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so you wanna get into... matmos
"It felt wrong to contribute to the mountain of spurious listicles that our online music culture now gorges upon" -Drew Daniel
(drew daniel and m.c. schmidt self-collage)
welcome to issue #29 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.
this week we present a primer on matmos, a group that is seemingly purpose-made for this newsletter (or rather vice versa). we’ll explain what’s happening in each of their high-concept albums, rank those albums, and defend the concept of ranking itself (not necessarily in that order).
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normally i pick the topics of the newsletter without regard to press cycles and whatnot but i was eventually going to write about matmos anyway so i figure now, with the upcoming release of their new album The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form, is as good a time as any (i’ve heard it and it’s good but i won’t cover it here; just know that it features 99 collaborators and is three hours long). matmos is a duo consisting of drew daniel and m.c. schmidt and for 20+ years they’ve been putting out exactly the type of work that “tusk is better” was designed for—in fact, their albums played a large part in my conceptualization of this project because they each require exactly the type of elaborate explanations that i traffic in here. you don’t necessarily need to sit down and read about matmos to enjoy them, but it does help substantially, which makes my role sparkling clear.
matmos’s albums are all high-concept explorations of a topic or theme for which they source sounds from pretty wild places—operating rooms, experiments in extra-sensory perception, washing machines. i discovered matmos through their fourth album A Chance to Cut Is A Chance to Cure, which features sounds from medical procedures like l.a.s.i.k. surgeries and liposuction. i excitedly told my friend that this crazy album was made from bones cracking and scalpels slicing and fat being sucked up and he said “eww, why would i want to listen to that?” to which i replied “but that’s just the thing! it doesn’t sound like those things—it actually sounds like a pop record with real instruments!” then he said “well then what’s the point, why didn’t they just record with instruments?”
this is the Great Divide—either you care about how sounds are made and feel that knowing about the process of an album’s creation is a necessary condition of enjoyment, or you simply enjoy the product itself. i guess both camps are fine but obviously i’m in the former as i suspect matmos fans would have to be. but my pal from Camp B posed a valid question: why all the hassle? anybody who has messed around on ableton knows how easy it is to transform any sound into any other sound, so why must you start with, say, the nervous system of a crayfish?
well, privileging process over product is largely what experimental music is. you can certainly know your destination and devise the easiest means to get there, say by choosing to write a dance tune and buying (or downloading) a synth. but if you start with a bone breaking you have to work backwards and determine how it can be used musically (a killer bass drum, it turns out). jazz features marching band instruments because those were the cheapest at the time, and you can similarly trace the evolution of any number of genres to the availability of the instruments that inspired and defined them. matmos takes this idea to its extreme, obviously, but this is how new music is made, material first. matmos is one of that group of artists arising in the late ‘90s who recognized that relatively cheap field recorders, microphones, and laptops made the entire world potential musical material.
drew daniel has written convincingly about why ranking albums by preference is an incoherent exercise, refusing a request by The Quietus that he rank his favorite records because “it felt wrong to contribute to the mountain of spurious listicles that our online music culture now gorges upon.” as a purveyor of spurious listicles myself (this newsletter is guilty of 12 of his 13 reasons, by my count, though i would argue that some are unavoidable in any music criticism and some can be mitigated in various ways), i thought about creative ways around a purely subjective ranking for this issue. i decided to assign each album a number and then use a random number generator to order them. luckily, this method works particularly well with matmos. the theme of each matmos album already guides the reader toward what they might like. it’s difficult to guide a reader to e.g. a radiohead album according to theme (“the one about sadness and alienation”?) but you can easily do this with matmos. are you easily grossed out? then you may want to avoid A Chance to Cut. got a thing for history? you should check out The Civil War. synth freak? you’ll love Supreme Balloon. my role as Arbiter of Taste is thus largely nullified (though this wouldn’t work at all if matmos albums weren’t uniformly great to begin with).
