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Two Minds Married: an in-depth interview with Matmos

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.

 

“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.”

 

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!

 

“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!”

 

And it helps with the creative process if you go “OK, clean slate” each time?

Both: Yeah.

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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Do you see yourselves as part of any musical lineages? Obviously there are direct connections with people you’ve worked with or been friends with like Herbert and Coil – who are kind of one-offs – but listening to the album last night, I suddenly got flashes of other things, like Bongwater…

[both laugh]

D: Yeah! It could be super mean to say it, but the Bongwater song ‘David Bowie Wants Ideas’ you could compare to our Ganzfeld Experiment songs, right? She has that amazing text about how David Bowie throws a party where people are supposed to come and write down ideas for his next song, and in a weird way our Ganzefeld Experiments are…

M: “Please come and give us a goddamn idea!”

D: So I guess that’s the bitchiest thing I could say about us. But yeah there’s a clear Bongwater thing, sure.

Well, from that connection, I then thought of a whole line of American mischief-makers or jokers – The Fugs, Devo, the Butthole Surfers…

D: Sure, sure, I see that. Bongwater’s whole thing was something that I relate to in terms of us doing ‘ESP’. If you’re going to do a punk rock cover you’re not pretending that it’s ’77, but I’m not going to do some spray-on dubstep wub-wub version either. It’s a chessboard of what moves are possible that let you know that it’s OK to still love this song now, but you have to transform it to justify that this cover exists… And I think that Bongwater’s versions of The Monkees, Johnny Cash, Zeppelin, every time they would return to that they were very knowing and savvy about how they did it and the moves they made. I mean, doing ‘Dazed & Confused’ in Chinese, so it’s ‘Dazed & Chinese’ – that was brilliant…

That’s a fine line to tread, of course, because the the novelty cover version has almost become the genre of our time…

D: Well yeah, you don’t want to become Pamplemousse. That would be a kind of worst-case musical scenario, a ninth circle of hell…

This isn’t something I’m familiar with.

M: Don’t bother. He’s obsessed with hating these people.

D: It’s the ‘Two Girls One Cup’ of music which once heard can never be unheard, so yeah – just don’t. They feature heavily in Hyundai commercials in America, it’s like a kind of adorable diet Cat Power indie chanteuse cooing shitty covers of Lady Gaga and Beyonce with a glockenspiel and kinda…

M: [sings falsetto] “We’ve got a really cute voice and ukulele la-di-da-di”

D: Fucking xylophone motherfuckers…

Ah OK – I heard Ed Sheeran cover ‘No Diggitty’ the other day, so yeah I know where you’re coming from.

M: [seemingly genuinely in physical pain] HYARRRGGGH!

[gathers himself] We actually ate breakfast in their restaurant this morning and there were bespoke scones and…

D: Yeah, Hackney’s really changed, I thought this was where Throbbing Gristle squatted but it’s all gingham and bare wood…

M: I’m kidding of course, it wasn’t theirs, but it was sort of the breakfast equivalent. I think that aesthetic makes great food but not such great music. I’d rather eat it than listen to it. Saying that, they were listening to our Baltimore buddies Future Islands in this place this morning. We were like “wow!”.

 

“You end up in a venue where you can’t draw enough people to sell enough beer, so everyone’s angry and not making enough money … you’re making everyone else unhappy and that’s no fun at all.”

 

So it seems clear from your reaction to this strand of pop culture that you don’t have to struggle to keep the punk spirit alive…

D: I have a lot of hate. It’s a weird one, though: I write academically about punk rock, I have an article about what I call “queer minstrelsy” – which is like straight performers pretending to be queer in punk rock and hardcore songs, like The Meatmen, Tesco Vee, The Frogs… But I’m really quite interested in it as an aesthetic problem [too], I think living punk rock as you hit 41 is…

M: That idea of the music and whatever social problems come with punk music of the past is one thing, but the idea of punk as do-it-yourself increasingly appeals to us because the music industry as we have known it – and yeah it seems cliched to say it – is falling apart around us, and those old models just aren’t working any more. You end up in a venue where you can’t draw enough people to sell enough beer, so everyone’s angry and not making enough money – the US tour we just did went very much like this. It kind of wasn’t fun in a lot of places, because you’re just dissatisfying the staff. There might be one person, the promoter, who cares about you, and that’s why you’re there, but you’re making everyone else unhappy and that’s no fun at all. I’m solidly returning to the idea that we should start booking our own things and bringing our own P.A. and playing in people’s houses and warehouses.

