Interview
Matthew Herbert



for someone whose medium has been his method for some 13 odd years, Herbert is pointedly mum on his gorgeous new album Scale. The man who once steadfastly adhered to a Dogme 95-like set of rules he imposed on his music, P.C.C.O.M. is now getting looser, allowing the practical to intermingle with the principle. The man who once explained a sample on his Matthew Herbert Big Band album by claiming, "I'm not even slightly interested in the sound of a book opening and closing anymore; I'm interested in the sound of a book by Noam Chomsky opening and closing," is now mentioning source material just in passing.

He's playing coy for a reason, as he reveals below. Not that it really matters ultimately, because for everything he won't talk about, there seems to be about a hundred things that he will (Madonna, gigging in the Axis of Evil, commercial R&B, meteorites, the fascism of electronic music, classic New York house, and Madeleine Albright's former assistant are but a few of the subjects blessed with his verbosity over the course of this interview). The hardest-thinking man in electronic music has lost none of his mad-scientist charm. It's apparent here and on Scale a sort of intersection (or is that culmination?) of his work so far, in the form of a gushing pop album. Scale suggests that obscuring the method only makes the madness more attractive.

How do you feel about the album?

Um, well, at this point, slightly confused, actually. I've just been talking about it for two days solid, so I need to listen to the damn thing. I sort of forget, with all the absurd lengths I go to to try to make sure every decision is a considered one. Sometimes, I just need to remind myself that I do write music after all, and I'm not trying to rewrite the rulebook every time. I don't know. I'm proud of the sort of landscape quality to it. It goes very wide. And technically as well—I mixed it all and I think it's a bit of a step up for me in terms of my technical production skills. But beyond that, I'm not quite sure. You need to ask me in 45 years' time.

That's funny. In the press release for Scale, you talk about last year's Plat Du Jour buckling "under the weight of its many ideas."

At times. I said, "at times."

But did you discover that in retrospect, as a result of listener response?

Well, certainly my position changed. It was, and is, a record that I'm very proud of. I actually think it's probably my best work, simply from the formalism of it and the structure. In light of the absurd limits I went with it, I was hoping that I might get a bit of slack when it came to, "OK, now I'm making music out of two pieces of bread. Please don't necessarily put this alongside Marvin Gaye." But I got quite a few funny reviews of it in America. America released it after everyone else, so actually, my tune has changed slightly. I'm a bit more defensive about it now.

Do you often read your press?

I get sent it, but I don't read all of it. Maybe 10 percent or something. It's a difficult temptation. I think it's an increasingly painful experience, actually, because now the distinction between a professional journalist and an opinionated person is increasingly blurred with blogs, with chat rooms, with forums, with websites. You can do a gig, and then before you've even made it home, there's 10 reviews of it, there's video footage. There's recordings of almost every DJ set I do now, so people can pick out inconsistencies or say, "You played this record in 1994! What are you doing playing it again?" And so a lot of the mystery of performance and the mystery of production is gone a little bit.

I wonder if what drives you to look at your press when you do, is that generally speaking, whether you're making dance music or political music, you're out to provoke. You're out to elicit a response.

"Out to provoke," I don't like. I'm not saying it's wrong, but I don't like that. It makes me sound like I wish to be controversial. I certainly don't. I don't wish to be controversial. I just look around and I go, "Oh my god, look at that," or, in the case of my music, "Oh my god, listen to this. Listen to this story." The stories are more important than me and anything I could do in music. Really, I'm just trying to add my voice to the chorus of disapproval, by using a forum that doesn't really have much of that. So, I'm out to ask these questions and to point some fingers as well, but "provoke" is maybe slightly wrong.

Right, you aren't Madonna.

(Laughs) Well, that's a perfect example of wanting to provoke and having no idea what your position is.

The whole American Life project was just one wishy-washy statement after another. And during that time, she also started decrying materialism. Two months later, she was in a Gap commercial.

I know! And you're really unclear of what she's saying in that appalling rap that's about lattes and super-duper Mini-Coopers and what have you. What are you actually saying? Are you saying that's good or are you saying that's bad? And that awful lyric about music is where the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together. It's like, no they don't! No it isn't! And my new favorite one, which is, "New York, every other place makes me feel like a dork." Fucking hell, these are like the words of a 14-year-old! And what's amazing about it is, like, can you imagine her getting off her private jet in a Madrid airport and going, "Oh man, Madrid makes me feel like a dork"? It's wrong, it's stupid, and it's bad. And people still buy it, which is really so depressing. But I think records like that and positions like that make it more important that you consider your position, well, that I consider my position, in the same way that any money that I may make off this record I pay in taxes that go to start wars. In the same way that I need to take a position if I'm paying for the damn thing. But alongside that, I think there's also an artistic position that…the shorthand is that everything is about context for me. I don't buy this kind of postmodern critique that all meaning is subjective or morals are subjective or everything is open for discussion. I mean, certainly intellectually, it's open for discussion, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty, the Iraq war should have never happened and Madonna should stop making records immediately.


