Published Oct 26, 2008It could be argued that over the span of a vitally relevant 13-year run, British electronic artist Matthew Herbert has done more for the possibilities of sampling culture than any other artist currently at work. Whether hes chopping up food for sound, leading big bands, writing manifestos, railing against globalization, or simply making dance music out of bodily functions, Matthew Herbert has consistently taken his music into corners other people couldnt even imagine. Like Brian Eno, hes eclectic, wildly creative, and eager to collaborate with a wide range of musicians and musical styles. Much of that willingness has to do with the fact that Herbert is a prodigious, classically trained musician who can breezily put diverse skills from the exclusive worlds of electronic, jazz, avant-garde, and classical music to the test at any given moment. Musique concrète introduced the concept of using tape loops and recorded sound as instruments in their own right, disco may have set the standard for the use of loops and repetition as dance floor addictions, and hip-hop eventually pushed sampling into the mainstream, but in the last two decades few can claim to have pushed the boundaries of the sample further than Matthew Herbert.
1972 to 1993
Matthew Herbert is born in 1972 in the British countryside. From an early age he displays an interest in music, and by age four he is already taking violin and piano lessons. By age seven, he joins his first orchestra, a Glenn Miller-style big band, and is singing in the local choir. At age 13 he joins his first band as a keyboard player. A school music teacher named Pete Stollery, who moonlights as an electro-acoustic composer in his free time, provides guidance in the development of Herberts early musical identity. At age 14, Stollery introduces Herbert to Steve Reichs 1966 composition "Come Out to Show Them, an overtly political tape-manipulation piece about the 1964 Harlem riots that makes pioneering use of recorded voices, phase-shifting techniques, and loops.
"Thats when I realized that music wasnt just scales or something you did for an hour a week with a slightly scary violin teacher, Herbert says now. "It was political, it was electronic, futuristic somehow, if thats the appropriate word, its challenging, beautiful, airy, and its unique as well. It was something Id never heard before in that way. And for that to be considered music alongside the little Chopin sonatas we were playing. Herberts father, a sound engineer for the BBC, is also an influence for the young musician. "He would always be taking something apart, mostly because hed broken it ten minutes before. Seeing the insides of a radio was just as much of influence as what came out of it.
By age 16, Herbert has already begun exploring the potential relationships between classical compositions and electronic music. Meanwhile, he begins to tour Europe with several of the orchestra hes been involved with since childhood.
In the early 90s, he attends Exeter University to pursue a degree in drama. While studying theatre, he begins to work on his first field-recording experiments, using the sounds of bottles, jars, pots and eventually friends, people and places to create what are initially soundtracks to his drama projects. Around this time, he develops an interest in contemporary electronic dance music, especially the house music scene, and moves to the sampler as his chief musical instrument. His first live gigs as an electronic artist include supporting gigs for the Swindon-based industrial-electronic act Meat Beat Manifesto and an Exeter University pub band called Radiohead. "This was even before theyd had a record deal. I remember Thom Yorke used to DJ at the Lemon Grove, which was our university bar, and him telling me to fuck off for asking him to play some dance music.
1994 to 1995
In 1994, Herbert has graduated from Exeter University and has moved to London, where he begins to pursue a solo career as an electronic artist, performing under the name Wishmountain. His early productions as Wishmountain are based on the growing audio diary of samples he has collected from his university days, and he gains early notice for his ability to make dance music out of the crumpling sounds of a bag of chips, a move that is designated by his first critics to be an integral development of the increasingly intellectualized, post-rave movement in dance music. Herberts first single appears this year, a three-track single called "The Beach under the moniker Mumblin Jim, the only time Hebert ever uses this alias. Although hes still performing mainly as Wishmountain during this time, those more experimental productions are not released. Instead, his early output favours the dance floor, and follow-up singles in 1995 appear under two other names that will figure prominently throughout the rest of his career, with more electro and IDM-influenced work appearing as Doctor Rockit and the sleeker house music appearing as Herbert.