D: Because that’s how it’s done in Baltimore where we live. When we left San Francisco for Baltimore we left behind this bourgeois cyber-optimistic tech bubble where everyone has a great laptop, and came to this city where people are dog-walkers and dish-washers and make gear out of shit they find at the dump that they’ll hot-rod and re-solder and circuit bend and for us it was a really different scene and an education. I mean, I’m still a bourgeois academic with healthcare, I’m not pretending to be a crusty, but it’s inspiring to see people actually take DIY seriously…

M: It’s exciting to me, and it reconnects to Matmos in that it’s like “I could make a perfectly good fucking song with… the glasses on this table”, or with the garbage in the bin or whatever. OK I depend on a sampler or whatever; I guess I still have the best of both worlds, but…

Well the price barrier to getting a PC that will run audio edit or sampler software is less and less… a mobile phone will do what a powerful computer did ten years ago.

D: It’s strange – wherever we go we start to romanticise the thing that’s not there, so when you’re in a culture bunker like Queen Elizabeth Hall you really appreciate that the architecture imposes a certain respectful silence, so the music can be dynamically very silent then very full, and you’ve got more range, but then that’s oppressive so you’re like “oh why can’t it be this really rough DIY fucked up space?” but then you arrive there and you’re like “whaddya mean you don’t have tables for my gear?” so…

M: Hmmm… XOYO [where they’d played the previous night] was hardly a DIY space.

D: OK, no.

M: But they still didn’t have any tables!

D: Pretty impressive sub bass though. That was compelling. The churning low end was fine – I mean if you’re gonna do doom metal, you need that, right?

Well that brings me on to another subcultural allegiance: XOYO is more or less a house and techno club most nights – do you feel connections or disjunctions from dance culture, if indeed you think there is such a thing?

D: Well it’s so weird to think about that from the position of Baltimore where there is a regional dance music made in Baltimore – Baltimore club, which I like, and like listening to – and because the internet does flatten distinctions and lets styles be re-consumed and recirculated so quickly, it’s odd to think about what happens when I listen to, say, a 2-step tune played in Baltimore: it just doesn’t have the meaning that it does here in London. So that regional tension of who’s in the room, what do they want to hear, versus the way culture moves everywhere and is always connected…

M: Dance music is exciting to me for that reason. Its metabolism is so fast.

D: But for us to have been a band for twenty years, we can’t pretend like “ooh look at me I fit in this little jumper, I have these trainers too” – it would be ridiculous to try and sound like someone from Night Slugs or whatever, we can only do what we do.

The counter-current to that, though, is that the way house music has abided… abid? abode? remained… is amazing.

D: Like The Dude, it abides? Sure. And I’m making another Soft Pink Truth album after eight years, and that was created because Matthew Herbert said “oh Drew I would love it if you were to make a house record”, so I made those first two SPT albums. And I think to make house now is to confront another experimental question, which is, “is a genre still valid in year X?” – and with house, it’s especially enamoured with this obsessive, bespoke regurgitation of Chicago signifiers, with the classics, with the kind of worshipful stance towards the original. Techno already went through this, the fetishisation of the godfathers of Detroit techno, and the same thing is happening with Chicago house. I don’t know what the solution is, but I think when you go to a really diverse party where people are spinning a lot of different things and the dancefloor is responding to the fact that there can be a lot of disjunction and a lot of antagonism between styles and still have fun, that’s my kind of optimal dancefloor. So when we DJ at this High Zero party in Baltimore, where I can play gabba, and I can play punk rock, and Jason Willett could get people dancing to crows, literally to a record of crows cawing, no beat, no bassline, nothing…

M: They’re ready to go in Baltimore, that’s for sure…

D: …Baltimore people just wanna have fun, they don’t give a shit about is it this style or that style, and I really like that…

M: There’s very little of this. [Arms folded, leans back, scrutinising expression]

D: Yeah.

M: “Is it cooool enough for me to dance to?”

D: Yeah, it’s so the opposite of San Francisco vibe. They’re both valuable to me, I like passionate nerds who obsessively mine a subgenre and know everything there is to say about this one form of Balearic ska with string quartet samples on top or whatever stupid microgenre their personal identity has been ported into, their self-love routed through a belief that their knowledge about a set of records validates them as a human being – hey, that’s great. But I’d rather have a dancefloor that’s super-promiscuous about genre.

