Molly Sheridan: We often start these interviews with a question along the line of “So how did you first get into music?” That often spawns this litany of conservatory experiences and childhood music teachers.
M. C. Schmidt: That won’t be the problem with us. [laughs]
Drew Daniel: I was into punk rock in high school and through reading William S. Burroughs learned about cutting up language and decided to try to cut up sound. So I got a bunch of tape decks and made noise on my own. My sort of “musicality” if I have any is at the level of editing—that’s what I like to do. It’s not very sexy. I’m pretty much self-taught, except that Martin’s really taught me everything I know about how to sequence and how to use computers to edit sound.
MCS: A very long time ago. We don’t have that relationship anymore, the “I teach him things relationship”—that was 16 years ago.
MS: And Martin, how did you get into this?
MCS: I, uh, fell in love with a drummer in high school, and I wanted to do anything to be with him—it didn’t work, by the way. But I was like, I had piano lessons when I was 12. I can play music. Can I be in your band? And I was, briefly, until I drove them insane. They were like, “OK, you can play the synthesizer.” And they had a—for synth nerds, it was a Korg MS 20. But you know, I didn’t know what a synthesizer was. Never thought about it. I sort of learned how to use it to play and we played, you know, classic music conservatory songs such as “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group, which—do you know that song?—
[They sing it.]—which I could do. And they were like, “You do that? That’s pretty cool. You can be in the band.” One riff. That’s the audition, and I passed.
DD: By the time I met you, you knew all about noise and experimental music.
MCS: Well, it was clear after six years or so that it wasn’t going to work out between me and Steve, though we are still the best of friends. But I had acquired all this knowledge because I didn’t actually give up on being with him and using music. And you know, music’s kind of interesting. It really just gave and gave, and so I stuck with it. It was revealed to me that I was a tech nerd by doing this. I actually had aptitude as much for how the synthesizer worked and how to string things together as I did for playing the actual keyboard—how pitches were created became, in a way, more interesting than what pitches were being played. And that ties right into the rest of our career.
DD: We always begin with sound and primarily non-musical objects and try to play with them in an immediate, direct, naïve, percussive way, typically. Then we’ll record that and spend a lot of time chopping that up into the most articulate or most exciting or most attention-seeking sounds that a given object will make. And then that gets layered into percussive loops. And then Martin will play riffs out of noises. We don’t really start with an emotion that we’re intending to express, so it’s not personal or cathartic in any way. And we don’t tend to start with a melodic idea; we don’t write notated music. We start with a conceptual hunch about an idea, then—
MCS: What question are you answering?
DD: Well, just what we do.
MCS: She said, “How did you get into this?”
DD: I guess we got into it as a result of being interested in each other. Matmos began—
MCS: Again with the sex.
DD: —as a courtship. We’ve been in that relationship—
MCS: That worked out.
DD: —and a band for the last, we can’t remember if it’s 16 or 17 years. It’s always been both at once. I think that makes the collaborative feedback loop between us very productive, but also very cantankerous.
MCS: I don’t know what he’s talking about.
DD: I say feedback loop sincerely, in that—
MCS: For example, you’re on my stool. How is it that this always happens? Like, it was over here.
DD: Get up.
[They trade stools]
MS: All that said, in the end you guys make pretty sophisticated music. You just picked that up while living together and record shopping?
MCS: I’m not sure. Do we? Like the relationships between the pitches in what we do? I don’t know; we’re pretty one-four-five, sort of—or less.
DD: It’s gotten more and more elaborate over the years. It started much simpler. I think as we’ve made more recordings, we’ve gotten more willing to work with others who can kind of complete our gaps, or our ignorance. So if we need someone to play in a Baroque style, we’ll ask Sarah Cahill to play piano for a synthesizer part that Martin devised. Or if we need strings to reflect something that we’ve already built out of noises, but that needs support from that language, then we’ll ask somebody like the composer Jefferson Friedman to write a string part. So some of this sophistication is prosthetic. It’s not our sophistication. It’s other people’s expertise that we kind of fast-talk into helping.
Often when we work in collaborative ways, I feel like Ripley in Aliens, when she gets in the giant robot suit, you know? When you have the Kronos Quartet playing a string part that you designed out of ridiculous cut up samples, and they’re taking it so much further because of their abilities, it’s really exciting. But we have to give credit where it’s due. I think the sophistication is maybe in the chemistry, rather than in our master plan.
MS: You have your own way of working together, but how do you then communicate what kind of music you want to someone like Sarah Cahill?
MCS: Stumblingly. For that piece on Supreme Balloon, I literally couldn’t think of a better way to communicate to her what the hell we were trying to do than by bringing her the actual synthesizer. I created this sound, but I was like, oh, this sound wants to have Baroque music played on it. And I just decided, why reproduce something badly when there’s so much excellent Baroque music out there? But I’m not the one with the knowledge to choose the right piece to go with the sound. Gee, who do I know who has on tap an encyclopedic knowledge of music that would know? And she sure did. I left it with her for a week, and we came back and she had, like, 12 pieces for us to choose from. Though she thought it hilarious the idea of playing music on a two-octave keyboard.
DD: Yeah, the bottlenecks of consumer electronics kind of hamper and befuddle people from the classical world sometimes. What we bring to our collaborations is years and years of hounding through thrift stores and listening to a lot of music. A lot of that music sometimes isn’t respected by people who have a very traditional musical education.
For example, we have a piece that’s a sort of homage to Martin Denny’s lounge music, and we wanted to have So Percussion play that piece. We said, “Oh, you know, do a Martin Denny-style.” And they just looked at us. These are people who can play Reich and Xenakis forwards and backwards, literally; they’re just so steeped in that tradition. Then here’s this other world of percussion music, but—because it’s lounge, it’s kitsch, it’s novelty—it’s not respected. They just didn’t know that world. If you’re a hound who’s been buying 25-cent records your whole life, you know about all these things that have no cultural capital. They have no cache, but they’re amazing. That’s the fun part, I think, about collaborating sometimes is that you can cross wire your emotional investment in certain styles onto people who maybe have no relationship there. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but it can be really fun when it does. And they did a great job.
MCS: Once we actually played them a few of the records and they laughed and laughed and sort of spoke in their code about what was being done. You know, it’s like talking to an electrician or something, like, “Well, that’s a double wire with triple ply over there.” We were like, “Oh, yeah—anyway, it’s cool, huh? Can you do that?” And they were just flawless out the gate.
DD: That’s the good thing about their education. They see things in your favorite songs that you don’t even perceive; you don’t even know that they’re there.