Inhuman Sound: An Interview with Matmos by Britton Powell

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”

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M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel of Matmos in Benicàssim, Spain, 2014. Courtesy of the artists.

Drew Daniel and M. C. Schmidt know each other well—very well. Unlike most bands, the recently married couple have spent the better part of every day together for the past twenty-four years. Together they’ve dragged pianos behind pickup trucks in the desert, turned a live surgery room into a recording studio, and reimagined a made-for-tv opera for festivals around the world. Throughout all their work the duo are somehow able to make even the description eclectic seem too constraining. Forming Matmos in San Francisco in the early 1990s, Daniel and Schmidt made a musical pact as broad as it was idiosyncratic, and as a result, the two created a musical universe they can call their own. Vehemently critical and uncompromisingly democratic, the pair bring a devout tenderness and razor-sharp intellect to their musical activities. Blending any and all musical traditions, they utilize technology, primitivism, philosophical discourse, and conceptual art techniques to interact with pretty much anything and everything they can get their hands on. Spending time with them and watching their process unfold, it’s apparent that in their world all sounds are created equal.

Now, a quarter century into their partnership, it’s still quite a task to frame this conceptually driven project. The Lennon and McCartney of noise? The Hall and Oates of musique concrète? The Simon and Garfunkel of glitch? Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to put these two into a frame at all, for if a frame tells the viewer where the art ends and the world begins, then for Matmos, there might not be a frame large enough.

Britton Powell What’s new?

M. C. Schmidt Drew has been working on a book: Joy of the Worm: Genres of Self-Killing in the Age of Shakespeare.

Drew Daniel And we’ve been working on a new full-length album.

MCS Also, I’ve been playing a ton of synth lately, and after a lifetime of not using a modular synthesizer. It’s really fun.

DD I get the appeal now, too—the joy of creating a patch, surfing across a bunch of choices, and winding up somewhere you didn’t expect. It reminds me of the internet before it became a reactionary hell world, back when there was something really fun about surfing and drifting. Analog synthesis can be like that, but as a result no one is elected to political office.

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M. C. Schmidt with modular synthesizer in his Baltimore home studio. Courtesy of the artists.

BP It’s interesting to think about you guys delving into analog synthesis for the first time in your careers, as I’ve always associated the electronics of your work with the lean and colorful precision of early digital tools. Especially on your records of the early 2000s, you seem able to create these microscopic characters that are super compact, full of muscle, and totally berserk.

DD My Dad, who’s seventy-two years old, has a slogan: Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. I think it rings true regarding work with those early digital tools. They don’t give you a plausible substitute for the real, and you can have this pathos of disappointment, but it’s actually right at that point when you’re having the experience—a good experience.

BP You two must have a pretty long history with this concept of “experience” considering how limited the digital workstations were at the beginning of your career. I can’t imagine how laborious working with some of those machines must have been.

DD Well, it was certainly a lot of work, but you have to remember that those machines were incredibly liberating too. The Roland W30 was my primary weapon of choice. It had twenty-seven seconds of sample time per diskette, which took one minute to load, so you had to be extremely selective and intentional about the material you were working with.

BP I love how those early digital samplers and sequencers have such a distinct fingerprint. The idea of 4/4 time and polyrhythms could really stretch and mutate. To me, the quintessential example of this in popular music is Control by Janet Jackson, the whole album feels so mechanically unhinged yet entirely musical. 

DD Yeah, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were virtuosos. That record is amazing. I have a weird memory of it actually: I was sixteen and working as an unskilled laborer, and there was a tornado passing through town, but our foreman wouldn’t let us leave the work site. We were stuck there with Control blasting on the stereo the whole time. When I hear that album, I’m always brought back to both the incredibly terrifying power of nature and Miss Jackson.

BP Martin, you seem to be more oriented toward objects—whenever we’re walking around you’re always playing rhythms on whatever you can get your hands on. Of all the objects you’ve encountered, which never leave your memory?

MCS Hmm, what comes to mind is this ceiling fan that was in Steve Goodfriend’s basement, which was slightly imbalanced, with a little chain that would tap against the light bulb. It would make this crunkda crunk crunk gedeegunk gunk crunkda crunk crunk. It was constantly cranking out the funkiest groove ever. Do you remember that Drew?

DD I do now. It’s a good question, though, because it really gets to the heart of investigating what’s around you, and where you don’t have to intervene since it already has a distinct musical form and character. It’s amazing when you don’t have to interfere with a sound—all you have to do is frame it. It also brings up the question of sensory memory, which is hard. Do you really remember the taste of key lime pie? Do you really remember what that back rub actually felt like? People tend to fix language to the memory, so it really boils down to whether you’re remembering the actual sensation or the post-it-note of language you’ve attached to it. Martin just used language; he didn’t play me the sound file.

MCS Well, I did just sing it to you.

DD That’s true, which helps… . I get the feeling of the ceiling fan when you sing, that it’s a heavy thing with a motor badly attached, which is bound to be funky.

MCS Another object that comes to mind was at CalArts—this lawn sprinkler system, with each little spigot going chunk dachunk chunk dachunk pfzzzzzz chunk dachunk chunk dachunk pfzzzzzz. They would move around like little clocks, every thirty seconds. And there would be twenty of them at varying distances, phasing with one another. I would hear them all the time when they hit my car in the parking lot, where I slept for a year.

