If Drew Daniel and M.C. (Martin) Schmidt have experimental music down to a science in the way they work, then it’s the science of two smart kids screwing around with a chemistry set. Intelligent but never at the expense of fun, their long-running project Matmos is the Bill Nye the Science Guy of glitch, the Good Eats of sampling, the Pee Wee’s Playhouse of musique concrète. Record after record, Matmos have challenged, baffled, and excited me. They make music that is incredibly complex, yes, but it’s a complexity earned through inventiveness and balanced by humor. It also helps that these guys never half-ass a concept. Music such as the surgical techno of 2001’s A Chance to Cut Is A Chance To Cure ( our #34 album of the 2000s) or the glitch-Americana of 2003’s The Civil War dove so deeply and sincerely into their concepts they avoid any sort of gimmickry.
For their new album The Marriage Of True Minds, out February 19 on Thrill Jockey, Daniel and Schmidt recorded a series of Ganzfeld experiments — a technique used to test individuals for extrasensory perception (ESP) — over the last four years (with roughly 50 test subjects) and used them as a jumping off point for the album’s ESP-inspired psychedelia. When I saw Matmos debut some of the new album in Brooklyn last October (with the help of test subject Ed Schrader), it felt less like they were playing a song and more like they were recreating one of these Ganzfeld sessions live.
I spoke to Drew and Martin in depth the day before that show about the challenges of performing their music live, the process of making their new album, remixing, and, of course, ESP. Check out our conversation below.
How have the shows been going so far?
Drew: It’s been really fun. We’ve been in Europe. It’s still like harvest time because we’ve been working on this project for so long. Early on, we did some live versions of the project when it was totally mysterious and esoteric to people in the audience and they had no idea what we were doing up there or what it was supposed to be about, and people would ask us if it was some kind of Aleister Crowley thing. So it’s fun to be doing this material when people are a little bit more aware of the concept that drives it, but not yet… they haven’t yet seen the versions we’re doing tomorrow night. We’re debuting a song we’ve never played live and some new material; in fact, as you called Martin was showing me something that he’s in the final processes of finishing that he’ll be premiering tomorrow night.
Martin: But the real truth about this is the whole thing really becomes clear in, like, February.
D: Yeah, when the album comes out. The Marriage of True Minds is the most intense working-through of these concepts. The Ganzfeld EP is designed to be kind of a teaser for that record. The song “Very Large Green Triangles” is also on the album, [and] the EP also has this remix by Rrose, and then the piece “Just Waves,” which is also kind of a teaser for the archive that created the whole album. The libretto or the lyrics that make up “Just Waves” are a kind of a greatest hits of a lot of the different psychic sessions that we conducted, all piled on top of each other into this kind of waterfall of people talking in this sort of budget-Robert Ashley style.
I read your Guardian article that talked a little bit about the process.
D: Yeah, it’s been a long process. I mean, for me. I don’t think it would have taken this long if I wasn’t also trying to get tenure at a research university. So I don’t want to create the false idea that we get up every morning at 8 AM and work on Matmos all day every day, and we’ve been doing that for four years. [laughs] I mean, if you already think our music is kind of cluttered, and yes it is, just imagine how it would be if that was true. But it is true that over time the repetition of certain images, and especially the image of triangles and triangular forms, gets more ominous and funnier and some sorts of in-jokes become more powerful the more they’re repeated and how it’s true of people’s tendencies to generate triangularity in fashion. Over time, I would spot gender differences and cultural differences. The more you tend to do something over and over, the more you see certain patterns emerge. I think, for me, I was possibly a little bit better, more focused in my mind of transmitting the concept at the beginning of the project than I am now. I think that’s unfortunate, you know. I wish I could say I’m much better at being psychic, but that’s not true [laughs]. It’s hard to just think one thing, and our culture doesn’t really encourage the skills that would help you to do that, because we think you should be proud of how many things you can do at the same time. We don’t like focus, we like sort of…
Multitasking? How many people did you do the experiments with over the years?
D: I would say it’s about 50.
D: Yeah! Something like that.
M: We have a lot of video tapes…
D: A lot of transcripts. You know, some people produce just a giant fountain of discourse, and some others say almost nothing, or just one thing. Sometimes the one-liners are great.
The longer you’ve done something, the more anxiety you have about whether you’re still part of the conversation or whether the chessboard has changed so much that now you don’t really have a move to make.
Particularly with the new stuff, but just in general, how do you go about incorporating all of these sounds into the live show?
D: Well it’s tricky. You definitely can’t… I don’t like it when electronic music is basically watching somebody press ‘play,’ and out comes something exactly like the record. So we definitely strip songs down and use fewer elements, and elements we think can have some visible responsibility for, so that means I’m triggering via hand when we jump from one section to another to another. Martin’s playing a lot of synthesizers, and we just have to hope things sync up and work. In the case of playing with Ed [Schrader] tomorrow night, there’s going to be a recreation of a psychic session.
