This autumn sees the release of There’s me, and there’s you, the second album by the The Matthew Herbert Big Band.
A whirlwind of painstakingly sourced, politically resonant samples and no small amount of old-school jazz virtuosity, Herbert posits the record as an exploration of power, and institutions of power, in the 21st century – celebrating its positive aspects (“love, creativity…humans in harmony!”) and declaiming the negative (“torture, Israel, Iraq war”). Check out this video, wherein Matthew details some of the ideas and processes involved – including the dragging of condoms across the floor of the British Museum and a rattle of matches recorded in the bowels of the Houses of Parliament (with one match representing one hundred thousand people dead in Iraq).
The man known variously as Dr Rockit, Wishmountain, Radio Boy, Best Boy Electric, Mumblin’ Jim, Mr Vertigo and The Music Man interrupted wedding preparations in order to talk to FACT about There’s me, and there’s you, working with Micachu and the impact of football results on the reception of live music.
You seem to have settled on the Big Band, at least for the time being, as your main musical mouthpiece. Why?
“The thing that I like about the Big Band is that it becomes a metaphor for how I think life should be: everyone doing their own part and ultimately pulling together in a common direction.
“In electronic music we’ve become like mini-dictators, where what the individual says goes, and where the individual can control everything: the recording, the performance and the release, absolutely everything. There’s not much risk to it. I guess that’s also what makes electronic music amazing, on the one hand, but it also can make it quite insular and indulgent…It’s very happy to be separate from the world, it doesn’t seem to go out and try to engage head-on with some of the friction that’s out there.
“It’s a very different skill, or rather a very different experience, to try and communicate your ideas to seventeen or eighteen people that are paid to be in a studio for only 12 hours or whathaveyou, and then the next day they’re doing something else. In that sense, it’s not my band as such – I mean, they’re very, very supportive and great people, but there’s a kind of risk there – I’m handing control over of part of my musical identity and what I’d like to say to other people. I’ve come to like that – because in life, well, I might be able to rustle up some vegetables in a vegetable patch in the garden, but I can’t grow cotton and make clothes, I need someone to provide my clothes, then, I don’t know, someone to lay tarmac, someone to make a car for me to drive in. We all need everybody else. In electronic music, or at least the modern studio environment, it’s so insular; that I like the diminished vanity in working with seasoned professionals.
Do you involve the personnel of your Big Band in the conceptual design of your records? Do they always know exactly what you’re hoping to achieve politically as well as musically?
“Admittedly they weren’t involved when I made the first record, but now I think they’re a lot more familiar with how I treat all the elements, and the sort of stories that I’m going to try and tell. On one of the tracks there’s something quite rude about the Pope – and, you know, to an ardent Catholic, the Pope is second to God, really, so…I will explain to people a situation like that so that they can opt out if they want to. There’s a general willingness to push the boat out – because music’s been very safe recently, it ‘s very happy to exist within certain established genre boundaries, and it seems quite strange…I don’t feel bound as a listener to those conventions…You know, I was given two DVDs recently – one was about Kurt Cobain and one was about Duke Ellington – well, I find both of those things are interesting. I don’t see why this should be any different if I’m writing music as well.”
“I think it would be duplicitous of me to write a piece that is, say, pro-Palestinian, without letting people know about it. When you’re dealing with issues like that – life, death plus religion – everything starts to take on a greater sense of weight…Everything starts to become a little more important somehow, even if the music is disposable and crap, the very fact that you’ve got people being shot on the record changes the impetus, really…”
You must be tempted to keep certain ideas or strategies concealed though, right?
“I always keep some things private, for sure. It’s like a puzzle, and I try to give people keys to unlock certain doors in the puzzle, but there’s always something kept back. With the last record, Scale, I didn’t include notes about how or where anything was recorded; that was a ploy to see if people cared or not. And, judging from the response, “Not really” is the answer…[laughs] So I was just like, OK, I’ll go back to explaining parts of it.
