2013 marks the release of the first Matmos album in half a decade, The Marriage of True Minds.
In preparation for the album, Drew Daniel and Martin ‘MC’ Schmidt – infamous for their invention both on record and on the stage – spent four years conducting parapsychological experiments on willing test subjects, putting them into “a state of sensory deprivation” by covering their eyes and submitting them to blasts of white noise on headphones. Drew Daniel then attempted to transmit The Marriage of True Minds‘ concept directly into their heads. Patients were asked to describe anything they saw or head out loud, with these confessions forming the core of the album’s sound – through samples, or arrangements and ideas suggested by visual responses.
FACT’s Joe Muggs interviewed Matmos last week to talk… well, everything. The interview that follows is a real beast, spanning M.C. Schmidt’s most memorable LSD experiences, novelty cover versions, Matmos’s relationship with dance music culture, Ghostbusters and much more besides.
OK I’m recording, you’re on the record.
D: [leaning towards mic] I’m Drew, I have the high, whiney, kinda faggy voice.
M: [sitting up straight with fixed newsreader smile] And my name’s Martin, I have the plummy, rich, intelligent voice.
Good, glad we have that sorted. Now, you’ve been replicating ESP experiments for your last album. Did you ever worry people would think you’re Dr Venkman [from Ghostbusters] and trying to seduce them?
D: It was funny that when we would start a Ganzfeld experiment at our house, we would have to reassure people that we were not going to make out with them, or douse ice-cold water on them once they were lying down.
M: People were most concerned with that in England for some reason.
D: Yeah, British people were the most afraid that Dom Joly was going to come out and the whole thing was going to be some kind of prank. We had to reassure them that, no, we were just going to lie back, listen to white noise, enter the state of sensory deprivation, and receive the concept of the new Matmos album. So we did prime them to be receptive, but they did definitely come in with the idea that we were going to mess with their mind or somehow seduce them… of course it is an inherently seductive situation – a bit like the psychoanalytic situation: you encourage someone to lie down on a couch and talk about their innermost feelings, there is going to be a sense of vulnerability and exposure involved. Some sessions, people did start to give away rather more than I think they intended to about themselves. One person started to talk about his crush on a co-worker then brought up his mother immediately afterwards and it was a bit “hrrmm, your symptom’s showing!” – we didn’t use that part of the session in a song, maybe that was us being a bit gutless but I felt that…
M: …that there’d been enough songs written about that.
JM: A deep vein of popular culture right there…
M: …and one which I choose not to mine.
In one sense it’s unsurprising people thought there could be a wind-up or prank involved, just because Matmos has always been quite funny.
D: [Immediately, and dead straight] I think so.
M: [almost chokes]
D: I think it’s dangerous if you’re trying to be funny because of course that’s repellant, and you have to let the humour just happen. But we are not devout occultists, and this is not a religious project – it’s one that exploits religiosity on stage, the sort of ritual feeling is one that we want to create, but I don’t think it’s tethered to a belief I have that I’m eager to persuade others to share. I see the art being an in-between space, a sort of transpersonal thing that’s not about me convincing people of something but about everybody thinking together.
And have you found that the British – with our, ahem, legendary sense of humour – have got the joke in a different way?
D: Yeah, actually. The Ruskin School of Art was one of the most productive places for this projects, at St John’s College we were artists-in-residence and we sat down with a lot of people that we didn’t know and asked them to take part. Some people had a lot of resistance, would just lay there and say “I’m getting nothing”…
M: [butts in] That’s not fair, Drew, to say that they had a lot of resistance. Maybe they just weren’t receiving anything. A lack of results does not mean they were resistant…
D: [sheepish] Yeah, I guess you’re exposing my eagerness there…
M: Throughout this process, he started to believe… Well, euggghhh! [grimaces]
D: Now, now…
M: And he grew that beard.
D: That came later! But one thing that was revealing was not so much that there was a British character in this, because of course I would be suspicious of that, but gender differences were very apparent. Female subjects were much more willing to just flow and describe, male subjects were much more likely to just hover. The real problem too, the elephant in the room, was if people were familiar with our work they were much more likely to produce something that was just like a parody of Matmos. Which is sometimes kind of cool, heh, but when you had a feeling that someone was trying to be wacky, that was a problem. We generally put them aside.
