Matthew Herbert is one of Britain’s most talented and independently minded music producers. Born in 1972, he first began releasing music in 1995 as Herbert, the House focused moniker he’s better known under for a profusion of club anthems and celebrated remixes.
A sonic explorer by nature, he’s become more focused with working on conceptual projects deeply embedded with political and philosophical meaning in recent years. Having created a record entirely sampled from the life & slaughter of a farm pig – ‘One Pig’ and a bomb being dropped over Libya – ‘The End Of Silence’. Matthew feels it’s his duty to work within his medium of sound to shine a different light on serious issues that haven’t been properly documented. But now after eight long years, seeking a break from all the seriousness, he has decided to revive the Herbert name with releases Parts 6 & 7 – a follow up to the ‘Parts 1-5’ series from the nineties, and the exclusive announcement of a new album promised for early next year.
Hyponik’s Conor McTernan spent a morning talking with Matthew at length about reviving the Herbert name, working on a new album, his new beach-side studio in Kent and why making conceptual music has become first nature for him…
You’ve revived the Herbert production name after eight years, why have you made this decision now?
I wanted to start writing music for fun again. I did a play at the National Theatre last year. Before that I put on an opera and produced the records from both the pig ‘One Pig’ & the bomb ‘The End Of Silence’ so things were quite intense as you could imagine. I wanted to have a summer off. I’ve been moving studio and preparing a new Herbert album for the beginning of next year. It’s going to feature all new material and be a summary of my life at the moment.
Are you going to sing again on this record, like you did on ‘One One’?
I don’t think I’ll sing, except for the odd backing vocal. People keep asking me to sing again but I’m just too embarrassed.
Tell me about your new studio?
It’s pretty amazing! It’s a big old fishing shed right on the beach in Kent. It’s taken me twenty-five years to find such an inspiring space. I get to walk to work along the beach so I’m feeling incredibly fortunate right now.
Do you feel like Matthew Herbert & Herbert are two separate people?
I wouldn’t say two separate people but definitely two separate processes. For example if I’m writing the pig record as Matthew Herbert and putting it together over the period of a year, there’s only really one option for what it’s going to sound like. When we were recording the butchery for example, there were so many fridges & industrial noises that it was impossible for the record not to sound industrial. When the pig moved for it’s last month into a different shed at the farm, the walls were made from metal. The pig and all it’s brothers & sisters kept crashing into the wall, and it just sounded so aggressively primal, very metallic and echoey. When recording the Herbert stuff, I can do anything, I can keep writing until I find something that I like. When producing like this, I’m much more led by my imagination rather than the sounds I’m recording.
Obviously the conceptual commissions take a long time, how long would it have taken you to put together works such as ‘Part 6, 7’?
At the moment, I’m tending to write two tracks a day and would probably take another half a day to mix them. You’re trying to create the sound of spontaneity even when it’s not spontaneous. Anyone will tell you that the first idea or impulse that you have is often the most compelling…
Has your approach to the Herbert stuff changed much as a result of doing all the conceptual work?
The last Herbert album had an eighty piece orchestra on it. I’m not going to do that again. There’s going to be less live-musicians, it’s going to be more self-contained and synthetic with synthesisers on there. A lot of my recent work has been trying to tell big stories but this one is going to be much more insular.
Does it bother you as an artist that you put so much time and effort into these projects, but people for the most part just want to listen something that sounds nice, rather than to think?
(laughs) The issue for me is that I feel like I have a duty to do things with sound because it’s such an incredible opportunity to be able to make music out of a fruit salad, or Egypt or a Tory Party conference, or a women’s refuge that The Coalition have shut down. Any story that you want to tell, you can record sounds from and make music. I feel like I have a duty to take that as far as I can imagine it going. The world is a messed up place and people are struggling to make sense of it. Capitalism is destroying so many of the things that we need just to survive. Music is a form of escape, all I can do is make it and it’s up to other people how they respond to it. I think if people want to listen to stuff like a record made from recordings of of a bomb, it requires a different kind of listening. It’s like that great Indonesian documentary “The Act Of Killing” – you wouldn’t want to watch it again and again like a Paul Thomas Anderson piece of fiction.
