Published Mar 08, 2013Matmos duo Drew Daniel and MC (Martin) Schmidt recently released The Marriage of True Minds, a telepathy-themed concept album that's also accessible and even catchy. Part of the album was constructed during sessions when Daniel would telepathically project the album's (yet unnamed) concept to various participants. Did it work? We let them explain.
I feel like this is your most accessible record to date.
Drew Daniel: Yeah, I think so; it's weird. You wouldn't think so, because the sort of conceptual heavy weather that gave us the germs of a lot of the songs wouldn't necessarily suggest pop music. But people kept hearing voices and singing and people kept mentioning things like melody so it wasn't that we wanted it to turn out that way, but it sort of did. We take turns being in charge of records and Martin has been in charge of the records that I think musically are catchier and more compelling, like The Civil War or Supreme Balloon. Whereas I'm generally in charge of the smarty pants conceptual records that are a little bit cumbersome. This one I think turned out to be at once conceptual and yet it seemed like the songs just tightened up nicely. It's odd to play them as a suite because there are so many riffs and when we play live we're sort of morphing into a rock band, which I never saw coming, but it's happening. We have a live drummer and a guitarist and to play something like "ESP" live you've got to bring it.
That's another thing — there's a great deal more instrumentation on the album than you might expect.
Drew: Yeah, there are songs where we're really pushing the edge of what we can do, as far as mixing in our own house, so Martin took the record to the studio in Montana called Snow Ghost and mixed it there because we needed a bigger board. We've made all of our records pretty much at home, but this is the time when perhaps our arrangements are getting so baroque that we got to step up our game slightly. I don't know if that's pomposity or ambition or maybe a little of both, but it feels weird to make music that isn't necessarily committed to electronic music. I mean, there are bass guitar, drums and voice at the beginning of our version of "ESP" and that's in part because we have people like Gerry Mak, Sam Haberman, Owen [Gardner] and Jay Lesser all playing. It's kind of like Tom Sawyer convincing his friends to paint the fence for him. We kind of do the same with people coming in and, like, "Okay, do this" and "Do this" and somehow a Matmos song emerges, even if we don't actually play on it.
You also have two covers on this album, including "You" by Holger Hiller.
Drew: The lyrics are written by the poet Leslie Winer and because the opening phrase is "Telepathy, we want to know" it seemed to me like it would be an interesting, didactic way to welcome people into the record. The album is at once very clearly thematically driven by telepathy and yet also extremely open to interpretation about what that would mean and what that would produce. The song is the way into the record just as the Buzzcocks' cover, "ESP," is a way out. It's another very didactic and literal expression of the emotional appeal behind the idea of telepathy. The romantic idea of being able to finally align your mind with another person, to be truly understood, to be able to communicate without any loss or confusion. We all want that and it's so rare to get it. Telepathy can seem like occult, esoteric quackery but it's rooted in something quite emotionally real.
There's definitely something that happens when you know someone very well, whether it's a musical or romantic partner, where you can sometimes predict their reaction.
Drew: Yeah, I think that sense of intuitive, finishing of each other's sentences, being the remote hard drive of each other's minds is something that I enjoy about how well Martin and I know each other. It also means that you are very vulnerable and very exposed and it makes music making tricky, as if I make something and it's kind of crap, I can just tell within seconds if he's not into it. He can't go, "Oh, yeah, that's pretty good." I can hear through that immediately. It makes our working process fraught with a lot of emotional intensity, but the payoff is that we know each other really well after 20 years of working together in this way. I wanted to set up a situation where a concept is triggering sonic outcomes, but it's purely a concept, like what happens if I never spoke it out loud?
How well did the sessions work, in terms of the participants picking up on Drew's telepathic messages?
Martin (MC) Schmidt: I will testify that people did lay in a darkened room with ping pong balls over their eyes listening to white noise on headphones and they did say things out loud. We did record the things they said. Whether what they said was influenced in any way by anybody's psychic projection or not I'm not saying!
Drew: Or it could be that I haven't told him the true thing that I was thinking. I was thinking something in particular over and over and I will say that there were moments in the sessions when there was a really clear and strong connection to someone else and also moments where it was clear to me that nothing was really getting through and that the person was either resisting me or just not picking up on it or was letting their nervousness lead them to produce a lot of stuff that wasn't really about being telepathic and receptive. It was about free-associating and just sort of spilling their guts about what was on their mind. There's a funny sort of therapeutic aspect to this experimental setup.
It also seems like as a participant the experience could be a bit unnerving.
Drew: Yeah, I think people were being vulnerable with us and we had to reassure them they were not going to suddenly douse them in ice cold water or try to kiss them or whatever.
Martin: It's funny, in England, we specifically thought that, "We need to tell them that we're not going to fuck with them." I don't know why specifically there. I don't know, people are so much meaner there that I felt like people were going to just assume we were going make fools of them somehow [laughs]. So we had to clarify that our intentions were peaceful.
