Decades in the making, the musical duo Matmos have built upon their noisy and experimental past to create increasingly conceptual albums that collide together many worlds of thought and style. On their latest album, The Marriage of True Minds, M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel have properly outdone themselves, this time basing their project on a concept so well-crafted that its exact specifications shall never be known by anyone save for the band members themselves.
At the heart of these vagaries are experiments in extrasensory projections — that’s right, ESP — though be not fooled: Matmos are skeptical in their own way. Daniel is quick to drop the fun fact that belief in ESP is still considered a symptom of schizophrenia, so outlandish it seems to scientific professionals — but all that hardly matters in the context of Matmos’ project, for they aren’t looking to shift any scientific paradigms. No, they are looking to shift their own musical paradigm, and five years of conducting artistic ESP research and synthesizing its results have led to what may perhaps be the band’s most exciting record yet. What’s more, Matmos have proven that growing with age and experience have not made them any tamer. Their apparently unyielding desire to explore the strange and experimental is as strong as ever, even if it is taking on many different shapes along the way.
“I liked the idea that there was simultaneously total honesty about what we did but also this kind of hard kernel which was obscured.” — Drew Daniel of Matmos, on the concept of The Marriage of True Minds
Parapsychological Concepts Shuffled in Through the Side Door
When brainstorming on how to take Matmos’ legacy one step further, Daniel, being the English professor and academic that he is, fell in brain-with a meta-concept. Instead of simply making a concept album and sharing its particulars, why not make a concept album with a concept that will never be truly revealed?
“The situation that we’re in now — where I make art and I have to talk about why I have to do it — when you’ve done this for eighteen, twenty years, that starts to affect the way you think about it. There’s art, and then there’s discourse about the art,” explains Daniel. “How can I respond to [our reputation for concept albums] and create a situation in which I never actually reveal the concept?… what that was a telepathic situation…”
The Marriage of True Minds is primarily based on a series of Ganzfeld experiments, designed to test individuals for ESP. Participants were placed into mild sensory deprivation, wearing ping-pong balls over their eyes and headphones playing white noise. Daniel then attempted to telepathically transmit to them the basic concept of the record, and participants would relay aloud what they saw, heard, or felt. Using a combination of collaged fragments from these recorded sessions and original material, the album was eventually constructed. This basic premise is no secret; Matmos made it public early on. But even though one can see both the responses from participants and Matmos’ eventual musical output as crafted from those responses, a bit of a chicken and the egg conundrum remains; it’s unclear which elements informed which, since Daniel’s exact transmissions have remained a mystery.
“[The concept is] not disclosed in any other way than through this attempt to transmit, which is already fraught with all kinds of charlatanry…” says Daniel. “I liked the idea that there was simultaneously total honesty about what we did but also this kind of hard kernel which was obscured.”
Rather than conducting ESP experiments, Matmos could simply have created an album concept and never revealed it to anyone — but the route they took was much more exciting than a simply obscured one. Matmos aren’t insidiously leaving listeners in the dark with no way out, but have left behind plenty of bread crumbs which could help anyone who is curious and willing piece together bits of the puzzle. In the end, you probably still won’t know what exactly the cookie in their pocket tastes like, but you can become increasingly certain that what they have is a cookie and not a leg of lamb. Thanks to the slippery nature of the mind, one can hone in on the exact concept in only infinitely smaller degrees, never likely to reach its true nature.
“When I narrate it, I guess I would say that I always had one thought, and the thought was the concept of the new Matmos album. But concepts, as such, can have both sonic and visual and semantic content and formal content. And that’s kind of what’s beautiful about language, right?” explains Daniel. “The word ‘knife’ denotes a signifier but it also has all of this kind of funny, seemingly arbitrary stuff about k’s and n’s and soft f sounds and hard kuh sounds that any concept you try to hold and focus winds up leading to all of these associative tendrils that lead out from its singularity.”