M: It was nice, when we arrived in Baltimore, to realise hey, you can have this intense knowledge but still just have fun with it. It doesn’t have to stop you!

The funny thing being that so many of the musicians at the heart of genres that people are militantly purist about, like “stop getting genre X wrong!!!” purist, are massive eclecticists themselves – I follow Traxman on Facebook for example and the diversity of both modern and old music he mixes and links to is huge.

D: …yeah, and you can hear in the influences he draws on in his productions, like that ‘Let There be Rock’ on Da Mind of Traxman – that track with AC/DC, it shouldn’t work but it’s amazing, and at the same time there’s ‘Lady Dro’ with jazz fusion in it… Sure, that’s a great example. Same if you go back to Cybotron, everyone fetishises ‘Clear’ and the kick drum and snare patterns, but there’s tons of ridiculous vocals, ridiculous rock signifiers on the Cybotron album. Detroit heads were really loving a lot of post-punk records too – all along there’s been more miscegenations than is acknowledged.

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This is a personal bugbear of mine, I’m on record as having issues in the past with people who want to draw a line around a particular stream of London pirate radio music – now of course this is London, and we miscegenate like no other, but they conveniently ignore the fact that this stuff musically and culturally can’t really be separated from things like hippie techno, the jazz-funk scene or gay club music. 

D: Well maybe it’s about how London’s spaces affect the way a lot of these subcultures rub up against one another, I mean when we were driving up to the venue I saw The London Apprentice [now the 333] which I’d been to when it was a gay leather bar with this backroom, and then oh that used to be the Subterranea where I’d seen Psychic TV, and over there is the Shoreditch Town Hall where they used to have that world music thing with the parachute…

Whirl-i-gig?

D: Yeah, and then just there is where Metalheadz was, so the leather queens and the industrial people and the techno people and the hippie people and the drum’n’bass people they really were all around one another.

M: But were they visiting each other’s clubs?

D: I think they were. I went to all of those things, and I can’t be alone in that!

Of course a core of people might stay fiercely within their own scene, but everyone else was crossing the road. And behind the scenes, if you follow the money you always see that permeating supposed boundaries. One thing that makes me laugh is that Labello Blanco, which put out some of the most furious ragga jungle, had a subsidiary, Labello Dance which put out Tony de Vit and all these gayer-than-gay hard house Trade anthems. The same operation was doing both things.

D: Oh nice, I remember going to Trade when I was doing a year abroad at Oxford, I remember hearing Sons Of A Loop Da Loop Era there just before we got kicked out. You’d have to wait, you wouldn’t get in ’til 3am and then… In fact I got thrown off the crew [rowing] team at Brasenose because I was late coming home from being on acid after dancing at Trade…

M: You see, there is a price for all this culture-mixing… You get kicked off the crew team!

D: Hey I wasn’t on the first eight, I was on the third eight, which is pretty much anyone who’s willing to show up…

M: …anyone who’s willing to show up on time, anyway…

D: …in any case I’m not tall enough to have been a first eight rower…

M: …it’s OK – leave your shame behind!

D: I just don’t want to put on airs, like I was hot shit at crew. But yeah, it’s literally because of being at Trade that I got thrown out of my crew team.

 

“I looked at myself in the mirror and went “whoahooaoaaaa fuck I’m tripping with my DAD… DAD! I GOTTA GO!” and ran, whoosh, out the door. Dad was like “but we were having such a good time!”

 

Well, your mention of acid leads neatly on to a third subcultural thread psychedelia: on the evidence of the new album, and Martin’s video, Matmos still seems like a psychedelic project – is that fair to say?

M: Good.

D: Yeah, I can relate to that. The city that we spent the most time together in has been San Francisco, and everywhere there’s sedimental layers of San Francisico counterculture; we lived right by the house of someone who collected tabs of acid and had the world’s largest art collection of tabs…

M: Sheets, not just tabs, full sheets. He had hundreds and hundreds as an art display. How this was not against the law I have no idea, because he gave tours and stuff.

D: Well, you dealt LSD in high school…

M: Well certainly!

D: In fact there was a funny story. Martin was creating a sheet – you had liquid acid, right?

M: I made sugar cubes, I didn’t make sheets.

