CTM.13: Free association with Matmos
Piotr Tkacz: I thought we could start with a word association game instead of the usual questions and answers. I’ll go first: snow.
Drew Daniel: White.
Martin Schmidt: Cocaine.
DD: Oh, dad.
DD: Dad [laughs].
MS: Book. So boring, sorry.
DD: Credit card.
MS: I don’t know, I have an image of a credit card in my mind… Numbers.
[At this moment someone knocks on the door and turns out to be a photographer from a French newspaper. After the break no one remembers where we were in our game]
MS: Maybe we should go traditional.
DD: We could unpack the implications of what was just happening. Because with free associations, you expect you are going to be honest, immediate and direct. But you feel that pressure of saying the clever or the smart thing, or being funny. So I guess it stages the way that being honest vs. being impressive are counter imperatives. It flags the importance of feeling relaxed or feeling trust. Like free association and the analytic scene is the same because you should disclose the truth about yourself, but you worry about what the analyst will think. Are they judging me?
MS: Are they writing an article about me and publishing it? [DD laughs]. I’d better be careful with those answers.
DD: It’s also about how you reveal yourself vs. the question of what if ‘your self’ is banal or boring.
MS: I think we came up strongly on the banal [everyone laughs].
DD: Well, like when you said „nose” I said „dad” because my father is a cosmetic surgeon and as soon as I’m talking about my dad Martin then says „trouble”, like, „Oh, no, not Drew’s father again.” So I think it was producing some self-revelation, but I don’t know.
MS: But do people really care about this? Do they want to read about our record? I don’t know.
DD: I suppose it’s a question of whether you trust that people are being honest to their initial associations. I remember playing this game as a kid, when I was in the closet, and I played it with someone I had crush on, he said „sex” and I immediately thought „men” but said „bed”. It was revealing: the moment of supposedly being honest, of being who you are, was the moment of total self-consciousness and denial, lying. So I’d associate this game with…
DD: Well, with a certain painful thing, that some people’s selves are more acceptable to participate in free association.
It’s like a test: you may not know the good answers but you know what the bad answers are, so you try to avoid them.
DD: Right. The ethically good person can freely associate because they have nothing to be ashamed of but the wicked person does, so they can’t freely associate and the scene of being honest is not real. But maybe nobody is being honest, I don’t know.
Ok, maybe I should ask about your new record. So, was there a point when you thought of not releasing this record?
DD: Oh yes.
I’m asking also in the context of telepathy.
MS: With telepathy in mind, I think Drew sort of thought he was finished with this record about two years ago and he wasn’t being true to his own concept. He had done more covers, there were other songs which mainly he had done and they were true to the concept of taking stuff from the psychic examinations and I had this kind of revolution, like saying,
„No. This is not our album.” At this point, it looked like we were maybe not going to ever make it at all.
DD: So Martin kept me honest. I think that’s the thing, that once you commit to the concept – it comes from Sol LeWitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, he says – „the idea is a machine that creates the work.” You are just executing this formula.
MS: He was doing sort of Sol LeWitt, so have a bunch of those lines and then he was like, „But what if they were pink and red, maybe we’d put a big wash of color” [both laugh]. It’s not the idea, it may be beautiful, but that’s not what we were supposed to… I mean, there has to be push-pull.
DD: Yeah, I think we walked a line between being experimental and conceptual and being pop, basically wanting people to listen to some bass lines, enjoy some kicks and snares patterns. Balancing those imperatives, for better or worse, is, I think, what we do.
MS: I mean, we try to run the gamut on the record, where a song like „Ross Transcript” (that’s what I think it is called) is like the guy said, „Oh, I hear the sound of someone walking with a bucket of water.”
DD: No, that’s „Mental Radio”…
MS: Both of those are really close to exactly following the transcripts. So we recorded walking with the bucket and then cut it and cut it. It would be the most literal way of translating one of those psychic sessions. Whereas the least literal is „Tunnel” which is sort of collage of a bunch of different people’s [sessions], Drew just chose different images.
