“I’m a fiddler,” says M.C. (Martin) Schmidt, half of the musical duo Matmos, “but not with a violin.”
Drew Daniel, the other half, adds, “I’ve been gathering sounds that Martin does — Martin plays things and I’m more the one who chops them up.”
And that, in a nutshell, is Matmos’ musical process. Or at least the starting point for it. The pair is performing in Calgary as part of the Soundasaurus Festival of Multimedia Sound Arts, so it isn’t surprising that their style doesn’t fit a predetermined genre.
Describing their own music to others “depends on whether they have enough time or not,” says Daniel. “If it’s a cab driver and I live only a block away.... I’ll say that I make noisy techno, which is not a good description. If they have more time, I’ll say that we make weird, rhythmic pop music out of unusual sound sources... and I’ll start a long list of all the crazy stuff that we’ve made music out of over the years.”
Perhaps Matmos’ most notable characteristic is its hospitable approach to instrumentation — besides synthesizers, they’ve been known to use sounds from anything from water hitting copper plates, to balloons, to insects, to surgical procedures (and many, many more).
“I do have nervous little fingers,” says Schmidt, “and I am tapping and rubbing and pounding everything that I come across. Sometimes things will just sound super cool, and tell me to make it into a song.”
Matmos also gets inspiration from their audiences, who sometimes try to identify the origins of the sounds they’re hearing. One such listener said they thought they heard metal brackets in the mix, which in turn inspired Matmos to seek out the sonic possibilities of handcuffs and shackles. For their Calgary show, they’re also including samples from an Enigma machine — the famous Nazi encryption device. (Understandably, they can’t tour with the machine itself, but they do have video footage that they’ll screen as they play.)
“Neither of us started out knowing how to play music,” says Schmidt, while Daniel picks up the thread: “Our ignorance is a kind of strength because you’re not attached to playing a traditional instrument a traditional way.... You’re way more likely to just pick up a box or walkie-talkies or a piece of fabric and try to make that into an instrument because you’re not hung up about whether you’re playing a major or minor chord. You’re just thinking, ‘What can I do with what’s all around me?’”
Despite all their electronic tinkering, which is not always conducive to an exciting live performance, Matmos has plenty to bring to the stage. “We’re lucky that our music is tied to objects in the world, and oftentimes we can actually bring the object and make the sounds with it,” says Schmidt.
“[There’s] a fair amount of improvisation and risk in what we do, and a certain shamelessness that we have that is pretty unusual relative to our peers,” says Daniel, adding that audiences “might walk out going, ‘Wow — those guys have no shame.’”