BP (laughter) So the sprinkler system was your alarm clock?

MCS Yeah.

DD Martin didn’t actually enroll at CalArts. He literally lived in a car in the parking lot and would audit classes. He was a stealth intruder.

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M. C. Schmidt at Don’s Donuts in Arcata, California, circa 1983. Courtesy of the artist.

BP What about you Drew?

DD Well, recently my stepfather passed away, and my brother, mother, and I were at the Costco to buy champagne for his memorial. We got this cart that made the most insane Brotzmann-free-sobbing Borbetomagus-shriek every single second it was in motion. It really felt like the object was a correlative of our grief. We thought to ourselves: we’ve got to get things done; we’re organized, and we’ve got to push along; and yet every second of moving forward is a crying scream. But instead of being sad, we just thought it was so funny. All the while, people in the store hated our guts, giving us dirty looks, and likely thinking: Why are they pushing this cart? What’s wrong with these people? Who elects to do this to everyone? It brought this solidarity to our family outing. Yes, this cart is our cart and we’re pushing through together.

MCS Drew has to have some intense, emotional content. “Oh forget your pleasant memories of youth, Martin! Anyway, my suffering and my torture with the social contract of people surrounding us.” (laughter) Oh, fuck you!

DD Well, that’s the thing. Sound isn’t here to serve. Someone else pushing that exact cart that day didn’t share our very particular experience of mourning and grief. I guess that illustrates something about sound—that it’s inhuman. That’s why I think sound is queer. Sound isn’t there to serve your interests, to produce what you think is beautiful or important. It’s waves in space, bodies colliding. I like the indifference of sound.

MCS What comes to mind for you, Britton?

BP When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, my uncle decided it was time to take me and my brother hunting. So we went out into the hinterland of New Mexico in the middle of the winter to hunt elk. The second day we were out there, my uncle pulled a shot off and the animal dropped. We approached, knelt down next to it, then he took out a giant knife, cut it open, reached inside as steam and blood poured out, pulled it’s heart out, and took a bite out of it.

DD Oh, my god.

MCS Jeez.

BP Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs, so this blew my tiny mind wide open. Then we took the carcass to be cleaned, and I’ll never forget the sound of the hand saw cutting through its spine. I’ve never heard anything like it since.

DD That story brings up a great question: was it the sound or the context? I’m super squeamish and pass out at the mere sight of blood, and while we were recording our album of sounds in the surgery room, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, my mantra was: Stick to your ears, not your eyes. If you can close your eyes and just listen, you really start to unpack the idea of where the intensity of the experience actually lies.

BP You guys are famous for taking all sorts of objects and giving them musical lives. I know a lot of musicians who bemoan instruments they’ve lost. I was wondering, for you two, if there were objects that got away?

DD Well, the trouble is that the object always gets away. There are people that get mystical about this type of thing, like Graham Harman’s idea about object-oriented ontology, where every object is at some level withdrawn. I’m not going to go there, but I’m saying that when we record an object and want to capture one aspect of it, we can instead get another. We were just at our friend John Berndt’s house, recording his sons playing with Lego blocks. I just listened back to those recordings, and they sound like huge chunks of gravel sliding around in a metal box. They don’t have any of the delicacy and rustling sounds that I imagined. So maybe it’s not that you lose the object, but that the recording is always a chance for you to get another experience.

BP Are there any artists of your generation that you feel have been swept under the rug?

DD Laetitia Sonami and Barbara Golden come to mind.

MCS My pleasure” by Barbara Golden has to be my single favorite audio work ever.

DD Another easy answer is Robert Ashley. It’s hard to say though—is he famous? Not famous?

BP Indeed, hard to say. In certain circles, he’s this super important figure, but to the average citizen he’s a non-starter. I think it’s easy to argue he and Mimi Johnson have created one of the most important intersections of twentieth-century music—with their work with the ONCE group, and also Lovely Music. It seems we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg in regard to all of their activity.

DD I love the weird mix of affection and acid in his vision of humans and music. When you read his interviews about what the modern concert hall has become, he’s really scathing about the dead end of a certain model of musical presentation, yet there’s this true appreciation of everyday life in America that doesn’t seem like a put-on. There’s something about his work that seems earned. There’s no attempt of belletrism in an Ashley libretto, but it’s beautiful—beautiful because it’s strange, and strange because he’s crafting language as a composer with a focus on rhythm, and without a focus on a “writerly beauty,” which allows it to get somewhere else entirely.


Matmos is the longstanding collaboration between M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel. Known for their eclectic interests in sound and genre, they have collaborated with Bjork, Kronos Quartet, Terry Riley, and many, many others. They are currently working on their tenth studio album.

Britton Powell is a composer and performer based in Brooklyn, NY. He has toured around the world, including performances at Unsound Festival, Ultima Festival, Barbican Centre, Centre Pompidou, and a residency in Japan at the Guggenheim House. Powell has collaborated with acts such as Jon Gibson, Sensations Fix, and Marshall Allen, leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra.

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