Matmos: Experimental IDM Wizards Coax Notes From a Cactus

So Percussion & Matmos: “Needles”
[audio:|titles=So Percussion & Matmos: “Needles”]

The patrons of The Loft, a rustic wine bar in the sleepy ski-resort town of Whitefish, Montana, were most likely expecting the evening’s entertainment to be a laid-back affair, something smooth and subtle that would pair well with a Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Attentive connoisseurs may have taken note of the unusual array of items piled up at the back of the narrow room: vibraphones and melodicas, a pair of MacBooks Pro, Reynold’s Wrap tin foil, Roland synthesizers and buckets of water, the ever-popular children’s game Let’s Go Fishin’, and last but not least, a bulbous yet stately cactus perched atop a barstool.

It looked more like a garage sale than a musical performance, a catastrophe of junk arranged senselessly with no discernible meaning. When the artists finally settled in behind their curiosities, their performance did little to dispel the confusion.

“I think they were expecting something more like Joni Mitchell,” is the dry summation of M.C. Schmidt, who, along with his partner Drew Daniel, comprises the avant-garde electronic duo Matmos.

“A lot of people were looking really puzzled,” Daniel says, “but the show was really a freak magnet for Montana. I got the feeling that it drew people in from all around any nearby cities who wanted to hear some kind of experimental music. So it was really fun to be there.”

The pair was joined on stage by their friends in So Percussion, a Brooklyn-based quartet that brings the transgressive compositions of artists like David Lang, Iannis Xenakis, and John Cage to life for new audiences. It was Cage’s organic chance piece Child of Tree where the cactus came into play and where Matmos believes it may have strained the crowd’s open mindedness, though the duo’s self-deprecation is belied by the eager and focused throng that clustered around it, seeming to hang on every note, no matter how unusual or surprising. Even if experimental music isn’t your cup of tea (or glass of wine), it’s not every day that you get to see a man tenderly coaxing notes from the prickly spines of a cactus.

“[So Percussion] were having some trouble,” Schmidt says, “and I suggested they use this amazing contact mic, the Barcus-Berry Planar Wave Transducer. You just nestle it in one of the arms of the cactus and, sure enough, it just becomes this beautiful, live thing.”

“When you’re collaborating, you need to make sure everybody’s honest. [With] that freedom to be kind of brutal, there’s a willingness to lift up the hood on each other’s compositions.”

Matmos is no stranger to finding beautiful sounds in unorthodox places. Its career has been an exercise in lateral thinking, turning the unlikely and unobvious into compelling music that satisfies on both an emotional and an intellectual level. The duo is one of the foremost contemporary purveyors of musique concrète, an often controversial cut-and-paste art form that transmogrifies existing sounds into new and surprising pieces through extensive sampling, interpolating, and editing.

That may sound very high minded and academic (and much musique concrète is), but Matmos welcomes listeners into its world by maintaining a whimsical sense of humor and underpinning its adventurous compositions with familiar footholds like techno beats and dance rhythms. Its 2001 album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, is so infectious and danceable that listeners may never have known that it was made up almost entirely of surgical field recordings, the sounds of liposuctions, rhinoplasties, and bonesaws.

Each successive album — the folk-tinged The Civil War, the anthemic, genre-hopping A Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, and the all-synthesizer Supreme Balloon — defies expectation, with Matmos perpetually redefining its musical scope, challenging listeners to purge themselves of their prejudicial notions of what can and cannot be considered musical.

One of the duo’s latest albums, Treasure State, finds Matmos in full collaboration with So Percussion, which forced both groups to make a few adjustments to how they approach making music. Graduates of the Yale School of Music, the members of So Percussion come from a world of order and precision, whereas Matmos adheres to a more DIY aesthetic borne out of punk rock and techno.

“We’re just straight-up not trained,” Daniel laughs. “We’re like cave people about music.”

“They’re used to things being composed in advance,” Schmidt says, “where I’m more likely to run around yelling, ‘Ah! Do something like this! Now I want it to sound like Bow Wow Wow!'”

“We meet in the middle, coming from very different places,” Daniel says. “But So Percussion is already accustomed to people whose sound world approaches noise and embraces pitches that aren’t standard or embraces playing an object. I had reviewed a So Percussion record for KALX when I was DJing there, so I knew their work and that they had done the David Lang piece (“The So-Called Laws of Nature”), where they were drumming on cups and ceramic objects, playing non-musical objects musically. I felt that there was something immediately in common.”

Despite that common ground, both Daniel and Schmidt admit that Treasure State would never have happened without the help of Brett Allen, a resident of Whitefish and owner of the Snow Ghost recording studio.

“Snow Ghost is this incredibly fancy studio that this guy runs — for free,” Schmidt says, clearly dazzled by the concept behind Allen’s endeavor. “And there was no hurry. Stay as long as you want. [The studio] was an invisible collaborator.”

“Brett is incredibly generous if he likes the work that you’re doing,” Daniel adds. “We got to use microphones and recording techniques that we could never afford. It’s an amazing studio.”

Treasure State clearly benefitted from the relaxed, wide-open atmosphere that the groups found in Montana. Matmos and So Percussion have created an album of intricately plotted object studies that Daniel feels approximates the extremes one might encounter on a national journey. The song titles are deceptively narrow — “Water,” “Shard,” “Swamp” — simple appellations for what are, in fact, deeply complicated compositions that take small sonic ideas and elaborate on them in unfathomable ways.

“Needles” is derived from the Child of Tree performance, using the enhanced cactus to pluck out sharp notes that are simultaneously melodic and rhythmic. “We took the idea from Mr. Cage and made our own song,” Schmidt says, “with beats!” “Cross” most obviously bears Matmos’ stamp; it’s a wheezing, thumping piece, croaking and screeching out an impressionistic collage of noise and sound effects that coalesce into a grotesque yet beautiful mess. So Percussion’s instruments are torn up and repurposed throughout the track, to suit the seedy impulses of Schmidt and Daniel.

