Baltimore duo talks psychic experiments, balloon improv, and putting up with your better half
Anyone who thinks that experimental electronic music must be humorless, self-important, or dry as a dissertation abstract has clearly never encountered the work of Matmos.
Elevating sampling from an art form to free-for-all tour de force, the duo has squeezed sounds out of everything from crayfish to rhinoplasty to the cage of their dead pet rat. Colliding their punk-rock backgrounds with their adult lives as academics — Martin Schmidt used to teach at San Francisco Art Institute, while Drew Daniel, a medieval scholar, is a tenure-track professor at Johns Hopkins University — they see nothing wrong with invoking Ludwig Wittgenstein alongside Darby Crash. Fittingly, they take an unusually promiscuous approach to musical style, flitting effortlessly between bumptiously deconstructed dance-music rhythms, Appalachian folk, and the artful noise first envisioned by Luigi Russolo, who held up the Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti's "ZANG-TOUMB-TOUMB" as a model for future music, a new sound for a new age of "stale odor rotting gongs flutes clarinets pipes everywhere up down birds twitter beatitude shade greenness cip-cip ip-zzip herds pastures dong-dong-dong-ding-bééé." It can be a lot to digest, but Matmos' madcap musique concrète is a profoundly joyful noise. It revels in the pleasures and terrors of electronic sound.
The concept behind their new album, The Marriage of True Minds, is their most ambitious yet. (It might also be the most ingenious solution to writer's block ever conceived.) Inspired by parapsychological research in telepathy, they conducted experiments in which participants were subjected to mild sensory deprivation and asked to divine the sound and shape of Matmos' as-yet unwritten next album. The transcripts of those sessions then became the guidelines for Daniel and Schmidt as they sampled, synthesized, and sequenced their way through the new LP.
The success of their experiment — in purely aesthetic terms, anyway — is borne out by the fact that this is their most engaging, immediately pleasurable recording yet. There are samba rhythms and African guitar and underwater hip-hop fugues; "In Search of a Lost Faculty" recalls Gastr del Sol's bubbling organ tracks, while "Aetheric Vehicle" unites Laurie Spiegel's delicate oscillations with the glancing rhythms of U.K. bass music. "Ross Transcript" finds them indulging their fondness for unadulterated sonic abstraction, while the closing "ESP" reimagines the Buzzcocks' classic as a metamorphosis from death metal to psychedelic pop. It could be a jumbled mess, but somehow Matmos have translated their participants' brainwaves into a dynamic, coherent, and almost startlingly musical form.
The two musicians are well aware that the project's paranormal trappings might sound like so much hokum. "We have no stake in believing or not believing the success or not of Drew's ability to transmit things psychically," stressed Schmidt in a telephone interview from their home in Baltimore. "It's sort of another conceptual gambit for us, for the idea to be the machine that generates the artwork."
As out-there as it may first appear, that conceptual gambit is also rooted in the musicians' personal lives: The making of the album coincided with their 20th anniversary as a romantic couple. Informed both by Daniel's academic work on empathy and their own shared history, the album boils down to the question of what it takes to get inside the head of a loved one — the age-old question, "What the hell is he thinking?" To that end, to borrow a phrase from the art historian Peter Galassi, The Marriage of True Minds is ultimately about the pleasures and terrors of domestic comfort, rendered in lemons, spoons, and very large green triangles.
Do I have you both on the phone?
Drew Daniel: Hi! Yes you do.
M.C. Schmidt: That's Drew, and I'm Martin! You probably wouldn't remember because we haven't seen you in like 12 years.
Daniel: I'm the high, whiney, nasal one.
I last saw you in San Francisco, but you're based in Baltimore now. What's it like there?
Daniel: Baltimore's on fire. It's crazy. Just the sheer number of weird noise shows and fucked-up bands and people building instruments in squatted warehouse spaces. It's a really fun place to be. We didn't really know that when we moved here six years ago. And it's especially fun right now, because we just won the Super Bowl last night, so people were going apeshit and shooting guns, yelling and screaming.
Does that trickle down to the noise/squat scene?