so, all eleven major matmos albums so far, excluding The Consuming Flame, ordered randomly (though each has my personal recommendation):
The West (1999)
this album is still early going for the duo, but they were concept-driven even at this stage. this one is made from instruments traditionally associated with country and western—banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle, slide guitar. if any of your friends accuse matmos of being all gimmick and no chops, send them this way. it’s sort of like four tet if kieran hebden was transported with his laptop, Back to the Future III-style, to 1885. “sun on 5 at 152” is an all-time great track, and the two-song suite “the west part i and ii” is a 20+ minute ride that expertly combines turn-of-the-20th-century front porch pickin’ with turn-of-the-21st-century d.a.w. wizardry. recommended for: those who like four tet but don’t think they like matmos
Supreme Balloon (2008)
this is the least matmos-like album in that it doesn’t feature any field-recorded samples—in fact, the duo went in the opposite direction of their other material by not using any microphones at all. it’s all synths, baby, and done in the purest purist way possible with classics like the arp 2600, moog voyager, and korg ms 2000. they also got synth masters terry riley and keith fullerton whitman (and also somehow marshall allen?) to guest. oh and also they recorded parts of it at ina-grm. i suspect they crossed off one or two bucket list albums in the process. it’s a strange, playful album that stretches the synth to its limits, from bouncy video game music on one end (“exciter lamp”) to long new-age tranceouts on the other (“supreme balloon”). recommended for: synth enthusiasts
each of Treasure State’s tracks takes one material (water, glass, aluminum, fire, etc, all found i suppose in montana, the “treasure state” where the album was recorded) and builds a composition around it. it’s a very simple concept, and one that has been done before. but the execution is top-notch, so relying overmuch on the concept itself would be akin to selling The Sopranos as “a mafia drama.” choosing so percussion (best known for their definitive steve reich recordings) as collaborators is the smartest move schmidt and daniel could have made, as they have that rare combination of classically trained yet weird as hell. like most collaborative albums, this one gets shunted to the side unfairly; it belongs among the “proper” matmos albums in any reckoning with their work. recommended for: classical music types, john cage fans
Ultimate Care II (2016)
one 38-minute long track made entirely out of a whirlpool brand ultimate care ii washer, which was rubbed and banged and tapped and whose dials were twisted by not only drew and m.c. but also dan deacon, members of horse lords, and others. for some portions it’s not difficult to identify that the sounds are from a washing machine, but for others it is truly transformed into something alien. recommended for: those who wish to uncover the beauty, or even the mere suggestion thereof, in the mundane
The Civil War (2003)
the theme here is obviously civil war in all its paradoxes of . similar to The West, this album builds a 21st-century world out of the historical remnants of the past by resurrecting old and sometimes neglected instruments. it goes one step further, though, by sampling 17th-century instruments as well as 19th-century instruments, as the term “civil war” refers both to the english civil war and the american. so you get bagpipes and penny whistles as well as martial drums and banjos and acoustic guitars, all chopped up and rearranged on songs with titles like “regicide” and “reconstruction.” for an album about war, it features some of the prettiest music that matmos have put to record, with the exception of the final minutes of “the struggle against unreality begins,” in which the samples lose coherence and begin to pull apart from each other, much like a country at war with itself. this track then resolves into “for the trees (return),” though, which is a lovely piece for piano, strings, and sampled fireworks and crickets, suggesting that civility can return after the battle. recommended for: history buffs
Plastic Anniversary (2019)
this one came out just last year so y’all probably read about it. for daniel and schmidt’s 25th anniversary (which is meant to be celebrated with silver) they decided to celebrate with plastic. the plastic they chose came from a variety of sources, included toy instruments, vinyl records, riot shields, and for some reason a big novelty pill. of course, like a riot shield, it’s transparently political: “plastisphere” sounds like a nature recording complete with water sounds and insect chirrups, its plastic source constantly belying its soothing aural qualities, while “thermoplastic riot shield” itself is a heart-rate-spiking sonic assault that is more relevant today than it was last year. of course, self-righteous (and correct) politics don’t mean you can’t have fun, and matmos also return to their charming goofy side for tracks like “breaking bread,” made from broken records by the band bread that were flipped like a diving board off the edge of a table. recommend for: environmentalists or, i suppose, environmental accelerationists
