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From Hear to Eternity

Blips, Snails, and, Uh, Cigarette Burns—That’s What Matmos’ Music is Made Of

IT'S ACADEMIC: (from left) M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel pay homage to their avant-garde idols on the new Matmos album.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 5/10/2006

“I did a punk-rock zine in high school, which involved endlessly sitting around with the National Enquirer and a pair of scissors, listening to records making stupid shit,” Drew Daniel of Matmos says from his home in San Francisco. “And sort of via [William S.] Burroughs I got the idea that it’s the same principle whether it’s words or images or sounds.”

Ever since recording went digital, just about everything is made from quotes or samples, and what was once the province of old white dudes with university grants is now available to anyone—like, you know, punk rock. Of course, democracy be damned, some people just do it better than others. Matmos is the partnership, both romantic and musical, of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt. The two met in the early ’90s, as Daniel famously told The Wire magazine a few years ago, while he was go-go dancing with his genitals stuffed in a plastic fish.

Matmos’ six albums comprise the greatest love affair with sound of the last decade. Schmidt, who is 41, teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute. Daniel is 34 and a former straight-edge punk kid currently writing his dissertation on “melancholy and epistemology in late sixteenth century English literature and visual art” at Berkeley. He also records sly and sardonic disco records as the Soft Pink Truth. But it’s as Matmos that they’ve pushed and prodded sound art into its oddest shapes.

Where some sound artists are content to sample other records, Daniel and Schmidt get their hands dirty, playing lipsosuctioned fat, human hair, rat cages, oatmeal, and real live instruments, both ancient and modern. Their rearranged sounds have taken the form of house music, spaghetti-western soundtracks, English folk, and noises that defy categorization. It’s music that brings the tactile, the organic, and the squishy into the hard drive.

“It’s a neat trick if you can make music with computers that makes people think about their own bodies,” Daniel says. “We’ve all got a body, and we’ve all sort of speculated about its meanings and how much control do we have over it.”

Daniel and Schmidt conceived their most recent album, A Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (Matador), as a series of sound portraits. The subjects include philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who provided the title), disco DJ Larry Levan, and novelist Patricia Highsmith (for whom they had a snail, one of the writer’s favorite creatures, trigger a theremin). Most are deceased.

“It’s a posthumous way to work with, say, Patricia Highsmith, who would probably never give us the time of day in real life,” Schmidt says as the two share the phone line. “But once people are safely dead, you can have your way with their corpse.”

“Well, except James Bidgood is very much alive, and we’re curious to know if he makes anything of what we’ve done,” Daniel says of the photographer/filmmaker. “So if he’s reading this, ‘Hi.’”

That track, “Semen Song for James Bidgood,” features a haunting vocal from Antony Hegarty (of “and the Johnsons” fame) and the sounds of Daniel’s own dripping semen. Its twin, “Public Sex for Boyd McDonald,” sounds like the theme from a late-night Cinemax softcore movie—raunchy bass popping and leering saxophone. Oh, and recordings of sex acts made at Blow Buddies, a gay club in San Francisco. And on “Tract for Valerie Solanis,” dedicated to Andy Warhol’s would-be assassin, Schmidt manipulates the reproductive organs of a cow, as one of Solanis’ tracts calls for destroying the male race.

Last year, Daniel delivered a paper at Seattle’s Experience Music Project about Los Angeles punk legends the Germs. As he read, a video of his outstretched hand was projected on a theater-sized screen. A lit cigarette was then stubbed out on it. It was a disturbing and arresting moment—a hundred people sharply inhaling and squirming in their seats. This was a Germs Burn, a rite of identification for the band and its circle.

On A Rose, this act of masochism becomes “Germs Burn for Darby Crash,” built on the sound of Daniel’s Germs Burn, delivered by former Germs drummer Don Bolles, and Schmidt shaving his head. Like the video, the track is arresting and disturbing, even as an abstract electronic shudder. But once the source materials are revealed the buzzing starts to sound like the crackle of embers—and the eerie exhalations running through the song become eerier when you realize they’re the pained breaths of someone being burned with a cigarette.

“It’s not like you could just read the recipe and you’ve eaten the cake,” Schmidt says. “Hopefully listening to the song comes first, and then knowing about it informs you and allows you to listen to it in a different way. With these, at the risk of sounding pretentious—”

“Never!” Daniel laughs.

“—the more you look, the more there is,” Schmidt continues. “Because we used a person as a seed. And we used much more interesting artists than ourselves as the seeds. And hopefully we can ride on the backs of giants and take all the credit for the work William S. Burroughs ever did.”

Searching for the original noises in Matmos songs is a fool’s errand anyway. What the hell does a cow’s uterus sound like? Some elements, like the Kronos Quartet-played strings on “Solo Buttons for Joe Meek,” remain untouched, but most are rendered illegible. Sex acts become drums. Snails play jazz. A lighter and a cigarette are included in a list that swelled on A Rose to include 46 musicians and just as many instruments. All are tweaked and rearranged by Daniel and Schmidt’s digital toys. Just don’t call them laptop artists.

“[It’s] sort of like if you were a painter and people just talked about brushes and not what your painting is of,” Daniel says.

“He’s one of those canvas artists,” Schmidt jokes.

“It’s handy if you can kind of get past the fixation on the tools to something referential, something juicy and everyday,” Daniel says.

“For a long time we had no laptop,” Schmidt says.

“And I wouldn’t have all this lower-back pain from dragging around all this bullshit if I was a laptop artist,” Daniel says.

But Matmos clearly values putting in the extra work that involves slopping around in fluids, dragging Renaissance instruments on transatlantic flights, and, especially, working with their friends to make the records they hear in their heads.

“This is predicated on saying something pretentious, again, but I want people to know that Mark Lightcap is a great guitarist, and I want people to buy Zeena [Parkins]’ record, and I want people to pay attention to Lesser,” Schmidt says. “And so we’re sort of like librarians, or DJs, or people who work in a record store—we want to recommend things to people. It may be part of why I’m a teacher.”

“Also, to create this record was sort of like planning a party. Who would we want to go to a party with in heaven? Darby Crash and King Ludwig,” Daniel says. “And if we’re going to do justice to those people, aesthetically, we needed a palette that we just couldn’t create ourselves. We needed all those people to make this record, to do justice to those portraits.”

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