Matthew Herbert is a prolific and accomplished musician whose range of works extends from
numerous albums (including the much-celebrated bodily functions) to Ivor Novello nominated film scores (life in a day) as well as music for theatre, TV, games and radio. He has performed as all round the world from the Sydney opera house to the Hollywood Bowl.
He has remixed iconic artists including Quincy Jones, Serge Gainsbourg and Ennio Morricone and worked with musical acts as diverse as Bjork and Dizzee Rascal. He has produced other artists such as Roisin Murphy, The Invisible, Micachu and Merz and released some of these works alongside others on his own label – Accidental Records. Other collaborators include chef Heston Blumenthal, playwright Caryl Churchill and writer Will Self but he is most known for working with sound, turning ordinary or so called found sound in to electronic music. His most recent work ONE PIG followed the life of a pig from birth to plate and beyond. He is relaunching an online Museum of Sound and has recently been made the creative director of the new Radiophonic Workshop. His debut play as a writer/director opened at the national theatre in 2013 as well as a new opera for the royal opera house in 2014. He is an honorary fellow at the University of Kent.
MATTHEW HERBERT BIOGRAPHY BY DAVID STUBBS (July 2012)
“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.”
Matthew Herbert makes music out of sound. Specific sounds. Simple as that seems, it is a practice that was only possibly as a result of one of the most radical and transformative inventions of the 20th century – that of magnetic tape. Once that was introduced into the field of recording, music could be sourced from the entire sonic world, recontextualised, reshaped. The possibility now existed to make anything out of anything.
Composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen explored the technology excitedly in the 1950s but it wasn’t until the sampler came along that it was taken up in popular music, and only then, all too often, to steal or reference rare drum loops or obscure black music. Not for Matthew Herbert. He is uniquely positioned in modern music having dedicated his career to creating architectural pieces made entirely of specifically sought sounds, which function not just as conceptual art but as pop music. His work is extreme in the trouble he takes and highly political (particularly the politics of consumption and globalisation) yet it is also lucid and accessible, with liner notes and live demonstration offering walk-through guidance that is entertaining, amusing even, yet soberly informative. Whereas other sound artists seek refuge in vagueness and vapid obscurity, Matthew Herbert’s work is deeply conscientious, purposeful and unmistakeable. As such, he is among the most prominent practitioners in his field.
He is also highly versatile. 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 the not accidentally named 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, self-titled debut. His other label and production credits include Roisin Murphy, Micachu, Merz, Hejira and Rowdy Superstar. He has scored more than ten feature films, notably Kevin Macdonald/Ridley scott’s 2011 film Life in a Day for which he received a prestigious Ivor Novello nomination, writing for full, 80 piece orchestras in some instances as well as making the soundtrack from sounds sent to him by the public . He has worked in other media too – scoring ballet, fashion shows, tv programmes and theatre – his music has been presented at the National Theatre, the Royal Court, on Broadway and the Almeida. His collaborators have ranged from the playwright Caryl Churchill to purveyor of radical cuisine Heston Blumenthal. Whether performing or Djing, he has played all over the world, including venues as diverse as the Sydney Opera House, Hollywood Bowl, Berghain in Berlin and Trafalger Square. He has remixed over 200 different artists ranging from Qunicy Jones to Serge Gainsbourg, REM to long time collaborator Bjork. There aren’t many artists can say they have been both sampled by late hip hop hero J Dilla and had a major motion picture named after one of their songs- Cafe de Flore. Furthermore, he is currently Creative Director of the newly reformed Radiophonic Workshop, once home to cult figures like Delia Derbyshire, which in the 1960s, working on BBC sound effects did so much to popularise by stealth, the techniques of musique concrète
In 2010, he was invited by classical label Deutsche Grammophon to rework a piece of his choice. He opted for Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. To the untutored ear, his treatment of the work might sound like an act of musique concrete vandalism. However, it’s a scrupulous application of Herbert’s principle of restoring context to art, particularly apposite in the case of Mahler, whose work was raided and inadvertently popularised by a Castrol GTX TV advert. Travelling to Mahler’s writing cabin in Italy and grave in Vienna to make the microphone recordings which augment his version, this “recomposition” is preoccupied with mortality as well as reality – this was Mahler’s final symphony, unfinished at the time of his death in 1910. Recordings were also made inside and backstage at a crematorium as well as in a coffin fitted with an ipod and car speakers – a playlist for music in the afterlife.
If there is a key to Herbert’s success, it is his 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 electronic 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 uk 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.”
He has ventured covertly with microphones into the Houses Of Parliament, captured the sound of rolling tanks driving over picnics, abattoirs, commercial chicken farms and arms 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 engage and 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, video cassettes, 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 more 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 and assumptions 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. These early records even became a blueprint for genres such as Minimal and Microhouse.
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. 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. In many parts of the world it is considered a classic modern album with sales to match.
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) and the stifling paradigm of studio presets. 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 remain 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 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 about the role of music doesn’t exist in the visible mainstream, and rarely 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. I’m surprised others didn’t do it first.”
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 – nuanced 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 neo-swing jollity 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 Stephen Zunes 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.” It also utilized a noise choir of 70 people, gathered together in the foyer of the British Museum to scrape condoms along the flaw, blow over empty water bottles or cut up specially made credit cards.
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. There you can read about his recording of 3500 people biting an apple at the same time or the sound of 25,000 chickens hatching simultaneously.
