N O T E S F R O M T H E S O U T H
Peter Machen spoke to Matthew Herbert about the future of popular music and why his love for Missy Elliot is so unsatisfying
I’ve been listening to Herbert’s sublime album Bodily Functions for the last year or so. And I’d thought the album was a small, obscure gem that had made it through the system.
I didn’t know that Matthew Herbert has been one of the most prolific musical forces of the last decade. I didn’t know that he also worked under the monikers of Wish Mountain, Radioboy and Doctor Rockit, producing works on different musical fringes and selling bucketloads of albums in the process. Here is a musician who has managed to achieve substantial success without even attempting to engage in the fame game.
Herbert rejects the notion of celebrity. “What for?” is his response. He’s perfectly happy to exist on the fringe, selling nearly half a million albums thus far, entirely on his own terms and his own record label. He owns the copyright to his own work and reckons that he’s managed to construct a commercial career entirely free from compromise. Which, in the world of recorded music, is an extremely rare achievement. Additionally, although his central passion is the sampler, he never samples anybody else’s tunes, insisting on always providing sounds fresh from the real world, be they the notes from a flugelhorn or the rustling of a packet of chips.
I spoke to Herbert a few days before he arrived in South Africa to perform at the North Sea Jazz Festival with musical partners in crime Phil Purnell and Danni Siciliano as well as Dave O'Higgins and Pete Wraight, all of whom will perform as the Matthew Herbert band.
PM: I’d like to know more about your aversion to using existing sounds.
MH: To me it’s a perfectly logical thing. I don’t understand why I should even consider using sounds that have been used before. When I could use any sound in the world, why would I use a sound that my next-door-neighbour has already chosen. Even if I fail, my quest is to be original and that’s my starting point. If it’s a sound that’s already been recorded, then I’m taking five steps back before I take one step forward.
PM: Do you ever play to audiences who simply don’t get what you’re up to?
MH: I don’t really know. You need to ask the audiences that. I did a show as Radioboy last year where I was working with McDonalds and Coca Cola and some other products of society that are destructive forces, and sort of destroying them on stage and using the sounds of a Big Mac meal to make a live piece of music. And I got asked a lot about what the audience thought about it. And to be honest, it’s not really something that concerns me, in the sense that the music is obvious to me. I’m trying to go about these things in sometimes very obvious ways, sometimes very subtle ways. And you can only do that and hope an audience understands or corresponds or discovers something. I mean you can’t create something that’s easy for an audience. You know – you don’t want to dumb down. I think that’s the problem with a lot of culture.
Take Iraq, for example. George Bush is trying to simplify the situation into one or two instances, saying Saddam Hussein has ignored a particular UN resolution. And yet you look at a country like Israel and you see that Israel has ignored 30 or 40 resolutions. So it’s not as simple as that. There is no simple reason for going to war with Iraq. Because it’s a political war, for political reasons. So in terms of an audience, I just do what I do, and try not to make it obtuse. And just hope they get it. I mean that’s all you can do really.
PM: In South Africa, you’re known only as Herbert and not by your other musical nom-de plumes. You’ve said that the context for Herbert is house music, moving in the direction of jazz. I’m interested as to whether you think house as a genre has got any life left in it?
MH: (laughs) Well Puff Daddy’s just about to release a house record, isn’t he? I don’t know. I still have a feeling that it’s going to become important again whether we like it or not. But house music as a form – a heavy repetitive bass drum – I think that’s a very cross-cultural, universal phenomenon. I think that’s something that speaks to people across a whole lot of cultures.
And so I think it will always exist. Whether it’s important as a political form or even as an original musical form remains to be seen. Because there is very rarely any context for house music. It’s just happy to be a soundtrack to dark nights in clubs and flashing strobes. It doesn’t really exist in a political or social context. There aren’t any anti-war pieces of house music, for example, or anti-George Bush songs. It’s all very “love all, let’s-come-together-and-dance”.
PM: So do you think we’re going to see another kind of original musical movement in the next few years, or do you think we’ll be subject to revisions and revivals?
MH: It’s very difficult to tell. But I do think that music has got very, very stuck in its genre and it’s become very commodified. Record sales are dropping off a huge amount, partly I think because records are just not as good as they should be or as they used to be.
Think about the art of an album, for example. Think about Hunky Dory by David Bowie or Pet Sounds by Bryan Wilson. Or Massive Attack, who have, in the past at least, spent a lot of time actually creating an album, a listening experience.
Whereas the modern way of doing things isn’t as satisfying. Like R&B, like Missy Elliot, who has great singles and then the albums are just rushed through and don’t have any consistency to them. And there are hip-hop albums that have got like 25, 27, 30 tracks on them. So I think there’s definitely room for much more considered album work. I’d hope that that in turn would lead to more considered musical forms and new ideas. Whether that materialises or not remains to be seen.
PM: I know personally, I find it hard to find new music now. Apart from a few things that get given to me, I’m going back to a lot of old stuff simply because the new stuff isn’t satisfying me.
MH: I know what you mean. I think it’s the same for a lot of people. I think it’s partly because music’s just not saying anything these days. You listen to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and it’s this amazing piece of music. And it’s anti-war as well, it has a political message. There’s nothing like that today. I love Missy Elliot for example. But she’s saying absolutely nothing. Get Yr Freak On. What is that? At a time when America’s becoming a new empire and using force around the world, you have a large and influential part of American culture just talking about money. I don’t think that’s very useful or very satisfying for the listener.