Perfect Sound Forever


by Carlos M. Pozo
(Sept 1999)

Matmos is a San Francisco-based duo of Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt. Self-assured and original, they posses an almost awe-inspiring talent for evading genrification and providing the listener with an ever-shifting, attention-grabbing listening experience. The name of their label, "Vague Terrain", sums up the landscape these two work in- a vague terrain where Steven Stapleton, Larry Heard, Pierre Henry, Autechre, John Fahey and Throbbing Gristle are all valued in equal measure. The Autechre comparisons are facile (they brought it up themselves in the press release for the debut) but Matmos isn't nearly as detached as that other duo, and display a sense of humor and wit, as well as a total disregard for listener's expectations that puts them ahead of the game in my book. Interview conducted by e-mail, late June 1999 (courtesy of angbase magazine).

Q: Can you tell me how your recent live appearances overseas turned out? Can you describe your live setup? Any visuals? How has your reception in Europe been?

DREW: The reception went from heckling in Sheffield to full on respect in London- we were speechless when they clapped for us before we'd even played a note. The set up for Europe was a mixture of sequenced material and live improvisation with "real" instruments, and live sampling/fucking about with those instruments. We added our friend Jay Lesser (Vinyl Communications) to the band for the tour; we trust him and like playing with him, he's a good improviser and all around straight shooter-- and that mustache! We wanted to do some of "The West" but hoped to avoid that static, foolproof, "press play" school of electronic performance, so we burned CD-Rs of Dave Pajo's guitar lines and Jay Lesser would fuck with and digitally "scratch" Dave's playing. Martin played some objects: turkey calls and something hunters use called a "fawn bleat", a banjo, and an acupuncture point detector. We do a song with live video camerawork macro on Martin's skin which is projected above us on a screen. You ground a circuit with one metal pin and then move another pin across your body, and at acupuncture points the skin is conductive enough to complete the circuit and make a tone. The more conductive, the more pulses and therefore the higher the pitch. I sample and manipulate the sounds Martin makes. It helps to give the audience a sense of gesture; they can see the cause of the sound. It brings out the bloodlust in some audiences- they keep expecting that it'll turn into a piercing demonstration or something.

Q: Do either of you have a "real" job? Are your releases making any money for you?

MARTIN: I am the Assistant Manager of the New Genres Department at the San Francisco Art Institute. As such I teach people to edit video and use video cameras, lighting equipment, sound equipment and I also maintain a small computer lab where mostly sound editing is done lately it seems! Our releases do make some money but we put about 90 per cent of it back into expensive stuff like touring and equipment purchase and maintanance. Boring! The other 10 per cent goes into our INCREDIBLE teddy bear collection! (this is a joke) It costs about $2000 dollars to make 1000 CDs with a "jewel" box, color 2 page front cover and back cover so we sell them to distributors for $6 (that doesn't cover postage, of course) in an attempt to make the price reasonable when it gets to the listener, it is amazing to me how much they end up costing in some places though! I think a CD should cost about $10 to $12, though alot of people have to get paid in between us and you. That means selling a lot of CDs. Specialty packaging like The West costs a lot more, but we just ate it and I think we charge the same amount, we are really in this for art-making, the business crap is just that and is ugly to think and talk about. Woops. Pardon.

DREW: I am a TA and grad student getting my PhD in Renaissance Literature at UC Berkeley. I'll be teaching an Intro level composition course next semester with a "Crime" theme. I love academia, I get to just read books and write and think about them for a living, and there's enough space in a school based schedule to go off and have a sneaky alternate identity as a caped crusader for Matmos.

Q: What are your future plans for recordings? or collaborations? Will you continue releasing through Vague Terrain or have you had offers from other labels?

