Why do we need music any more? Why do we need songs about love? What is the purpose of music? These are some of the questions that producer, writer and pioneering electronic musician Matthew Herbert tries to address on his new record The Shakes. Herbert has always been an agent provocateur but you get the feeling that The Shakes is some kind of catharsis for him. “For me it’s the feeling and state of heightened emotion somewhere between excitement and fear”, he says. “When I started writing music, I did it because I could and because I liked it. As I get older these reasons become less compelling. At a time when inequality is rising to unprecedented extremes and when the system we have created is designed to destroy rather than nurture, music’s propensity to noodle inconclusively can seem unhelpful at best. Who needs diversion when action is required? However, music can’t only and always be a call to arms, it can also tenderize and engulf when comfort is needed. The Shakes is an attempt to find a middle ground between those two positions.”
Matthew Herbert has almost been here before. Born in 1972 and educated at Exeter University, Herbert may have overseen production duties for artists such as Roisin Murphy, Micachu, Merz, Hejira and Rowdy Superstar whilst re-mixing over 200 artists (ranging from Quincy Jones, REM and Serge Gainsbourg to Bjork and Mahler) but it is for the extraordinary range of his work as an artist and sound innovator that he is best known. Herbert has scored more than ten feature films including Kevin Macdonald/Ridley Scott’s 2011 film Life In A Day (for which he received a prestigious Ivor Novello nomination), a score that utilized an 80-piece orchestra and adapted sounds sent to him by the public. His work has also included scoring ballet, fashion shows, television programs and theatre and his music has been presented on Broadway, the National Theatre, the Almeida and the Royal Court.
Matthew Herbert has recorded under several names including Doctor Rockit, Wishmountain and The Matthew Herbert Big Band and it was under one of these monikers – Wishmountain – that he began recording using everyday objects such as pepper pots, video-cassettes and crisp packets. He released a series of EPs under the name Herbert and these were brought together on the 1996 album ‘100lbs’. In 1998 he released “’Around The House’, a Deep House long player that again used domestic objects as part of its soundscape but it wasn’t until 2001 that Herbert would commandeer the zeitgeist and produce a defining work. That work – ‘Bodily Functions’ – featured sounds generated by manipulating human hair and skin as well as internal bodily organs. The record had an expansive, jazzier feel but, nonetheless (!), included the sounds of laser eye surgery. Whatever Herbert had stumbled upon had hit a nerve (ouch) as the record is his biggest seller to date and these days regularly features in Best Of The ‘90s album lists.
In 2000 Matthew Herbert issued his Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes) which was, he says, “an exciting realization that the artistic agenda in electronic music was there for the taking.” This was a rallying call against the shortcuts afforded by modern, mechanized recording (drum machines, lifting other people’s beats) and the stifling paradigm of studio presets and Herbert clarified further by suggesting that the manifesto was an attempt to demonstrate that “in creating art, there are certain fundamental principles underlying each work, exhibition or gallery. What is this work about? Why does it exist now? Why use these materials? What is the intended effect? To this day, that kind of basic questioning about the role of music doesn’t exist in the visible mainstream, and rarely even on campus. Consequently I am left to my own devices, free to set the tone of discussion, free to drive the narrative and free to push further on in to uncharted territory. It’s a thrilling position to be in. I’m surprised others didn’t do it first.”
In 2003 the Matthew Herbert Big Band released ‘Goodbye Swingtime’, a profoundly jazz offering that showcased Herbert’s classical musical training and featured four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones whose orchestrations were then computer manipulated. Two years later he released ‘Plat Du Jour’, an album (about the politics of food distribution and consumption) featuring objects and situations in the food chain. For this – and in order to establish the chain of connection between politics, celebrity and battery farming — he recorded beneath the sewers of Fleet Street, drove a tank over the recreation of the dinner that Nigella Lawson cooked for George Bush and Tony Blair (“Nigella, Tony, George and Me”) and recorded 3500 people biting an apple at the same time. It included the track “The Final Meal of Stacy Lawton” made in collaboration with Heston Blumenthal.
In 2006 Herbert released “Scale”, a record featuring 635 objects including violins and guitars as well as breakfast cereal, gas pumps and coffins — and someone vomiting outside a Trade Arms Fair and drums recorded in a hot air balloon at 100mph. It excited Pitchfork Media enough to suggest it “sophisticated, joyful and yet tinged with sadness” and “one of this year’s great albums.” Two years later he released another Matthew Herbert Big Band project entitled ‘There’s Me And There’s You’ which included recording sessions inside the Houses Of Parliament, at a landfill site and in the lobby of the British Museum with 70 volunteers.
