Records and Responsibility: An Interview with Matthew Herbert
By Clare Birchall
15th June 2003

Matthew Herbert is widely regarded as one of the UK's most innovative house producers. While in most quarters the idea of self-consciously political dance music is a distant memory, an echo of the failed campaign against the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, Herbert has increasingly focussed his aesthetic project in terms of an explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-militarist politics. He recently published a manifesto for music-making redolent of that produced by the Danish Dogme group of film-makers, which unusually attacks the culture of sample-based music-making from a left perspective - http://www.magicandaccident.com/mh/index.htm?1.

The release of Matthew Herbert's new album - a politically inflected homage to or re-imagining of Big Band music - continues his self-professed interest in 'music that doesn't quite fit'. Luckily, his followers seem to relish the musical experiments, the surprises, 'the accidents' as Herbert would say. His work, though impossible to summarise (he records under three different performing personas - Herbert, Radio Boy, and Doctor Rockit - each with their own label), always thrives on a tension between serious musical precision and playful innovation. Herbert also consistently tries to use his music and the opportunities this offers (such as radio airtime, or inches in the press) to question the worst excesses of global capitalism. It was the relationship between music and politics that guided our e-mail interview.

Q: Could you outline the development of your music and say what kinds of things have shaped that development?

The introduction of technology to my world really shaped my musical development. My bus stop when I was a kid was next to a music shop and everyday after school, I would go in and drool over the latest gadgets. Happy that I was excited about something creative, my parents took out a loan for a synthesizer.

I still find the roots of music technology in military technology uncomfortable. Particularly in light of the fact that so many electronic musicians use quasi-military language for music - 'its the bomb' 'its a killer track' an obsession with the 'underground' peaking in the worship of Detroit technos finest: Mad Mike and the 'Underground Resistance' record label. They very much present themselves as class and race warriors, complete with balaclavas, camouflage outfits and aggressive rhetoric. There are the Stanton Warriors, Bomb the Bass (going back a few years now), Audio Bullys and so on. My memory of other examples is a bit slow as I'm in Bologna and feeling very lightweight, but anyway, you get the picture.

When I got a sampler at the age of 17, the whole thing changed again. As a classical musician I was taught to eliminate mistakes and accidents until I could achieve that state of high-art nirvana of the 'perfect performance'. Just one mistake meant you were a bad musician. The sampler not only levelled the playing field by allowing the sound of a chair to be equal to that of a Stradivarius violin, but its operating system is based almost entirely on accidents (when it started at least). What then happened was that the technology began to define the principal themes of electronic music. What should have been the revolution of absolute freedom, became a series of repetitions and a discourse with familiarity and authenticity. Musicians sampled jazz records and called themselves jazz, they sampled James Brown and declared their music funky. The brilliant failures of the Roland 909 drum machine to sound like a real drummer and the 303 to sound like a real bass drew an army of devotees eager to explore these mistakes. In turn, the manufacturers constructed machines and devices to recreate these mistakes as deliberate artistic processes. The consequence is popular programs like 'Rebirth' which incorporate all the early analogue machines in to one easy-to-use software package. It seems strange to think of such a thing when the invention of the sampler created a possible world where the use of sounds described by someone else became totally unnecessary.

As for me, I was so in shock and awe (how dare they steal our language?) at the potential of this empty machine - empty like a saxophone before it's filled with air - that I sampled whatever I could around me. What I sampled was largely irrelevant. I used my studio tables and chairs in several pieces. I catalogued my world and my friends. As my music developed, I started on a quest for the unique. Instead of listening to the mundane, I went on a mission to find the special. From particular sets of traffic lights in Sydney, to baggage reclaim belt no. 4 in terminal 2 Heathrow that has a peculiar rhythm all of its own. It took a few years to realise that all the bad stuff in the world made noises too. And then it hit me that all the sounds I used before, told the world as much about me as what I did with them.

You could tell I didn't live in Afghanistan because I was recording the sounds of a packet of crisps. You could tell there wasn't a drought in Exeter because I was playing a whole piece with water down a drain.

With my last two and a half records therefore I have quite specifically, consciously and particularly considered every noise and sound. In this new record alone, I can take absolute responsibility for every single recording, and there are over 3000. Every one is unique. Every one has a point. Every one has a specific context and every one has been chosen by me. In a world where we have many options but few choices, and at a time of war when decisions are constantly taken on my behalf without my consent, this process becomes one of empowerment. The fact too that as the record label myself, I can and have taken all the decisions regarding the manufacture and distribution of the record itself contributes to the powerful creation of a viable alternative and creative business.