Schmidt: It actually caused some weird rifts, like, "What do you mean, you're watching the Super Bowl," or, "What do you mean, you're not watching the Super Bowl?"
Daniel: There was a warehouse noise show that was billed as a sort of post-game fiesta, and it was a coming-out of the inner jock inside a lot of power-electronics crusties.
Did you watch the Super Bowl?
Schmidt: I did not.
Daniel: I did, so we're split evenly. Although I watched it on a little screen while programming some synths for the Soft Pink Truth, so I would sort of punch in and out with the game while creating synthesizer noise.
Schmidt: I was hosting a free-improv workshop, thank you.
Daniel: Martin wins on the cool-kid contest. He was playing improvised noise music.
Will there be samples of Beyonce's halftime show working their way into the Soft Pink Truth record, then?
Schmidt: No, I only want to sample the power outage. I liked the awkwardness of that. That was my favorite part.
So let's talk about the album.
Daniel: Ok! [Laughs] Sorry! Cool, we can talk about the album.
Schmidt: Yes, please, God.
How did you come up with the conceptual framework for the album, and how did those experiments in telepathy actually inform the creation of the record?
Daniel: It's an elaborate process, but it really started with a basic intuition. In a lot of my academic work, I look at interpretation and emotion, and can we understand other people, and the problem of looking at someone and trying to guess what they're thinking. That can sound highfalutin and philosophical; it's about epistemology, but it's also at the core of just being in a relationship with somebody, like, "What are you thinking?" You know? I was reading this book by Brian Massumi called Parables for the Virtual that was describing ganzfeld experiments into vision, and how when people stare at an empty space for 10 or 12 hours, their mind starts to hallucinate colors and forms and shapes. And I thought that situation sounded sort of like the way that songwriting happens. That out of a void, form just crystallizes. I thought we could try and set this up, so I read some more about these experiments and realized that there was a long history in telepathy research and psy- research of setting up these conditions in sensory deprivation and then priming somebody to expect something. The only change we did is that instead of sending a triangle or a square, we were sending, quote-unquote, "the concept of the new Matmos album."
The fun part really began once we had the transcripts. I guess that is also a way of saying that the arguing started once we had the transcripts, because that's when we had to figure out, well, what's valuable, what's the point of being true to the transcripts as opposed to interesting as music? How do you strike that balance? The solution really was to make every song different. Every song was a way of being faithful but also, hopefully, fun.
So you had people in a sensory-deprivation condition, and then you were projecting your ideas about the shape of the album at them?
Daniel: Here's what would happen. Someone would come over to our house, and we'd tell them that they're going to lie down on a mattress and listen to white noise on headphones, and their eyes are gonna be covered with ping-pong balls, with a soft red light shining in their face, and they're supposed to just relax and count down out loud and empty their mind. When they hit zero, they were sort of primed to expect that, at that point, I would try to transmit with my mind the concept of the new Matmos album into their minds. We just told them to speak out loud a description of their thoughts and perceptions. You know, if they see something in their minds, what do they see? If they hear something, what does it sound like? We got video of that, and then we would transcribe those speeches, and then the transcriptions became the DNA for the music. We wound up with like 50 transcripts, more or less. If you figure that there's nine songs, that means in some cases a transcript became a song; in others we would isolate an image that appeared in lots of transcripts and turn that into one song that's about a kind of commonly experienced result.
Schmidt: More's the pity for you journalistic types, because you only got a download of the thing. Which is weird, for our stuff, often when we do this. Because in the physical version of the album, you get the transcripts of those psychic sessions that the songs were made from, which I think probably explains a lot more of what's going on. If you want to see them, Drew made a Tumblr blog that new transcripts come up every day.
Daniel: Verylargegreentriangles.tumblr.com has all the transcripts and images from the ganzfeld sessions, so it's a kind of database of the experiment on its own terms.
Schmidt: It really ran the gamut, from, like, nothing — people like my stepmother, after 15 minutes, saying, "It sure is nice to relax," and that was all! There was a British woman who practically narrated a novel out loud. It was like she could not wait to begin talking, just spraying her subconscious. And then some people were completely nonverbal. This guy from Baltimore, Dog Dick, was all nonverbal grunting and moaning.