MATMOS BAND INTERVIEW CONTINUES BELOW
Matmos – “Very Large Green Triangles” Music Video
This music video was initially constructed by l.inc design using only the original transcript from musician Ed Schrader’s psychic session; they did not hear the track itself until the final cut.
Drew Daniel: What’s fun about playing [“Very Large Green Triangles”] live or the existence of that video is — here’s this moment that Ed Schrader had, lying on a mattress, that was just a transient thought — and now all these people are kind of taking it very seriously and really trying to dwell upon it.
M.C. Schmidt: And now thousands of people have watched that video and gone, “Hmm!”
Drew Daniel: Out of some moment that we all have, all day long – that sort of ticker-tape of tumbling thoughts and feelings that we don’t really treat as worth all that much; they’re just here and then they’re gone. I like that sort of memorial aspect of it — of, let’s return to this fleeting thing, and keep dwelling on it.
Love in darkness. Machine noise. Some speaking. Smoke. Whispering. A derive around the city. Fresh fruit in your hand. A city that works, functions. Sort of skipping in the pavement. Find the metros. Adverts made up. Fresh sky. Turn into a bakery. Buy a baguette. Fresh bread. Walk out again. Keep on walking until you reach … reach the end of the road. Suddenly see a storm. At the center of it there’s a black polygon. It’s kind of … what shape is it? Slowly moving. Out towards the boundaries of the space.
“I see the infinity symbol morphing into a Gordian knot. Scribbles on a piece of paper or an electron cloud. Jesus Christ on the cross. An hourglass. Some sort of insect that’s bifurcated with many legs and small black eyes. Flaming scythe sort of moving in circles, creating the effect of a tornado viewed from above. Some sort of cube with a star of David jutting out from its sides. A galaxy viewed from far away slowly whirling around its center.”
“The noise is undulating. It’s like a wavering maybe. It’s hard to speak because the sound of my voice is interrupting. There’s like a white triangle. Waves. There are waves. They kind of pulse. One, two, three, four, five. Waves of darkness that pulse in and out. They’re really regular. They move into the circle, there’s like a circle at the center. A circle of white and the blackness consumes it. It disappears and it disappears and it disappears, disappears. A bit slower. Disappears. Speeds up. It’s like these luminous rings and they move away. Everything is slower. They dissolve. Now there’s just a stillness.”
Trilling flutes. Clashing. Birds. Traffic. Expressway bridge. Distant trumpet. More flutes. Steps down a hallway. Doors. Kind of a grunting, an UGH. More trumpets, like an alarum. Woman whispering. Quiet. Birds, birds again. A fountain. Quiet. Distant conversation, not really audible. I know it’s conversation, at the fringe of your hearing. More flutes. High strings, and a siren. Whispering, a sigh. Someone saying “I don’t know.” A woman’s voice. “I don’t know.” Three notes struck hard, like on a piano. Someone jokes. Conveyor belt. Boxes dropping. Red.
“What we end up giving to the world is really meager compared to the incredible amount of stuff that we’ve seen and heard as a result of it.” — M.C. Schmidt of Matmos
The Beauty of Interpretation
Even if Daniel wanted to — which he doesn’t — it seems likely that even he couldn’t even relay with exact precision what he was transmitting, for even in concentrated and intentional states of thought, the mind wanders and associates however it feels compelled to. What is more important, then, is that their clever idea has the potential to be recycled henceforth into infinity, by them or by others.
“We really could keep going. There are so many transcripts that are so awesome. One of them… should so clearly be a thirty-minute film on its own,” says Schmidt.
“The results of the experiment — when we did the first one — were so poetic and beautiful and just weird that I felt like, ‘Oh, this could really be a record, and not just a gag,'” adds Daniel.
