Such Wonderful Toys | Matmos

Publish date:
Social count:

Not many bands would start a live set in total silence — armed only with a pair of penlights — and move through the crowd while randomly illuminating faces, one by one, on a serpentine route to the stage. Call it situationist, interactive, or even performance art, but if there's one thing that Martin “M.C.” Schmidt and Drew Daniel — collectively known as Matmos — enjoy doing, it's throwing a wrench in people's expectations. They did all that and more at a recent show in New York's Greenwich Village, in the same space where the legendary Village Gate once hosted the iconoclastic performances of Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler, Timothy Leary, and many more.

But Matmos always has a grand (dare we say “intelligent”?) design for everything they do, and that includes the string of albums they've made since 1997, starting with their self-titled debut on their own Vague Terrain imprint, then based in San Francisco. From the beginning, Matmos has embraced the tenets of experimental music without the macho bombast: found sounds, constructed sounds, and quirky samples (cracking ice cubes, screeching rats, cards being shuffled — even aspirin tablets bouncing on a drumhead) are chopped, processed, and rearranged, but in a careful way that seeks the organic melody in the mixture.

Roads Less Traveled

From there, Schmidt and Daniel take whatever bend in the musical road feels most natural or interesting. In 1999 it was The West, which tapped elements of folk, rock, and country from a raft of guest musicians (the bands Tortoise, Slint, and Neurosis among them). Two years later, it was A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (Matador), which turned the sounds of various surgical procedures into an upbeat techno odyssey. By then, Matmos was also drawing attention on a worldwide scale; in 1998 Björk asked them to remix “Alarm Call,” from her breakout album Homogenic. It wasn't long before she invited them back, this time for a full-fledged collaboration on her follow-up disc, Vespertine.

“Things got weird for us after working with Björk,” Daniel recalls with amusement, “because we had started to realize, ‘Oh yeah — there's this certain chord-change structure that's fun to play with.'' I mean, most of our pieces that are built percussively out of collaging and stacking noises are kind of literally monotonous, in that we don't have chord changes. So we were suddenly on the devil's pathway to making ‘real music,'' which we never really set out to do. But it's starting to intrude in ways that are maybe worth talking about now.”

Synths Reign Supreme

Supreme Balloon, the fourth Matmos album for the Matador label, is the duo's latest installment in the conversation — a beautifully melodic head trip, with honest-to-ARP key changes, into a synthesizer-based otherworld. While the album whiffs of Klaus Schulze, Vangelis Papathanassiou, Wendy Carlos, and other synth pioneers who have exerted an influence on the group, it's far from just a throwback experiment in idol worship. Using Cycling '74 Max/MSP, Ableton Live, MOTU Digital Performer, and an unusual array of exotic synths, rhythm boxes, and sound-generating techniques like optical synthesis, Schmidt and Daniel have made what years from now might be described as their “synth-pop” album — with some significant twists.

“It's one of those things I've wanted to do forever,” Schmidt says. He's referring to the fact that the music on Supreme Balloon was almost entirely synthesized, without using any microphones. He could, however, just as easily be citing the album's impressive guest list. From the Sun Ra Arkestra's legendary saxophonist Marshall Allen (playing the Steiner-Parker Electronic Valve Instrument, or EVI, on “Mister Mouth”) to classical pianist Sarah Cahill (on “Les Folies Francaises”) to experimental-music legend Terry Riley (who appears on the vinyl-only track “Hashish Master”), Supreme Balloon is very much a group foray into full-on synthesis.

FIG. 1: Matmos has always relied on esoteric sound sources. On Supreme Balloon, they used the Swar Sudha Electronic Shruti Box (left) to generate drones.
Photo: Photography by Rich Markese

“I've been the synthesis geek in the band from the beginning, and well before that,” Schmidt continues. “A pal of mine had an ARP 2600 in the '80s. It terrified me, and I didn't understand it then. In fact, some of the pots were sticky, and I remember opening it up and spraying WD-40 inside it [laughs]. By sheer karmic return 15 years later, I reacquired that same machine from him, and it's on this album — after a few repairs, of course. I literally paid for that mistake.”

Before their New York show, we corralled Schmidt, Daniel, and multi-instrumentalist (and honorary Matmos member) Jay Lesser in the lobby of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where they'd just taped a segment for a WNYU radio broadcast. Not only were they more than willing to talk about the ins and outs of how Supreme Balloon came together, but they also openly reveled in that arcane pursuit known as gear porn — backed up by the extensive information that's now on their Web site ( From modular synths to Stylophones, the guys in Matmos love their toys, and they know how to use them (see Fig. 1).

Can you talk about how you work together in the studio? Does it change with each album?

Schmidt: It's stayed largely the same. In the case of objects, I actually handle the object, play it, thwack it, rub it, bow it, or whatever, and we record that to DAT. Then we listen to the DAT for either rhythmic or melodic phrases. I think of some of the longer phrases as a voice. Because we generally eschew using any vocals in our music, I feel like compositionally there should always be a track that takes that place.

Daniel: Typically, I'll then take those DAT recordings and chop them into many, many samples using Digital Performer. A typical Matmos song will have 90 to 100 different samples laid across many different preset keyboard setups, so 36 samples might be spread across 4 octaves. When you stack noises like that, the harmonics inside them start to emerge. You can pull out the implicit note inside of the noises, which tells you where the center of the piece is going to be.

So after I've made those samples, we'll take turns playing them as sequences, then edit the MIDI, and then decide what sort of solos are needed on top of that, and a gradual song structure will emerge. We'll cut the sequence, and then Martin usually mixes the records because he has more patience and a better ear [for more, see the online bonus material at target="_blank"].

You're known for your extreme rhythmic explorations with samples — and now on this album, with synthesizers. You've always been very meticulous and hands-on when it comes to rhythm.

Lesser: I've always found it really strange that [Daniel] works in Event mode in Digital Performer. He'll play something as a beat, then he'll open up Event to tighten it up or switch it around, and I'm like, “What the hell is he doing?” It's just numbers. How the hell can you possibly make something funky out of that [laughs]?

Daniel: You stumble onto certain tricks that come from working in the Event List. That's really where I do my MIDI editing — like in the song “Polychords.” Even though I started it in Max/MSP by building a virtual autoharp, I wouldn't have been able to build the structure without the Event List. For someone as deeply unmusical as I am, it allows me to create inversions and variations of the notes within a chord. So MIDI is really what permitted that song to evolve in the way that it did.

Some rhythmic patterns on the album are heavily swung, and that's part of the fun of using the Event List, too. There's such a world of nuance between an accent that's 120 ticks after the 1 and an accent that's 160 ticks after the 1. When you can go in and edit in a really precise way, you can give a lot more nuance to those rhythms. I never use built-in swing quantization.

Like the old Roger Linn drum machines.

Daniel: Yeah, exactly. I don't swing that way — so to speak [laughs].

What kinds of synthesizers did you have in mind before you started work on the album?

Daniel[to Schmidt]: You've owned some odd synths that have a lot of history behind them.

Schmidt: Well, the Roland V-Synth is my main one now — but yeah, besides the ARP 2600, in the '80s, I had a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-10. I bought it from the studio where they recorded the soundtrack to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It belonged to John Carpenter at one point. My first synths were a Roland Juno-60 and the SH-101 that I'm playing tonight.

I've always been in love with synthesizers, but it's played slightly second fiddle in Matmos because Drew is such an amazing sampler. The rule for Supreme Balloon wasn't so much “use synthesizers,” but it was definitely “don't use microphones.” I just wanted to see what we could do without our usual bag of tricks, and that ended up being synthesis.

I want to get into some more of the specific machines you used on the album, but when you say “synthesis,” does that extend beyond just VCOs and LFOs?

Schmidt: We also used optical synthesis — optical film striping. We stole most of that, and I shouldn't say from whom because it's against the law [laughs].

Daniel: But we were inspired by that technique. It goes back to Daphne Oram in England, and Norman McLaren, a Scottish filmmaker who was funded by the Film Board of Canada. They both discovered that if you draw lines across the optical track of film, the exciter lamp that reads the track will interpret the lines as sound. You can do the same thing with an Optigan [a toy optical organ made by Mattel in the early '70s]. That was an early protosampler that had sound waves as circular rings on a transparent plastic disc. It would shine a light through that and read it as sound.

There are modes in Max/MSP where you can just scribble and draw, and it'll read that as sound. I like to do that with amplitude curves; if you go into the mode, select a bunch of MIDI, and sign your name, you'll produce this mountain range of variation that you would never write as a smooth curve up or down. You can just harvest these habits and apply them to sound.

Are you using that technique in “Exciter Lamp and the Variable Band”?

Schmidt: That one's made out of optical synthesis, but there was that one melodic line that I thought it really needed — the melody from “O Canada” — so I played that on a Korg MS2000, which has a great built-in delay. I think I'm using the arpeggiator and I'm playing a 1-note melody, and it's set to give you that mandolin effect.

Daniel: And Jay is doing all the really ridiculous, swung rhythmic patterns in Ableton Live.

