Music Interviews

Interview: Matthew Herbert

Music polymath, avant conceptualist and Björk favourite Matthew Herbert heads into 2010 with a trilogy of his own albums, each rooted in the concept of self-limiting singularity. He’s also “recomposing” Mahler’s 10th Symphony for Decca Records, this with the full Philharmonia Orchestra, and is producing The Matthew Herbert Big Band vocalist Eska Mtungwazi‘s debut album, all while helming his label, Accidental Records.

Today though, before many and varied music topics can be explored, the practicalities of everyday life must be dealt with. Our chat, it transpires, will be a game of two halves; interrupted by, of all things, the school run. “I have to pick my son up from school,” he says, matter-of-factly.

It’s not just the work-life balance that Herbert needs to get just right. His many and varied musical identities – Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy, Herbert and Wishmountain among them – encompass deep house, microhouse, band production, label helming and, of course, the big band on a quest exploring sound, melody and politics. As musical journeys go, scaling the sonic space from the minimalist electronica of 100lbs (1996) to the brass parps and choir of 120 on Goodbye Swingtime (2003) and the follow-up, There’s Me And There’s You (2008), is not especially usual. How did this change of direction come about?

“I started playing violin and piano at the age of four, and I was in a big band when I was 14,” he recalls. “So I think conversely my music teachers would probably have listened to 100lbs and been quite confused. That formal technique of music and harmony had been something I’d been learning for many years. The electronic stuff was much more surprising to me. It was kind of a reaction to all that learning. I spent a lot of time learning that if you played a wrong note you were a bad musician, and that didn’t seem to correspond to how I felt music was in my own life. When music technology was democratized in the ’80s it allowed me to develop my own style and ideas at home, away from church halls and other people. When I felt confident enough that I’d learned the relevant skills, I revisited my past and brought to it the new aesthetic that I’d learned in my bedroom.”

Matthew Herbert – Dublin, from the album One One

He enjoyed working on his own. “There’s something incredibly intoxicating about being in control of everything,” he confesses. “But, without overstating it, it’s kind of a fascistic way of going about things. Life doesn’t allow you to have control over everything. We have a certain amount of control in our lives but circumstances and the mess of life and democracy and living with somebody or being in love or being part of a family… all those things are constantly shaking your expectations. Consequently there’s something really fascinating about eliminating risk in the studio when making music.” But collaboration has come to be important to him too. “As I’ve got older I’ve wanted to embrace that risk, to step out, to feel the wobble, and try and record the wobble.”

The man who created his own Personal Contract For The Composition Of Music (Incorporating The Manifest Of Mistakes), recorded the sound of copies of the Daily Mail being ripped up as the basis for a beat loop and sampled everything from a Big Mac being eaten to the sound internal organs make might be just the character to record a wobble; little of what he does is random, or done just for the sake of it. Yet the big band project wasn’t the result of a grand vision on his part, but rather came about for practical reasons. “The big band evolved pretty naturally,” he recalls. “I was doing electronic music for a film score but the director suddenly decided she wanted to do some big band music, so we had two and a half weeks to write something from scratch and record it and mix it. We did it, and it was fun. And then I was asked to perform at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and it kind of evolved from there. The British Council were involved behind closed doors in taking the band to some unusual places and supporting our work overseas, but like so much of life and my work it was pretty accidental.”

As for Accidental, his label will release his One trilogy following success with The Invisible‘s Mercury-nominated debut and recognition for Micachu‘s album Jewellery, both of which Herbert produced. The ambitious project has a rolling release schedule and, after the latest big band foray, the first part winds things right back to basics; One One features only sounds Herbert himself makes. “It’s made out of me. Well, not my body as such, but I’m doing everything; playing drums, guitar bass, strings, all the instruments, singing for the first time.” By turns eerily quiet and intimate, it fits snugly into the Herbert canon where the means to the end are at least as important as the eventual outcome.

The second album in the trilogy, One Club, “is made out of a nightclub and everybody in it on one evening in September”. It was recorded at the Robert Johnson Club in Frankfurt. From doors opening and closing to clubbers having toilet breaks through to euphoric rave singalongs, it leaves no corner unrecorded. With the exception of the second half of the track Nicolas Ritter, despite its rave club origins it is not a record to dance to; rather, like One One, it’s one to be admired for the purity of its conceptualisation. And there’ll be a third album in the trilogy, called One Pig. “It’s made out of a pig. I was there at its birth and I’ll be there at its death,” he says. “It’ll be killed in about February, but by the time we’ve prepared everything, made a drum from the skin and made some shoes, and maybe some flutes from the bones, and used the blood for something, that’ll take a while…” It’s a concept that suits a man with a cultivated image as a mad professor of music.

This restless activity has at least one root cause. “I was DJing this weekend in east Germany to some 20-year-old farmers,” he recalls. “I suddenly realised that some of the people there weren’t necessarily born when I first started making my music proper. You realise you’re from a different generation. In some ways I’ve got to keep reaching out and trying to make music in an engaging way for a whole variety of people and not just be content to think that I’ve paid my dues somehow.”