Matmos collected so much material from their sessions — which were pulled from experiments at their home with friends and acquaintances, as well as at a residency at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford — that they created a Tumblr blog to “slowly… cough out all of the transcripts and photos”. The Tumblr is a multimedia gold mine of documentation, containing text transcripts, bizarre book excerpts, and images of sonic patterns from the sessions, all designed to encourage philosophical questioning of whether the images, the words, or the thoughts were the “real” original source, or some combination of all those things. The level to which Matmos have likely thought about all aspects of this project seems fairly preposterous, but also makes sense when one strains to understand the mode under which they operate.
While all albums are crafted through extensive decision-making processes, The Marriage of True Minds required Matmos to facilitate and then wade through mountains of source material, while attempting not to be bogged down by the weight of infinite possibility. Such decisions are not always easy, which might be part of the reason the record took five years to create.
“On our end, it was kind of a free association of — ‘How do we want to work with this transcript?’ We would be very loyal to the details in the cases of some songs, and with other songs, we would be really loose, and say, ‘Well, I want to use this, and I want to use this, and I want to use this'”, Daniel recalls. “There were all sorts of choices that we got to make — and that’s the fun start with working in this sort of conceptual restraint manner. It doesn’t mean that you have no freedom; you actually have tremendous freedom. I think it almost foregrounds the freedom because of how you interpret.”
The source materials Matmos had to work with were often extremely abstract. Perhaps they’d choose to incorporate a pentatonic melody someone heard, or Chinese checkers someone saw, or the sound of metal brackets. But what does any of that mean, and how can it all be translated into a cohesive sonic product? The methods of construction were as variable as the sources themselves. During the beginning of the process, Matmos would project ideas to participants on a track-by-track basis. Later on, the format became much looser.
With the album’s first single, “Very Green Triangles”, a transcript from musician Ed Shrader was used almost in its entirety. In the similarly-themed “In Search of a Lost Faculty”, varied triangular visions were turned into a sonic collage.
“It was late in the game when we decided, ‘Let’s make a song that’s all the triangle images from every session and kind of pull across things from lots of sessions,'” says Daniel.
The mystery of the triangles is one that stands strong on its own and by default, brings up one question that begs to be answered: were triangles a part of Matmos’ original album concept? It seems that either Matmos are clever tricksters who have considered this question inside and out — including how they might talk about it in interviews — or the phenomenon was completely unrelated to their original transmissions.
“We didn’t know that the triangles were going to be there until we listened to them all, and we were like, ‘Oh, boy, people sure are talking about triangles a lot,'” says Schmidt.
“We even speculated that maybe the kids at Oxford had a joke between them of, ‘Let’s all talk about triangles,’ because it was eerie,” Daniel adds. He later expands on the band’s other theory that prior to each session, the last thing participants saw before lying down was the camera hanging in the air above them, the legs of a tripod forming a triangle.
Another unknown of the whole project is how much psychic potential the band members or their participants had by default. Nobody was screened, and everyone was allowed to participate. The large sample size truly allowed Matmos the ability to see the studies not just in terms of the response, but in terms of how the responses varied when external factors — including themselves — were taken into consideration. They learned early on, for example, that intoxicated individuals would give amusing responses, but not of the caliber that they were looking for. They also learned that people who were not familiar with them were preferable in a lot of ways.
“We noticed that people who were too familiar with our work would sometimes produce kind of parodic versions of perhaps what they thought we wanted — and that concerned me,” says Daniel. “I’m glad we had a chance through the residencies to deal with people who –”
“Had no idea who we were,” finishes Schmidt.
“Yeah, had no agenda,” Daniel continues. “Or, you know, just older academics at Oxford, professors –”
“Who really had no interest in who we were,” Schmidt finishes again, this time with more oomph.
“[They] just didn’t care, and could approach the experiment as just an experiment… and it was really helpful — the more we did it, to start to think about the patterns that emerged, and to sort of watch the album happen. I mean, it’s a little like looking at faces in the fire; if you think that you’re going to see them, you start to see noses and eyes, so out of this morass something starts to emerge — and you think that it’s there, but maybe it’s you,” hypothesizes Daniel.
