With an emphasis on cut-and-paste collages and bizarre field recordings, San Franciscan duo Matmos have created some unique and often disturbing electronic music.
Cast even a cursory glance at the list of sound sources on a Matmos album and straight away you know you're not dealing with any ordinary electronic duo. Alongside the more typical programming and playing credits, the San Francisco-based twosome have taken the notion of 'found sound' to its ultimate, quite possibly ridiculous conclusion. A typical Matmos track can feature contact microphones brushing human hair, the pages of a Bible turning, rock salt being crunched underfoot, aspirin tablets being thrown at a drum kit from the other side of a room, "amplified crayfish nerve tissue" and — oh yes — the very real sound of human fat being sucked through tubes during liposuction surgery.
With both their own releases and their studio/live work with Björk — they programmed much of 2001's Vespertine and toured the world with the Icelandic chanteuse in 2003 — the pair appear to be on an almost compulsive mission to seek out the most extreme and unusual audio elements to meld with their artful, angular electronica. Their latest album, The Civil War, boasts an unarguably unique concept: fusing the sounds of acoustic folk instruments like hurdy-gurdy and dobro with modular synths and recordings of human blood flow, made using an ultrasonic Doppler flow detector borrowed from a science museum.
Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel met in the early '90s when the latter relocated to the Bay Area from Louisville, Kentucky. While Schmidt's musical grounding was in industrial music and Daniel's was in hardcore US punk and leftfield electronica, the two initially bonded over an avant-garde '60s recording by Pierre Henry called Variations On A Door And A Sigh.
"It's an incredibly thorough exploration of a very stripped-down set of sounds," Drew explains. "Just the door of a country house in France and human breathing. He spent months and months cutting tape and creating this insane musique concrète piece out of this very restricted palette."
"We were both turned on by this," Martin continues, "so we wanted to do stuff like that. This was 1991 or something and I'd just been introduced to Sound Edit — at the time it was mono and eight-bit. So we spent hundreds of hours cutting together every stupid record and weird sound that we could think of and made this 60-minute musique concrète piece, which was probably 35 minutes of garbage and maybe 25 minutes of pretty good stuff."
"But it taught us to have faith in the process," stresses Drew. "Even though I don't think what we made was amazing, it was so fun to do. Then we started to make dance music patterns but have them play only these noisy, difficult, strange sounds. It was almost like the vocabulary was from industrial music and musique concrète, but the grammar was the cut-up of breakbeat techno. That's when we started sounding like Matmos."
Considering the reputation that Matmos are building as a unit operating on the more progressive fringes of electronic music, it's perhaps surprising that the pair freely acknowledge that they've very little interest in following developments in music technology, to the point where they don't even bother keeping up with software updates. "We aren't the most cutting-edge band as far as technology's concerned," Drew admits. "We're a funny sort of mixture of 1989 and 1993."
"No, it's later than that — we're up to '97," argues Martin. "We're not cutting-edge, but it's not like the equipment doesn't matter. We've always been more believers in really getting comfortable with what we've got rather than constantly updating and having to the learn the new damn way of doing things. Especially old people like me, y'know, I'm 40. I want all my components in separate steel boxes."
"We're very traditionally a cut-and-paste band," Drew states. "The cut-up is the core of what makes a Matmos song Matmos, whether the sound source is surgery or an acoustic guitar. It's always something that's getting put onto the screen and chopped into many fragments and then probably put into a sampler and then addressed through sequencing. So there's always an electronic component, but it's not all that different from the way that, y'know, the Art Of Noise worked."
Having grown from a cottage industry-like operation where Schmidt and Daniel released limited-edition runs of 1000 CDs on their own 'vanity label' Vague Terrain, Matmos continued mixing and recording everything in their home studio in San Francisco even after signing to US indie Matador. Their setup is based around a G3 Apple Mac with a MOTU 2408 interface, and they still run Mac OS 9, primarily to support the older versions of their key software tools. Their main sequencer has for years been MOTU's Digital Performer.
"Honestly, what I like about Digital Performer is that it's what I started with in 1987," declares Martin. "As far as MIDI sequencing and so on, there's a lot of parts of the interface that we don't even think about. It's the ideal thing where your tool is largely transparent to you. We literally aren't aware of upgrades because we're too busy working with it. When I heard that it was onto 4.0 or something, I was like 'Really?' One of these days, when I have an extra month to learn where they've put Copy and Paste..."
"Yeah, we're using 2.7 still, we're totally living in the past," laughs Drew. "I run Logic 4.7 on my G3 laptop. When we were on the Björk tour, Logic was a great sketchpad for me. It's not the environment where I make Matmos songs, but it's fun when you're on the road, putting together sequences in the hotel room. Frankly, the last time they updated Digital Performer, a lot of the changes were definitely for the worse. Like, for example, writing volume curves in audio, it's slower now, because you've got to go through the automation."
