More than just a legendary name in house music, Matthew Herbert is one of the more original and authentic musical artists of our time.
Herbert’s new album The Shakes sees him returning to his house music roots after a 9 year hiatus from the Herbert moniker. That’s not to say the man hasn’t been busy, rather he’s been challenging himself as an artist more than ever. In the last decade Matthew Herbert has written and directed operas, plays and a television series, almost finished writing a novel as well as releasing a number of big-band albums and quite a few politically themed concept records – such as 2011’s release “One Pig”, which recorded the full life cycle of a farmed pig, from birth to the dinner plate.
Liveschool’s Yama Indra got on the phone with Matthew Herbert last week ahead of his upcoming shows in Sydney and Melbourne to discuss the themes beyond his new album, his philosophical approach to music, and why there’s really no point in manipulating a chicken sample to sound like a Roland TB-303.
Take a listen to some tracks from Herbert’s new album The Shakes in the playlist below, it’ll be out on Friday 29 May via Caroline Australia. You can also catch Herbert on tour at the dates below:
Friday 22nd May // Prince Bandroom, Melbourne // Tickets here
Saturday 23rd May // The Studio, Sydney Opera House (VIVID) // SOLD OUT
What’s currently on your plate – what’s been keeping you busy?
I’m pretty lucky I get to do all sorts of things; I’m writing a book at the moment, I’ve written a TV drama that I’m also directing, so we are looking to cast that at the moment – we’re trying to find the lead and the TV company really likes it so they want someone quite famous, but getting famous people to commit 6 months ahead has been pretty hard. So doing that, still DJing…what else am I doing?
Well you’ve got an album that’s about to come out..
Yes exactly! I’ve got an album that’s about to come out, so doing press for that and I’m coming to Australia next week.
Can you tell us anything about the book you’re writing, or is that under wraps?
Yes it’s going to be called “The Music” and it’s basically a description of an album that I will never make. So it’s full of things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but just I wont have the time or money or the access to be able to do it – it’s all about sound and how I’d like to use sound if I had unlimited budget and unlimited time.
So it’s a full length book and each chapter is to be the equivalent of the track, so it’s kind of my next album really.
The book sounds fantastic, how far through it are you – when do think it’ll come out?
Thanks – it’s nice to be able to work in different mediums, you know.
It should be done this year so it probably be out towards the end of the year.
The publishing agency is called Unbound and they do things very differently. It’s a little bit like Kickstarter, except that it’s editorially chosen – not everybody can put their book up. So it’ll be crowd funded and they’ll offer different things in return for funding, for example if you want to pay a bit more for the book then I’ll come and read it to you, and if you pay even more I’ll come and listen to you for 20 minutes – whatever you want to do.
The Shakes is your first album under the Herbert moniker since Scale 9 years ago. What has inspired you to come back to Herbert, and dance music, after such a long hiatus?
I think that I had done so many different and quite challenging things in the last few years – from operas to radio plays to television dramas to whatever – that I just wanted to come back to somewhere safe I guess, somewhere that I knew. Dance music and music written this way feels a little like base camp for me.
For the opera I did things differently to the way that it’d normally be done, the same with the theatre piece that I did and… and look it’s a nice problem to have, you know – hashtag first world problems – but it kind of gets a little bit more tiring as you get older, not only having to come up with a new level of music with every project, but also taking on a new form as well.
Also I don’t usually have a huge amount of time in the studio – basically I have probably two afternoons a week in the studio at most, and when I go there I have got to deliver. I got given remix parts on Monday and I’ve got to deliver the remix tomorrow (Saturday), so I’ll end up with just two afternoons to do the remix from start to finish – there is no margin for error. Whereas when I first started writing music, I would just write music for the fun of it and when I was ready I would finally put it out. I could make 100 tunes and only release 10 of them, whereas in the last years if I write 50 pieces of music, 49 of them will come out. It’s one of the downsides about doing music as a job, there’s a lot of discipline involved and not a lot of safety nets either.
So I guess this album was the first chance I had to go back and revisit (dance music), and I was able to have a bit more time to feel comfortable in just writing music for fun – I actually got to write 60 pieces of music for this album and 12 made it onto the record.
It’s definitely sounds like you’ve enjoyed creating this album then?
Yeah really enjoyed it because it’s been a lot easier in a way. You know normally I don’t allow myself to use pre-sets, or to re-use sounds that I’ve used before in other projects, but for this album I’ve just used any sound that I want. But then you also feel a bit of a fraud as well, because I think a revolution happening in music in that (with the tools available) you can make an album out of a roll of carpet or a kids toy or…
Or just 5 seconds of audio?
(laughs)…yeah or five seconds of a bomb exploding in Libya. So it feels a bit like cheating to come back to drum machines and synths and things that have been around a million times.
Matthew Herbert released “The End of Silence” in 2013, an entire album built from a 5 second sample of a bombing in Libya as the sole sound source – take a listen below to Part 1 from the album:
Most of your releases have a clear concept and message behind them, what does the “Shakes” mean to you?
