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The Happiest Place on Earth

Techno-duo Matmos (Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel) talk about their music, touring with Bjork, and sleeping under a piano

By Japiya Burns

Coming across a Georgia O’Keeffe painting recently, from “The Poetry of Things,” I am strangely reminded of Matmos’ music. The painting is of a stark green apple sitting plainly on a circular black plate, set against a white background. The black plate is so fluid, an oval of reflected light against its bottom lip, that it carries the qualities of not only the juicy apple, but of human lips, of something sensuous and bigger than itself. In this way Matmos sample the sounds of everyday objects, the human body even, and find beauty and music in them.

Like most Americans, I first heard of Matmos because of their work on Bjork’s new album, Vespertine. I fell in love with the sheer idea of their newest album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, which uses samples from the body, particularly from surgeries like rhinoplasty and liposuction, before I had even heard it. But unlike some avant-garde projects, Matmos’ music actually sounds good—from the house beats of “Lipostudio... and so on” to the aching sadness of “For Felix”, an elegy for their deceased pet rat, created by bowing his rat cage, sounding at times like a tender violin piece, Thai temple music, and finally an explosion of anger at their loss.

Their back catalog proves to be equally interesting, as they keep changing their sound and moving forward, believing in the motto “Always disappoint.” In addition to their work as Matmos, they’ve done soundtracks to adult films such as “Hot to Trot” and “Splashdown” to make some reliable cash, while Drew recently released a more house-influenced and vocal sampling solo album under the moniker “The Soft Pink Truth.” Having reliable day jobs lets them now make their music without relying on it financially, giving them artistic freedom without the need to compromise.

Currently being covered in electronic magazines and SPIN as not only a techno duo, but as boyfriends, puts them in the forefront of popular culture as gay musicians, and being on tour opening for Bjork and as part of her band is now giving them international exposure. In real life they’re personable, intelligent, and very, very funny. I talked to them after their first two shows in Paris and a national press conference, while they were relaxing in Disneyland, the happiest place on earth.

Congratulations on your shows, I heard they went well!

Thank you, they did go well. I’m in Disneyland right now!

What are the French interested in, what do they ask you about?

Bjork!

Is that getting boring?

No, we love Bjork!

With your tour, how do you take your sound and make it visual? I know you were going to play some video of surgeries...

We pretty much do what we did to make the songs in the first place. For example, with the acupuncture-point-detector song, which on the album is “ur tchun tan tse qi” (which is Chinese for acupuncture point detector) I start by detecting some acupuncture points on my skin. And it makes the sounds it makes when I hit the acupuncture point, and Drew samples that. And I cheat a little bit in that the sequence has been written beforehand but it’s empty of sounds. So we sample new sounds and sort of plug them into the skeleton that’s there.

How does the audience respond? I’ve heard that Bjork’s last tour opener, mu-siq, was booed!

Certainly at the two shows so far, they’ve been beyond polite. We’ve played two shows so far, and at the first show we played they were extremely appreciative and perfect actually. They laughed in all the right places and clapped in all the right places and seemed to enjoy it overall. We had people come up to us afterward and say (in French accent) “Ooooh! That wus really goooood!”(laughter)

How much do you see humor in your own work?

Well, hopefully it’s good 3-D music in that it’s good to listen to without knowing anything about it, and maybe you can tap your toes to it and then when you find out more about it, it sort of adds more levels of depth.

I’m interested in the relationship with the body in this album, particularly do you think gay men have a certain sensibility of how they relate to their bodies? I’m thinking of gay men in LA who might be getting the rhinoplasty your refer to in “California Rhinoplasty”

Definitely. I mean, we’re making a joke with house music there. And because in San Fran there’s all these comps of house music that are like “The White Party” 97, 99, 2000, and there’s always some flawless hot guy on the cover, and it gets a little like, “fuck you!” after a while. It gets nauseating how utterly obsessed people are.

It’s like the clone culture of the 70s, where everyone looks the same, only it’s a different thing. You work out too much, you’ve got this t-shirt, this haircut and you walk around the Castro and it’s like a bunch of sheep and it’s sad.

I mean, from my personal sexual taste, I’m certainly glad everyone has stopped having mustaches! (both laugh!)

On a more serious note, with a song like “Momento Mori” (composed partly from samples of human skull) are you making a commentary about mortality, and is that influenced by losing friends to AIDS?

Well, we have lost friends to AIDS, and that might inform us as artists, but really, I can’t say yes to that question. We really were more interested in the sounds, and that led us on.

I find it interesting that with your album you were concerned with the human body, and lyrically, Bjork’s album Vespertine, is very much about the body. And yet you sampled sounds from the home for her album. What’s the connection there?

(Drew) Well, the album was originally going to be called “Domestika”, and it was Bjork’s idea to have us sample sounds from the home. Really the only sample from the body is the hi-hats on “Aurora”, which are made from the sound of her spittle going in and out of her mouth.

Are you tempted to use vocals now with your own work as Matmos?

Not really. With my real job I study writing from the sixteenth century, so I’m really picky about lyrics. And while we enjoy sounds that come from the mouth, it’s usually not singing!

What do you have planned for your next album?

The next record is gonna have a focus on pianos. We’re gonna buy some really fucked-up upright pianos and have a drag race out in the California desert where we attach them to our friends’ hot rods and race them against each other and drag them until they fall apart.

What sounds are you going to take from that?

We’ll be damping, taping down the dampers on the pianos, so as they get dragged they’ll resonate more and more, so we should produce a really luscious drone. That’s what we’re hoping.

Wow.

And then we’re going to get rid of our bed and buy a grand piano and sleep under it in our house. And we’ll record it every which way you can. And get some of our friends to play that can play piano really well, like Rachel from the Rachel’s, and maybe Herb from this duo Kiki and Herb.

So we’re gonna record this piano lots of different ways and then take it apart with chainsaws and tools so it’s just a bunch of wood and metal and record it at every stage of the process, so it’ll be kind of an exploded view of the piano. Once we have just the harp inside we’re hoping to get Zeena Parkins to play it like a harp.

Is some of that inspired by working with the instruments and orchestra on the tour, and Zeena particularly?

No, no. I just think everything is a pendulum swing for us. After we did Quasi-Objects we were really sick of being constrained by the particular object method. So we did The West as kind of a break from that, and I felt that The West kind of got maybe recuperated into an indie-rock milieu, so I wanted to go for something totally the opposite of that, so that’s sort of why I picked house [for A Chance To Cut..]. So I think now... we’re trying to kind of wipe the slate thing and rethink it.

Finally, if you’re not tired of telling the story, how did you two meet?

(Martin) When I first met Drew, he was dancing on a bar in his underwear. And I was standing in the bar saying, “Damn, he’s hot!” I was with a friend of mine who knew him, and he was like, “yeah, he is, but he’ll never have sex with you!” Not really! He said, “Yeah, he also makes music, electronic music. You should meet him”. And I was like, “You’re damned right I should!”

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For more information on Matmos, check out www.brainwashed.com/matmos

Click the pictures of the CDs to buy them at Amazon.com, or visit your local independent record store, if you can.

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