1996 to 1997
With a few production credits finally under his belt and some favourable notice coming his way for his unorthodox style, 1996 proves to be a breakthrough year for Matthew Herbert on the club circuit. The string of five EPs known simply as Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five appear in quick succession on the Phono label, the first thee of which are quickly compiled into his first quasi-album, a three-LP set called Parts One, Two, and Three. Herbert also issues his proper debut album of house music, 100 lbs, under his own name, as well as a more downtempo full-length, The Music of Sound, as Doctor Rockit. A remix album called Parts Remixed also appears, featuring notable work by French filer-house duo Motorbass, who would go on to be catalysts of the French touch scene that spawned Daft Punk, Cassius and Air. Although these albums especially his dance music as Herbert herald the introduction of a sub-genre known as micro-house, which incorporates the avant-garde sampling techniques of influences like Steve Reich into the 4/4 mould of house music, 100 lbs and Parts One, Two, and Three figure as anomalies in Matthew Herberts overall catalogue for their apolitical nature and willingness to sample other peoples music. Pulled in by the attention of increasingly larger dance floors at his disposal, not to mention the jet-setting lifestyle hes afforded as an in-demand DJ and producer, this early period of Matthew Herberts career is one hell grow to disown down the line.
"It took me a few albums to realize that the political beliefs and the things that were important to me my whole life are largely absent from my earlier music, he says. "I feel in some ways Ive done myself a disservice because it seems to just be part of the illusion, that its music thats just happy to be played in lifestyle bars or hotel lobbies. And while I dont think thats the worst disaster in the world, I also dont think thats what music can be, and I feel I have a responsibility to push it out even further.
Of 100 lbs specifically, he now says, "From my perspective, the biggest disaster on there is the number of samples of other peoples work. These days, thats the thing Im embarrassed about. But thats also the reason why a few years later I would state how I prefer to work without samples.
Needing an outlet for his more overtly experimental work, in 1997 Herbert finally releases his first single as Wishmountain, a track called "Radio, and then promptly buries the moniker with the release of an album under the name Radio Boy called Wishmountain Is Dead, Long Live Radio Boy. The Radio Boy alias pursues the same experimental sampling ethos of Wishmountain, but with a more direct political stance in mind, reflecting the rising importance of politics in Herberts views and the continued influence of the early sampling politics embedded in Steve Reichs compositions. His underground success in this phase of Matthew Herberts life takes him around the globe for the first time. In San Francisco, he meets a female DJ by the name of Dani Siciliano. The pair fall in love and eventually get married, forming the foundations of a fruitful personal and artistic relationship that prefigures the collaborative work that soon takes Matthew Herberts career and musical ideas to the next level.
1998 to 2000
That collaboration comes in the form of an album called Around the House, which is at once Herberts most accessible and adventurous experiment to date. The album features house music that eschews samples of other peoples music for more conceptual micro-samples literally from around the house. The album constitutes the first time Herbert has fused the avant-garde sampling techniques of his Wishmountain and Radio Boy aliases with the fluid dance music he makes for the clubs. The conceptual experiment is made accessible by the soft, almost whispery vocals of Dani Siciliano, whose warm and evocative voice perfectly accompanies the silky glitches of Herberts mellowed production techniques. Apart from being the first self-reflexive house album to be assembled from household sounds, Around the House also serves as one of the first successful attempts to design a house music full-length that is primarily intended for home listening.
In an effort to more thoroughly reflect his field-recording techniques, that year Herbert also issues an anthology of all his previously unreleased Wishmountain compositions through a series of 12-inch singles that are then collected on the CD Wishmountainisdead. Herbert rounds out 1998 with the "60 cps single, his only release as Mr. Vertigo. The single is the first work to appear on his new imprint, Lowlife, which will go on to release music by acts such as electro-pop act Donna Regina, jazz musician Phil Parnell, and leftfield pop group Agent Blue. Over the course of its releases, Lowlife changes names twice, morphing into Life and eventually Lifelike by the time it issues its final album, Doctor Rockits 2000 recording Indoor Fireworks. Otherwise, this period in Matthew Herberts creative growth sees the appearance of another one-off alias, the Music Man single "Homemade, a subtle house production composed of sounds culled from six objects received anonymously in the mail between 1996 and 1998. The title track also features a sample of Indeeps disco classic "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, the last time Herbert will use another artists work in his own compositions.
