Trying to pigeonhole Matthew Herbert is an impossible task – from big band swing to classical reinterpretations to minimal techno (to capturing the sound of a farmyard animal from birth to death), it seems nothing is out of bounds for arguably the most idiosyncratic force in electronic music.
Under a myriad of guises – Doctor Rockit, Wishmountain,Radio Boy, the eponymous Herbert and various other identities – the 46-year-old has combined playful pop sensibility with a strictly-imposed experimental agenda for more than two decades.
A Stockhausen for the rave generation, if you will.
Following on from his work on the A Fantastic Woman soundtrack last year, his latest project is The State Between Us, featuring the Matthew Herbert Great Britain and Gibraltar European Union Membership Referendum Big Band.
It’s a unique response to the Article 50 process that features the Kent native at his sampling best: the sound of a Ford Fiesta bring dismantled into its constituent parts, a long-distance swimmer crossing the channel, a cyclist circling around Chequers…
As part of our ORIGINALS series, 909originals caught up with the maestro, to chat about the tracks, clubs and individuals that helped shape his musical journey.
Ladies and gentlemen, Matthew Herbert…
Q. What was your musical upbringing like?
I grew up in a little village, Four Oaks, in the middle of nowhere, in Kent. Ok, it wasn’t actually the middle of nowhere, but there was nothing going on… the local nightclub was called Cinzano’s. To be honest, I had a bit of a sheltered upbringing.
I did piano and violin to Grade 8 level, and played in orchestras and in choirs. I was all set to go down a more classical route and then university opened my eyes.
I went to Exeter University in 1988 and house music pretty much happened the moment I arrived – just after the second ‘summer of love’, in 1988.
Q. A good time to embrace electronic music, in other words?
The free party scene was incredible. I remember going to the Rat Pack in 1989 in Exmouth; they were playing a mix of hardcore, jungle and San Francisco-style breaks… that just blew me away.
To this day, I still think it sounds incredible, there’s been nothing really in the years since that has captured the rawness and the roughness of that period.
Also, when ecstasy hit, you had university students, the local football hooligans, poor people, middle class people and new age travellers all having a party in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.
It was one of the very few times in my life that I was in a situation that was classless; there was a levelling of the class system.
Today, if you are at a nightclub, you can sometimes get a glimpse of it. But back then, it was a combination of everything: people volunteering, people donating sound systems, people turning up with food – nobody was charging anything. It was a pretty special time.
Q. Who was a big influence on your early career?
A lot of it stems from two people really: Mark and Jess Darby. They ran a record shop called Mighty Force in Exeter, and they started a little label, the first release on which was Analogue Bubblebath by Aphex Twin. Then they put out Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard’s first records, and my first records.
There was a real scene down there: Aphex was in Cornwall, Tom was nearby, and there were a bunch of other people putting out great music. It really was a fertile little pocket of production. And you had this record shop – Mighty Force – at the centre of this little bubble.
Mighty Force started putting on club nights, around 1990/91, and you had a real mix of acts – one week you would have Andy Weatherall, the next you might have drum and bass, and the following week you might have Judge Jules.
All of that was really fostered by the record store. I don’t think that they get the recognition they deserve.
Q. What did you do in college?
At Exeter, I did drama because there were no music courses for electronic music – all they did was classical music. There was an ‘experimental music’ course in Huddersfield, but it was far too esoteric for me.
It was a very different time; electronic music wasn’t visible. If you heard a piece of dance music on the radio, it was a big thing.
Q. I read somewhere that you were introduced to Steve Reich [father of minimalism] at an early age, and it had a profound effect on you?
That was at secondary school actually, by Pete Stollery. I’m still in touch with him actually; he’s a good guy. He even put out a piece of music on Accidental Records many years ago.
It’s a bit like with Mark at Mighty Force – it only takes one teacher or one person to make a difference in your life. I was lucky to have Mark, Jess and Pete, these were important figures.
Q. How did you get into production?
I started doing house music at university. I wasn’t particularly good – I put out my first record in 1992, under the name Fog City. It was a breakbeat sort of thing with a bit of deep house on the other side… it didn’t really get a full release. Also, there was a Nottingham label called Time, and I put a record out for them in 1994.
After I left university, though, I was unemployed for about 18 months, and I went back to live with my dad for a bit. When I was there, I wrote a whole load of material, including the early Herbert stuff, and Doctor Rockit.
At that stage I was still dabbling in different genres, I hadn’t really worked out my way of writing. But I started to develop a body of work, and that’s really how I got started.