Through the years and all of the possibilities that have come and gone with The Marriage of True Minds and its related projects, it’s exciting to know that Matmos are still in love with their original meta-concept and still find humor in the fine push-pull of sharing and not sharing its details. Schmidt’s closing thought on this topic is a humble representation of their love for this.
“What we end up giving to the world,” he says, “is really meager compared to the incredible amount of stuff that we’ve seen and heard as a result of it.” say
Organized Chaos That Can Crumble At Any Second:
Matmos’ Live Performances
Matmos were recently invited by Antony — yes, the Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons — to participate in a sure-to-be unbelievable play called The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, starring Antony, the mind-bending performance artist Marina Abramovic, and the formidable William Dafoe. As members of the play’s orchestra ensemble, Matmos have become cogs in an entertainment piece that unfolds nightly with the same calculated precision. They describe their inclusion in the project as “healthy” for their growth as musicians, but when left to their own devices, are far removed from this world. In the face of such professional excellence, Matmos are hesitant to call themselves “musicians”.
When they say “musicians”, they say it in the classical sense of the word, referring to those who can understand notations on an advanced level and those who speak in an extremely specific language understood only by select trained individuals. Matmos undoubtedly have their own technical jargons and abilities, but their methods of creation are not at all precise. Witness any of Matmos’ live shows, and the overwhelming feeling is of organized chaos, even when they are playing well-structured songs. Such a feel comes through in many ways, visually and aurally, through the use of abstract film footage created by Schmidt as well as in-place processes for spontaneous creation and potential combustion.
In an electronic music climate where mega-DJs around the world are openly lamenting the rigidity of music software and necessity of pre-programming sets to avoid catastrophe, Matmos stand firm as electronic music purveyors who thread their life philosophies and aesthetic approaches into all aspects of their artistic creations, even if they’re risky.
“Maybe this is pompous, but we live at a time where the whole domain of music is sort of receding relative to the emergence of social media, other tools, other ways of organizing your identity. And so, I have put a lot of emphasis on believing in performance as the only way that music will continue to assert its autonomy or its dignity or what it has that other things don’t have,” explains Daniel. “I think that feeling of exposure or risk of, ‘What if the voice cracks?’ or, ‘What if the band plays a clam?’ or, ‘What if the drum solo sucks?’ That risk is actually the thing that is why people perceive live performance — not just the perfection of the gymnast that lands on her feet, but that whole question of, ‘Will she stumble?’ That’s the appeal. It’s very, very different from a lot of other kinds of culture, and I want our form of electronic music to have that risk in it. It’s just hard because the tools and software itself is designed to kind of keep that at a minimum.”
To sidestep this issue, Matmos’ general formula enables Schmidt to roam free on keyboards and conduct experiments with random “instruments”, including balloons which he strokes in provocative fashions or kazoos that he blows in and out of a bowl of water. Meanwhile, the band’s hired touring musicians manically try to keep up with the duo’s off-the-cuff approach, and Daniel matches and manages beats in a way that he describes as “equivalent to a hobo who’s going to jump on a train.” With two unsynced computers running Ableton at varying tempos, Daniel confounds Ableton’s creators as he taps in tempos on the fly to try and stay in sync, rather than allowing the rhythms to be synced mechanically.
“Will I land, or will I just face-plant?” Daniel asks, questioning his methodology. “Musically, it’s a drag if I [face-plant], but I like that choice so far.”
On any given night, Matmos are more likely to look and sound amazing than not, but it is the underlying imperfection of their sets, the unspoken possibility of things falling apart at any second, which makes Matmos’ live shows so compelling.
Vivian Hua 華婷婷 is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer. As the Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and Editor-in-Chief of the interdisciplinary arts publication, REDEFINE, much of her work unifies her metaphysical interests with her belief that art can positively transform the self and society. She regularly shares human-centered stories through her storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE! In 2020, she will [hopefully] begin production on a comedic Asian-American series entitled Reckless Spirits.
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