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Cue the Noise Section

Drew Daniel and Matmos construct music from some unlikely sources.

By Dale Keiger
All photos and illustrations courtesy of Matmos

Andrew Daniel knows the sound of blood coursing through his lover's body. You could regard that as a metaphor for intimacy. But Daniel really knows. He has recorded the rhythmic surge of corpuscles through his partner Martin Schmidt's carotid artery. He says the sonic pulse resembled the fetal heartbeat obtained by a sonogram, a sound he can mimic with startling fidelity. Daniel did not record his partner's blood flow merely out of curiosity. He and Schmidt are the band Matmos, and they make music not just from the sound of guitars, banjos, drums, cellos, and electronic keyboards, but a wet latex T-shirt, roses smacked against a table, and a phonograph needle skipping on the run-out groove of a vinyl LP. For compositional purposes they have recorded the flapping pelt of a rabbit, Daniel's wrist being burned by a cigarette, and an old mechanical adding machine. A microphone rubbing across human hair. Snails wagging their eye stalks across a laser beam that in turn changes the pitch of a light-sensitive theremin. Surf guitar, a classical string quartet, and the sampled sounds of plastic surgery. The latter resulted in what is surely the first-ever music derived from rhinoplasty.

Matmos can be said to have begun when Daniel, now 37, was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley and making some money as a go-go dancer in a gay bar. One night, Schmidt approached Daniel and offered to teach him how to edit sound on a computer, which he concedes is about as lame as pickup lines get. But it worked. The pair shared an interest in experimental forms of music such as glitch, noise music, and musique concrète. Soon they began messing around with computer music gear — a sampler, a sequencer, a laptop equipped with music software — and eventually created a bit of dance music that people seemed to like. That emboldened Daniel and Schmidt to compose more, until they had enough material in 1998 to produce their own CD, Matmos, a reference to the kitschy science fiction film Barbarella. They pressed 1,000 copies, figuring they might end up with 800 of them stashed in the basement, but sold them all and had to press another thousand. A decade later, Matmos has issued seven recordings, toured the United States and Europe multiple times, played at Lincoln Center and other of the world's great venues, signed with Matador Records (putting them on the same label with heavyweights Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo), and performed around the world and on record with the pop superstar Bjork. In 2006, Johns Hopkins hired Daniel as an assistant professor of English, making him surely the first faculty member in the Krieger School's history to know the sound of 70,000 people roaring as you follow an Icelandic rock star onto the stage.

For centuries, "musician" has defined someone proficient at playing a musical instrument, someone who applies fingers or embouchure to a violin or guitar or piano or trumpet or oboe and produces beautiful, nuanced, expressive tones. That standard does not exactly apply to Daniel and Schmidt. Both endured piano lessons as children, there are a couple of guitars in the basement of their Baltimore rowhouse, and Schmidt has begun taking drum lessons. But neither is what you would call a conventional instrumentalist. Baltimore musician Tom Boram, who has performed with them, says, "Martin can play enough keyboard to sort of sound like a keyboard player." What Daniel and Schmidt have instead of instrumental chops is considerable skill at crafting sound and rhythm on computers, turning that into music, then figuring out ways to make its performance an entertaining, improvisatory show. John Berndt, a musician who is pretty much the godfather of Baltimore's robust experimental music scene, says, "Matmos are sort of the perfect odd ducks, in that they do music that functions extremely well as experimental music, which is to say it's full of unusual sonic experiences and interesting sounds and interesting structures. But it's also quite accessible compared to most experimental music. I think they are unqualifiedly geniuses in the genre."

There's no such thing as a typical Matmos recording, but most of the band's CDs have in common a sophisticated hybrid of experimental weirdness and irresistible pop danceability. Some of their albums are highly conceptual; others seem to say, "Stop thinking so much and dance." Says Boram, "I think those guys are virtuosos, but it's a different approach to virtuosity." Daniel jokes that as musicians, he and Schmidt are famous with people who work in certain New York art museum gift shops. He likes to cite a dictum attributed to the Scottish musician Nick Currie: In the future, everybody will be famous to 15 people.

Drew Daniel grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. He says his family was not especially musical, but there was music in the house. "My mother loved Gladys Knight and the Pips and would make my stepfather dance with her. He ran a movie theater, which was sort of the artsy movie theater of Louisville, and programmed a lot of films that had to do with music. He loved the soundtrack to that Robert Altman movie, Nashville, so we listened to that a lot."

