit in your music?  You two have previously talked about partying with Jhonn Balance from Coil, obviously, the partying in his life eventually killed him, very sad.  Do you think there is some sort of a politics or morality in the music that you’re making?  Some of the most well-known experimental musicians of the 20th Century eventually rejected their art as a bastion of high culture – do you see that ever happening with your music?

Martin Schmidt:  Wow, that’s a lofty concern!  I feel like if I was going to make something that I considered a political record, it would not be confusing, as to whether it was a political record.  I have pretty strong feelings, if you’re going to make propaganda, then it should be clear.  Drew and I aren’t the same person, so he’s going to have something different to say about it.  Obviously there’s political ramifications in anything anyone does, but I don’t think that when we make a record, I would ever self-describe any of them as ‘political records’.  If I was going to make something that supposed to convince people to think politically, one way or the other, it wouldn’t look like any of the things that we’ve done.  Though, obviously, we express ourselves by making things, but they’re not explicitly political.  How about you, Drew?

DD: The first thing I would say is that, there’s a telling symptom in the way you said ‘politics or morality’, as a couple, as if they were joined.  I think this identifies the problem with trying to think about political art, that it becomes a race for a moral high ground.  The politics of the artist become the plateau of bitching rights and moral purity that the supposedly exceptional artist is in a position to voice, because they’re supposed to be an ‘outsider’ or exceptional in some way.  I tend to feel very suspicious and uncomfortable about that, someone who’s making a record that people sit down and listen to and feel better about their own righteousness, because they agree with what the ‘exceptional’ or ‘exemplary’ artist says or feels, it’s already, politically, a very suspect situation.  It’s a closed, smug, self-righteous loop that doesn’t affect any change, and in fact might be negative, because it’s a safety mechanism for offloading rage, so that you no longer direct it at anything real.

MS:  Great example: Wall-E.  We saw it yesterday.  Totally great – loved it!  It’s political, you know, it’s propaganda.  It has an opinion about waste, in the world, and you feel like, when you’re watching it, ‘yeah, save the planet!’  Then I looked around myself, in the movie theater, and I was literally holding a plastic cup, and another plastic cup next to me, and the whole very function of movie theaters, and so on, it adds to the exact same kind of waste.  And yet, you feel that cycle of satisfaction in watching the film, like, ‘oh, by being here and watching it, I’m doing something’, and you aren’t doing anything by consuming art that’s political.  You’re consuming art.

DD:  Yeah, that’s the anxiety of it.  On the one hand, I think that, yes, there’s a politics of representation and a politics of visibility or invisibility.  There are people in any situation who don’t seem to count, who don’t seem to show up.  So, there’s a politics of those people making art.  Artists are always trying to spot the tension, fissure, crack or problem in a situation, and make art about the uncomfortableness of whatever gets excluded.  But, the problem is that that gets recirculated as if the system had now included whoever was the content of this week’s artwork, and that lets the system off the hook.  So, in a way, by seeking out whatever hasn’t been represented and recirculating it, you aren’t necessarily writing some kind of wrong.  You might, quite the contrary, be making everything look better than it really is.  So, I think, that kind of effect of art is limited by the nature of the distribution itself.  I guess for us, what’s exciting about a conceptual approach rather than an emotionally expressive approach, is that, I’ve never felt that Matmos’s music was intended to be emotional porn, if you will.  We don’t try to make people feel X or Y.  We tend to work with materials, and let the direction emerge organically from the encounter with the object, rather than, ‘I wanna make an angry song or a happy song’.  I think most people, the way they consume music now, it’s more like a kind of mood drug.  When they want to feel this way, they play this – when they want to feel sad and defeated, they put on a record that makes them feel that their sadness and defeat is philosophically important.  When they want to feel macho and triumphant, they put on something that makes them feel like they’re the baddest motherfucker in the room.

MS:  There’s a lot of that.  That’s a huge genre of music – the ‘I feel powerful’ music.

DD:  Yeah, the sort of ‘masculinity music’.  I’ve always hoped that what we do doesn’t cater to those states of mind, but maybe that’s an empty hope.  I’m not in control of what the listener does with what I make, and, hopefully, that’s the most politically interesting thing about the situation of releasing music, that we aren’t in control of how it’s used.  We disseminate it, and then it goes out in the world, and people do what they will with it.  That kind of freedom is what I like about music – you can be a control freak all you want in the studio, but that’s not the end of the story.

