One of the strangest moments in experimental electronic duo Matmos’ career was their team-up with Björk. The Icelandic pop star enlisted Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt to work on her 2001 album, Vespertine, and took them on her subsequent world tour. Taken from their lecture at the 2010 Academy, here are their thoughts on collaboration, the human voice and more.
Drew Daniel: I get stressed out every time I hear a Björk song because I have an instinct like, “God, I am supposed to be on stage, the Björk song has started.” We were on tour for a year living out of a suitcase, and I had never really done that before. It is weird to be part of a big family and a big group.
Martin Schmidt: The whole thousands and thousands and thousands of people looking at you was very different from the shows that we play generally too.
Drew Daniel: After the first show we played in Paris on the Vespertine tour with Zeena Parkins playing harp, we were backstage and were like, “Fuck! I thought people kind of liked our shows. They applaud when we are done, but no, they don't like our stuff, this is the real thing.” We just walked out and people were screaming so loud. We had quad monitors, four huge monitors all around us and just the sound of people shrieking and freaking the fuck out because Björk is standing right there was just terrifying. It was really scary.
Martin Schmidt: What you are trying to say is that the screaming was louder than our monitors, even though those giant monitors were right next to us. I couldn’t hear them because of people’s screaming. That is weird.
“It was like a stupid MTV show, Imposters Go to Rocktown.” - Martin Schmidt
Drew Daniel: It was fun to have the opportunity, but fun is such a trivial word, because it was really scary because we thought we were going to fuck up her music and we’re going to fuck up these shows because we are not very professional. I think Björk has always had a team of people who can make you kind of bulletproof, and she wants people that are a little bit sloppy and a little bit rough and aren’t so used to that. That wound up being the case when we were there working on programming for Vespertine. We had never been in a studio where you paid by the hour ever in our lives. We had only made records at home in our bedroom until, all of a sudden, we are at Olympic Studios with Spike Stent and he has mixed Spice Girls, U2 and Madonna and we’re sitting there going: “Maybe you should have a breakdown here.”
Martin Schmidt: And everyone falls silent in the room and goes: “Who are you?” I was like, “I am sorry that I said anything, I am so sorry! I was playing Sim City before, I’ll go back to it now.” And then they did it. It was cool. It was like a stupid MTV show, Imposters Go to Rocktown, and now that show is over. On the other hand, I am sort of glad that it is over, too, because it wasn't my band.
Drew Daniel: It was really to fun to work with Björk and I really enjoyed it and it gave us opportunities to try things on a scale that we never would have done on our own. Martin walking rhythmically in a pile of rock salt in front of 60,000 people would not happen at a Matmos show, but it does at Roskilde. He walks rhythmically on rock salt all the time in Baltimore during the blizzard.
Martin Schmidt: I have to use kitty litter now.
Drew Daniel: Even a pop star as experimental and open and free as Björk – and she is incredibly unusual in that kind of climate in her willingness to go to places aesthetically that other people on that scale won't go – is still a part of a very different kind of ecology or ecosystem. I kind of like making Matmos records where I get to make all of it, even if only 10,000 people hear it or 15,000 people hear it versus millions of people hearing a Björk record. It’s not like one is more authentic than the other or one is better. I think it has more to do with my particular skill set. There are people who would be incredible producers of pop music, who are making incredibly cool sounding pop music all the time, but it is just not me. And that is part of the humbling reality. I wasn’t a great producer for Björk. I wasn’t very good at listening emotionally to where she wanted to take a particular track.
Martin Schmidt: We get lost in: “No, but what about this fucked up weird detail?”
Drew Daniel: “Why do you want one snare? Why don’t you have ten different snare sounds?”
Martin Schmidt: Drew had to point out to me about 1,000 times during that thing that people who make pop music hopefully want to make pop music. It’s not like people who make weird noisy music wish they were making pop music. Because I kept feeling like, “Why doesn’t she do something weirder?” Well, because...
“The human voice robs all the fun of music making for me.” - Martin Schmidt
Drew Daniel: From her point of view she had written those songs. Vespertine is Björk’s album. She had written melodies, she had written lyrics, music was constructed and we were there to contribute production ideas and percussive patterns and sequences. Essentially, you are doing the equivalent of set design for a play that somebody else has written, where they have got the big story and you are there to assist them in telling that big story. And I think there is better and worse, more and less egotistical ways, of serving the interests of a song. Whereas from our point of view, we are all about collage and all about sound and chopping radically and avoiding belonging in a genre and using voices, which hog the midrange.
Martin Schmidt: The human voice robs all the fun of music making for me.
Drew Daniel: That’s a little extreme.
Martin Schmidt: I don’t know. As soon as someone is speaking or singing, it is over for the rest of the sounds. The rest of the sounds now have become in a support role for the human voice. Come on, man, look at the EQ on a mixing board. If they’re going to put parametrics on it, where are they? They are right in the human voice range. Why? Because fucking 99.9% of what we do is listen to human voices. It is not even a matter of mixing.
Drew Daniel: Why don’t you stop talking in protest?
Martin Schmidt: You just wanted to stop me talking. You don’t want to stop human voices, you just want to stop mine. And it worked.
Drew Daniel: We have to go with a lot of ultra lows or ultra highs and that is why we go with lots of crispy bacon frying noises as hi-hats, or take the little spit sounds of her lip separating and amplify them massively up the high end, and then chop the lows, and do it again, and do it again, and do it again, step it up two octaves, then you have got something high enough that it won’t interrupt Björk, so she can hog the midrange and we can write basslines. It was just our way of solving a problem acoustically of, “How do you make space for a vocal that is that huge?”