I just found this on an old hard drive–an article I wrote about Matmos, five years ago, for Res magazine. I haven’t looked at this piece since 2006; it made me chuckle when I read it. I wish I still had the photos that went with the story in the magazine, but for now this’ll do. Hope you like it.
by Geeta Dayal
[Originally published in Res, May 2006]
“We knew we wanted to collaborate with snails, but snails aren’t the loudest thing ever,” explains Drew Daniel, half of the San Francisco band Matmos. “Unless you wanted to step on them, and that’s not cool!”
Snails aren’t a particularly out-there choice of sonic inspiration for Daniel and his partner Martin Schmidt, who have been making music since 1997 under the Matmos moniker. Their 2001 opus A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, for instance, sampled the gruesome whooshing sounds of liposuction surgery, hearing aids, rat cages, human skulls, and crayfish nerve tissue.
Matmos’ fifth full-length album, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, is a collection of loving sonic portraits of various figures admired by the duo—a motley assortment of people, including the legendary disco DJ Larry Levan, the wily philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who inspired the title of the record), the Germs singer Darby Crash, and the mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith, who just so happened to be an avid collector of snails. The album is accompanied by a lavish booklet of portraits especially commissioned for the record, by various luminaries including the comic book artist Daniel Clowes.
“In each case, it was about the individual–trying to find some object for sound source ideas that seemed to really say something about that person, but also yielded something musically compelling,” explains Daniel. “I know that on paper, what we’re trying to do can sound like we’re trying to be perverse, we’re trying to get the shock reaction. . . in each case, there’s a reason why the sound resonated with the subject of the song.”
The album begins, fittingly enough, with “The Rose Has Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein,” based around a recording of longtime friend and erstwhile collaborator Björk reading a paragraph from Philosophical Investigations. But Daniel, who is currently finishing a Ph.D. in literature at Berkeley, was careful to not make the song seem like a cheap stab at being arty or pretentious. “This is music, not philosophy,” Daniel says. “I’m not treating music as a platform for Wittgenstein. We didn’t chop it up or manipulate it into gobbledygook. We’re assuming that the listener can get something out of the thought in that one paragraph. Wittgenstein happens to be a beautifully compressed writer that there’s actually a poetic, lyrical quality to his words. . . we’ve been collecting recordings of people reading the same Wittgenstein paragraph for eight years now, [so] we have a pretty vast archive of people reading that paragraph.”
Matmos’ last album, The Civil War, was Schmidt’s brainchild; this album grew out of a pet project of Daniel’s. “We tend to take turns on records,” says Daniel. “It’s our way of not driving each other insane. Martin was the core of The Civil War. I really knew that this was up to me.” The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast came out of a project that Daniel did in a California art gallery. “Each morning, I would interview the first person who came in the door about their life. I would talk to the person about their life, and then make a song and burn it and give it to the person that day.”
How do you create a “portrait,” in sound, of someone—their life, their body, their persona? Most bands pay their respects with cover versions; Daniel was fresh from making an album as his alter ego The Soft Pink Truth, in which he plundered the depths of his punk past for a hilarious collection of robo-pop covers of bands like Nervous Gender and the Minutemen. As funny and odd as Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth? was, though, it’s not half as weird as The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of A Beast, which takes the concept of a “cover” to its logical extreme. Why play the end product of a person’s creativity—the actual music they recorded—when you could try to travel inside their minds instead?
A striking example of this journey into the mind’s eye is Matmos’ tribute to Darby Crash. The portrait doesn’t go anywhere near the berserk, tightly-wound punk of his legendary band, the Germs, but by the end of the portrait, titled “Germs Burn,” you almost feel like you’re at a séance summoning the spirit of Darby himself. “It was very hard to get the Darby piece off the ground musically,” says Daniel. “At first, we made some things that sounded like bad macho industrial music. That really wasn’t convincing and wasn’t meaningful; there was a bad sense of trying to live up to someone else’s musical achievements. The core story we were thinking about was that Darby liked to take acid and sit in this underground tunnel, [where] there would be darkness and the sound of water lapping and no sensory information. It’s very much an inward and psychedelic Darby rather than a punk rock lead singer. . . something we would intersect with musically in a more responsible way, rather than an Atari Teenage Riot kind of thing.”
