Matmos' New Album Considers the Beauty and Terror of Plastics
The Baltimore duo celebrate their 25th year as a couple and as collaborators with 'Plastic Anniversary,' a record sourced from things like breast implants, exercise balls, and broken vinyl records.
Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt—the duo behind the Baltimore experimental project Matmos—are best known as sound explorers and musicians. But they’ve always been gifted storytellers too. The records they’ve made over the last couple decades reflect a boundary-pushing approach to composition, taking and twisting sounds into abstract playful shapes, but the band has never just been about experimentation for its own sake. They’re conceptualists, layering the sounds they choose with weight and meaning.
They named their last record, 2016’s Ultimate Care II, for a washing machine that they kept in their basement, and sourced the sonic material entirely from the noises it produced. Judging from the way they presented the sounds—in interviews and in their music videos—it was a statement, among other things, about the role that domestic work plays in a long-term partnership, parsing meaning and crafting narratives from rumbling metal and swishing water. But that album is just one example of many unique conceits they’ve adopted throughout their career. They’ve made records entirely from the sound of medical equipment (A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure), and recordings of quasi-psychological experiments they performed where they attempted a sort of E.S.P. on friends and strangers (The Marriage of True Minds).
The thing is, as much editing and massaging as they do to their sounds, and as committed as they are to presenting them in a way that is more or less musical, you wouldn’t necessarily gather all this from the records alone. Their pieces are sort of like scrap sculptures in that way—you might be able to pick out a piece or two of the source material here or there, but it’s easy to get caught up into the dazzling, abstract shape of the thing as a whole. So to get at the heart of it, they talk.
On a January afternoon, over the phone from their Baltimore home, they talk a lot, excitedly jumping over one another to detail the themes that informed their new album, Plastic Anniversary, which came out March 15 on their longtime label Thrill Jockey. “This is our first interview on this record,” Daniel says at one point. “We're both still full of ideas. We both just wanna talk all the time—that's part of our couple dynamic. It's an aimless desire to fill the air.”
That dynamic is central to Plastic Anniversary, which, as its name suggests, is in part a celebration of the longevity of their relationship. They’ve been together as collaborators and a couple for over 25 years now, and Daniel wanted to acknowledge that in some way. But conscious of the fact that doing something that openly celebrated that would be, as Daniel describes it, “like sucking our own dick in public,” they widened the scope. Rather than mark their silver anniversary, the traditional gift for 25 years, they turned their attention to another material: plastic. In some ways, plastic is tied to the story of their relationship—Daniel says that he was wearing a jock strap made from a plastic fish the night he met Schmidt while go-go dancing at a club in San Francisco. But it’s also universal. Plastic intersects with daily life in so many different ways, and its proliferation is one of the defining crises of our era. The day that we spoke, another Washington Post story came out detailing the ways climate change is already affecting people around the world. Greenhouse gas emissions are obviously the biggest part of that, but it’s hard not to see the deposits of plastic across the world as visible reminders of the harm we continue to do to our planet.
These themes are potent, and across the record, Matmos approach the material from all different sorts of angles, often naming the tracks for the materials from which it wrung. On one of them, they mull over the way we use plastics to shape ourselves, eking thumps, squeaks, and warples out of a “Silicone Gel Implant.” On another, “Thermoplastic Riot Shield,” they confront the use of plastics in weapons of the state through a caustic club track that feels akin to the mutant rhythms that Arca or Rabit might wrench from similar materials. “Breaking Bread,” sourced from shattered vinyl records from the band Bread, implicates us as listeners and them as artists in this whole process—a reminder that making a record generates its own plastic waste.
Over the course of an hour-long phone conversation, I asked Daniel and Schmidt about how Plastic Anniversary came to be and the tricky process of making an album like this without being too didactic. How do you make things out this material without celebrating it? How do you depict the terrors of plastic without turning consumers into bogeymen? As ever, they were ready to talk about it.
NOISEY: Drew, you’re a writer and a professor, and you’ve been working on a book about suicide for a long time. Does working on something like that shade your work as a whole, or are you able to separate it out from the other stuff?
Drew Daniel: Yeah, I mean, as an intellectual, I work on very dark subjects. I think that is part of why Matmos remains perky. I think it's also that Martin’s sensibility is more comedic, and mine is maybe a little more tragic, so when we come together, there's this odd result. I think it's, hopefully, a plus for listeners that Matmos is a band that can't make up its mind. In some ways, by focusing on a sound force, we can kind of bracket the question of “what are we feeling emotionally” or “what is this about.” Martin's called me out a few times with that. I have an emotional goal, and he'll sort of stop me and warn me, like, "No, that's not what we do. Back off."
Emotions are bad then?
Daniel: Well, no. They're not bad, but there's a lot of music that I think is emotional porn. And we don’t want to make it.