Daniel: We used him as the vocalist on the song, "Teen Paranormal Romance."
How have participants reacted now that they've heard the record?
Daniel: We had a really funny experience at the London show where we took volunteers, and they would listen to the audio of the sessions and have to sing what they were hearing. And one of the volunteers was actually a participant from the original psychic session, so he got to re-perform his own psychic session.
Schmidt: And I think it took him — we rehearsed it a couple times with him, and finally he was like, "Wait, is this me?"
Daniel: We've had fun playing with that. When we did the show in New York, we had Ed Schrader sit on stage and re-enact his own psychic session with eyes and ears covered, under a red light. So there's a performance as a reenactment of a scientific experiment being done on stage. That's kind of the next level of, like, how do you share this elaborate process of composition with an audience in real time? And that's something that's kind of risky, because it can look like quackery or some kind of pseudo-science, but it also takes on a weird kind of quasi-religious or ritual feeling. And I like that, that the project is a bit hard to pin down between a couple of competing poetic frames. You can't quite nail down what our intentions are.
I was surprised at how musical the album is.
Daniel: People kept hearing singing. Over and over, in psychic sessions and in the transcripts, people would refer to singing and to melody. Keith Fullerton Whitman's session referred to a "snaking pentatonic melody." So there were very clear cues to us that that was what people were perceiving. We adapted it into an album; we focused on that. I guess in a weird way, out of a fit of peevishness, we made "Ross Transcript" to show that we can still do musique concrète, dammit. We don't always need beats and melodies and riffs. But overall, the album as a whole was driven by what people gave us, although I guess you could call me out for doing the "ESP" cover. That was just sheer willfulness on my part.
It's like the project is your excuse to make pop music. You're not just giving the people what they want; you're giving the people what was foreordained.
Daniel: Telepathy made us do it!
Tell me about "Ross Transcript."
Schmidt: We just thought that one should be literal. Like, what would be the sort of dry, literal way to interpret one of these things? And that one was a good one. All of them could be seen this way—you can take this body of text and isolate the things where they mention sound, and just make the sounds and list them one after another. And his struck us as a particularly good one to do that with. That it would make a nice piece of concrete music.
Daniel: Some of the transcripts have the compressed quality of a poem. It's one image after another in a tightly-packed sequence, and it just seemed like that would be the right approach. But of course there's always the mystery of how you interpret — what is a "squelchy, squishy" sound? So in our case we did sounds of chocolate pudding and the sound of Martin playing the espresso machine. For the desert, I found some recordings of those singing sands — they're sands whose grains move in a way that generate a howling tone. So we sampled that and manipulated that for the end of the piece. It just felt like that was one that wanted to be an isolated string of noises. Whereas a song like "Mental Radio," he heard a Latin beat and a beat played with a bucket of water, so Martin got out a bucket and walked around and sploshed with it, and we worked in a much more song-like way.
There's also what sounds like African guitar, and maybe some references to throat singing as well.
Daniel: That's Dan Deacon growling and doing throat singing. We kept getting people imagining, like, chanting. Over and over, in the psychic sessions, people would hear chanting. So I made a sort of virtual Dan Deacon choir of growling. That's him coughing at the end, because I think he was fresh off tour, and his voice was kinda shot.
Tell me about "ESP," the heavy-metal track.
Daniel: That's the Buzzcocks. It's a classic post-punk song, or just a classic punk-rock song, that for me epitomizes the kind of romantic desire and despair that underwrites the telepathy trope or idea. Like, why would you want to get into someone's mind? Well, desire, right? The lyrics perfectly express that. But I thought, I don't want to do a fake electronic punk thing. I needed to have it move from very despairing and dark, that feeling of not being able to communicate with somebody else, all the way to something really joyous and happy, of two people feeling that click of coming together. That's why the arrangement over seven minutes moves from doom metal, then into black metal, then into this kind of psychedelic noise breakdown, and then into this exuberant, jolly thing. It was kind of scary to have Martin and I sing at the end; that was Martin's idea.
