Matmos Talks Weird Sound Sources and Conceptual Commitment

Photos by Dave Iden, courtesy of the artist.

Matmos, live in Baltimore. Photo by Dave Iden

If you’re listening to Matmos for the first time without some context, you might not clock the sounds of things like plastic surgery and snails coming through your speakers. The Baltimore-based experimental duo has a way using musique concrète techniques to cultivate glitchy IDM that sounds more like Aphex Twin than Luc Ferrari. But all of their albums start with an avant-garde concept that overrides a conventional approach to songwriting or structure.

“We’re a weird band with respect to sound and musical instruments because often we make, like, a conceptual commitment to a sound source. Like only plastic objects or only a washing machine,” Matmos co-founder Drew Daniel tells me over Zoom.

Matmos formed in 1995 after Daniel met M.C. Schmidt at a queer Halloween party in their former San Francisco hometown. They came up in tandem with a generation of late-20th century experimenters, like Oval and Seefeel. But when held up next to these peers, Matmos’ bubbly, bright sound is deceptively straightforward.

This bizarre identity quickly helped the band find their footing. It led to collaborations with Björk on Vespertine and Medúlla and, later, spots in her backing band on early-2000s tours. In the years since, Daniel and Schmidt have canonized themselves as singular figures in the realms of both sound art and queer culture.

This past year was especially fruitful for the band. First, Matmos released the album Regards/Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer, which was built around sounds collected from the recorded works of the titular Polish musicologist and composer. On top of that, Daniel dropped two solo projects under his wonky disco alias The Soft Pink Truth: the August EP Was It Ever Real? and the October full-length Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?.

All of the Matmos-adjacent music to emerge over the course of 2022 is fairly poppy when analyzed within their unpredictable catalog, but it’s nonetheless ambitious. No matter what universe Matmos is pulling from with one of their projects, the end result tends to be equally brilliant and eccentric. 30 years into their strange career, the magic hasn’t dwindled.

The band is characteristically playful-but-profound in our interview, occasionally taking good-natured jabs at my questions right before going on insightful theoretical tangents about gear and processes.

At times, Daniel and Schmidt talk like Roland Barthes hypothetically pondering contemporary left-field music. In our freewheeling chat, we discussed everything from the obscure synths that dwell in the GRM School basement to the inherently romantic nature of playing in a band as a man. Dive in and stay up to date with Matmos on Bandcamp.

"Cobra Wages Shuffle", from the 2022 Matmos Album Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer.

My first question is related to the new record—you guys just put one out in May, and every sound on it was sourced from the recorded works of Bogusław Schaeffer.

Drew Daniel: Yeah, the music started with Bogusław. We did add some new sounds, but it’s almost entirely sourced originally from Bogusław.

M.C. Schmidt: It’s, like, 80%.

DD: We had a friend play some harp and a little viola.

MS: I play synthesizer on it.

Can you guys talk to me a bit about the gear you used to bring that to life? And what was your process like in general?

DD: So, it’s strange to think about gear because we’re really obsessed with sound sources, and then we’re kind of software end users. We traditionally used Digital Performer to complete records, but the last album we completed in Logic. I create a lot of elements in Ableton. I don’t finish music in Ableton, but I use Ableton Live as the software to make samples and chop up and sequence. We use an array of different kinds of controller keyboards to allow Martin to play because Martin can play piano and keyboards well.

MS: When he says that, he just means better than him.

DD: A lot of the gear becomes strangely transparent to us with regards to working on archival sounds. The sounds of Bogusław were recorded at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and we can speculate, but we’re honestly not sure what was being used.

MS: Crazy Soviet shit.

DD: Possibly, yeah.

MS: They had their own line of electronics that I am no expert in. But I know that one time we did a residency at the GRM in France. We made them let us go into the basement and look at all their old shit.

DD: They had a Kraftwerk-era vocoder that was insane. This thing was huge. This thing was, like, the size of a dashboard of a city bus. It was ridiculous.

MS: It was only a vocoder.