When I listen to Matmos, I get a feeling that there’s a polymorphous meaning behind certain things.  One of the greatest examples, for me, is listening to Lipostudio from 2001’s A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure built out of sampled liposuction.  When I first got that album, one of the things that I loved to do was to play it for friends, and then ask them what they thought the samples were – they could never guess!  And, they think it’s this kind of liquid funk song – you can move to it – and then you’d see these dry heaves when they found out it was the music of fat being sucked through a tube.  Do you think there’s an intent on your part to fool the listener into thinking different things?

MS:  It’s not to fool, but it’s enjoyable, the idea that you can listen to something twice and get different things out of it.  It’s maybe a cliché of art, that you look at the sculpture and then read the little card next to it and you go, ‘oh my god, really?  That’s all made out of Kleenex?!’ or ‘that’s made of wax?’  It looks just like leather, but in fact it’s… ceramic!

DD:  Yeah.  For example, there’s this sculptor, Dario Robleto, whose work, you look at it and you see a shirt and a bunch of buttons.  Then you read the title, Sometimes Billie Holiday Is The Only Thing That Keeps Us Together, and then there’s information that all the buttons are made out of the melted plastic of Billie Holiday records.  You have this sudden ‘oh!’.  You see the same object twice, for the first time.  At first it just shows up as a button, but when you know what it was made of, it suddenly becomes illuminated with all these associations and references.

MS:  But why this is an interesting trope for modern art?  I don’t know.

DD:  You could take it even further to the comic, somebody like Jason Rhodes.  He made a piece that involved what he called Kevin Costner Pickles, which were pickles that had been shown the entire film works of Kevin Costner.  I think it’s brilliant, because it makes fun of this very idea that somehow the meaning can adhere in the object.  We’ve staked our whole lives, artistically, on playing around with whether that’s possible or not.  But the Kevin Costner Pickles are always sort of winking at you from the corner, like maybe that’s just a fantasy. Maybe meaning is entirely up to you.

MS:  In the eye of the observer, is what it is.

I’m thinking of, there was that laundry list of where the samples came from for Stars and Stripes Forever [a cover of a John Phillip Sousa march, found on 2003’s The Civil War].  One of them was someone dropping a copy of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy on the floor, and I remember thinking, well, how do I know that if I don’t read the liner notes?

DD:  Well, we were there, and we saw him do it, so we know it.  But it does raise the question of ‘why does it matter that’s it’s real?’  If we’re going to insist that it all has to work as sound, then it wouldn’t matter.  But Diplomacy has a different weight to it, because of its associations, and being used as a text that Harvard kids..

MS:  That book does not have a different weight because of its associations!

DD:  Well, I was punning on, you know… [both laugh].  I think one thing that we’ve talked about doing, that we really ought to do sometime, is to go through all of the work that is involved in terms of research and acquiring objects, and building music out of those objects, but to tell people absolutely nothing, and to see what happens as a result.  To bet everything on sounds.  It’s something I want to do with the next record, actually, is to kind of put some more pressure on what it means for something to even be a ‘concept album’.  I think that that’s something that has cropped up in our past work again and again, but it strikes me as still under-theorized a little bit.  Like, still something that we kind of take for granted.  And it’s never been clear to me what ‘concept album’, as a phrase, even means.  It had a very stable meanings in the seventies prog-rock era, when it meant a kind of pseudo-narrative or quasi-novelistic approach to a rock album, in which there were characters, and songs associated with the different characters.  So, something like The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline Fall Of The British Empire) would be a great example of an old-school concept album.  In our work, it tends to be certainly more minimal than that, more impoverished, more restricted in certain ways.  I guess you could say that prog-rock concept albums are stories, and we aren’t even basing our concept albums on something like a sentence or an affirmation, it’s more like a phrase, a single phrase.  ‘Medical technology’ – that’s all there is to it.  There wasn’t some position about medical technology that we were expressing or advocating by making A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure.  We were just growing an entire album out of a single phrase, and seeing how far we could take it.  We were asked by somebody, recently, ‘well, was your song, For Felix (And All The Rats) pro or con about animal experimentation?’  It struck me as such a weird question, because of course, songs are not versions of philosophical positions.  It would be a terrible way to advocate for or against something, to make some kind of song substitute for language.  The song is the idea.

