Electronic duo Matmos always seems to be switching gears. Supreme Balloon, its latest record, marks yet another departure. M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel not only moved into new musical realms, they also submitted a change-of-address form at the post office. Farewell, San Francisco: When the longtime creative and domestic partners refer to "home," they now mean Baltimore.
Why the relocation to Charm City? Last year, Daniel accepted a post in the English department of Johns Hopkins University. "Being a professor there is a very intense commitment," he admits, still sounding dazed.
Matmos records are traditionally high-concept affairs. A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001) culled sounds from surgical procedures as raw material for techno tunes; 2006's The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast paid homage to ten fringe queer icons. With half the band now firmly entrenched in academia, a syllabus undoubtedly accompanies its latest opus.
Au contraire. "All albums are conceptual in a soft sense," Daniel says. "It's just that Matmos sometimes make albums that are quite conceptual in a hard sense." But not Supreme Balloon: "I'd put it more on the soft end of the scale. Very soft. Ramekin full of melted butter soft."
Indeed, the disc's underlying premise is startlingly simple. In lieu of reconfiguring unlikely sonic sources (caged rats, Sousa marches), this time the sounds all sprang from vintage synthesizers: old-fashioned gizmos that make gear geeks drool, manufactured by Roland, ARP, and Moog.
Consequently, the new selections feel cheerier, imbued with the futuristic optimism of thrift-store kitsch Moog records. Matmos' adaptation of François Couperin's "Les Folies Françaises" for the Korg MS2000 recalls the primitive yet oddly elegant, all-electronic baroque classics Wendy Carlos showcased on Switched-On Bach in 1968, while the jaunty "Rainbow Flag" sounds like an eccentric first cousin of Hot Butter's 1972 burbling synth-pop instrumental, "Popcorn."
The machines, apparently, wouldn't have it otherwise. "All electronic instruments lead you in directions," Schmidt says, "and we try to take the water course way and do what the sounds tell us to do. I realize that sounds hopelessly cosmic ... but it would be very hard to make cold, forbidding techno with an ARP 2600."
The demands of Daniel's new gig actually aided completion of the album. For one, it was recorded faster than usual. "There is a certain endless dallying that grad school encouraged, and that infected our work process in Matmos, too," he admits. But not this round, with all those papers to grade.
While time was budgeted more tightly, household finances loosened up. "Cheap rent means lots more space, which in our case includes a giant basement studio where Martin and I can both sit at the mixer together," Daniel says. "We could never do that before."
What do Matmos miss since leaving the Mission? Dining at El Metate, Latin music, liberal politics. "Also, we're realizing the way that the wealth of San Francisco is this weird gravity that distorts certain things, and makes others possible," Daniel says. "There isn't really the equivalent of a Great American Music Hall in Baltimore, somewhere that looks great, sounds great, and will book a weird band like us."
In the plus column, Baltimore offers closer contact with nature and "amazing crab cakes." Matmos has also found kindred spirits in what Rolling Stone recently dubbed America's "Best Scene." "Before we moved, I was worried it would be all these cliquish people who have known each other for forever, and really don't have time for bourgie laptop homos," Daniel concludes. "But they have been very forgiving of our trespasses. So I'm feeling the buzzy, staticky sound of Baltimore — or, as John Waters put it, Armpit, U.S.A." Who knows how future Matmos releases will sound the longer they stick around.