DD: Yeah, one girl said, „I hear the music like I’m in a filthy club” and someone said, „I hear mass chanted singing”, so we got a bunch of our friends to growl and make caveman-like noises and then layer it onto something chuggy and harsh. That’s not so literal, that’s a kind of bricolage of contents of lots of psychic sessions. Sometimes it’s literal, sometimes not, I think that is to produce a record that flows and moves trough a lot of different genres and territories rather than something which is a purely musique concrète-like academic exercise, which…
MS: Which would be super fun too, we could make twenty more records. Really, it’s such a generative idea.
So would you say this frame of working pushed you in the directions in which you wouldn’t go otherwise?
DD: Definitely. Left to our own devices I think we wouldn’t make a record with people singing. I mean, there are so many records with singing, so much pop music, why add to this surplus. But so many of psychic transcripts were like, „I hear chanting”, „I hear a voice”. So we felt we had to go in this direction because that was what transcripts were giving us. I have to say there was a lot of fun to this, like in „Ross Transcript” where it says, „There are those cartoony voices arguing”, Martin and I got to make those characters and sort of freak out and layer that with espresso machine noises. Then there were other songs that really wanted to go in quite a different emotional direction of something more precise and more melodic, like someone saying, „I hear this five-note melody which is long”.
MS: I mean, I don’t know, another answer to this question would be: no, it didn’t really push us to go in any direction. On the other hand, we didn’t decide what we were going to do – but did we do stuff that’s massively outside our…
DD: Yeah, we did, we would never do a song like „E.S.P.” if it weren’t for the sense that in order to justify covering The Buzzcocks you can’t try to sound like punk rock but you’ve got those riffs, so what do you do with the idea of a guitar riff – you can massively slow it down to the tempo of doom metal, or you can make it incredibly abrasive and fast like in black metal, or you can go in the sort of joyous, surf-pop direction. In order to justify its existence at all it had to mutate. I don’t think I would have sat down and thought, „Matmos fans really want to hear us trying to be doom metal” – no, they don’t. But it’s what we did.
Do you feel responsibility – I mean being responsible for what’s on the record, like if someone says, „It’s a bad record” and you could answer, „We had to do that because we were told to.” [everyone laughs].
MS: No, no, we are completely responsible.
DD: Yeah, we are guilty. It’s funny because when you said „responsibility”, I assumed you would be talking about that we are putting people in this very vulnerable position, telling them to relax, calm down, tell us whatever comes to their mind and then we take it and share with thousands of people.
But they knew beforehand it was going to be like this.
DD: Well, we didn’t tell them we are going to use their voice. But there were some sessions where people revealed quite a lot and we didn’t use those, I thought, that’s not cool.
MS: We do put the people’s names, whose sessions they are, on the cover.
DD: There was a certain amount of protecting people from embarrassing themselves, which maybe is us being responsible. I think we have a tendency, maybe it’s pretentious, to disavow our responsibility for the art, like, „Oh, the objects just wanted to be this way”, as if we had no role to play in all of this. Of course it depends on our limitations also, there are things we are not going to try, as much as we say that a genre could go in any direction there are probably certain things that we just can’t do. But that’s why we call our more talented friends.
I wasn’t able to see yesterday’s performance [at CTM], so could you tell me…
DD: We were awesome [laughs].
Yes, that I know. But apart from this, I’m interested how the pieces on the record relate to the performance.
DD: We try to bring to the stage something of the process of the Ganzfeld experiments themselves. So the show starts with Owen Gardner, our guitarist, sitting in a chair, with headphones covering his ears, white lenses covering his eyes. He is listening to the recording of a psychic session and he is repeating out loud everything that someone said in the session. So it’s like the person laying down had been turned from horizontal to vertical. Above him there is a video projection which is a collage of different sessions. Then we gradually build it into the song „Very Large Green Triangles”. The audience is seeing the whole seven minutes of the original session and they have to be in this slowed down, meditative, empty space of just watching a weird, expressionless face saying this odd things and then it turns into this giant pop song. So we try to-
MS: We try to demonstrate the entire idea.
DD: It’s kind of didactic, the concert starts with the way of modeling the process which created all the music and then over the course of the show we are playing a lot of songs from the record but also reaching in our catalogue very far back, we’ve played songs from A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, Civil War. It’s a four-piece, we have a drummer and a guitarist, so it’s a little more rock’n’roll Matmos show than anybody has a right to expect. It’s a little bit odd, we have solos…
MS: We are not a guy with laptop.
