Perfect Sound Forever

Coldcut Interview

Jon More Matt Black
Photos courtesy of Ninja Tune

by Iara Lee (Modulations)

Jonathan More and Matt Black, "the Original Dance Floor Hooligans, DJs, Samplers, Producers and Remixers," made their mark in the late '80's as mad DJ's who redefined the whole art with strange juxtapositions of Eric B. & Rakim, Ofra Haza, Lisa Stansfield, the Fall, Youssou N'Dour, Queen Latifah and Blondie into mixtape records, constantly pushing the envelope of what people expected to hear from remixes. Not suprisingly, their origins went back not just to art school but also to pirate radio. The pair weren't satisfied with just working on their own records, later starting up the influential Ninja Tune and Ntone labels. After lengthy record company legal battles in the '90's, Coldcut re-emerged with the ground-breaking 70 Minutes of Madness CD in 1995 for the Journey By DJ's series and their own Let Us Play in 1998.

Iara Lee conducted this (previously unpublished) interview in the summer of 1997 at the Ninja Tune office in London with Matt Black and his multi-media collaborator Robert Pepperell for the film MODULATIONS- cinema for the ear.

what do you mean by "post human condition"?

robert; the post human condition is a catch phrase that has been around for a while but i find it really useful to describe a whole lot of things going on, some of which are more visible than others. on the one hand, it describes the sort of integration of machines and humans and the various things happening there but it also has to do with the philosophy of how we see ourselves in the world at the moment and the change from the victorian philosophies that we have held for a few hundred years to a totally new set of philosophies and ideas that have been brought about largely by the impact of new technology. new technology has forced us to change the way we think about ourselves and our environment. the term "post human condition" to me summarizes a lot of those ideas and shows that we are actually on a transient point between the past and the future in a very sort of clear and visible way.

can you give some examples of these changes?

robert; changes in beliefs are quite important. there is less dismissal of ideas of the supernatural or the paranormal or the fact that there may be life in other parts of the galaxy. these sorts of things are starting to become ideas that aren't jokes anymore. people are starting to think that there is a lot we don't know about the universe. old and ancient wisdoms have got a lot to say and we still have got a lot to learn from what we already know, let alone from all the things that are yet to be discovered. i think that's one thing, but also a whole change in the way we view other cultures, the way we view the world, the way we treat the world. all those things are a part of the shift that is going on at the moment.

matt; i think one of the important ideas rob has been exploring in the post human condition is this idea of the connectivity of everything. in a way this is no more than the hippie idea of everything is everything but it includes new realizations, new evidence coming up, new slants on the idea that everything is connected. as hericlytus said, "as above, so below" and those are things that we actually see coming out in our work as well. it can't actually be summarized in a few lines really because it's really more like a dense matrix of interconnecting experiences, ideas, what people call threads on the net if you like. certainly the mind and the body can't really be separated. for people who have that student type of debate, i think they should have a pair of goggles in a case which says, "in case of arguments about mind/body, break glass and put on." you put those over your eyes and soon you realize that if you don't get any sensory input to your body, your mind goes insane pretty quickly.

robert; it's actually a very, very, simple idea. it seems almost absurd to say that the mind and body are separated -- i'm sorry, they can't be separated and the body and the environment can't be separated, therefore the mind and the environment can't be separated. it's a logical follow through. in that sense you have got this idea of consciousness being a universal thing.

matt; continuity.

robert; exactly. continuity between the universe and human consciousness. they are not separate things which are in conflict and battling. it's all one continuum. of course there are differences within that just as there are differences within a painting. there are different colors and things but it is still one painting. it’s such a simple idea, i can't see why there is an argument about it really. it's not hard to grasp at all, a child of any age could grasp that. you don't have to argue about that, lets forget that and move on and explore this new territory really.

can you stop and take a position, call something true or false, for example?

matt; i sort of believe that everything is true in some ways. you can't actually make a statement which is completely true. you can easily break it to pieces and attack it from various points of view. equally, nothing is totally false, there is truth in everything. so i think part of the post human condition, part of our philosophy is kind of dealing with things in terms of spectrums rather than black/white, yes/no, good/bad. the yin and yang idea which encompasses the flow of opposites into each other and mixtures of things is an important thing to us, and that's perhaps represented in our work because what Coldcut really do is mix things up, we mix up people, experiences, records, analog, digital, toys and tools -- it's all about mixing things to get new hybrids. the diversity of content that you can get from that excites us.