Accompanied by a live show in which (in keeping with his 2000 manifesto) a chef on stage was a component, Herbert acquired new levels of commercial success, in tandem with being an increasingly in-demand collaborator forging alliances with artists such as Arto Lindsay and Jamie Lidell. 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, at 100mph and underground. 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.
Between 2009 and 2011, Herbert released the One series, a trilogy of albums which revealed both his range and meticulous conceptual precision. First came One One, in which Herbert, against all of his own instincts, creates a song cycle based around his immediate world, playing all the instruments and even singing. Even as he embarked on the exercise, he baulked at what he felt was the cosy solipsism of the singer/songwriter way. “It’s maybe why I sing so quietly,” he explains. “I was a little embarrassed. It’s the most conservative and straightforward thing I’ve ever done. I kept thinking about the relationship between the confessional and the public sphere – you know, how can you be doing stuff like this when you know what’s happening in Syria?” And yet, it’s Herbert’s very misgivings that make One One such a fine record – his subdued vocal delivery and his abashed mood actually enhance these songs, provide a subtle, intangible framework for their introspection. Herbert has always prided himself on putting himself in uncomfortable places artistically, and, as ever, it pays off on One One.
This was followed by One Club, in which Herbert travelled to a familiar gigging haunt, the Robert Johnson nightclub in Frankfurt. Here, he persuaded the club’s friendly patrons to supply him with sample material, asking them to stamp, shake coins, whistle up or down according to whether they were straight or gay, and co-perform songs written for the occasion. The results were then processed, to provide a fascinating, uniquely sculpted document of the club experience, which, again, this being a journey into the unknown, turned out not to be quite what Herbert had anticipated. “I remember thinking, “ wow, what a racket. The air conditioning alone was so loud that the whole thing took on industrial qualities.” The end results, as harnessed, chopped up and re-orchestrated by Herbert, do have a disquieting, seething quality, like some piece of machinery wheezing away systematically yet to no apparent purpose. “It often occurs to me, given how many millions of people go clubbing every weekend, that that energy, or at least some of that energy, doesn’t cohere into some sort of political movement – that it all dissipates.”
Finally, One Pig, perhaps Herbert’s most remarkable and challenging sonic foray into the politics of consumption. The album follows the life, death and ultimate fate on a dinner plate of a single animal. Herbert spent several months on a farm collating the necessary sounds, from its eerily quiet birth, to the noisy trauma of feeding time, to its removal and solitary, shuffling last journey to the abbatoir, alone in a trailer. The pig was eventually cooked by several reknowned chefs including Fergus Henderson and Jason Atherton at a small event including the unveiling of a new instrument made by Henry Dagg that used the pig’s blood to generate pitch. Some of the album’s more benign and functional sounds have a grim provenance – the dropping of the pig’s head on to the butcher’s table, for example, is eventually processed into a bounding bass drum. In a sense, the most “political” aspect of the album is in what it cannot record – the actual slaughter of the pig, since Herbert was refused permission to do so. He refers to the “veil of secrecy” in which the environment of animal processing is shrouded, despite its being such a huge industry. “Again, the point ends up being that I have no rights in the situation. This idea of “choice” as a consumer is nonsense. These huge companies have all the power – and I’m being asked to put this in my body.” Despite the meticulous attention to detail and arms-length documentary approach, the project was condemned by PETA who seemed to equate listening in to this pig’s life as tantamount to torture.
2012, and Herbert is as multiply busy as ever. As well as finishing up his work with Bjork on her Biophilia record and maintaining side projects “which keep me present and visible”, he is determined to “go as far as I can with sound, wherever it takes me.”. He’s just reacquired the rights to Bodily Functions and Scale, which will be enjoying a reissue, as well as his earliest Wishmountain recordings, to which he plans to add a new album called simply Tesco. Then, another project close to his heart, the Museum Of Soundwww.museumofsound.com, dedicated to offering a much-needed sound archive to sit alongside the plethora of archives of video and photography prevalent elsewhere. “It’s designed to be a place where, for example, you can go and listen to the sound of 1982. Where else can you do that?” The visitor/listener themselves will be able to interact with the site also. “One of the great things about sound is that you can experience things simultaneously – you could never watch 10,000 YouTube videos at the same time but you could listen to, say, 10,000 apples being eaten at the same time, or a million people closing doors all at once.” Herbert is convinced that as a species, even at our stage of evolution, we are “very clumsy listeners. We have mostly been listening to recordings of speech and music. Visually, from cave painting onwards, we’re more versatile and adept at “looking” by comparison.” The Museum Of Sound is intended as a corrective to that.
Finally, there is what could be considered an addition to the “One” series – a new album derived entirely from a single, sample source – war photographer Sebastian Meyer’s recording of being bombed by one of Gaddafi’s planes during the Libyan conflict. “It’s just ten seconds long, and the bombing itself is absolutely terrifying,” says Herbert. “But after an hour of atomising, deconstructing, doing everything possible to this piece of sound, will it still sound so scary? It’s about walking this path between listening and engaging.” Music has this capacity, historically, to take you somewhere abstract, or other.” It’s Herbert’s mission to snap us out of that complacent drift. Once again, in this work, the medium, the music, the matter, the message will be inseparable. “my work is about putting the context back. There’s a stripping away of context in music and that’s always dangerous. Absence of context is the prerequisite for a certain kind of Fascist state.”