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Craft work

Music producer Matthew Herbert's inventive methods are informed by a critical perspective on the wider politics of production and consumption under contemporary capitalism, finds Brendan Montague

July 25, 2010
10 min read

Electronic pioneer Matthew Herbert conducts the nightclub audience as though we are his human orchestra. Dressed entirely in black with a decibel counter under his watchful eyes, he is master of ceremonies at the avant-garde Robert Johnson club in Offenbach, Germany.

The producer and conceptual artist is orchestrating a strange focus group to sample sounds for his latest musical project, One Club. The album is an attempt at democratising electronic music, to give his most avid fans the chance to participate in the creation of each bleep and beat. We have been warned that microphones are all around us – on the ceiling, in the toilets and on the lapels of a fellow clubber.

The audience is asked to kiss the person next to them, to jangle their keys, to stamp their feet, to dance, to laugh: to club. We are told to rattle the change in our pockets once for each EUR10,000 in our pay packet, to whistle in different ways to denote our sexual orientation, to shout out the name of the political party we voted for. The album was played for the first time at the Robert Johnson on 8 July. Herbert will also perform in Britain at the Big Chill and Green Man festivals in August.

‘One Club is designed to be both a functioning body of dance music in its own right, but at the same time a celebration of the temporary communities that come together weekly around the world in clubs. Since the record is made entirely from sounds recorded in one night at a German night club, the audience is implicated directly in the outcome of the music and hopefully stronger links are made between the DJ, the music itself and the act of dancing,’ Herbert says.

‘For a long time now, clubs have accepted a corporate version of reality, with excessive branding and sponsorship, yet reluctant to acknowledge the potential political or social power implicit in large numbers of young people gathering in public places. The One Club project is intended to offer an alternative version of that relationship between the audience, the building, the locality, the political, the performer and the music.’

Speaking after the two hour recording, Herbert tells me: ‘I was surprised how much pleasure they got from being told what to do. It transformed the space. It was really hard work keeping the momentum going and getting the sounds in a clear enough state to use them. Also, I wanted to record what is really there, not to manipulate what’s there. It’s not a laboratory, it’s a night club. With a music studio, significant amounts of money are spent on shutting the real world out. Soundproofing suggests we’re frightened of the outside world where it is inconsistent – but you would record atmosphere.’

Herbert first performed live as Wishmountain in 1995, using only a pepper pot as an instrument. Since then his music has always been conceptually driven – he has driven a tank over a cooking dish and shot it to get a sample. His dance record Bodily Functions was a global success.

His label, Accidental, has also been lauded for its individuality. The Invisible, 2009 Mercury Prize nominees, chose it to release their eponymous album. Paul Morley, writing in the Guardian, has described Herbert as a ‘restless militant outsider musical progressive in a culture increasingly cuddling up to conformity’.

One Club is a ten-track dance record that marks a return to Herbert’s most well known and commercial sound. But it is so much more. The second of a trilogy of ‘One’ projects, it continues with a departure from his previous grand, extravagant and awe-inspiring Matthew Herbert Big Band project because each record is constructed around a single concept: One One, his most intensely personal record to date; One Club; and One Pig, in which he documents an animal’s life and death.

Each contains the DNA of the Herbert manifesto: high concept and hand crafted, catchy and compelling. To understand this trilogy – as with all of Matthew’s work – we are invited to examine the handiwork. Like an antique chest of drawers, to know if it is genuine you have to remove the drawers, turn them over, look at the quality of the joins, the hinges, the varnish.

Deaf ears

I met Herbert for the first time in a antiquated hotel in central London. He wanted to talk about an audacious international political stunt he had performed but that had gone unnoticed by his intended audience. Herbert had been invited to contribute to the ‘idents’ for the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow in 2009. When he came to producing the musical introduction for Israel, he decided to include samples of gunfire aimed at innocent Palestinians, grinding tanks and the seemingly euphoric sound of water drops. His intelligent, high risk, moral statement fell almost entirely on deaf ears.

And so Herbert is consciously a political performer. The website for Accidental counts the number of estimated dead in Iraq. His ‘One Life’ from the album There Is Me and There is You produces one beat for every 1,000 killed following the invasion, while ‘Battery’ is an ode to British resident Bisher Amin Khalil-al Rawi, tortured in Iraq after being arrested with a battery charger.

