Photo: Eva Vermandel
Producers often talk about committing to a sound, as opposed to fixing it in the mix, but very few people take the idea to such extremes as Matthew Herbert does. Long a rebel on the U.K.'s underground electronic-dance scene, Herbert has also made waves with his rigidly conceived and politically charged fusions of jazz and musique concrète (an experimental compositional style featuring the manipulation of natural sounds).
There's Me and There's You (!K7, 2008) is the second release under the ensemble name of the Matthew Herbert Big Band. Although the album bears only a vague resemblance to its predecessor, Goodbye Swingtime (Accidental, 2003), the approach taken to create it was similar: bring a large group of jazz musicians into Abbey Road Studios and radically chop up the results in Apple Logic Pro, sometimes running whole sections through two Korg Kaoss Pads. Add a plethora of planned and found sounds, chop and splice again, and then track vocals (here, soulstress Eska Mtungwazi) over the top. Throw parts of the mix through an array of outboard effects chains (including processors by Moog, Helios, API, and Valley People), and you have a way-out jazz collage, Herbert-style.
“When you've just spent two days and thousands of pounds at Abbey Road trying to get the best recording, it does seem a bit rude to start chopping it up,” Herbert admits. “But of course, that's exactly the right thing to do — particularly with the way I write, which is so reliant on sampling. Once it's in the sampler and then you play it back on itself, it's always going to be related to what it was originally anyway. I think you get in trouble when you start adding drum machines or synthesizers to it.”
This is where the commitment comes in: Herbert works according to a self-imposed manifesto that prohibits him from using samples or synthesized sounds that are not original. He also imbues each song with a message (usually political) and records his sound sources with that in mind. The song “Battery” (see Web Clip 1), for instance, includes ambient noise from a McDonald's restaurant on Kensington High Street where, after the 9/11 attacks, Iraqi expat Bisher Al-Rawi met with his handlers in British intelligence. Although he was helping the U.K. counterintelligence, MI5, Al-Rawi ended up spending four years in Guantanamo.
“Even the recording technique that I'm using reinforces the story I'm trying to tell,” says Herbert. “You don't necessarily want to draw attention to yourself with loads of equipment in a McDonald's, so I used a little Nagra handheld, which in a way suggests the cloak-and-dagger aspect.”
Other songs are more direct: “The Yesness” features the sound of 100 people saying yes (see Web Clip 2), while “One Life” uses the beeping alarm of an incubator unit (Herbert's son was born prematurely) to represent 100 people killed in Iraq. “Breathe” incorporates the sound of 70 people blowing over the tops of empty water bottles in the British Museum — a lush, synthlike texture (see Web Clip 3) that's a prime example of what Herbert identifies as the accidental rewards of his method.
“They're the moments that I make records for,” he says. “This is a sound that no human has ever heard before, so it's like being an adventurer. It took a lot of organization to get 70 people there, but all I said to them was, ‘Can you bring an empty plastic water bottle?’ Then we recorded that, which took under a minute. If you tried to program a noise like that on a synth, you'd be there for weeks.”
Home base: London, England
DAW used: Apple Logic Pro 7
Field recorders: Nagra V and RCX220