the second album, following in the footsteps of the first (described directly below, conveniently enough, according to random chance), intentionally blurs the boundaries between “instrument” and “object.” it features a banjo that is distorted nearly out of instrumenthood and a whoopie cushion that is transformed into instrumenthood. at this point the group still hasn’t decided on an overarching theme per album, and you can hear them grasp around for their identity as they mix-and-match genres and sound sources. recommended for: those who argue that, ontologically speaking, a musical instrument is anything that can make any type of sound at all
this is the band’s first album, conceptually incoherent except for the idea of “recording weird things.” those things include breath, office furniture, and the nervous system of a crayfish. had matmos never recorded anything else, this would be a cult classic, passed between friends who whisper to one another about its strange contents. as it is, it is simply a solid album that in retrospect tells us exactly what matmos was going to become: two sound-obsessed dudes who wanted to make dance music out of literally anything they could get their hands on. recommended for: electronica fans who’re bored with max/msp
as i mentioned above, this album consists entirely of recordings of various surgeries that were then manipulated into strangely compelling pop songs. from the first few seconds of “lipostudio… and so on” you know what you’re getting into, as the slurp and squelch of vacuumed fat is unsettlingly high in the mix. that gives you a clue as to how to interpret the rest: that’s not feedback on “l.a.s.i.k.,” it’s a laser; that’s not a synth on “california rhinoplasty,” it’s a surgery monitor. the track that requires the most explanation is likely “for felix (and all the rats),” for which the duo took a violin bow to a rat cage in honor of all the rats that’ve served as subjects for medical experiments. this album is likely their most famous among those who haven’t listened to them otherwise, which is unfortunate because it’s also offputting to a large segment of people. but it balances expertly on the line between macabre and fascinating, and as matmos smartly chose to put their medically-sourced sounds into pop tunes rather than the more obvious, grimmer genres, it can charm even a hesitant listener. for: those interested in the extremes of field recording; those who enjoy a nice top 40 hit
for this one schmidt and daniel chose 10 gay figures to base songs on: ludwig wittgenstein, larry levan, valerie solanas, boyd mcdonald, james bidgood, patricia highsmith, darby crash, joe meek, william s. burroughs, ludwig ii of bavaria, and yukio mishima. the risk is high for something like this to turn into a series of dryly factual audio collages, but they avoided that fate by animating each track with the spirit, rather than simply the biographical information, of its subject. “roses and teeth for ludwig wittgenstein” is intimidating and dramatic, “steam and sequins for larry levan” is funky and danceable, “germs burn for darby crash” is chaotic and confusing. because each track is its own world, not constrained by an overarching requirement that synths or surgery sounds or period-correct instruments or one type of natural material be used, this is one the most dense of their albums. for: college students—if you dive into this during college, like i did, and attempt to make sense of all the sound sources for each figure, it amounts to a great counter-curriculum that provides new perspective on those you’ll study (wittgenstein, burroughs, highsmith, maybe solanas) and those you won’t (darby crash, larry levan, joe meek)
The Marriage of True Minds (2013)
in a discography full of ludicrously high-concept albums, this is the easily the highest-concept. in fact i’ll just quote the pr material real quick:
For the past four years the band have been conducting parapsychological experiments based upon the classic Ganzfeld (“total field”) experiment, but with a twist: instead of sending and receiving simple graphic patterns, test subjects were put into a state of sensory deprivation by covering their eyes and listening to white noise on headphones, and then Matmos member Drew Daniel attempted to transmit “the concept of the new Matmos record” directly into their minds. During videotaped psychic experiments conducted at home in Baltimore and at Oxford University, test subjects were asked to describe out loud anything they saw or heard within their minds as Drew attempted transmission. The resulting transcripts became poetic and conceptual scores used by Matmos to generate the nine songs on this album. If a subject hummed something, that became a melody; passing visual images suggested arrangement ideas, instruments, or raw materials for a collage; if a subject described an action, then the band members had to act out that out and make music out of the noises generated in the process of the re-enactment.
the whole thing is weird as you can imagine but perhaps the weirdest is the final track, a doom metal take on the buzzcock’s “e.s.p.” it’s certainly not for everyone, but single tracks (“you,” “teen paranormal romance”) rank among the best single matmos tracks. recommended for: your occult friend (the one who says there’s no such thing as “coincidence”)
alright that’s all folks. hopefully this rundown will get y’all prepared for the upcoming album The Consuming Flame, the single for which features yo la tengo and can be found below: