Curtain Up! Light the Lights!
Molly Sheridan: When you take your own albums out of the studio and you’re about to embark on a tour, like you just did with Supreme Balloon, there’s a lot of electronic equipment involved that’s very large and not something you’re going to pack in a van. I’ve seen some of these shows. [To Drew] You’re on stage with a laptop and [to Martin] you have a table set up just piled with stuff. What kind of theatrical planning goes into taking something from the studio to the stage? I know you’ve said that you don’t want to be a laptop show.
Drew Daniel: No, we don’t. And each time it’s different. It depends on the material. We try to reconstruct the sources.
M. C. Schmidt: That’s where it’s actually really fun to be us, in that the concept is utterly portable. So if we’re doing things that relate, then as far as I’m concerned we’re doing the song. Whether anyone would recognize it—if it was their favorite hit from the album or whatever—I still feel fully justified.
DD: That said, when we played at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, as soon as I started “Lipostudio” someone recognized the notes and started clapping. They knew exactly what we were doing.
MCS: [Sings the first three pitches of “Lipostudio”] They were like “Whoo-hoo, Lipostudio!” They knew the song and I was like, whoa, that’s scary, that they know them like they are songs.
DD: Often a piece that works really well on a record is not worth playing live if there’s no compelling reason—
MCS: —to do it live.
DD: And to make it loose and improvisatory. When we play live, I have a lot of control over a lot of rhythms and structures that are the spine of the piece, but Martin pretty much free solos on top. There are some pieces that are very tight on a record which become less interesting when they’re looser. So you have to think very carefully about what is actually worth people’s time. With pure electronic music, it’s much harder to make it genuinely live in a way that works. So with Supreme Balloon, for that tour we decided to start with something that would make the question of how you create electronic sound very mysterious and kind of gestural.
This is a light sensitive theremin called Dr. Bleep that we would set up at the front of the stage. We would be at the back of the hall, and it would be in total darkness. And then we would walk through the audience with these flashlights and shine them in the face of everyone in the audience. And then occasionally as we would do this, the light would cross Dr. Bleep and suddenly create a sound. So it produced a certain “What the hell is going on?” science fair-like aspect to at least the start of the show which is helpful, I think, in terms of conveying, “Yes, we’re really playing it and it’s live and it’s in the moment and it’s up to us to make the decisions to make the sound.” Because it’s just too easy to let it go and everything takes care of itself.
MS: But you’re kind of locked in because the video projections are set.
MCS: It’s why everything cross-fades, so that our transitions are like, “somewhere around here we go to the next part.” There’s no sound on the video. When we do the song “Supreme Balloon,” I frequently look up and, “Oh, it’s already at the swamp.” And we’re still in the beepily part—um, there aren’t musical names for these things.
DD: They’re loose graphic scores that we pay attention to, to get sections down, but if we’re ahead or behind it’s not a crisis. We’re not a playback DVD band where there’s a DVD and it’s rolling and we’re just looking busy while it’s taking care of things. Martin has said that he tries to make the video backdrops deliberately slightly dull, because you don’t want to produce a sort of television-like situation.
MCS: I want to make videos that you’re interested in about half the time. And at any time you could be half-interested in them. So if you get bored looking at us, then you can look at “oh, oh pretty.” And it unifies the stage.
DD: Sometimes there’s live video, too, which is a different story. We’ll just have a camera and it’ll be on a process that we’re doing live, just making something very small very large.
MCS: Or we did a piece frequently on the Rose Has Teeth tour where we had aluminum rods and a block of dry ice. And if you touch the tip of an aluminum rod into dry ice, the whole rod sings. So I had a couple of those, and we were doing video of the rods going into the ice, which ends up looking like this crazy sort of Antarctic landscape with giant metal rods. Anyway, it’s trippy.
MS: Can we talk about money? Because it seems like you could be making your living through your music, but you’ve chosen not to and almost distanced yourselves from having your income overlap with your art.
