A couple Tuesdays ago, I got a chance to talk with Martin and Drew of Matmos. While the weather outside was icy enough to force Maryland polls to stay open for an extra hour and a half, I met the two at their row house by the Hopkins campus. We sat down at their dining room table, and Drew lit candles.
The interview is divide into halves. In the first half Matmos talk about their new hometown, their childhoods, and tripping face.
This is the first interview in a semi-regular series profiling Baltimore music makers
AS- What are you impressions of Baltimore so far?
Martin- It’s forbidding because of its reputation, and it’s large and sprawling, and not very well laid out. But I’m speaking as a Californian. California has all been built, essentially since the 1960’s. So they have a great fondness for grids there, which makes a clear layout of the city, but also very dull.
Baltimore is really complicated because it is laid out more like a European city, which is to say fucking higgledypiggledy. It’s like a spider on acid weaved a web and they threw street names down on it. But, I think that I have been quit cowardly in that we moved into this house and I haven’t done a lot of exploring.
Drew- When I came here I was given a four-hour tour of the city by a Hopkins professor who teaches a class about Baltimore. He took me to Sandtown, and to the loading docks where the old dead industries used to be, and to all these different neighborhoods. It was kind of overwhelming.
To echo Martin, there is a longer history here, architecturally. There is so much brick, which you never see in California because of earthquakes. So you are just aware of this lumbering gothic mass of buildings, so many abandoned. Obviously you can’t cross Baltimore without seeing a lot of poverty, and predatory environments, and struggling people. That is certainly different from San Francisco, which is very much under going a Manhattanization.
Martin- Yeah, at the moment San Francisco is on fire. I lived there for 22 years and it wasn’t always like that, but it was never as low as Baltimore is now.
Drew- I love Baltimore. I’ve sort of been frustrated and confused by its physical layout. We came back from a show in California in two in the morning, in the pouring rain, and thought that Franklin was a two-way street driving the wrong way straight into traffic. This cop pulled out of nowhere.
Martin- And this was just in a bad neighborhood.
Drew- Yea it was gnarly. I thought “man we’re so fucked.” The guy took one look at our California plates, and the equipment in the car. The cop was like “what the hell is wrong with you guys? What are you doing?”
But I feel like in that moment Baltimore reached out and saved us. Baltimore is totally different from San Francisco is so complete a manner, that it feels really fresh to be here. I feel like I’m in a city with so much more history. Racially it’s a completely different experience.
In San Francisco we lived in a Latino neighborhood, and our default setting was that everyone around you was Salvadorian or Mexican. And then I was always on the Berkley campus, which is largely Asian. To come here, it is just a totally different mixture. That feels very cool. I think the biggest change overall is just that money affects what is possible, and how people think in ways you don’t really realize when you are in one stable situation all the time. So, in San Francisco, because of the software industries, there is a lot of creativity, but also this insanely high rent that affects everything.
Then you come to Baltimore, a city that’s been on this bad downward spiral for thirty years, and rent is so low that all these people can live by making really fucked-up music and they don’t sweat the rent at all.
Martin- I don’t know. I think they are all sweating the rent. It’s just not the same as San Francisco in that respect. I’m sure people are working their asses off here, and people are working their asses off there, but they are certainly getting a better deal on real estate here.
Drew- I didn’t expect the scene to be so noisy and harsh here…that’s been cool. I thought San Francisco was like the place where the freaks are. That’s true in the sense that it has an old bohemian history, and it’s always had a big queer community. And yet coming to Baltimore, and going out and hearing what people are doing musically, it seems much more ferocious here, formally.
Maybe it’s because everyone is playing through guitar amps, and there is no PA and everything sounds really crunched out. It’s been humbling to see just how high the standards are, especially the improvised music in Baltimore. I can’t think of an equivalent to High Zero in San Francisco. There is an improvisational scene around venues like 21 Gram that happens all the time, but there isn’t this feeling of everyone coming together, and people coming from around the world to focus on stuff that is so formally out there. I think that is cool.
