The long-running electronic duo Matmos have just released a gorgeous new LP, Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer. Whereas their previous album, 2020’s The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form, saw the couple collaging contributions from 99 friends recorded at 99 bpm, their latest is dedicated to the work of just one person: Polish polymath Bogusław Schaeffer (1929-2019). In this episode, we discuss how their reputation for conceptualism has often served to obscure the formal characteristics of their work. Can an object be a concept? Is “washing machine” or “plastic” a concept? With their signature blend of serious humor, the pair reflect on touring with a washing machine, the practicalities of licensing music, and the complexities of working with Schaeffer’s archive.
Episode 25: IRREGARDS
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Interview recorded between Baltimore and Montreal, April 2022
Produced and mixed in New York, May 2022
SP* at Anchor
Matmos is M.C. (Martin) Schmidt and Drew Daniel. Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1993, the duo have earned a reputation for an almost fanatical commitment to their conceptual approach to music. While the group have continued to evolve and push their music in new directions, there is nonetheless a Matmos sound recognizable across their lengthy discography: tight editing, glitchy rhythms, and a characteristic sense of humor so often missing in electronic music (and music in general, if we’re honest). They’re also a joy to interview, as evidenced by the sheer amount of laughter in this episode.
Like many others, I first heard Matmos through their work on Björk’s Vespertine (2001), though I didn’t know it at the time. Following a remix for the Icelandic popstar in 1998, the duo contributed production on that album and Medúlla (2004), joining her touring band. (They’re visible with their backs to the audience during this 2001 Tonight Show performance; note Martin caressing Drew with a contact microphone.) These collaborations with Björk are indicative of Matmos’ talent at fusing pop and avant-garde sensibilities, a mélange constantly renewed with each new project.
In a 2017 conversation between Matmos and Alvin Curran published by RBMA, the duo each share sonic memories from childhood that provide powerful encapsulations of their aesthetic. Martin recalls that “every Sunday morning I would wake up to the sound of jet planes landing, a circular saw, an opera turned up loud enough to hear over the circular saw.” Drew grew up next to a funeral home, and “on the other side of the funeral home were train tracks. I think I share that sense that hearing the musicality and movement through space of sound was just a given before I knew anything about the origin story of musique concrete itself.” While the history of avant-garde music would later provide some sort of authorization for their own activities, Matmos is driven more by practice than theory.
The band has been based in Baltimore, where Daniel is an English professor, since 2007. And while there is a certain intellectualism and conceptual rigor to their work, there’s nothing “academic” about their music. Like a gayer Nurse With Wound filtered through an eccentric dance floor sensibility, Matmos’ music is irregularly metered, clever, and often playfully morbid (see 2001’s A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, comprised of the sounds of various surgical procedures.) Subsequent albums have often pursued similar strategies of a restricted sound source grounded in a clear concept. For instance, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (2006) profiled the lives of various queer historical figures, while Supreme Balloon (2008) traded samples for vintage synthesizer explorations.
Both a band and a couple, Matmos is a uniquely collaborative project. (In a recent feature on Bandcamp, Daniel concedes that “Our relationship and the band are kind of the same thing.”) Still, throughout their career the band have often brought in additional collaborators. All the material on Work, Work, Work (2006) was culled from a 97-hour live performance at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center, for which they enlisted the help of friends including Wobbly, Sutekh (Rrose), Michael Brown, and Safety Scissors, many of whom have remained collaborators in the years since. Treasure State (2010) saw Matmos paired with Sō Percussion, everybody’s favorite new music percussion quartet. The Consuming Flame (2020) took their penchant for collaboration to a somewhat insane level (just look at this organization chart!), inviting 99 friends to send them short compositions, the only rule being a steady beat of 99 bpm.
2013’s The Marriage of True Minds (the title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116) was their first studio album following their cross country move, and took four years to complete. They enlisted many collaborators for this project as well, who were put into a state of sensory deprivation and asked to respond to various prompts based on the Ganzfeld experiment, used by parapsychologists to test for extrasensory perception (ESP). In our interview, Martin explains that such a lengthy production cycle began to seem overly self-indulgent, and the pace of their studio albums has picked up in the years since.
Ultimate Care II (2016) was recorded using nothing but the sound of their washing machine of the same name, which accompanied Matmos across their tour of Europe and North America. A more vegan friendly version of Matthew Herbert and his pig, each night the band would solicit an article of clothing from an audience member which they would wash during their set. (Michael Brown rigged up the water pump that made touring with a washing machine a possibility.) Made on the occasion of the couple’s 25th anniversary, Plastic Anniversary (2019) continued their exploration of a limited sound source, sampling only the sound of various plastic objects. (We loved the video explainers they made for that record!)
But are these fanatical sonic explorations of objects “concepts”? Perhaps they’re better understood simply as methods of framing each project, providing necessary constraints to rein in the otherwise limitless potential afforded by modern music making. Martin suggests the latter, admitting that there’s something “stupid” about making a washing machine album, and expressing hope that such a silly concept would inspire listeners to instead listen more carefully to the music. Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that the most success they’ve had at distancing themselves from their conceptual reputation is when their music is taken entirely out of context; licensed for NASCAR commercials or episodes of Top Gear.
After the laborious process of composing the three hour-long suites of Consuming Flame, for their next album the duo paired down to just one collaborator: Bogusław Schaeffer. Born in the city of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine), like many artists and musicians who worked behind the so-called Iron Curtain, Schaeffer’s music is little known outside his native country. Michal Mendyk of the Instytutu Adama Mickiewicza in Warsaw (an organization dedicated to the promotion of Polish culture, roughly equivalent to Germany’s Goethe Institute or Spain’s Cervantes Institute) approached the group, suspecting they would be a good fit for a project giving them open access to the archive of the late Polish composer. But unlike The Rose Has Teeth, with Regards / Ukłony Matmos don’t try to represent the life of the composer, instead mining his rich and complex music for moments that would make evocative samples.
