Matthew Herbert is a musician and producer working predominantly in the field of electronic music. Known for ignoring the boundaries and mangling the conventions traditionally associated with the genre, he is one of the few independently-minded artists..
“When everything I read politically and watch and hear has been absorbed, there comes a point where
you must feel it viscerally otherwise you are closed to the horrors of it and thus closed to the possibility
of action, closed to the idea that you could make a difference or could have prevented the outcome.
This internalising of the struggle, the friction, the melancholy I feel should be at the emotional core of
the work. After all, I am making music and not writing a newspaper article. But with the invention of
the sampler, I can now explicitly root my work in the literal, critical present. I can describe the real in
the frame of the imaginary.”
For someone so uncompromising in his attitude towards music and its making, for someone so
unafraid to shun the sort of political engagement other, more timid artists consider a commercial turn-
off, Matthew Herbert has been extraordinarily successful in an extraordinary variety of fields. He is
both overall head and A&R man for Accidental Records, which he founded in 2000. He has also acted
as a producer for the label, working with, among others, the Mercury-nominated The Invisible on
their superb eponymous debut. His other production credits include Micachu and the rising young
sequinned hiphop sensation Rowdy Superstar. He has worked in other media too, including scoring
ballet, fashion shows, and theatre – his music has been presented at the Royal Court, on Broadway and
the Almeida. His collaborators have ranged from the playwright Caryl Churchill to purveyor of radical
cuisine Heston Blumenthal. He has scored ten feature films, notably 1999's Human Traffic, writing for
full, 80 piece orchestras in some instances. Whether performing or Djing, he has played all over the
world to sell-out crowds, including venues such as the Sydney Opera House and Hollywood Bowl.
If there is a key to Herbert's success, it's his musical singularity. There has been shimmering, velvet
sweet House. There has been musique concrete. There has been sampling. There has been polemical,
protest pop. However, there has only ever been one Matthew Herbert. His body of work is unique
in collapsing the walls between pleasure and the political, between the realms of created sound and
reality as it is experienced and suffered, between the drily conceptual and the warmly immersive. To his
occasional despair, only Matthew Herbert does what he does.
To those new to his work, a Matthew Herbert album might initially feel like it belongs recognisably
in the realms of dance and electronica – regular rhythms, seductive layers of Techno fabric, diva
vocals, no atonal blasts of avant garde noise to drive away the nervous. However, closer inspection
reveals a layered mass of idiosyncratic quirks, distinguishing it from the majority of dance music and
all its regular presets. Closer reading will reveal that these details are the result of what is to some a
bewilderingly laborious process of sample collection. No snatches of sci-fi dialogue or tenth hand
breakbeats for Herbert. Nor will vaguely suggestive sound effects do – as he explains himself, in the
context of Plat Du Jour (2005), if he wants to make a point about the apple industry, then apples, of
a specific type, scrunched by human teeth, must be integrated into the sonic weave. “If my track was
about the out of season availability of apples and I just used any old apple without considering where I
bought it or where it was grown, my point becomes invalid.”
Reduced to its mere framework and assembly, Herbert's music would qualify admirably as sound
art, or subversive field recordings. He has ventured covertly with microphones into the Houses Of
Parliament, captured the sound of rolling tanks on tape, crematoriums, coffin lids and arm fairs.
However, despite the ugly provenance of his source material, it also lends his music a singularly
delicious tang, properly enhances its desirability as an object of consumption – it isn't designed merely
to be stood back and admired but also to revel in physically. “I can have my artistic cake and eat it,” as
Herbert himself puts it. And so can we. But to be attracted to the music is to be brought up close to the
means of its production.
A trained musician from a young age, Matthew Herbert studied at Exeter University, where he
became acquainted with aleatoric methods, that is to say, the role of chance in music making.
Hearing Steve Reich's 1966 piece “Come Out” proved a particular moment of epiphany. Reich took
a snatch of a recording phrase from one Daniel Hamm, a boy involved in the Harlem riots of 1964.
Replaying the snippet on tape machines slightly out of sync, splitting the loop into two, then four,
then eight, the phrase “Come out” yields a giddying array of effects that wouldn't sound out of place
on a contemporary minimal Techno cut – the phrase is eventually unrecognisable yet its passion
is undimmed, indeed multiplied like the broomsticks cut up in vain by the Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Herbert appreciated how using such found sounds could amount to more than an academic exercise
but “engage with the friction of its time”.