M.C. Schmidt: It's just not something that I feel like we're good at. There’s a song on A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure that's made with a rat cage. We started working with the rat cage, and it made these beautiful, sad sounds. Literally, the bars of the cage were by chance tuned in a minor key. It sounds cosmic and stupid, but it's actually real. We make these recordings of these objects, and they tell us what to do.
Do you have an example of how that worked on Plastic Anniversary ?
Schmidt: Here's the giveaway for this album: this riot shield [used on “Thermoplastic Riot Shield.”] We hate the cops. We hate the way politics are going right now. This riot shield is evil. We [felt the] need to make an evil, angry song. [But when we] started bonking on that fucking riot shield, it made [these sounds],like Caribbean fruity drink [music]. Oh my god, we worked that riot shield over.
Daniel: Yeah, the problem with the riot shield was that it's completely ideologically overdetermined by it being a symbol of the racist terror force that the police are at present in Trump's America. You can't possibly make a piece of audio that's adequate to the emotional and political gravity of that situation. That challenge made it impossible to finish that song. I think it was because it was really hard to ignore, and bracket the real, and just think about the object and what the decent way to work with it was, whereas other songs on the record were quite immediate. “Breaking Bread” took a form quite quickly. As soon as Martin started twanging shards of vinyl, we laid out a sound, and it just became a dancehall number, even though that has nothing to do, obviously, with the sound of the damn Bread.
With the riot shield specifically, do you mean that there's no way you could have made a track evil enough to match the real-world evil it conjures?
Daniel: Yeah, and if you're trying, you wind up producing what is probably emotional porn—a kind of didactic music. I think that’s a bad strategy. We hope to just start from ground zero of an object, and see what it affords—then, once a form starts to emerge, maybe bring in other objects. “The Crying Pill” uses that container quite a lot, but it's also got an exercise ball. It's got a DNA kit from 23andMe, like the little thing that you spit into to analyze your DNA. That's in there, but heavily distorted. It was a weird, resonant object, because people are using that kind of stuff out of curiosity about themselves, and maybe out of a little racial panic about “who am I really,” and meanwhile [contributing to] this giant database [that’s] being used for God knows what. I don't think our song conveys that, but knowing [that it’s there] adds another way into the song, maybe.
Do you think about the songs as this assemblage of those objects, or more in terms of the sounds those objects generate?
Schmidt: That's sort of what I was saying before: The object sounds are usually the guide for the song. Stuff like breast implants or the weird plastic pill—their meanings are so diffuse or interpretable anyway. Like breast implants—do I feel like they're bad? Is it any of my business to feel like they're bad, or good, or what? I don't know. I would just as soon let the object be the guide, and that is the case for all those other things. Is a band supposed to be a political thing? Are we folk singers or whatever? I don't know if that's our strong suit.
Daniel: I mean, with plastic as the guiding principle of the entire album, there's a kind of sonic challenge, which is how do you make plastic sound resonant? How do you get bass? How do you get variety? How does it not all sound, frankly, kind of thin? That's the sonic problem plastic presents. Then, there's the question of, “Are you doing this kind of didactic shame fest about litter and ecology, or are you celebrating commodities while thinking that you're doing some kind of didactic shame fest about ecology?” That's the irony of it. If you slow down and pay a lot of attention to a plastic bottle, are you saying, “Isn't it terrible that they're all these plastic bottles everywhere?” Obviously, it is. It's terrible for wildlife. It's terrible for our planet.
On the other end, if you make people sit around and listen to plastic bottles and go, "These plastic bottles sound cool," in a weird way, that’s kind of commodity fetishism. You are sort of lighting up this object and getting everybody to worship it for a little while. I think maybe the record is a weird record because of those challenges. We're trying to solve a sonic problem, but we're also caught up in the problem everybody's caught up in. It's like, “What's my responsibility for this fucked up situation in which I'm enmeshed?”
I'm curious about your relationship being at the core of this record, because it feels like this one and the last one have been pretty personally focused.
Daniel: I think that part of what we do is this deflationary gesture. We’re not about mystique; we’re about reality. We're about looking at the reality of the conditions in which you live and making music out of those conditions. The washing machine is right in our studio, and it's something that Martin does all day—not all day, but pretty much every other day. I think, for him, it was a way of saying, "Oh, I'm not going to pretend that music is this magic carpet to a fantasy world."
Schmidt: Music is a magic carpet to a banal, everyday work life.
Daniel: We were pretty inspired by Chantal Akerman and people who let their art get taken over by the noise, the sound of just being in the world. Not trying to falsify it.
Schmidt: It's a way to listen to the world in real life. The world makes a bunch of magical, beautiful sounds, and if you listen to them, it makes your life richer.
