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by Dan Grunebaum

Shred a tabloid, make music

Can a jazz big band be political? In the hands of the UK electronica scene’s most controversial figure it can. Metropolis gets the skinny direct from the source when Matthew Herbert drops in to Tokyo to boost his new album, Goodbye Swingtime.

The sampling element seems diminished on the new album...
MH: I think it’s right up there but it’s done in a much more subtle way. Every single noise that’s not the band playing is a sample: it’s a sample of books or political texts or all the other sounds I’ve chosen to produce. Trying to combine a strident acoustic sound with electronics is quite a challenge, so consequently it’s much more subtle. But there are still something like 2000 samples in there.

Will the record find a home within the electronica scene?
I’m sure I’m going to lose a lot of people along the way, but on the other hand my work has never really followed any particular pattern anyways. Some of the people into my electronic stuff might be surprised by all the acoustic stuff on it, but I think that in places like England, my music will get heard in jazz circles simply because of the fact that I’m using well-known English players.

You must be a record exec’s nightmare. How do they market you?
Well, I am the executive, and I’m not really into marketing anyway, I don’t believe in it. I do interviews largely because people are interested, and it’s nice to talk about something that you’ve spent a year working on, and get some feedback and criticism as well. Marketing the record is just a question of making it available, and people will either buy it or they won’t. I think word of mouth is far more useful and gratifying than full-page adverts.

A number of groups are now merging jazz and electronica. Are you thinking along similar lines?
There is a common logical point with electronic music where it can’t be just a selfish kind of pursuit. What was once revolutionary—the fact that you could do it in your bedroom—we’ve had that for 20 years so that’s now the norm. So the reaction to that is to start combining it with real players and real instruments. Likewise for live music and bands. It’s been boring for a long time. Till it actually absorbs some of the expressions of electronic music and the software revolution that’s gone on, they are going to be left behind as well.

Is there an inevitable confluence between “live” and “electronic” music?
I wouldn’t assume that anything is inevitable in the music industry. Everything seems to take longer than I would expect. The biggest thing in the UK music industry right now is guitar bands that play the same three or four chords. You listen to Velvet Underground and you think, shouldn’t something have changed? But it hasn’t.

Recording a big band album must have been expensive...
It was expensive, but when you consider that a day in the studio costs as much as getting a remix or two by one of my contemporaries, and that includes recording with 17 people...we put the money into recording instead, and when it comes to a live show, we’re still less than a big name Detroit DJ, and we have 20 people on stage.

When you played Liquid Room last fall, you began the set by sampling and looping the sound of the band tearing newspapers into their microphones. I thought I might call this article, “Shred a newspaper, make music…”
Yeah, I wanted to use some pro-war tabloids, like the Sun, and get a bunch of copies to tear up on stage. It’s kind of a basic statement, but when you’re on stage the statements need to be a little bolder.

Will this “found sound” approach at a certain point exhaust its possibilities?
Never. It’s like being a photographer and saying you will run out of things to take photos of. Everything makes a sound, and you can take one minute in one day wherever you are, and you have enough sound in that one minute to keep you interested and original for the rest of your life. I’m not interested in listening to a drum machine that I’ve heard in all its combinations in the last 20 years, I’m interested in hearing someone drop a pencil on a table and finding out where it’s come from and why it’s there, why they live there, what country it is, what their opinions are...whatever it might be and whatever it might tell you.

Did you consider using non-Western instrumentation?
No I didn’t. Simply because of the fact that I don’t know enough about it, and I’m not a fan of cultural shopping. It’s very easy to go around Thailand for a bit, and record some sounds and not understand what they mean or their cultural significance. I’m much more interested in going to the Philippines and recording the sounds of people making Nike trainers. To me that has a lot more potency.

The sound of corporate exploitation?
Yeah, exactly. To me that’s gonna have much wider resonance with a non-Western audience, and besides I would like to manipulate it or chop it up or reevaluate it somehow. Coming into someone else’s culture, it’s not necessarily cool to mess with things that you don’t understand. If a song is about, like, people that were lost in the Vietnam War, and you chop it up for musical ends, it’s not very good.

Do Japanese get your message?
It’s not clear. In interviews I always talk about politics, and I make it pretty clear on the records and in the liner notes, and in performances where I can.

How exactly did you use the books mentioned in your liner notes?
Some of them are being read while the music is going on, and a lot of the sounds are of the books being flipped through, or rubbed, or getting whatever kinds of sounds I can get from them. In my earlier work I used the sounds simply for the quality of the sounds, whereas now I’m much more interested in the context.

Now that we’re on the verge of war with Iraq, do you have any thoughts about how to approach that in your music?

Well the whole album is about that. Lyrically it’s about that. The last three sounds that you hear on the whole album are the sounds of books detailing American injustices, so if people are like, what’s that noise in the last piece, then maybe they can read the liner notes. One of the London protests is also built into one of the pieces, so it’s woven into the whole thing.

Are you a bit of a lightning rod? Or do you feel like you’re preaching to the converted?
I think it’s a simple question of, you know we’ve reached a crucial moral turning point in the world, and if you don’t say something you’re complicit, and it’s just a question of me having to say something.

Are you pacifist?
I wouldn’t say that. I think to rule out war completely doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, because they are the sorts of issues I feel very strongly about. They are the sort of issues I would be prepared to die for, they wouldn’t be issues that I would necessarily be prepared to kill for.

Goodbye Swingtime will be released April 26 by Accidental Records and is distributed in Japan by Ultra-Vybe. Some of the books that can be heard on the album are: Rogue States, by Noam Chomsky; The New Rulers of the World, by John Pilger; Stupid White Men, by Michael Moore; and War Plan Iraq, by Milan Rai.

photo credit: Ali Mahdavi

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