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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant


2