Louisville in the mid-1980s was the unlikely locus of a punk and metal music scene that produced a slew of notable indie rock musicians, including David Grubbs, David Pajo, and Will Oldham, who now performs as Bonnie "Prince" Billy. The music that got the adolescent Daniel's attention was punk, with its energy, rage, and do-it-yourself amateur ethic. "I think when you're a teenager you just feel powerless," he says. "Punk-rock culture gave you the feeling that you could transform yourself with means that are all around you. You didn't need to move somewhere else and you didn't need to rely on the culture industry machinery. You could just make it yourself. [Punk was] inspiring and direct, and it's angry, which I was." He was a gay teenager in a time and place where that was not accepted. "I think freak solidarity in the South was an important part of it, too. Being in the closet, there was a feeling of danger. So finding like-minded people was a survival strategy."

Andrew Daniel (left) and Martin Schmidt: "Unqualifiedly geniuses in the genre," says John Berndt. When he was 15, he played in a punk band called Cerebellum. "I banged on piles of scrap metal." He created a punk fanzine called Conqueror Worm so he could write about Louisville bands like Slint and Squirrel Bait. He read William S. Burroughs and became fascinated by Burroughs' technique of writing a linear text, then cutting it into words and phrases and rearranging them to form a new text. Burroughs and others used cutups to create sound collages, and Daniel began doing that too. He scrounged up some cheap tape decks and began making cut-and-splice recordings that foreshadowed Matmos. "It was just so fun to take the radio and records I had as a child and my own voice and my friends' voices and just sit and chop them up and transform them. My way into music was not actually music. It was more sounds and noises and having fun creating things by editing them. I say that's kind of my instrument, if I have one — cutting and pasting." After high school, he made his way to Cal Berkeley, where he met Schmidt, who was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. Daniel worked toward a bachelor's degree in philosophy and English and sang in a Berkeley gospel choir. "There were a hundred people in the choir," he recalls. "I was the only member with green hair."

He recalls his and Schmidt's first recorded composition as "an attempt at rave music that I think we called 'Formula 409,' after the cleaner." One night, he was the DJ at a San Francisco venue called Klubstitute and for the hell of it he played the song. To his surprise, people got up and danced. After they issued the CD Matmos and a follow-up titled Quasi-Objects, he and Schmidt began to get invitations to play gigs around the Bay Area, which forced them to figure out how to make live performance out of their computer-generated music. Schmidt played synthesizers, musician friends contributed instrumental and percussion parts, and Daniel improvised percussion loops and other sampled sounds on his computer. Their local reputation began to grow.

Of the 1,000 copies of Quasi-Objects, they consigned five to a record shop in London called Rough Trade. Rough Trade's customers included, on at least one occasion, Bjork, and she bought Quasi-Objects, which she liked so much she gave Daniel and Schmidt a call from Iceland. Would they like to remix a song of hers titled "Alarm Call"? "At first we thought it was a prank or something, one of our friends winding us up," Daniel remembers. "It was a shock. Then, when she started thinking about making her album Vespertine [2001], she approached us to make some rhythms for one song. Then we made a few more, and it started to snowball." She eventually came to San Francisco to work on the album with them at their house. The first day, Daniel's computer crashed and he had to call a friend to fix it. "That was pretty embarrassing, but she proved patient with the way we operate."

Then came the real stunner. "I was working at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles on my dissertation, in the archives looking for visual representations of melancholy, and I got a phone call from Bjork." She was standing on a cliff in Iceland where, Daniel says, she goes to make big decisions, and she was inviting Matmos to join the backing musicians for her upcoming tour. The tour would be huge, traversing Europe, the United States, and Japan, and it would take a commitment of possibly two years. Daniel was in the middle of his dissertation, and had to approach his adviser, Richard Halpern (now one of his colleagues in the Johns Hopkins English Department), and announce that he would be taking a few years off to go on the road. Halpern agreed to let him take a break. "He didn't have to do that," Daniel says. "Most people would have been, like, 'Later, loser,' but Richard knew I was serious."

Matmos has made music from a wet latex T-shirt, roses smacked against a table, the flapping pelt of a rabbit, an old adding machine. Daniel and Schmidt had to learn Bjork's full tour repertory and figure out how to perform everything live. One song, "Aurora," included the sound of Bjork walking through snow. "We couldn't do snow on stage, though we looked into it," Daniel recalls. "Martin had this idea to walk on rock salt on a contact-mic platform. So the rhythm of the song was Martin walking. It's actually a challenge to walk at the right pace for a whole band." They spent six months in rehearsal and preparation. Says Daniel, "I was scared at the idea that we were really going to do this. But Bjork said, 'Don't worry, we've got a lot of people to work with you and make this bulletproof.'"

The touring ensemble included a 13-piece orchestra, a choir, a harpist, and Matmos. The first performance was in Paris. "We couldn't believe what the audience for a pop star sounds like on stage," Daniel says. "You know, we get good applause when we finish a show, but as soon as she walked onstage, the roar of the French fans was really frightening." His parents were backstage. So was Catherine Deneuve. "We actually met her at the Dancer in the Dark premiere" — Deneuve and Bjork both had roles in the Lars von Trier film — "and Martin tried to bum a cigarette from her. You've never received an icy glare until you've tried to bum a cigarette from Catherine Deneuve."

For six months the Vespertine road show played opera houses and concert halls in the U.S. and Europe, as well as the huge Roskilde music festival in Denmark. "I had never imagined someone with as minimal a relation to music as I have would ever be in the position of walking on stage as part of a band that's playing to 70,000 people," says Daniel. "A lot of the things that are corny rock 'n' roll clichés, like waving cigarette lighters — if you see 70,000 people do that, it's really beautiful. There's a reason the people up on stage want you to do that."

A reviewer once complimented them by calling them "shameless gearsluts." Eighteen months after the last Vespertine show, Bjork asked Matmos to come out on the road again, this time to tour behind her greatest hits album. In all, Daniel and Schmidt invested about three and a half years in working with her, which is why Daniel's PhD took 10 years to complete. "I feel like a hypocrite here at Hopkins, keeping our grad students to a seven-year expectation." In the Krieger School he teaches early modern drama, poetry, and prose, plus offbeat authors like Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith, and Philip K. Dick. Halpern is high on Daniel's prospects: "I think his work is original and intellectually powerful. One of the things I'm most impressed by is his writing. His prose is really beautiful. His work manages to establish an independent voice and original perspective, something fairly rare, especially in a critic as young as Drew."

The Matmos boys own a lot of recordings, many of them peculiar. For example, they have a 12-inch vinyl record of heart sounds. Its tracks include "Normal Heart Sounds," "Acquired Murmurs," and "Congenital Murmurs." Daniel pulls it from the Exotica section of the record collection that covers much of one wall of their living room. Also filed in the Exotica section are President Ronald Reagan Reads Stories From the Old Testament and Tom Edison's Greatest Hits. Daniel owns one of the Co-Star series of records that came with scripts and allowed listeners to act scenes with various Hollywood stars, in this case Fernando Lamas; you speak your lines from the script, and Fernando speaks his through your record player. Daniel has a recording of Aleister Crowley reciting his poetry, and the message left on her parents' answering machine by Patty Hearst after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Opposite the wall of vinyl records are thousands of CDs stored in the living and dining rooms. Most of them are music of every imaginable kind. Even other professional musicians are impressed by how much Daniel and Schmidt know about popular music, and the breadth of their esoteric knowledge. At their dinner table one afternoon, Schmidt mentions a drum break used by Madonna on her song "Justify My Love." He imitates it with his voice, and Daniel quickly identifies it as a sample of a Terminator X drum loop from a song by Public Enemy, which Schmidt points out was sampled from a James Brown song, which Daniel notes was probably originally played by drummer Clyde Stubblefield.

In the basement of their rowhouse near the Homewood campus, they have set up an electronic music studio that is an electro-music nerd's paradise. (A reviewer for the music Web site Pitchfork once complimented them by calling them "shameless gearsluts.") A horseshoe arrangement of tables supports an analog-to-digital converter, a digital audio tape machine, a mixer, a Roland V-Synth synthesizer, and an antique (meaning from the 1970s) ARP 2600 synthesizer that looks more like a switchboard than a musical instrument — all sliders and ports for plugging in patch cords. There's a Korg MS2000 synth and a Bose Voice Transponder and a kids' novelty instrument from England called a Stylophone. Three Apple computers, one a G4 tower and the others laptops, process all the 0s and 1s produced by the other equipment. Carefully coiled cables hang from hardware hooks on one wall.

