Interview: ORIGINALS… Matthew Herbert (Part One)
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. Part two can be found here.
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.
[Part two can be found here.]