when did you start thinking about doing multi-media?

matt; you could say that we have all been working on multi-media in our own ways for a long time. when i was four or five i used to do what my mom called "signs and light shows" at home where i get all my robots and space vehicles out and wire up some buzzers and bulbs and charge my family a penny to come into a darkened room and see what was moving about. jonathon who is my partner in cold cut taught three dimensional design for a long time as an artist and rob is an artist as well and taught art and knows quite a lot about that. we do come from an arty background if you like. we understand the kind of arty take on things as well but it is mixing that with the technology which excites us. the music is the main backbone of what we do because that's the product that we have that sells best. that's because people understand the concept of buying music, they don't understand buying the types of products that we want to actually make and sell but that change is coming and i think the cd-rom we did for the Let Us Play album is the best realization of those ideas that we have achieved so far.

do you each have specialties as far as making multi-media products goes?

robert; we all make music and we all do bits of graphics. the technology has led us and people like us to make the boundaries between media much more fluid and that comes out in our work. we no longer really think of sound and image as separate things anymore. we work with them together so when, when you press a key, you get an image and a sound or a piece of text and sound or something else changes so that's where we are feeling our way towards but it's very dark because its all new.

is this type of multi-media new? is it a product of new technology?

matt; there have been people before who managed to combine a lot of interest and skills and do lots of things but we can't all be leonardo da vinci. it has to be said, the computer is the tool that facilitates expression across a variety of interests and that is one of the biggest attractions about it.

robert; if you can run a paint program you can run a music program. you don't have to be a musician or painter to use either so that's the big change that has happened in my lifetime, in the time that i have been working in various different media. you used to have sound engineers that were one type of person, you used to have editors, you used to have all these different types of people and now we do all that here and it doesn't necessarily mean we're good at each particular thing. it just means we are dealing with all these things simultaneously. that's the difference.

matt; we can get on with it ourselves. the power to actually express yourself creatively and positively is extremely life enhancing and fun and powerful and addictive. it is more addictive than drugs actually. it's more positive as well. playing computer games can be very addictive, writing computer games and doing graphics is even more addictive and i do think people get excited when that bug gets them.

how do you organize yourselves as a team, or company . . . are there bosses?

matt; the whole way that our people are organized is very different from a normal sort of company. yes, there are sorts of bosses if you like, robert and i and peter and johnson and my partner are sort of the bosses but we don't, i think if you talk to people who work with us it is not really in the normal way at all. we are all just getting on with it and its more of a matrix like structure rather than a pyramid.

can you describe your overall aesthetic?

matt; a sound bite aesthetic. i am not sure about the sound bite aesthetic. i think we could be accused of having a cut and paste mentality.

so you select materials for cut and paste?

robert; i think what’s interesting is not necessarily the things that you take although you usually select things for some sort of reason, because they attract you. what’s interesting is what happens to them when you put them with something else and it's the unexpected excitement you get when you put two or more things together. matt has been working with music for ages and i've been doing macintosh computer collages for ages but actually what we are trying to do now is build machines or build computer software which makes that happen at a greater rate cause it is actually very hard to do it manually. even if you have a really big, powerful computer you still got to find stuff and stick it all together and that process can be quite laborious so we are actually trying to develop machines that will take bits and pieces from all over the world, different cultural stuff and mash them all together for us. sometimes under our control, under our influence.

matt; and sometimes when we're asleep.

rob; and then you come back in the morning and you got a whole load of things and some of it is good and some of it is terrible but that's a value judgment we make. the computer doesn't know what's good and what's bad. we are starting to do that live now as well. we are starting to use tools, where when you press the button, you don't know what is going to come out so that makes it a bit like improvising with a group of musicians like a jazz band. you don't really know what everybody is going to do but you know the general structure it. you have the excitement of things changing over time and being new. every second there’s a new thing happening and that is very stimulating and i hope that will feed into what the audience gets out of it as well.

matt; a lot of what we work off is this idea of the machines providing random combinations and the human providing the selection of those combinations so it is an evolutionary model if you like. the richard dawkins idea -- the selfish gene and the blind watchmaker have been very influential in us. they have been taken up by people like carl sims and william lathan in the areas of computer graphics with some striking results but we want to apply that to everything and that's the use of machines, what they're good at, taking the data, sifting the data, storing the data, and mixing it and the human comes in with the aesthetic selection because that is still where humans can excel over machines.

robert; it makes machines more exciting.

