Restless innovator, sampling wizard, classically trained pianist and superstar collaborator, MATTHEW HERBERT is one of electronic music’s most versatile and prolific figureheads. Recording under his own name as well as Doctor Rockit, Wishmountain, Radio Boy and others, Herbert has also produced and remixed artists as diverse as Björk, REM, John Cale, Roisin Murphy, Yoko Ono and Serge Gainsbourg.
An alchemist of avant-garde sound in the tradition stretching from Stockhausen to the Aphex Twin, Herbert combines playful pop sensibility with a strictly imposed experimental agenda. In his increasingly conceptual and political albums he has emerged as a unique figure in modern music: a kind of one-man Radiohead, or a Brian Eno for the 21st century.
It was in January 1995 that Herbert gave his first large public performance. His instruments: a sampler and a bag of crisps. But long before he discovered the revolutionary possibilities of sampling, he began playing violin and piano at the age of four. When he was seven he sang in the school choir and played with orchestras. At school, he had the good fortune to have a music teacher who considered Reich, Xenakis and Jazz standards to be the equal of Beethoven. During his time as a theatre student at Exeter University, Herbert, the son of a BBC sound technician, continued to invest in his own home studio.
Herbert’s studies helped to germinate his interest in “musique concrete”. Rummaging around his bag of crisps was only the beginning. His 1998 masterwork ‘Around the House’ (re-released on !K7 in 2002) collected sounds from the house and home: washing machines, toasters and toothbrushes were sampled and processed into swinging grooves and absorbing sound scapes. All the project needed was the silken voice of Dani Siciliano, Herbert’s long-term collaborator, to humanise the album into a left-field classic.
In 2000, Herbert wrote a manifesto, the “Personal Contract for the Composition Of Music (PCCOM) (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes)”, rules which have defined the compositional methods ever since. The manifesto, not unlike Dogme 95’s filmic principles, prohibits the use of any pre-recorded musical sources, as well as any synthetic sounds that imitate acoustic instruments.
Furthermore, accidental sounds or errors should influence the process of his production. Herbert considers mistakes in programming or recording as the welcome intervention of random humanity in a sterile world. This is a man, after all, who runs a record label called Accidental.
Deriving much of its musical content from human skin, hair, bones and the random contents of Dani Siciliano’s handbag, Herbert’s 2001 album ‘Bodily Functions’ was the audible result of putting this theory to practice. But far from being limited by these self-imposed rules, the record unlocked rich new vaults of unique sound and fascinating rhythm from the most unlikely everyday objects.
In 2003 Herbert redefined his musical agenda yet again with his big-band album ‘Goodbye Swingtime’, which was recorded at Abbey Road studios with 16 jazz and session musicians. Despite its self-consciously traditional elements, the album was composed under strict PCCOM rules, and again featured Siciliano on vocals. The subsequent live shows, including Sonar in Barcelona, the Montreux jazz festival, and Roskilde festival in Denmark, were rapturously received by large crowds.
From bedroom samplers to concert halls, Herbert continues to expand the horizons of electro-organic music.
The political content of Herbert’s music has become increasingly overt in recent years. His 2004 album ‘Plat Du Jour’ was his most rigorously experimental to date, featuring sounds entirely derived from food and its packaging. Unified in concept and content, it used witty culinary metaphors to attack not just giant food companies but also the death penalty, body fascism and war in Iraq. In Britain, ‘The Guardian’ called the consequent live shows, complete with a chef making live smells “a wild stimulation of senses, feet and intellect”.
In 2005, Herbert produced ‘Ruby Blue’, the debut solo album by Moloko singer Roisin Murphy. A fertile garden of flamboyant dance-pop and artfully textured jazz-funk.
Herbert’s latest album, ‘Scale’, is probably his most pleasingly pop-friendly mellifluous so far. But beneath its deceptively glossy surface sheen of jazz, disco and sensual house rhythms lie quietly anguished meditations on mortality, global suffering and the end of the oil age. Among the 723 objects sampled on these lush tracks are coffins, petrol pumps, meteorites, an RAF Tornado bomber, and somebody being sick outside a banquet for a notorious London arms fair. More than any previous Herbert album, ‘Scale’ combines immaculately groomed dance music with subversive subject matter.
Herbert is as solid as a rock in these times of “borderless digital arbitrariness,” as the German newspaper ‘Die Zeit’ once described his work. Between programming mistakes and the conceptual stringency of his PCCOM manifest, between divine accident and strict intent, whether he scores films or theatre shows or paints the musical backdrop for fashion shows – Herbert’s endless innovation and transgression of genres is never just art for its own sake. His music is always engaged in lively dialogue with the wider world, with the past and future of experimental music, with its own political and economic origins.
Crucially, in most cases, you can also dance to it. Matthew Herbert’s records are true instruments of mass seduction.