D: OK, he was making sugar cubes, he wasn’t noticing what he was doing and he licked his fingers…

M: …you know, when you’re cooking it’s only natural. [wide eyes, licks finger] But I forgot that I was 17 and I forgot I had to go and have dinner with my dad. The dinner was fine as it happened because it hadn’t come on, but my dad and I were watching TV afterwards, we were watching some shitty 70s re-run comedy series called ‘Rhoda’ which was a spin-off from ‘Mary Tyler-Moore’… It was the fucking funniest episode of Rhoda ever – obviously, because both of us, my dad and I were literally crying, we were laughing so hard at this middlebrow ’70s comedy. The commercials came on, I went to that bathroom going “whoo, that Rhoda, she’s so funny…” then looked at myself in the mirror and went [Munch ‘Scream’ face] “whoahooaoaaaa fuck I’m tripping with my DAD… DAD! I GOTTA GO!” and ran, whoosh, out the door. Dad was like [nonplussed Hank Hill type voice] “but we were having such a good time!”

D: But yeah I think sound and ways of working with sound can produce the same effect of immersion in the microscopic details of your environment that LSD already does, right? LSD levels down the question of what’s got priority and what’s important versus what’s just a meaningless detail, so you get lost telescoping down into those details. Sound also lets you do that by taking a few seconds of something, extending it into a drone, stacking it with octaves above and below itself, you can take a tiny thing and extend it, extrude it into something much more extensive.

M: Sure, it’s the core of a lot of what we do is taking a tiny thing and making it both in the video and our live things, kind of overwhelming…

D: That kind of fetishising, fondling relationship to texture, to the microscopic, that’s part and parcel of the psychedelic consciousness but it’s also something that audio production just lets you do. And we tend to like to get the most out of a few elements and really just dig into them. We’re not minimalists because the music’s super-cluttered, but…

M: Oh man, I had this super-intense Italian boy in Bologna the other night, going [flamboyant stance, fierce stare] “You… are… BAROQUE! So many things! Like a cathedral!” [pronounced Italian style – “ca-te-drrral”] He was like Rasputin or something, I was like “OK… I’m baroque… I’m a cathedral…” Fucking intense. But it’s true, we have a lot going on, we are extremely baroque.

D: Minimalism just is not our style. There’s people that do it well, and I have a lot of respect for them – I enjoyed seeing Heatsick play in Berlin as part of PAN, how much he gets out of what he’s working with is inspiring. But I think we respond to the environment we’re living in: America’s not a minimal, clean, organised place.

M: Well where is? I mean people fight against their environment…

D: …to make it minimal…

M: …but where really is minimal?

D: I dunno, I guess maybe the desert?

M: Iceland?

The Honen-In temple in Kyoto?

D: Well, they want you to think that… I mean, yeah, certain rooms in Japan, that old-school Japanese aesthetic, a mat and a table and that’s it, maybe. But look at Tokyo, it’s anything but minimal when you walk outside!

M: Is it like a ca-te-drrral?

D: Um no, yes, well, sort of!

That Italian love of the baroque, to the point of insane bad taste, is something to behold… it runs right through so many parts of culture. 

D: Sure, from Monteverdi in music to Versace in fabrics – super-abundance. I guess in English culture you have to go back to Copia in the renaissance, there was that great Erasmus text to Copia that gives you like 400 different sentences saying “I was happy to have received your letter”, where Erasmus is saying he’s giving you 400 different ways of saying the same thing. There was a time when we really valued that super-abundance, now not as much.

M: Although weirdly that could be looked at as a minimalist exercise too, in repetition.

D: Sure, conceptually, the same sentence…

M: …taking one thing, just one thing, and reconfiguring it in every possible way. Like what’s his name… that ice-cold German boy… what is he called?

D: Which one? Carsten?

M: No…

D: Normally I’m Martin’s external hard drive.

M: Vladislav Delay?

D: He’s Finnish.

M: Is that who I’m thinking of?

D: I dunno.

M: I never remember enough to make most of my own points.

D: But I mean Raymond Queneau Excercises in Style is a kind of Oulipo version of the same idea, right, it’s the same mini-anecdote told in 100 different styles, so it’s the story of getting on a bus and seeing someone with a jacket that has funny buttons, and he just re-tells this and tells it in every different style. And our show last night is a little like of that aesthetic, OK, in that here’s minimal drone, then here’s Baltimore club, then here’s doom metal, then here is surf rock, and now this is house music and now we’re going to do lounge and now goodbye… with a little country thrown in… I like to approach things that way, since loving records like 20 Jazz-Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, the way that from song to song to song you hop genre – but it’s a very dangerous approach because it can turn people off, they can think these are just silly, kitschy genre excercises and wonder what do you really care about, and they can feel like there’s a witholding happening…

 

“[Rihanna’s] in an objectively paranoia-inducing situation, so what she expresses is from a state which not many of us can relate to. Maybe that is psychedelic.”

