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A Quietus Interview

When Life Gives You Lemons: Matthew Herbert Interviewed
Ben Cardew , August 5th, 2013 09:23

From sampling a tank rolling over a Nigella Lawson dinner to creating an album detailing the life of a pig from birth to plate (2011’s One Pig), Matthew Herbert has long been one of Britain’s most remarkable musicians. Here he talks to Ben Cardew

As well as a fascination with sound – his 2000 manifesto and theoretical guide for making music banned using drum machines and pre-existing samples – Matthew Herbert’s music has a notable political edge, using his albums to critique commercial food production and corporate globalism.

The two themes combine again on his new album The End Of Silence, which is constructed entirely around one five-second recording of a pro-Gadaffi plane dropping a bomb on opposition forces during the battle of Ras Lanuf in Libya in March 2011.

“I wanted to freeze history, press pause, wander around inside the sound - trying to understand its component parts, wondering why it was so scary when I had never actually heard any bomb first hand,” Herbert says in his introduction to the album.

“Despite immediate and disparate access to news of world events, it’s rare to find something that punctures the safe veneer of distance that computers create. By hearing this sound, one is compelled to live inside the moment.”

I caught up with him by Skype to discuss politics, protest and music, rave history, and the sound of “Tuesdays in Belgium”.

What do you think of the term protest music? Is that something you associate yourself with?

Matthew Herbert: I think we basically all know what it means but it does feel clunky, particularly now. To be honest it is better than ‘political music’. There is always an assumption in terms of protests and political music that there is a left-wing agenda but actually a lot of music, particularly these days, can be quite right wing in terms of promoting agendas of misogyny and homophobia or the capitalist impulse to make as much money as possible or to buy more stuff. I think these terms are becoming less and less useful and we could do with something else, God knows what!

It feels like things are beginning to turn, it feels like there is a degree of introspection in the music world about how we respond to some of these things. That does seem to be creating more aware and more engaged artists, certainly the younger generation that I work with are much more switched on than a few years ago.

For example?

MH: If nothing else, thinking about how the music is distributed. Political music or protest music doesn’t just stop at the music it also encompasses the art work, what label you sign to, how the music is made public, what kind of shows you do, what kind of agent you sign up with, what kind of gigs you say yes to, what kind of opportunities you thrive on or reject, whether you maybe do ads or not.

Partly with the collapse of the major labels, one of the consequences of that is that artists have to think much more about ownership of their music and control of their music and where and how it is heard and I think that in and of itself is a powerful political shift.

For me, it seems that music in itself has become very political, part of the movement or protest. If you look at, say Anonymous, music is one of the things in their front line. Because of the issues with copyright and anonymity online, music in itself has been politicised. Do you agree?

MH: I come in from the other way. The corporate world has managed to co-opt and re-contextualise so much music in so many different ways, whether it be British Airways’ wholesale adaption of a piece of Delibes to become their theme song or whether it be a young band soundtracking a car commercial.

The corporate world has re-contextualised so much music and laid claim to so much music as a shortcut to authenticity and a shortcut to a meaningful emotional response. For me, the low point of this was Volkswagen Utilities Vehicles using 'God Only Knows' by the Beach Boys, a piece of music that my friend got married to. I think music has been co-opted in a way that has really stripped away so many of its previous associations and re-cast it as a kind of soundtrack to consumption. For me the reaction to that has been... it may be there but it is still in early stages, really.

What is the reaction to that?

MH: I think the most important artists working at the moment are Bjork and Radiohead and you never hear their music on adverts. One thing that I talk to bands or musicians that I work with about, is that it is really useful to know your position before the offers come in. You have that moral dilemma before you are actually approached. But these young bands are clear that they prefer not to do that sort of stuff if they can avoid it. Of course it is very hard for a young band if someone offers you £150,000 not to do anything, just to say "yes" to the use of your music. It is really hard.

Does this corporatisation of music reduce its power as a vehicle of protest?