DD: They had this amazing synthesizer that this engineer Coupigny had designed. The synthesizer itself was called the Coupigny because there’s only one in the world. It had this wonderful cascade of oscillators, but it required a pin interface a little bit like the EMS Synthi, which uses the same kind of system. It’s nice when you’re near something that’s one of a kind that is a musical instrument that is unique and that’s the one. With the Coupigny, we made a record that’s, like, a 7” homage to it.

MS: The point here is that I could hear some sounds listening to the original Bogusław Schaeffer stuff that is, like, “Oh, it literally does have that same sort of timbre as that stuff that we pulled out of the basement of the GRM.” I did use an exotic synthesizer for the synth parts that I used on it, though I sampled it and I’m playing it through that iPad app called Sampler. It’s a Paia.

DD: It’s, like, a kit-building modular synth.

MS: I’m pretty sure that Paia only sold kits, and you had to build them yourself.

DD: We have one in the basement.

MS: A buddy of ours – I don’t know him that well – he literally just contacted me and was, like, “I have this modular synth. Do you want it?” I was, like, “Yes.” And he had, in fact, built it in the ‘90s.

DD: Our friend Will Schorre came over, who’s an instrument builder. He makes a very interesting synthesizer called the Double Knot. And he helped us program the Paia and get a patch going that was functional to kind of figure out what’s going on with this thing.

MS: It had some weird electrical problems.

DD: It was a little bit ailing. Oddly, there’s a cascade of old gear becomes new data. New data goes into a new app on an iPad. And then the interface is the glass surface of the iPad, and Martin’s playing that. Then I take that audio, chop it up some more, put it into Ableton, make it into sounds, then play it on a controller keyboard. So you have this kind of, like, layering of processing and performing. That’s how the forms emerge. We don’t hear a melody in our head and sit down and go, “Ah, this is the song I wish to write.”

MS: That’s what a real musician would do.

DD: That’s what other people with more talent or more vision do. We tend to kind of claw at what’s around us and mince it and then something leads somewhere and then it becomes a pattern or it becomes a tempo and then a lot crystallizes around a few decisions early in the process.

Sampler’s been a really important tool, actually. It allows Martin to make things that are rhythmic but gestural but open to change. And it’s a very dynamic and accessible surface. The problem with a lot of apps is that they’re just no fun as a replication of a synthesizer. We wanted to create something where you weren’t always clear as a listener what was old and what was new.

MS: On the Bogusław Schaeffer thing, not a shit ton of gear. That weird synthesizer, the harp. This was prime pandemic, so I know Una (Monaghan) plays the Irish harp. But I don’t think I’ve physically ever seen it.

DD: Ulas Kurugullu is based in Istanbul, and we hired him to play viola and erhu, which is a one-string instrument that kind of has a little banjo-like resonate box.

MS: Let’s see if we can buy an erhu on Reverb.

DD: Let’s see how much it costs. Erhus are very tricky to get a quality sound out of. When you see a very skilled Chinese musician…

MS: You’re goddamn right you can buy an erhu on Reverb!

DD: There’s, like, tourist trap ones that are just to put on the wall as decor.

MS: And then there’s the Dunhuang erhu for $600.

DD: Oh cool, it’s got snakeskin. And Dunhuang: those are caves in the Taklamakan Desert in China. I’ve been to that region of China. I’ve made field recordings there. It’s an amazingly scary, desolate place.

"Deeper Than This", from The Soft Pink Truth's 2022 album Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?

Drew, you’ve had an especially big year because you’ve also put out a full length and an EP as The Soft Pink Truth. Those records, at least for me as an outsider, often sound a lot more explicable compared to how inexplicable Matmos can sound. I’m curious what gear you use on those, and also if I’m right that it might be more traditional instruments.

DD: Oh, it is. Very much so. Gear and the choice about what’s my target… with Matmos it’s often a conceptual commitment that builds an album. With The Soft Pink Truth, lately, I think I’ve been slowly becoming closer to a traditional musician, in the sense that I think about, like, “What is the feeling of the music I want to make?” And then what instrumental voices and colors can help me create that feeling in a compelling way. I was having a lot of sadness the way everyone did when Covid really hit, so I was looping all these piano loops. I had a house guest who brought a Roland Space Echo, who plays in a noisy sort of post-hardcore band called Gasp.

