Matthew Herbert has always been a busy man, but these days he seems to be approaching some sort of inter-disciplinary singularity.
This year alone he has devised a play, The Hush, for the National Theatre, re-orchestrated a piece by Rameau for a gig at the Roundhouse, is working on an adaptation of the Faust story for the Royal Opera House, and is writing and directing a television drama (of which there are tantalisingly few details as yet). This on top of the reissue of much of his earlier work in the Herbert Complete box set, the founding of NX records (a collaboration between Herbert’s Accidental imprint and Goldsmiths University) and his ongoing role as creative director of the BBC’s New Radiophonic Workshop.
Going on the evidence, it seems that Herbert is now firmly on the radar of some of Britain’s most revered cultural institutions. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. From producing playful deep house concrete throughout the ’90s to slaving over recent high-concept sample epics like Plat Du Jour and One Pig, Herbert’s career has been defined by ever more ambitious feats of formal innovation, and ever more overt political statement. In the latter regard at least, his latest LP, The End Of Silence, may be his most advanced work to date. The album is constructed from a single five second sample of a pro-Gaddafi plane dropping a bomb on the Libyan town of Ra’s Lanuf in March 2011. Herbert and three collaborators pull apart this sound, processing it into three rather austere, semi-improvised tracks. The result is an unsettling meditation on liberal interventionism, Western war reportage and mortality (Herbert later found out that people died in this precise bombing attack; the album is quite literally built from the sound of a person’s final moments).
Needless to say, the record isn’t without its critics – those who saw One Pig’s unflinching depiction of animal mortality as tasteless were unlikely to let this one pass. FACT caught up with Herbert to talk detractors, dance culture, and the “intellectual dead end” down which much electronic music is headed.
Are you keeping busy at the moment?
Yeah, it’s been more bonkers than usual, actually. I’ve got this play on at the National Theatre, I’m doing an opera for the Royal Opera House, I’m writing and directing a bit of drama for the television. I’ve got this record out, I’m still touring, plus I’ve got this big project that I’m not really talking about at the moment, because I don’t know if I’m going to get a load of shit about it. Plus things like the record label with Goldsmiths that we’re doing, and the Radiophonic Workshop. It feels like quite an exciting time. I think institutions are really looking to think about sound in a different way.
It’s interesting that you consider that to be a general shift in mood. Because looking at the things you’re up to lately, it seems that you, specifically, have broken through – that you’ve suddenly been accepted by the establishment, almost. Is that something that you expected or wanted?
I think it’s definitely something to do with age. My first record was in 1991, so I’ve been doing it for a long time now. And I think that classical music and arts venues, they’d like to get younger people into the audience. There’s a real desire in these venues to see new music and new ideas come through. But electronic music has such little ambition generally, particularly when it comes to live shows. I mean admittedly part of the brief is to make it more about the music and less about the show, but these arts venues aren’t really set up for that. They’re set up with stages, and seats facing the stage, and lighting and things. It always seems strange to me that people in the underground music scene don’t scale up their ambitions a bit more.
But I definitely want to be in nicer dressing rooms. After having been in nightclubs since the ’90s, sitting on beer crates waiting to be paid until the promoter’s finished DJing at six in the morning. Sitting there, desperate to go back to the hotel, watching them count out soggy beer-stained euros [laughs]. I’ve sort of done that. I’d much rather do a show and be finished by eleven o’clock, and be in bed with a cup of tea and a book. It’s nice for the pace of things to be a bit more thoughtful.
Do you find yourself working more now with arts funding or larger scale commissions, rather than depending on shifting units as you might have done in the past?
It really has shifted, yeah. I mean certainly record sales are over. I still make OK money from record sales because I own my own record label and I own everything I’ve ever done, in terms of releases – I’m pretty lucky. But sales, across the board for everybody… every year we lose another 10%, really. It’s very hard to predict where the money comes from [now]. It can be a very precarious business. I still go out and DJ, I still do remixes, just to keep rent covered and things like that.
But to be honest all of that stuff, I really think it’s by the by. I never wanted to be just a techno DJ my whole life, or just have a big band, or whatever it might be. I didn’t want to just do one thing. So it’s always been led by a creative desire. I think the thing I’m most pleased about at the moment is that my music’s probably at its most unlistenable [laughs]. I made a record out of a bomb exploding – it’s not exactly easy listening. And yet I’m working at the National Theatre and the Opera House. It feels to me like that creative impulse has been the thing that has led to other commissions and work, rather than trying to chase the money.