Lesser: Well, [Sonic Charge] MicroTonic is the drum machine [hosted on Ableton]. Each voice in it has two oscillators, and with a noise source you can get some wacky stuff going on.

So you're using synthesis to create the actual drum hits?

Lesser: Right. That's why I'm waiting with bated breath for the Dave Smith drum machine [the LinnDrum II, which Smith designed with Roger Linn] to come out, because that's what it has — four voices of analog synthesis.

You guys are also using the Coupigny modular synthesizer on “Exciter Lamp.” A picture of it is on the front of the booklet that comes with the CD. You went to Paris to record that, right?

Schmidt: Yeah. Now that synth's a one-in-the-world. It was built by this engineer named Francis Coupigny for the INA/GRM studio [founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1958].

Daniel: At the very end of the song, there are these bacon-frying, acidic sweeps that the Coupigny makes. Sometimes you can get a speaking quality just by stacking one oscillator onto another. The cool thing about it is there's no ADSR or waveform shaping. All you do is create relationships between eight oscillators and one filter, and there's a matrix that you use.

Schmidt: It's like the pins in the [EMS] VCS Synthi A's matrix patching, except that this one is deep as well. There are different lengths of pins, and the different colors of pins go different depths. It was definitely a machine that was not for making pitch-based music.

With all the vintage gear you use, I've heard that your software setup is pretty old school as well.

Schmidt: I just updated the technology to reproduce what I worked with in the '80s [laughs]. This is the first album where we did not use [Macromedia] SoundEdit [16], because it absolutely will not work in the new Mac OS. And we're still using an older version of Digital Performer.

Daniel: I keep one laptop at OS 9 so I can use SoundEdit, but there isn't much on this record. I didn't really want the music to feel too digital. We tried to avoid that.

You're definitely getting an analog thickness on the album. How did you mix it?

Schmidt: We go out of Digital Performer through the MOTU 2408 [audio interface] and into a Mackie [24-channel] board. But again, this goes back to what I started on. I learned on a TEAC 8-track reel-to-reel, and now we just substitute Digital Performer for the eight tracks. We still mix everything out on eight channels of the board.

Daniel: I was worried about shrillness, because we like bright high end — that slightly shredding range of frequencies. But if you do that for an hour, people won't return to the record, and we really wanted a record that people would return to and enjoy. So riding that line of keeping it really sharp and clear, but not so sharp that you're killing them — part of that is knowing that we'll master with Thomas DiMuzio, because he has a great pair of ears.

Schmidt: And when we master, we change it. The first time we did it, we were like, “Do that more.” Thomas told us that people usually don't change things this much in the mastering process. So I think the short answer is that's where we did a lot of the softening and sculpting.

Daniel: Especially with “Supreme Balloon” — a 24-minute piece of music. It sounds pretentious to say it, but you want the dynamics that we associate with classical music, where there's a real range from very quiet to the peak. And most people nowadays slam the compression. They never want things to sound murky or quiet.

Since you mentioned that song, could you talk a bit about the Radel Taalmala?

Schmidt: The tabla machine, yeah. It looks like a little boogie box.

Daniel: It's so precise about where it lands tempowise. Supposedly you can tune the drone machine that we have, too, but I don't really trust it. We end our live set by sucking all the sound out of the P.A. and turning [the tabla and drone machines] on and walking through the audience with them.

But “Supreme Balloon” emerged as a result of two separate compositions joining forces. One was a Taalmala piece, and when I was learning how to use the sequencer in Ableton, I wrote some really simple patterns. We slowed them down to the tabla tempo and realized, “Oh, the chocolate and peanut butter are going together really well here.”

Then there's the Dubreq Stylophone on “Rainbow Flag.”

Schmidt: Jay plays a mean Stylophone solo when we do that live.

Daniel: Yeah, a fan sent that to us in the mail. I love how the tuning knob is always a little off, and it sits so well with the analog gear, which is often a little askew tuningwise. It just avoids that clean, control-freak thing that I don't like about electronic music. I mean, I love making electronic music, but you can get so seduced by your own power to micromanage that you end up producing airless, indistinguishable fluff. If you start to work with things that have a little resistance, it's actually more fun.

On that note, do you think advances in technology have maybe made things a little too easy for people who want to make music?

Schmidt: Well, we do a lot of stuff extremely inefficiently. To me, it makes no sense to apply theories of efficiency to music, and yet people do. It extends out to our physical world, where we could run this whole show on two laptops. It would be extremely efficient, but it would also be nothing to watch. There would be very little variation from show to show — and besides, with all the money we're charged on baggage overages, how would airlines ever make a living [laughs]?

Bill Murphy is a regular contributor to Remix.