What Was Matmos Thinking?

Published October 12, 2012

On Matmos’s new album, The Ganzfeld EP, the duo tried a new recording technique: telepathy. They recruited some 50 people to speak into microphones while Matmos’s Drew Daniel tried to psychically transmit ideas to them. The deluxe version also includes a kit that will allow listeners to set up a similar experience.

It was another unconventional step for Matmos, which also includes Martin (M.C.) Schmidt. The group has gained notice for its practice of mining the sounds of reality for sonic recuts. On “A Chance to Cut Is a Chance To Cure,” they took the sounds of the surgery room and used them as fodder for oddly melodic avant-garde tracks. On “The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast,” they paid tribute to influences like William S. Borroughs by using instruments including a cow uterus [pictured, above].

Matmos, which is a romantic couple in addition to a musical one, spoke to Interview about their new work, celebrating a 20-year anniversary, and their legacy.

ROLAND LI: How did you make the new album?

DREW DANIEL: Our records are always described as concept albums, and I wanted to take that to its logical extreme by setting up a situation where the concept was triggering things in the minds of other people. So telepathic research seemed like the best way to isolate the thinking mind with its concept. We had people on a mattress relaxing, listening to white noise on headphones with their eyes covered. I would sit in another room with my eyes covered and try to transmit the concept of the new Matmos album. They were told to empty their minds and describe what they were hearing and we made the record out of that.

LI: What was the concept you were trying to convey?

MARTIN SCHMIDT: Drew won’t even tell me.

DANIEL: Yeah, I’ll never tell anyone what I was thinking, because I want it to remain a pure conceptual situation, in which the private content of one mind will be causally responsible for the outcome. I’ve never told Martin, I’ve never told any of the subjects, because I think the project would then collapse into either verifying or debunking telepathy, and I’m not interested in contributing to either side of that debate. It has to have a musical component that’s compelling even if you don’t appreciate the concept at all.

LI: Do you think music is more about concept or just pleasurable sounds?

SCHMIDT: Music is a really weird art form. It really occupies a place like nothing else. I don’t know. Music can be used as so many things. It can used as a distraction. It can be used as a tool to bring attention to something.

DANIEL: It can be used as a torture device.

SCHMIDT: Frequently, what Drew puts on in the car is torture for me and total pleasure for him. Overall—it sounds like a jackass to say it—but I think it’s about illuminating life.

DANIEL: I think concepts are entertainment for me.

LI: Specifically, what do you consider the goal of your music to be?

SCHMIDT: I can load it with baggage, but when it’s heard in another setting, I have no control over how it’s received, and I love that.

DANIEL: Hopefully, it can flow in both directions. I like that our work can be not heard but just described through process. But it’s also fun to make the concepts into a musical form. Like our song “Green Triangle” has the idea of “phoniness.” How would I express that through sound? For me, there’s a particular software that can model fake human voices and convey that idea. It’s like solving a puzzle. We’re usually working with real stuff, like we made a record out of surgery, so it’s exciting when someone asks you to do something fake.

LI: I wanted to go back to the idea of process. You guys are known for unconventional techniques. How did you get attracted to experimental instruments?

DANIEL: Definitely. We’re ripping off dead French guys like Pierre Henry’s Variations for a Door & A Sign and Pierre Schaeffer’s synthesizers.

LI: Did you start out in experimental music?

SCHMIDT: I never listened to any pop music until I was 16. My father kept me on classical—not cruelly, but I heard nothing except classical until I was 16. I could see that the kids who beat me up in intermediate school were into this rock music, so I kind of didn’t want anything to do with it. But I realized I should grow my hair long and listen to this hard rock music, and I stopped getting beaten up.

DANIEL: I was a breakdancer when I was 17, so I started on hip-hop. Then I got into punk rock, and I was straight-edge. There was no experimentation, but then I got into noise and industrial. And I had been jerking off to William S. Borroughs because of the descriptions of gay sex, but they also had descriptions of elaborate uses of tape recorders.

LI: How does technology impact our music?

SCHMIDT: What’s amazing about technology is you figure that recording has all these decisions. In electronic music, the tools and results are often collapsed together, like all laptop music is one genre, when obviously it’s not. I think the freedom that we have to cut and paste is extremely radical, but people are shy about that because they’re attached to the idea of warmth and human process. But I think it’s exciting when those concepts are stretched between warm and cold. I kind of like music that can’t make up its mind.

LI: Did you start out playing instruments?

SCHMIDT: I took piano lessons when I was 12, but I got all Fs when I was in sixth grade, and my father took me out of them, the only thing I was good at. Dumb father.

DANIEL: I had no musical training, but I was into tape recorders because of Borroughs. But Martin taught me what I can do now.

SCHMIDT: It was really just a pick-up technique, but the guy just won’t leave.

LI: [laughs] How has being in a relationship affected your work?

DANIEL: I don’t know what’s parasite and what’s host anymore. We’re like a band that’s been infested by a couple. We’re so bonded on a molecular level that it’s hard to imagine a post-breakup Matmos. Our 20th anniversary is on Halloween, so this show at 285 Kent is going to be our anniversary show, which is crazy. In gay years, that’s like 1,000 fucking years.

LI: What are your differences creatively?

DANIEL: We take turns on being in charge of albums. Martin is more likely to pick up an object and make music with it. I’m more conceptual. Martin is just a better musician than I am.

SCHMIDT: Damn right!

LI: You just switched labels from Matador to Thrill Jockey. What prompted that?

DANIEL: Matador was cool, they were nice to us. But after 12 years, we were like that overstaying guest and we felt we were supposed to leave. I was sad about it, but we called up Thrill Jockey and they were really supportive. So many of the Baltimore folks are on Thrill Jockey, too.

LI: Do you feel that music has value anymore?

DANIEL: That’s why I wanted to pursue this conceptual project, I think that debate of whether music is attached to physical stuff ties into that. I think it still does, but increasingly, younger people don’t feel tethered to that at all. Your release becomes purely files, which has changed how titles work for us and how the data inside the song changes. Our new songs start out with a loud sound from the recording process, so you get a sense of the art.

SCHMIDT: Here’s my speech that I give to kids. How many people have their hard drive from 12 years ago? Not many. I still have records from high school, because they’re still objects. I don’t think my friends who are 24 will have that file when they’re 30 or 40.

DANIEL: I like to pull my copy of Misfits’ Legacy of Brutality off the shelf. I have fanaticism, which is a material thing in the world. You can always replace files, but it’s not the same.

LI: What do you want Matmos to be remember for?

SCHMIDT: Outstanding quality. Drew?

DANIEL: I hope people would become extremists, like the idea that I would burn my flesh with a cigarette to pursue a concept, or we would go into a sterile operating room to pursue sound there. I would hope that I contributed to the history of sound as a way of thinking about the world and dealing with the world. And that’s the most grandiose thing I can think of. You don’t get to write your own ticket, and I like that what you thought you were changes over time. When we started, we wanted to make squelchy acid techno.

THE GANZFELD EP IS OUT OCTOBER 16, AND MATMOS PLAYS 285 KENT TOMORROW, OCTOBER 13. FOR MORE ON THE DUO, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.