On Being a Pomegranate in a Bowl of Apples and Oranges
Molly Sheridan: Do you guys, speaking artistically but very personally then, get more out of how you make the music than what the actual end product is?
M. C. Schmidt: No.
Drew Daniel: I hope not. The conceptualizing is a big source of pleasure when you’re figuring out, “Okay, what are we going to do?” But then once you’ve done it, you’ve got a real problem of how you make it worth people’s time. How do you make it something that they want to hear more than once?
MCS: What we do is not experimental music in the sense of a lot of people’s work where it’s, “We did the experiment; these are the results.” We want to make something that’s listenable music.
DD: And to us that’s pop music. Pop music and noise texture might be the formula for what we’re doing, in that we don’t have any squeamishness about atonality and obnoxious, disgusting, or unpleasant texture, but we have the kind of ears that like bass lines and snare parts and high hat rhythms and the sort of architecture of pop. I want both.
MCS: Though I also like the dissolving breakdown of free improvised music.
DD: When you listen to “real” pop music, that’s often where you get the kind of junk food feeling of like, couldn’t you take a risk? Why does it have to be shaped the way it’s shaped?
MCS: Every single time.
DD: Why does it never fall apart? Why is it so clean? So yeah, it sort of puts us in a weird hybrid place, maybe that nobody wants; we’re too poppy for noise people but we’re too fucked up for pop people. That’s why I like the new music world; they’re used to making music for whoever has the ears to listen. That’s one of the cool things about Baltimore—it’s so thorny and self-sufficient and kind of up for anything. Going to concerts for a year in this city, I’ve only once or twice seen a show where there was a laptop or drums-bass-guitar-singing. I mean, people just don’t express themselves through those standard modes. And it’s mostly economic.
MCS: I don’t think it’s mostly economic. There’s also clearly like a fierce, “I don’t want to hear your tired old rock music bullshit.”
DD: Or your tired old techno.
It’s hard to know where our audience is nowadays. Because when we started there was this very utopian moment about electronica; that it was going to be this music of the future. This was a time of dot.com startups and web money fever and a lot of change in San Francisco. Somehow that produced electronic music that wasn’t dance music but that wasn’t noise. And then it very quickly turned into this very redundant way to soundtrack a boutique or a Volkswagen commercial. And so the bottom fell out of that economically, but aesthetically, too. It’s left us with kind of a question mark about who likes what we do. That’s what’s weird when we go on tour. In one city we have all these strange Björk stalkers and in another city it’s all queer kids and kids from the art school, and then in London it was a lot of new music people and composers.
MCS: It’s hard to know who listens to us, but clearly people do because people keep coming to our shows and somebody buys those CDs. And I think lots more people steal the music.
DD: Yeah, for sure. We meet a lot of kids who are like, “I love your music,” and we ask them, “Well, what albums do you have?” and they’re like, “None.”
MCS: “But [awkward pause] it’s really good.”
DD: They have whatever they’ve downloaded, whatever they’ve found.
MCS: I hate, hate that for what we do. Not because of the money thing at all, but because of the very thing that you were talking about: They don’t get the liner notes.
DD: And they don’t get the arc, the narrative of an album that is something that starts here and takes you through a sequence of experiences and ends here.
MCS: And this singles culture of iTunes where, like, “Oh, yeah I’ll just download the really poppy catchy ones.”
DD: Or I’ll look at the ones already downloaded and that must mean that’s the best one, so I’ll just pay for that one-dollar one because everybody else liked that one. It’s a very porn way of approaching content, that you fast-forward to the money shot in everything. You don’t need to wait.
That’s why it’s fun to make a song that’s twenty-five minutes long. Because then, even if they just get that, they’re forced to deal with something that’s cumulative and that only works if you let it be cumulative. That’s why I like minimalism. That’s why I like Robert Ashley and Charlemagne Palestine and Folke Rabe and Eliane Radigue, people whose work only happens if you give it an hour. You get something out of it that you can’t get in three minutes. Our culture really doesn’t want to know that that’s true. Maybe touring and presenting minimalism is the only place where that can still happen, where you can guarantee that it’s not just somebody doing the dishes while it’s playing out of crappy computer speakers over there. It’s never been more important than now.
MS: I don’t want to belabor the Björk connection, but I watched a clip of you performing with her and I’m curious about how that impacted your own work. You were playing two roles there: you were being Matmos, and you were also musicians in someone else’s band with its own necessary artistic restrictions. When you walked away from that experience, what stuck with you?
MCS: Certainly feeling that we were allowed legitimately to work with string players. There are all these people out there who play instruments that belong in the orchestra but who are not part of an orchestra and who would love to play on something. You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who says, “Oh, yeah, I play bassoon; I don’t really have much occasion to, but actually I’m a really good bassoonist.” And it’s really fun to work with them. I think something about sitting with the orchestra and hearing how stoked they were to be part of something that wasn’t playing—
DD: —the same Mozart and Beethoven pieces over and over. I think if we hadn’t worked with Björk on Vespertine, we wouldn’t have done some of the things that we’ve done since. It showed us a way to work with others that immediately started to effect the way we made Matmos records. In terms of the tour, I don’t think we had pushed ourselves. I was terrified and I said, “I don’t think we can do this.” And she said, “No, you can.”
MCS: It overwhelmed us when we started it and then by the time we were not scared anymore, it was too late and I think we were too safe with her. What we did for her backing stuff was too conservative.
DD: We got intimidated by the responsibility.
MCS: Which you can imagine. We went from playing for 150 people to playing for 5,000 people, and that was because it was a weird tour where she played in small places.
DD: And then on the Greatest Hits tour, playing shows to 60,000 people. You’re going from playing a noise show to 20 people who are staring right at you and it’s scary because if you fuck up they can see, to this pop music delivery system which is massive, lots of people’s careers are at stake and on the line and so you have to be very brave and very fearless to not let the context of scale throw you off. She’s been doing it long enough that she has the confidence for everybody. At Coachella, my computer crashed on stage and the whole show grinds to a halt. She thought it was funny and kept rolling and did a Meredith Monk cover with Zeena [Parkins]. Things like that, that you can do because you have something inside you that is strong enough to support the whole show. She’s got enough of a musical backbone that it’s okay even if we fuck up royally, which we did sometimes. So it was fun and scary and mostly really positive. Obviously a lot more people are interested in our work now because of the work that we did with her.
MCS: Honestly I think that’s what we mostly walked away with: a lot more people interested in what we do, which we’re eternally grateful for.
DD: The thing that I’ll hammer at a bit because it gets distorted is just the extent of what we really did, which was a lot of programming and arrangement work, but we didn’t produce Vespertine. We didn’t have the role that sometimes, when you’re a male electronic musician and you’re standing next to Bjork, you are given by the press.