MS:  I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, but that’s not what we do.  I was mystified by his question, I was like, ‘it’s a song.  It’s not pro or con, it’s a song’.  And he said ‘…yeah, but, is it pro or con?’

DD:  He was a math professor, so you got to give him that.

There’s the whole question about that, a plastic surgery album.  Obviously, it’s controversial, the whole concept of elective plastic surgery.  You guys got done up [marked up on their faces like candidates for surgery for a promotional photo], did you have a plastic surgeon look at you for those pictures?

DD:  Yeah, my father.

So, he’s a plastic surgeon?

DD:  Yeah, so is my stepmother.

So, they basically looked at you and said, ‘this is what we would improve about your faces’?

Both:  Yeah

Was that weird?  Did you feel like you were a sample being put through effects?

MS:  I didn’t agree with what they were going to do.  And right there, that raises all kinds of feelings of ‘what you think is wrong with me is not what I think is wrong with me’.  They were literally going to cut the muscles in my forehead so that I couldn’t frown anymore, because that’s where I get this big line in between my eyebrows.  Your muscles are like rubber bands that are always a little bit tensed.  So they would just go in there and cut those, and then that would fall slack, and I wouldn’t have that anymore.  I mean, what I would do is… anyway [both laugh].  And he did a bunch of other things that I was like, ‘ehhhhh’.

DD:  Well and also, it’s so clear that there are racial imperatives to what constitutes ‘beauty’, and that plastic surgery is overwhelmingly in the interest of making non-whites appear more Caucasian.  And that’s something that is obviously really fucked up, but not a surprise.  You’d have to be pretty naïve to be surprised that that’s the direction in which it tends to go. We didn’t have in mind, a single ‘yes it’s good / no it’s bad’ position.  I think instead, hopefully the art could draw on both people’s anxieties about it, and the weird utopian fantasy thinking that underlies it, that I think human being has.  Everyone sits around and compares themselves, and sometimes thinks, ‘oh, if only I looked this way or that way’.  That’s inevitable.  It seemed like a fertile set of metaphors for electronic music making, because it’s such a perfectionist environment, in which every note can be quantized, and every bad performance can be edited until it’s slightly better, and you can ‘suck the fat’ out of somebody’s solo, just like you can suck the fat out of their bodies.  So, electronic music’s ridiculous, maybe fascistic, utopian perfectionism is a problem.  It’s not like we’re in some sort of safe territory, pointing the finger at those silly rich people that want to be perfect.  People with Ableton Live [a music sequencing and editing software] want to be perfect too, and they’re just as silly.

Well, there we go!  I’m going to change gears a little bit to a question that’s been burning in my mind.  You seem to have a dichotomous past in areas that you’ve covered.  You’ve scored how many pornographic films, was it?

DD:  Five?

MS:  Six?

Both:  It was six.

And, you’ve also both taught a seminar course at Harvard.  That same year, I believe, was when you did the infamous interview with BUTT Magazine [a magazine covering gay culture, in which Matmos discussed the racier aspects of their lives], with the pictures [the duo posed naked, in a photo that is easily available online].

MS:  It was a busy year!

So, do you ever think, ‘holy shit – what if one of the faculty at one of these universities Googles us and sees that picture, or sees that interview?!’

MS:  Well, in my case, no problem, in that I worked at an art school that was famous for being naked and setting things on fire [Martin taught in the new genres department at the San Francisco Art Institute].  Drew’s going to have a more complicated answer to that.

DD:  Yeah [thinks].  I haven’t done anything that I wouldn’t be able to explain and put in its proper context.  I also have to leave it to people to make their own decision about what they would find appropriate or not.  Universities gather together people from a really broad range of moral and philosophical points on the compass.  Part of being a colleague is realizing that there’s going to be a limit to how much you overlap with your other colleagues.  So, I’m not going to lose sleep over somebody thinking that they wouldn’t do what I’ve done.  I know why I’ve done what I’ve done.

MS:  You know, for all the shit that gets talked about the United States, I’m not actually afraid that I will be put in jail, or whipped, or beaten, or burned in my sleep, for saying out loud that I’m a homosexual, or that I think Christianity is stupid, or any number of things.  So, hooray for that! [laughs] As far as employment goes, I wouldn’t want to be employed by anyone who wouldn’t want to employ me for being naked in a magazine, or saying that I like sex, or that I want to, um, who’s the…

DD:  Blow Zac Efron?

MS:  Zac Efron, thank you!  God, we are psychic.  I want to spank Zac Efron, from High School Musical.