There is an interesting shift towards the theatrical in the various projects you’re involved in at the moment. You studied drama at university – why come back to it now?
I feel like I’ve been trying to tell stories through sound for a while now, in my music. Particularly instrumental music – I’m really excited and challenged by the idea of trying to create instrumental music that’s political and engaged and that tells stories and can impart a different perspective that you wouldn’t get through just singing lyrics, or showing a video, or reading a newspaper article. But I feel that I’ve done variations on that now for a while, and I think the real challenge for me is to apply some of those things in a different form. I think that I’ve done quite a lot of what I set out to achieve, in music. That’s not to say that I’m going to stop. But I think the challenge now is somewhere else, as well.
This year you’ve looked back to some of your earlier work with the Herbert Complete box set. In a recent interview you said, “I’d never want to make a record that was easy listening, or that didn’t scare you in some way”. I find that interesting because to me, one of your earlier records like Bodily Functions is appealing precisely because it’s very easy on the ear. It’s not insipid but it’s certainly easy to listen to.
I may have been talking about The End Of Silence when I said that. But I definitely think in the past there was a desire to make… at the time I was excited by deep house because it was a real counter to the hyper-production of mainstream dance music. It’s interesting now to listen to things like Disclosure and Banks, hearing how in the mainstream there’s a response to the sort of hyper-trancey, super-compressed digital pump of modern mainstream dance music. It does seem that there’s another movement towards something a bit warmer and a bit more human. And I recognize a bit of that impulse from around the time [of my earlier albums]. But I think for me that’s also tied in with the naivety as well. I think that naivety’s gone.
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Naivety in dance music in general, or in you?
Just with me. When I was making more mellow stuff like that, I was in my early 20s. Now it’s 20 years later and I just think the world’s a mess. I can’t really just write pleasant doodles. It’s ironic actually, because the kind of music that I think I should be making, or that I think should exist, is very different to the music that I listen to at home. My favourite album is The Melody at Night, With You by Keith Jarrett. It’s a very gentle, elegant, poetic solo piano album. And I listen to a lot of Ravel, a lot of classical music. I do find it ironic sometimes, that I tend to listen to music [that is] the opposite of the kind that I’m trying to make.
One of the rules in your manifesto states that “The sampling of other people’s music is strictly forbidden”. And in an interview recently you said that DJing can feel like a bit of a compromise because you’re playing other people’s music. The principle of re-contextualisation, the recycling of cultural matter that underpins hip-hop, jungle, house and so forth – does that approach not interest you now? Do you think its potential has been exhausted?
It’s very difficult to talk about. I think it’s sometimes useful to separate it into an intellectual discussion, maybe a cultural discussion, a political discussion and a musical discussion. Intellectually I think it’s a dead end. Politically I find it very difficult – for example that you often have white producers sampling rare black music and then not paying royalties. That feels to me like a form of exploitation. I feel like there’s a political and ethical dimension that rarely gets talked about. And yet you look at the way that Public Enemy used samples – that has a completely different context to the way Fatboy Slim uses samples. So I don’t feel you can take one simple position on it.
I just think it’s the most peculiar diversion really. Because we have infinite tools to create infinite music out of anything you can possibly think of. That’s a fundamental revolution in what music is, and in how we interact with the world. It seems like taking a huge step backwards to begin that process by building out of blocks made by other people. It feels like a form of lego then, rather than a comprehensively original creative act. But some extraordinary music is made that way, and will always be made that way. Early DJ Premier and early Todd Terry is some of my favourite music of all time.
How about dancing? I remember reading that you were DJing in Italy when war was declared on Iraq, and found the celebratory aspect of that culture really jarring. Do you think dance culture can have political value, or is it just a distraction, or a salve for guilty consciences?
I think it really depends where you are, what country you’re in, who’s there, what’s going on. Night clubs have been an incredibly positive force in various cultural realms, from sexuality to gender to race – class as well, in terms of the free party movement in the late 80s and early 90s, where I first started going out. There was an amazing diversity of people from all sorts of backgrounds who would never have come together were it not for the music and the dancing… and possibly the drugs [laughs]. That in itself was, and continues to be, a really positive political and cultural contribution.