Before promos were even sent out for Scale, you did an e-mail interview with Pitchfork in which you said your goals for this album were to bring down Tony Blair and the American empire…

(Laughs) Yeah!

…and then you said, "I will, as usual fail." Which, you know, is true. In politically slanted art, you usually don't see that sort of realism. Protest songs are about ideals and it's rare to see the flipside, the willingness to admit to being just a voice in the chorus, like you said.

It's funny, actually, because I got accused quite vociferously by an Australian journalist of being defeatist. He thought that both positions were absurd—to claim to want to do that, and then, I think he thought that I was a charlatan or I didn't quite believe it. I think I have a responsibility as an artist and as a thinker and as an independent artist within a particular corner in the music industry, and as someone who lives in the West or the North, whatever you'd like to call it, you know, living a life of privilege. With that privilege comes responsibility, or two responsibilities, really. One is to, in the words of…was it Adam Smith who said, "Think the unthinkable," or was it Winston Churchill as he sort of mowed down a lot of the indigenous people? I can't remember. But yeah, my job is to imagine a completely different world and, at the same time, to recognize the humility that goes with that. To recognize that that comes from a position of privilege and thinking or imagining those things doesn't make me a better person. It doesn't make my life more valuable than anyone else's. So I think it's important to me that those things go hand-in-hand. I would love to say, "My ambition is to bring down the American empire," and leave it at that, but I feel like I must qualify it for want of appearing arrogant or unrealistic.

Plus, I think that more liberal people listen to independent or experimental music. I can't imagine Donald Rumsfeld with an Autechre record tucked under his arm, as much as I'd like to.

It's funny, I found out that Madeleine Albright's assistant was a fan of my music and used to listen to it at work. And that was at a time when I was on a mission to bring down Madeleine Albright. She said the most disgusting thing ever, which was about Iraq. It had the highest infant-mortality rate at the time, a quarter of a million children were dying per year because of sanctions, and Madeline Albright was asked about that and the price these children were paying for the bogus war against Saddam Hussein and she said, "We think it's worth it." That kind of perfectly solidified American foreign policy. So it was funny to hear that Madeline Albright may have actually encountered my music. It was such a weird moment. And then, at the same time, I did a gig in the Axis of Evil earlier this year. I took the Big Band to Syria and did a gig in Damascus like two days after they burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies down in the protest about the cartoons. And, again, it was very challenging and unnerving to do a gig in those circumstances. But in a way, that's part of this imagining a different world that I was talking about.

How was that gig received?

Well, we were brought over by the British Council, which is funded by the British taxpayer and it's kind of a bit of a remnant of the Empire. Basically, you go around doing cultural exchanges with other parts of the world. They'll subsidize taking Western cultural ideas like ballet companies and music and theater and literature to other places. It's an interesting organization, and to be fair to them, as well, they do like to engage thinkers and a dialogue as well. The artist is supposed to get something out of going there. What was interesting was they knew my political position, and they more or less told me that that was one of the reasons I was brought over. That was interesting, to have the government basically fly me over to disagree with them. The audience was made up of government officials and medical consulates, French consulates, or whatever, a lot of music students and stuff like that. So even though it was 1,000 guests and it was free, it wasn't exactly the sort of ordinary-man-on-the-street audience. They were very unsure in the beginning of what they were looking at, of what was going on, of why we were there. And then I started to talk about the war and say that I was from England and that I was saddened and embarrassed about the actions of my government, sort of particularly in Iraq. I had a slight sort of shake in my voice, I was a bit nervous to talk about those things, but I think people, once they understood that position, the gig took off, really. They really got into it by the end. And then, in a discussion afterward, I'm not sure that the music students were bothered by the music really. This is a total impression that I got, but they did say that they were like, "Wow, just look at what you can do when you're free." Doing those gigs, playing Russia and China and places like that, really does make you realize, despite the fact that Blair and Bush have hijacked the language, we are free and we're free to criticize as well, and without fear of someone knocking on the door. I think, actually, the political and musical gesture together, was probably more interesting to them than the actual music.

Right, just that it was protest music.

Exactly.

And forgive me if you don't consider you work to be protest music…

No! I do. I absolutely do. I really do. I'm proud that people have drawn that conclusion themselves.

