Skyscraper Magazine » Matmos: Experiments in Telepathy
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Experiments in Telepathy
By John Vogel

Matmos trade off responsibility for the creative concepts of their albums. The duo of Martin “M.C.” Schmidt, 47, and Dr. Drew Daniel, 38, are currently working on their ninth album, this time around under the guidance of Daniel (the album is going by the working title of The Marriage of True Minds). Originally from San Francisco, they are now living in Baltimore while Daniel holds down a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Johns Hopkins University.

Following up 2008’s all-electronic Supreme Balloon (Matador), Matmos is once again headed in the opposite direction, deriving the sonic possibilities for the new album from subjects’ mental constructions formed during sessions inspired by the Ganzfeld experiments in telepathy which were invented in the 1930s and more recently revisited in the 1970s and 1980s. Being involved in the academic schedule, Schmidt and Daniel tour between semesters in the summer, frequently overseas.

This interview was conducted on August 9, 2009. Since then, Matmos has released Treasure State (Cantaloupe Music, 2010), a collaboration with Brooklyn’s So Percussion. In June, the two groups played a half-dozen dates together across North America in its support.

The concept of the new album

Drew Daniel: What we do often gets described as concept albums, and I’ve always felt weird about the phrase “concept record” because, typically, at least in the ‘70s prog rock era, what that meant was a kind of light operetta in which there are characters and narrative and this song is this person’s perspective.

Martin Schmidt: Like Olias of Sunhillow.

DD: Yeah.

MS: By Jon Anderson from Yes. That’s a story about a giant ship that’s taking a race of people across space to a new planet, but they’re sort of like elves.

DD: So that’s the rock album as the new novel model of what a concept record would be, and then there’s our version, which is more like conceptual art of the mid-60s – the idea of you commit to a germ of, a sort of recipe or formula, and then you execute that formula and that creates the work. That’s the, like, Sol LeWitt definition of it in Sentences on Conceptual Art, that the idea is the machine that produces the work. And I started to think more and more about, well, what do we do when we make a concept record? How could I purify this further? And essentially concepts are mental, right? They’re mental constructions, so how could I create a situation in which a mental construction was completely responsible for an outcome?

And I thought of reenacting these Ganzfeld experiments into telepathy, as a way of setting up a situation in which the private mental contents of one person are supposedly causally powerful – they’re supposedly causing something. And so the setup of the experiment is that people are put into a state of mild sensory deprivation. They listen to white noise on headphones, their eyes are covered, there’s a red light shining in their face; so their normal perceptual pathways are cut off and, supposedly, the theory of the original experiments was that telepathy is a kind of weak perceptual pathway that’s drowned out by our normal senses, and so if we close those off perhaps you’ll be able to pick up signals. So in this setup people are not listening and not seeing, and they’re instructed to simply open their minds and try to receive a message and someone in another room is attempting to transmit content with their mind psychically, to send a signal with their mind… in the biz, er, the lingo of parapsychology, they’re “mentating”.

So what we do is we reenact this scenario and I’m in another room attempting to send the idea of the new Matmos album into their mind with my mind. They’re supposed to empty their mind of everything, every distraction, and then to just describe out loud everything that they hear in their mind or see in their mind and we record this on video. And we take the resulting transcripts and then have to realize any scenarios that they see or acquire any objects that they see or construct any sounds that they hear. That will be the new Matmos album: the results of these transmissions. So we’re trying to set up a situation that’s completely pure, in that I’ve never told anyone what it is that I’m transmitting when I transmit the idea of the new Matmos album.

MS: Including me.

Relying on art for money

MS: The terrible thing about trying to make your living, or actually making your living, from doing your art is that you start changing your art to make a living better. Because we’re all practical animals – human beings – and it’s, like, “Well, yes, of course if I’m trying to live better by doing this I should do this in a way that enables me to live better.” It’s just simple logic, and I’m not sure that that produces the best art. I guess if I took that to its extreme, if you are successful at it, it would produce more popular art, like “Oh, I need to make something that appeals to more people.” But then you wind up with Dave Matthews.

DD: It’s so individual, you know? Like, I think Michael Jackson didn’t wake up wishing he could sound like Merzbow and then realizing, “No, no! I need to sell records, what can I do?” I think he just happened to have an aesthetic that really did tap into something truly popular. I think, though, if you wake up and you’re Merzbow, you should be Merzbow. You shouldn’t worry about trying. And in fact he [Masami Akita] has made a great living out of being that thing. So I think you get further in the long run by actually being quite selfish and pleasing yourself, because if you try to second guess what you think people want inevitably you get it wrong and there’s nothing sadder than trying to sell out and failing.

MS: Yeah, the road is littered with people who tried to sell out and…

DD: It didn’t work.

MS: Yeah, ouch.

DD: I think a lot rides here on how you’re going to cash out success. Do you mean popularity, or do you mean artistic success? Because there are people who are popular artists who can bracket these questions, and there are people who are popular artists who make their best work because they’re accountable to a marketplace. Shakespeare is the ultimate example: absolutely popular artist whose greatest works were done when he had the most economically at stake. And the up-and-coming young Shakespeare who hasn’t yet tasted success is a much more derivative, much less interesting writer than the writer who’s truly counting the box office receipts, who’s a shareholder in his company. I mean, this is a middle class businessman. So, I think Shakespeare’s a great example of the idea that commerce can make art better. But for every Shakespeare there’s 99.9999% of the schmucks who make garbage precisely because they think that’s what people want. So perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule.

The audience of America

MS: We have this incredibly brutal, ruthless training system of…

DD: Indifference.

MS: Of, yeah, “Sink of swim, motherfucker!”

DD: “No one cares!”

MS: Oh, you’re crazy and/or lazy and can’t make it? Great, no one’s ever heard of you and no one ever will because you couldn’t strive hard enough. I mean, the danger of the American thing… this touches on our previous conversation of, like, “What do kids say to me when I say all that stuff about CDs and the dissolution of the object that you buy?” They say, “Well, you make your money on touring, right?” Touring is fucking brutal labor. Like, I’m 45 years old; it is a different thing for me to tour now than it was 10 years ago. Because we make weird music, we will never rise above a certain level. I know what that’s like because of our time with Björk – and yes, it’s possible if you have a million dollars to tour because you get to sleep and you can stay in a hotel, and these things that become increasingly necessary when you’re old, to actually sleep for eight hours a night… So what it means if no one buys CDs and what it means if there is no government support for the arts is that, and I mean specifically music, is you only hear music by young people. You’ll never get to see what they did next, because it’s just too fucking brutal to go on. So if you only want to listen to music by 20-year-olds, okay. That’s what you’ll get.

DD: Well, yeah, there’s a weird association of music culture with youth, where it is this adolescent expressive model of, like, “Our bodies are flooded with hormones and we’re full of this mysterious rage that we think is at the patriarchal of our evil capitalist fathers, but really it’s that we want to get laid! And then we get laid and we wind up picking somebody and we’re a couple and we have a kid and we have a mortgage and then we settle down.” And it’s this weird model of expressivity that has nothing but sublimation, nothing but adolescent kind of off-gassing. And I think that’s, unfortunately, really narrow, and it’s insulting to the young people that are expressing all kinds of stuff (and not for one simple reason), and it’s just kind of limiting in terms of the notion that music or a music scene is really about only one part of the arch of a life.

MS: I loved the model when I was 20, you know. I mostly listened to records by people who were, I’m going to guess now that I think about it, around 40. And that was great. It was like a lot of great artwork – non-music-related artwork – is not made by, like, energetic 20-year-olds, it’s made by people who have had some experience.