There seems to me to be a real theatrical aspect to your Big Band work; you’re not one to shy away from the visual flourish…
“I think there’s something innately theatrical about a big band anyway, because you have seventeen, eighteen, nineteen people on stage blowing and hitting things. So it’s theatrical already. I do think it’s an incredible resource to have seventeen people on stage that can read music – and you can get them to play anything. For the live show we get them to tear up newspapers and blast condoms – rhythmically and in synchrony, that is, rather than just for comedy purposes…I think for me life is about contrast, its about extremes, it can be about proximity to death and it can also be very boring. Actually, I’m talking rubbish…
“The theaticality is important in the live show. Once you stand on the stage, it comes with all kinds of conventions and expectations, and I think it’s important to acknowledge them – whether you ignore them or go with them. Another thing that’s been disappointing with some elements of electronic music is that, while happy to break the conventions of a rock band or whathaveyou, and work with technology, very often people will stand up on stage – which immediately sets you apart, inviting people to look you – and do nothing with it. It’s alright to play from a computer and work with machines, but once you stand on stage people have a certain level of expectation…
“It just seems to me that in so many aspects of life…We always seem to be encouraged – particularly by this government – just to be lazy, just to buy things, to interact with the world in a very one-dimensional way. You either buy Coke or you buy Pepsi, you drink coffee in Starbucks or in Costa, you vote Tory or you vote Labour. There seems very little stirring of the imagination, and I think music has an important part to play in re-establishing the role of imagination in all of that.
You performed recently with [Cabaret Voltaire co-founder] Chris Watson in Liverpool. Can you tell us more about this?
“Chris is a very respected and accomplished wildlife recordist; he did recordings around the Antony Gormley sculptures on Crosby Beach, burying microphones in the sand and putting contact mics on wooden pylons, things like that. He basically accumulated a library of sounds from these places, and then I turned it into music. It was quite an unusual kind of entertainment, and I’m not sure how much of the subtlety came off – because once you take it out of the studio and put it in a live context, perspective shifts. People begin to experience things a little more holistically rather than with just the ears. So the lighting will have an impact, so too do any visual components; then there’s the fact that you have to queue for a beer, or the fact that Liverpool beat Man United 2-1 – all of these things make an impact…But it’s a tremendous privilege for me to be involved in projects like that. The nice thing for me as well is that the source recordings that all my music came from have all been laid bare for everyone to hear before I play, so going back to this idea of theatricality, it’s like a back-stage tour before you actually get to see the theatre-piece. It’s a bit like revealing a trick before doing it – and I like that because it’s very rare that people get to hear the raw material before I use it.”
You’ve been working with younger artists recently – Micachu and The Invisible.
“Yeah, in 2005, I made the decision to stop flying, or at least limit it enormously. I’ve actually gone three years without taking a flight, which is big for me because I used to take a flight every week – I’ve got a lot of apologizing to the environment to do. What that meant was that I was spending much more time in the studio, and it meant I could do a lot more collaborative work with musicians. As such, it’s been an absolutely tremendous year – I did a jazz record with Finn Peters, I did The Invisibles, which was a rock album, and then Micachu, which is a pop record. I’m now working with Eska, who did the vocals on the Big Band album, on her solo record.
“It’s a real failure of the music industry, and of consumerism in general, that everything is presented as a product. You know, Madonna’s latest album is a pretty one-dimensional experience, i.e. what it is is what it is – you take it in, you listen, and then its gone, you don’t really have that much of an enduring or detailed relationship going forwards with it. It’s a product. Music for me is about process. If I was to re-record the Big Band record today, a great deal of it would be very different. This is all just part of work in progress; whilst it’s a finished item, it’s not like the creative process stops when the CD finishes. By working with other people you really continue that learning experience, so for me there’s a difference – I mean, the technical aspect of recording a rock band is completely different to recording a big band. It’s a whole new ball game – how you mix it, what you’re hoping to achieve with it. As a producer you’re just trying to authentically render the atmosphere that was present in the demos, or in the raw materials. So if you’ve got a band and they’ve got a great song, you want to stay as true to it as you can, rather than just coming in and spewing your musical vomit all over it – and let’s face it, there is a school of producing that can be like that.
So it’s a challenge?
“It’s a new skill for every musician. Every musician will have a different set of issues. Certainly with a band, it’s a real kind of fledgling democracy in many ways, and everyone’s opinion is important (or needs to be taken into account, even if they vary wildly), whereas something like Micachu, it’s just me and her in the studio, so we become a much more autonomous pair. That’s P-A-I-R, rather than P-E-A-R, I should add.
“I always say that making an album is like building a house: you have to put the structure up and then there’s the all the decoration, and then there’s the technical side of physically putting the slates on the roof and pointing between bricks and things like that…Each time you do it, it’s a different structure and a different agenda – one house might have the ambition to be a church, and one might want to be a barn.”