Like they might find themselves on one of those Japanese prank TV shows careening down a ski ramp on their mattress or something?
Martin: Or trapped in a room with eight baby pandas!
You guys did 50 of these sessions, right? That's kind of crazy.
Drew: It was and it gave us a nice database to draw from so that we could just work with the ones that seemed the most musically generative and also we could observe patterns emerging over and over and draw connections. "In Search of a Lost Faculty" kind of condenses every time that anyone saw a triangle from any psychic session into the ultimate psychic session triangle song. That was our goal: to pull together this archive of men and women and older and younger people all experiencing the same thing. The song is like this little collection; it has the family resemblance across all these different psychic sessions that we're exploring.
How did you collate all the material from the sessions?
Martin: It's just all material pulled from the idea of putting people into this sensory-deprived state and Drew basically sending them the concept of the new Matmos record. The way we dealt with the stuff that they received or generated or came out with is very different in every case. "Very Large Green Triangles" was the result of what we did with the material that Ed Schrader came up with, whereas the choir piece on the EP ["Just Waves"] is made out of lots of different people's transcripts of different physic sessions that I then used as a libretto for a sort of chorus. That one has no direct relationship between what the "music" is and what they said. We just used this material as a jumping off point for many different destinations. The album really tells the story of our original idea more literally.
Drew: We shot video of it and transcribed whatever they said during the session, you know, if they said, "I feel lemon being sliced," "I'm in a warehouse" or "I'm by the sea" or "I see a luminous thing of darkness" — whatever they saw we would try to adapt the most compelling moments from the transcript into song. The album is a kind of musical translation of experiments into telepathy that is always rooted in me trying to send one simple, singular concept over and over again. We didn't reward or punish people for being, so to speak, right or wrong, we just worked with what we thought would make the most interesting record. I will say that I haven't revealed to Martin or to anyone what I was actually thinking, but one of the songs on the record really does express the concept. One of the album's songs is a case of accuracy in receiving what I was sending. Or you could call it a coincidence, depending on whether you're a sceptic or a believer, but I won't identify which one!
You have a number of guests on the album, including Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) and Angel Deradoorian. How did you guys meet?
Drew: We knew Angel because she was living with Dave [aka Avey Tare] from Animal Collective in Baltimore and we just knew her socially. We were hanging out a lot watching movies and stuff. I got to know her from DJing at a party in Brooklyn and Martin had made this choral that involved these singing parts that were extremely high; he'd looked up on the internet what the range of the human voice is and they'd kind of given this very misleading picture of these mini-mouse, super-high pitches. But Angel, because of being in Dirty Projectors and singing in a very precise way, has a really great range obviously, so she seemed perfect for it. It was sort of a surprise having Jenn Wasner on the record too. We got to know her through mutual friends in Baltimore. The song "Aetheric Vehicle" involved mass singing and we asked Jenn if she'd do a vocal for it. She was on tour but she just recorded it while in her van. Voices from a context of music that maybe Matmos don't overlap with all that much — bands like Dirty Projectors or Wye Oak don't really sound like Matmos. The beauty of Baltimore is that everyone is pretty friendly. People are just willing to experiment and try stuff out here.
It seems like there's quite a good scene there musically, one building quite quickly.
Martin: It's super-fun. Well, we think so!
Drew: It's awesome. People's emphasis is on participation and collaboration. There isn't as much standing with your arms folded at the back of the room going, "Is this cool or not? I'm not sure." People are just down. I think, in a way, it's a reaction to there not being a lot of media and not a lot at stake. You just do it because you do it.
Martin: People do stuff to — what do you know! — to illuminate and entertain each other, rather than looking over their shoulder like ,"Well, what I'm really going to do it get famous and move to NYC."
Drew: And it just so happens that a lot of really strong work has been coming out of this city. Most people know about Beach House, Dan Deacon and Lower Dens and maybe don't know about Nautical Almanac or Leprechaun Catering. But in the context of our scene there's something levelled-down about it. Nobody has an entourage.
That folded arms thing is a problem cited in many big cities.
Drew: San Francisco was our home for a long time, we really loved it and I love the whole countercultural, weird, queer, magical hippy eras. There's a lot of amazing history in San Francisco, but I think that the triumph of the Internet and social media meant that people's coolness was about being the first to denounce something as corny or not as good as the press release implied it was. A sort of triumph of a culture of snark went hand-in-hand with an ironic detachment and what I like about Baltimore is there isn't an emphasis on irony; it's just a different focus. It's a tough city because of poverty and real life. You don't need to put up a tough front. The real world is plenty fucking tough; it's just a unique place.
Do you think that culture of not really engaging with what's in front of you, because we're often more conscious of how we look than how we feel, is a symptom of a city in a late stage of development?
Martin: It's just a symptom of youth; it's fear. In Baltimore, it hasn't advanced to that level yet.