M: “I see penguins, they’re dancing on an iceberg, and each of them are individually mic’ed. It’s going into the internet and there’s a live poll being done as to how loud each penguin should…” – aw c’mon, that’s not what Drew’s sending you!
D: But then some people just gave us such gorgeous, weird, scary, transformative visions. The very first test subject in England was a girl named Tatiana…
M: She’s been kind of a star of the show.
D: Yeah, and her session was really… intense and lyrical and focused, and as soon as we did that we knew like “OK we’ve got to use this”, and that became the track ‘Luminous Rings’ that Martin made a video for, that was the iTunes bonus cut. And that was one of the hardest songs to make, as soon as she lay there, as soon as she counted down to zero, there was this incredible kind of abstract poem that she just produced. I felt really lucky.
So is this now a process you’d be tempted to use again to supply you with vocals?
M: We certainly could. We could make like five more albums from this thing.
D: That’s why we created the Tumblr, so there’s the entire archive of every transcript of every session is up there and available…
M: I think other people could…
D: …they could run with it and grow new songs of their own…
M: …like a kind of…
D: …remix project or…
M: …or what do you call with the Blue Man Group where there’s a kind of…?
D: A franchise.
M: A franchise, there could be a franchise.
D: One set up in each town so there could be a Blackpool Matmos, a Newcastle Matmos…
M: And we get 70%.
It could be like Tupperware parties where you license people to sell your experience.
D: I had one college roommate who started drag queen tupperware parties, and she does really well actually. But I dunno, we think about the album as the unit of measure, so when we’ve completed an album project I feel that kind of seals a certain aesthetic. There’s a lots more that can be done with medicine and sound, but I feel that would be repeating ourselves if we did that because A Chance to Cut was our exploration of that. But maybe that’s just us being stuck in an album era?
M: Besides, we’ve got a new idea for a new album!
And it helps with the creative process if you go “OK, clean slate” each time?
But is there a continuity too? Do you listen back to the old albums?
D: We do.
M: I think I do more than he does.
D: Preparing to tour is when you have to assess, how can we balance what we’re excited about that is new with things from the past or things that are just ancillary – like the improvisation with a balloon, which sort of references a track on our second album, but is sort of a new thing too, and is sort of a way of just [snaps fingers] snapping you out of your tour mode of being like a politician and on message and constantly “OK, here’s the project”, which can turn into a branding exercise, and I don’t think that helps establish a sense of something being at stake in a performance. So it’s good if you can look at your past and look at things that counterbalance that tendency in your music…
M: What the hell? I don’t even know what you’re talking about any more.
D: He was saying do we see any continuity from album to album and I kind of morphed into preparing to tour an album means thinking about the continuties and discontinuities between the albums…
M: [confused face]
JM: So will you listen back to something old that you did and suddenly realise that in your most recent project, “oh we we were just doing that old thing, that Matmos thing”?
D: Yeah yeah yeah, certainly.
M: Which can be good or bad, because – it’s kind of banal to talk about but, there are objects on stage already that could be used [for a particular track] so that makes it more likely to include it in a live set.
D: For example, [Buzzcocks cover] ‘ESP’ starts with doom metal, and to play doom metal you need a drummer and a guitarist…
M: Ooh now we have a drummer and a guitarist, so now we can start adding previous tracks that need a drummer and a guitarist – that’s what you were about to say, isn’t it? I just thought I would say it to give me a chance to have something to say for a change… Yeah, so suddenly we have half the set there, because we have a guitarist and a drummer. Like a lot of art, it’s problem solving. Things suggest themselves because, oh, this guitarist is strong in certain directions so we’ll follow that. I know he can play bluegrass, so we go, OK, stuff from ‘The Civil War’ or ‘The West’.
D: Like, we created this ending where we play The Carter Family ‘Foggy Mountain Top’ – that’s the ending now to ‘Yield to Total Elation’, which wasn’t on the record, but Owen’s skillset can go there so let’s do that… and it does something to the kind of Americana elements, but also to the seance-y 19th century overtones of some of the Marriage of True Minds material if you go to ‘Foggy Mountain Top’ as the ending of the whole thing…
Plus you want some of that Mumford & Sons money.
D: Yeah, yeah absolutely. We’re gonna start selling Matmos artisanal jam next.
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