Q: What for you is the nature of the relationship between politics and music?

For want of a better word right now, they are embedded. Music is the organisation of sound. Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks et al have orchestrated an illegal attack on Iraq. They have decided what bombs to drop where and the patterns of explosions are considered and final. They would only have to call it their symphony and the piece would be complete.

Q: How does the way you have set up your business reflect your politics?

We don't do merchandising. We avoid advertising whenever we can. We don't try and coerce people into buying the music. Almost everyone I employ full or part time around the world works for themselves and there are about 16 of us. Almost exclusively everyone works from home. This is a deliberate accident. I like the fact that it moves me away from being someone at the top. People are responsible for their own honesty, motivation, hours and commitment. The irony is that they almost all work extremely long hours and produce some exceptional results. It is a living counter to the homogenisation of the working environment that so easily transforms itself in to the universally repetitive product.

Q: You have written a manifesto for music production (PCCOM: Personal Contract for the Composition of Music). Could you say what prompted you to write this and say what the issues around ownership and sampling are for you?

I should start by saying that musically some great things have been done by sampling other people's music. Some of my favourite records have been done this way, including the bulk of hip hop.

However, if my desire as a musician is to be original (and this goes for life as well) then why start five paces back by sampling someone else's music? My ability to call myself the author/auteur/composer is immediately undermined. We have the ability to create a unique musical language every time we write a piece of music, a luxury afforded to us by the sampler. The moment you begin to fill it, the creative process begins.

The move towards a consumer-based society and its illusions of choice and constant fulfilment of personal desire have emboldened the musician to raid any music of his/her choosing and consider it their own. The rise of Napster and its 'sharing' of music between strangers also illustrates this. In an ego-driver society, people have assumed that since the easy theft of resources (in this case existing music) is a possibility, it is also a right. At a time when the American empire takes what it requires from other nations without asking and often without payment, its easy to see how wider society reacts to this possibility in art. Many people have considered this a Marxist revolution, since property is theft, and musical recordings are considered property. The problem is within musical composition, however, is that people then sell their own music using these samples. They are creating their own exclusive property and their philosophic raison d'etre is destroyed. This coupled with the fact that well over 90% of sample usage is never cleared makes it doubly uncomfortable. If people want to take samples for free, then they need to be prepared to distribute their music for free.

Q: How do you think the dance music scene has changed over the past 10 years or so, and what are the implications of this (both politically and personally)?

It was a movement that was deliberately politicised. It's incredible, looking back, at how impotent it became. What started out as a free party movement, the coming together of people of all classes and backgrounds and arranging huge peaceful gatherings simply moved in to clubs after meagre resistance. Clubs, being designed to make money, often illegitimately, then divided people along the traditional lines. They have also resisted visible signs of social or political context inside. Loud music, flashing lights, strobes and smoke all take you somewhere else. During that same period, a corporate reality has been allowed in. Sponsorship is everywhere, logos and advertising rife.

Q: What do you think of the cult of the DJ that has arisen?

Pointless and impotent. Overpaid and undertalented. Most djs make more in one night than any of the musicians on the records they are playing. And that includes me. I have been on a dj tour through Europe whilst this phoney war has been going on. It's very hard to know what I'm doing. Am I providing distraction, taking people away from protesting and changing things, or is it the celebration of ideas and visions for a community ignored by those in power?

Q: Which project have you been most proud of?

The Radio Boy record [The Mechanics of Destruction which sampled the destruction of McDonald's food, a cup of Starbucks coffee, a television set etc - see Big Band liner notes below] was of specific pride for me because the process became much more important than the music. It didn't matter what the music was like, it was just the fact that It was music. It was also a turning point for my music because for the first time instead of having to be about something, McDonald's, Starbucks etc. it actually was those things. For instrumental music this is a mini revolution. Furthermore, the way we distributed it became a part of the meaning. The album was given away free and in one of three ways. We gave it out at gigs, by mp3 downloads and by mailing a cd back to anyone who sent us an envelope with their name on. It therefore became impossible for the audience to not know what the music was about. The fact that the distribution process was implicit in the artistic content of the record created a genuine and spontaneous relationship with the audience. People sent us money, stamps, cds of their own music, books they had written, pictures, artwork. It felt like a dialogue that was almost entirely absent in the traditional business models. It also freed them from having to like it stylistically, which people did without the angry sense of disappointed ownership that usually entails.

