Matthew Herbert: Reflecting the time

Matthew Herbert talks about his new album, dedicated to Brexit as well as his farming lifestyle, favorite collaborations, dark times in human history and paying debt to the pig community

Matthew Herbert is certainly one of the most interesting modern composers. He started his musical career in the 90’s. His first musical project, Wishmountain, was inspired by Musique concrète – an approach which creates music based on sampling and using the sounds found in our everyday environments, which lately have become the backbone of most of his works. During the 90’s, Matthew had a lot of artistic alter ego’s like Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy, Best boy Electric and The Music Man. After releasing his classical album “Around The house” in 1998 he became one of the highest rated dance music producers who showed a new way of creating house music, based on Musique concrète techniques and adding jazz structures into house tracks. “Around The house” was responsible for the birth of this new style – microhouse, that was adopted and developed by big names in dance electronic music like Ricardo Villalobos and many others.

In the 2000’s, the limits of being an electronic music producer became too narrow for such a forward thinking person like Matthew Herbert. He started to record albums with his jazz interpretations and to tour all over the globe with a big band set up.

Throughout his musical career he has done some unique things when searching for new sounds – recording beneath the sewers of Fleet Street with Vietnamese coffee beans, inside industrial pig and chicken farms, he taped 3500 people biting an apple at the same time, recorded inside the Houses of Parliament and in the lobby of the British Museum. All these sounds were carefully selected, sampled and used in his music. His latest works balanced between jazz and his vision of modern pop music like in the albums “Goodbye Swing” “Scale”, “The Shakes” and those more strange and experimental works – “One Club’, “One Pig”.

Besides this experimental approach in recording, Matthew Herbert is known for bringing strong political messages and many other ideas in to his music, based on a protest against corporate globalism and threads of climate change, Brexit and many other modern world difficulties.

Matthew found time in his super busy schedule to talk with All Andorra about his latest, just finished album and many other interesting themes. Talking with such an influential musician with a wide cultural background, English sense of humor and open minded view on modern reality was a pleasure and a really interesting experience.

Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov

Hi Matthew, thank you very much for finding time to talk with us. It took a while to make it happen. As I understood you were very busy working on a new album that you finished just a few days ago. Can you please tell us about this work?

Sure. The record is called “The State Between us” and it’s a new big band record for me, the main theme of it is based on Brexit, it will be released on March 29, the day when the UK will leave the EU. Around a thousand people all across Europe took part in creating it. It involved some serious production work, I was working on it for the last 3 years. We did many fun things during the recording – I paid a swimmer to cross the La Manche channel – to swim from the UK to France and we recorded this journey, we recorded a person crossing the UK –Northern Ireland border, at a sheep farm and in the air in the German World War II plane Tiger Moth. And on top of that we worked with around 400 musicians and 700 singers, so it was a really big job. The idea of the album is that it is meant to be a kind of requiem for the UK leaving Europe, I really think it’s a big disaster for the country.

What will be the musical direction of this work? You had a couple of albums during the last few years like “One Pig” and “One Club” that left many people puzzled… but your last album “The Shakes” that was released in 2015 was interesting and experimental like most of your music but more accessible for mass audiences. Closer to which of these works will “The State Between Us” be?

I have no idea, I finished it just this week. And it’s a bit like building a house, you will have no idea what’s it’s like until you will live there for a while. But I think some parts of it are more accessible and some will be too experimental for a less prepared listener.

Usually your albums are guided by really great videos. Are you planning to do videos for some of the tracks for “The State Between Us”?

Actually no. But there will be videos about the production process, where you will see me and my team recording the swimmer crossing La Manche, recording at the sheep farm and in the Tiger Mouth plane and stuff like that.

Do you have plans for to go on tour with the new album?

Yes, but we were actually partly touring with this music for the last 2 years. I was going all over Europe for shows with my big band and after the gigs we stopped for a few days in cities like Berlin, Rome, Madrid and Leipzig where we recorded all these musicians and singers for the album. We performed during these tours the music from “The State Between Us” that was already done. And during our last show in Rome we performed the whole album; there were 105 people on stage involved in the show, it was a very serious production.

Wow, this sounds very impressive! You’re known as a very hard working musician, you have released a large amount of music that probably means a lot of work in the studio and you are touring with live shows intensively. Which do you enjoy more – working in the studio or live performances?

It’s a question that is hard to answer. It really depends on a lot of things. The gig could be very good if it is organized well. But for example on our last show the backstage was really far away from the stage where we performed, we walked around 8 km during the day, and the food for the artists was terrible. Usually nobody talks about these kinds of things but I think it is very important. If you are doing a job and didn’t have much sleep and have to walk a lot and there is no good food, it will be hard to do the job properly. Sometimes the gig could be physically challenging, not long ago I played a 4 hour set on Sunday morning at a legendary Berlin techno club Berghain and I’m almost 50, at my age these kinds of things can be too much.

At the moment I do a lot of music for movies and TV and I really enjoy it, because you don’t have to go anywhere, you just sit at home in your studio and do your music. And I have a beautiful studio at home, but there is one problem with it, sometimes it gets very cold there, because I’m living in a big house that was build in 1600 with a very basic heating system. So it really depends on the circumstances.

Where do you live now?