MCS: If we tried to make a living on what we did, we would make an extremely meager living. I think we could definitely live on it, especially here in Baltimore. I’m inclined to think that you start just naturally looking for ways to make a better living; it’s just the way that people think about work. And if your work is music, then you would pretty naturally would start thinking about what you can do to make this music more saleable to more people, which I think probably leads to evil.
DD: It seems like between the Europeans that we know and Americans that we know, there’s a very different funding reality. Most Americans who make weird music have a day job and most Europeans that we know who make weird music tap into various government funding sources and write grants and are able to live entirely off of their music. I think there are pluses and minuses to both situations. You can have a kind of a total honesty in what you’re doing when you don’t need to make a dime off of it, and so nothing is at stake financially—you can have complete freedom in terms of what you say. That said, if you’re not spending all of your time perfecting your art, then maybe by the time that you’re making your art you’re a little fuzzy and a little faded and a little wiped out. You know, it’s diluted and watered down as a result. On the other hand in Europe the price of patronage is that your work circulates in these culture bunkers that tend to neutralize the impact of certain kinds of statements. You know, what does it say to have some kind of Adorno-style, violently bitter denunciation of modernity that was funded by—
MCS: —The Cartier Foundation.
DD: The very people that you as the artist sort of profess to loathe. The cost of the patronage system within Europe is a certain kind of ambient entanglement that affects people, sometimes in ways that they don’t really see. Neither situation is perfect.
I have a day job, which is that I’m a professor of English literature.
MCS: I love calling that a day job, like he is a dishwasher or something.
DD: It’s intense enough that [Martin laughs] I can’t really, you know, find any way to stop worrying about it all the time. If you’re going to do it well, you have to give as much time to it as you possibly can. Since that job has taken off, it’s gotten harder and harder to find a way to put as much time into Matmos as needs to be put into it.
MS: And you guys don’t seem to like to do this halfway. I mean, at one point you moved your bed out so you could fit a piano in your house.
DD: Yeah. There’s a lot of sacrifices that you have to make sometimes to get the art where it needs to go.
MS: I know you guys alternate album control, just to keep the peace maybe. Is that how you make most of your artistic decisions?
MCS: Ooh, that would be interesting, if we alternated decision-by-decision instead of album-by-album.
DD: We have set up situations where we have to take turns writing MIDI tracks in Digital Performer, where we’re literally taking turns in terms of every gesture in the construction of the music. That can be a fun way to work. In terms of being “in charge” of an album, it helps to avoid deadlock where you can’t get anything achieved. But if I’m “in charge” of the album that we’re working on, I still have to respect Martin. I can’t propose something that he just hates and make him do it because it’s my album. That doesn’t work.
MS: So how does that play out as far as what the next album is going to be?
DD: Well, we’ve started some collaborations that have involved people from Baltimore. I’m “in charge” of this album—
MCS: So it’s going to take 15 minutes to explain.
DD: I’m interested in what a concept album is. The model of the concept album is that you see a plan—
MCS: I’m only kidding, you know.
DD: —and then you execute it and your internal mental content creates the whole thing. So I wanted to create a situation in which this was true, but put under a lot of pressure. What we’ve been doing is reenacting these experiments in telepathy from the ’60s called the Ganzfeld experiments. We’ve been inviting people to come over to our house, and they lay down on a mattress and their eyeballs are covered with these Ping-Pong balls cut in half and their ears are covered with headphones playing white noise. I’m in the next room and I think of a musical idea and I attempt to transmit my musical idea directly into their minds psychically. We record the audio and the video of these interviews or sessions, and they’re instructed to speak aloud a description of anything that they hear inside their mind or see inside their mind. What we’re doing essentially is testing the ability of this sort of influence or transmission to occur. Then we’re going to build music out of the results of the sessions—we’re going to take whatever they received seriously as a kind of recipe for music and use that as the raw ingredients or the seeds from which to grow music. So this will be, I hope, a kind of ultimate concept album in that I’m never going to reveal to anyone what the concept is that I’m thinking. I’m directly causally responsible for everything but only at a psychic level.
MS: The actual album could end up pretty far away from that.
MCS: How will we know, even if it is?