Transitions, Distractions And Imaginations: Matthew Herbert Talks


Having spent the last twenty years releasing a steady stream of high quality music, you might think that Matthew Herbert may be running a little low on ideas. However, this couldn't be further from the truth as he's in the middle of setting himself up for some brand new musical ventures that few would have the guts to even attempt. With two exciting new projects on the way, along with an appearance at David Byrne's Meltdown Festival at London's Southbank Centre not too far away, I caught up with Matthew to discuss what lays ahead;

As I call, Matthew is in the middle of making a fried egg for someone else, regretting that he hadn’t made one for himself. We swiftly move past the breakfast/brunch dilemma onto discussing where he's at with his creative ventures. 

"I’m in a transition period from one record to the next. That’s always an exciting time. I’m doing a book which is a description of a record, so my next record is in fact a book. It’s a description of a record that I’ll never make."

The book is something that Matthew admits he has wanted to do for a very long time and he has managed to excite a publisher enough with the idea to get them to agree to release The Music in the near future. But what exactly was it that motivated him to take such a 'unique' approach to his next project?

"I like the idea of describing something instead of actually doing it because people hear it differently and also, in a way, it would be a chance to create your purest vision of what it is that you’re trying to do because actually the tools that we use for making music are still quite clumsy I think. 

"There are a lot of things that I can’t do in the studio that I’d like to do and this is a great opportunity to just describe them instead. I’m not able to record the sound of Samantha Cameron applying suncream to David Cameron’s back but I am able to write it. That sound still exists. 

"I think it’ll make for a more interesting listen than the normal way of doing it. "

The ventures into new areas doesn't just stop here though: "The one after that is a nude – listening to a body for 12 hours in a room, hearing it make all its noises in all their glory."

The desire to seek out new ways to present his art comes from a frustration with the point we've reached with music – Matthew even states bluntly that he thinks music is "finished for the moment." However, this statement doesn't come without a smattering of praise for the musical advancements of the last half-century – the establishing of hip-hop, house, drum n bass, trip-hop and so on is no mean feat.

"We just need time for our imagination to catch up. If you think that Thelonius Monk was playing exactly the same instrument as Mozart and yet it took 250 years for someone to play jazz on the piano. Or at least find a way of recording it.

"That’s a long time for our imagination to percolate and to make sense of the tool in front of us or the instrument in front of us. There’s been a huge explosion of technology and possibilities in music and so it’s going to take a long time for us to catch up with that.

"We now have access to so much music and so much stuff but I think it creates less and less space for silence, less and less space for thoughtfulness, mindfulness. Actually we need time to reflect and pause and think about what we’re doing instead of just doing it."

Though we might not yet have flying cars or jetpacks it does feel as though we've moved on significantly in the last half-century, immeasurably so when it comes to music. However, not all of these advancements have helped us out with our quest to progress our society. We're all well aware of the role that technology and the internet plays in our lives, dominating the way we go about our work.

"I think it was Zadie Smith who said ‘they used to say writing was 99% perspiration and 1% inspirations but now it’s 1% inspiration and 99% internet’. It’s like that, constant distractions. It immediately sucks you into its world and once you’re on the internet you start reading the newspaper and so on.

"It’s more just the space to think, that’s what’s lacking. I think if we actually had more space to think we’d stop this disturbing movement in society towards hyper-consumption – whether it be George Osborne’s despicable raiding of the pockets of the poor to pay for the prolificacy of the rich and the gambling of the financial institutions. It’s disgusting."

Matthew's gripes with the modern world don't just end there, his frustration with the high-quantity of music being released and never being heard – despite how high the quality of it is. There are so many artists across the board who don't get the exposure that their music deserves and this overly-competitive environment can result in some of the most talented music-makers of our generation barely receiving 100 plays on Soundcloud as their sounds get buried away beneath a wealth of dirge.

"It’s just a wall of noise. All of it is just a distraction from the fundamental truth that the path we’re on is leading us to inevitable destruction. If we don’t change what we’re doing then the climate is going to change our world forever."

Since Matthew moved out of London, approximately five million new people have arrived in the already frantic city. Though these events are (probably) unrelated, he does seem keen to have space for his thoughts as opposed to being caught up in London's hectic atmosphere.

"I used to live in Forest Hill and it would take me an hour and a half to get to somewhere like St Pancras whereas it takes me less time now and it’s half or a third of the price, plus I live by the sea. It’s not as ethnically diverse down here or as much going on but there’s at least space to breathe a bit more."

Returning to music, it doesn't take long talking to Matthew to understand that he's much more interested in the various aspects of music than your standard music-maker. We spoke in length about the difficulties behind creating an interesting live show, Matthew points out that it's not easy when you're being booked in such a range of venues.

"One of the real difficulties about creating a live show is that you have to create a show that works in the Sydney Opera House and also works in the dance tent at Glastonbury.

"You can come up with really fancy lighting but what happens if you’re playing at 3pm?

"It’s a very strange thing to prepare yourself for. It’s fine if you’re a band because there’s a certain routine of it that makes sense but if you’re wanting to do something different… I guess that’s why we do it though, the risk of it going wrong somehow."

Before we head our separate ways there's just time to take a brief stroll back into the world of politics. As you can imagine when two left-leaning creative types talk politics there's only one direction it could be heading in. Yet Matthew seems considerably more composed than most of us when it comes to addressing the worrying state of affairs that we as a nation find ourselves in.

"I think when the world is a mess like this, when you can see that there’s an entirely broken system, it feels like being outside a Medieval castle with extremely high walls and I guess our music comes from trying to find a way in, to break the siege somehow to stop it. Sometimes you feel like an ant at the foot of the wall and sometimes you come up with a battering ram and sometimes you try and scale the walls with ropes and other times, like with this record, you just stop and have a bit of a party and regroup. Eat something, drink something, work out what to do next and the re-approach the problem.

"Who knows, presumably I’m going to fail but it’s about not trying to give up your optimism. At the moment George Osborne seems to have everything going in his favour and the wind behind him but I have no idea why because everything points to him being wrong on almost every single issue."

As any of you who followed any of the election build-up can't have failed to miss, the majority of the newspapers were backing a certain right wing party which surelly had some bearing on the eventual result. With Corbynmania now in full swing and Blairites left and right coming out of the woodwork to warn against a potential swing to the left wing, the press once more looks like it'll be swaying minds across the country. 

"Things are so distorted by the press. The Independent didn’t back the Labour party and so the Guardian was the only one to back Labour and so Milliband, in a way, did OK considering how much bile was written about him."

And so it comes down to striking the balance between being a political force of nature and moving his artistic vision in new directions, as well as generally living his daily life. What exactly is in the future for Mr Herbert? 

"This record is a pause before trying to go back to bringing down the establishment. I’ve got many many plans…"

See Matthew Herbert as part of David Byrne's Meltdown Festival at London's Southbank Centre on Sunday 23rd August, find out more here.