Herbert himself began recording under the name of Wishmountain, conceived while at Exeter
University, exploring concrete methods on such everyday objects as pepper pots, videos, crisp packets.
Not unlike the Dadaists, Herbert was looking for ways to commandeer these unassuming, everyday
objects into his sound. Wishmountain recordings would be derived from eight different recordings of
a single object, using a sampler and sequencer. He would then make a point of exposing this process
onstage, to make a simple but effective demonstration of the inseparability of music and life. Strangely,
the regular, elastic sounds he produced proved quite user-friendly and resulted in a meeting with the
dance duo Global Communication, with whom he briefly worked. Over the next few years, Herbert
would split into various personae. “My heart was well and truly in the the properly experimental
Wishmountain music,” he says. But then there was also Doctor Rockit (“like a playful diary”) and
Herbert (“like an indulgence”).
The series of EPs produced under the Herbert moniker would be brought together on the album
100lbs. Herbert would later distance himself from this early work, in that he felt a little too deeply
implicated in the hedonistic club scene of the time but primarily because he had sampled other people's
music, for which he would later be repentant. “I feel like it is a betrayal of what I really believed to
be the right thing to do at the time. I was seduced and shaped in part by people around me.” Yet
formally, 100lbs feels very much a Herbert album, on tracks like “Desire” and “Thinking Of You”, self-
consciously assembled, precisely weighted, sleek, sending micro-fragments showering and skittering
across its own, silvery surfaces yet plumbing Moog House depths. “Friday They Dance”, meanwhile,
show an arch detachment from the nightclub vibe, the scene in which this music was notionally
supposed to take its place.
Aesthetic and political concerns are key to Herbert's work and he is keen to downplay the personal –
however, the death of someone close to him in 1994 affected him profoundly. For someone whose
work is about making unlikely but undeniable connections with the outside world, his bereavement
brought with it the experience of solitude, an equally undeniable human condition. “This death was the
impetus to push on with my music. It's the silent powerplant at the heart of my work.”
In 1998, Herbert released Around The House. Despite sharing the methodology of San Francisco
avant garde duo Matmos, it's a beautifully carpeted album, a Deep House masterpiece, luxurious and
fabricated to an exquisite standard. Then-partner Dani Siciliano's dreamlike, Diva vocals add to the
dazed, blissful reverie engendered by tracks like “So Now” and “We Still Have (The Music)”. But this is
not an album that “puts out”. A sense of interiority prevails. The music, drawn typically from samples
of domestic objects, is self-contained. There's a feeling of perfect suspense – Around The House
shimmers, hovers and hums, neither tearing up the floor nor tearing off the roof. There is a disquieting
sense of personal isolation amid the velvet folds of the album's self absorption.
2001's Bodily Functions takes the idea of interiority still further. Its sounds are derived not from the
house but from the very body itself, sounds sampled from the teeth, the bones, the eyes, even (in the
form of laser surgery), all of which scratches against a more expansive, jazzier feel. But this is studied jazz, not merely an excuse to get loose and loungey.
By now, the bones of the conceptual were more conspicuous and pointed beneath the flesh of
Herbert's sound. In 2000, he had issued his Personal Contract for the Composition of Music
(Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes), whose various points railed against all of the shortcuts
afforded by modern, mechanised recording (drum machines, lifting other people's beats), insisting that
all sounds produced in the studio be reproducible live, be demonstrable. The very act of issuing such a
manifesto, often compared to filmmaker Lars Von Trier's Dogme 95, sets Herbert apart from his more
ideologically and conceptually taciturn contemporaries, who prefer to maintain mute on such matters,
merely present themselves as high-profile conduits for the “flow” of their sounds, rather than explain
and justify themselves.
“It was entirely sudden,” says Herbert of the urge to set down the manifesto. “It was an exciting
realisation - that the artistic agenda in electronic music was there for the taking. I don't mean that in an
arrogant way, but in a practical way. There has never been any magazine or public place for people to
talk about music in the way I was brought up to talk about art, literature, film etc. In creating art, there
are certain fundamental principles underlying each work, exhibition or gallery. What is this work about?
why does it exist now? why use these materials? what is the intended effect? To this day, that kind of
basic questioning doesn't exist in the visible mainstream, or even on campus. Consequently i am left to
my own devices, free to set the tone of discussion, free to drive the narrative and free to push further
on in to uncharted territory. It's a thrilling position to be in.”