Between 2009 and 2011, Herbert released a trilogy of albums as the One series: One One created a song cycle based around his immediate world, with Herbert playing all the instruments and even singing; for One Club, Herbert travelled to the Robert Johnson nightclub in Frankfurt and persuaded clubbers to stamp, shake coins, whistle up or down according to whether they were straight or gay, and co-perform songs written for the occasion. The results were then processed, to sculpt a document of the club experience, prompting Herbert to reflect: “It often occurs to me, given how many millions of people go clubbing every weekend, that that energy, or at least some of that energy, doesn’t cohere into some sort of political movement – that it all dissipates”; and One Pig, an album that follows the life of a pig from birth to dinner plate. For this last piece, Herbert spent several months on a farm collating the necessary sounds until the pig was eventually cooked by chefs including Fergus Henderson and Jason Atherton. The pig’s blood was used to generate pitch and the dropping of the pig’s head on to the butcher’s table was processed into a bounding bass drum and if it all sounds fairly gruesome, it’s supposed to be. Herbert explains that he was not allowed to see the actual slaughter of the pig and that there is a veil of secrecy surrounding the environment of animal processing. “The idea of choice as a consumer is nonsense,” he says. “These huge companies have all the power – and I’m being asked to put this in my body.” The project was condemned by PETA (who seemed to equate listening in to the pig’s life as tantamount to torture) despite Herbert’s meticulous attention to detail and his documentary approach.
Matthew Herbert’s last record ‘The End Of Silence’ (2013) further explored the outer edges of sound and music and was made out of a bomb exploding. The record seems to have kicked off an impossibly eclectic creative streak and last year the newly appointed Creative Director of the recently revamped BBC Radiophonic Workshop (that’s Matthew Herbert to you and I) directed a play at the National Theatre, debuted his opera at the Royal Opera House, scored a film for the BFI and recorded an album in seven days live on stage with an audience at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. He also started to write ‘The Shakes’, his first album under the name HERBERT since 2006’s dark orchestral disco fantasy ‘Scale.’ The record can be seen as a sequel to the much-lauded ‘Bodily Functions’ and is the latest in a series of albums that stretches back nearly twenty years to the minimalist house classic 100lbs. It follows a vinyl-heavy trio of underground releases last year (part 6,7,8) and is Herbert’s attempt to “seduce the listener back to the dance-floor”. The Shakes deals with intensely personal issues such as raising young children against a backdrop of an increasingly unstable world and, amongst other things, utilizes the sound of used bullets and shells bought off eBay as part of its soundscape. It is also perhaps a treatise on how “music helps to motivate, provide respite and divert us from the challenges of the everyday” and Herbert himself describes it as “electronic music for the soul.
Musicians featured on The Shakes include Dave Okumu (The Invisible, Jessie Ware) on guitar, Sam Beste (Hejira, Amy Winehouse) on keyboards, organ, saxophonist Ben Castle (Quincy Jones, Radiohead), trombonist Alistair White (Van Morrison, Blur) and Chris Storr (Beyonce, James Brown) on trumpet. Vocalists on the album include Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne (Hejira, Nitin Sawhney) and Ade Omotayo (Kindness, Amy Winehouse) and notable highlights include Herbert’s Grandfather’s piano and a piano from Wormwood Scrubs on Smart, the sounds of UK protest marches (on Strong) and the sound of those aforementioned bullets on Safety. Most notable of all however is Father Wills, the vast church organ of St Jude’s church in Hampstead that provides the huge depth and scale on much of the album. Herbert says of the recordings, “After all my work with sounds, an area I feel is my true calling, standing in St Jude’s and hearing Sam (Beste) play some of these songs on the organ at full volume, it’s just impossible to argue with the emotional impact of that: the refinement of hundred’s of years attention to a single instrument. At times like this a handful of a poor pigs bones doesn’t stand a chance.”
It’s apposite to note that Matthew Herbert is a constantly enticing thorn in the side of the music and arts establishment as well as being a constantly unique influence on those who are drawn to be musical and artistic themselves. Who else could possibly inspire legendary US record producer and rapper J Dilla to sample one of his tracks (from Bodily Functions) and also pen a track (Café de Flore) that would subsequently prove the inspiration for major US motion picture Café de Flore (can you see what they did there?) directed by Dallas Buyers Club and Wild director Jean-Marc Vallee? And who else could set up labels such as Accidental Records and NX Records – the latter a collaboration with the popular music course at Goldsmiths that spawned artists such as James Blake and Katy B — and yet still find time to release a record featuring sounds created by the top ten selling items in Tesco? The answer you’re looking for is no one except Matthew Herbert, an artist who, on release of The Shakes — his finest and most accessible work to date and perhaps 2015’s most relevant release — has now earned the right to be seen as an electronic music icon.