Schmidt: It's a pop song! I don't know. Drew thinks it's a big deal that we sang.
Daniel: I like, though, that it doesn't end with a resolving note, that instead it ends with Martin's voice saying, "So… think," and it's very open-ended. Like, you aren't really given that gummy noise at the end, like, Ta-daaa!
Schmidt: [In unison] Ta-daaa!
Daniel: You're left hanging, and that's important.
That question of the fundamental unknowingness of another person — as a couple, is that something you work out in music?
Daniel: Yeah, I think so. In a way, this album hits at the time of our 20th anniversary; a title like The Marriage of True Minds is holding out this romantic ideal of the perfect entrainment of two distinct selves. We know that that's what we want, but we also know that life isn't like that, and you sort of move in and out of these cycles of being connected and feeling different. I like what Martin and I have together as two people, but I don't like that smugness of the couple, I don't like that, "We made it, what about you," thing. I find that really gross. So I felt like we had to cut against it in certain ways. And maybe owning up to your incompleteness is — I guess it's just being honest, or maybe it's being perverse. [Chuckles] One or the other.
Martin, do you have any input there?
Schmidt: W-wait, Drew's answers are so… What was the actual question? Honestly, the thing that I end with is sort of — I don't know, maybe it's the obnoxious way that I come at things. I do feel like, well, "Just think," sort of. The solution to long-term relationships is maybe not so much to think, but to talk.
Schmidt: Which is certainly how I come at making music with him, too. It's not always a marriage of true minds, that's for goddamn sure.
Daniel: I think improvising is maybe a way we can act our ability to think in tune with each other without talking. Improvising is another way of seeing if you can really be receptive to someone else, and the trap of ego and filling all the space is what sabotages improvisation.
Is there a lot of improvisation that goes into Matmos' composition?
Schmidt: Yeah. Honestly, a lot of what we do is built on improvisation and then editing improvisations down. Or doing a bunch of improv on top of a structure that we've built, and then either editing it down or replaying stuff that was good. I think — like a lot of electronic musicians, and a lot of people nowadays, now that everyone is sort of an electronic musician — we don't think about it on paper first. We don't plan this stuff out. It's really more a matter of doing and then whittling, and then doing and overhauling.
And just the tactile experience of having your hands on hardware, making noise and shaping that and seeing where it goes.
Schmidt: Yeah, absolutely. I do a fair amount of, like, technical, whatever, free improvisation nowadays, because that's a super important thing here in Baltimore and it's become a big thing in my life. So it's not really fair to call it improvising when you go back and fix it later. [Laughs] But yeah, I guess it is, initially.
Daniel: It's also a huge part of what happens when it's time to play our songs, because we aren't good at remembering parts, and we aren't trained musicians. We have a sort of spine of structure, but on top of that, when we play live, it is an improvisation. We know what sounds we're going to use, but not when we're going to play them or for how long or with what intensity or density. So those kinds of decisions are all being made on the fly, in response to each other. So it's like a weird hybrid of improvising because that's where we're honest and in the moment, and improvising because you're too dumb to do anything else.
Martin, what kind of free improv are you doing these days? What instruments are you playing?
Schmidt: I stick to the keyboard that I play in Matmos or synthesizers, either a Roland V-Synth or, lately, I've been back to the Korg MS-2000 that I used with Björk and so on. We're doing a piece in the upcoming Matmos tour that's all balloons — all of us, the Horse Lords and us, all playing balloons. So I just played balloons last night, and microphone.
Are you processing them?
Schmidt: No processing, really just the balloon and the microphone. It's a rich device! Balloons make amazing drums.
Just one balloon at a time? Is it a monophonic thing, or are you squealing in harmony?
