Formed in San Francisco and based in Baltimore, electronic duo Matmos — aka Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt — have become known for their high-concept albums that see them building sonic experiments around a central theme.
Their latest, Plastic Anniversary, sees the pair creating rich soundscapes purely from recordings of plastic material.
When and how did you start making music?
I didn’t come at this through training in a proper musical instrument in any way. When I was 16 years old I was heavily into William S. Burroughs, and specifically the “cut up” novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded.” Following his instructions about making field recordings and cutting them up, I started to collect cheap tape recorders and to do primitive experiments in tape collage using the pause button to create repetitions of sounds: mostly field recordings and old vinyl records, but also dialogue from films and my own voice. I would put cut-ups that I had made onto multiple tape decks and play them back simultaneously into another tape deck with a mic which would record those multiple sound sources and mix them together, so I was multi-tracking before I had a four-track. When I was younger I was really into hip hop and breakdancing and I think hearing tracks by the Art of Noise that had collage elements (like “Close To The Edit”) was a kind of blueprint for me. So it was hip hop-meets-Burroughs? The results sounded very crude but it was so fun to do.
Tell us about your studio/set-up
We have always made our records at home, working in studios in whatever apartment we were living in in San Francisco in the early-’90s and now in the basement of our house in Baltimore. It’s a large basement. Basements tend to flood in Baltimore so we wired all the electricity to the ceiling and there are no cables on the floor. After 26 years of making music we have a huge hoard of instruments, both acoustic (19th century psalteries, a hurdy gurdy, lots of horns and percussion and bells and odd objects) and electronic (our friend Paul Brown keeps his enormous modular synth in our studio which is full of cool modules, we have an ARP 2600, multiple SH-101s, some cool boutique synth instruments like the Double Knot and the KNAS Moisturizer). It all goes through a 32 channel Midas Venice F32 mixing desk which is connected to an Apple tower running Digital Performer, which is what we use to multi-track.
What's the latest addition to your studio?
We make our music by sampling objects: cacti, oatmeal, latex, chocolate pudding, you name it. So for us, the point is not to acquire new gear but to acquire new instruments for each album, essentially starting all over with brand new instruments every time we make an album. The new album’s instruments include a police riot shield, a breast implant, a salad bowl, an ATM card, Styrofoam, Bakelite dominos, plastic billiard balls, and artificial human flesh generated by the SynDaver corporation. So I don’t know if we can call that “music making gear” or not. The things we make music out of aren’t musical instruments until we kidnap them and force them to serve musical ends. And the portable lesson there is that anything can be a musical instrument if you’re willing to press the issue. My partner M.C. Schmidt has been using the Samplr app on his iPad a lot and it features heavily on the new Matmos album. It’s simple, easy to use software but very flexible and powerful in terms of what you can do with it.
Where do you start with a new project?
I start with a concept that provides a restriction on how I might work. This gives an album project a strong and clear focus. The album we have just released, Plastic Anniversary is made entirely out of plastic as a sound source. The last album was made entirely out of the washing machine in our basement. We don’t like that “blank page” feeling of freedom: it’s too easy for it to sanction a kind of vertigo or freefall into self-indulgence. It’s easier to focus when you make a strong commitment to one concept or one sound source or one idea and then follow through in a really fanatical way. But you have to be careful what you commit to: once you’re inside the framework, it’s like a dare that you’ve made and honor demands that you must carry it out. This led to us flying our washing machine around the world and running it onstage with a tub full of thirty gallons of water at each show. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Drew Daniel’s essential production tips…
Work with what you’ve got
Don’t put off an idea because you don’t have the latest and greatest gear: work with whatever means are ready to hand. There are great punk rock records which were recorded with a single mic pointed at a band. Some classics of industrial music were recorded onto a stereo cassette tape at home. Keep the focus on the expressive flow of the music itself. It may be very unpopular to say this, but “what” matters more than “how.”
Save everything because you never know
You may make something and think it's garbage, a doodle, pointless. But don’t throw it away! A context may come, later on, in the middle of an entirely different song at a different tempo in a different key where you hit a wall and need to shift the mood, and in those situations, some components of older tracks and sketches and experiments can actually be harvested and integrated into the song you’re working on at present, and the effect of bringing that other material into a song can be like opening a window and letting the form breathe. Songwriters do this with notebooks in which they jot phrases that might someday become a lyric, or part of a lyric; but electronic composers can do this too by holding onto all of their files and patterns and ideas, and giving them a critical listen every so often. This can make you less hard on yourself about your process. Today’s trash could be tomorrow’s treasure.