D: Yeah, kind of like a re-enactment, in real time, of the conditions that created the music. So we want to turn the club into a version of the laboratory in which the song started. You never know until you’re there how thick you want to make the music, based on the P.A. and the crowd and what people are enjoying. In our studio, we like a lot of frequencies that become very painful when you reproduce them on a loud P.A. So there’s always some sculpting involved in just figuring out what we want to hear versus what is pushing the threshold for pain with people. Because I love really sharp high-end, but it’s not very fun when you start and look out at a room full of people covering their ears.
I’ve definitely been to some shows where that’s happened. How did you guys get involved with Ed Schrader? Didn’t you work on Jazz Mind?
M: Yeah, it’s kind of utterly unrelated [to Ed’s work on Marriage]. You know, Baltimore, or at least the weird-music scene in Baltimore, is like a small town. So we just knew Ed, because he was just another person who we decided to ask to do a psychic session. It was ages ago, and it had nothing to do with Ed as a performer. The work we did on that, on his record, came much later.
D: You know, we were aware of him, because he kept trying to get us to be guests on his talk show, and I kept saying no because I was busy with school. But I felt really guilty. Ed was also a dishwasher at this restaurant we would always go to at the time, and Ed would always come out and be really friendly. Ed has such an imaginative verbal presence that I kind of had a hunch that he would be a really good psychic subject. Sure enough, when he got into the Ganzfeld state, he produced this incredibly lyrical, crazy, psychedelic vision. We’ve hung out socially, like we watch movies together. We watched that movie Over the Edge and got to know him. And then I was so impressed with Ed Schrader as a live performer, so it was a real honor when he asked us to contribute to the album Jazz Mind. But it was kinda scary too, because the aesthetic is minimal; it’s really delicate. Everything you do you worry it’s gonna stand out like sore thumb and ruin what’s so pure about him. But I think he did a good job of throwing away a lot of our stuff and only taking the things that serve the song. I’ll be playing with him at the show too; I’m playing hurdy-gurdy on one song.
I was wondering too; it’s been four years since the last album. And you mention that you’ve been focusing a lot on teaching. What’s it been like getting back into things?
M: Now this is where Drew is not… it’s not entirely by choice really. Drew believes he can do everything, and I’m not sure Drew can do everything.
D: Yeah, we still play shows, but it’s harder to tour because I’m trying to get tenure and the commitment of my being a professor, which takes a great deal of my time, which is fine, I love it. So we have to avoid clutter, which is a bit of a problem with electronic music right now anyway. I think of course the longer you’ve done something, the more anxiety you have about whether you’re still part of the conversation or whether the chessboard has changed so much that now you don’t really have a move to make. I don’t really let that worry me I guess, in part because I tend to be inspired by people who stuck at what they did for a very long time, whether it’s Coil or Nurse With Wound, those were people that stayed productive and stayed interesting precisely by having a certain fidelity to a vision. I remember a member, kind of complaining about Coil, saying, “They live in a world where time has no meaning,” and what he meant was it’s annoying to try and get them to play a show, but I think it’s actually kind of a beautiful vision of a transcendental way of just carrying on… I guess that’s what any old person in my situation would say. The only show in October — the 20th anniversary show is on Halloween, 20 years of being Matmos… scary.
Speaking of taking breaks and how that might not matter much: I’m kind of curious what you think of Scott Walker putting out a new album. I remember your review, for Pitchfork, of The Drift. I think you were one of the first people to really try and mentally digest that album.
D: Yeah, well I take a lot of inspiration from the art that he’s carved out. I think that… I mean, I’m incredibly excited to hear what he did. I definitely think we’ve all reached that moment of being really overwhelmed and sung, “I’m the only one left alive!”
M: Oh yeah, we’ve all done that. [laughs]
D: That song “Jesse,” about Walker’s… well, he exemplifies a really amazing artist’s magic trick, which is that there’s this emotional communication, which feels really instantaneous. Even though the materials his art is made out of, and is about, is incredibly specific and kind of esoteric and arcane. That’s what’s so enviable about Scott Walker; it’s pathetic. Even though he’s singing about some scary, detailed political situation, there’s this kind of resonance to the performance that communicates an emotion really powerfully and really immediately. I’m really in awe of that, and I’m really looking forward to what the next twist is.
You’ve had the EP come out, but you’ve also have a lot of remixes come out. Like the Liars remix and Oneohtrix Point Never. How do you approach those?
