Queer duo Matmos (Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt) has been at the forefront of the electronic music scene since the mid-1990s. But it was their groundbreaking 2001 release A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure that earned them their elevated profile. Incorporating the sounds of surgery into their sonic landscape, Matmos offered a cure for the occasional monotony of electro. In a way, they return to the body, the mind this time, with their latest disc The Marriage of True Minds (Thrill Jockey). A thought-provoking concept recording that utilizes telepathic experimentation, it's a logical addition to the Matmos canon. I had the pleasure of speaking with Drew Daniel of Matmos at the time of the release of the disc. (Matmos performs on June 27 in Chicago's Millennium Park.)
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) After several years in San Francisco, Matmos relocated to Baltimore. What are some of the pros and cons of such a relocation?
DD: (Drew Daniel) There are so many. It's been incredibly inspiring to see how resourceful and creative people are often in very adverse situations. I don't think I had grasped the prosperity of San Francisco in the way that wealth was cushioning and enabling so much until living in a very poor city. We would go to shows and wouldn't see a laptop for months. At first we thought people just don't like laptops. Then we realized, no, people just don't have money. We got to know a lot of really smart, imaginative, cool, creative people, but a lot of them were dishwashers and dog walkers and on food stamps. Making gear out of stuff they had salvaged from the dumps. It's just a very different attitude. You create from the ground up with what's around you. That's been really inspiring, but it's a drawback, too, because it means a lot of people are living close to the bone and can't take care of themselves. We've never played so many benefit concerts in our lives. Moving to Baltimore, where there's just no infrastructure, so you play a fundraiser to raise money for speakers for a warehouse space like The Bank or a fundraiser to help a record store like True Vine pay its tax bill. In San Francisco, there are clubs, they have speakers. There are record stores, they pay their taxes. There isn't this feeling of needing to all pull together if you want to have anything.
GS: Are there ways in which Baltimore has influenced Matmos's music that differ from the way that San Francisco did?
DD: Yes. In San Francisco, and this was a good thing, it was inspiring because we were part of a thriving culture. The rise of the web, the Internet boom, the early 2000's boom of interest in electronica, the glitch movement that was associated with software engineers and the development of new digital tools. We're using all these tools that were created by people sometimes that we knew. By contrast in Baltimore, has a lot more emphasis on improvisation and free improvised music. There's a really exciting set of players and Martin (Schmidt of Matmos) in particular has gotten really enmeshed in that by being part of the Red Room Collective that puts on this festival every year called High Zero which brings together improvisers from all over the world. I think Martin's improvising a lot more. I am, too, but not nearly as much as him. That's really changed our music in terms of our approach to what a show is. Not so much this record, this record is pretty much a control freak [laughs] record.
GS: The EDM (Electronic Dance Music) genre had one of its biggest years in 2012 and shows no signs of slowing down in 2013. Where do you see Matmos's place in that scene, if at all?
DD: We're sort of like a coelacanth. We're like a thing that shouldn't still be alive but is [laughs]. I'm 41 and Martin's 48. We've been doing weird, fucked up music for 20 years now. The fact that we're still going at all is quite odd. I feel incredibly lucky that there are still people interested in seeing what we have to say and hearing new music, not just pretending that that stuff doesn't exist or that it's not 2013. On the other hand, I would approach with caution trying to jump on trains. I don't feel the need to treat music production like an arms race where, if I'm not making trap beats or not putting a wobble bass-line on something then I'm not relevant. Music is big enough that it doesn't have to work that way. I love that more people than ever are listening to weirder and harsher textures and forms. Whenever I hear a (EDM artist) Skrillex track it seems that a lot of the DNA of Aphex Twin and Otto von Schirach, stuff from 10 years ago, combined with a sugary and, to my ears, pretty lame attempt to staple gun some pretty melodic material on top, I find under theorized and unimpressive. But that's the kind of grumpy thing that someone who's 41 would say [laughs].
GS: You referred to the 20 years that you and Martin have worked together, not to mention spent as a couple, so would you say that the title of the new Matmos disc, The Marriage of True Minds, is also a good description of Matmos?