He begins the new decade by formalizing his future recording techniques in a manifesto called "Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes), a list of self-guiding principles that he publishes on his website as part of the manifestos overall call for a more transparent work process. His early adoption of the internet is also part of that process. Similar in spirit to the self-limiting ethos of the Dogme 95 manifesto of Danish New Wave filmmakers, PCCOM outlines personal beliefs that have already found their way into his work, and bars the use of pre-recorded sounds that are not self-generated, drum machines, factory presents on synthesizers, and pre-programmed patches. Furthermore, he explicitly forbids the replication of traditional instruments through digital means wherever the instrument itself can be used. By years end, Herbert has formed another label, Accidental, which becomes the umbrella imprint for Lowlife/Life/Lifelike catalogue, his new Soundslike label, and all future Herbert-related projects.
2001 to 2002
With a formal working ethos and label structure in place, Matthew Herbert plunges into the nascent decade with his most political outings to date. His 2001 album as Radio Boy, The Mechanics of Destruction, constitutes most radically anti-corporate and experimental work of his career, both in content and distribution. The record is comprised entirely of samples taken from corporate packaging from McDonalds, the Gap, and others, and is intended as a statement against the wasteful nature of big-business promotion and the culture of globalism. In keeping with the albums message, the music is given away for free at concerts and through mail order from Accidental. Seeing the potential of the internet to circumvent the limited ownership of music distribution channels via conglomerates, The Mechanics of Destruction also becomes one of the early examples of artists giving away music for free via download, still a new and relatively untested practice at the time.
As his political ideology moves to the forefront of his persona, the anti-corporate and decidedly anarchist messages previously relegated to Radio Boy finally find their way into proper Herbert releases as well. The 2001 follow-up to Around the House is an utterly inventive antidote to a globalization called Bodily Functions, which literally turns inward for its source material, using only those sounds that the human body naturally makes. Like Around the House, its a house music masterpiece that is cool and jazzy and ultimately made more palatable by the vocals of Dani Siciliano. Only now, the lyrics she coos and whispers have political underpinnings as well. According to Herbert, Bodily Functions is "a political album about relationships and feeling alienated from the state, about the alienation that begins to crop up in personal lives once corporations begin popping up everywhere. But it didnt go far enough. "Its a political album, but nobody really realized. Theres no point in making a political record if no one realizes it. The following year sees the release of a collection of remixes by Herbert, Secondhand Sounds: Herbert Remixes, on which he dissects the likes of Motorbass, Moloko, Mono, and others.
2003 to 2004
Confounding the expectations of fans and critics alike, Matthew Herberts next move, Goodbye Swingtime, sees him fusing his increasingly outspoken politics with the big band orchestrations that provided a foundation for his love of music. Composed like Bodily Functions and The Mechanics of Destruction, according to the rules of PCCOM, Goodbye Swingtime features a 16-piece swing orchestra heavy on horns, with all arrangements written by Herbert, who then mixed in samples and Dani Sicilianos vocals. Its central theme: Britains complicity in the invasion of Iraq.
"Goodbye Swingtime was written about the time we were going to war, he says, "so it was all about the written word, written information. It was about the difference between the written word and all this information about the suspicious motivations of the governments actions. So I had people from all around the world send in newspaper clippings of articles about Saddam Hussein and then I made them into musical instruments and played them. And then we had the sound of people dropping telephone books from around the world. On a rough estimate, Id say there are about a million people in your average phone book. It was literally about trying to measure the weight of ten million people falling. The live touring band for Goodbye Swingtime is rounded out Siciliano, as well as jazz legend Arto Lindsay, futuristic-funk crooner Jamie Lidell, and contemporary jazz vocalist Mara Carlyle. The explicit jazz influence of Goodbye Swingtime seeps into Herberts other project for this period, the Doctor Rockit 2003 EP Veselkas Diner and 2004 collection The Unnecessary History of Doctor Rockit, though in both instances the use of jazz instrumentation here is taken in a more abstract and at times ambient direction.
After a decade of continuous activity, Matthew Herbert has laid down a broad and eclectic discography that has transformed the nature of sampling in music, and at the same time branched deeply into the worlds of jazz, dance, and avant-garde, without sacrificing his increasingly political views of the world. Its an uncompromising and ambitious mission hes pursued, and one that hes managed more successfully than any other electronic musician of his day. Though for all intrinsic melodicism of his catalogue, his constant shapeshifting and outspokenness has kept him from breaking through into the mainstream.