D: I approach it like homework. Not in the sense of, “Do I have to.” But that it’s a very narrowly defined challenge. I’m actually in the process of working on two remixes right now that are very different from each other. It’s something I’ve wanted to do, but I guess a lot of people think of the 1990s as the era that was the golden age of remixes that were highly creative and theorized a lot. But I think it still has tremendous vitality now, and I still do it. It’s always something where… we have not had many people remix us, and that’s in part because I’m very aware that the failure rate of remixes is very high. Most of them are uninspired examples of cross-marketing, and have no real reason to exist other than that. So I was really, really so pleased with what Rrose did to us, because I don’t have the discipline to really strip music down, and he does. Or she does. I don’t want to gender Rrose; Rrose chooses to be A-gendered. But whatever Rrose is, Rrose has something that really Matmos doesn’t have, and I think that justifies why that was an interesting pairing. It was really tricky to do that Oneohtrix remix because I always feel that Matmos has some element of humor, and that Oneohtrix piece has this very mournful, elegiac quality. Even though Daniel’s aesthetic is full of humor, that song isn’t. So I felt like I kind of had to… in order to make the remix justifiable, it needed to go emotionally somewhere else, and for me that meant something kind of plastic.
Awhile back, I interviewed Angus Andrew of Liars, and he said he has a lot of trouble giving up a piece of music to be remixed, but with you two, he said he respected and trusted you. That was the big word he used: trust.
D: [Laughs] It’s a revealing comment. I think when you give someone a track to remix, it’s kind of like giving someone naked pictures of yourself. So it makes sense that a singer specifically would feel that way. Because a vocal performance makes sense against music, and within music, but when you let someone remix you, you have to hear you with no defenses and no covering. And so you do need to trust people if you’re gonna expose yourself like that. I definitely hear that. That means something coming from him, but it also means something coming from someone who’s specifically a singer.
I like perversity and perversion, and the pervert in me wants to come up with some defense of what is tacky, but I don’t want to contort myself on behalf of stuff when there are things I love unreservedly that I’d much rather discuss.
Do you think you two have a reputation for being a group that people think of, and trust, to remix their music
D: I had no idea [laughs]. Yeah, when I think about the remixes we’ve done, I always feel there’s a funny ethics about. Like, how can you manipulate someone, and are you making fun of them by doing that or are you just extending someone to where their voice can’t go? Because if you’re remixing someone who’s voice is really strong — I’m thinking of David Tibet of Current 93 or Björk — their voice can carry an entire show; the voice can be all the music needs. What you do to that voice is really gonna stand out. So it’s really fun to work with, but it’s also the risk of doing something trivial or corny is much higher when something is that strong, so you better not fuck it up. [laughs]
I’ve been wondering: Over the last year, has there been any music that you’ve heard that’s excited you or, I guess, pissed you off?
D: Oh yeah! I’ve definitely been enjoying that L1ef guy. Dark York, that mixtape of kind of ball culture, post-everything queer hip-hop, because the density of it is challenging. I think a lot of people’s minds are being blown by Rashad and Spinn and sort of footwork and the weird rhythms going on there. I mean, there’s also music I heard this year that’s from a long time ago that I just happened to hear for the first time. Martin bought me an album by Bayle—
M: François Bayle!
D: …François Bayle called Grande Polyphonie on INA-GRM that is just an unbelievably powerful work of concrete, and also on the concrete stuff, the double whammy of Kassel Jaeger’s album on Mego and that Pierre Shaeffer reissue were really… you know, there’s just a lot of strong electronic music being made. I think the music that pisses me off… I don’t know. Like, there’s bad music, there’s SO much bad music. But with “Somebody I Used to Know,” or “Call Me Maybe,” do we love to hate those things or does the very act of remembering implicitly become some kind of homage where you just can’t help but be seduced by the repeatability of them? I mean, I like perversity and perversion, and the pervert in me wants to come up with some defense of what is tacky, but I don’t want to contort myself on behalf of stuff when there are things I love unreservedly that I’d much rather discuss. I’ve been enjoying that new album by Loscil on the Kranky label, Sketches From New Brighton. I think that it’s a perfect distillation of a perfect aesthetic, and it’s frozen in a certain aesthetic that some people may think is passé, but to me feels kind of eternal and I think of the pleasure and taking that, I have to ask myself, “Oh, am I being just the 1990s glitch guy, and that’s why I like that.” I don’t hear it as that.
So my last question is: with the new album, has your mind changed about ESP?
D: I think that, with this project, moments of alignments I feel with Martin have this strange comic edge of, “Ah-ha! Telepathy is real!” And there are moments of misunderstanding where I cannot figure out what Martin is thinking, or Martin can’t figure out what I’m thinking, which is frustrating, because it’s like a counter-example.
M: I was thinking the exact same thing. [Laughs]
D: The project has intensified my awareness in a lot of ways I didn’t predict. I knew that from the outside it might just look like a big joke, but I’m really glad that we did this.
M: It’s an amazing method to make other people do the work. [laughs] I’m gonna say something that Drew usually said… Sol Lewitt said, “The idea is the machine that makes the art.”
D: But you could also say the, “Hey, you wanna help me paint this fence,” that Mark Twain wrote. So it’s somewhere between Mark Twain and Sol Lewitt. That’s where you’ll find us.
[Photo: James Thomas Marsh]