MH: You have to unpick various parts [of that idea]. I don’t think that the word ‘music’ is enough, that it can cover everything that goes on. The bit of music my phone plays to tell me that I’ve got a phone call has a completely different function to, say, a complete Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House.

I think the very idea of music is at threat or is being challenged and I think that corporatisation has helped draw the line a little bit. Certainly you can’t imagine them using my last Pig record for a bacon or sausage advert. Likewise you can’t quite imagine anyone using the bomb at The End Of Silence, because it is a difficult listen, you can’t really imagine that being used to sell donuts or whatever. So I think there is a certain responsibility we have as musicians is to be one step ahead and to create work that is very difficult to re-contextualise or randomly apply another meaning to.

For example, I wrote a piece of music a long time ago that was very important for me, it took me two years to record and it was about a really important time in my life. I got asked for it to be used on an advert and it would have earned me, at this point of my life, probably £3m to £5m, because they used it again and again over ten years. But it would have just made me look a liar to say that that piece of music was about a really important time of my life and also about shampoo and clean hair. It chips away at the meaning of the work. So I think it is important that as a consequence we produce work that can’t be co-opted. It can’t just be used to sell something else.

In terms of The End Of Silence, is there a reaction that you expect, or want, when people listen to the album? Or do you just want people to think?

MH: My ambition with all my music and particularly the stuff to do with sound, I would like people to listen more carefully to the world. We can learn a huge amount by listening. Sound and listening is actually a very new format, one that has only been around 100 years, so there is nowhere on the internet to listen to a lemon being squeezed or Tuesdays in Belgium. Another of my projects is a museum of sound, which I will be re-launching this year so that there can be a place where you can do that.

I absolutely don’t have a particular response in mind. Definitely I would like it that someone doesn’t think, "Oh wicked, I’m going to join the army", that would be bad. But I think most other things would be OK to me.

I think about this quite a lot about, what is an appropriate political act that may follow from listening to it. I was thinking about this the other day and I thought, ‘What actually happens when you read a newspaper article about the war in Syria, what actually changes? Does your behaviour change? Do you actively go and write a letter to your Member of Parliament asking for clarity on certain aspects, do you go over there? Do you give money to someone?’ Generally no, you just read about it and you move on. What happens when you see Guernica by Picasso? Do you then sign up for CND? I think it is really important that we don’t try and automatically assume that the only valid political response to something is an immediate physical manifestation. [The End of Silence] is about adding your voice to a chorus of dissent.

I was very interested in the disparate responses to One Pig. When I heard the record I assumed it was some sort of vegetarian protest and then I saw that PETA complained about it and I read that you’re not a vegetarian. Does that happen a lot, that you make something and the interpretations are incredibly different?

MH: I read one review of The End Of Silence which said that it was too distant, about a whole album about distance, so I took that as a compliment. But ultimately you have to create something with as much integrity as possible and with a degree of ambiguity as well.

I don’t mean that I deliberately write it to be ambiguous but there is a huge revolution happening in music, which is that music has been kind of impressionism, it has been painting basically, for the last four million years and now it is documentary film making effectively.

If I wanted to make a record about a pig 100 years ago I would have had to use imitation or simulation whereas now I can record that pig and turn it into music. It is a hugely provocative political shift in music that we can now make music out of the fabric and matter and materials and texture of the world, it is a undisputed and fundamental revolution in the very idea of what music is and the materials and tools we have to hand.

And the doubly exciting thing about this is it comes without words. This is the really exciting thing for me, which is that, when everyone talks about protest music they always think about some kind of re-jigging of a Woody Guthrie position, which is telling a story or explicitly expressing a position over some relatively disparate harmony.

I went to the House of Parliament to record in Boris Johnson’s office and recorded the sound of me shaking a matchbox in the Houses of Parliament where one match equals 100,000 people killed in Iraq. And while I was doing it John Major was standing next to me. He was Prime Minister at the time of the first Gulf War. Also on that record you heard me nearly get arrested for protesting at the State Visit of the Saudi Arabian royal family. Also on that record, the sound of somebody being shot in Palestine.