Daniel: Yeah, that would be the Cageian other side: To just let the world into your art. I don't think of it as much as being about Martin and me as a couple, in the sense that we're not doing sick edits of couple fights, or or picking up the sound of us having sex. That strategy works for Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, but we don't really feel the need to do that.
Getting back to the plastics part of the record, I often look at all the records and tapes that I have in my apartment and think about the amount of plastic bound up in my music collection. It's just like, “Fuck, what are we doing as a community to the environment, through our love of this stuff?” Do you share that anxiety on any level?
Daniel: Oh yeah, totally. We stare at our fireplace, which is filled with vinyl that doesn't fit in our giant shelf.
Schmidt: Liberal people are so good at beating themselves up instead of doing the work of beating up bad people. It's so much easier to make fun of your friends, to torture some poor guy who runs a cassette label, instead of marching down to Tesco's and demanding of some manager that they stop carrying baby food in plastic bottles. You're already at a party with your friend who runs the cassette label, so you can just treat him like shit, out of your general sense of anxiety about what's wrong with the world.
This is, of course, horrible—and why we are so slow to take on what's really bad in the world. If you start to consider the volume of the plastics that are the problem in the world, all you gotta do is use the Internet, and look up, “What is that junk in the ocean?” The largest thing that's the problem with the ocean has nothing to do with the arts.
It's fishing nets. I haven’t memorized the chart, but I assure you it's not avant-garde records. I'm not saying that now everyone can stop thinking about it, by any means, but it's a different kind of action. It's a larger action. It's not torturing the guy who runs the cassette label. It's about writing fisheries councils and pressuring the government and so on.
Daniel: I think structural problems require structural solutions. Voting in electoral politics is part of it. Everyday questions of how you live your life—that's part of it too. I think it is true, though, that the rise of formats like bandcamp and the proliferation of digital-only releases is also forcing artists to ask themselves searching questions about, "Well, what's my footprint?" We’re aware that there’s a hypocrisy to be complaining about plastic while pressing vinyl.
Schmidt: Literally in a plastic medium.
Daniel: Which is part of why we had this pressing done entirely out of regrind. When you make vinyl, there's edges of vinyl that are regarded as waste and sort of cut off. We're trying in our own way, with the fabrication of this record, to address an aspect of waste in the way that records are created.
I think it's interesting that a lot of what's happening in experimental electronic music is talked about in terms of plastic. Like the Sophie record from last year, and Arca—people invoke the sound of plastics when talking about their music. Is that something that informed this record at all?
Daniel: I think those artists have a great sense of timing and of slipping the timing, and eluding your expectations of where the next rhythm will land. Plasticity feels like a good, juicy metaphor for that—that there’s something flexible in their approach that doesn't have the stiffness of previous generations. I think that dream of plasticity as the freedom to form things is appealing. We want more freedom. We want more options. We want more responsiveness. Those are good things.
A lot of the ecologically focused music I’ve heard is based around field recordings of the environment; I tend to think of it as almost journalistic work. You guys still maintain this dedication to the music being song-like in some form. Why is that important to you?
Schmidt: You mean, as opposed to a 40-minute drone or whatever?
Sure. When you go into the junkyard, what makes you pick something up in the junkyard, rather than record the junkyard itself?
Daniel: I think it's the joy of transformation. I love to take something and make it into something else, and there's an expressive, childlike glee that I feel in chopping audio and restructuring it. It's a way of working with an object but also taking it somewhere else, imagining some other way it could be. It's also just true that for Martin and me, music-making is a social occasion: Getting the drum line from a high school in Montana to play along to a structure that we made, or getting waste containers from a recycling plant and having those kids drum on them, or having them drum on the riot shield, or having Greg from Deerhoof play plastic tape dispensers. There's something that happens when people work together, and it goes beyond what you can do on your own. Matmos songs are compressed accounts of a lot of encounters. I don't have the calm and the stillness to just go somewhere, turn on the mic, aim it in the right way, and capture something.
I do a lot of listening to field recordings. I've got hours of them on my laptop, and it's one of my favorite things to sit and listen to. But Matmos is something else.
Schmidt: I dunno. I like to have fun. Yeah, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. My God, so much of our right-thinking society reminds me of puritanism. There will be no fun!
Daniel: I spent 12 years writing a book about melancholy, so I have deep respect for melancholy aesthetics and the philosophical problems they engender. But when I'm an artist, it's just true that I'm not particularly good at channeling that emotion directly. It's something that I leave to people who really are born to do that, but that's not what Matmos is.
Schmidt: Yeah, that's a better answer. We're not good at that. That's why we don't do that. Inner peace is not something either of us have.
Matmos' new album Plastic Anniversary is out now. You can also check out a recent article Drew Daniel wrote about Robert Ashley for Noisey here.