MS: Can you buy a Roland Space Echo on Reverb?

DD: Oh, I’m sure you can.

You can certainly buy a Space Echo.

DD: So I was enjoying playing piano loops of short phrases through the Space Echo and adjusting the timing so it has that sort of slightly sour, deep and tangy feeling when a delay is curving off from its original pitch, and then recording that. And I grew the whole Shall We Go On Sinning? album from just playing with the Space Echo and piano. And that was, like, the guts of all the pieces on that record. With the newer material – and it was a sort of lavish decision tied to turning 50, I wanted to do something fun that was sort of a sonic party with all my friends – I decided to make, like, a virtual big disco band. I realized that I would need saxophone and flute and bass guitar and guitars and harpsichords and pianos. It just kind of started to snowball and it got very crazy, and, frankly, very difficult to mix. I realized that I had started to make music that was too much going on for me to entirely feel confident that I could mix it. Martin had to put up with a lot of tedious demo listening. He got a little tired of it.

MS: I hate The Soft Pink Truth.

DD: You’re not allowed to say that. You played on it. You did a great job.

MS: I love those songs.

DD: It was Martin’s idea, actually, that I go to a proper studio to record Tom Boram’s harpsichord. Boram has this harpsichord that, literally, someone at a school was getting rid of and was, like, “Does anyone want this free harpsichord?” Which is insane. I mean, who gets rid of a harpsichord? But somebody was. And it’s a lovely instrument, and I wanted to capture that effectively. So that was another situation where we went to a proper studio, Tempo House, that has recorded a lot of good local bands in Baltimore that I respect. And then we recorded the piano there as well. Martin played piano, and so did my friend Koye. But for some instruments that I find very difficult to get a convincing sound out of, I want to let an engineer handle that. But a lot of the record is just my friends at home making, like, “Here’s some guitar. Here’s me soloing on sax.” And then I chop it all up and try to build something that feels compelling and worth someone’s time. I think I went a little insane with a double album. That’s a lot of music, but it felt to me like it needed to be this kind of lavish, flowing statement. I kind of assume that, in this day and age, if someone thinks a song is bullshit, they’ll just pull it off a playlist. I believe in everything I put on that record, but I also kind of assume that people are curating their own playlists if they don’t feel something, you know?

Yeah, totally.

DD: There’s sort of the cult of that “no skips” album, and everyone believes that they’ve made one. But mileage may vary.

M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel of Matmos, live in Baltimore. Photos by Dave Iden.

Going back to recording the new Matmos, you mentioned that you did this one in Logic after you went over from Digital Performer. I’m curious how that impacted your composition process and what spurred the jump.

DD: Honestly, my theory is I think it’s climate change. Baltimore is getting hotter and hotter and hotter every summer…

MS: Baltimore was just as hot and just as cold. We’re talking about a couple degrees here. The real answer is the weather. It’s just fucking hot in our basement and that’s where we have this computer that is still running Digital Performer. We have a 36 channel Midas mixing board that is a digital mixing board. But because of its age, it’s married to the computer that we have Digital Performer running on because of Firewire. The only way you can talk to this fucking giant board we bought is Firewire. I was just being lazy, and I made a solo thing in Garageband appear in this room where we’re sitting right now which has air conditioning and heat, which the basement does not. And it’s just much more pleasant in the winter to have heat and in the summer to have air conditioning.

DD: I make the Soft Pink Truth albums in the basement with the big mixer in Digital Performer. But we make the Matmos records in Logic Pro in the comfortable room that is Martin’s room.

MS: It was kind of a power move on my part, too. The story of Matmos is sort of the story of what people call DAWs now. When I met him (Daniel) he had never seen a computer.

DD: I had, like, a word processing kind of level Mac for college.

MS: I was, like, “I have a computer I can record audio on.” Granted, at the time it was in 8-bit mono, and that was the best it did. But you could edit the waveform on the screen.

DD: This is, like, 1992. Martin and I have come up from the very beginning of digital audio as a thing. It evolved into Performer and Digital Performer, and we’ve kind of stayed with it.