“By the time we’ve… made a drum from the skin and maybe made some shoes, and maybe some flutes from the bones, and used the blood for something, that’ll take a while…”
– Matthew Herbert on creating One Pig

At the label he faces the same challenges all indie label heads face, squashed between music piracy and the diktats of commerce in an ailing industry. “It’s a constant battle between the potential of the music and paying to realise it,” he says. “The logistics – how are we going to pay for it to do well? Because that’s what happens; you buy your place in the Top 40. It’s only really when something like the Mercury comes along; that can tip the balance. But even the Mercury costs 200 to enter. For a label like us, if we’re going to enter three or four albums that year, that’s 800. It doesn’t sound a huge amount, but when you add it to the press and PR and radio plugging and the artwork and the tour support, and making the records, it becomes quite a headache when it comes to allocating resources. But it’s a compulsion I have, to champion people who are doing interesting things.”

Things are, at least artistically, going well at the label. “I feel like we’re beginning to get our ducks in order. We’re getting a little more confident in what we’re doing, and there’s maybe a little more recognition for what the label’s about. But it’s a very strange industry at the moment – it’s completely unrecognizable from even five years ago. You constantly have to assess what you’re hoping to achieve, and what’s realistic. And you have to know why you’re making music.”

Politics, in particular issues relating to corporate globalism, the usurping of democracy, climate change and news misinformation, ranks high amongst his own reasons for making music. For several years George W Bush and Tony Blair “were almost like a muse for me; just because I couldn’t believe how wrongly they were going about doing things. The fallout now is pretty spectacular when you look at the rise of the right-wing bloggers in America and how much power they have when it comes to the healthcare debate and climate change denial,” he says. “Tony Blair, with his forked tongue, could make doing the wrong thing into a moral crusade, which is an art in itself.”

Beyond the “clear enemy” figures like Bush, he perceives that “there’s been a shift in the last 20 years, moving power away from elected representatives and democratic institutions towards private corporations and corporate media. That is incredibly sinister; without access to good quality information, everything starts to be on very shaky ground. We seem to be replacing journalism with opinion. It’s a dangerous game to play when the world is on the brink of catastrophe.”

For Herbert, politics “extends way beyond the lyrics and starts to become integral in the structures of the music and about how you present yourself, what kind of business model you’re working in. It’s not just paying lipservice, it’s enacting it in every area of your life where possible.” But it’s not always possible; he finds he sometimes has to compromise. “I’m trying to stop flying now, but previously I’d be flying round the world with songs with an environmental plea. Now I try to take the train or the bus to gigs. But even then, the tour bus pulled in to an Esso garage” – he’d been boycotting Esso for two years since Kyoto – “and we were pulling in €1,200’s worth of diesel.”

“It’s a compulsion I have, to champion people who are doing interesting things.”
– Matthew Herbert

Beyond individual responsibility he wants his music to address what he calls “systematic problems”. “It’s not enough for music just to be happy and the soundtrack to the bubble. We have responsibility to prick that bubble.” Has he never considered standing for Parliament? “It had occurred to me,” he says, but thinks not a lot of people are doing political music shows. “Whilst there’s room for me to reach a good number of people that way I’d like to push that a little further. I get to do interviews on Polish television, or Dutch newspapers or Italian websites, so I have much more of a reach.” He sees an artistic responsibility for creatives to “set the balance a little straighter, or at least add your voice to the chorus of dissent”.

When he was putting together his second big band album There’s Me And There’s You, he made sure politics was at its core. “I recorded in the Houses of Parliament, and I was there in Ken (Livingstone)’s re-election campaign (to be Mayor of London), launching an arts manifesto. Just in that one election, seeing the actual tangible difference on the ground between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson…” he trails off. “It was shocking how little substance there was to his campaign, which seemed to be based around being on Have I Got News For You and being a bit of a wally. There were no real policies to speak of whatsoever.” But he refuses to give up on democracy, despite Johnson’s subsequent election win. “I’m a firm believer in the democratic principle and that if we put our minds to it we can do the right thing; we did that with the NHS, to get women the vote, to end slavery.”

Of course he is first and foremost a musician. He’s fascinated by dubstep’s development – “the beat’s a little safe for me, but the bassline programming is sensational”. Dance music, he says, “was getting stuck in a rut, so consequently I hadn’t DJ’d for a year or two, but now I’m back out DJing with dubstep as the catalyst.” He points out that drum’n’bass didn’t exist 20 years ago, and 25 years ago neither did hip hop. “That’s the challenge for people making music, to think: ‘What can we do differently? What will music sound like in 50 years’ time?'” He doesn’t think the answer lies with the traditional band set-up of drums, guitar, bass and a singer. “It’s just endless rounds of people with the same timbres, textures and patterns, chords, qualities,” he complains. “Sonically it just becomes incredibly conservative and blank as an experience. People are punching fists in air and throwing cans of beer to the same kind of chords that people were listening to 40 years ago.”

Yet there are exceptions that prove his rule. “A band like Battles, for example, which I absolutely love… they’re guitar, drums and bass and they’re incredibly inventive. It’s not necessarily the line-up, it’s just that constant search for the bosum of the familiar that’s incredibly conservative. And that’s ironic, because in the studio now we’ve got more possibilities than we’ve ever had.”

He believes artists like former Battles front man Tyondai Braxton and Accidental-signed Micachu will be among the custodians of that future. “Mica is probably one of the most talented and intriguing people I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “She absolutely has a vision, totally driven by what’s creative and original. She has a desire to push herself and her music into unexpected directions. I feel that, if the music industry’s going to be saved from absolute collapse, it’s in the hands of people like that expressing themselves for absolutely the right reasons, instead of doing it for fame, money, sex, advertising or whatever. It’s about having the commitment to that vision and taking that risk.”

Matthew Herbert’s One One, the first of his One trilogy, is out through Accidental on 12th April 2010, with One Club and One Pig to follow.

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