High Zero Festival 2008: M. C. Schmidt Interview

Matmos should be familiar to Aural States readers (we did an in-depth interview with the duo back in February), so it was a pleasure to sit back down with Martin Schmidt of Matmos and discuss his involvement in the now-underway High Zero Festival, among other topics.

This interview became much less of a dialogue, and more of Martin recounting his past. Which is all just as well; it’s still very interesting.

Matmos has become something like ” your friendly neighborhood glitch-ish group” around Baltimore. Make sure to say hello to Martin at the new True Vine.

Aural States- In keeping with the improvisational element of High Zero, I’m going to make the questions up on the fly. Bear with me.


What instruments will you be using?

Martin Schmidt- I’m going to bring my sampler that I use for Matmos, which has 8 million things on it.

AS- What sampler is it?

MS-A Roland V Synth. It’s a sampler and a synthesizer. And I’m pretty good at playing it on the fly…now. We do a fair amount of improv stuff with Matmos. We just did a 2 and ½ month tour of the United States and Canada, and Europe. We tried to play as much as we could on the radio, and when we play on the radio we always do free improv. So, I think I’m in a pretty good position going into an improv music festival.

Just last night we played at The Stone in New York improving with a cellist named Lyle Ellis…

AS- And a cell phone…

MS- And a cell phone with you on it.

AS- So, what other artists are you looking forward to seeing at High Zero?

MS- You know, Peter Rose, this filmmaker guy from Philadelphia, is some one who I loved his…well that is disingenuous.

When I was in college, I did what I think one should do in college, and that is learn about new things. I wasn’t really enrolled in college; I was more of just hanging around a college. I was walking down a hallway in the Theater Arts Department, stoned out of my mind. I walked past this room where they were showing this film. I thought, “What is this film?” There were no people, it was blinking, and there was this strange sound. I sat down…well to make a long story short the film I walked in on was Michael Snow’s Wave Length, which is, I guess, a landmark Structural film. Essentially it is just a zoom across a room, and it’s like 25 minutes long, and the soundtrack is, I believe, just this high-pitched tone, with other sort of whisper stuff mixed in.

I had never seen anything like that; I had never known anything like this had existed. It just blew my fucking mind that there was this room full of 30 people watching something that fucking weird, and taking it that seriously. Then, the professor lectured to the class for half and hour on what it means, and how it connects to the history of cinema. I was like, “Golly, art is cool!”

I had no idea that the contemporary art world existed, because it just doesn’t for most people. You know, they don’t teach you about it in high school…really. I mean there is “art class,” and full of idiots, it’s about “drawing.”

AS-I remember high school art history. The kids didn’t want to be there, and the teacher was somewhat jaded. He goes, “Please, if you have to laugh at the next slide, then I’ll give you a minute or two, but after that I want no laughter. The next slide is Rodin, Monument to Balzac.” Everyone burst out laughing, “Ball Sack!”

Yea, that is about the level of discourse you get in a high school art class. I get the feeling that is someone showed me an issue of Art Forum, which I was just paging through before you walked in…like that whole world exists, and millions of dollars are exchanged for things as weird as they are.

I’d never seen anything like this when I was 19. Someone is going to pay $10,000 for a full page of that (Martin pointing to a random page of “Art Forum”), or that, and so on?

The next film that they showed was a film called The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough, which was a Peter Rose film. If anything it blew my mind more, because it had a little more narrative content than the Michael Snow.

I became friends with some of the people in that class, because I went the next week, and the weeks after. Actually it was a whole class about Structural film, weirdly enough. It’s an extremely rarified, I have since learned, even for experimental film types…uhh-rarified medium? Sub-genre? You know, it is film that wishes to by structural…and Drew gets mad at me about this all the time because structuralism in language is very different than structuralism in film. The name for structuralism in film makes much for sense to me, because it wishes to point, bring attention to the structure…literally the celluloid, the fact that it is a bunch of images in sequence; the physical fact of cameras, and light, and chemistry, and so on. Whereas, I don’t really understand what structuralism is in terms of Critical Theory.

So we all got so excited about this guy’s films, Peter Rose, that my now burgeoning group of my friends from film class on the committee for the Humble Film Festival were like, “We are going to bring him goddamnit!”

So we raised the money to bring him, and we gave him the special screening committee award. Like any artist he was like, “Ok. Wow, really? You’re going to fly me to Humble County in California?” I think he was in Philadelphia then…this was 1983. So it was a long fucking time ago.

We saw all the films by him that we could get our hands on, which is a pretty difficult process with film. This was before DVDs, and honestly even before the beginning of video. Not such a long time ago media was a much more difficult thing to clap you eyes on. So you had to rent film from this place called the Canyon Cinema Collective, which is in California…sort of by San Francisco.

You’d have to call them, and get the catalogue, and get the catalogue, and call them again and reserve them film, but someone else would have it. Different universities would be renting their films all over the United States. We rented all we could afford, which two or three other films, because to a twenty-year-old a hundred dollars is like, “What? A hundred dollars? I can’t afford that.”

AS- You’ve got your money going other places.

MS- Yea. Food, weed, beer.

So, he announced there, at the festival, “I’m not really interested in film any more. I hate to disappoint all you burgeoning film nerds, but I’m into this new things—video, and I want to do performance now, too.” And he did a crazy performance piece about language, which I don’t remember too well. It was a long damn time ago.

And other things in my life got me distracted, and I forgot about him. Until I started working at an art school in the mid-nineties.

AS- What art school?

MS- San Francisco Art Institute, and I got kind of cornered into teaching a class.

I went from being a janitor…then our band thing went really well.

I was janitor, I taught people how to edit video. I was a technical teacher, mostly. Then I became the manager of the department. Then the whole Bjork thing, blah, blah, blah. Then the administration was like, “It’s embarrassing that you are emptying garbage cans and moping the classroom”…The implication was like, “You are more famous than most of the teachers here. This can’t be.” I was like, “I’m very happy. This is were I want to be.” Then they said, “Well, you can be a teacher, or you can be unemployed.”

I really fought it. I don’t like teaching. When I was a manager people came to me, and asked me things. They wanted to know things. Where in a classroom, it’s just the other way around. The teacher wants you to know things.

AS- Or if the student is interested, its only because it is on the test.

MS-Or they judge you, and see if you have anything interesting, or not. Which sucks, honestly, as a model for education.

I mean most art students; I’ve never taught in a real university, most art students manage to put up a front for the first few weeks of the semester that they are really interested in anything, and everything that you have to say. And then, after a few weeks, it starts to become work, something that they have to do. And it doesn’t matter if the assignment is like, “Make a cool audio piece!” And this is a room of 15 people, who are ostensibly…the core passion of their lives is making audio pieces. And yet when you give them the assignment, they are like, “Really? Do I have to? I’m really busy.” I thought that was what we were all here for—for you to be excited about doing this. I don’t know. I couldn’t go to school myself. I went to school by auditing classes. Like I said I just happened to be walking down the hallway, and just happened to walk into this film class.

AS- Well that is basically what I have done, and maybe some day, I’ll end you in your position.

There you go. Though the first job at the art school was nepotism. A friend of mine was the manager. She was like, “I need some one to take care of the video cameras.” I was just a tech nerd. So I just taught people how not to break the cameras, and then mop, sweep, and general maintenance. It was a great job…I mean I have a high school diploma, so the rich comedy of my teaching at a university was not lost on me.

More to come later…

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