The album is about what it’s like to be alive today. It’s a combination of total horror that you have people like David Cameron in his country, Tony Abbott in Australia, Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, climate change, an exploitative global financial system… so we’re doing the wrong thing at the wrong time you know – emissions are up not down since 1990 when the Kyoto protocol was signed, since then emissions have gone up 61%. So we’re chucking out shit, we’re really just creating so much waste… it feels awful.
At the same time my life is in a kind of parallel existence to that – you know I live in a nice house, I’ve got 2 young children and I’m healthy, I get to travel the world and playing music, I get paid to make music and to come up with ideas… and so in some ways I feel like I live a life of privilege. I have artistic and creative freedom, I have the freedom to travel, but at the same time that freedom is based on an exploitative system where you have people in different countries who are making stuff for me, and having to suffer disproportionately the effects of climate change for the kind of lifestyle that I’m leading – whether it’s flying to Australia, the manufacture of black plastic vinyl records to ship around the world or whether it be creating the hardware equipment that I use. So it’s a combination of the excitement of raising my family and looking out the window and seeing beautiful oak trees, contrasted with horror of knowing this whole thing is collapsing and we’re destroying ourselves and parts of the planet as well.
So for me it’s quite a broad concept, I guess I’ve seen it more through an emotional frame than a documentary frame which is what I’ve been doing moreso recently like the bomb record or the pig record or the supermarket record – they’re very literal, very precise and you can point specifically to the things they’re about, whereas this record is much more about this record about what it feels like to be alive right now.
Speaking of the limitations or rules, you often adhere to a clear set of limitations when creating music – as outlined in your manifesto entitled “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music”. What’s your purpose in setting these boundaries?
I wouldn’t quite frame it in that way, because I think the boundaries are always there – the manifesto is about me describing the boundaries rather than somebody else. For example, if I sit down at Logic to write a piece of music, then it’s immediately there’s boundaries – it’s going to be set in 4/4 time signature, it’s immediately 120 bpm, it’s already got faders set at zero, if I load up some of the presets they’ve already got compression and effects applied regardless of the signal I’m going to put through it…so the boundaries are already there. Even outside of software this happens, when you sit down at the piano and there are all these keys there already arranged in semi tones – so the boundaries are already there in that the instrument creator has decided how to arrange a piano in semi-tones and then I’m just working within those boundaries.
For me, I just want to make my own boundaries and borders and to address the things that are important to me. In the manifesto I’m trying to get myself to make as many clear decisions about the work as possible – What’s it about? Where do the sounds come from? Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t be lazy. Don’t take shortcuts… so usually many of those decisions are made on our behalf – it’s just about me wanting to reclaim that part of the process.
I don’t think writing a piece of music starts the minute you first make a note, to me the minute you start to write is the minute you start thinking about it – like “What is this piece of music about? Why should it exist? What tools am I going to use to do it? What’s the best sound palette to express it? Who are the best people to collaborate with to make this a reality? What day of the week am I going to record? What am I going to wear? Am I going to record in the studio? Am I going to record in the field? Am I going to use a laptop or am I going to use a harp?” The list goes on and on and on of decisions you make before you’ve even made a single note of music, so for me it’s just trying to take ownership of that process and not just surrender it to what someone else has decided.
Most of your musical elements come from self-sampled sounds.
Do you plan a sample recording with the approach of “I need something that will work for a bass tone…so what can I record out there that will be great for bass?” or are you more often approaching the recording from story perspective, like “I’m going to collect some interesting and significant recordings” and then later on in the studio see what music can be created from them?
It has to come from the story first. I mean this record has been something slightly different – this record I just used what I needed. The last track is called Peak and I wanted a sense of scale and emotion and part of that came from the association with the instruments. So we went and recorded a church organ for it.
Generally though the story comes first for me, which is one of the hardest things to accept when you’re working with sampled recordings – that you can’t make chicken sound like TB-303. I mean you can get there, but it takes a long time and.. what’s the point you know? it stops being a chicken then, and it starts being a not so good TB-303. So you have to just let the chicken be the chicken if that’s the story – use whatever sounds it makes and then adapt your writing to it.
For example, in The End of Silence (Matthew’s aforementioned album created from entirely from a 5 second recording of a bombing in Syria) obviously it’s an extremely distorted recording from a handheld mic, so it’s missing quite a lot of bass and it’s just got a lot of stuff going on, but hidden amongst all of that information and noise and clutter, there’s two little sounds that you can hear – one is a shout from somebody just before the bomb hits and the other is somebody whistling. So suddenly you find those and you think “okay great that feels like a different kind of texture that you can work with” and so you turn those into sounds that you can play on a keyboard and it can become a melodic or harmonic part – and then of course that helps tell the story then that there was human amongst all the carnage and the chaos of the bomb exploding and all of that stuff. You get these two human voices that express what it was like to be human amongst the bombing, and so those melodies and harmonies built from those two sounds take on a social and moral narrative context as well as a compositional one.
