Matthew Herbert is no stranger to offbeat recording techniques. On records like 2001's Bodily Functions (!K7) and last year's Plat du Jour (Accidental), he sampled everything from heartbeats to crushed Starbucks cups and wove them into bumptious micro-house, languid electronic ballads, and melodic jazz. Herbert rarely tinkers with his sampler for the sake of generating weird noises–like his spiritual allies Matmos, he girds each record with theoretical underpinnings. But while Plat du Jour, by Herbert's own admission, sometimes became a bit too weighty in its exploration of the food chain, his new album, Scale, contains his sunniest and warmest tunes yet, despite having a meditation on life, death and distance encoded in its sampled DNA.
"I wanted to hold up a mirror to society," Herbert says of the record. "It can be charming and warm and generous and luxurious and [can] look like it's having fun but actually underneath it, there's a sinister tone. [Scale is] based on violence, whether it be historical violence–like the British empire, in our case, or slavery–or current violence like the war in Iraq. In a way that's part of the illusion of the record, the illusion of everything being okay."
The illusory charm and warmth Herbert speaks of comes through right away on songs like "Something Isn't Right," where Neil Thomas and Dani Siciliano trade vocals over chugging, string-drenched backdrops. But for all Scale's glossy surfaces, there's always something gritty going on beneath–a framework constructed of countless found sounds and samples assembled by the genre's new master.
For instance, what is that jet noise puncturing "Moving Like a Train?" It's not an innocent passenger plane, but a British Tornado bomber (a tiny depiction of which appears, along with the over 700 other items Herbert sampled for the album, on the cover artwork). This mix of the mundane and the unusual, of pacifist and violent elements, is part of Herbert's point. "It's about this distance in our lives, between the things that we do–between our childhood and our death, for example," he offers. "We have constant ways of measuring our childhood–we have birthdays every year, for example–so we know how far we are from our childhood, but we never know how far we are from our death. We don't know if it's this afternoon or in 100 years' time. So really I'm looking for ways to express this distance, whether metaphorically or literally, [through sampling]. The sound of a coffin is [something] you may never hear, but there are sounds [on the record] that you may hear every day, like the [crunching of] breakfast cereal."
Welcome to Matthew Herbert's micro-world, where even the seemingly innocent sound of breakfast cereal is laden with meaning. And don't even get him started on the cereal box–less a container than a vehicle for sinister cultural subtext. "I couldn't believe how disgraceful it was," he says of the cereal box he bought. "It was limited-edition Apple Jacks, and there's a photograph of it. It has blue carrot shapes in it, but it says on the packet, 'No apple taste! No carrot taste!' It's like it's a selling point that it doesn't taste of apples or carrots. It's really a lunatic position the world is coming to. Proper madness!"
To keep himself from engaging in the polemics that weighed down Plat du Jour, Herbert intended to try a different approach to sampling for Scale. "My plan was to make a record where I hadn't recorded any of the sounds or any of the musicians [myself]. In the end I did a bit of recording, so it didn't quite work out that way, but the idea that the recording process itself is part of the metaphor of the record appealed to me. So we recorded some of the drums at 100 mph with the drummer in the back of my little BMW that's 25 years old–so not [only were we] breaking the law, we could [have been] in personal danger. How does the drummer play if he thinks it's going to be the last thing he ever plays? If you think of [the process] like that, instead of a conceptual burden, it becomes fun. Basically, I wrote a big list of [all the samples] I wanted and asked my assistant Alexis to go off and record them. He traveled the country and he had to call a lot of different people before they allowed me near a coffin. So if you look at the thanks on the album there's a lot of "No thanks" to people who said no!"
The coffin is perhaps the central sample Scale. Twelve of them appear in the artwork, another artifact of Herbert's twin desires for a theoretically stimulating process and an aesthetically pleasing result. "The coffins were recorded from the inside out–the microphone was inside the coffin–so unless you were buried alive, it's a sound you will never hear. It's the friction between the ordinary and the extraordinary that I was looking for. I recorded everything in groups of 12–that way I have the freedom to include one coffin per track, or put all 12 in one piece. I enjoyed the playfulness of having deliberate numbers of organizing things, to reinforce any ideas or motifs. It doesn't make the slightest difference really, the sound is the same, but I like the rigor of it, and also it makes me laugh! Can't underestimate that."
The darkest turn on the album is "Just Once," which is assembled from messages recorded on a special phone line. "I wanted to do a piece where I didn't know any of the noises. I wanted to know how that affected how I wrote it and how I used it. Would I be more respectful or more playful? So [I set up a] hotline [for people to leave noises on]. I asked people not to say what the noise was and not to say their name or anything, so it could be one person leaving 177 messages, it could be my parents, it could be the Russian mafia killing someone! But what I like is there are now 177 people with a completely different relationship to the music, embedding their stories within the music, and nobody knows [what the sounds are] apart from them. The track is kind of about death [and] suicide bombing, and when you know that, it suddenly becomes even more spooky. And on top of that it's coming down the telephone line, another expression of distance."
Once this track sweeps by, the album ends on a goofy note–Matthew Herbert singing "Wrong" over a lone piano. He's no Jamie Lidell, but the casual bar melody fits Herbert's newfound playfulness, a cheeky mood that also emerges in the presentation of the album, with a booklet depicting everything from plastic toys to computer cables and writing so tiny that you cannot study the liner notes and listen to the music at the same time.
"I like that the artwork makes no distinction between what made noises and what was used. We had to decide somewhere to stop, otherwise we'd have to [include] all the food that we ate and all that stuff. If you wanted to recreate the record, these are all the things you'd have to assemble together somehow and work it out. But I think you'd come up with something completely different!"