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Matmos



This pair of electronic collage artists stands out as innovators in a field noted for innovation.Matmos's Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt have intriguing backgrounds which help explain their brainy, decentered approach to electronica. Daniel is a UC Berkeley graduate student in Renaissance Literature and a longtime radio and club DJ who has collaborated on both film scores and hip hop projects with Louisville musicians Jason Noble (Rachel's) and Jeff Mueller (June of 44). Schmidt manages the conceptual art department of the San Francisco Art Institute and has pursued a number of experimental and/or electronic projects in the past.

In their spare time Daniel and Schmidt work to change our perceptions of what music means and where it comes from, creating whimsical and peculiar electronic sound assemblages that often feel like musical versions of Alexander Calder's playful mobiles. Most striking about Matmos, perhaps, are their unique choices for sound sources; over their career, the adventuresome duo has employed the sound of amplified crayfish nerve tissue, human hair, plastic surgery, frozen steam thawing in the sun, latex clothing, a steel guitar recorded in a sewer, and a whole heckuva lot more. Yeah, they're brainiacs. Or maniacs? The fact is, while Matmos has been enthusiastically embraced by the left field electronic music community, their work displays a degree of originality and willingness to experiment rarely found in any music today, aligning Matmos with the great musical academicians of the last century as much as with any of their peers.

The duo conducted some of their boldest sound experiments on their first two albums, Matmos (1997) and Quasi-Objects (1998), both released on their own Vague Terrain label, but these recordings got limited attention outside the Bay Area. Their fascinating 1999 project The West generated significant critical attention, however. Not imitating but transforming rock, country, and folk stylistic elements, The West roams the territory of later John Fahey and Gastr del Sol, but arrives there from a very different starting point: instead of making organic music that uses electronic textures, The West is electronic music that feels organic (organica, perhaps?), both in its sound sources and in its construction. Instead of the bizarre sound sources of the previous two albums, The West features musique concrete elements with a more everyday quality: a phone ringing, a car starting, pages turning, water dripping. The West also draws from a remarkably diverse group of friends, including members of Tortoise, Slint, Papa M, Lesser, Acetone, Palace, Cars Get Crushed, Amber Asylum, The Radar Bros., Neurosis, Cul de Sac, and The For Carnation. "Sun on 5 at 152" is an ode to a favorite strip of freeway, flickering between gentle repetitions of Mark Lightcap's (Acetone) acoustic guitar and discrete, unnerving digital edits, before bursting into full drums/banjo/violin/cello orchestration and peaking with thirty seconds of drum and bass.

In the spring of 2001, Bjork invited Matmos into the studio to create her album Vespertine and later asked the duo to join her (along with Lesser) for her world tour. Around the same time, Matmos released their fourth and possibly most macabre album, A Chance To Cut Is a Chance To Cure. Leaving behind the bucolic bricollage of The West, A Chance To Cut employs sounds from the operating room, constructing snippety rhythms from the sound of slicing scalpels, breaking bones, the buzz of laser eye surgery, the hum of muscle tissue being cauterized during rhinoplasty, and lots more. Creepy though these sound sources may be, the music is anything but, tending towards upbeat, accessible techno-pop, with plenty of Matmos's trademark whimsy. "Lipostudio...And So On," the album's opener, starts as a snickety glitchfest that makes prominent use of the squelch and squish of sucking fat during liposuction surgery, before shifting midway through into a more ambient piece.

With their 2003 album The Civil War, the dynamic duo moved from sly commentary on the body to sly commentary on the body politic. Returning to the landscape of their near classic The West, Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt make creative use of banjos and fiddles and all sorts of stringed things, not to mention flute, bagpipes, military percussion -- in short the music you'd associate with the Civil War. The "concept" that shapes The Civil War is apparently both the American Civil War and the British Civil War of the 17th Century and at times the album feels like an authentic historical document as Matmos's omnimpresent laptops are rendered transparent. Both abstract and distinctly rooted in time and place, The Civil War represents one more entry into the increasingly significant "future folk" canon, raising unanswered questions about the relationship between music and heritage for the century to come.