As the self-appointed "housekeeper" in Baltimore-based experimental duo Matmos, Martin Schmidt has spent a large portion of a January morning sifting through detritus in the basement of the house he shares with his partner and musical collaborator Drew Daniel. While Daniel sits nearby, listening to a compilation of flute music from Turkmenistan, Schmidt has been searching among their vast trove of CDs, tapes, and records in search of a single album he bought ages ago at a Chinese variety store in Costa Mesa, California.
Both Daniel and Schmidt affirm that it was a brilliant collection of "really insane performances and really odd instrumentation," but now, Daniel sighs, the needle-in-an-Asian-grocery-store find is "utterly lost." Still, Schmidt is digging again in the midst of the domestic garbage because that's simply what Matmos do. Over the course of their two decades as a duo, Schmidt and Daniel have become light-hearted archaeologists obsessed with wrenching compelling moments out of everyday noise—or what Daniel calls finding "musical payoff" somewhere in the mundane.
On February 19, Matmos are set to release a new LP for Thrill Jockey composed entire of sounds sampled from the couple's washing machine. Ultimate Care II—named after the machine's model type—was conceived when Schmidt was idly thrumming on the device and was struck by its musical possibilities: it has a built in sequencer, and rattles like a drum machine. He proposed the idea, and even though Daniel thought Schmidt was joking at first, when it was brought up again, he caved.
It's easy to get caught up in the ideological frameworks or technological limitations that Schmidt and Daniel impose on themselves for each record; on their 2001 album A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, for example, they used only sounds recorded in operating rooms. But Matmos are composer-experimentalists rather than vice versa, never sacrificing narrative and melody for their grand ideas. Their drifting compositions are compelling just as digitalist collages too. The point isn't just that there's diamonds somewhere in the rough, but that given enough time and effort, they can find a handful of diamonds in just about anything.
In advance of Ultimate Care II, the pair paused from their live show preparations—yes, they are attempting to bring a washing machine to the stage for a handful of dates starting this month—to talk to THUMP about their new record and conceptual approach to musicmaking.
THUMP: Drew, you've said you thought the idea for Ultimate Care II was a joke at first. When did you know it was actually going to work?
Drew Daniel: I think it was the first night that we started to play the washing machine along with loops of the washing machine. Jason Willett, our friend who's in Half Japanese, was playing a washing machine solo along with rhythms of the washing machine. That was when the album really crystallized as sonically worthwhile rather than just a cool dare.
Martin Schmidt: I don't mean to sound like an overconfident twat, but I knew it was a great idea. I've played enough weird things as musical instruments...I pretty much know whether something is a good schtick or not. Walking down the street I can say, "that garbage can will sound great, that pole will not resonate."
So you knew that there was an album's worth of possibility from the beginning.
Schmidt: Yeah. [The washing machine] stops and starts. It has rhythm within it. That shit is gold. It's like a drum machine and a sequencer...it's got it all. And it's funny.
Daniel: There's even humor built into Ultimate Care II as a title. Because if something is the ultimate, that's supposed to be the end, right? Ultimate Care II? What were they thinking?
Schmidt: It's like...A One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back.
Daniel: Yeah, the Darkness album. We're in the same lane. We're the Darkness of musique concréte.
Was there any temptation to use a different washing machine than the one you had?
Schmidt: Not even slightly.
Daniel: That would've been so wrong. In a way, the Ultimate Care II is a leftover from an era before eco-consciousness and before people worrying about noise. If we had gone with a more recent machine that's maybe more eco-groovy and streamlined, it wouldn't have been nearly as musically productive.
Can you give me any vital stats on the washing machine? What would the back of its baseball card say?
Schmidt: I'm guessing it's from the early 90s. We had a repairman the other day...
Daniel: It broke.
Oh no! Were you worried?
Schmidt: A little bit, but it was only the agitator dogs.
Schmidt: I was like, "What's wrong with it?" And [the repairman] said, "Eh, it's probably the agitator dogs." That's the plastic gears that turn the agitator.