MARTIN: Drew is literally this minute working on a remix of the Rachels Band "Full on Night" it will be released on 1/4 Stick (Touch and Go) sometime in the distant future...In a purer way we are working on an album that will be about medical technology and the body, we just had some exciting news about some technology coming our way that promises to yield some incredible sounds, amplified arteries, endoscopic microphones and such! Also while we were in England recently we did a lot of hanging around with Vicki Bennett of People Like Us (Soleilmoon and Staalplat) and I hope maybe we'll do something with her (she is brilliant) and Stephen Thrower (ex of Coil- lately of Cyclobe [World Serpent]) perhaps will be playing some clarinet too! As far as the business of what labels things will be on, we will continue to release ourselves on Vague Terrain and some other people too, in the works on Vague Terrain is an album of superminimal electronic music created on Buchla and Serge modular sythesizer systems by Kevin McKereghan.

DREW: There will be a Matmos 12" on Fat Cat, part of their split series. Some seven inches on small labels that we like. As for Matmos being on other labels, there have been some vague offers from large but still independent labels, but nothing that we can count on so we're taking it slow. Some of these offers came with "advice" about what direction we should go in if we want to be on that label- so you can see our trepidation. We licensed the first two CDs to Matador for Europe and areas outside the US, which was a real help since distribution outside the US is really hard. They are doing a good job, and seem to be nice people. Since music is a hobby we're not sure we want to get involved with any labels that will have expectations about our musical "career" (is that phrase as ghastly as it sounds?).

Q: How did the Bjork remix come about? What are your thoughts on remixing in general? What was your working process for the remix? Any other remixes coming up? What about other people remixing Matmos material?

DREW: Remixes are a bone of contention 'round these parts. I love doing them and Martin hates doing them, which tends to mean that I assemble them and Martin adds bits and bobs and then mixes them down. I think remixes are like letters, and as such they can be really pointed or merely polite, funny, accusatory, gentle- anything- but they aren't the same as a conversation. I don't see the point in annihilating or utterly masking someone else's sounds- if you disrespect what they do, don't work with them. I think the result should hopefully contain a bit of perversion, a feeling of straying from both the intentions of the original artist and from the sensibility of the remixer. We just finished our remixes of Richie Coleman Devine, Sutekh, the Dylan Group, and an extended collaboration with the Rachel's that is somewhere between a remix and a new Matmos record proper. I don't want to do too many more soon because they become a distraction, but we are definitely doing a Labradford remix and might be working on some more Rachel's stuff, and there is talk of some more collaboration with Bjork, something a bit more like a conversation. Getting to know her has been a laugh. Somebody passed the word along and Bjork purchased our records, liked them, and she approached us about a remix. At first I started writing out the lyrics to her song, putting every single word on its own slip of cardboard and then rearranged the words like scrabble tiles, and then I thought why stop at words and started dividing into the phonemes, thinking about the lyrics as a cut up text along Burroughs lines. When I told her about it she was cautious, and wanted us to let the vocals go "from A to Z" on one version- but we wound up using that technique to generate a new kind of "chorus" at the end. She was very trusting, and requested two mixes, one with vocals intact and one where we could do anything- that took some of the pressure off. As for other people remixing Matmos material, I am cautious about it- we did ask John Hughes (aka Slicker) to chop up a rhythm of ours and he went whole hog and made a whole new song out of the raw sounds from some new songs that are "in progress"- we were hoping to fold his version into our own as the song takes shape, so that there wouldn't be any real priority about the "real original". The result is more of a collaboration: Slickmos? Macker?

Q: Where do you get your inspiration from? From the gear you use, or anything else you come into contact with?

