Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Class Cutups 

Experimental electronic duo Matmos uses elective surgery to carve out an audience

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001
Matmos' fourth album, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, can be experienced in two distinct ways: Before Liner Notes (BLN) and After Liner Notes (ALN). If a listener blindly plops the disc into his player without a look at the packaging, he will form a disjointed, yet oddly inviting, first impression. He'll notice occasional abrupt and drastic changes within songs -- enough to make him peer at the CD player to see if a new tune has begun -- but for the most part the stuff will go down like pop music. Granted, it's pop music made up of sharp little percussive bits, squealing clarinet, and peculiar vocal samples, all meticulously arranged by the heavy hand of the sequencer. But it beckons the listener closer even as it remains a safe distance away.

If that same listener cracks open the jacket, he may find his studied composure crumbling as he discovers that the sound sources for the seven songs are elective surgeries: liposuction, laser eye surgery, acupuncture, and nose jobs. In keeping with the medical theme -- Matmos members Drew Daniel and Martin C. Schmidt are both doctors' sons -- the album also includes field recordings of hearing aid tests, human skull caressing, goat spines knocking, and rat cage plucking. The next time the listener puts the album on, he unwittingly begins playing the Name That Broken Bone game: The music has quickly moved from a tap-your-foot-while-you-feed-the-cat vibe to an oh-God-is-that-what-a-burning-retina-sounds-like? experience.

Does this chasm between BLN and ALN mean that A Chance to Cut is avant-garde? Is the record a clever spoof on the "inhumanness" of techno or just a calculated ploy to cut through the morass of similar-sounding electronica?

"I certainly hope it hangs together as an album and is listenable without knowing anything about it," Schmidt says. "[Then again], I've always been an avid liner note reader and I like the idea that it adds another dimension to the sound that wasn't previously there."

Either way, Schmidt concedes that the overarching concept "does make for easier interviews."

"Electronic music is so abstract that if you give people a frame through which to interpret [it], they're going to jump at it," Daniel agrees via speakerphone from the New York apartment the duo is sharing while working on Björk's next album, Verspertine. Occasionally, the morbidity of the samples backfires -- a few journalists told Matmos that they liked the record until they read the notes and found the sources too grisly.

"I don't get it," Schmidt admits. "It's not like they were life-threatening procedures or anything."

As with any successful concept album, execution is what separates A Chance to Cut from mere marketing gimmickry. For instance, the whirring, synthesizer-esque melodies that hold together "Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi" are uniquely playful and dancey -- even without the knowledge that Schmidt made them by placing an acupuncture point detector against his skin. Likewise, "Lipostudio ... and So On" isn't about liposuction at all: The twitchy, sputtering house music stands on its own two wobbly legs, whether you think the gurgling, sucking sound is a fat vacuum or a Slurpee machine. Over the course of the album, Matmos dispenses with such old dichotomies as accessible-vs.-experimental as if they were so much cellulite.

The stylistic diversity of the end product -- which is so pronounced that talking about any kind of "Matmos sound" is virtually impossible -- results from the duo's procedural methodology. "If there's any principle that unites all the records we've done so far, it's the idea of a cutup -- of a collage -- as structure," explains Daniel. "But as far as what musically the end result is going to resemble, we really don't feel committed to a genre."

"We let the sound itself guide what the song is going to be," Schmidt adds. "It's kind of a spacey granola thing to say, but that's really how I think about it. If a sound suggests a certain style, we'll just literally follow that down. So whether it ends up being a country song or minimal techno, that's where we'll take it."

In this way, the liner notes serve as a bandage holding together a wound that's threatening to dissolve into unrelated sonic plasma and tissue. The concept gathers the disparate numbers -- the fine-grained clicking and hissing piece "L.A.S.I.K.," the stompy tech-house number "Spondee," the cinematic, modern-classical, brooding tune "For Felix (And All the Rats)" -- under one general health sciences HMO.

One thing that separates the group from its peers is its penchant for using sources that many in electronic music avoid altogether -- the acoustic guitar, for example. "Three Guitar Lessons," a track from Matmos' self-titled 1997 debut, sounds like an idiot savant's first encounter with the six-stringed instrument. The players tap the wood pensively, twist the tuning pegs haphazardly, and scrape and pluck the strings irreverently. They treat the guitar as just another object, rather than as an instrument with a particular mode of operation. Matmos' next project, which won't be released until the duo finishes its yearlong gig as opening act for Björk's world tour, will be composed solely on pianos. "But we'll be playing them both inside and out," assures Daniel. "We'll approach them with a certain innocence."

"I think ignorance might be more accurate," quips Schmidt.

"Yeah, not knowing how to play an instrument sort of frees us from tradition," Daniel chuckles. "Or, you know, talent -- these sort of elitist ideas that we don't resonate with."

The punk rock impudence behind such a comment isn't coincidental. As a teenager Daniel played in various bands in Louisville's fertile hardcore scene and constructed rhythms for King G & the J Krew, a half-joking white-appropriation-of-hip-hop act that featured one future member of indie rock chamber group Rachel's. After moving to Berkeley to study philosophy in 1989, Daniel saw Schmidt performing with the anarcho-pagan collective IAO Core at 924 Gilman. Soon the duo were dating and composing.

As the pair increasingly embraced techno and its descendants, Matmos earned a cozy space in avant-electronica's inner circle. The Scapino Ballet of Rotterdam choreographed one of its cuts; the guys composed music for pinball machines and fisting videos; they played Paris' National Museum of Modern Art. Then, for its third full-length, Matmos defied expectations again by recording a putative country album, The West, which music rag The Wire named to its list of the top 50 albums of 1999.

"There's a perverse pleasure in doing the wrong thing," says Daniel. "So if you get treated as "experimental' or "underground,' then the wrong thing is to make a great big fat four-four beat with really loud high-hat [drumbeats]. But at the same time, I don't want to go making deliberately poppy music to chase record sales."

Daniel and Schmidt are also thoroughly uninterested in the time-tested tropes of the electronica genre into which they've been squeezed. For one thing, they don't fetishize audio gear like many of their colleagues do. While Daniel and Schmidt have close ties with Kid606's Tigerbeat6 label and its artists -- who are noted proponents of digital signal processing, which makes songs seem like excuses to flex the capabilities of the latest effects plug-ins -- they rely on a stripped-down setup to alter the sounds they record.

"We practically use none of that processing stuff," Schmidt explains. "The goal for us is to capture the grain and texture of these events in the real world, so if we slathered on all these effects, what would be the point? You could just do that to a normal high-hat. You wouldn't need to go and record a nose job."

Adds Daniel, "Most of what we do is cutting, reduction. Primarily what we do to sounds is pitch them up or down or cut them into smaller chunks. It honestly doesn't require much computing power at all."

And yet the duo has done something remarkable: Daniel and Schmidt have taken gruesome physical events and transformed them into uncommonly accessible ditties. Now Matmos finds itself in a position of putting day jobs on hold to focus on music full time.

"I think it's very unlikely, though, that we'll be able to make the truly freakish music we want to and support ourselves," Daniel concludes. "This is a very unusual situation, that somebody as popular as Björk is receptive to the kind of music we make. So it's sort of a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I'm definitely not assuming it's all going to be like this; I'm treating it as a sort of weird dream."

It's a dream that could use some liner notes of its own.

About The Author

Darren Keast


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"