Daniel: [Agitator dogs] sound like a crust band. They should play with Spiteful Urinator and Doom or something like that. Agitator Dogs. That's fucking punk.
Schmidt: Anyways, I asked him and [the machine is] probably from like '93 or '94.
Daniel: Circa Sonic Youth's Washing Machine album. It all comes round.
Speaking more generally, do you feel like letting overarching concepts govern your records helps you narrow your focus? It's hard to imagine you making a house album or something.
Daniel: I think that [society] really undervalues boundaries and limits. The idea of endless potential and infinite possibility, that's what capitalism uses, that's how marketing logic works. And it's quite the opposite if you're trying to be creative. You have to make a choice and frame your attention. There's a hidden elasticity to things that look restrictive. A washing machine is very narrow in some ways. It has some sounds and not others. It has tempos built into it and not others. Of course you're going to reveal yourself in all those choices. When you start to make a form, it's still you making a form.
Schmidt: I don't think Surgeon would have made the same record as we did.
Daniel: And Arca wouldn't have. And Matthew Herbert would have gone in a different direction. I got a lot of inspiration from that Japanese musician Aube who made records [from the sounds of] fluorescent light, water or the Bible.
If a lot of these start from single ideas, are there concepts that have been abandoned too?
Daniel: We chained a piano to a truck and put video cameras and microphones inside of it. We dragged it across the salt flats until it was destroyed. We thought it was going to make this super cool physical sound. Martin wired down the damper so that the strings might resonate. We were hoping we'd get this super beautiful, resonant, piano-in-the-desert thing.
Schmidt: Instead it sounds like a covered wagon. There's no musical content whatsoever.I guess that's the difference between us and proper experimental music. We would have edited it and massaged it with a computer until it sounded right. But it was just a super failure.
What makes a result like that not worthy of being one of your records?
Daniel: We don't just want to have a cool, resonant idea. It actually has to be compelling as music. Let's talk about, like, Christian Marclay. His piece "Guitar Drag" is very politically dangerous. He's referencing that really horrible racist murder in Texas where an African-American man was dragged behind a truck and killed. He dragged a guitar behind a truck, but as a musical moment, as a guitar solo, there's a wild, surging beauty to it that makes it work as art, even as it also works as concept and politics. That's a work that passes a certain test where it's conceptually tight, but also sonically rich.
Do you ever worry about revealing too much when you talk about the concepts behind the album as much as you do?
Daniel: Before I was ever in a band like Matmos, I was a listener who wanted to use the experience of listening to get at objects and actions and practices and people and bodies. I had a zine when I was 16, so sitting around with my friends and listening to records and trying to figure out what we were hearing was a huge part of how I got into music. It happened specifically with the band Coil and their album Scatology and a track called "The Sewage Worker's Birthday Party." It has all these weird, wet sloshing sounds and the liner notes suggest that Scandinavian scat porn was somehow an inspiration.
So to listen to it was to imagine, when I was still in the closet, well, what is queer sex? And what are the extremes of queer sex and fetishism? And how might sound be a way for my ears to experience an activity that in Louisville, Kentucky in the 80s I have no chance of experiencing: namely, some weird Swedish fisting party. It's no surprise now that I'm in a band that tries to pack these referentially loaded things into the music so that our listeners in turn can have this question of "what is it that I'm hearing?" We reveal some aspects but we conceal others. There's still a kind of mystery for how you get from the recipe to the cake that will never go away no matter how many interviews we do.
Schmidt: We're the opposite of Autechre.
Daniel: Or Aphex Twin. The revelation of process and material produces desire for the listener. The listener wants to know: what is the environment that produces this music? We're much more like a cooking show and less like a magic trick. They're both valid forms, they're just different. I'm not saying all magicians should be chefs. I wouldn't want to eat at that restaurant.
Ultimate Care II is out February 19 on Thrill Jockey
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.