Interview: Matmos (part 1)
Published on February 8th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
San Francisco couple Drew Daniel and M.C. (Martin) Schmidt are set to release their mind-blowing, mind-expanding and possibly mind-penetrating ninth album The Marriage of True Minds, constructed around the imagery expressed by people whose minds they had tried to telepathically transmit “the concept of the new Matmos album” into. (That’s an awful lot of instances of the word ‘mind’ in a single paragraph, but never mind.)
As you should be able to glean from our four-and-a-half-quail review, it’s a corker whether these experiments – Ganzfeld experiments, to give them both their name and that of the preceding EP – were conducive to genuine telepathy or not. Either way, you can read the fascinating subject transcripts at verylargegreentriangles.tumblr.com.
Rocksucker was delighted to be granted a private telephone audience with Matmos, and such was the breadth of topics covered that we’ve had to split the interview in twain. Here’s part one, in which we discussed the new album, its attendant experiments and Drew’s forthcoming book The Melancholy Assemblage…
I gather The Marriage of True Minds has been a long time in the making…
Drew: Yeah, it has been. I mean, I don’t want to give people the impression that we wake up every morning, have a bowl of cereal and then work on Matmos albums, but it’s true that it’s been four or five years in the making. It’s partly because I’m a professor, which means I have to publish and lecture, so I’m awfully busy with that – but it is true also that the amount of experimentation involved in setting up the Ganzfeld experiments and transcribing them made making this music take a lot of time, but it was a lot of fun.
How did you actually go about trying to transmit the concept into your subjects’ heads? Was it simply a case of sitting there with them, putting your thumb and index finger to your forehead and going *nnnngggghhhh* at them?
Martin: That is the most straightforwardly unexplained thing, and why no-one has ever asked that question before is a bit of a mind-buggler. However, I’m not the one who does it – Drew does it. So Drew, how do you do that?
Drew: I think it’s about getting them into a state where they’re primed by a set of pressures. One is that they’re told to relax and empty their mind, just be empty and neutral, but they’re also told that they’re going to get something from me, that I’m going to try and transmit into their mind the concept of the new Matmos album and that they should describe out loud anything that they’re seeing in their mind, or anything that they’re hearing in their mind. So there’s a certain amount of pressure: the pressure to produce content, the expectation that content is coming, the command to think out loud whatever you’re thinking…
If you were very sceptical you could say that that’s all that’s happening, but if you’re a believer in telepathy then you might believe that – when deprived of distractions like seeing and hearing, which is encouraged by lying down on a mattress in the dark and relaxing, giving up the distracting chatter of monkey minds – that perhaps these influences are possible and that this album is evidence of that. From my point of view, though, it’s very difficult to think of just one thing. I found that the hardest part of all about doing this album, to sit and only think of one thing – the concept of the new Matmos album – over and over again.
So I found a whole day of doing telepathic sessions really kind of exhausting – for me, at least, I mean it’s not like I was breaking rocks in Bangladesh, but it’s not nothing to stop everything, stop Twitter and Facebook, stop thinking that you need to be connected to the world and instead go deeply inwards. There aren’t a lot of circumstances in our modern lives that ask us to not multitask.
Presumably some of the track titles refer to things that people were seeing or thinking, such as “Very Large Green Triangles”…?
Drew: The songs are an honest attempt to respond musically to what people got, and then there’s the sort of hovering mystery of whether what they got was what I was sending. I haven’t revealed that and I won’t, because it’s part of the project to keep that purely mental. The trendiness of triangles in graphic design of the last five years is I think strongly verified by our experimental findings. Art students at the Ruskin School of Art have triangles on the brain.
What kind of ‘found sounds’ feature on the album, if you feel at liberty to divulge? There are some wet, gurgling sounds on “Ross Transcript” that sound like they could be the gurgling fat from your A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure album.
Martin: That’s an espresso machine solo, which is strictly a result of that being what Ross experienced, as well as the sequence with an automobile, the 1950s, then a sci-fi environment…
Drew: You got a download of the album, didn’t you?
Drew: Ah, that’s so frustrating, because the album comes with prints of all the transcripts. But you can find them at verylargegreentriangles.tumblr.com.