The musician avoids tendentious agitprop, however, and argues that being a member of a party or group is ‘the antithesis’ of the Herbert manifesto. He is also conscious of the limitations of his own ability to preach to a club audience: ‘I do sometimes think I am battling against a lot of ingrained ideas about what music is and what it can do. People out on a Saturday night do not necessarily want to be challenged about the world.’

‘There is definitely a sense in the dance music world that I am a party pooper because I don’t just want to have a good time and take drugs, or whatever,’ Herbert continues. ‘There is a valuable place for that kind of sense of transcending the mundane contained in electronic – but it should not only be that.

‘People do not think of music being political unless it is left wing. But 50 Cent is talking about using violence against your enemy, oppressing women and making money – they are the same messages as the government. Within the new music there are no overtly political songs – it is all there but it’s much less obvious. For me it is as honest as I can be.’

To understand the political message of Herbert, you need to look beyond bold public statements and lyrics. You need to know that the beats that represent the dead in Iraq are sampled from the bleep of the life support machine of his first child, born prematurely and lucky to be alive. As he says: ‘It is very easy to say the war is shit, or to catalogue the number of people who died. But what is harder is to represent the personal, which is why the beats in that song are from when my son was in intensive care.’ The message of Herbert’s manifesto lies in the mode of production.

Toilet mics

When I arrive at Herbert’s home studio, down an idyllic

side street in the newly fashionable Kent seaside town of Whitstable, I immediately stumble over a microphone angled into the basin of the toilet and another into the sink. The mics are recording the sound of water swilling down the plughole to add the finishing touches to Rowdy Superstar’s first album.

This is vintage Matthew Herbert. There is a manic, almost compulsive drive to record the world around him. This is explained in part by the fact that his father worked as a BBC sound engineer. However, the enigma of Herbert is to be unlocked further back in his family tree.

One Club is a fascination with the production process, as is everything Herbert has created to date. Not just in terms of sound engineering, but in the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the smells and tastes, sights and sounds that aggregate into human experience. This informs Herbert’s interest in ethical consumerism, his opposition to war, his meticulous research for One Pig.

Of his early childhood, he says: ‘I grew up without a TV; we never had one in the family home. My days were filled with playing different instruments, making stuff, drawing. I started piano from the age of four – and played all the way to university.’

Later in the conversation, he adds: ‘Nobody crafts anything any more. We do not have a table made by a person; we do not know how to recognise a good table or a bad table. My great-grandfather was a master coach-builder and I brought him a table I made at school and the first thing he did was turn it upside down and say it was crap – but he was right. I had not even varnished the bottom.’

The Herbert experience of the world is alienation and Herbert’s music is his resistance. Like Sartre, he is conscious in every moment he lives of the way people no longer love or own what they produce. They no longer ‘make things’. The commodities that are produced appear alien and hostile. The companies that produce are inhuman and destructive. Herbert’s is not a reactionary, agrarian romanticisation of handicraft. He clearly has no moral difficulty with embracing the new. Instead, the music has the ring of authenticity, of human creativity: it is a call to arms for quality.

Capitalist mass production, capitalist alienation, has destroyed the craft of music, he suggests: ‘All musicians are using the same samples and techniques – it’s a bit like a giant Lego club where everyone’s given the same blocks and same wheels and everyone is told to build different cars out of the back of it.

‘You are distanced from risk, from the humanity of it, by which I mean life is a pain in the arse.

‘People today are interested in the product, not the process. We do not see where our food comes from. I recorded at a landfill site and it is one of the most depressing things. Around 90 metres by 90 metres of landfill and they dig it 30 metres down. They fill it hundreds of metres above ground level – and that’s just one year’s rubbish from Canterbury. In Whitstable, Hatchards was 150 years old and they replaced it with Costa. Capitalism is the replacement of the historical with the ahistorical, with the asocial. And we have no idea where the coffee comes from.’

So with One Pig Herbert will archive through sound the process of a pig being born, slaughtered, butchered and scattered through the capitalist mode of production: drum skin, bone flutes and toothbrush bristles will produce the sounds for the recording. Informed by Christien Meindertsma’s book PIG 05049, Herbert expects to follow the pig’s body into paint, heat valves and 185 other products – including bullets. The allegory, as with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is resonant.

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