Those layers of ambiguity and information and fact and fiction I think are a really exciting new possibility in music that you just don’t get from singing about something.

A breakthrough for me was a record I did called The Mechanics Of Destruction, which I gave away free. I was seeing Starbucks written up everywhere and didn’t really like this shift in my local town. But to use the word Starbucks in your music felt like another kind of infestation, a different kind of pollution, and I wanted my music to be free of Starbucks. It is the one area I had control of my life. Even that word, Starbucks, was like a kind of pollution.

By using sound I could go into Starbucks, buy a frappuccino and pour it down the drain and sample that and turn it into music. It does two things: first of all, it is a political gesture, even if it may be a relatively quiet one, but also you are doing something else other than drinking their coffee, you are making music out of waste, if you like, or something that you reject. For me it is a doubly political gesture.

That is the interesting thing about working with sound a lot. on The End Of Silence there are moments that I think are really still and beautiful and calm and I think there is something political about turning something that is violent and deadly and ugly into something thoughtful and reflective.

Have you had any complaints about The End Of Silence. Presumably a fair amount of people lost their lives in the bomb that fell and this has been turned into an entertainment product, if you want to look at it that way...

MH: [Laughs] I don’t want to look at it that way!

But you know what I mean?

MH: I’m selling it basically. But I think that is just the capitalist society that we live in, in the sense that newspapers sell their stories about it, a war photographer gets paid to take those photographs. I am certainly not profiting from it [the album], I will be lucky if it break even. It is not going to trouble Adele at the Grammys.

I wouldn’t see myself as profiting from it in that way. But it is a human reaction. I am not going to allow it to be used on a Tesco advert, not that the opportunity would ever arise, or to sell toilet paper or anything like that. For me, it is just part of being in society, people die making our clothes but we buy them and wear them. That is a pretty unsatisfying relationship, in that respect.

You say you are a fan of layers and ambiguity in music. But do you ever feel like, if an issue impacts you strongly enough, making something incredibly unambiguous.

MH: It depends what the subject is. I do feel like that sometimes. Something like One Pig, that is pretty unambiguous to me, what it is, it is a pig’s life and you take from that what you can.

My last album was called Tesco, for me that is pretty on the nose. I just don’t think that, from my perspective, using a lyric to describe the issue or tell the story will... I think that has value but I just don’t think that it is... for me I am more interested in trying to think of new ways to tell stories. This way of working with sound allows that quite neatly, I think.

You’ve made a lot of straight(ish) house music – do you see the nightclub as a political space? Or is it a place people go to escape and dance?

MH: I am of the generation that was criminalised by the Criminal Justice Bill, so when I first started going out it was free parties in the West Country and then the Government banned repetitive music, listening to repetitive music outside, and we protested and I got charged by horses in Hyde Park and it was all quite full on. After that there was a moment then when it was political. It felt genuinely classless, you had wealthy landowners giving over their land and there was a community of people from travellers to, I guess, middle-class students to football hooligans to whoever, all kinds of different communities spending time with each other, invariably outside and it was free. When that shifted into nightclubs things changed a great deal and it got a... capitalism has a way of... as soon as it contains something, it tends to kill it.

I think it is a real missed opportunity when you think that probably this weekend in Europe alone somewhere between 5m and, I don’t know, 20m young people will get together in a public place. That has never transformed into a meaningful social movement.

There can be a politics in it, a politics to do with race, to do with gender and sexuality. Night clubs can be a place where you can be whoever you want to be and spend time with loads of other people. But I think it is one of dance music’s great failings, that it has never really harnessed that good will and that coming togetherness and turned itself into a meaningful social and political movement.

Matthew Herbert will be reinterpreting Terry Riley's In C, alongside Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory, at The Barbican on October 4; for tickets, head here