I still follow the agenda that I set myself when I was putting out the Wishmountain stuff: taking eight noises and making a piece of music. It’s the equivalent of picking up a guitar and putting out a few chords.
There’s something about the purity of it that I really like – one object, one idea. It was just a case of trying to do it with some clarity and simplicity… and to make it banging.
I listened to an early track I did the other day, called Radio 2; we sold 30,000 copies of it and it was played by Sven Vath and WestBam. It was a big record in Germany, and various techno clubs, and it was just a series of noises made by an old plastic radio that I hit a few times.
Q. Do you think that simplistic approach has stayed with you?
I’m really into good quality sounds. I spent quite a lot of money and time over the years buying really good microphones and consoles and EQs, but back then I had nothing; one mic and a mixing desk that cost a hundred quid.
Back in the early days of dance music, you just plugged a piece of kit straight into a DAT machine, and that was that. It just sounded good, straight out of the box. It’s much harder now to get the clarity and crispness, ironically with all the tools available.
I think we’re now at an unprecedented point in the evolution of music. You can make music out of hedgehogs. Or Italy. Or wine gums.
You don’t necessarily need drum machines, you don’t need violins, or guitars. Of course, you can still do great things with them, but the real revolution is that you can now make music out of anything.
Q. In 2000, you published a manifesto, the Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (PCCOM) (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes), in which you set ground rules for your music. How did that come about?
I put three singles out on the same day, and NME wanted to make all three of them ‘Single of the Week’. From that point on I got offered lots of remix work, and pretty soon the next year of your life, or even longer, is all mapped out for you.
I remember getting a fax asking me if I wanted to go to Vancouver to perform, and then another a few days later inviting me to Moscow, and then Japan. I had hardly ever been in a plane at that point.
Obviously it’s exciting, but it’s also a real shift in the landscape of your world, and I wanted to hold on to something original.
This is why I wrote the manifesto; from an early point I was keen to remember why I was doing the thing I was doing, and needed to make sure I wouldn’t get pulled away from what I wanted to do. It’s very easy to get sucked into the ‘Ibiza lifestyle’, or the other way, into the 6am underground techno thing.
I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose my sense of curiosity, because it’s very easy to dilute the things you believe in by accident, particularly as opportunities shift and change.
For me, it’s sort of a distinction between art and commerce. It’s not so much about changes to my routine, it’s the fact that I was really excited about the artistic opportunities afforded by new technologies, and sometimes the commerce of it would pull you off in another direction.
Q. Around the same time, you set up Accidental Records. What sort of a platform did that give you?
As the name suggests, the whole thing was something of an accident! I remember I was in my early 20s, releasing records for record labels run by people that were in their early 20s, and a lot of them didn’t really know what they were doing in terms of business.
And so, with my first few records, the labels went and spent all the royalties before they could pay me, so I ended up getting all my rights back. All those record labels went bust because they weren’t properly managed, so I decided to start releasing things myself.
Initially, I had three labels, Soundslike, which was for house music, Lifelike, which was for the Doctor Rockit stuff, and Accidental, which was for experimental stuff. Over the years, the other two fell away, and I do everything through Accidental now.
Q. Have things worked out like you planned them with the label?
When you look back on a lot of things, there’s an element of conscious design and chaos to them, and I think the record label is no different. You do the best that you can, and then a lot of it is about taking risks.
When I did the first Herbert stuff, for example, there was a lot of resistance to putting vocals on it – people didn’t think it was appropriate. That sort of felt absurd to me, so when I had my own label I was free to do what I wanted, and I didn’t have to follow these ‘rules’.
Q. Were Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy, Wishmountain and others an opportunity to explore different sides to your musical personality?
In a way, they were. Nowadays, everybody listens to everything, because you have access to everything, but back then, it was a lot more segregated. In London, for example, you went to Fat Cat Records for techno, and Blackmarket Records for house music.
It was a case of having different names as a way to engage with different audiences and different styles, and just create. I wanted to try different styles of music, and be free, I guess.
Q. Was it a way to maintain a sense of humour about things, in a way?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the whole thing was like a giant sandbox.
I did house, techno, one or two drum and bass records… if you listen to the early Dr Rockit stuff, it’s all over the place, stylistically. I suppose it was my version of an electro record, that didn’t sound anything like electro.
There weren’t the visible hierarchies around making music back then. If you could afford it, you would send a DAT off to a pressing plant, and you got 500 copies back, and if you were lucky people played it.
It was a very do-it-yourself aesthetic – like a complicated, physical version of Soundcloud.