You talked about explaining yourself onstage. Is that something you do often?

In live shows I tend not to explain myself. When I did the Plat Du Jour shows, I did do a bit of explaining, because the feedback that we got from people was that they just didn't know what was going on onstage. But that was deliberate from my perspective, as well, because I wanted to create a show that people had to come and see three or four times to actually appreciate or figure out what was going on. Obviously, the audience was not interested in coming three or four times (laughs). That was a lesson I learned the hard way. But generally, I think in some ways, from a live perspective, it's very much about visual gestures, and if I can't think of a meaningful way of doing that onstage, I should go back to the drawing board.

You never brought Plat Du Jour over to the U.S., did you?

No. We did one gig in Montreal and that was it.

Was there any particular reason for that? You didn't tour with the Big Band here, either.

We did two shows, San Francisco and the Hollywood Bowl to support Björk. But the main reason, actually, is that there's kind of a cultural resistance, particularly post-9/11, in that applying for a visa to come to America with a cultural artifact is just a humiliating experience. It's like it in no other country. For example, it cost us $1,000 a person to apply for a visa with no guarantee that we'd get one. You have to surrender your passport for quite some time beforehand, which was very difficult for people whose profession involves gigging. I know of several orchestras that have stopped touring America all together because you have to queue up individually, each member of the orchestra, 91 people. You used to be able to apply as a group, but now visas are considered on a case-by-case basis. And, on top of that, because the music industry is pretty corrupt over there, unless you have the backing of a major, the gigs over there just don't make any money. It's simply a promotional tool.

You did, though, spin in March at the Canal Room in New York.

I was over to do press and I was requested to DJ, as well, while I stayed there. I don't really DJ much anymore. I'm sort of finding it too limiting an experience. I'm not quite sufficiently engaged enough. And then, also, I'm actually at a point now in my musical history where some people like the jazz stuff I do, some people like the techno, some people like the experimental. I just know that I'm disappointing a third of my audience at any given time (laughs). It's just such a humiliating experience at times. And then I just get really freaked out thinking about it. I'm up there and all I'm thinking about is, ugh, I know that I've only got about two more difficult club records left in me before these girls at the bar yell, "Get to a vocal tune!"


When shopping for records, do you hear stuff, in your travels, that reminds you of the tech-y sound that you helped innovate, like 10 years ago?

Not really. I just don't consider myself a leader. I don't consider myself a forerunner. I think I just do my thing. I realized a long time ago that, and this is hard to say, that I don't have many peers. That sounds like the most arrogant thing, but what I mean is I don't really exist in a community where we share ideas. I don't call up someone to talk about process, you know? I have my immediate friends like Jamie Lidell or Matmos, and I think Matmos really inspire me to keep thinking these more extreme thoughts about sound. But what's disappointing to me—but has also been quite useful, as well—is that for all its promise, dance music and electronic music never really formed a proper community, never engaged as a community. It has a habit of producing maybe a couple of stars who go on to headline rock festivals, and then they disappear. And so, there isn't really anywhere to discus ideas. People are just left on their own. And that's what I do, really, I'm just off on my own. At times, it sort of intersects with people and at other times it doesn't, but I don't feel responsible for any kind of movement in music. If I am, it's on such marginal terms.

Did the lack of community help turn you away from dance music? Recent years have found you decidedly less dancey. Or, at least, less housey.

I've always just made music, you know? I only made house, really, because there was an immediate distribution system available to me. Of course, I grew to love it and of course, moments like an early Todd Terry record to me, are just still phenomenal.

Any particular Todd Terry?

Oh my god, there's loads of them. It's a particular period that he was writing. It was also a period of the blossoming of Strictly Rhythm, Nu Groove, Nervous. That's a spread of a couple years, but it's really just solid New York house sound. I'm a big fan of Chicago as well, but that's another issue. But for me, ultimately, it was much more parasitical than that, it was much more like, I can make a record on a white label under a pseudonym with no one knowing who I am, and from finishing a tune to having it played in the club, it can take like six weeks or something like that. That was an extremely invigorating stimulus to someone like me, who'd spent every lunch time at school playing in the school orchestra or singing in the choir or something like that, and having to rely on other people. In a way, the genius of electronic music and where it came from was the fascism of it, that each person could sit in their room and control the world, control their corner of the world. So, for me, I still have a soft spot for that immediacy and for the fact that it makes me laugh as well. If people knew what they were dancing to in some of my records (laughs)…one day, maybe I'll tell some stories about where these noises come from. It just makes me laugh. It appeals to my playful side. But really, there's just as much classical music or classical influence on a lot of my records.