AS- You mentioned High Zero, and you previously preformed at Red Room. Is it a conscientious effort of Matmos to bolster the experimental music scene in Baltimore?
Drew- I don’t think they need us.
Martin- And we’re not famous to the point where we’re going to help anybody.
Drew- I’m just grateful they are accepting us.
Martin- Yea exactly. I’m really, really, really relieved that people haven’t been snooty to us. In fact, they have been super kind and welcoming. We don’t make improvised music. We make music that frequently goes eu-eu-eu-eu, eu-eu-eu-eu.
Drew- And that is a problem for some people, but not here.
Martin- We sent a live album we made with J Lesser that was mostly improvised stuff recorded on the radio to the London Musicians Collective, this improv organization in London, to review. They literally sent it back. Which was impressive in its own right, that they bothered to send it back postage paid, with a note that said something like “this music doesn’t impress us at all. This is not improvised music.” For a while we thought we were neither fish nor flesh. We’re not improv, and we’re not proper electronic music, because we’re not dj’s right?
Drew- We’re not rocking jams, obviously.
Martin- We fit poorly into any of these categories. But we have certainly done shockingly well with it, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always been surprised that this thing has done as well as it has.
Drew- Honestly my sense of the Baltimore scene, before I lived here, was based on knowing about Dan Deacon and Spank Rock, where it is always about cold-rocking the party. So, when we moved here I though “god we’re just not going to fit in at all,” because that is not really what we do.
Martin- I think that Floristree show the other night was excellent proof of it. We do not bring the jams…just a thought.
Drew- But that has been fine, because that is not what people expect anyway. We don’t condescend or worry that people won’t understand that. I feel that, no, they absolutely do get it. The number of people that are doing stuff that is kind of funky, yet about texture, noise and sound, rather than pop music per se…that seems to be the mode a lot of interesting Baltimore music is based around.
Like a Rubbed Raw show kind of sounds like 2 Live Crew, but it also sounds like White House, sounds like noise. Leprechaun Catering, or Snacks have electronic rhythms, but it isn’t slavishly so, and it’s pretty loud…certainly wild and wooly. That’s the way people do it here. I guess in a way, we’re oriented slightly differently, but people have been very understanding.
AS- What was your first exposure to music, your first experience making music, and what were some watershed musical moments?
Martin- I didn’t really listen to music in the way that I realize now, the way most people did, until I was 16. I did not listen to popular music when I was 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15…at all. I was kind of just unaware of it.
Drew- You played the piano.
Martin- I mean there was music on the radio. But, honestly music was just not part of my life. My father listened to opera. I probably saw 50 operas with my father by the time I was 15. I didn’t love any of them. I didn’t hate them…it wasn’t torture. It was just kind of a weird thing. My father was like “Yup. We’re gonna go see Il travatore this weekend,” you know, and off we went.
I think in the long run it affected me a lot, in that it I feel that spectacle is part of music. I think I have an increased tolerance, or enjoyment of long form music, in that I was not raised with a four-minute song format. Yea, I think that is something interesting I haven’t talked about much before.
Drew- I mean the thing that I remember about an encounter with, at the time wasn’t making music, but when I think back to it now, it kind of was. As a child I got a tape recorder that had a defective microphone. I would record my voice, but instead of it sounding normal, it was incredibly distorted…kind of like a monster growling. I think that experience was really important to me. Obviously, like a lot of people, it was a time in life when you don’t feel powerful, and the idea that sound could make you powerful by changing you was something intuitive…I guess in a way that sometimes in dreams you have powers or abilities that you don’t have in waking life…my broken tape recorder kind of felt like that to me. But I was really into monsters as a little kid. I loved to draw monsters…
Martin- Now you make sound monsters…But when I was 16, I got sick of being beat up. I saw, clearly, that music was the thing that everyone was super into that stopped you from getting beat up. Like, if you became one of the people who were smoking. If you became a heavy metal guy, or I went to high school in central California so there guys into low riders and low rider music, which I realize now is much more detail than just that. But as a nerdy, white 14-year-old I was like “oh the scary Latino people listen to that, and the scary black people listen to that, and the scary long-haired white people listen to that.”