The process began with the assembly of a sample kit of Schaeffer’s sounds for Ableton Live. I had some fun playing around with the kit myself, and included some of my noodling loops in this episode. I found the choral samples particularly beautiful. I also enjoyed the window into Daniel’s mind, seeing how the kit was laid out, and the categories he devised for grouping them, such as Noise, Bonk, Texture, Events, etc.
Schaeffer was a member of the avant-garde “Cracow Group,” but unlike his fellow Krzysztof Penderecki, his work remains largely unknown outside of Poland. As Martin explains in this episode, when Schaeffer is known it is often for his utilization of beautifully designed graphic scores. The pair decided against working with Schaeffer’s graphic scores early on in the production of Regards / Ukłony, instead generating surprising new forms from the material. (Those scores are referenced in Robert Beatty’s evocative cover art, and can be explored via the Non-Stop app.) Matmos then proceeded to compose an entire album drawing on sampled material, and the result is perhaps the strangest installment in their decades long career.
Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer is neither ‘Matmos plays Boguslaw Schaeffer,’ nor a collection of remixes, but takes the group further afield still. A suite of eight new songs bridging the utopian 1960s Polish avant-garde with our contemporary dystopia, and many styles in between. The album is not so much timeless as untimely. It doesn’t sound like a lost work from the 1960s, but it resists easy categorization. The first four tracks manifest the rhythmic sensibilities we associate with Matmos, while the second half takes an unexpected turn, more rooted in textural nuance.
Many of the song titles are anagrams of Schaeffer’s name, paralleling Matmos’ formal approach to the music. They also enlisted additional help from a few friends, including Irish harpist Úna Monaghan, Turkish multi-instrumentalist Ulas Kurugullu, and electronic processes from Baltimore instrument builder Will Schorre and Horse Lord’s Max Eilbacher. That said, it’s not obvious where the samples of Schaeffer’s music end and their contributions begin. Despite their penchant for transparency, Matmos continue to keep us guessing.
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Matmos – “Anti-Antiphon(Absolute Decomposition) / Anty-Antyfona (Dekonstrukcja_na_całego)” [excerpt] (Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer, Thrill Jockey, 2022)
Matmos intro collage + Barbarella Matmos clip (1968)
Matmos – “Anti-Antiphon (Absolute Decomposition) / Anty-Antyfona (Dekonstrukcja na całego)” [excerpt] (Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer, Thrill Jockey, 2022)
Matmos – “A DOUGHNUT IN THE SKY” (The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form, Thrill Jockey, 2020)
Matmos – “Flight to Sodom / Lot do Salo” (Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer, Thrill Jockey, 2022)
Song that my Whirlpool stackable washing machine plays (2022)
Matmos – [opening excerpt] (Ultimate Care II, Thrill Jockey, 2016)
Matmos – “Always Three Words” (quasi-objects, vague terrain, 1998)
Matmos – “Memento Mori” (A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, Matador, 2001)
Matmos clip from Top Gear: Series 5, Episode 9, Ariel Atom 46:09 – 46:40 (2004)
Matmos – “Plastic Minor” (Matmos, Vague Terrain, 1997)
Matmos – “You (Rrose Mix)” (The Ganzfeld EP, Thrill Jockey, 2012)
Matmos – “Cobra Wages Shuffle / Off! Schable w gurę!” (Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer, Thrill Jockey, 2022)
Matmos – “In Search Of A Lost Faculty” (The Marriage Of True Minds, Thrill Jockey, 2013)
Joseph Sannicandro – Improv with Matmos’ Bogusław Schaeffer Ableton sample kit (2022)
Bogusław Schaeffer – “Berlin 80 II” (Inventionen: Berlin 80 II / Fabulas II / Inventio, Edition RZ, 1985)
Matmos – [late excerpt] (Ultimate Care II, Thrill Jockey, 2016)
Matthew Herbert – “August 2010” (ONE PIG, Accidental, 2011)
Matmos – “Extending The Plastisphere To GJ237b (Plastic Anniversary, Thrill Jockey, 2019)
Jennifer Veillerobe – “B3” (Luftlöcher, Senufo, 2013)
Run The Jewels – “Creown (Alchemist Remix)” (Meow The Jewels, Mass Appeal, 2015)
Terry Fox – “The Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Different Cats” [excerpt] (Tellus #21 – Anthology Of Audio By Visual Artists, Tellus, 1988)
Alvin Curran – [Side A, opening excerpt] (Fiori Chiari, Fiori Oscuri, Ananda, 1978)
Count Dooku clips from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Matmos – “Part VII. The Backyard” (ROBERT ASHLEY’s Perfect Lives: Baltimore, 3/28/17)
Pierluigi Billone – “excerpt” (1 + 1 = 1, Kairos, 2006)
Ivan Catteneo – “Kiss me I’m italian” (Urlo, CGD, 1980)
Matmos – “The Little People have been there and done your work fingers light and cold as spring wind through the rooms (Matmos and Michael Brown)” (Work Work Work, Vague Terrain, 2006)
M.C. Schmidt – “Lowland Side” (Batu Malablab, Megaphone / Knock’em Dead, 2015)
The Soft Pink Truth – “Space Formerly Occupied by An Amebix Cover But Fuck That Guy for Being a Holocaust Denier” (Am I Free To Go?, self-released, 2020)
Joseph Sannicandro – Improv with Matmos’ Bogusław Schaeffer Ableton sample kit (2022)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.