It's funny that you mention New York, because "You Saw It All" [from Herbert's 2001 album Bodily Functions] is quintessential garage to me.

Yeah. I sometimes feel like I should do that again, actually. I feel like I messed it up, and it's not as good as it should have been.

That track?

Yeah. I like the song, but I don't think I did the production very well.

I think it's a masterpiece!

You do? Bless you.

That's when I fell in love with Matthew Herbert.

It is? That's so funny, because I'm almost embarrassed of that track.

It's funny that you also talk about, "If people knew what they were dancing to…" because there seems to be that sly, maybe subversive feeling, especially on Scale. You've talked about shrouding your political ideas in this overt musicality.

Yeah, I'm not telling what the sounds are on this record. I'm telling some of it, and I will tell over time, I might tell some of the stories. But one thing I'm trying very hard to do, is if I am telling people what the sounds are, I'm not telling them which track they relate to.

Why have you decided to clam up? When the press was sent out for the Big Band album, or on your site, there was a list of sounds in the songs.

It's about being different to myself. For example, all the recordings on this record were done by somebody else. They were done by Alexis Smith, my studio assistant. So I gave him a big list of what I wanted him to record and just in that one gesture, it was like a metaphor for how we rely on everybody else to do our dirty work, whether it be in Iraq or whether it be in our jeans or our iPods or whatever. This record's called Scale and I'm looking for sonic measurements and difference and ways of measuring distance. So, for example, there's the sound of my school bell I rang when I was four and I'm 34, so when I hear that bell, it's like I can imagine 30 years. I also have the sound of meteorites, for example, and they come from the beginning of time, so they come from four billion years ago, whatever the number is. But it's impossible for me to think about four billion years, how long that actually is, so I think about when I'm making a sound of it, maybe that's the way of quantifying it. And the answer is no (laughs). But it's a question, at least. So, on this record, there's ordinary noises, and then there's extraordinary noises. There's noises of coffins closing that were recorded from the inside, so if you were buried alive, that's the sound you would have heard or that you'll hopefully never hear. That's not a sound you'd necessarily recognize or know. And then there's the sound of breakfast cereal, the sound maybe you've heard for 30 years, 34 years. So does one piece of music have more emotional impact if subconsciously you recognize the sound? Do people respond to that more than one with extraordinary noises? By being deliberately obtuse about where I got the sounds from, or by doing it a different way, I'm hoping to find some answers, so I can make the next record more emotional or more powerful. A lot of my work, in many ways, is leading to a point where I make a record and don't tell anybody what the sounds are and see if it has some kind of emotional or political impact.

In contrast to that slyness, there are pretty broad strokes with the lyrics here, like, "Something isn't right," or "I don't feel love." You use a lot of big ideas and there's a directness on Scale that wasn't necessarily present on previous albums.

I'm very grateful to have the lyrics while making a record like this, because they become shorthand to provide an emotional response to these stories. So, instead of writing songs about meteorites, and what they might mean in terms of life and sex, or how they fit into my life or the general life of the planet or how they fit into a world that George Bush dreams of, I can just make a piece of music out of meteorites and then talk about my emotional reaction to that. It serves a dual political function, because it's not just emotional about subjects that are talked about with literary precision, "weapons of mass destruction" or something. Politically, it says, "Wow, I feel bad about this, this is fucked up. I don't have to explain myself. It's fucked up. It's not right. I won't follow you into the night. I won't just be forced into following your dark shit." But the second thing it does, politically, is it creates a world free from words like Starbucks, things that are like pollution in my life. So I don't have to pollute verbally by maybe using a Starbucks Frappuccino in my track, deconstructing it and reassembling it.

I read about you wanting to work on a disco record using sounds associated with cancer. Did that ever happen?

No, the guy never returned my email. I'm going to try to get him again. I love the idea of a feel-good record made out of disease. It's something that really appeals to my dark side.

I remember a few years ago, you were talking about doing an R&B album. Did that turn into Ruby Blue?

No. I did write it, I worked with a singer and it never got finished. I've just got a bunch of instrumentals on the shelf. Actually, it sounds more contemporary now than when we did it. When we did it, it sounded quite disparate, but now it sounds modern.

R&B is the most progressive commercial genre, I think.

It's amazing, isn't it? It's a shame about the lyrics.

You know, they're broad, but it's the soul tradition, to make the clichés listenable, to sell them. Maybe I just forgive a lot.

I'm not so forgiving.


Links
Matthew Herbert
Scale Mini-Site
Accidental Records
K7



By: Rich Juzwiak
Published on: 2006-06-08
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