They were all their music. That is kind of how they were thought about, too. I decided if were to stopped getting beat up I need to grow my hair long and start listening to heavy metal music. And I did. Oh and smoking. I programmatically embarked on a course of growing my hair long, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and I was like “I’m going to find out about this rock music thing.” I believe that is what’s called being a poser. But when you’re 15 or 16 you can engage in a pose so sincerely that you are it. So in a year I wasn’t a poser anymore, I was a fucking Hessian, or whatever they call them now.
Drew- I kind of lucked out, I guess, in that I had a sort of hipster stepfather who owned this movie theater in Louisville, Kentucky that showed European art cinema and silent films. He was showing in the late 70s films about punk rock. So I kind of had a hip set of parents that already knew about weird music. That definitely set me off on the course of knowing about that stuff at a pretty young age, because there was a hardcore scene in Kentucky, which I learned about in eighth grade. There was a funny year when half the class was really into Prince, and half the class was into Black Flag. I guess that dates me to 84, 85…so long ago.
Martin- When I think of that time…I was out of college…well, I was never in college really. But I was well into my twenties by the time Drew was just getting into Black Flag or Prince.
Drew- He saw Black Flag before Henry was the singer.
Martin- He is still to me, in my mind, the new figure.
Drew- Yea, we’re old.
Martin- I understand that Henry guy is ok. As far as watershed musical moments, I met this woman; well she was a girl then, when I was 17. She was like “No, no, no, no”…this is like 1981…”No. Your long hair shit is over. There is this new thing, it’s from England, and it’s called punk rock. You’re a punk rocker. If your gonna hang out with me, you’ve got to cut off your nasty hair and listen to Crash, and the Circle Jerks, and the Sex Pistols, (which were a little old even then). Yes, Kansas, Boston…other bands named after American cities, just don’t cut it anymore.”
And I was like “Yes Ma’am, cool girl.” I started taking drugs, and lots of them. Music became something to do while you were on drugs, for me. And really core to my entire experience of making music is listening to it while on drugs. I haven’t taken drugs for 15 years, maybe longer, but it is still absolutely like “would this be interesting if I was tripping an acid?” That is absolutely part and parcel of what I think about when I work on the video work, and when we’re making the music.
Drew- Yea. I was straight edge all through high school because the hardcore punk scene in Louisville was mostly straightedge. That was kind of were my head was at, at that point too. But certainly lsd and experiences of hallucinogenic listening were pretty formative for me as well. I definitely haven’t racked up the sort of drugs Olympics points that Martin has.
Martin- I really kind of regarded it as, socially, a short cut to an expanded consciousness. So that the increased awareness of the world that is necessary to appreciate everything from minimalism to bird songs to whatever can be come to through Zen or by taking lsd, with the right intentions.
Drew- So often on lsd you are arrested by a completely banal phenomena, but your state makes you more receptive to it, and treat is aesthetically, in a way that when your not in that mind frame, your more prone to filter it out. That can lead to the same kind of perception that certainly our work tries to bring out anyway.
To hear the musicality of an everyday object, that’s what musique concrete does. You take an everyday object and you try to find the latent musicality that’s already inside of the sound it makes. Well LSD’s effect on you as you ride home on the train and hear the train rhythm as a pitch, and as chord, as a rhythmic pattern, as a manifold. You know, it’s already implicit there, so it kind of makes sense that hallucinogenic consciousness and musique concrete go together. They are ways of transposing on set of information into another kind of information.
Martin- I think John Cage’s revelation, whether it came from mushrooms or Zen Buddhism…he was certainly into both, heavily. I think they feed into each other a lot, I’m guessing, he never actually, as far as I know, never said, “yea I take a lot of psychedelic mushrooms.
Drew- He was into foraging for mushrooms.
Martin- It was hard not to read that as a drug-addled youth as “John Cage is into mushrooms, man.”
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