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Soft Pink Sleuth 

Matmos' Drew Daniel uncovers the darkness -- and the silliness -- of house music

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002
By many accounts, 2002 was the year of the bootleg, or "mash-up." These recombinant pop songs -- which fit, say, Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" to the Strokes' "Hard to Explain" -- flourished in the viral environment of the Web. (In at least one case -- Girls on Top's "R Freaks Electric?," which combined Gary Numan's "Are 'Friends' Electric?" and Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me" -- the illicit remix went over so well that major-label executives commissioned an official version, the Sugababes' "Freak Like Me.")

Bay Area artists, however, were already ahead of the curve. Kid606 had been lacing the likes of NWA, the Buggles, and the Bangles with pummeling techno beats for ages. Wobbly began working on a project called Wild Why years ago, melting hours of urban-radio broadcasts into one aural miasma (a version was finally released this year on Kid606's Tigerbeat6 imprint). And Matmos' Drew Daniel initiated two solo endeavors that pushed at the boundaries of the form: Dry Hustle, which turned Missy Elliott's oft-bootlegged "Get Ur Freak On" into a spastic workout of drum 'n' bass beats, and Soft Pink Truth, his complex take on house music and culture. On the latter project's debut CD, Do You Party? (set to be released in January on Matthew Herbert's Soundslike label), Daniel smashes together his own ideas of punk and disco, playing with notions of experimentalism and dance-floor release. Avoiding the mash-up's obvious money shot, he splices and dices commercial house, R&B, and other degraded pop forms into a tempting, teasing, maddeningly funky workout.

House music has always been nothing if not participatory: After all, one of the genre's classics is titled "Can U Feel It?" Designed for maximum dance functionality, the music serves as a conduit to communion, with every beat and chord tailored to total immersion. But Soft Pink Truth is different: Not to be too un-funky about it, but Do You Party? is a kind of thesis on that inclusionary nature, touching on issues of gender and sexuality along the way. (Just check out the cover art, which grafts macho male heads onto caricatures of svelte women in furs.)

The album's second track, the appropriately titled "Gender Studies," typifies Soft Pink Truth's strategy, as Daniel draws dirty funk from such oft-sourced elements as a Chicago house rhythm, a distressed bass line, and sour-tuned R&B singers crooning "girl" over and over. The song's joke works on a number of levels, as Daniel is well aware. "Obviously the word 'girl' is how gay men talk to each other, so it has that one meaning," he says, sitting in the kitchen of the Potrero Hill apartment he shares with his Matmos partner, Martin Schmidt. "But in the case of most of those vocalists, it's hip hop MCs trying to impress the ladies or beg them to put out." The strategy has weird, decidedly un-macho undertones once Daniel has his way with the song: At the close of "Gender Studies," a low-voiced Lothario sings, "I want to be a lady," in a gender-bending punch line.

"When I think about the point of the Soft Pink Truth, the name helps me figure out what I'm trying to do," Daniel says. "It's named after this friend of mine who was a house music DJ in gay bars. But he also dealt drugs on the side, and he was notorious for always being on speed, to the point that he could never get a hard-on. The doorman of the club that I would go-go dance at was always teasing him and calling him "Soft Pink Missy,' because, you know, you might go home with him, but you weren't going to get it on."

Daniel says the name of his other side project, Dry Hustle, plays with a similar idea. "Basically, [a dry hustle] is when you lead someone on like you're going to have sex with them, and you take their money and ditch them. So it's a false sexual encounter that doesn't really happen. In a weird way it's similar to Soft Pink Truth: Both names are about misfires."

According to Daniel, Soft Pink Truth tracks offer "the ideal of pleasure and the fantasy of pleasure that dance-floor culture promulgates, pushed a little too far, to the point of failure and impotence, rather than release. I think I'm taking these emotions and making them a little bit impotent. They don't get to say their piece; everybody gets cut off." That bears out in listening to the record: Song after song raises a lattice of chirps, blips, squawks, hiccups, and burps. Working with admittedly "bad" source material -- histrionic house divas, gushing R&B singers, weird disco records rescued from thrift stores -- Daniel has cut expression down to minuscule proportions.

"The big cliché of house music is some woman moaning in ecstasy, becoming excessively emotional: "I'm gonna take you hiiiiigher!'" he says, parodying the characteristic modulation. "What I do is the audio equivalent of a flirtation, where you just dartingly embrace something but you don't really express it. I take the long wail and turn it into just a little 'uh' -- just whimpers and sobs and little tiny pecks on the cheek, rather than the full oomph. It's all very contained and clipped.

"But maybe that's my own shame on a formal level," he quickly adds.

