Noisy concepts

There is something about Matthew Herbert, the revered electronic music producer who has a new album out at the moment, that I find a little bit annoying. Don’t get me wrong here. I have three Herbert-produced albums — ‘Goodbye Swingtime’, ‘Likes…’ and ‘Bodily Functions’ — and I think they are all pretty good, especially ‘Goodbye Swingtime’. But recently I haven’t felt the urge to buy any more Herbert stuff.

My problem with him is this: noise. By noise I don’t mean the completely insane dense noise music à la Merzbow. I actually quite like that sort of stuff; it can be quite fun. If I’m angry or upset or something, noise music is actually the very best thing I can put on because it kind of neutralises me, and once it’s all over I feel okay. I dunno why that works, but I shouldn’t question these things.

But in this case I mean noise as in found sounds. For the uninitiated, Matthew Herbert’s big gimmick is to stick a microphone up a chicken’s bum, record it taking a dump, then turn the sound into a quaint, skittering (pun intended) jolly piece of music that’s meant to get you wiggling a bit.

Once again, I should stress that I do not have a problem with found sounds at all. In fact, I have read that Autechre make heavy use of found sounds, which is believeable. But they do it really cleverly because they do it with the intention of making good music. Matthew Herbert, on the other hand, does it to make some kind of grandiose statement. At first I thought it was really cool. Ripping up copies of The Daily Mail in time to the music? How can you resist?

But after a while I began to wonder if the big concepts were getting in the way of making good music. If you read all of the liner notes for ‘Goodbye Swingtime’, which was released at the very height of the Iraq war debate, there is a lot of shit in there. Whether you agree with the broad thrust of his argument or not (and I happened to be against the invasion), it is easy to see that there is a lot of extremely pretentious bollocks going on in the album. Here is an example of the notes for one of the tracks, ‘The Three W’s’:

Sounds: Vocals by Mara Carlyle, Typing of the URL for www.soaw.org, the School of Americas Watch website dictating American involvement in Latin American dictatorships. Printing of pages from the same website / Flugel horn by Pete Wraight.

Sure enough, listen to the track and there is the sound of an inkjet printer churning away, presumably printing pages from said website. I mean, fair enough if Matthew Herbert feels like this message should get out, but it sounds shit on the record.

In the notes for another track, ‘Misprints’, surrounded by the usual notes crediting musicians, there is this:

…Newspaper clippings about Iraq from around the world shaped in to instruments and filled with popcorn, rice and foreign coins…

‘Simple Mind’:

…Band also played the instruments without blowing them…

Also peppered around the album is the sound of books by Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Greg Palast and others either being flicked through or silently read. Presumably all of this is meant to enlighten the listener via the mystical voodoo telepathic power of the CD in a stereo. I think the idea is that if you hear (I say ‘hear’, but all you actually hear is pages being turned) on the album a saxophonist silently reading Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men then you too can become a ranting, fat, hypocritical millionaire who likes to dress up as a tramp.

Herbert getting political
Herbert getting political
As I said, it is all very well if Matthew Herbert wants his political viewpoints to be known, but it doesn’t make for good music. It just makes for embarassing liner notes. There is hardly anything worse than a musician pretending he is an expert in international affairs. You need look no further than those posers Bob “ten out of ten” Geldof and Bono to see the absolute tossery that this leads to. This stuff is no better than Tony Blair stiltedly posing with his Stratocaster. I buy a CD to listen to music. If I want lectures on international politics I’ll buy a book.

‘Goodbye Swingtime’ was all right though. I still think it’s a pretty good album, so I was interested when his following album, ‘Plait du Jour’, was released. It was an album all about food politics. As I recall, the general thrust of the argument was, “Buy all your food from local farmers, but don’t let African farmers starve.” I’m not sure how buying British produce is meant to help poor African farmers. Still, that is his viewpoint which he is entitled to, so I was still going to buy the album because the music was still going to be good, right?

Well it turned out that ‘Plait du Jour’ was where musique concrète turned musique wet. Matthew Herbert exactly recreated a meal that Nigella Lawson once cooked for George W. Bush. Then he whipped his microphone out and recorded the meal being run over by a tank (the tank was chosen even though we should “start no wars”). Okay, it raises a smile, but does it result in good music? I have no idea because as soon as I read about it I decided I was not going to touch that album with a bargepole.

I once asked a Róisín Murphy fan to convince me to buy her solo album which was produced by Matthew Herbert. I explained, “I’ve gone off Matthew Herbert.” The reply? “Herbert is back to his best!” Thank goodness, I thought. I read on: “He recorded her making cups of tea, whacking a notepad about, jumping up and down on bed, hissing…” My hopes were dashed. I still haven’t bought the Róisín Murphy album.

Here is the blurb from a recent edition of the tip-top Radio 3 programme, Mixing It:

For his latest album release, Matthew Herbert has concentrated on writing songs, although his experimental side is still very much at work, with sound sources as diverse as coffins, petrol pumps and an RAF Tornado bomber, and drum tracks recorded in a variety of locations: a hot air balloon, under the sea and in a car travelling at 100mph.

Since this is supposed to be an album of songs, I wonder if he has also recorded sounds from inside his own arse — otherwise how would he record the vocals with his head stuck so far up it? As I said at the start of this post, found sounds are absolutely fine. But with Matthew Herbert nobody ever talks about the music, they only talk about his mad recording exploits. Herbert allows all of these silly ideas to get in the way of a good tune which, at the end of the day, is surely what it is all about?

I shouldn’t really single out Matthew Herbert like this because he is not the only artist who puts the concept and the found sounds ahead of the music. You know me — I like music with an experimental edge, and in that arena being pretentious isn’t exactly an unusual thing. But there is a line to be drawn.

When I first heard that Venetian Snares was making an album with his girlfriend Hecate which was made entirely out of the sounds they made while having sex I thought it was a genius idea. The problem was, when the album was released it sounded like all they ever do in bed is fart.

Olive branch: To prove that I still quite like Matthew Herbert, despite all the bile I directed towards him in this post, I am putting his ‘Hoedown Bump’ instrumental remix of Jamie Lidell’s ‘Multiply’ here, because I think it’s really cool. As always, you’ll have to press play every 30 seconds.

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