Psychic, Powerful, and Perfectly Wonky
Matmos's Mind-Blowing Telepathic Experiment
"These people were on fire," says Matmos member Martin Schmidt about the massive post–Super Bowl celebration by his fellow Baltimore citizens in the wake of the Ravens' win. "When I walked by, one of them said, 'Yay, our team won!' I'm infected by the same disease, but I just doubt myself. Am I allowed to be enthusiastic about anything?"
"Some of them had this weird irony about the fact they were celebrating," says Drew Daniel, Schmidt's musical and life partner, who recorded some of the spontaneous festivities because, hey, this stuff could come in handy for a future album or something. "It would creep into the way they would chant. 'Bal-ti-more! Bal-ti-more! U!S!A! U!S!A!' It was like there were quotes around it." But he also sensed something "utopian and awesome" about those crowds.
Matmos have been putting quotes around experimental electronic music for the last 16 years. If anyone could take the chaos and exuberance of a sportsball hullabaloo and make them interesting, it's these witty eccentrics. Hell, they could probably put an ingenious spin on the tired trope of "jock jams" if they set their minds to it. They may be highbrow creative chameleons, but Matmos know how to inject fun and unpredictability into their music, as anyone who saw Daniel's butt get used as a percussion instrument at that long-ago Triple Door set can attest.
Daniel and Schmidt—who celebrated their 20th anniversary as a couple last Halloween—moved to Baltimore from San Francisco six years ago when the former accepted a position as English professor at Johns Hopkins University (his book The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance comes out March 1). When not working on Matmos, which recently switched labels from Matador to Thrill Jockey, Schmidt mops floors at two record stores, including the True Vine, run by Jason Willett of cult faves Half Japanese. He also serves as "evil capitalist" for Karl Ekdahl's electronic-instrument company Knas, which manufactures synths with names like "The Moisturizer" and "The Polygamist," the latter of which is shaped like an Easter egg. Schmidt also keeps busy in Baltimore's free improv scene, and he and Daniel organize the annual High Zero Festival in September. And did you read Daniel's perceptive book on Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats? On top of all this, Daniel is resurrecting his dormant Soft Pink Truth project with a bunch of deep house covers of black metal songs. Sounds incredible.
Such brilliant, unlikely concepts have guided Matmos's career. They initially became notorious among IDM fanatics for their arcane sampling sources: crayfish neurons, balloons, latex shirts, rat cages, etc. They based the 2001 album A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure around the sounds generated by plastic surgery (Schmidt's father works in the field).
The new full-length, The Marriage of True Minds, might be their most labor-intensive and highfalutin to date. The last four years, Daniel oversaw parapsychological sessions based on the Ganzfeld ("total field") experiment in Baltimore, Oxford, and Pennsylvania's Haverford College. Several of Matmos's talented musician friends—including Keith Fullerton Whitman, Jenn Wasner, and Dan Deacon—entered states of sensory deprivation while Daniel tried to convey the concept of The Marriage of True Minds directly into their brains. He asked subjects to describe what they saw or heard in their minds when Daniel explained the idea. Their responses became the springboard for Matmos to construct the album's nine tracks. A diverse outpouring of musique concrète, Baltimore club, no-wave disco, and a black metal cover of the Buzzcocks' "ESP" ensued. It's a brilliantly scatterbrained manifestation of telepathy.
As with some couples that have been together for a long time, Daniel and Schmidt have accrued their own telepathy. "At our moments when we're really clicking, there is that moment of transparency where we're making complementary choices at the same time," Daniel says. "That's an ideal we aspire to. We have little non-flashy experiences of telepathy, and we have the couples-completing-each-other's-sentences effect, as well, where we're both the external hard drive for the other of memories and details. Musical partnerships have to rely a certain amount on that kind of everyday mind reading, of sensing somebody else's emotional place, figuring out how to intersect with that. You're screwed without it."
For this tour, Matmos will be joined onstage for some songs by Baltimore quartet Horse Lords, whose guitarist Owen Gardner provides scorching accompaniment on True Minds' freak-funk peak "Tunnel"—which, according to Schmidt, was completed at the last minute, oddly enough. Daniel says, "It's really fun to play with Horse Lords. They're great players, but they're also aware of how to hold back. I don't like seeing a bunch of people pretend to be busy onstage while a huge, chugging electronic signal drowns them out. But I also don't like going and not hearing what makes electronic music distinctive in its textures. So you have to be careful about how you combine so-called real instruments with electronics in a live situation or it can go really badly. It gives us a lot of freedom. Luckily, they're good players and can open out what the songs can do."
While the Seattle set will rely heavily on True Minds material, Matmos plan to reach back to the A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure era of their catalog, too. "Having the opportunity of a hot-shit drummer and guitarist helps us because we can try out digital collages that a lot of people just wouldn't play," Daniel says. "Horse Lords are really good at learning to play in odd contexts. In their own band, they only play in just intonation, so they have special guitars and basses that have frets that have been drilled and reinserted so they can play in that tuning system. They're willing to be wonky, and that's perfect for us."
Another reason Matmos enlisted Horse Lords is extramusical. "Basically, as aging queens," Daniel says, "we needed some cute, young straight guys to thicken the plot."