matt; machines can be funky. part of the idea of hex is the phrase, "dna-rom" which stands for "do no art -- run our machine." that's a slogan to sum up the fact that we want to move on from the old way of doing things. of course we want to make art as well but we want to have more fun whilst we're making it and get away from the poe-faced, overserious idea of the artist and the musician and make it a bit more like play time.

so you’re moving away from the idea of the individual-artist and toward more of a hybrid process?

robert; all great artists have drawn from random mixes of cultures and all musical movements are combinations of other musical cultures. there is never any totally new aesthetic movement in any field. all these movements generate, they evolve as if different creatures from different species were mating and giving birth to other creatures and the ones that were suitable to the environment survive and they go on to spawn more and more things and that has been happening naturally in cultures since humans have been around. we’ve been trying to speed that process up because it is generally a beneficial process... it brings cultures together, it increases understanding. it generates new material, it stops things getting stale and machines i think can enhance that. we are at the foothills of this very steep hill that we've got to go up which will get us to this level but for me it is the only way things can go. i can't see any other way in which the future of human culture will develop.

where are you now in terms of this development?

matt; it's funny cause we've been making music for ten years, starting off with purely turntables and using samplers and sequencers as they became available and it has been great but recently we have become rather bored of that way of doing things. it is too laborious and it's all one bloke sitting in front of one monitor. we have a sampler there and the rest of the people sort of sitting around sort of, trying to make suggestions. it's actually sort of difficult and when you start playing with the kind of toys that hex has been developing for the cold cut album and for the art projects that we have been doing, you can't go back from that, can you?

what about discontinuity?

matt; discontinuity and non-linearity are the very things that complex machines are good at because when you provide a rich pool of genetic material the number of possible combinations is infinite and the human selector takes those combinations and selects the ones that are aesthetically pleasing. very often it is the combinations that have discontinuity which are attractive because you can get this dislocation effect in which you are just going along on a nice little groove and then bang, you got a slap in the face as something else enters your sensory input which forces you to look at things in a new way. i think art has always had that function and this is a good way to provide new combinations and as i said it is a biological process. there is no new dna. there are only new combinations of dna.

robert; it is very important to keep discontinuity at a high level because the cultures that try to get rid of discontinuity tend to be the most oppressive ones on the planet like the third reich, the communist regimes -- in art they try and make everything standardized, in music they try and stop irregularities. bad science does the same thing. it tries to conform the world to a very ordered and structured thing which it obviously isn't. people like artists and musicians and people who protest about things, they actually generate -- they are quite often the least valued members of society but they often generate the discontinuity which keeps the culture vibrant. they keep things changing and moving and for example, in britain, if the conservatives had their way they would have stayed in power forever, but people carried on protesting and eventually they got rid of them. you have to keep that going in a society otherwise it will just die or become a very horrible place to live. we are living in various different ways, we are trying to do that sometimes with the aid of machines because more and more things that happen in society are going to be controlled by machine so we might as well control that as well as all the other things like banking and motor way traffic lights and all that sort of thing.

matt; there is this other danger as well, which is that most people seem to be in a zombie-controlled mind state which is useful for the sort of babylonian control systems that keep people under thumb, keep their nice place at the table. why are people asleep? because they are bored and they haven't got an alternative. there is a possibility that people might wake up by returning to a more playful, enjoyable, loving mode of existence and some of the toys that we are building have the potential to do that just as a good game has got that or a good toy or a good piece of art. it would be nice.

robert; i think people are rarely given the opportunity to be creative. generally people have a job and then they go watch a film or something. all the money they've earned in doing that job is spent on these objects, these cultural objects and that's a sort of release but they never, i'm generalizing a lot, but my opinion is that people never have a chance to realize their own creative potential. we have done art installations, for example, one in a glasgow gallery, which is a load of buttons which you can press and things come up on the screen and you can make your own video. people of all ages, from tiny kids to very old people, come to life when they use it because they feel that they're making something happen and their creative energy is being realized.

matt; you feel that you're making something happen, you are feeling that you are making a change. that's called enpowerment. societys are generally set up so you don't have enpowerment and you don't feel you can make a change. you perceive correctly that those in power have got their fingers on the buttons and they are not about to let go and we want to encourage people to get in there.

matt; i sometimes wonder actually because so much of our media is digitial which is great because it means you are not cutting down quite so many trees and using so much oil and shit. it is very ephemeral as well. actually we do use a fair amount of paper. like most people that use computers.

