For more than two decades, Matthew Herbert has proven to be one of electronic music’s most versatile and prolific figureheads, working with artists as diverse as Björk and Dizzee Rascal, as well as releasing a vast anthology of music under a variety of pseudonyms.
Following on from part one of our ORIGINALS interview, here’s part two, in which we discuss the birth of the Matthew Herbert Big Band, what inspires his many concept albums, and the influence modern society is having on his current projects.
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]