"It's probably much better for people who have those breakout digital mixing boards where it's all slaved to an external thing," Martin points out. "But that stuff kind of boggles my mind because I've got a mixing board. So now I'm gonna get a computer program that simulates a mixing board, and then get a mixing board to mix it? It's like wheels within wheels. The way we end up doing it is by writing the volume curves manually anyway, and where dynamic hands-on mixing is needed, I'm fine with just breaking everything out to individual channels in an actual mixer and riding the gains when we mix it down."
Drew adds: "The other thing is, for us, philosophically, because much of the point of our music is that you're able to recognise something about the object that's the source of the music, we're not particularly interested in massive amounts of signal processing or plug-ins."
"We almost never use a plug-in," explains Martin. "We have an outboard reverb — a Lexicon MPX500 — and that's about the only thing we'll ever add."
As far as other software is concerned, Drew in particular sings the praises of Macromedia's Sound Edit 16, Matmos's main tool when it comes to sound transformation. "It's a very, very simple but very dynamic program in which I can make all of the kind of pitch alterations and subtle stereo manipulations that I want. Then I just sample them flatly and they're triggered through MIDI. So we're not using a lot of audio files that are being run though truckloads of DSPs, because every single sound has been hot-rodded and tweaked and plucked in Sound Edit. That's often where we're making EQ changes as well. I mean the majority of what we do to transform samples is simply to crop them, pitch them and alter them, layer after layer after layer. I'm not putting it into some plug-in and wiggling the mouse until it sounds good. It's something that's much slower, more labour-intensive, but it's also maybe why our records have more character. You're not gonna hear something and recognise the plug-in."
"What was that VST one that was so on everything?" wonders Martin. "Shuffler. You'd hear something and think 'Ah, it's another Shuffler track.'"
The pair are similarly unfussy when it comes to their choice of hardware. Their main sampler is an Emu E6400, though they admit they still use their old Roland W30 in every session. "Drew's been using that thing since 1989," says Martin, "so his hand goes into an animated blur when he's working with it. It's only 12-bit, but obviously we're not into audiophile recording because these things are tweaked a lot."
As far as synths are concerned, they use a Korg Mono/Poly, a Roland SH101 and the newest addition to their stripped-down studio environment, the Korg MS2000B. "It has this remarkable feature of being able to remember your sounds, which I found amazing," Martin enthuses, mock-sarcastically. "You make a really cool sound and, damn, you press a few buttons and you can get it back later, which is sort of a new thing for me. We used that on the Björk tour. It was the main bass-line machine. Maybe not the best bass-line machine, to be honest, but it has a certain quality."
Given the extent to which Matmos's music relies on field recordings, you'd imagine that their choice of microphones might play a big part in their working methods. The answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. "Our first couple of records were made with not even a Shure 57," remembers Martin, "but a Shure 57 knock-off. I don't even know what brand it was. Then I started working at the San Francisco Art Institute, and I was in charge of the equipment check-out cage, so fortunately we then had Tascam DAP1 and Sony DA10 portable DAT machines and a bunch of Sennheisers — a couple of ME80s, an ME40 — and an Audio-Technica AT822, the stereo mic, we got to borrow all this stuff. When we made a little money we bought an AKG 414.
"Our initial strategy with any song is to either field-record or home record with some combination of microphones, straight into the DAT machine, whether it's playing a skull with chopsticks, or taking a mixdown of a song we had that sounded sort of like ducks and playing it to some ducks and then recording that using a Sennheiser binarual microphone, and then cutting that up and including it in the sequence."
The duo's most prized purchase of late is a Barcus-Berry 4000XL Planar Wave Transducer, the latest in a line of various contact microphones Matmos have bought or borrowed. "For years I used a Schaller Oyster which I think was made to stick on acoustic guitars," Martin says. "Now we've got this Barcus-Berry thing, which you're supposed to put in the sound hole of a piano. It comes with this special gooey tape stuff that you put in the piano and jam the thing down into. It takes phantom power and it's a real badass contact microphone, I gotta say."
Matmos's most strictly conceptual album to date, 2001's A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, used the sounds of plastic surgery to create techno patterns. All of these field recordings were made in California by Drew with patients who'd volunteered to have their operations committed to audio. "I recorded three nose jobs, a chin implant, two laser eye surgeries and two liposuctions," he recalls. "And I'm a real scaredy cat. I mean, I've passed out giving blood. So for me to be in the room was very disturbing.