Obviously your touring schedule is hugely scaled back – you said before that you wanted to stop flying because of the damage to the environment, Do you feel all the better of it?
I used to fly three times a week. I’ve cut it down so that I now fly around six times a year. I managed to not fly for three whole years but it’s just not financially possible and it would involve scaling back all sorts of things.
Under what circumstances do you say yes to a booking today?
I’m always looking for something out of the ordinary, but money helps, being completely honest. I might get asked to play some really fantastic venue abroad that I know will be amazing but just can’t do it any more because my overheads are too big now with running a record label, the number of people I employ and I’ve got young children now.
Do you still like being in a club environment?
I’m now in my forties and I get up at six o’clock everyday with my children, so it’s not like I can roll in at 8 am. I still like the risk though, it’s just me and music and people. It also forces me to keep up with contemporary music.
Has your approach to DJing changed drastically over the years?
It’s a combination of playing bit of vinyl and Serato today. I’m having to re-learn a skill I developed years ago. I mean one day you’d be at the Red Dog In Stuttgart with 75 records & a couple of hours later you could be at Ewerk in Berlin having to make the same records work, whether it be by tempo, playing them in a different order or using short excerpts. It was really like learning a craft back then. Now you can stand in front of a club with 10,000 pieces of music to pick from and take it any direction. It’s a very different skill.
Do you have a conceptual drawing board for ideas at home?
Yes absolutely. I don’t think I’m going to get around to doing this so I’ll just say it, I wanted to make a record out of a police station. To just go and follow them around. I just like going to places and doing things that you wouldn’t normally do. There’s a constant list of things that you want to do and there comes a point where you have to accept that you can’t do all of them. My music is quite political and the political landscape is always changing. It’s weird listening to ‘The End Of Silence’ now, because while Libya is still a mess today, it’s slipped off the front pages.
The pig project obviously made certain parties uneasy. Do you ever get uncomfortable in your own medium?
That’s one of the main reasons why I want to do it really. I feel like so much music exists in a moral vacuum today. Society is under a huge moral pressure at the moment about what’s right and what’s wrong. I feel like morality is more and more important and what’s interesting about making music like this is the moral questions which arise. Is it right to use the sound of someone dying for music? Can that ever be respectful?
What sort of responses do you give to people calling you out on the pig?
I think for me there’s something really odd about peoples perceptions to music. We’ve all seen videos of the twin towers collapsing many times. I used sound from the collapsing and people were very aggressively against the idea that I should be turning that into music. There’s something about music that makes people feel differently because it hasn’t been used in that way before. It’s a very new process and there’s an amount of naivety on both sides. Both how it’s put together on my end and how it’s received. The most important thing is that you’re clear about what you’re doing and that you aim to create a process with as much integrity as possible. I don’t think it would be appropriate to take the pig record and put it on a packed bacon advert.
Would you like to work with Heston Blumenthal again?
I really miss him actually, we were great friends for a while then we both got very busy. I started to do some music for one of his programmes but the budget was too small to make it work. In 2007 he and his team came and filmed me making a bit of music out of bacon and egg ice-cream! (laughs).
Tell me about the 20 Pianos project. How did you envision it and actually choose all the pianos?
I think pianos often sit in intimate spaces and are witness to some terrible playing. I wrote some really dreadful, cheesy nonsense when I was a kid! I wanted to choose a spread of pianos and listen to the stories associated with them. I knew I wanted the most expensive piano in the world, which turned out to be the one that John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’ on. It’s in a museum in Phoenix today. I wanted one that was forgotten in a school and bashed around by kids, one found in a dump and lots of pianos in between. We put various calls out, asked promoters and did our own research. It ended up being a nice spread but there’s a randomness to it. We’ve built an instrument that can trigger the sampled sounds from each piano and in the performance, Sam Beste (Hejira) actually plays them all at the same time. It took the best part of a year to complete the project. Some of these things take years with research, logistics and finding the right people for the project.
It premiered in May, has everything gone according to plan so far?
It fits well in different situations, because there’s the electronic element, the live element and the classical element. It’s much more varied. A lot of the pianos don’t even work so you get this rhythmic, jagged noise. Parts of it are incredibly ugly. When you hear them all together it sounds like a synthesiser, it’s such a bold striking noise there’s nothing quite like it. Even though it’s a meditation it’s quite striking. 20 pianos being played at the same time is incredibly loud. You’re not used to one person creating that much volume from acoustic samples.