DD: Yes. It's hard to appropriate a Shakespeare sonnet and claim that that's exactly what my relationship is like [laughs]. Martin and I do have a certain fidelity towards each other as far as the poem states, a willingness to bear it out "to the edge of doom." I feel as married to Martin as I'll ever be and that's not a marriage because of the state or the government or conferred by a piece of paper. It has to do with a sense of alignment and togetherness. That's also an ideal that every day lived reality is not always going to sync up with. We always know from trying to get close to people that there's always that awful feeling of betrayal or falling short of an ideal of being connected. You're always trying to pull together and there are moments when it doesn't work. Being on tour is interesting because we have six people in this little metal box, this van, and every emotion you put out there, everything you say, every record to play, every movie you all watch, it has this amplifying effect. I think it's really good for us in terms of performances that we're in this kind of pressure cooker. Most couples, each one gets up and goes to their separate workplace and then they come home and try to get back in sync. Whereas Martin and I have spent, in some cases , years where we are together every day. We have different problems. It's not like it's paradise and Utopia. Our problem is being so intensely aware of the other person that there's just not a lot of escape. But I don't know what it would be like to not have that. That's just what we do.
GS: Matmos albums such as A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, The Civil War and now The Marriage of True Minds are concept-type recordings. What is involved in the process of determining what theme
will serve as the basis for a project, if any at all?
DD: There's a gamble that you take at a certain point where you say I think this idea is strong enough to guide a whole album. That's weird for us because we're not like a normal band where you keep writing songs and eventually you have enough strong songs that you feel like you have an album. We have to come up with a larger frame from the very beginning that will guide everything. There is a lot of squabbling and fighting about each individual song, about whether it actually lives up to the premise that's supposed to drive the work. That's why this took almost 5 years. I had a big batch of material a couple of years ago that I thought might've been the record. We listened to it together and Martin said, "No, this is not it. You're not psychic enough. You're not working as tightly with the transcripts as you need to." He was the cop that stopped me from doing something that would've been hasty. Even though it was my idea and I was the one transmitting the concept psychically or attempting to in these telepathic situations. But Martin was the one who kept me honest. The result was that it took a lot longer to make but we're both happier with the results.
GS: Matmos has a reputation for collaborating with a fascinating array of musical guests, including Dan Deacon, Bjork and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons). When I first heard that telepathy was the theme for The Marriage of True Minds, the Lene Lovich song "Telepathy" came to mind.
GS: Is Lovich someone with whom Matmos would ever consider working?
DD: For us it's always this big thing, how to work with the voice. It's a cool idea, certainly in terms of the lineage of avant-garde chanteuses who comes at things from an oblique angle it would make sense to hop backwards from someone such as Bjork to Lene Lovich as a progenitor. There are so many people whose voices we really love and whose work is an important model for us. It's the same with getting Carly (Ptak) from Nautical Almanac on this album. Her band is known for ferocious, harsh noise but Carly is also a hypnotherapist and New Age healer. She combines this weird, tranquil turn with a witchy capacity to command authority. I like the combination of something that soft and hard at the same time. I think a lot of our music aspires to that.
GS: Matmos didn't cover Lovich's "Telepathy," but you did cover The Buzzcocks' "E.S.P." Why
did you choose that song to close the record?
DD: [Laughs] Some people have accused us of being too literal and obvious in picking that song. For me, I wanted the record to begin and end with almost didactic statements of here is the point. That song by the Buzzcocks, Pete Shelley's lyrics articulate the longing behind the premise of telepathy. The longing of the longing to be understood by somebody else, to be connected. That can be a very despairing place if you don't feel it but it can be a very joyous place if you do. I thought, how can I make this song where we move from the most depressed and desolate place to the happiest place and then having done that choose neither. That's why we start (the disc) with doom metal/black metal, which to me is the most intense form of music I listen to a lot. But it's not often something that would enter the pallet of Matmos. It's not something our fans particularly want from us [laughs]. I thought it would be interesting if we started there and moved upwards and upwards. I wanted to end with an open-ended question of what do you believe in. It's deliberately unsatisfying. It doesn't give you a resolving note or chord and I wanted that. Maybe were just perverse [laughs]. Ultimately it felt more realistic than the musical version of happily ever after. I wanted the idea of a process of thinking that you have to complete as the listener.
GS: On past Matmos releases, songs such as "Public Sex for Boyd McDonald" (from The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast) and "The Rainbow Flag" (from Supreme Balloon) were nods to the band's queer identity and aesthetic. Is there a song on The Marriage of True Minds that you would say serves that purpose?
DD: It's pretty tangential. I suppose if I'm honest, "Teen Paranormal Romance" as a song has, for me, a kind of erotic dimension. The chords in it are based on the chord progression of Nina Simone's version of "Wild Is The Wind." I love that song so much. I think of it as one of the ultimate statements of romantic investment in another person. But I'm not going to cover "Wild Is The Wind," it's sort of too sacred, in a way. But I wanted to work with it, so I took the chords and reorganized them and that's what all those synthesizer parts are not song. Is that sexual? I don't know. It's amorous.