MS: But the deal was at first I taught him how to use it. He got more obsessed than me by far, and became better with the software. And just lately, like in the last seven years, I have possibly been more interested in editing this stuff than he has been.

DD: It’s changing the records in interesting ways because when Martin’s doing more of the edits, the songs have a much stranger shape. I think it’s really healthy and avoids some of my bad habits, and Martin’s a much more committed, free-associative surrealist about structure. So the Bogusław album is a much weirder record, I think, because Martin had a much stronger hand in the editing decisions.

MS: And on The Consuming Flame. And you can hear on the most recent Soft Pink Truth, I’m kind of having fun trying to educate myself about what ensemble sound can do. I’m learning on the job. It has to flow, especially when you’ve been going for almost 30 years now. It was our 30th anniversary this Halloween. You know, that comfort food urge to replicate statements you’ve already made, there’s no terrible harm in it. But you want to evolve and find somewhere new. I think that shifts in technology and shifts in concept help us with that.

An excerpt from the 2016 Matmos album Ultimate Care II, generated from the sounds of the washing machine of the same name.

So, you guys have famously made music out of just some really crazy shit. Like snails and washing machines and plastic surgery. I’m curious what some lesser-known experimental sounds you’ve incorporated into your music might be, or even if you just have some favorite weird noises you’ve made along the way.

DD: It’s hard to say favorite because we’re getting old enough where our own past is starting to become mysterious to us. I remember a decision that we made on the second album. We had recorded a latex T-shirt that I had, and we had stretched it and did a thing where you lick your finger and rub your finger against the latex. It made sort of quacking noises. So we said, “Let’s make this sound more like ducks.” And we took the manipulated latex T-shirt noises and put it on a cassette and brought it on a tape deck to an area by the water where there were real ducks. And then we played our tape of “Manipulated Latex T-Shirt” and re-recorded it in the ambience of a duck’s environment to make the latex T-shirt seem more like a duck. So that’s just one little story, but I think it’s indicative of a broader process of association. You’re trying to draw out something about a sound – and it’s not really about a latex T-shirt anymore – it’s more about where you want to take it than, like, “Where did it start?”.

MS: I don’t know. There’s a lot of very funny, “Where did it start?”. I’m looking at my list of samples in Sampler here, and there’s one called “Comb Over Rubber.” We had a big piece of rubber that you pluck chickens with. It’s got just the right amount of stickiness. And you go (moves hands rapidly back and forth and makes a vinyl-scratch noise with mouth). And that rips the feathers out, and then I’m playing that thing with a comb.

We were in Italy in a disused chapel in a castle that still had all the communion plates in the cabinet on the wall. And we took all that stuff out and we made so much stuff with that. And here’s a file called “Goats.” It’s goats!

DD: Because of what we’ve done and who we are, people give us weird stuff sometimes. A friend that was an art handler was moving a mummy and a little piece of the cloth of the mummy had flaked off in transit, and he had scooped it up in a little glass jar. So we have a microscopic, tiny piece of mummy dust. And someday maybe we’ll make some piece where we contact MICA and move the mummy dust softly and slowly across an amplified surface to make a sound. And be, like, “Oh, I’m doing a piece about death or a piece about eternity or about mummies or about Egypt.” We haven’t had a record yet that called for mummy dust. Maybe in time we will. We have a lifetime of gathering sounds everywhere we go. We’re not going to run out. It’s more the poetics of, “Why this sound?”

This is somewhat antithetical to everything we talked about before. But regardless of what you use in your music, I’m curious if you have any pieces of more normal, traditional gear you just kind of, like, enjoy using or admire.

DD: Martin’s go to, and probably the instrument with the greatest longevity in the band, is the Roland SH-101 synthesizer.

MS: Which I acquired for an eighth of weed in 1985. I was, like, “Hey, (redacted name) do you ever use that?” And she was, like, “Nah, someone gave it to me for weed.” And I was, like, “I'll trade you weed for it.” Maybe it was a quarter. Maybe it was just an eighth. A quarter then was $50, and an eighth was always $25. Maybe I’m misremembering.

DD: Were you dealing weed at the time?