"We had to really play the art card to get everyone to agree to it. Even then some surgeons really didn't trust me, for obvious reasons. It's a very litigious society in America and you're in a sterile environment and if anything bad happened to the patient, there'd be a terrible lawsuit. For example, I went to record a laser eye surgery and the surgeon said 'OK, but you can't be in the room, so I'm gonna tape your microphone over here and record the room sound.' Obviously I couldn't push him around. So what I got was this amazing recording of horrible electrical interference because they'd taped my microphone to a high-powered laser. You kind of have to work with what you get. But luckily that person had complications and had to go back for even more surgery! So this time I was able to put the microphone in their lap."
Drew admits that often, the more dramatic the surgical procedure, the less interesting the sound was when he got the tapes back home. "When they do the osteotomy in nose jobs, they slide a chisel inside the nose and they break the bones of the face with a hammer. But it kinds of sounds like a pencil hitting a desk or something, it's really boring. Whereas other things that are pretty humble are actually really great — some of the brushes that they use to clean wound areas are cool, and the inflatable life support blanket is really great. They lay it over the patient and there's air streaming into it and sometimes it sounded really nice. It's not dramatic, y'know, it's a blanket. But as audio, it had this constant whirring rush that was really soft and beautiful and if you moved the microphone across it, you could actually play it. You're in this environment that's so charged on the level of your sympathy as a human being, but you're also there to gather it as audio and so you're just thinking about it in terms of sound.
"The most disturbing operation I watched was this one forehead lift where they were severing the muscles in this woman's head through these incisions in her hairline and all of a sudden I noticed smoke coming out of the wounds as they cauterised the muscles. The sound was like bacon frying, which was her muscles burning inside her head. But a lot of the time what was more surprising is that a surgery room is a workplace like any other. Normally the surgeons would listen to music. They listen to the Beach Boys and stuff."
One important element in the creation of Matmos's music appears to be trying to match wildly different sonic elements, following idiosyncratic trains of thought. For instance, on 'Lipostudio' from A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, Drew says "We sort of thought, OK, liposuction is the sound of sucking through tubes, so we brought in a clarinet player and then we got Martin breathing and sucking through a pen in a bowl of water, so we're moving back and forth between the field recordings and the music." A similarly skewed process led to them blending a recording of their sometime collaborator Keenan Lawler playing a steel guitar in a sewer pipe with the sound of the blood rushing through Martin's veins recorded by the ultrasonic Doppler flow detector. "It was the same thing, we just felt the two things resembled each other," Drew adds.
Another favourite gizmo is an acupuncture point detector. "It's a little bit like a lie detector in that it measures, very crudely, the conductivity of your skin," Martin explains. "It's basically like a 9 Volt battery and a buzzer. You hold one end of the circuit in one hand and you press the other end against your skin. You can rub it along your arm and when you hit one of these acupuncture points, it buzzes, because it's more conductive there."
Having taken a distinct leftfield turn with A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure (see box, above) Matmos developed their fourth album, The Civil War, from an aborted project concentrating on pianos. "We bought a piano down in LA," Martin recalls, "and did this whole performance piece out in the desert where we filled with it with video cameras and microphones and dragged it behind a truck. But the piano songs weren't as easy to finish. So we took all the songs that weren't piano-centred and realised that they all hung together in this weird, folksy, war-like way."
The opening track of The Civil War, 'Regicide', has to be the first instance of a hurdy-gurdy being used on an electronic record, with Martin's recorded parts retooled by Drew in Sound Edit 16. "Our hurdy-gurdy is just two drone strings and then a string that you can play the 'melody' on," elaborates Drew. "It doesn't have the thing which baroque hurdy-gurdys have which is called the dog, the buzzing thing that you can use to play bass patterns. So we had to construct the artificial texture of the buzzing of the dog, which I did in Sound Edit by taking the sound of Martin's fingers tapping the keys and then distorting them and stripping out EQ until I had the right buzzes. Then I played with the phase of the sample. Martin had played a melodic line that I liked and I took each note and I bent the right and left channels slightly off of each other. Almost all the hurdy-gurdy sounds in 'Regicide', if you listen on headphones, the right and left channel are always swimming in and out of line with each other. It's like floor in the room is tilted or the tape is getting chewed up."
Two other tracks on The Civil War — 'Reconstruction' and 'Y.T.T.E.' — feature improvised experiments with Buchla and Serge modular synths recorded at Harvard University's Studio for Electro-Acoustic Composition. "We were doing a seminar there," Drew remembers, "and we knew that if we asked nicely we might get access to their really amazing modular synths. There was one feverish night when Keith Fullerton Whitman and Martin got to play them together. The recording was actually a blind date duet thing, where Keith was playing the Buchla and Martin was playing the Serge. They were just running patches and trying to coax the most eerie squeals out of these modular synthesizers. And you know that you're probably never going to be able to reprogram these sounds. It's like photographing a cloud or something."