Schmidt: It's a monophonic thing. Often, the deadly thing in free improv is playing too much. I think it's very interesting, the last 10 years in free improv and electronic music. The challenge for the laptop player, previously, has been not doing too little, and the job is to be rich and full, like a band or whatever, like complete music. Whereas when an electronic player is in an improv situation, one of the main challenges is to not play too much. I mean, it's stupid to sit down with a laptop with someone with a saxophone and someone with a guitar and a vocalist, and come out with your orchestral — I don't mean literally orchestral — but your huge, developed Ableton Live patch. The idea is to be a single voice that responds intuitively and quickly and interacts with other individual voices. It's interesting to see the interfaces for playing digital music improving to the point where it's actually possible now, where I think 10 years ago, people were seriously challenged with their laptops to do anything quickly and truly interactively in an improv situation. So it's an exciting day to be an electronic musician. But it's all this that leads me to just use my synth.
Otherwise it's just overwhelming.
Schmidt: You know, when you sit at a laptop, you're working with a menu system. Or that's the way it used to be. You're stuck with, like, "OK, my sounds are in the so-and-so folder, and that folder's in the so-and-so folder," and by the time you've accessed that, that moment in a free improv situation is over. Perhaps this is why modular synthesizers are so popular now, because of that, "I want to be able to do something in the moment," desire.
You designed and manufactured a synthesizer recently, right?
Schmidt: Yeah, I'm the evil capitalist, sort of — I designed the logo, and I talked to the actual genius at work on this thing about interface design and so on. God knows, I am not smart enough to do the electronic design. This is a kid called Karl Ekdahl who lives here in Baltimore. So I'll credit myself with discovering him, maybe? Is that what an evil capitalist does, when he finds someone really smart and gives them money? Yeah, yeah, that's it: I discovered him.
Schmidt: The Moisturizer thing was how it started. It's like an open spring reverb with a filter section and an LFO and a mixer section on it. I think we've sold like 500 of them now, at $400 a pop, which is kind of awesome. We sold one to the Nine Inch Nails guy, and we sold one to Sleazy [the late Peter Christopherson, of Throbbing Gristle and Coil]. A huge fan of our project is Stephen Merritt, from the Magnetic Fields. We've been having some kind of email love affair.
Drew, you said you're working on a new record for your solo project, the Soft Pink Truth.
Daniel: Yeah, after eight years, I'm finally returning to that. It's been on the back of the back burner, and it's super fun to come back to that world again. It's a challenge, because those records are really detail-oriented and dense, so it's quite labor-intensive. But I'm on sabbatical right now; I'm up for tenure at Johns Hopkins in September, so I guess it's the academic equivalent of death row. And it's giving me this strange desire to return to that world.
Schmidt: I think, Drew, when you're on death row, it's a foregone conclusion that you will die.
Daniel: Well, there's appeal, a pardon… I suppose that was a belabored metaphor. Anyway, yes, the Soft Pink Truth rides again. I've got a long list of songs now on a chart in the studio, and I'm working feverishly on a bunch of deep house covers of Scandinavian black metal classics from the early '90s. I kind of feel like house and techno of the '90s and black metal of the '90s were always in this interesting dialogue—
Daniel: … and the record is a way of reveling in that.
Are you still sampling thrift-store vinyl, like you did on the first Soft Pink Truth album?
Daniel: No, it's a very different approach, musically. I sit with the guitarist from the band Horse Lord, Owen. They're on tour with us, and they play on our new Matmos record. He works out the chords in the black metal songs, and then I create synthesizer arrangements of that. So it's a little bit of a departure from previous SPT work. It's a slightly different palette, because it's a different time and I'm using different tools. There's a lot of really fucked up vocals and a lot of really strange, gargly, burbling synths. It's kind of like eating Doritos, you know? You swear you'll do one cover, and then you do another, and then pretty soon you've pounded the whole bag.
Schmidt: Pretty soon, Martin is living in a Soft Pink Truth torture chamber!
Daniel: It's a bit of a touchy subject. I was working pretty intensely on this Dark Throne cover all of last night and into today, and I think Martin's getting pretty sick of it.
Will you have a cool black metal logo for the album?
Daniel: Oh yeah. Something indecipherable. I just hope it's not a My Bloody Valentine situation of waiting 21 years to finish it.