 

Which has always been the risk for that lineage I was talking about – The Residents, Butthole Surfers or whoever – that people see the joke but not what’s behind it. But maybe that’s what people really want – the regularity, the repeat runs of the sitcom or drama, the catchphrases where they expect them, little twists, and never really consider the depths of what’s depicted…?

D: Maybe. I’m torn about gestures towards emotional depth or transcendence because I feel like there’s a lot of music that’s emotional porn, that’s designed to go “oh you feel this way, I’m going to help you feel that even more so I can confirm who you already are or wish to be” – and I don’t want to make music like that. On the other hands, I can’t really twist people’s arms to feel X or Y, so I have to let the music be a place where they could feel lots of…

M: I feel like maybe the psychedelic is an interesting solution to that, because it’s not an emotional state – though it’s a sort of recognisable thing

D: It’s an amplifier of emotions.

M: Yeah but it’s not sad or happy or angry, but it’s a mental state, it’s a recognisable thing, but it’s not that “oh poor me” or “yippee!” that can be easily expressed.

Funnily enough, corporate pop delivers that too, if you look at a Rihanna song like ‘Russian Roulette’, or ‘We Found Love’ or even ‘Umbrella’ they depict something that’s very intense, compelling, but is outside the standard range of emotion or sentimentality… almost inhuman, or superhuman, in fact.

D: Heh, yeah. I mean she’s in an objectively paranoia-inducing situation, so what she expresses is from a state which not many of us can relate to. Maybe that is psychedelic. But I don’t want to push back against what you said [Martin] but I always felt that psychedelic trips were deeply emotional and the loops of manic joy into paranoid terror and back again that I would oscillate through…

M: But that’s an oscillation, it’s not one or the other. It’s not an emotional state in itself. You describe sitting and getting lost in the reflections on the table…

D: Well there’s a name for that emotion, this woman called Sianne Ngai has this great book Ugly Feelings and she coins this term “stuplimity”, which is like stupidity and sublimity combined, so it’s simultaneously intense but there’s also nothing to it…

M: See, you have to coin a new word for it – it’s not like it’s a standard emotion…

D: But look, our music is silly sometimes, or sometimes it’s silly but made out of things that are disturbing, so you can have it both ways – either coasting on the surface or going [twists face as if preparing for the worst] “euggh”. The obvious thing is like plastic surgery being made into house music, but even with the stuff that’s biographical on The Rose has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast where you’re creating these silly songs but you’re narrating someone who’s killed his landlady and himself, and there’s some real menace or harm… ways of acknowledging that without turning into some kind of grand guignol Marilyn Manson display.

OK, so where are you going next with this?

M: I think we’re going to do other people’s songs.

D: Not in the way of Soft Pink Truth, though…

M: I guess it’s kind of a cliché, but it’ll be far from a covers album. We’re going to do a record with a piece by Robert Ashley on it – none of this is solid yet – a piece by Alice Coltrane, a piece by Bo Diddley…

D: …and a Terry Riley piece. So it’s long form transformations of music that explore what happens over duration when you linger over patterns…

M: It’s all stuff that we’ve done versions of live before and think are good enough to record.

D: It’s frustrating because you make a record, you put it out, then you tour, the songs start to change and mutate, and you have this feeling of  “oh shit, if only we could record it now”…

M: “We do it so much better now!”

D: …so this is in a way taking pieces that we’ve played live many times that are four twenty-minute long-form pieces and taking them into the studio. I’m also working on a Soft Pink Truth record that’s deep house covers of black metal songs.

Presumably not in such long form, if you need to differentiate?

D: Yeah.

M: Some of them are much too long.

D: …I’m trying, anyway…

M: I’m not in that band so I get to say shitty things like that.

D: Heh. I’m trying to respect the shape of the originals: in thinking about what makes a black metal song worth covering or not, what matters is not the texture, it’s the riffs and structure, and some of these black metal songs are so tightly formed.

JM: Very different to covering punk songs, which have a kind of inbuilt funk, though?

D: Oh yeah, sure. But yeah, this is all pushing off from what we did with ‘ESP’, realising how many choices there are to make in arranging and tranforming someone’s music, and it’s sort of like a bag of Doritos… you have one, then it’s addictive and you can’t stop.

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