Matthew Herbert

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Biography

  • 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 doesn't work.” 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.
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    Selected discography