“Shard” and “Aluminum” are fragmentary pieces that explore the musical qualities of ceramics and metal, respectively. There’s an unsettling quality to these tracks, as if the brokenness of the elements involved has infected the music. They clatter and skitter, their notes bearing an unexpected tonality of hollowness that sounds alien compared to traditional pitch-based instruments. “Flame” uses the rich strum of acoustic guitar as a sonic foundation on which a glittering, major-key uplift is erected, bringing Treasure State to a surprisingly warm finish.

“This is a very 50/50 record,” Daniel says, stressing that Treasure State was a two-way street between Matmos and So Percussion. “When you’re collaborating, you need to make sure everybody’s honest. When you start to write together, there’s a comfort level that you have to reach where you can say, ‘Look, I think there’s three minutes here that are just boring. Maybe you hear them as mellow and meditative, but to me, it’s dull.’ [With] that freedom to be kind of brutal — because we’ve toured and been in the van and been at the airport — there’s a willingness to lift up the hood on each other’s compositions. We had to do that on some of their work, and they definitely did it to some of our work. It was really helpful, but not without some tears.”

Though the creations of Matmos and So Percussion may not appear to follow the conventions of music, it is impossible to listen to what they have accomplished on Treasure State and deny that it is musical. Still, Daniel and Schmidt are anxious about calling themselves musicians.

“The word is so fraught,” Schmidt says.

“You can’t win,” Daniel says. “If you call yourself a ‘sound artist,’ you sound pretentious, and if you call yourself a ‘musician,’ you feel pretentious, because it’s not really the core of your practice. There’s a feeling of never quite belonging.”

“Neither of us went to music school or art school,” Schmidt says, “and it’s the shit-talky way that we speak about what we do that gets us in trouble. I mean, we got dressed down by [musique concrète pioneer] Bernard Parmegiani at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. They had invited us to play a concert, and all these heroes of musique concrète come to the show — there’s Parmegiani, and Francois Bale, and Pierre Schaffer‘s wife — and it’s terrifying. At one point, Parmegiani walked up to us cold and fixed us with this steely glare and said, ‘I make real music.’ And I’m scared now, that I have to clarify myself every time I speak because some people take this very seriously.”

Matmos is following Treasure State with its long-awaited Simultaneous Quodlibet, an album years in the making that Daniel calls dark, obnoxious, and funny, in the vein of Stephen Stapleton‘s Nurse With Wound. Named for an obscure musical form that involves the combination and interweaving of distinct, existing melodies and compositional quotations, Simultaneous Quodlibet is an aural olio of discreet sonic elements mixed, chopped, and tossed into a surprisingly coherent froth.

“It’s a much looser-limbed monster than Treasure State,” says Schmidt, who is quick to credit the contributions of friends and fellow electronic musicians Wobbly (a.k.a. Jon Leidecker) and J Lesser.

Simultaneous Quodlibet is utterly Matmos: daring, adventurous, and experimental but tempered with a good-natured sense of humor and whimsy that lures listeners even as the digressions into noise and atonality threaten to push them away. The looseness that Schmidt describes is evident; the record is something of an electronic jam, a long journey through the possibilities of sound where ideas and motifs drift in and out of focus.

Daniel, Schmidt, Leidecker, and Lesser always establish the beat first, with rumba shakers and synthesized percussion pulsing together, leading the way through the foggy mélange of audio detritus. Shards of horns, guitars, and a woman’s laughter, as well as a constellation of curious sound effects, spring from nowhere into the unyielding progressive current of the tracks. Words, not lyrics, appear out of context, disembodied, and devoid of meaning.

Simultaneous Quodlibet is cloaked in spooky atmospherics, assembled in such fine detail that it’s hard not to pause and return to a single passage or moment and replay it over and over, trying to discern all the minute elements that blur together to form the impressionistic whole.

As if the pair weren’t busy enough with their work as Matmos, both Schmidt and Daniel reveal that they’ve been working on side projects. Schmidt’s Instant Coffee, which includes bassist Lisle Ellis and ex-Half Japanese avant-musician Jason Willet, has just released its self-titled album on Planam / Alga Marghen. Daniel’s much-loved side project, The Soft Pink Truth, has been on hiatus for the past six years, but he admits that he has been practicing and working on new material. It’s been difficult, however, as his day job as an assistant professor of English at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University is demanding a lot of his time.

“At this point,” he says, “I’ve made so much material that’s about 80% done. It’d be really fun if I had the time to take it all the way to the finish line—”

“Instead,” Schmidt interrupts, “there’ll be a book about Renaissance melancholy!”

“Yeah,” Daniel admits, “I need to finish my book. That’s the real answer. The other problem is [that] I started to do covers, which is like crack. So now I’ve got this avalanche of covers of Dark Throne and Skinny Puppy and the Virgin Prunes. The question is, ‘Do I do another covers album, or is that being completely self-indulgent?’”

Though Daniel and Schmidt talk about their feelings of “not belonging” in terms of anxiety and awkwardness, it’s this sense of otherness, of existing outside the conventional, prescribed ideas of what constitutes musicality that gives their work such power. Though they draw from familiar genres like rock, techno, and avant-garde electronic music, their diverse backgrounds and interests have led them down paths that a group inculcated with formal musical training and concepts may not have discovered.

Matmos has created its own sound world, made possible not only by the masterful use of recording and editing techniques but also by an awe-inspiring ability to see the potential for music in things as mundane as a falling book, a ceramic coffee cup, or a resilient bit of desert shrubbery.

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