DREW: I suppose this will sound kind of pathetic, but I often find myself thinking about the effect that certain records had on me in high school, when I heard them for the first time (a long time ago, I'm 27)- I have very vivid "listening memories"- the sound of the song "Ghost Bitch" by Sonic Youth, a stroll with the Nurse With Wound "Machines 3" cassette on a Walkman, putting TG's "Second Annual Report" on the stereo. When you get into so called "intelligent" electronic music, you can become infected by micro-trends, programming styles, software fingerprints, the last five cool 12"s you heard: it can make you very shortsighted. It helps to put yourself into a different historical frame, remembering what made me an obsessive music fan in the first place. Those records seemed to be about something other than their own process- they were catalysts for an experience. Good art is like that- there's all these interior contradictions that slowly emerge over time as you look at it, you return to it and find more. I find that inspiring, or maybe not inspiring so much as threatening- really good art can be scary that way, the standards that some people have set are so high. Go out and reread Turgenev, check out a Stockhausen piece like "Set Sail for the Sun", the list goes on. As for gear, it's inspiring to think of how far some people got with such simple gear- think of Suicide or TG- what they did without laptops full of shareware is pretty inspiring.

Q: Do you use improvisation or live interaction to compose your pieces? How much improvisation goes on during your live performances?

MARTIN: Frequently we will use this method: I will improvise with something, an object, an actual musical intrument or whatnot and Drew will listen, we will move the microphone around the object and make samples along the way, or record the entire improvisation and then take samples from the tape. Then, Drew generally makes an initial set of loops of those samples and we will listen to them deciding in that process whether the whole thing is worth anything at all. If it is they will be edited and rearranged and added to and often then I will play a more "live" track on top of that with the initial object or...something else. Then, more deciding about the worth of the whole thing, and so on. Is that interesting? We get asked this question alot, and I'm not sure our composition method is all that unique for a rock band sort of project...

Q: Could you describe some of the music tools or instruments you've worked with that you've enjoyed using the most? Is there a piece of software or equipment you never tire of playing with?

DREW: I still love the Roland W-30, it's a relic of a sampler by today's standards, but because of its simplicity it actually provides a convenient per song "frame"- only having 27 seconds of sample time per song makes you very economical about what you use and what you don't. Also, you can edit its samples while you are running a sequence, which causes all manner of interesting malfunctions, burps, and freakouts- that's quite helpful when you're playing live and you want to make things more dynamic. It's what MC Hammer used, and Photek. Nuff said.

MARTIN: For me my old and trusted friend is the Roland SH-101 monophonic synthesizer, this is a warhorse (if anything made of cheap grade plastic can be considered a warhorse) that almost never fails me, I would know it blind, perhaps even deaf. For me it is THE basic composite synthesizer. I've used one for 15 years.

Q: Has your music career affected your obsessions with other people's music, or buying records, or trying to keep up with new music?

DREW: I buy music in amounts completely out of proportion to my income. Recent purchases/acquisitions that I'm digging: Pierre Henry's "Le Voyage", the Derek Bailey and Eugene Chadbourne's split 10" on Rectangle, Basement Jaxx's "Remedy" CD, the Halana comp CD, Francisco Lopez's new CD, CD-Rs received from Richie Devine and Lexaunculpt and Kid 606 and Outplace, Surgeon's "Force and Form" lp, the Max Brand retrospective on Rhiz, Sun Ra's "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy", Kaia Saariaho's ". . . . a La Fumee", Richard Bishop's solo work and the Sun City Girls "Dulce" lp, Mouse On Mars new twelve inch, the Ischemic Folks comp., Scientist's dub reissues on Blood and Fire, Autechre's "EP7" and a reissue of Pauline Oliveros' early electronic works on Pogus. The problem with making music is that you can't listen to other people's music anymore without those little voices nagging at you: "how did they do that?"- you don't hear the music as a totality any more, because your mind obsessively breaks it down into its constituent parts and separates and organizes them structurally. That's why I continually seek out music that makes you stare at the speakers in amazement, dumbfounded-- not by the complexity of its construction, but by its expressiveness, its particularity, its singleness of vision. You can't put your finger on it, even if you know the "how".

Q: Martin described Matmos as "a rock band sort of project"- do you see yourselves as a more of a "rock band" than an electronic (or techno, or IDM, or whatever) group? Does the distinction make any sort of difference to you?

