Playback’s a Bitch


I must have misplugged my phone adapter before interviewing Drew Daniels and Martin Schmidt of Matmos, because all I hear on the tape are my own questions. (The ultimate Voice music interview?) Given the chance, Daniels and Schmidt could probably extract their answers with an ultrasensitive microphone, then jam on the results: over three albums, they’ve coaxed beats out of the neuropatterns of a crayfish, a stretched wet latex T-shirt, and an amplified Bible. Tracks come with notes like: “The set up is as follows: a 4-channel tape recorder, with nothing input to it, records. Two walkie-talkies are held above the recorder and both are placed in ‘transmit’ mode—the resulting waves of interference can be played gesturally in a manner akin to the theremin.” Matmos recently juxtaposed the sound of blood in Schmidt’s jugular vein with guitars played by a friend inside a Louisville sewer pipe. The next album will concentrate on surgical sounds; Daniels just took his microphone to a nose job.

Matmos have two sides: heavy and light, the equivalent of rockers and ballads. They’ve got a Goth streak, but they’re also sillybillies.

Schmidt is 36, Daniels 28; they became a couple, and started working together, seven years ago, when Schmidt saw Daniels stripping at San Francisco’s Club Uranus and invited him home. Says Daniels, more or less: “The come-on line was, ‘Do you want to learn about sound editing?’ ” Schmidt’s past includes the industrial outfits X/I and Iao Core; he’s the tech guru of the San Francisco Art Institute’s New Genres department, dashing or fulfilling the dreams of conceptualists. Daniels grew up in the Louisville rock world of Slint and Squirrel Bait, his early bands including the funksploitation King G and the J Krew. He’s completing a Ph.D. in English at Berkeley, where one of his advisers is Thomas Laqueur (full disclosure: Laqueur was on my orals committee), which means Matmos’s take on the medicalized body ought to rest on firm theoretical underpinnings.

But what about their Björk remixes? There are two sides to Matmos, heavy and light, the electronic set’s equivalent of rockers and ballads. Lifelong admirers of Coil, eager Labradford remixers, they’ve got a post-rocking Goth streak that commits them to murk and torture, manifesting in tribal rants like the endless ” . . . And Silver Light Popped in His Eyes.” But they’re also sillybillies, scoring “Stupid Fambaloo” for balloons, whoopee cushion, and synthesizer, rigging samples to grunt and protest the rough handling. That gives them the pop edge the lady from Iceland detected, though it’s only one of the textures in their sometimes three-minute, sometimes 20-minute musical quilts. Another (the ever crucial side three!) is a lurking roots homeyness, exemplified by their favorite old-school instrument, the banjo. Matmos play with sound the way children will poke at something with a stick: to see if it’ll still twitch.

The group’s been easier to hear about than hear until recently, when Matador reissued the first two self-released albums. Matmos, from 1997, is the most industrial and musique concrète (nasty tremble from that psychocrayfish), though “Three Guitar Lessons” is a spry, charming change of pace. Quasi-Objects, illustrated with an oblique image of a man sucking his own dick (for a hobby, Schmidt arts up Internet porn), is breezier, from the opening balloons to theclosing latex T, with “The Banjo’s CategoricalGut” almost ragalike. Berkeley’s Deluxe label isre-pressing last year’s The West, my fave, which pulls in instrumental contributions from the likes of Aerial M and Radar Brothers as it tackles full-scale environmental settings like “Sun On 5 at 152.” And Touch and Go just put out a 30-minute EP of Matmos remixing a track by their Louisville friends Rachel’s, “Full on Night,” itself rerecorded from an early-’90s version. Where Rachel’s use their ensemble arrangements to calibrate entropy, Matmos turn the guitars and violins radioactive and stage a two-minute rave-out that no Big Black fan should miss.

After we spoke, Daniels e-mailed various Matmos remixes and stray work: the Björk redos, with beats carved from her voice (resurrecting the Bay Area’s own Bobby McFerrin?); a “remix” that restages a Suetsu & Underwood “field recording” (a hot-tub discussion about NPR) with hired actors; a quickie for an unauthorized N.W.A tribute where sampled singers enact the speech at the end of “Fuck Tha Police”; a dance track punctuated with r&b samples plucked out of the promo trash-heap at UC’s KALX; an arresting snake-dance remixed from soundmeister Otomo Yoshihide. The mind boggles contemplating collaborations, sample tricks, and linked experimental traditions. To think: all it used to take to wow people were standard instruments and some amplifiers.

And, as always, a knack for playing them right, like Matmos, who are only casual about their jiggery when casualness is the intent. In that interview I can’t access, the two kept snatching the phone from each other, like when Schmidt ventured something about connecting musique concrète and breakbeats and Daniels was instantly back on denouncing his “Stalinist revisionism.” I’ve got a theory about how their name halfway indicates that they’re concerned with atmosphere, not in the ambient sense so much as how physicality lingers in objects when nearly all of their substance has been erased. But then, I’ve also got memories of a live set where a friend kept poking his video camera into their ears to remind me where I can stick my theories.

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