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Political Discourse at an Exact Scale: An Interview with Matthew Herbert

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British electronic music producer Matthew Herbert sits down with Michael Crumsho to chat about his latest album Scale and his ongoing efforts at using his body of music to discuss the worldwide state of the body politic.



Political Discourse at an Exact Scale: An Interview with Matthew Herbert


Purveyors of pulse-pounding techno and dance floor anthems are generally looked upon for revelations within four-on-the-floor rhythms and propulsive bass lines, not in the realm of cultural discourse and socio-political debate. And although British producer Matthew Herbert's early work under such nom de beats as Doctor Rockit and Radio Boy explored the dynamics of club aesthetics more than anything else, the bulk of his recent work has attempted to find a rare balance that few other electronic producers are interested in that of a merger of intellectual and physical programmatics, thus creating a series of tunes and albums that speak to the mind as well as the hips. Starting with Radio Boy's 2001 free, downloadable album The Mechanics of Deconstruction (which built tracks solely out of commercial objects that he found questionable), Herbert has approached his recent output hell-bent on interrogating the social, political, and corporate structures that govern our so-called modern world.

These efforts crested with the twin-punches of Goodbye Swingtime and Plat Du Jour, albums that took brass ensembles, war protests, and the sounds of a mechanized food industry as the starting point for songs that matched rhythmic bump with ideological grind. Utilizing his self-imposed Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (which proposed a rigid set of rules regarding sampling that stipulated, among other things, that no drum machines, pre-recorded music, or synthetic instruments could be used), Herbert sourced sounds that spoke to the complexities of American and British militaristic hegemony and the overly processed nature of the food humans consume, mixing them into tracks that transparently showcased the dual nature of his music.

"The biggest thread in my work and my life is that I just live an increasingly brilliant life," Herbert said as we spoke in the lobby of the rather opulent Tribeca Grand Hotel in downtown Manhattan. "I'm paid to come DJ here, and while I'm here I stay in a nice hotel in a nice city to talk about myself and my music. And I own all my music and I travel the world playing music. Really, it doesn't get much better than that. Consequently I feel that comes with a responsibility to recognize that that's a privilege, and those privileges themselves are historical privileges and to question them."

On the surface, Herbert's latest record Scale seems to continue in that very same tradition, mixing the sounds of oil pumps and bomber planes into his now trademark soulful shuffles and house beats. But take a closer look and you'll find that Scale sees its creator in far less of a firebrand mode and more of a thoughtful, contemplative one. Forgoing his traditional approach of carefully annotating each and every source in his notes in favor of a giant collage of all pieces used, Scale brings the focus back to songs and their creation. Though still passionate about his political stances, this time out Herbert's platform is one of songcraft and melody. It's one that works well here, as he adeptly mixes his knack for clever sampling (using shampoos and a variety of answering machine messages left for him at a special number, among other things) with some of the best songs of his career, emerging with playful, almost carefree tracks that bounce and bob in ways that his previous work hasn't in quite some time.

All the same, Herbert maintains that those very political subtexts are alive and well in his new music. "It's just a different way of trying to tell the story," he offers. "I'm very proud of the last record, I'm proud of how and why I did it, the rigorousness with which I approached it. But it was bloody hard work trying to turn the sources into music. This time I just wanted to relax and enjoy the music side of things. I just wanted to sit down at a piano and write some songs.

"I was trying to go against the history of modern music armed with a toaster and a grain of sugar and an organic egg," he laughs regarding the sounds of the markedly experimental Plat Du Jour. "This way I feel I have a bit more of a chance. People will listen to it in a different way." Although Herbert has generally not shied away from lyricism, this time contributions from long-time collaborator Dani Siciliano come front and center, as she lends her airy croon to these subtly beguiling tracks. Though not nearly as point-specific with regards to communicating a political credo, Herbert views the lyrics as an important signpost. "The words are deliberately not that specific," he offers. "You don't really want Dick Cheney in one of your songs. It's like pollution." Still, he argues that the lack of precise source notation isn't a hindrance to people gaining insight into his worldviews, countering that "I've set a precedent now, so what I'm interested in now is if people actually pick up on it or ask about the sounds."

Scale's concerns, though, come across a bit more esoteric If Herbert's last two records could be viewed as an outward exploration of the problems with certain aspects of modernity, then his newest album turns inward, examining deeply personal responses to the great questions of life and death. "It's more an abstraction of distance, the distance between us and our childhood," he says simply of his album. "We have very particular ways of measuring that, but we don't have way of measuring the distance to our deaths, and the implications that has for how we live, the distance between what we consume and where it comes from. If we order a cup of coffee, where does that coffee come from?" It's this very concept of distance that he finds problematic. "It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it's a problem that there's distance from the things that govern our lives clean air, water, food, a roof over our heads," he remarks. "All those things are artificially brought to us now and we don't see the consequences of that. It's about trying to take that power back for yourself."

Though his touch has become understated here, Herbert's goals are lofty, hoping to accomplish nothing short of: "The end of capitalism, end of the American empire, Tony Blair's resignation, some sort of recognition of the Palestinian state." Even still, he acknowledges the difficulties inherent in obtaining such aims. "I'm probably going to fail on all counts," he sighs, "but the very least I can do is add my voice to a growing body of people who think in the same way and say different things with their work. I think I have a responsibility to musically explain what it's like to be alive today." Furthermore, his attempts at producing a substantive political dialogue through music are his efforts at countering the relative banality of much of pop music. "If you look at the charts there's nothing to suggest that something is wrong," he exclaims. "It's like musical Prozac. With this record, what I was hoping to achieve was to make a record that people enjoy and sing along to, and then be able to tell the story behind it. I think it's important that as well as providing a critique, I also provide an alternative."

If track titles like "Something Isn't Right" and "Wrong" convey a dour outlook on life, it isn't one that Matthew Herbert chooses to dwell on consistently. Even though he admits to feeling as though humanity is "completely fucked," he shies away from a pessimistic worldview. "One thing that's really clear to me is how quickly we can turn things around," he says. It's an idea that seems to permeate his music. While other artists in different spheres are intent on examining the poverty of modern political discourse, Herbert looks towards a brighter future. Ultimately, it's this hope for a better world that unifies all of the disparate work he has done in his career as one of electronic music's most eclectic theoreticians.

By Michael Crumsho

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