DD: Yeah, we think of it as very bold, because we aren’t like those bold persons making ice-cold techno, square beats. But probably people who go to see rock music every night think, „Yeah, right”.
MS: And we are kind of crappy for that [both laugh]. Our guitar player sits down the whole time.
DD: He doesn’t rock out. I have a problem when we do a doom metal part, I want to be banging my head but my glasses would fall. I hope at least it’s compelling that we are really moving across a lot of genres in a space of an hour. So we play this doom metal intro, then it goes into black metal with blast beats and then country & western, by the end of the show we play „Foggy Mountain Top”, and we have disco and fake Ethiopian music in-between.
MS: I swear to God we are the most accurate for what this festival says that it’s all about.
DD: The other theme is that we are at the point of total oversaturation: it’s too easy to make anything, so, what are we going to do with this fact that there is overabundance of ways to express?
MS: Anybody can listen to any kind of music at any time, so we are trying to make all kinds of music [laughs].
DD: And probably failing at all of it. The thing that haunts me a bit is that music now is about being reliable, reliably delivering precise aesthetics and feeling, carefully and clearly.
MS: I think that’s the response to the horrible ever-present marketplace. You know, we got dropped by our last label, Matador, for… basically we didn’t sell enough records, and the reason for that is we don’t deliver one thing reliably. Most music makers’ response or labels’ response is to make a product that is more and more predictable.
I was going to say that we’ve always had other jobs, but – I don’t have another job right now, he’s got a great job though, so we are not doing this for the money, so why would we-
DD: Compromise. Yeah, we don’t need to make music to survive, we make music when we feel like it. That independence, which probably means: they are bourgeoisie dilettantes with a pastime…
MS: Which is possibly true.
DD: That’s fine. I think it means we are sort of unreliable in respect to genres, and I like that but I realize that’s a tough-sell. Most people don’t want a record which is ten different genres, they want a certain feeling for an hour. But what we do is less escapist because it’s not giving you a way to imagine that you are in a white cube of minimalism or something. We are not a soundtrack for someone’s journey to another world, we are more like the world. [points to table covered with junk] Look at all the crap on the table, there is way too much, too many things on it.
Do you think it could change, this compartmentalization, that people want precisely one thing at a time? What’s affecting it?
MS: In a way, you know – there are eight billions people in the world, or something like that, so there is enough people that they only do one thing [laughs]. Maybe that’s the natural solution to there being so many people.
DD: I mean, it’s so self-flattering and sort of gross to say but I feel there is over time a certain set of people who always made the sorts of records that we aspire to make. Whether it’s Throbbing Gristle with 20 Jazz Funk Greats or Van Dyke Parks with Song Cycle, there have always been people who made records which are very promiscuous about genre. So I don’t feel all that lonely when I think about the people that I want to be aligned with, or who I take inspiration from and I’m sure there will continue to be people who work that way. I don’t really worry about whether that’s going to increase in popularity or not, I think the challenge is always the same: how you make something that’s worth people’s time. That never gets easier.
I think music now is itself a field of discourse on the wane because of the competition with social media. People don’t go to shows, they are like, „Oh, I’m going to go there but first I need to check this one thing and this and this”, and 20 minutes pass, 40 minutes, an hour. Music as such, its capacity to insist on, „Just listen to me for 40 minutes” – that’s under threat. I think the only solution is through performance, to remind people what it’s really like to be present. Electronic music has a lot to learn about how to make that feeling happen.
MS: It’s curious, we have a friend in Baltimore, Dan Deacon, he whips kids into this frenzy. He sort of orders them around, my punk rock soul is deeply bothered by him. Because he is like, „Everybody stand up, everybody get into big line”, and it’s sort of in the name of fun and it’s all very interactive but – God! when someone on the stage yells at me I just want to be like, „Fuck you, I’ll do whatever I want, thank you very much.” But he engages everybody and they are all there for a reason. They are not sitting in front of the computer. I fear about our world that everyone will turn into jelly with just wires coming out.
DD: And maybe there is something pleasurable about openly being told, „Do this.”
Be sure to check a mix Matmos and Wobbly did for us