So really they’re all kind of linked up together; the idea of what kind of story you’re trying to tell and what means you have at your disposal to tell that story -you can’t force the stories elements to be something that they’re not – although that’s maybe an interesting process in itself, but if you manipulate the sounds too much it’s takes you away from the story and why one might want to write a piece of music about that the first place.
How do you feel about the future of music – any thoughts, wisdom or advice you’d like to direct to the next generation of emerging music makers?
For me it’s about a philosophical perspective.
Less than half of iTunes has being downloaded once, so just because you get to publish it on iTunes doesn’t mean anybody’s going to listen to it. We’re creating as much waste in the music industry as they are in the food industry now. There’s just too much of it (music), we can’t stop ourselves from producing more and more music.
So the first question I think we need to ask is, why do we need any more music?
Haven’t we got enough house tracks? We’ve probably got enough house music to have a house party every day for the next 400,000 years without repeating any of the tracks – we’ve just got such vast amounts of it already, so why are you making it? What do you hope to achieve? What are the best ways of achieving that result? It might be you just want to make people dance and that’s okay, but in the long term if you’re thinking about what music means, or what it can mean, and you’re wanting to do something original and find your voice, then it’s not always about just doing it, it’s also about thinking about “why am I doing this?” and “is this the best way to do it?” and “why are you using music to do it?” and not writing a book or making a TV show or writing a newspaper article. What can music do that no other forms can?
The thing to remember I think is that the machines are just tools, they’re just tools to express an idea, they are not an end in and of themselves. The machine are like spades – you need to work out what kind of hole you want to dig, where you want to dig it and how deep it’s going to be before you start. You don’t want the spade to always be deciding how big the holes going to be, or what shape and where it’s going to be – and yet that’s what happens in music, you turn on a machine and it basically says “hey, why don’t you make hip hop?” and “why don’t you do it in this tempo?”…. with these sounds, with this compression, with this harmony, with this EQ…on and on.
Across your career, your primary machine – or spade to continue your analogy – has been samplers. Of course they are just tools to express an idea as you’ve said, but has there been any particular favourite sampler that you’ve found to be the best at getting the job done?
The best sampler ever made is still tthe first one AKAI ever did, which was the s612. It only does one sound and has no internal menu, but it’s got all the knobs on the front – so you can easily manipulate the sound in real time. Also I like that it’s comes empty – the biggest problem with samplers is that they come with 25 DVDs of sample libraries and things like that, whereas when we first bought samplers like the s612 they were just empty…
The s612 was like an ultimate blank canvas I guess – like it’s entirely up to you to create the colours and paint the picture..is that the way you see it?
What about portable samplers for field recordings – do you have a go-to portable setup?
Annoyingly no… I mean I quite like having phones now because it’s quite good for just using like a Dictaphone, but actually for proper recording I think annoyingly the smaller, more portable recorders aren’t that great. It’s all about getting a decent microphone unfortunately, which then requires an external interface and then you also need a decent microphone pre amp. Bear in mind that if I’m making an album out of the pig, for example, every sound on that album comes from pig so how do I record it? what microphone? That’s the frontline of getting the sounds for my record – if I’ve recorded it cheaply or badly then the whole record is going to sound cheap and I’m going to really struggle to get a warmth and depth out of it.
Of course you then must pay attention to where you put the microphone. The microphone is just my ears, so do I hold the microphone up by my ears and point it downwards? or do I put the microphone really close to something? do I record it from the bus driving past at 65 miles an hour? do I record through the wall? or from outside through an open window? – all of these are important creative decisions, recording with a microphone is not just a functional thing.
We’re looking forward to your Sydney show with the Mad Racket crew. Can you talk us through your current live set up for Herbert and what you have planned for the show?
Yeah well I’m excited to be back, I haven’t been back to play as Herbert probably for 15 years or something like that. I’ve always found, particularly the Mad Racket audience… I mean they’re just like… it just feels like an extended family really and they’ve always been really supportive and really open to different ideas and they’ve seen me do some quite odd things and seen me do some quite normal things and have been really supportive all along the way. It’s really nice to come back with a house music show because that’s where I started my history with them. When you’ve been doing it professionally for some 20 years, you end up growing up with the audiences, and there’s not many nights that are still going from 15-20 years ago as Mad Racket has been. So that’s how I started; playing house music in the late 90s with those Mad Racket guys and so it’s really nice to come back to a playing house music with those guys again. As far as the live setup goes, we have two singers from the record, we have a little three person horn section using local guys, then a keyboard player, a guitar player – altogether there is nine of us on stage so we’ve actually got a live band playing house music.
And what about yourself – what gear or role will you have in the live show?
I’m one of the keyboard players. I do a little bit of sound manipulation, but this one is not so much a sampling show – although we do some sampling in there. Ableton Live is the basis of it in terms of loading everything up into it, which allows us to do live sampling and the drop it in in real time if we need to.
Huge thanks to Matthew for taking the time to talk with us. Herbert’s album The Shakes is out on 29th May via Caroline Australia. There’s still tickets available here for Herbert’s Melbourne show on Friday 22nd May, while Sydney the night after is sold out.
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