The thing that frustrates me is that it’s never thus far coalesced into a meaningful political movement. You have millions and millions of young people gathering together in public spaces every Friday and Saturday night – a huge amount of people that want to engage and have so much to offer. And that’s never really been harnessed. You know that dancing doesn’t carry that much political weight because the government hasn’t tried to ban it, hasn’t tried to close down clubs. I mean this war on drugs is nonsense. If the government wanted to have a war on drugs it would just close down night clubs. But all the while that you’re out there dancing, high or drunk, then on the Sunday instead of writing letters and rioting you’re feeling unusual, watching videos with your mates [laughs]. So I think it has real value but I feel like it’s never fully reached its potential.
Let’s talk about The End Of Silence. In terms of the resources that went into it, the method behind it, it’s a slighter record than many of your others. Does it feel like a lesser event in your discography?
It’s slight in as much as it’s made from one five second recording as opposed to thousands of recordings; it was recorded in three days as opposed to three years; it was made with four people as opposed to the four hundred that were on There’s Me And There’s You. However, it’s… people died in the explosion, I’ve since found out. So in that sense it makes it the most important record, in a way. It’s in some ways a turning point, possibly, for me. People talk about the arts, about music as somehow being life and death – “I couldn’t live without music,” or what have you. Its not really true. But this genuinely is life and death – the sound of this record is the sound of the end of someone’s life. So I think this has a quality to it that makes it in a way much more important than the other [albums].
Do you have a fixed standpoint on the Libya conflict? Is this a staunchly anti-war record?
For me that’s two questions, about Libya and about war. The Libya question – I think the principal aspect for me is about the moral hypocrisy of the Libya intervention. You can never underestimate the duplicitousness and the brazen self-interest that motivates the British and American governments to take part in military conflict. The idea that David Cameron is somehow a moralist or a humanist, that he acts based on fundamental moral principles, is just laughable and dark and absurd. I mean you only have to look at Syria and say – “If you felt like that then, why aren’t you doing it here? Why aren’t you doing anything in Guinea right now?” Also there’s always a weird assumption in Britain that we should be doing something, militarily – that we need to take part in these things. And I find that very upsetting, and really unenlightened.
I think this record is really an attempt to frame the consequences of our actions, our human actions, in a different way. To not let this stuff whizz past in a way that it tends to. For example in Syria, a 13 year-old boy was found – his body washed up – with his genitals cut off. He’d been tortured. A 13 year-old boy. And that’s just one kid, one story in the Syria conflict, that just came and went. I can’t bear the fact that that stuff just comes and goes, and doesn’t ever get… we don’t really have the real-time space culturally – apart from maybe a war photography exhibition – to reflect on that. So part of making a record like this is to press pause and give myself a chance to think about it, see how I feel. If you ask me what my position is on this record, it’s still in flux – I’m still working it out. I don’t think it’s a puzzle you can solve instantly.
When you’ve confronted these grim realities in your music – as with this album and, to a lesser extent, One Pig – you’ve been accused by some of using these issues to promote yourself. When working on this kind of record, are you thinking about ways to evacuate all ego from it – to make sure that it’s definitely not about you?
Well in some ways it is all about me. It’s about me trying to understand this experience. I’m not interested in making work about something that I haven’t experienced and that I don’t have an emotional reaction to. The whole point of the pig record was me eating meat and me wanting to understand the consequences of that – and at the same time wanting to create a portrait, a life and death all in one go. It was me wanting to go through that process so that I could learn something from it. In that sense these projects are all about trying to educate myself. I just happen to make the process and the end result public, partly because of the form that I’m working in, and partly because I think that I’m inevitably surprised by what I discover, and I like to share some of that surprise with people.
But honestly, there’s really much easier ways for me to promote myself [laughs]. I know how to make a piece of music you can sing along to and dance along to, and not have to think about it, you know? It’s always strange to me when people talk about me rather than the work – I always feel a bit disappointed by that. And I do try and think of ways that I can solve that next time. That’s kind of what I love about working with sound. I’ve made a record with my band out of a bomb exploding in Libya, and by doing that people have to talk about Libya, they have to talk about war, they have to talk about explosions and death and life. If people want to talk about me instead I think it says more, probably, about them than it does about me. But it’s OK. It’s really OK [laughs]. I’ve put my name on it and I’ve put my face out there. People are entitled to think what they like. I just think it’s disappointing when you’re trying to have a conversation about life and death and people want to talk about you instead.