Matthew Herbert is at it again.
Less than a year after the release of his One Pig album, he’s back with a new album, this time in the Wishmountain guise he last used in ’98. Tesco is a dance music album, but an unorthodox one: its 10 tracks correspond to the bestselling items for the titular British supermarket chain, with eight sounds from each item recorded and massaged into the kind of supple, minimalist house rhythms that first brought Herbert to the world’s attention over 15 years ago. It’s Herbert at his mischievous, alchemical best, inducing you to groove to a bottle of Lucozade or a packet of Andrex toilet roll.
Last week FACT TV met the eternally restless producer in East London to talk about the rebirth of Wishmountain, the genesis of Tesco (out now on Accidental) and the “aftershocks” of the One Pig project. You can watch the video here; what follows is the full transcript of the conversation.
“We’ve got four and a half litres of the pig’s blood still, in the fridge…and it’s gone off.”
“Its still part of my diary, if you like, just because we’re out touring Europe with it, doing live shows still. And there are some interesting aftershocks, for me, anyway – one of them, and it’s really small, I don’t think it would concern anybody else, but we’ve got like four and a half litres of its blood still, in the fridge…and it’s gone off. We daren’t open the top.
“We’ve also got some bacon left over from the pig – the idea was, that if it wasn’t too dark, that we’d sell bacon as part of the record, so that if you were bold enough you could eat it while listening to it – making it an all-consuming experience. So every time I see the blood I think, I really should do something with that, but I think it’s quite telling that I just can’t tip it down the sink, which is where it would’ve ended up. So I’m faced with the kind of dilemmas that as a society we’re faced with daily – what to do with our waste, what to do with the mess that we’ve created. Those little things keep it alive in my mind.
“It was a very challenging project. But probably one of the most complete that I’ve ever done – just because it’s so easy to explain. It’s a pig. Everyone knows what that is, from my two-year-old son to his grandmother. People are actually able to talk about some of the ideas, or their reaction to the music, or the context, or the controversy or whatever it is, rather than me having to spend an hour explaining it to them and trying to draw them in.”
“Music is so varnished now…it seems to exist in this otherworldly bubble that rarely touches you and is rarely about life and death.”
You mention controversy. How did you feel about some of the more extreme reactions One Pig was met with?
“The most exciting part for me was when it all started to kick off…at that stage I hadn’t actually written any music. The story came out that I wasn’t allowed to record the killing of the pig by the abattoir, and the Guardian ran a small piece about it, just picked up from the blog I was doing about it, and then suddenly I had calls from the Sunday Times news desk and calls from all around the world picking up on this. Then of course that turned into PETA condemning the record before they’d even heard it, and condemning the process, and condemning me, and everything about it. There was a Facebook group complaining about it.
“What was exciting to me was that people were upset about a piece of music – and for me that feels exciting, to think that music still has that potential to generate friction. I think music is so varnished now, it’s so behind a kind of plasticised framework, there’s a sort of film that goes around it, it just seems to exist in this otherworldly bubble that rarely touches you and is rarely about life and death.”
And this excitement fed back into the project?
“I was upset to begin with but then I was excited, it was like wow, people are frightened, or challenged, by a piece of music, and a piece of music that didn’t even exist yet. Regardless of whether the music was any good or what I ended up doing with it, that felt like a new thing for me. I mean, I’m always trying to prod things with my music, I’m always trying to make things a little difficult for myself and possibly others, and this was he first time where this had really expressed itself in quite a profound and sometimes emotional way. What was weird was just how automatic people’s assumptions are – PETA even said in their statement that I was making ‘entertainment’, and that idea that music is ‘just entertainment’ is really indicative of where we’ve got to, thinking of music as just that, just entertainment, just letting your hair down or getting away from something, or doing something other than the thing that you do in your normal life. So I really enjoyed that part of the process: thinking about that friction, living with that friction. And this was probably when it clicked, what I was trying to do.
“Virtually all the reviews that I had of the live show and the record, regardless of whether they like the music, were reflecting on the process, and that was all I could really hope for. For people to think seriously about some of questions I had to deal with, the morality of it – is it right? What’s the end result going to be? Is this music acceptable?”
“Music’s no longer just impressionism, it’s now also documentary.”
How did you go from completing One Pig to reactivating Wishmountain, ostensibly a dance music project?
“The pig was a project that took up three years of my life and is still going, and it was a very elaborate process of putting it together. You think, right, let’s go and record a pig being born, and then you find out you have to wait – I had to wait 10 months before the pig was even born. And I loved the idea that in this age of the laptop, where we’re so connected – you know, I’ve got a phone and an iPad with me and I could write five pieces of music by the time I get home tonight on the train – that there I was having to negotiate with a farmer to actually get access to do my recording. There were constant hurdles along the way, which I appreciated, even though they were frustrating at time – because they forced me to take my time, and not be so sort of power-mad.
“Then you do all the live shows and interviews and things, and you pause, and you think, what next? I’d just done life and death, and for me I’m still interested in those big questions. There’s a sense that what music is expressing is an otherness; historically that’s been about spirituality, it’s been about the earth, it’s been about community, it’s been about individual notional questions, but it always seems to be about an otherness of some kind… there aren’t many songs about just going to the library and taking out a book, or just sitting down. And particularly if you look at the classical tradition – if you look at Mahler, or Beethoven, or Shostakovich or Stravinsky or Debussy, there’s a real sense of spiritual life; they’ve spent years thinking about these big questions about what happens when we die, what the meaning of life is. We’ve got completely different tools now – I can go and record death, I can go and record a Syrian revolution, people being murdered, and turn that into a piece of music; so that’s a fundamental shift, music’s no longer just impressionism, it’s now also documentary.
“And so part of me wants to carry on pursuing those themes about life and death – if I’ve got a pig being killed, or someone being shot and I’m playing it on my keyboard – BANG – what responsibilities do I have to that original sound, what’s the morality of that, what’s the philosophy of that, what am I hoping to achieve by using it and again, is it right? What responsibility do I have to the audience and to the person who might have been shot and killed? For me those are really important questions that take a long time to answer. All of that stuff is really important to me. But having said all that, there’s also me wanting to take a night off from all those questions and wanting to make dance music – but at the same time not wishing to completely abandon those principles or those concerns.”