"I certainly make it hard for myself in that respect, just from the very fact that if you dont agree with my politics then its out, he confesses. "But I feel thats a price I just have to pay. I cant watch the injustices being perpetrated in my name around the world and not say anything. I feel like I have a responsibility to represent whats really going on. I dont wish to be part of the illusion. If you look at the music being made 50 years ago against the music being made now, youd have no sense that there was climate change, you dont hear any trace of the Iraq war in any pop music, you wouldnt find anything like suicide bombing mentioned, and yet thats a huge imaginative leap that are society has had to take in the last few years, to accept that such a thing exists in our society.
In 1995, he releases Plat du Jour, an experimental album made almost completely from the sounds of food preparation. Like his Radio Boy work, the album is seen as more of a forceful comment on our alienation in a globalized age, but one that ultimately doesnt succeed as powerfully as a musical statement. In touring the album, Herbert brings along a roving kitchen of chefs whom he samples live, as meals are prepared. But all is not well in his personal life, and as he returns to the studio to record a proper follow-up to Bodily Functions, his relationship with Dani Siciliano begins to sour, and by the end of the recording sessions, the pair has separated.
2006 to 2007
That follow-up is album called Scale, and it becomes Heberts biggest critical and commercial success of his career, reaching the Top 20 on Billboards electronic music album chart. Scale is the funkiest house album hes ever made, and also the last to feature Siciliano on vocals. In a 2006 interview with Exclaim, Herbert explains the albums upbeat glossiness by saying, "I wanted to create a mirror of how I see the world at the moment, as this glamorised, plasticized, glossy, secure, comforting utopia of possibilities. Thats part of what were told, and part of how it actually is. And yet, at the same time, its underpinned by this very dim violence and pollution. Our air is perfectly clean, but in China, where all our stuff is made, the airs polluted. We might go to our local bakers and see this amazing array of organic loaves, and yet almost all the flour in Britain comes from Canada. Its transported across oceans and we have no idea how the grain is raised. So, I wanted to show that privileged world that I inhabit. In an ambitious attempt to protest the political agendas of the British government, in 2006 Herbert also spearheads an initiative to start a new virtual country known as Country X, a utopia where citizens are free from the hierarchical structures of real countries. Matthew Herbert becomes the first official citizen of Country X, and a thousand or so fans soon take up citizenship as well.
Meanwhile, the success of Scale brings about the reissue of 100 Lbs in 2007 as a two-disc set featuring early, uncollected singles. Despite conceding that the album isnt work hes proud of anymore, he says, "I have a responsibility to stand by work, regardless of whether I still like it or not. If it was good enough to ask people to pay money for then, then its good enough to ask people to pay money for now. I made it with some kind of serious intent, and with a belief that music had a point and a purpose at the time. I dont wish to step away from that and disclaim it. That year, K7 also releases Score, a collection of various unreleased film scores that span Herberts career.
This year, Matthew Herbert returns with Theres Me and Theres You, the proper big-band follow-up to 2003s Goodbye Swingtime. Like its predecessor, its a wilfully bombastic orchestra album that fuses his passion for lush horns with jazzy vocals that speak to the politics issues of the day. Only this time, Eska replaces Dani Siciliano at the microphone. Eska is a London session singer who has previously worked with the likes of Cinematic Orchestra, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen and former Japan front-man David Sylvian.
"She is probably the best singer in Britain right now, Herbert enthuses. "Shes never sung with a big band before, so its a coming out for her. This is her step forward into the limelight, and were now gonna be working on her solo record together. Very slowly, she became a very integral part of it. Fans of Sicilianos voice will take some time warming up to the vocalist. Album aside, Matthew Herbert is a in a good place at the moment. Hes just remarried and has spent much of the past 18 months raising his new son. Currently, hes trying to find a way to minimize his carbon footprint while touring. One thing is for sure: as the world grows more mechanized or interconnected, Herbert will be there to remind us that weve got responsibilities as citizens beyond feeding the illusion of progress. And along the way hell give us a few more reasons to dance as well.