Q. When the Matthew Herbert’s Big Band concept started, around 2003, were you surprised at how successful it was?
Not really. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, because it wasn’t really about me. That was the fun thing about the Big Band, I could have walked off the stage and the show would have carried on.
The people I was playing with were of a very high standard, and there’s something viscerally brilliant about Big Band. At the end of the day, it’s men and women blowing through bits of brass tube and hitting stuff, and it just works. I guess when you move into that genre, you inherit a certain amount of the traditions that go with it.
It felt exciting. It was different for me, but I wasn’t nervous about it at all, I would have been much more nervous about playing to a crowd of die-hard techno fans in Berlin, where it’s just you and some records; there’s no margin of error.
Q. Did you enjoy working as part of a group, instead of as an individual?
The Big Band project was really about collaboration, and so many of the best things in my life have come about about because of collaboration.
I think there’s this myth of the music producer squirrelled away in a room creating music that someone’s never thought of. But it’s all part of a community and a set of ideals. It’s all built on something.
Even the start of house music was built on the inventiveness of the Japanese hardware designers that built the 303, 808 and 909. Nobody knows their names, but they had a profound effect on music and culture.
Q. So much of your work has surfed the waves between commercial and avant-garde, Plat Du Jour (an album comprised of food sounds) and One Pig (which followed a piglet over the course of its lifetime). Do you feel a real drive to push things forward, musically?
I think I’m sort of slightly blessed with an attribute that is really useful, which is the gift of being really shit at copying other people.
My drum and bass was never very good, my techno didn’t sound like anyone else’s techno, even though I was trying to emulate what others were doing.
I’m having the same experience these days with my movie soundtrack stuff – somebody told me that ‘we need more straightforward horror-type noises’ and I gave it a good shot, but I just wasn’t very good at it. There are other people I know that are phenomenal at it, and really know how to put something like that together. But in the end I end up cheating, and doing my own stuff.
In some ways it’s easier to do your own stuff – I can pick up a model railway kit and capture some noises from it and have a piece of music finished in an hour. But if I try to sit down and write something properly, in a set ‘style’, that takes a lot longer to do.
Q. Do you put yourself under pressure to keep coming up with new ideas?
In a way I do. I start to work out what I’m gong to do next, and I do up a list, and its generally quite a long list. But to be honest, that’s not where the pressure is.
Coming up with ideas is relatively straightforward. It’s not like we NEED any more music, and it’s certainly not the case that we need any more house music – there’s enough house music int he world for a DJ to discover an incredible track each day for the rest of their lives.
It’s much harder to ask the question ‘why’ – why do you want to do something?
We are living through a climate emergency. We are living through the failure and collapse of trust in the democratic process. We are in a dangerous position as a society, and I need to work out how my music sits within that.
If your music doesn’t seek to change anything, then fundamentally, the implication is that you are happy with the status quo; that the status quo is acceptable. That might have been ok a few years ago, but now it’s really urgent that we change what we do and how we go about it. That’s where the pressure is.
Q. When it kicked off, rave was a ‘reaction’ to the society of the time, like punk before it. Why do you think that’s lacking from popular music today?
It’s very hard to know. I think the biggest problem now is that we are our own sales people. Whenever we produce a record now, we have to produce assets: photos, videos, a social media campaign, teasers and all that.
As a consequence, we have internalised the logic of the market, and we are now just these little ‘brands’, or in the case of Tiesto or someone like that, big brands.
At the same time, I think that society has made us put our heads down, try to make sense of it all, and keep on going.
Let’s face it, Brexit is depressing, and idiotic, and divisive and unhelpful… who wants to sing about that? It’s like a form of pollution, letting that into your music. It’s not very sexy, it’s not great for a dancefloor.
Q. Is that why you decided to develop the Brexit Big Band concept?
If I feel strongly about the political state of the country, like I do, it’s important that I recognise that in my work and deal with it head on. I sort of feel that I don’t have a choice.
It’s important that I take part and not just let the Tories destroy everything… as they like to do.
Q. With things the way we are, could we have another punk movement, do you think?
Absolutely. Since from when I was born we’ve had house music, techno, drum and bass, hip hop, dubstep, R&B… we’ve had so many forms of music, important forms that totally transformed things. These have happened in my lifetime.
There’s no way for us to guess what form the next wave is going to take; it’s like asking Beethoven to imagine dubstep. But there definitely will be something, connected to a wider social movement.
If Brexit carries on the way it’s going, it’s going to have a negative effect on people’s lives, and that’s going to manifest itself in ways we can’t predict.
[Main photo by Manuel Vasquez. Thanks again to Matthew for the interview. You can find out more information about his current projects at matthewherbert.com]