DREW:I asked Martin about what he meant by this and he simply meant it compositionally- ie. no notation, as in classical music traditions, and no received set of songs which one interprets as a performer, as in folk music. So, we're more rock than the Kronos Quartet, who are more rock than the Hilliard Ensemble, etc. That said, we're obviously not rock. I don't think of us as a rock band, but I'm not ANTI-rock in any way- we paid good money to go see the Sabbath reunion show, and it was fabulous. We've played shows with rock bands like Cars Get Crushed (and upcoming, with Labradford and Godspeed You Black Emperor!) and we've played shows with O.S.T. and Oval, and I thought we kind of fit in on both bills. You get into trouble when you make generalizations about rock vs. electronic music- look at the en-masse endorsement followed by en-masse scorn for the term "post-rock". Is all music made with laptops and software inherently more radical than music made with a guitar? I'd take Dean Roberts, The Luxurious Bags, Faust, or Can over The Crystal Method any day. For us a combination of "traditional" instruments, found sound and electronics defines what we do: at the level of editing and assemblage, our music is computer based. At the level of its basic material, our music depends upon organic sounds, whether they come from an acoustic instrument like a banjo or a guitar or "natural" sounds found around us: breathing, pages turning, the cherry of a cigarette burning, latex clothing, or, as we have recently captured, the sounds of a surgeon giving someone a nose job. It comes down to perversity- I don't like the "purist" approach, and would rather float uneasily between a few genres than sit cosily in one. Obviously, if we cared more about our career we would work harder to be defined clearly as one thing. I've always liked people who messed with their fans expectations- TG did this, and Nurse With Wound as well.


As for "Intelligent Dance Music", the phrase seems sort of absurd if you take it at face value: the notions of rhythm, "melody" and form found in most alleged "IDM" doesn't even come close to the complex intelligence of your average Saariaho or Xenakis composition, and yet the creepy Mensa-style pretensions inherent in this assertion of supposed "Intelligence" persist precisely because its adherents never exit their own charmed circle, and generally speaking, seem unwilling to try anything other than IDM, thus preventing them from ever stumbling across something that might challenge their notion that they're really brainy and special for digging Autechre. Sure, I love Autechre and the Schematic label, but I also like James Brown and Trouble Funk and Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk- does this make me unintelligent? The snooty attitude towards "real" dance music inherent in the term IDM fits all too easily with the stereotype of the bedroom collector geek who is hopelessly alienated from the bodily hedonism of a decent soundsystem/rave/club party and who thereby fashions a resentment based alibi for why he can't get down. Furthermore, if you consider the sociological origins of contemporary electronic dance music in black and gay clubs in Chicago and New York and then consider the overall "whiteness" and "straightness" of the average IDM artist and fan it all starts to look kind of sinister, like people patting themselves on the back because they are so much more advanced than those savages who leap about to their wild drums or something. Sheesh. That said, I belong to the weblist called "IDM" and occasionally enjoy the discussions there, because I like some of the artists who get lassoed into that category (not to mention that we, occasionally, are lumped into that category too), and because you can occasionally find out about interesting records on that list. Like any other community, it allows for networking and exchange of information which is really useful and productive and powerful- but like any community, it always needs to define itself through exclusion, clique-ishness and the fashioning of some "other" excluded terms: rock music, women, noise, "real" dance music. I've noticed that whenever discussions drift towards anything about gender or sexuality on that list the cluelessness factor jumps off the chart. Matmos is IDM if that only means "might be talked about on the IDM list"- but I don't endorse that term "intelligent dance music" because it's laughable. Rather Interesting Records had a nice slogan that kind of says it all: "Remember: Only Stupid People Call It "Intelligent". When we made "The West" we didn't know about the term, but we knew that we were sick of lazy reviewers comparing us to Autechre and we wanted to ditch all those comparisons and reflect the fact that we love Robbie Basho and Hawaiian guitars. A bit more risk-taking all round would be nice...


Vague Terrain
800 Hampshire,
San Francisco, CA 94110 USA


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