As music is the organisation of sound, our work whether we realise it or not, is about transformation - taking the chaos around us and giving it an order according to the principles we respect the most. In doing so we can offer the world alternative ways of seeing itself and giving it the confidence to change how it may act in future. The fact that we almost always fail to do that, means we have a lot of work to do.

For this new record though, I feel I have at least started that process. I have created something absolutely specific (I am not interested in listening to a book fall on a table, I am interested in listening to a book by Noam Chomsky fall on a table) and an emotional reaction to that. These things exist in parallel.

I have transformed the sound of an Epson sc740 colour printer into a political commentary that simultaneously prints the score to, and provides the soundtrack for, my discontent.

THE MATTHEW HERBERT BIG BAND

GOODBYE SWINGTIME

AT A TIME OF WAR, IT IS A DIFFICULT TASK TO KNOW WHERE TO PLACE MUSIC. CONTEMPORARY MUSIC, LIKE MUCH OF WESTERN CULTURE IS AGAIN AT A CROSSROADS. DOES IT DESCRIBE, CRITIQUE AND CONTRIBUTE TO THE URGENT POLITICAL QUESTIONS OF THE DAY, OR PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE, PRESCRIBING DIFFERENT RULES AND ESPOUSING ITS OWN VALUES? WITH THIS RECORD I AM ATTEMTPTING TO DO BOTH SIMULTANEOUSLY, WITHOUT COMPROMISING EITHER.

WITH MY LAST ALBUM AS RADIO BOY 'THE MECHANICS OF DESTRUCTION', I ATTEMPTED TO DO THE FORMER, ENGAGING DIRECTLY WITH THE SOCIETY THAT THE MUSIC EXISTS IN. IT WAS AN EXPLICITLY POLITICAL RECORD, DESIGNED THROUGH CONTENT, PROCESS AND DISTRIBUTION TO PRESENT A PERSONALISED REACTION TO AN INCREASINGLY HOMOGENISED WORLD. I TOOK THE SOUNDS OF PEOPLE, PRODUCTS AND INDUSTRIES THAT HAVE CONTRIBUTED IN A PREDOMINANTLY NEGATIVE WAY TO OUR WORLD AND THEN ADOPTED, DESTROYED, AND RECONSTRUCTED THEM. FOR EXAMPLE, AS A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE FAST FOOD INDUSTRY, I TOOK THE SOUNDS MADE FROM THE CONTENTS OF A BIG MAC MEAL FROM MCDONALD'S AND ORGANISED THEM IN AN INSTRUMENTALLY DESCRIPTIVE CONTEXT. AS SUCH, THE RECORD WAS A POLEMIC.

WITH THIS RECORD, I HAVE ATTEMPTED TO CREATE AN EQUALLY AND UNASHAMEDLY POLITICAL RECORD BUT IN A DIFFERNT WAY. THE POLITICS OF THE RECORD EXIST BOTH WITHIN, AND PARALLEL TO, THE CENTRAL HARMONIC THEMES. CERTAINLY THE STRUGGLE OF LIVING IN A WORLD IN WHICH ONE'S PERSONAL IDEALS ARE CONSTANTLY IGNORED OR OVERULED CAN BE HEARD NOT ONLY IN THE LYRICS BUT ALSO IN THE MUSICAL STRUGGLE BETWEEN HARMONY AND DISSONANCE. THE SIMULTANEOUS MUSICAL QUEST TO CREATE ARRANGEMENT, STRUCTURE, SCORE AND MELODY THAT AVOID TRADITION, CAN ALSO BE SEEN AS A CONSCIOUS STEP AWAY FROM ANY FORM OF DOMINANT AUTHORITY. THIS COUPLED WITH THE FACT THAT AS A SMALL INDEPENDENT LABEL WE HAVE MANAGED TO FUND AND DISTRIBUTE SOMETHING ON SUCH A LARGE SCALE AS THIS MAKES FOR AN EQUALLY IMPORTANT SOCIAL STATEMENT. WE HAVE COMPLETE CONTROL OVER ITS DISRIBUTION, LICENCING, PUBLISHING AND LIVE PERFORMANCE. MORE THAN THAT, I CAN SAY UNEQUIVOCALLY THAT I AM RESPONSIBLE FOR EVERY SINGLE RECORDING HEARD HERE. EVERY SOUND ON THE ALBUM, ORIGINATED AS A UNIQUE RECORDING MADE BY ME, OR THE ABBEY ROAD ENGINEERS. THEY HAVE NEVER EXISTED BEFORE AND WILL NEVER BE USED AGAIN. IN A WESTERN CONSUMER-BASED DEMOCRACY WHERE OUR CHOICES ARE CONSTATLY COMPROMISED BY CORPORATE PRINCIPLES, LOCAL DISTRIBUTION OR AGGRESSIVE MARKETING, IT IS OF SOME IMPORTANCE TO ME THAT I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO TAKE COMPLETE RESPONISIBILITY FOR THE CONTENT AND ITS AUTHENTICITY. IN A MUSIC BUSINESS THAT STILL RELIES HEAVILY ON RECYCLING, IT FEELS LIKE A FUTURISTIC STEP. IRONICALLY, THE ELECTRONIC, AND THUS MORE FUTURISTIC COMPONENT OF THE RECORD, IS ENTIRELY DERIVED FROM ACOUSTIC SOURCES.