How do you avoid lapsing into simplistic pastiche with a portrait, or sounding too smug with your own cleverness, appearing needlessly coded or esoteric? For instance, the obvious choice for a William S. Burroughs tribute would seem to be a cut-up, but Matmos took pains to avoid that.
“We thought of doing a cut-up of the Burroughsian thing, to make it more directly reflective of his own work,” says Schmidt. “And then we junked that,” says Daniel, quickly. “The cut-up is a Brion Gysin invention. . . that would limit the whole piece to having one meaning, and after a few minutes people would kind of stop listening.”
But there was no way to make a tribute to Larry Levan without taking a ride on the disco train. “Well, when you think about it, it’s just an insane proposition,” says Schmidt. “I am going to make a biographical song about somebody who made songs, without using the main thing that [they were known for].” Fortunately, Matmos know their way around a dancefloor. The Levan portrait, “Steam and Sequins,” is a five-minute-long psychedelic disco journey that rocks a lean bassline, handclaps, teasing hi-hats, an insanely loose horn section, a cowbell solo, and creepy vocal effects. But things aren’t always what they seem: “We don’t even own a cowbell. That was a saucepan that Martin played with a spoon,” Daniel admits.
The song takes the jammy, funky feel of Larry Levan mixes of classic disco tunes like Arthur Russell’s “Is It All Over My Face?” as its spiritual inspiration. “I felt a certain looseness in my friend’s trumpet playing,” says Daniel. “It wasn’t an Earth, Wind, and Fire bulletproof part. . . there’s a certain willingness to allow things to not be so quantized and fantastic and sharp; that’s what lets you in, and that’s why it’s groovy and persistent.”
“That [song] was Drew’s idea,” says Schmidt. “Levan and his boyfriend, Frankie Knuckles, met while sewing sequins on ball gowns. . . I just love that story so much that Frankie Knuckles told. There’s the sound of sewing machines and sequins in the rhythm of that song.” Performed live in New York with drumming ensemble So Percussion, the song included video footage of gold sequins being poured onto a spinning record with a razor chopping lines into it for added cheeky effect.
Practical considerations can often get in the way of Matmos’ penchant for found sounds in their unpredictable live shows. “We’re not going to bring a cow uterus to each show, because they spoil pretty quickly and they’re like 80 bucks per uterus,” reasons Schmidt. “’Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith’ calls for total darkness, lasers, and live snails,” says Daniel. “Try putting that on your rider—I think most promoters would think, fuck off!”
With each song, Matmos lavishes thought onto every sonic choice with an intensity that’s almost goofy. “In the case of [Highsmith], I literally played—it just seems so dumb and literal-minded, but we put out all of our Patricia Highsmith books and I flipped them and I played them,” says Schmidt. “It sounds so cheap and pastiche-y when you lay it out like that! There are sort of noir suspense themes throughout, so I played jazz brush drumming on them, and then we were off on a roll.”
Whether it’s using flipping books for percussion and snails “playing” a theremin with lasers to create freaky synth squiggles for Highsmith, or sampling the sounds of rippling silver lamé fabric for Valerie Solanas (who liked to wear silver lamé dresses), or making clip-clop horse noises with coconuts for the King Ludwig of Bavaria tribute, there’s almost a baroque opulence to Matmos’ experiments, a nearly microscopic level of detail that most casual listeners probably wouldn’t notice if it came right down to it. But the album rewards repeated listening, and it’s as much a portrait of Matmos as it is of the figures being profiled.
“In some ways, this is the most Matmos record we’ve made in a while, as far as its rhythmic tics and its conceptual focus,” says Daniel. “That’s the inadvertent self portrait side to this whole record. You can’t not be yourself.”