Interview: Matmos on Ultimate Care II

With the release of a new album, the duo talks David Bowie, musical conservatism, and the art of recording Whirlpool appliances.
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Matmos 1 by Josh Sisk

You don’t need to do much talking when you have Matmos on the phone. Chuck a few words their way and between the pair of Drew Daniel and Martin ‘MC’ Schmidt they will debate and discuss, laugh and lark for a good few minutes. They often disappear down a rabbit hole to muse on erudite tech talk, Jewish stand-up in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day, or their “bipolar relationship to music,” but eventually tail off and come back to the question. It’s as endearing as it is fascinating, as funny as it is informative, and is no real surprise given that they have now been both a couple and a band for 23 years.

“When you are this deep into something you don't know what is yourself, and what is the other person,” offers Martin, the smart-looking taller of the two with glasses and short cropped hair. “We are a band and a couple at the same time. There is no separation, even if I loooong for a more professional working relationship,” he jokes, the first of many.

Given that we speak a day or two after the sudden passing of David Bowie, it seemed like a good place to start. Drew—who sports longer, scruffier hair and a bearded surfer look— is particularly reflective on the matter and has written “a big long rant about it” for The Talkhouse. As well as Matmos having sampled bits of Bowie over the years, he explains their debt to him runs much deeper and that he himself has been a fan since he was 17. Though not directly a lover of Bowie’s music back then—he was more into punk and hardcore—he appreciates that without Bowie’s precedent, the Bauhaus he loves wouldn't exist.

Matmos 3 by Josh Sisk

“He was basically a model for how to have a long career,” muses Drew, who is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at John Hopkins University by day. “He kept changing. The depth he showed later in life, not just playing his hits—that’s fucking awesome. He made the point that being an artist is something you do for life, not just a thing you have on your way to employment. Punk is to not stop doing it when you are 28 and ugly.”

It’s a lesson Daniel and Schmidt, both well past 28, have clearly taken great heed of during their long and storied careers. They are, of course, famed for being wildly inventive both in the studio and on the stage. In their time they have made albums based around parapsychological experiments (2013’s The Marriage of True Minds), have spent 97 hours in session at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and distilled the recordings into 2006’s Work, Work, Work, and have also recorded the sonic details of various surgical procedures—the snips, clicks, snaps, and squelches—then stitched them together into some really rather melodic techno for 2001’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure.

Revealing that they take it in turns to come up with the concept for each of their albums, most recently it was Martin’s go. Seven years Drew’s senior, he is, “like the Mrs.—I do all the laundry and cooking as Drew is a professor so is actually busy. I spend most of my time masturbating on the Internet and cooking and cleaning.” It is these long and lonely days around their Baltimore apartment that led Martin to look closer at the washing machine they own. It sits in the laundry room next to the studio and is, he figured, all but an instrument in itself. Given that the pair has a long history of working with just one object to make music, they agreed that this particular challenge they would, “take to level two. We said, ‘let’s not just make one song, but an entire album from it.’ Once the challenge was on the table, we couldn't step back from it.”

Martin continues. “I spend a lot of intimate time with the washing machine,” he laughs. “I began to realize that an album would write itself because, you know, it has rhythms and cycles.” When asked how he received the proposal, Drew admits he initially thought it was a joke. “It borders of self-parody of Matmos. It’s like what someone would joke about us making—an album with a washing machine.”

After mulling it over, it seemed the much more interesting option than the other one on the table at the time, which was to record and release the 25-minute pieces of improvisation they have been performing live for the last decade. “But boy, is that not exciting,” says Drew in an exaggerated drawl. And so it was decided. Recording of the washing machine began right away.

That in itself presented something of a challenge. In order to get a robust physical recording, the pair had to experiment with mike placement, often using three at once at different distances in order to get a proper stereo field. Contact mics were also added to get rich bass, and when all the channels were later added up they had a real sense of proximity and presence, placing the washing machine in a very real space rather than just ending up with a bunch of abstract sounds. It was a long process, but one quite different from previous albums where the duo, originally from San Francisco, had only limited access to the rarefied stuff they were recording.