Drew: What makes a city a city is population density and with the sheer numbers comes the stratification of who's in and who's out, who's a sucker and a mark and who's one of the cognoscenti, who's in-the-know and who's one of the drones, one of the punters, one of the sheep. There's social capital to be earned through exclusion and discrimination. Exclusion and the creating of cliques can be good if it creates intensity and focus. I love people who are super-passionate about what they love — that's fine. And I love fanaticism — that's fine too. But I think that the sense of wanting to earn social capital by denouncing other people's beliefs and enthusiasm on behalf of a cosmopolitan, silly sangfroid, well, it works all too well. Then instead of going out, getting sweaty and getting in a mosh-pit you stand on the sidelines and kind of laugh and smirk into your sleeve. I'm a literary critic — I earn my living through interpretation — and. to me, there's a value in denunciation of work that is shitty, but there's more value in advocacy for something that you think is passionately working and trying to figure out why it's working and how does it work. You can't do that from a distance; you have to get close. I don't want to act like, "Oh, criticism is bad, participation is good"; I think imaginatively inhabiting how art works is a form of interpretation that's also a form of participation. So it's a false choice. I like cities with smart people in them. I come from a town that was really inspiring and it wasn't a major media centre, but it had a lot of strong work: Louisville, KY in the mid-'80s. I played my high school battle of the bands. I had a very first-hand experience of people making culture on their terms outside of media outlets that was completely compelling and it didn't really owe a lot to the normal delivery system of what's valuable, what's been vetted by the smartest people or whatever. You don't have to go that way.
Martin: I've sort of discovered about Baltimore that different forms of art respond better to different environments, in that I think visual art actually does well in a climate of super-harsh criticism. And I think music is actually better in a environment of nurturing and what I would describe as over-approval. I mean, there's a lot of crappy music, but I think it's better to encourage all kinds of music and then the cream rises to the top.
Visual art is very self-referential in many cases, whereas although music can be like that too, there's also often some emotional reference or idea outside of music itself to focus upon.
Drew: Yeah, there's such a thing as "record collector rock," where it's about references to the preceding gestures and the same is true in production in electronic music, like electronic music that's nothing but a bunch of citations of a previous set of records. Then there's work that is actually referential of something outside of that domain and we want to make music that's engaged with "the world." That's why there's the sound of Chinese Checkers and hand-cuffs and tap-dancing, you know? There's an extra musical frame of reference around much of what we do and that's in part because we aren't just citing a response to the last ten records that got "best new music" on Pitchfork or whatever. You have to open up the window and let the air in. I think there's a place for work that is art about art, that is say, institutional critique, where it's artwork that exposes, like, "What is a museum?'" and "Who's it for?" and "How does that work?" There are valuable things you can do by thinking that way and I think there's music about the delivery system of music that's very smart, I mean, that Terre Thaemlitz record that's a 29-hour-long MP3 of a piano solo called Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album — that's a really cool statement! I think there's good work that's like that, it's just we don't happen to make work that's like that.
Martin: I think people like our music because there's a story to tell about weird stuff. It's not political or [puts on California accent], "You guys are the coolest, dark motherfuckers!" You can hear what this is — this is the sound of cosmetic surgery or someone jizzing on a piece of paper and looped, or whatever it is. In a weird way, we're just trying to deliver the message of musique concrète.
Drew: Anything around you can be turned into music and everyday stuff like blowing up a balloon or jerking off could also be part of a musical practice; it's the opposite of mystique. That's what's weird about the new record: it's bound up in esoteric mystery, whereas most of our work is really opposed to that and is about deliberately everyday things, which if you set them up in the right situation suddenly can be a resource for music. I mean, snails are just around on a rainy day but not everybody puts a snail in the path of a laser that's also a light-sensitive Theremin to make a synthesizer solo like we did on The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast.
That's a lot to the concept, as well as whatever real-world sounds you might sample. The fact that there even is a concept is refreshing in many ways.
Drew: There are times, let's say when you're writing, where you don't want music that places demands upon you. You want a very, very minimal thing and there's a lot of music that provides that "perfume the room" function and I'm grateful to have stuff like that, but I find when we start to work we like to make these dense pieces where there's a lot of detail, a lot of layers and a lot of baggage. For me, that's important. I might think that there's all this stuff going on in my music, but somebody can always take it and listen to it with a workflow going on. You can't really control that about music and I like that.
Martin: Björk said to me once that she loves music so much more than film because you can't wash the dishes while watching a movie. Music is so multi-applicable; it can be as heavy as you want it to be. If you choose to engage with good music really seriously, it's rewarding and you can also use it as a background while you're dusting the cat.
Drew: There's probably something wrong with your cat if your cat needs dusting [laughs].
I can imagine Björk dusting her cat.
Martin: Björk doesn't have a cat; she's allergic. You can sell that to People magazine if you want.