You know, I heard he doesn’t shower that often?  There was something in some stupid tabloid where one of his co-stars claimed that sometimes he’ll just wipe himself down with wet wipes?

DD:  That’s weird.

MS:  That weird baby smell that Wet Ones have… I’d still be willing to try.  I’d lick him clean!  And I don’t want to be employed by anyone who thinks that I should be fired for wanting to lick Zac Efron clean.

DD:  I mean, it’s funny to think about the BUTT Magazine pictures now.  In the context of the seventies, the lyric, ‘it’s only middle-aged men who look at those magazines anyway’ [from the Throbbing Gristle song Persuasion, in which a man persuades a woman to pose for pornographic pictures] made perfect sense, because that was the seventies.  Now, with the Internet and the leveling down of access to every subculture, the idea that BUTT Magazine is only sold to fashionistas in Paris and Amsterdam, and nobody who’s not a cognoscenti will see it, is no longer true.  Anyone who wants to Google ‘Matmos’ can see us naked if they want to.  But I think the kind of ubiquity of that makes it all kind of banal, and, frankly, less sexy, less exotic, less interesting.  BUTT coasts on the fact that it’s not porn, but it kind of looks like porn.

MS:  You know, I think they’re making a more seventies thing about, like, you shouldn’t be embarrassed about what you look like.  I think that’s the basis of it, anyway.

DD:  Yeah, rather than just prurience.

MS:  Yeah, I mean, there’s what’s his name from, uh…

DD:  Martin can’t remember names. [Thinks] Magnetic Fields.

MS:  Well, he didn’t take his clothes off.

DD:  Yeah, he did, in a later shoot.

MS:  He did?  Oh, good.  Yeah, I mean, we look like what we look like.  It’s something that we supposedly learned in the sixties and seventies, that it would be sad if we forget.  It’s okay, and we shouldn’t all beat ourselves up for not all looking like Zac Efron, and that I still feel good about myself even though I don’t look like a Calvin Klein model.  And I do, goddamnit!  [both laugh]

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

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Comments (5)

5 Responses to “INTERVIEW: MATMOS Go On (Part 1)”

  1. Mario Mon 19 Sep 2008 at 10:16 am

    I understand films like Wall-E can be seen as hollywood propaganda but how can you say it affects negatively? maybe to an artsy fartsy blabla cunts like matmos it is, but thousands of childrens (to say the least) cant take inspiration from this and other films.

    When i was young all we had were this shitty schwarzenegger and rocky movies for stupid morals

  2. Mario Mon 19 Sep 2008 at 10:21 am

    P.D. I love their music

  3. David Abravanelon 22 Sep 2008 at 12:09 am

    Thanks for your comments, Mario! I don’t think they were arguing that Wall-E has specifically negative effects on its audience, but more that, in enjoying the film, it’s easy to forget that *you* (the audience member) are doing your part to harm the environment as well. That’s why Martin talked about holding a plastic cup.

  4. Chrison 12 Jan 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Great interview. Drew and Martin are both truly brilliant people. Would that I could have taken one of their classes… admittedly, I would have been one of the “fanboys” (even though I don’t like their music very much).

    On that note, I actually find their sample-sources, and the revealing of such, to be not much more than an insufferable gimmick. For me, the music is the beginning and the end. I don’t care if you made the music by sampling a rat’s ribcage, or plastic surgery, or an American flag, or a guitar or a bucket and a couple of sticks. Matmos’ advertising of their sample sources put me off the music, because in so doing it became less about the music on the record and more about the cognitive process behind the creation of it — which can be academically or anecdotally interesting (as in this interview), but (IMO) distracting and unnecessary as far as musical enjoyment is concerned.

  5. themilkmanon 13 Jan 2009 at 1:07 am

    Well, that’s certainly an interesting point, and I probably sympathize with you a bit on that actually, but, although the information is available for me to check should I wish to, I can also choose to ignore it, and I personally do. What matters to me is the resulting product much more than the process, but I can imagine some people are really interested in the process itself, and Matmos give that oportonity I think. It is a rare access to something that is usually kept in the dark, and it makes it interesting for that.

    It also goes with Matmos’s accessibility as a band, either with their students, or their public in general. David set up to interview them, and from what he said, their were very open to the idea. The two of them make music which is not very accessible as such, but they are accessible, and they could make understanding their work easier for some people by demistifying it.