At this point, Drew’s chatter turns back to Bowie. “I read a long fucking time ago about a technique where he used a system where there were mikes standing off from his mouth at different distances. They tracked them all separately so they could dynamically mix the closeness and farness of his voice. I was thinking about that—it extends into musique concrète, too— on this project, so we had one mike in the drum [it ’s a top loading washer so can be run with the lid open], one on the top, then there was a wave transducer stuck to the thing so you have an almost impossible cubist recording of this object.”

The resulting album takes its name from the washer used, the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II, and, naturally, last the exact same length as a full wash cycle. It takes you in and out of the machine musically, and ranges from rhythmically subtle and suggestive to trapped in heavyweight, chugging, cyclical grooves. There is an effortless fluidity to the thing, as well as all manner of textured surfaces, screams and squeals. Melodies even make an appearance and add some real world beauty and emotion to the mechanical moods and grooves all around.

On paper, this might sound like a wacky experiment in noise—but the resulting album, released on Thrill Jockey, is in fact enjoyable and coherent, sensual and remarkably accessible. And that was always the aim, to make something that stands the test of musicality.

"I have delighted over the decades in the reaction to how we describe our projects and then play them to people and they say ‘Oh, that isn’t as bad as I thought; it isn’t horrible unlistenable garbage.”

“We aren’t grim experimental musicians who are presenting the results of an experiment no matter what,” says Martin. “I want people to be able to tap their foot to it. I have delighted over the decades in the reaction to how we describe our projects and then play them to people and they say ‘Oh, that isn’t as bad as I thought; it isn’t horrible unlistenable garbage.” That perspective, and the innate sense of humor Daniel and Schmidt share, is key to this album working as a musical experience rather than a document of what is possible with recording equipment and digital software.

“I’m sort of throwing down a gauntlet,” says Martin. “We’re Matmos, and yes, it’s a silly idea, but when you listen to the LP it cuts the other way. Is it all silly, is it a stupid joke? It’s also, hopefully—I mean, it’s weird to complement yourself and I don't want to suck my own dick too much here—but hopefully this album is sad, beautiful, funny, not funny.”

When asked what is music, where are the limits and how often they consider such things, the pair state that they in fact think of their own music as pop, and that they hope almost anybody should be able to listen to it and get something out of it. Essentially, all their crazy projects over the years have one thing in common; they show people that there is music in every day life. “We get e-mails from people saying that all the time. We sort of offer a step ladder to a vantage point to hear the world differently. That is a good thing we have done for some people.”

In their own worlds, Daniel and Schmidt also listen to plenty of ‘normal music’ and cite everything from glossy R&B to Young Thug and Jermemih, which “I hear and enjoy the same as anyone,” says Drew. “The phrasing, the intelligence and the choruses that make it compelling.” As well as that, though, they go off on tangents about field-recording artists like Chris Watson, avant-garde composers like Alvin Lucier, and about the “forceful amplification of the world” these artists are aiming for. They themselves prefer to have their hands involved in the music-making process, somehow, and thus are quite different from those who work purely with raw found sounds.

Matmos 2 by Josh Sisk

It is fair to say Matmos are subversive. They look to show you the beauty in something ugly, the simplicity in something complicated. They like to step outside their comfort zone and take you outside of yours, which is not something that can be said of many artists. “Even supposedly harsh and dark textures, if you know you will only be in a dark apocalyptic wasteland for 40 minutes, fundamentally that’s conservative,” rants Drew. “Artists allow you to stay in that sensibility and never challenge you, so even work that thinks it's edgy is not. It's reliable. We don't want to be reliable, and that's what I loved about Throbbing Gristle. They make harsh noise then put out a pop ditty. They didn’t want you to be able to pigeonhole them, but that comes at a great cost—you never get really big.”

Bowie, of course, was the exception to the rule, and Matmos are not far behind. Currently working on an expanded version of the opera they have done in New York and Olso, they have also talked about touring this latest album with a working washing machine up on stage with them. Always challenging themselves and never less than fascinating in what they attempt, the only thing they are sure of right now is that it is Drew’s turn to conceptualize the next album—and that beyond that, “making plans is dangerous.”

All photos: Josh Sisk