IT IS IN THE NATURE OF THE ADDITIONAL SOUNDS THAT I HAVE ADDED THAT THE POLITICS BECOMES EMBEDDED IN THE MUSIC. THE CONCEPTUAL BACK BONE OF THE ALBUM IS POLITICAL LITERATURE. THROUGHOUT THERE ARE SOUNDS TAKEN FROM A NUMBER OF RELEVANT AND SHARPLY ARGUED POLITICAL TEXTS. THERE IS THE SOUND OF PRINTING MADE BY MACHINES AT MY LOCAL PRINTERS. IN AN ATTEMPT TO GET THE SOUND OF 10 MILLION PEOPLE IN TO ONE TRACK AND AT THE SAME TIME TO TRY AND MEASURE THE WEIGHT AND GRAVITY OF HUMAN NUMBERS, I INVITED PEOPLE FROM AROUND THE WORLD TO DROP THEIR LOCAL PHONE BOOKS OFF OF CHAIRS. A LOT OF THE SAME PEOPLE ALSO SENT IN NEWSPAPER CUTTINGS FROM NATIONAL NEWSPAPERS ABOUT IRAQ. THESE CUTTINGS WERE THEN MADE INTO MUSICAL ISNTRUMENTS AND INCORPORATED INTO A PIECE ENTITLED 'MISPRINTS'. THE SOUNDS OF PEOPLE PROTESTING ABOUT IRAQ AT AN ANTI-WAR RALLY IN LONDON WEAVES QUIETLY IN AND OUT OF ONE PIECE. THE SOUND OF MY COMPUTER PRINTING OUT PAGES CAN BE HEARD ON A TRACK ENTITLED 'THE THREE W'S'.

IT IS IN THIS LAST PIECE THAT I HAVE REALISED MY MOST COMPLETE VISION OF HOW MODERN MUSIC SHOULD SIT. IN ITS FIRST INSTANCE, IT IS A PROTEST SONG. IN ITS SECOND INSTANCE, IT IS A CAREFULLY CRAFTED, SCORED AND RECORDED BIG BAND PIECE. IN ITS THIRD INSTANCE, IT IS A CONTEMPORARY PIECE OF MUSIC, PROCESSING THOSE RECORDINGS WITH TECHNOLOGY ONLY AVAILABLE IN THE LAST TWO YEARS. IN ITS FORTH AND MOST IMPORTANT INSTANCE, IT USES SOUND FOR EXPLICTILY POLITCAL PURPOSES. THE PAGES BEING PRINTED OUT ARE THOSE FROM A SPECIFIC WEBSITE (WWW.SOAW.ORG). HEARD BEING TYPED OUT IN THE OPENING BARS, IS A SITE DETAILING AMERICA'S ONGOING INVOLVEMENT WITH LATIN AMERICAN DICTATORS AND THEIR RUTHLESS MILITARY COMMANDERS. WHILST WHAT CAN BE HEARD COULD BE THE SOUND OF A PRINTER, PRINTING ANY NUMBER OF THINGS, IT ISN'T. IT'S PRINTING SOMETHING COMPLETELY SPECIFIC AND THUS CAN SOUND ABSOLUTLEY NO OTHER WAY.

THE POSSIBILITY OF BEING THIS SPECIFIC AND MAKING SUCH AN EXPLICIT POINT WTIHOUT COMPROMISING MY MUSICAL VISION REMAINS AN ENTICING ONE.

Matthew Herbert's website is http://www.magicandaccident.com

His new album, Goodbye Swingtime is released on Accidental Records.

By Claire Birchall