Band Booking: Matmos on ESP, Conceptual Art, and Isaac Asimov

Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt comprise Matmos, whose music appeals equally to the cerebral and the instinctual. Their first work for Thrill Jockey is The Ganzfeld EP, which takes as its starting point a series of experiments having to do with ESP; a new full-length album, The Marriage of True Minds, will follow next year. I checked in with Daniel and Schmidt at their Baltimore home to talk psychic research, concept art, and much more.

Where did the interest in ESP come from?
Drew Daniel: For me, it came from thinking about the way that we’re saddled with this reputation for making concept records. I’ve never really been interested in the fringe-y elements of the New Age movement. That’s not really my orientation. I’m really interested in conceptual art, and there’s a certain kind of slapstick-y thing that happens sometimes in the history of conceptual art where there’s a kind of gag or prankster-like vibe to the way that a concept is supposedly creating a work. It seemed to me that ESP research was another comparable situation, where a concept in someone’s mind is somehow acting on the world. So it was just an intuition on how to set up a situation where concepts are in the driver’s seat. Supposedly.

Were there specific works that you had in mind in terms of the more humorous aspects of concept art?
M.C. Schmidt: Oh, it’s all funny. I don’t know…

DD: I mean–

MS: I’m the one who gives flip answers, and Drew is the one who gives page-long serious answers.

DD: I think it was Robert Barry who released gas into the air at a beach, and there’s this great photograph of all of these people watching this action take place, but they’re looking nothing. There’s this strong sense that there is a something there. And obviously, air is a force. It exists; it’s not like it’s not real.

MS: Whatever the gas was. Or Yves Klein, and his lifelong dedication to having no sense of humor about completely hilarious conceptual… I really do mean they’re all funny. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t profound as well.

I’m looking at Thrill Jockey’s page, and I’m seeing these very ornate ways that you can get the EP. Where did the idea to do that come from?
MS: Honestly, it came from them. We are on a new label, and we did what they suggested. Because we’re trying to be pleasant guests at a party in our new friend’s home. (pauses) I mean, they proposed headphones, and then they sent us headphones, and they’re killer headphones. I had no problem with packaging them together. It’s a great conceptual package, the idea that it’s a do-it-yourself Matmos version of Ganzfeld. All that’s missing, of course, is what comes on the LP, which is white noise.

DD: The album is going to have a locked groove of white noise. And once you have the album on vinyl, you can combine that with the headphones and the goggles from the EP and then you can reconstruct the entirety of the raw material… So it’s sort of designed to loop the EP and the LP together.

MS: Plus, I figured people could generate their own white noise.

Where did you first find out about the Ganzfeld experiment?
MS: That would reach back to actual childhood cultural memory. We’ve done research on the experiments, but… I’m old enough so that I remember Kreskin on The Johnny Carson Show. There was a pop national wave of interest in the late… Since we’ve been working on this album, we bought a Milton Bradley version of Kreskin’s “Do You Have ESP” at home game, that comes with all this stuff similar to our box set. That’s probably where I remember it from. How do you know about the…

DD: I know about it through the affect studies theorist Brian Massumi. He made some really interesting observations about Ganzfeld experiments that were entirely to do with  vision; they were nothing to do with telepathy. What they did was, they isolated subjects in a stereotactic device so they couldn’t look up, down, or away, and they started at a white surface for ten to twelve hours. Pretty far into the experiment, the mind can’t handle having nothing, and so people in that situation started to hallucinate experiences of death, colors, images. The brain wants content, and it can’t stand the idea of nothing. So Massumi was doing some interesting things with describing the way that, out of nothing, the brain was just going to generate material. And that got me to thinking that I wanted to know more about these Ganzfeld experiments. The more I learned about them, the more I saw that they’d also been deployed for telepathy and parapsychology. And that’s when I made the leap, that maybe we could use this as a way to generate content, little bits of grit that turn into a pearl, that turn into the song. Isolate people, cut them off from the way they live their lives — constantly staring at their cellphone or staring at a screen; someone’s always barfing content at you in our world now. What if we decided to set up a situation where people were forced to have nothing but were told that something’s coming. What would happen? That’s really what was appealing to me.

Listening to the EP, there are a lot of uses of the human voice in different permutations. With this EP, and possibly with the album as well, is that something that you were looking to do more of?
DD: It’s something of a dangerous territory for us. I’m extremely skeptical of electronic albums that have guest vocalists. That, to me, tends to look very greedy, or like a cash grab; a way to seem relevant to people who like songs.

MS: There’s a terrible tendency — in my opinion, terrible — in musique concrete in the 70s and 80s to feel like there has to be someone singing on top of musique concrete pieces to give it a sort of narrative drive. Generally, it’s awful.

DD: For us, there’s a strong urge not to do that, but then that makes it incredibly alluring, like a sort of forbidden fruit. “Can we go there?” I think the honest truth is that it was a way to bounce off of a community of people around us here in Baltimore. It’s a very social record. I mean, Angel Deradoorian — she’s moved to LA since, but — we were hanging out with her; Dan Deacon, Carly from Nautical Almanac. It’s all sort of people on the scene in Baltimore. That social or communal aspect seemed to pair with the way that all of the psychic session were collaborative. Also, Martin’s always really loved Robert Ashley, and to be honest, the piece “Just Waves” is very strongly indebted to the Robert Ashley way of creating music through the cadences of layered voice. We’re biting Ashley pretty hard there.

MS: Or so we’d like to flatter ourselves…

What are both of you reading right now?
DD: I am reading Wieland, or, the Transformation by Charles Brockden Brown, which is an American gothic novel…

MS: I’m reading the fourth book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.

Is that Foundation’s Edge?
MS: Yes it is.

DD: Oh, snap.

MS: What do you think?

It’s been a while since I read any of those. I remember reading the original trilogy, and then reading the later books, which are kind of [Asimov] trying to tie everything he’s written together into this much larger future history.
MS: I don’t know about the fourth one. It also seems like a… “Boy, people really liked those! I’ll sell a kazillion of ‘em if I write a fourth one!” I think those books are interesting,  in that…it’s a way of tricking you into reading about politicians, while promising you space travel and robots and robots and stuff. Really, those books are about politics. I feel robbed.

Photo: Matmos

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