Matthew debuted his first Herbert album in 8 years. In an interview with Dan Davies, Matthew reflects on his 30-year-career and rebuilding his first project without repeating the beat.
It comes as no surprise when discussing The Lego Movie, that Matthew Herbert looks beyond the paradoxical success of the Oscar nominated song.
“The thing that really annoys me about that song, and about that movie a bit – is that they didn’t come up with a musical counter to ‘Everything Is Awesome’. There’s a counter visually, constructively, philosophically and socially to everything else in the film but they didn’t come up with ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials or ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye. That would have been so much better for young kids. Instead of singing ‘everything is awesome’, and having to talk about irony with four-year-olds, it would be so much greater if they came up with ‘Everything is Fucked’ or whatever the young version of that is. They didn’t come up with a catchy counter-culture tune.”
Matthew came to prominence as the dancefloor-orientated Herbert, creating vocal lead deep house tracks with verve. But even at its most perceptibly commercial, his music was counter-cultural. Constructing shiny, safe, plastic music was never on the agenda. In Lego-lingo, Matthew Herbert is a “maker” and he threw away the instructions when building his Herbert tracks.
“It’s very hard for me to separate musical software and the ways computers are set up now, from the political system which we’re in,” says Matthew. “They both encourage us to not question things, to just consume. Effectively, it’s like musical shopping now, you know – ‘I’ll have a bit of 909 and a little bit of some sort of Abbey Road funk horns’ and it’s just – as Jamie Lidell described it, like Lego. There’s a certain uncomfortable predetermination about it all.”
In the radio documentary ‘The Art of the Loop’, Matthew Herbert talks to Lidell and others about his approach to making dance music. For Matthew, the sampler is the instrument that can break away from predestination and pre-programmed patches. Samplers bring randomness, chaos and glitches (in the truest sense) into music. This is what makes the electronic, human.
Herbert’s output was always like this. The 1998 Herbert debut album All Around The House was a house music album but it also twisted domestic noises from toasters to toothbrushes. The follow up, Bodily Functions in 2001 incorporated skin, hair, bones and the contents of Herbert’s main vocalist Dani Siciliano’s handbag. Around the same time Matthew developed his “Personal contract for the composition of music” (PCCOM). This further underlined the process he would employ – whichever project he worked on or name he worked under.
Moving between monikers such as Doktor Rockit, Wishmountain and Radio Boy allowed Matthew to transition from the dancefloor tendencies of Herbert. The pseudonyms also allowed Matthew to push his work conceptually and philosophically. Radioboy became his most overtly political as McDonald’s food produce and Gap clothes were sampled for ‘The Mechanics of Destruction’. Released as Matthew Herbert, 2013’s ‘The End Of Silence’ used a sample of a pro-Gaddafi fighter plane dropping a bomb on a market place and re-looped and sampled the sound over 60 minutes.
Matthew Herbert’s performances also became more outré and heavily political. For example, ‘One Pig’ sampled the 24-week lifespan of a pig. Matthew’s performance acted as an elegy of sorts. In conjunction with electronic samples, discarded parts of the pig were also turned into musical instruments. With bacon sandwiches cooked and eaten by the audience for an encore.
In recent years, ambitious musical projects stretched the limits of Matthew’s musical range, from collaborating with the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre – to reconstructing and interpreting classical music. But these projects became too much of a strain with major arts institutions and established traditions bearing down on him.
The re-emergence of Herbert the project arises from a desire to loop back to the beginning and start enjoying music again.
“I did all sorts of things – music for film, music for TV, music for radio, installations. It actually got a bit much last year… I felt I really needed to go back to something that I knew, and felt confident in, and understood the rules of. Basically, even if I wasn’t super keen on following those rules, at least I knew what they were, and could sort of navigate them with a lightness of touch.”
The ‘rebooted Herbert’ continued with the Parts EP series that he started in 1995, with two new vocalists: Rahel and Ade Omotayo. Last summer Matthew Herbert began working on his fifth studio album (31 in his catalogue), The Shakes.
“It was recorded in a church, so it’s got this amazing big church organ sound on it. This was sort of the big revelation for me this time.”
Far from being an attack on the concept of organised religion, or a molecular deconstruction of the church organ, the instrument give songs texture and lift, almost a religious experience at the altar of dance music.
The organ is most prominent on ‘Bed’ and the closing track ‘Peak’, an almost 10 minute opus which is lifted skyward by the instrument in the break. ‘Strong’ might have some hammered pipes in amongst the panel-bashing beat – but the track is galvanised by Ade Omotayo. Herbert is still a vocal led project, the other signature sound being celebratory parping horns, which suggest Matthew is enjoying making music again.
“The one thing that I hadn’t really done, is I hadn’t really made music for pleasure, just for my own pleasure. I guess I wanted to reclaim and experience that for myself – just to make music, just because it sounds nice or because it does something to you, and there being no great conceit or desire behind it to bring down the government or change the world. With this one I’m like – breathe out. There’s been a lot of breathing in but I’m just kind of trying to create something with joy. ”
The Shakes debuted at Village Underground on 17th March it was Herbert’s first live performance in almost a decade.
“It’s quite mad actually, because I started writing the setlist and looking back – a few things have happened. DJ Koze did a remix of It’s Only which was quite a big record, and suddenly that track’s got a whole new lease of life in it. There’s a whole new generation of people getting into the 90s stuff and deep house. I just looked at an old track I did called ‘I Hadn’t Known, I’d Only Heard’ which was a B2 track on a CD single and it’s got 350,000 hits on YouTube. There’s these funny little pockets, you know, as digital has collapsed the chronology of everything, so you get these little moments. Then you suddenly realise, actually I’ve been doing this for quite a long time.”
Matthew is keen to point out that his performance won’t be a nostalgic note perfect regurgitation of “the hits”. Like in his early days of performance Herbert will work with the crowd. Although the song The Audience will almost certain get an airing, Matthew will be re-sampling the assembled masses and working them into the music. This is almost a Brechtian technique that engages the crowd by initially estranging them then raises their enjoyment.
“You can’t have too much pleasure, it’s got to be tempered with a sharp jab to one of the eyes.”
It’s time for the audience to meet “the maker”.