MS: I mean, we were all dealing weed at one time or another. But that’s how I got that. Still using it, I used it just the other day. It’s a little cranky. I wonder if you can buy an SH-101 on Reverb.

I’m sure you can.

DD: I don’t think you can buy stuff with weed on

Matmos performing as part of Björk's backing band at the Royal Opera House in London in 2001.

No. I’m here to definitively tell you, you can’t do that.

DD: That’s on the very first Matmos record. It’s when we were in Björk’s band. Martin was playing it on stage. The SH-101 has been through a lot—decades of use. And we still use it. It’s still, for Martin, like, the core of what you want from a synthesizer.

MS: It’s how I teach synthesis to people who want to learn. It’s subtractive synthesis.

DD: I don’t think I have a piece of gear that I’m as loyal to, honestly.

MS: When I met Drew, all I really wanted was to have sex with him. But he was really excited about music. His axe was the Roland W-30 sampler. Can you buy a machine as sad as the Roland W-30 on Reverb in 2022?

DD: I’m more of a software person, to be honest, than a gear person. SoundEdit by Macromedia. That’s some dead software that doesn’t run anymore. That’s from, like, 1999 OS. But man, I sure miss that software a lot. I just loved it. There’s so much you could do. I liked that it was destructive editing, too. Destructive editing meant commitment. It’s more like oil painting that way and not, like, “Oh, there’s endless infinite undos.” I miss that kind of model of change.

I would say the other thing right now that’s amazing about making music is the flourishing world of soft synths and soft instruments. And then taking it even further, the kind of VCV Rack world. If you’ve never played around with VCV Rack, check that out. Because that’s a world of people writing modules for each other. Some cost money, but many are free.

I have one more question that’s unrelated to gear: I’m curious how being a couple impacts your creative process.

DD: Honestly, it’s a joy and then it’s also a fire that can get out of control.

MS: It’s like those fires in oil fields that never go out and just continue to spew toxic smoke into the air.

DD: The highs are higher and the lows are lower. When people are in a band together, there can be strong feelings, but there’s also somewhere else to go when the tour’s over, when the band practice is over. Whereas we’re a couple and a band all day, every day. And we live together and we make the records at home. There’s really no difference between a music life and a “life” life. I mean, I’m a Shakespeare professor. I have somewhere to go.

MS: I think being in a band is so many boys’ first, possibly only, gay experience. It’s the first time they fall in love with another boy, so frequently. How many bass player/drummer boys are really functionally in love? So many! Like, guitar players and singers… boys in bands, in the best world, that’s what love is. Learning to work together, making a third thing together that’s better than both of you. Being in bands is, like, the gayest fucking thing in the world.

DD: Martin’s flipping it and saying every band is already a “couple” band.

MS: There can be up to 12 couples in a single four piece band. Do the math.

DD: I wanna say something serious: the couple form itself has been critiqued from a queer theory angle as a bourgeois proprietary form that is about who gets the money, who gets the house, the regulation of the transfer of property to children. Queerness is supposed to change that because maybe no children or maybe an open relationship where you can have lots of sex partners or a different attitude about the elasticity of what a couple is supposed to do to regulate two lives that are being lived in sync. And yet there is this shadow about endurance and capacity and life and death, right? That the couple form is about, but the band as a form is also about. And there’s a tremendous pathos when the couple breaks up and the band can’t exist anymore.

I think that’s what a lot of the fans felt about Kim and Thurston and their breakup and that being the end of Sonic Youth. I think it’s a different thing right now for fans of Low because of Mimi Parker’s death and the way that Low as a band happened because of Alan and Mimi’s voices together and harmonizing. And there’s this kind of question of, “How long will it last?” And that’s a question that haunts every band and that’s a question that haunts every couple. And does it still matter? And is it still alive? Do we love each other? Do we care about this art that we’re making? Those are questions that you face every day. And I think I’m just trying to tighten the screws of the fact that they’re kind of the same question. Whether you’re thinking as an artist or whether you’re thinking as a partner, the question of “What is fidelity? What is commitment? How far are you going to take something?” remains.

MS: (Makes fart noise with his mouth).

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