matt; you have to watch it when doing art with technology cause if you just concentrate on the kind of cleverness, the technique behind what you're doing, the form, i guess, you run the risk, it may look great now but next year or in two years time it is obsolete and the fact that you did some incredible things on limited resources is no longer so relevant if what you actually did wasn't that great in its own right. the content has to be there. i sometimes worry that our stuff is too based on technique and that there is not enough content there but i think in a way what we are trying to do is put up some sign posts saying, "this way." here are some fresh directions, here are some fresh routes, you might be able to get somewhere.

robert; i think people know also that if you make a record or a painting or something and the painting or record in itself may be very simple in terms of its technique and the way it is put together but if behind it there has been a lot of suffering and joy and pain and thought has gone into that thing, i think it's in there and people can pick it up. i think that the objects you make contain the energy that you put into them, that they are like receptacles of energy. it is a bit like the fetish idea, the african idea of the fetish, that you can fill an object with energy and then the object goes off and the energy comes out to other people who come into contact with it. i think that's what we try and do. the trick is how do you get all your energy into something, how do you concentrate your energy into it because then it becomes a very powerful object. you can see that in other people's work, other people's paintings or other people's music you hear, you can hear those vibrations in there, or see those vibrations in there...

talk more about multi-media...

robert; with multi-media we were given two immense changes at the same time. one is, that we have to deal with sound, image, text, movies all at the same time. the second thing is that it can change all the time, it is interactive, it responds to what people do. it is going to take many more years before people actually grasp the new possibilities of all these different media and start to do something really worthwhile with them. when television started in britain they had radio programs on it and showed flowers and puppies because radio was the dominant thing. we are in the same stage of media at the moment. people put books on it or film on it. they don't really know what to do. i would say that we have just started to open a few doors. we see what you can do with this new media. we have actually started to make some progress at making things that couldn't exist in any other way. that can only exist in this form and that, once you set that seed off you will never be able to stop it.

matt; the nice thing about music is that over the last ten years there has been this revolution in diy music. people can actually afford to save up and get some equipment. set it up at home and start making music on it which is as good as anything coming out of a professional recording studio. in many cases better, because they're not encumbered by those expenses and by the conditioning that quite often makes the music boring. now we're looking for the next stage on from that. basically it's that diy attitude applied to everything in multi-media and i think over the next ten years we are going to really see that flower. as rob says the forms that that is going to take haven't been defined yet just as the forms of the music has taken over the last few years like jungle, would never have been dreamt of at the beginning and yet jungle is a product of technology, it is a product of digital technology. it is a form of music that couldn't happen without those tools becoming available so we can only really guess at the new types of work which are going to come out as these tools become available. it is exciting. there is going to be a load of shit but there is going to be some good stuff as well which is going to kind of set the directions for the foreseeable future.

any ideas of what’s to come in the foreseeable future?

robert; there is a new form of art just over the hill which no one knows about at the moment. it doesn't actually exist in the form that i can go and show it to you on the machine now. i can show you little things that suggest that but it is going to be so different from everything we know now and it is not that far away either. we can understand strands of it at the moment. we don't understand how when it all comes together as one thing probably we will be able to cope with it now, our brains or our consciousness' possibly would be able to deal with the muiltiple three, four, five dimensional things that are going to have to happen with this new media. and we are kicking the ball off but quite often it goes....

matt; it's going into the underground.

robert; exactly. i get lost frequently in the whole thing cause it's too big for us to think about so maybe we'll see something in the next ten years that is truly can be defined as a new, totally new collaboration between all media.

matt; there has always been change, there's always been enormous change from one generation to the next. now our parents can probably barely deal with the world with which we are familiar. certainly our children will grow up in a world which is very strange to us. that's always been the case but there is this feeling of change accelerating. whether mckennas right and the world is going to end in 2012 or whether it is going to be some other kind of, what he calls, a singularity that you can't actually see beyond, things are definitely building up to something pretty massive. we can't guess what's on the other side but we're kind of peddling there, staggering along as best we can.

robert; one of the catch phrases we have is that, you can't control a wave but you can ride it. you can't really set the future but you can influence it. you can't control or set the present either, governments and people have been trying to do it and no one can do it, but you can move in the same direction as the energy is moving and in that way you will go a lot faster. in a funny way by going with it you become it, you become part of the way.

matt; you do influence it in a way as well...

robert; yeah, because the wave and you are the same thing.

matt; sounds pretty hippie rob.

robert; a lot of stuff does but you know....the hippie idea is coming from other cultures...

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