Martin: (With a copy to hand) This is what he said: “I hear some lazer beam-type sounds, like ‘pew pew!’…an automobile…the 1950s…more strange alien sounds…a sort of ‘wealthy’ sound…some cartoon voices, like Looney Tunes type stuff, arguing about something…phones ringing…sleigh bells type sounds…suddenly I have a feeling of after an apocalypse, or an apocalyptic event, sort of a desert”…of course all of this takes like forty minutes.
Whose is the coughing and laughing at the end of “Tunnel”?
Martin: That’s kind of my Black Sabbath joke – you know the way that “Sweet Leaf” starts with a cough? I wanted a song that ends with a cough, so it could be like “Sweet Leaf” in reverse. It’s Dan coughing having done too much throat-singing, and me laughing at him. He really tried to push it with his growling and vocal range, and he was fresh off tour, so he was trying to be a trooper about it but I could see it was really starting to shred his throat.
Was that from doing the “DO YOU BELIEVE IN ESP?” growling at the end of the album?
Martin: (Laughs) That was actually Gerry Mak from this amazing doom metal band called Bloody Panda. Their name may not convey the menace that they actually do live, but they’re a really fucking heavy doom band. I feel a bit bad about it because I swore to him up and down that his vocals would be surrounded by music and I wouldn’t just leave him hanging out there naked. I totally lied.
Drew: But it sounds so good and it’s so rare that you get to hear that sort of vocal technique so clearly.
Clearly it’s very soon to be asking this but have you given any thought yet to your next project?
Martin: Oh yeah. Hopefully arguing (laughs).
Drew: The thought sounds very constructive and peaceful, but I think that what’s going on is a little more clamorous and warlike. Officially it’s Martin’s turn because this album was more my album.
Martin: It may not be a flatly conceptual thing – it may just be a summary of long-form things that we’ve done over the last ten years, things that are even twenty minutes long, so it may be a double album of four twenty-minute tracks.
Drew, are there any more writing projects on the horizon?
Drew: Yeah, my book comes out just two weeks after the album comes out, so it’s a kind of weird harvest time for both sides of my life. I’ve always been either Jekyll or Hyde, I guess (laughs) – a musician or an academic – but I really like that this album and book are coming out in sequence because the album is about telepathy, and I think telepathy is ultimately about the longing to understand and be connected to someone else, to be able to get what’s in your mind into there mind and vice versa. My book is ultimately about that too – it’s called The Melancholy Assemblage and it’s about the problems of interpretation generated by the display of emotions in renaissance paintings, drama and medical writings about melancholy.
I see the album and the book as linked in their concern about the problem of verification – like, when you’re looking through our records, you can’t tell if we’re being serious or just kidding, if we believe in telepathy or we don’t, did telepathy happen or didn’t it, and often when I’m interpreting what I see in renaissance melancholy, it’s all about: is this person really sad or are they trying to get my attention? Is this person really insane or just being fanciful? So these kinds of mysteries about how we know other people, all questions we’ve asked ourselves about God. (Laughs) “Are you really that pretentious, or are you just kidding?”
Do you ever suspect yourselves of sharing some kind of telepathic connection?
Drew: I often have the strange feeling of being tethered to Martin in very banal, everyday ways. We always order the same thing in restaurants without having talked about it. Seriously, with numbing regularity.
Martin: Every god damn time.
Drew: I don’t know if that’s psychic or just…
Drew: You know the way two trees can share a trunk and grow together – I mean, after twenty years I don’t really know where we diverge, where I start and he begins. I think the pain and frustration of an argument in a couple is all about the reality that you are different, that your minds are not transparent to each other, but I think the romantic ideal is of people being completely connected, overlapping and reciprocal. Hopefully this album kinda lets us tear out both the ideal and the limit to that fantasy.
We have a pretty healthy moment of singing together but that’s not actually the end of the album – the end is Martin’s voice trailing off with an open tape – but that was the will. We don’t end on a big, resolving major chord like “love saved the day!” – it has to be real about the fact that it’s a process and it doesn’t have a clear answer.