Daniel grew up in Kentucky, where as a young teenager he listened to '80s electro and embraced break dancing, before discovering the straight-edge hardcore scene. That community, and its relationship to dance culture, played an unexpected role in his social behavior. "When I was a closeted punk rock kid, I thought of dance music as this bad gay art that gay people like, and thought, 'I'm not gay, because I don't like the bad art that they like,'" Daniel says. "Dance music was part of why I didn't identify as queer, because it was like, 'All these people that like Erasure, yuck. I don't like Erasure so I must not really be gay.'"

By the late '80s, Daniel had relocated to San Francisco, where the rave and gay techno cultures were both in full swing, but he had little to do with either. "Socially I knew people that were into dance music and throwing dance music parties, but I'd always been a snotty little noise snob," he recalls. Once he began dating one of the city's early rave promoters, though, he started to come around. "The really cut-up breakbeat techno records reminded me of noise records, and the way that they were like a Nurse With Wound record, like the foregrounded editing was the point. That's when I realized dance music isn't just some kind of foofy pleasure nonsense, it can be this crazy, disorienting critique. And hearing things like Steinski and Mass Media, that also convinced me that there was a world of choices being made in dance music that were valid, and I should get off my high horse."

Part of getting off his high horse entailed getting up on another kind of platform. In 1989, at the tender age of 18, Daniel was plucked out of the crowd at an S.F. nightclub and asked to fill in for a missing go-go dancer. The stories he tells of that era -- "I used to make really weird G-strings, like I had a plastic fish that sort of covered my genitals and a little tail that came out the back, and I had a Joe Camel head, and an E.T. head" -- reinforce some of the bawdiness lurking under the surface of Do You Party? It's not difficult to imagine him go-going along to the gutter electro of "Big Booty Bitches," one of the album's most libidinal tracks. But Daniel's reflections also point to a golden age in the city's gay club scene. "'Club Uranus' was a really great moment in the history of gay bars in San Francisco, because it was right at the peak of ACT UP and Queer Nation, and people were very politicized, but they were also very punk rock and weird. So the playlist was like James Brown, Public Enemy, and then 808 State, and then there'd be a Crash Worship show."

Even with his run as a go-go dancer, Daniel stayed far away from any kind of breakbeat jouissance. His group Matmos -- which, despite its anti-pop aesthetics, began collaborating with Björk in 1997 -- was more likely to explore the sonic potential of crayfish neural tissue than to access the pleasure centers of the human brain. But before a gig at Paris' Pompidou Center in 2000, English experimental-house producer Matthew Herbert issued Daniel a challenge. "Backstage before we were going on, Matthew said, 'Drew, I'd love it if you would make a house record for me, for my label,'" Daniel remembers. "I was really flattered and a little bit frightened and a little bit, 'Well, if you say so' -- because it was a little bit like, by His Majesty's request." It turns out that Herbert's own productions -- which mold anti-capitalist themes into sparse, funky patterns -- were among the first records to turn Daniel on to house music.

Like Herbert's multilayered music, Do You Party? has a serious side. "My boyfriend, the one throwing the [rave] parties, he died of AIDS. And when I was making all this sort of hellish music with my sampler, he was like, 'Why don't you make a dance song?' So there's kind of a memorial function to the album." The sleeve notes also give a shout-out to numerous local clubs at which Daniel DJed or danced, whose founders have all since died.

This loss hangs over the album in unexpected ways. To find source material, Daniel bought up secondhand records by the armload, scanning through them for moments of perfect awfulness. "I went to Community Thrift, because it's sort of the gay man's thrift store," he says. "Frequently someone's died of AIDS, so suddenly their whole collection appears at Community Thrift. So you get these sort of weird cultural snapshots of late-'70s, early-'80s dance music that wash through the bins there. ... That's actually how that song 'Gender Studies' got made -- besides the voices saying 'girl,' all the other sounds are from one batch [from the store]."

But Daniel's leery of letting Soft Pink Truth become maudlin. "The music is not really about that," he says, referring to San Francisco's historical gay club scene. "It's the occasion for the making of the music, but the music is supposed to be fun and ridiculous and silly. ... If you were having a party at your house, you'd put it on. It's not supposed to have some fucked-up noise part that goes on and on just to rub in the fact that, 'Oh, I don't believe in dance music.' It's not supposed to do that; but on the other hand it's also not supposed to sincerely want to 'take you higher.' Because it's ridiculous -- it's taking those moments of excess and exaggerating them until they become silly."

Do You Party? may be ridiculous, but it's ridiculously good, too. Can you feel it?

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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