2003's Goodbye Swingtime represented a confounding left turn for those who regarded Herbert as a
mere housenik. The word “jazz” has always been vaguely bandied on the fringes of dance music but
never applied with this sort of capability. Herbert's classical musical training, a hitherto discreet aspect
of his performances, was in full evidence as he assembled a full Big Band including four trumpets, four
trombones and five saxes, whose orchestrations were then computer manipulated by Herbert. The
Big Band format was a refreshing new mode of practice. “I came face to face with all those things so
charmingly absent from much of dance music - harmony, acoustic texture, human feel, risk. Like most
bedroom producers I had become a petty tyrant. I was in control of so many decisions it was easy to
become a dictator, closed to the possibility of your own fallibility and limits. The big band is a perfect
expression of the opposite of this - everyone has to do their bit and pull together otherwise it simply
The distantly Stan Kenton-ish air of the album, its ostensible post-swing sheen might seem a
deliberately ironic counterpoint to the album's ingrained political content ('the backbone of the album
is political literature”, state the sleevenotes), with paperbacks of Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore
physically used as percussive sound matter on the album. However, there is something inherently
communitarian and political about the very idea of a Big Band, as Charlie Haden had previously
demonstrated with his Liberation Orchestra. “Terry Eagleton describes an ideal society as running as
if in a jazz band - each with their own part to play but free to improvise within a certain framework.
That rang true. It is a humbling and exhilarating thing to play in a band that size where all the noise
generated is acoustically rather than through amplification. The politics of it are explicit in this
organisation of musicians for me so it is a natural place to express socially conscious ideas. What better
way to articulate protest than with others?” Herbert made further investigations with the Big Band
on 2008's There's Me And There's You, in which form and content once again collapsed into one,
a new torch vocal presence was introduced to the world in the form of Eska Mtungwazi, while an
accompanying statement, with signatures from the participating musicians, pressed for the idea that
music be more than merely “the soundtrack to over-consumption.”
After the relatively placid 1990s, the first decade of the 21st century saw a recoiling of political
indignation, in revulsion at the bellicose excesses of the Bush and Blair administrations, and the
dominance of pathologically greedy corporations in an increasingly polarised and resources-starved
world. Herbert never made any apology for addressing these issues directly in his music, rather than
zoning them out as so many of his contemporaries were wont to do. In 2001, under his Radio Boy
moniker, he released the freely downloadable Mechanics Of Destruction, on which the consumer
detritus wrought by a range of big brands is recycled and reused musically, including a copy of The
Sun, Kraft processed cheese slices, two oil drums and a bottle of brake fluid. The titles read like an
accusatory roll call; “The GM Food Chain”, “Gap”, “Oil”, Henry Kissinger”.
On 2005's Plat Du Jour, the theme is food, and the politics of its distribution and consumption. On
tracks like “The truncated life of a modern industrialised chicken” and “Nigella, Tony, George And
Me”, the chain of connection between politics, celebrity and battery farming was explicitly established,
while Herbert's angled, sample-laden music began to feel like a giant, mechanical, pleasure-dispensing
contraption, a strangely joyful listening experience yet jutting with reminders of cruelty and injustice.
This was “processed” music in the best sense, with a website, www.platdujour.co.uk acting as an
important adjunct to the album.
Accompanied by a live show in which (in keeping with his 2000 manifesto) food preparation and
smell was a component, Herbert acquired new levels of commercial success, in tandem with being an
increasingly in-demand collaborator and remixer of other artists, including Bjork, Dizzee Rascall, Roisin
Murphy, Quincy Jones John Cale and R.E.M. This success was further consolidated with 2008's Scale,
on which Herbert dispensed with liner notes but was still more inventive and audacious and politically
pointed in his sound sources, which included someone vomiting outside a Trade Arms fair, drums
recorded in a hot air balloon and a recording, from inside a coffin, of its lid being shut. All of this in
an upbeat musical context of silvery disco flourishes, chugging House beats, warm torch vocals and
orchestration – all of Herbert's strengths brought fully to play on one album.
And now, a trilogy. First, an album in which the sound source is himself alone – he plays all the
instruments, even ventures to sing. The second is sourced from one night in a Frankfurt nightclub,
while the third is sonically derived from the birth, life and eventual death of a pig. Once again, the
medium, the music, the matter, the message will be inseparable.