Matmos' recordings have grown more sophisticated harmonically and melodically. Matmos and Quasi-Objects consist mostly of extended rhythm tracks assembled from sound samples and percussion, clever and hard to resist, but not conventional songs with melodies, chord changes, and harmonies. By The Civil War in 2003, Daniel and Schmidt were composing real songs. The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (2006) contains a remarkable variety of styles, from the percussive disco funk of "Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan" to the surf rock of "Solo Buttons for Joe Meek" to the jazzy "Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith," which would fit right into Angelo Badalamenti's soundtrack for the David Lynch television drama Twin Peaks. The most recent record, Supreme Balloon, was created entirely on synthesizers and will remind listeners of a certain age of 1960s Moog synthesizer novelty recordings by Dick Hyman and Wendy Carlos.

An illustration from Matmos' most recent album, Supreme Balloon Daniel and Schmidt alternate responsibility for conceiving and directing Matmos' recordings. Supreme Balloon was Schmidt's project, so Daniel is in charge of whatever comes next. He tends to be the conceptual half of the pair, and his concept for the next CD began with a work of scholarship, Nicholas Royle's Telepathy and Literature. Royle sees something telepathic in the relationships between certain literary figures, like Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Daniel took to the idea: "After 16 years of making music with Martin, I thought telepathy seemed like a fruitful trope for how improvisers sense where all the people in the room are going. That's a kind of telepathy too." That led him to Ganzfeld telepathy experiments, in which one person, the receiver, minimizes extraneous sensory input by reclining in a chair or on a mattress, and donning a blindfold as well as headphones transmitting white noise. The receiver does his best to empty his mind, and from another room, a second person, the sender, concentrates on a randomly selected image and tries to send it to the receiver via telepathy. During the test, the receiver speaks, responding to whatever enters his mind, and those responses are recorded. For 30 years starting in 1974, researchers used the procedure in an attempt to determine whether or not extrasensory perception exists.

Daniel has been conducting Ganzfeld sessions with friends, assorted Baltimore hipsters and musicians, even some Oxford dons recorded during a visit to England. He plans to collect several dozen audio and video tapes of the sessions, then see if something emerges as the conceptual basis for the next Matmos recording. It might lie in someone's spoken language, a phrase or a description of an image, or perhaps a hummed melody. (Some receivers have sung, hummed, and groaned.) Were someone to say "triangle," for example, Daniel might incorporate the sound of a triangle, or use threes as a musical schema: "A piece based on a triangle? OK, I'll do a waltz: one two three one two three." He could take some of the tapes, ignore the meaning of the words, and treat them as a sort of protoscore: "Let's say I have four sessions that are five minutes long, and in each a different person speaks at different points and with different levels of volume. So you could turn those four sessions into a kind of score for when musical instruments play and how loud they are." He says one female receiver reported a mental image of a lemon cut up, then reassembled with pins and photographed, after which the photograph turned into music. "So we're going to do that," Daniel says. "We're going to record all the sounds of cutting and make music with the lemon and the pins, probably with contact microphones. I find conceptual work very freeing. If you're told, 'OK, you have to make music using triangles and lemons,' to me there's so much you can do there. That could be a calypso piece, that could be a waltz, and it doesn't tell you if it's fast or slow, if it's busy or empty. All the fun decisions still get to be made."

He expects the new record to take at least 18 months to complete. Meanwhile, there is his day job to attend to — teaching English classes, finishing his first book, climbing toward tenure. As a doctoral student, Daniel learned to keep his academic and musical lives going at the same time, but admits he's not getting much sleep these days. "I'm playing with fire, and I know that," he says. "I think next summer we won't tour. We'll probably do two weeks of just a few shows at the end of May and beginning of June." Daniel will devote the rest of the summer months to writing his book. "I learned how to TA and write and make music all through grad school, so I'm used to being amphibious. All the same, the demands of going for tenure at a high-profile, high-functioning department like the English Department at Hopkins, that's really going to be a challenge."

Which prompts a check of his watch — soon he will have to stop chatting and walk to his graduate seminar, Reading Early Modern Affect (From Humor to Passion). But not before he talks a bit about affect theory, and how scientists at one time studied affect by measuring the electro-conduction of the skin, and how he and Schmidt sometimes make music out of the crackling produced by an acupuncture point detector that also measures electro-conduction. And about Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, which is an example of a cento, a collection of quotations and excerpts from other authors, which could be regarded as an early example of sampling and collage. "I see some nice intersections there between this earlier model and the way we compose by slicing and recombining found material." Then he grins and adds that he would not want to make too much of the overlap.

Dale Keiger is associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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