Sounding Out Matthew Herbert
“I’m turning into an old man. I’m nearly 41.” You could be forgiven for attributing Matthew Herbert’s remark to a jaded musical veteran, long devoid of inspiration and preparing to rest comfortably, and rather deservedly, on his laurels. With this month’s release of Herbert Complete, an exhaustive collection of critically-acclaimed gems made public over the decade between 1996 and 2006, many will wonder if the celebrated producer, and undisputed master of exotic samples, has decided to close the curtain on his career in electronic music. Or at least, the suspicion may abound that he’s decided to shelve the house-flavoured element of his output, which he labels simply with his surname.
Thankfully, the timing of this release of original works, rarities and remixes has more to do with the discovery of a cache of old tapes, and the recent acquisition of the rights to his early material. “It seemed like a good idea to gather it all together”, he explains. “It’s nothing more elaborate than that.” In fact, far from eschewing the Herbert material to focus on any number of other commitments, including his role as director of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the Accidental Records boss is actually planning a new release under the moniker which brought him most commercial success with 2006’s Scale.
“Bodily Functions [an album produced in part by sampling the human body] was in many ways a mixture between electronics and jazz. For the next record I’d like to mix electronics with a more classical approach, more textural and orchestral.” When will this take shape? “I’ve already written it”, he reveals casually. “It’s just a question of how to frame it.” The composition of music has always seemed to be the easy part for Herbert. He seems much more enthralled by the sampling of source material and the possibilities that emerge when conventional instruments and software are kept at arm’s length. In fact, since 2005, he has worked to a strict code (his Personal Contract for the Composition of Music) which dictates amongst other things that he will not use pre-existing sounds on any of his records, including drum machines, synthesizers and presets. The origins of this ardently held commitment to originality can likely be traced back to his earliest attempts at producing dance music.
“I made a record that nobody knows about. I made it very early on to try and make money. Everyone around me was turning kids’ theme tunes into house records and making loads of money, so I thought I would try and do the same. I funded it myself despite being unemployed at the time. My friend had done one and built a recording studio off the back of it. So I thought, ‘If I do that, I can get on with doing the music that I really care about.’ The problem was it was a flop. It was a big flop. It cost me loads of money and I had loads of stock left. But it was a really great lesson because I’d compromised and produced something that I wasn’t at all proud of. At the same time, it hadn’t made me any money. So it was a lose/lose scenario and a cheapening experience.”
This formative encounter seems to have shaped the artist in a manner so profound that, under various guises, he has since released wonderfully imaginative music by sampling all manner of real world sources including household objects (on Herbert’s Around the House), the top selling ten items from a supermarket (on Tesco by Wishmountain) and the life of a pig, from birth to plate, on the controversial yet misunderstood album One Pig, released under his full name. So, having continued to dramatically evolve his approach to music production with each creation, isn’t he naturally inclined to listen back over the early work compiled on Herbert Complete with an over-critical ear? “It’s like baking a cake”, he explains.
“Most of the ingredients are really good and you’ve cooked it yourself. But then, right at the end, you’ve put on a little marzipan figurine of a footballer sat on a bench or something like that. It has bright turquoise shorts and is full of food colourings and dyes. Basically, it’s something really artificial on top of something that’s homemade. There’s a couple of moments like that when I listen back, when you can really hear the character of the technology that I was using and I don’t think it’s a particularly good character. Out of 130 tracks, it’s only there in about five or six but it’s just enough for me to feel that it compromises a little bit of the integrity.”
If it’s not already glaringly obvious, it is worth pointing out that we should perhaps take Herbert’s misgivings about his own work, however minor, with a pinch of salt. Arguably, part of his genius comes from an almost obsessive preoccupation with the methods he uses to create his music. Yet, however eccentric the process may seem, the resulting tracks are invariably brimming with charm and vitality.
In any case, despite the imminent release of the compilation, he is not likely to pause and reflect on past work for too long. Over the next year or so he will busy himself branching out more into visual work with a production based on Gounod’s Faust for the Royal Opera House. As with his approach to recording music, Herbert’s innate desire to innovate will likely be the key driving force for the project. “One of the important things for me is to avoid making a history piece or a cod opera; one that sounds a bit like Verdi or a bit like Rossini or whoever it may be.