One other key piece of equipment, used by Drew to create the skipping guitar solo in 'Y.T.T.E.' is the Numark Axis 8 DJ CD player. "It's a CDJ like the others but with a few more effects inside it. We started with a really over-the-top screaming psychedelic guitar solo and that was burned onto a CD that I scratched with a razor. So the CD of the solo is skipping and it's being skipped again and then it was recorded as audio into Digital Performer and then we cut it up again. So it had three levels of interference, and sometimes it's very obviously a guitar line and then at other times it's very obviously a CD skipping."
Perhaps it was inevitable that at some point Matmos's sonic experiments would come to the attention of the queen of otherworldly techno, Björk. After a friend had given the singer a copy of the duo's 1998 album Quasi-Objects, she apparently ordered another 25 copies to hand out to her friends. Soon after, she called the pair in San Francisco and asked them to do a remix of 'Alarm Call'.
"It was great for us," Drew admits, "because we weren't really sure of how to work with a vocal that hogs the mid-range and a lot of the frequencies that we normally fill with some freaked-out cut-up. So I spent a very long time with her lead vocal, chopping all the gasps out, 'cause she's such a gasper. I came up with this family of 36 different gasps and made the rhythm out of that for the first third of the song. We must have spent two weeks on that one remix. She called up and said [in a thick Icelandic accent] 'I am flabbergasted!'"
"So then," Martin continues, "it was like 'So I want you to be my band for live.' We were like 'What? I don't know if you've noticed, but we don't really make music.' She was like, 'No no it'll be fine... so it's all settled then?' She had a faith that was well-founded, I guess. People clapped and shouted."
Drew has his own theory about why Björk was so attracted to Matmos. "She has very pro environments around her, and so she likes to bring in a couple of people that are not like that at all. If she needs to get a string arrangement for the LSO then she'll get Vic Mendoza, but I think the appeal with us is that we're not professional in any way. We're kind of self-taught and everything is done on this really humble at-home level. She kind of likes to mix together people who know what they're doing with people who're just kind of oddballs."
The result was Matmos providing the electronic rhythm section for Björk's three-month world jaunt in 2003, in a touring band that also featured the Icelandic String Octet and harpist Zeena Parkins. The pair spent four months reprogramming 40 tracks from the singer's back catalogue, lifting elements from the original Logic tracks and transferring them into Digital Performer in the G3. And while their Emu 6400 was obviously flightcased and taken on the road, their faithful Roland W30 came too. "I use it to make live samples of Martin while he's playing an instrument because the turnaround time is so much faster than the Emu," says Drew. "It's just a really quick way to be in the moment and yet using a sampler. So why sacrifice it for something that's going to be so complicated that you've got to jump through five sub-windows before you can perform a task?"
Drew admits that they perhaps 'over-bullet-proofed' their setup for the tour, but points out that they still left enough room for on-stage improvisation of a typically Matmos-like nature. "On 'Hidden Place', some of the rhythms that were programmed are the sound of cards shuffling, so when we played it on stage, Martin would shuffle cards — it was like doing sound effects for a radio play. Then for the song 'Aurora', Martin would walk on rock salt to create the rhythm.
"What I do is kind of a different thing. For each song I have a family of 10, 15, 20 different patterns in Digital Performer and I sit and choose which ones come in when, just clicking on loops. I have a Peavey PC1600X with different parameters of the banks of sounds mapped to each fader controller."
Even though the system was supposedly bullet-proof, as you might imagine, the proceedings weren't entirely hitch-free. "Oh God," Drew squirms. "The worst crash was at the Coachella Festival in Palm Springs in front of 30,000 people. My system completely crashed five minutes before the show. We had all the fans going 'Björk! Björk!' and everyone was shitting themselves because we couldn't figure out what the hell was wrong. We thought we'd fixed the problem, we started the show and a few minutes into the first song, we realised that it still wasn't receiving MIDI. So we had this weird skeletal half-arsed thing going on with some of the bass lines and kick drums playing off the Logic rack and nothing at all coming off my rack. I was pretending to play a keyboard with my left hand and sort of smiling at the audience, and with my right hand I was restarting my computer over and over and over. It was your worst nightmare. Björk thought it was really funny, which is why she's a pretty good boss."
Looking to the near future, Matmos will be busy programming with Björk for her next album and getting ready to release a limited-edition EP of tracks created from the sounds of a squealing rat that they caught in a humane rodent trap in their house, as well as searching out ideas for their next full album. Recently the pair rebuilt their entire studio in the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts in San Francisco for a three-week installation, where they made music interacting with the public.
"We did improvs with five-year-old children every Wednesday and Friday and they were so fun," Drew notes, wryly. "So, I dunno, we might do an album called Matmos Loves The Little Children."