What level of involvement do you physically have at Goldsmiths? Is this something you would like to take on more in years to come?
I’m still trying to find a business structure that suits everybody. Obviously the requirements of an institution are very different to those of a record label. We want to run it as a proper standalone label that can hold it’s own and we’re keen for people to hear the music for what it is and not just judge it on the basis that it’s made by students. My role is to keep pushing people to think “is this a piece of music that EMI, XL or Beggars would release?” You want to push people to give the best possible performance then mix and master it. I’m also funding parts of it. The dream really is that the students could fund it themselves in ten years time and not just use it as a vehicle to putting their own music out but to educate them as to what their rights are. They will get experience in accountancy, PR, manufacturing and all the various sides to the industry.
Would you ever consider working as a Foley artist for a film project?
I’ve done quite a lot of work with a guy called Barnaby Smyth. He does a lot of Foley for the projects that I’ve done. He’s fantastic and I really love what he does but I hate Foley because it’s all fake. I’m obsessed with real noises and trying to hear things for what they really are rather than to recreate something or turn them into something else.
Is there a project that you’ve been planning for a long time, something that could be too explicit to ever do?
I can’t say too much about what I’m up to at the moment because it’s still secret. I‘m being offered some amazing opportunities. I’ve written a TV drama that I’m also going to direct myself. We’re casting at the moment but I can’t say anything more about it.
Is there a sound in your head that you’ve never been able to express?
There is but it changes everyday. The thing that I would really like to do more of is the recording of things in large multiples. I would love to put microphones in 100’000 houses to hear thousands of people brush their teeth at the same time, or five hundred toilets flushing in sequence. It’s about understanding the patterns of life. It’s all cycling and I’m sure that we would discover something about how we live that we otherwise couldn’t.
You’re work as mentioned before is very politically engaged. Would you care to comment on the current state of affairs in Palestine or Iraq?
I’m always looking at telling the stories of things that aren’t properly documented. For me it’s a way of life. I can’t just watch Israel bomb Gaza on pretty spurious grounds and not get involved with that regardless of my music. It’s hard not to make connections between my life and those worlds. I look at my own children and think of all those other children out there. I’m incredibly privileged to be able to fly around the world making music and live in England with clean tap water and healthy food. All that stuff is indistinguishable.
What would you say to your children if they wanted to follow in your footsteps into the music industry?
It would have to be about finding your own language or voice. I wouldn’t want them to copy what I or anybody else has done. It’s crucially about having a philosophical framework about why I’m still doing this, why is anyone bothered listening to me or why does the world still need music? There’s a problem in our society where we do stuff because we can. We’re creating a lot of waste whether it be physical or not. I have them doing music lessons but just trying to keep them enjoying it and not doing anything forceful.
What do you think about PR stunts such as the Aphex Twin Blimp flying over London to promote his new album?
I’m a fan of ideas, I think that anything that can break people out of the habit of patterns that they’re in then I’m interested. I’m not interested in anything that’s just to sell records, that’s not very exciting to me. I know that I sound like a serious douche-bag, but the politics of pleasure are really important. Things like taking pleasure in food, your friends or a walk in the woods. We live in a very difficult time where the world is massively challenged with things like the NHS being up for sale or our responsibilities for the people at the bottom of society.
I want to feel and have experiences with the real world that are connected to the love that I have for my children, or the pleasure I get from listening to well executed music or the horror I feel about reading about the new trade agreement potentially being signed between Europe & America, that allows American companies to sue the British government for the loss of profit if the government chooses not to privatise the NHS. This stuff, I just want to feel real things, I’m fed up with this plastic world, plastic food, plastic ideas, plastic music, plastic marketing campaigns that just want my money and aren’t interested in what I think or what I feel. So I just want to engage with the world that makes me feel like I’m alive and not just a simulacrum of an idea that someone once had fifty years ago that’s ripe for exploitation to a new generation…
‘Part 7’ is out next Monday 15th September on Accidental Records. Pre-order it here.
Words: Conor McTernan