I live on a farm, around 1hr 30 min ride from London. I decided to move to the countryside where it is quiet, after all these loud years of living in the city.

It would be interesting to know about your lifestyle at the farm, what does your average day there look like?

First thing I do when I wake up – I have to feed the pigs and then the birds. We have pigs, chicken and peacocks living on our farm. Then normally I have to take my two boys to school and after I do some administrative work like business emails and meetings. In the afternoon I usually sit and try to do some music but somebody is always interrupting me and it’s frustrating and annoying. In the evening when my children go to bed I normally can have a glass of wine and finally sit and work on the music properly, when nobody disturbs me. But my last album was mostly recorded outside the studio; it was done during tours or on some locations like when we recorded a swimmer crossing La Manche, or on a sheep farm, or on a plane. And I had to do a lot of production and administrative work to make all these things happen. It was really hard and expensive.

As I mentioned, I do a lot of music for TV and movies and usually when people ask you for this kind of job they call you and ask you to do it very quickly. But sometimes you don’t receive these requests for a period of time. It’s always unpredictable, a bit like a restaurant; sometimes you can have 100 people that want your food sitting there and sometimes just one client having a tea or a coffee.

Actually most of all in my life I like to write music. But the reality is that I can dedicate only around 20% of my time to it, the rest goes to the production process like business meetings, emails and stuff like that.

You are known for actively using sounds from everyday environments that you record, sample and use in your music. Probably living in the countryside gives a very rich soundscape that you can use, doesn’t it?

Yes my world is full of sounds of pigs, chickens, peacocks and also the wind. Our house is on the hills and it’s very windy there. I don’t use these sounds much, but sometimes I do, and it’s good to have always the possibility to record them.

Was your strange conceptual album “One Pig” that was made from the samples of a recorded pig starting from it’s birth, death, cooking of its meat and following defecation by the one who ate it – recorded on your farm?

No, I didn’t live on a farm when I made this record. But since I have done it, I felt that I have some debt to the big pig community. And looking after some pigs on my farm and keeping them alive is like a response to the pig from this album.

So you don’t eat the animals that live on your farm?

No. I’m not a vegetarian, but it really feels wrong to me to eat animals that live with you on the land and that you see every day. We keep them because the house where we live had already been a farm for 500 years and I wanted to continue to keep animals there. And I had never had animals before and for me it’s an interesting experience to look after them.

You are known for having different kinds of live shows – with a big band and with a more minimal, electronic set up. What kind of shows do you enjoy more?

Working with the big band is the best for me because it is very acoustic and it produces an incredible noise on stage, it is a very physical sound and very visceral experience. I really enjoy this out-of-body feeling of communication with other people that work with you on stage. But on another hand these kinds of shows are not very experimental. And I am always challenged to find new forms of music, that’s what really excites me. This is why I really enjoyed working on experimental albums like “One Pig” and “One Club’.

In the 90’s you used to have a lot of artistic alter egos, like Wishmountain, Radio Boy, Doctor Rocket. Are you finished with them and going to do music only as Matthew Herbert now?

Well sometimes I have a feeling that it will be good idea to start some side project. And maybe I will. That’s what I like most of all in my work, that I can do everything. I can wake up one morning and decide to do a heavy metal project, and absolutely nobody will be able to stop me. I think that I’m very lucky to have this freedom.

Besides your music, you have done a lot of remixes and collaborations with great artists from different music genres. Who did you enjoy working with most of all?

I really appreciated working with Bjork. For me she is like an icon, a musical visionary just like Jimmy Hendrix or Elephant’s Gerald. It was really exciting working with her. And probably my favorite collaboration on the whole album was with Roisin Murphy from Moloko. We did her first solo record together and it was a really good experience, because it was very quick, spontaneous and honest. It was really fun as we shaped the vision of this album together.

You also run your own label Accidental Records. Are there any interesting new artists that have recently been released on the label?

I can recommend a new artist from the label – Zilla With Her Eyes Shut. She is making really interesting music. Also 2 years ago I started a sub label Accidental Junior that does only dance music. We re-released some old Herbert tracks on vinyl that are 20 years old now but we did it because people kept asking us. And I really enjoy releasing other people’s dance music on the label. We just released some great artists like Bambooman and Dave Aju. Mostly the label is oriented towards house music that is around 119-120 BPM. Not too deep but more funky and tech.

Do you have any plans to release your own house music again?

Well I still DJ and play house music in my sets. I know that many people are really frustrated that I have not released any dance tracks for almost 20 years and are waiting for them. But I didn’t feel that it’s the right time. I think that my music must reflect the time in which we are living and politically and culturally the world is a different place since I made dance music for the last time. I think we are in a dark time of human history with this Brexit, people like Donald Trump in power and climate change.

But now I think I’m ready to go back for while. My next record will be house music. After this big job with 1000 people involved, I just need to do something less complicated, on my own, and that will be cheaper in production expenses.

It’s amazing that you find time and energy for so many projects. Thank you Matthew for this interesting interview. By the way, have you ever been to Andorra and what do you think about an opportunity to perform here?

I have never been to Andorra. I know that this country exists but I don’t know much about it. But I visit often the areas that are really near in Spain and in France and would love to explore Andorra and perform there if there was ever the possibility.

Read more: The sound of music with Dmitry Tolkunov ...