“I’m trying to create bespoke bits of software for the audience that have a way of interacting with the material and with the music on stage. The first question I always ask is ‘what tools do I have that Verdi didn’t?’ So I started thinking about the fact that people are carrying around music making devices or microphones in their pockets. I’m thinking of telephones, with all of the amazing possibilities that we have with those. So I want to try and find a way of integrating the possibilities of technology alongside the live performance.”
With such a varied range of projects and with increased opportunities for artistic expression, the suspicion arises that DJing may no longer be of the utmost importance to Herbert. At first motivated by an environmentally conscious commitment to reduce his travel by flight, he has taken a step back from touring for the sole purpose of playing records. Is this the one aspect of his career that he has lost passion for? “It comes in waves really”, he admits. “With all respect to the people that book me and the people that come, and I’m really grateful for that kind of support, it does feel like more of a compromise than the other stuff I’m involved with.
“Ultimately, you’re playing other people’s music. It’s darker, normally in the middle of the night, so people can’t really see you. There’s not much talking or visual stuff that you’re in control of so your freedom to talk around some of the subjects that might be important to you is diminished. I remember when the war broke out in Iraq, I was DJing on tour in Italy. I was thinking, ‘Why are we dancing? What are we celebrating? We’ve just declared war on somebody else, based on a series of deliberate lies that we all knew about.’ I mean, we all knew it was bullshit. ‘Why are we dancing and celebrating?’ Sometimes I find that context quite difficult.
“But, when it works, it’s really fun. It always comes in waves. At the moment, although there’s good dance music out there, there’s a little bit of a lull. A few years ago when dubstep started happening it was really exciting to hear new approaches. Now it just seems super retro and not that exciting to me. When you’ve been in clubs for 25 or 30 years listening to a 909 drum machine and an 808 drum machine in different combinations it gets a bit dull. For me, any time dance music goes through an interesting, imaginative spurt then it’s exciting to be out there DJing.”
For the moment at least, Herbert’s reputation remains largely tied to his studio recordings and his focus is always on pushing the envelope wherever he can. Later this year he will add to his considerable back catalogue with a release to be titled The End of Silence. Further developing his fascination with the creation of music using “found sounds,” the album is produced entirely from one sample – a recording of a bomb exploding in Libya. In describing the processes involved in turning such an event into music, his passion for working with sound is all too evident.
“A lot of the melodies that we used on the new record came from the sound of somebody just whistling very quickly in the background, just before the bomb arrived. That person doesn’t whistle at exactly 440 Hz. It’s not perfectly in tune; it moves and it shifts. So working with sound is almost the complete opposite of working with traditional musical instruments. The net result is that you have a hugely rich source of sonic material. There is more that is interesting and engaging sonically, in one ten second recording, than there is in an orchestra. We’ve heard every combination of orchestral instruments. I love working with orchestras and I still do it. It’s not about it being irrelevant; it’s just not surprising anymore. You can make a piece of music out of a watermelon, or David Cameron, or a horsemeat burger, or the war in Libya and things like that. I just think that’s ridiculously interesting and engaging.”
The sampling of real world phenomena, whether it’s the conditions of a farmyard pig or the destruction of war, inevitably imbues the music with an extra dimension. “That’s why I love working with sound”, Herbert explains. “It comes with a moral position that you don’t have with playing a piano.
“Potentially, people were killed by this bomb. You don’t know all of the stories because you weren’t there. If I was to just play a melody on a piano, that’s one thing. If I play a melody made out somebody’s whistle, which may have been the last sound they made before they were killed, that’s something else entirely. The relationship between me as a composer and the material shifts radically. That’s why it’s interesting to look back at this 130 track collection just to see how far philosophically things have changed over a period of 20 years. All sorts of assumptions that were made at the beginning don’t really hold now.”
What shines through more than anything else in Matthew Herbert’s work to date is a refusal to take the easy approach or churn out carbon copies of his past successes. While listeners will undoubtedly enjoy this new retrospective compilation of his distinguished deep house creations, we can rest assured that Herbert will remain out in the world at large, garnering sonic inspiration and bizarre source material for future creations. For this, we should be thankful.