Matthew Herbert: The Aural Detritus Around Us

Talking to Felix L. Petty, the electronic musician dissects the politics – and processes – of the sounds he makes, from slaughtered pigs to squealing bombs

Mark_Herbert- portrait, landscapeRobin Sinha

Words Felix L Petty
Photography Robin Sinha

“I don’t know what happened,” Matthew Herbert begins, “but I seem to have become part of the establishment, which is confusing, because I think my music is possibly at its most challenging at the moment.” He might be right, his last album was built out of samples he’d recorded in Tesco and crafted into rhythmic house tracks. For the one before – an investigation into the meat industry – he spent a year recording noises made by a pig, from birth to death to dinner plate, before fashioning it into an album entitled One Pig. His most recent, he describes as a “jazz quartet record”: he and two musicians “we went away and set up our equipment in a barn on the Welsh borders and recorded for two days,” except that the entire record is based around one five second sample of a bomb exploding in Libya, sent to him by a friend of a friend, who’d recorded it during the battle of Ra’s Lanuf in the Libyan uprising.

It is a challenging listen. The record stretches the sample into a distorted, unsettling, palette of sounds, rhythmic scratches and scuttles, whirrs and hums, continually on edge as the piece is punched through by huge, ear-shattering spikes of noise. “It really is punctuation,” Herbert says of the constant return to the noise of the bomb exploding, “it’s there to unsettle you, to remind you where this sample has come from, never allowing you to relax or get comfortable.”

Herbert’s career to date has been built upon creating music from the aural detritus we find around us. The conceptual root of his work may make it sound formidable, but it’s interspersed with a playfulness and interest in seeing what sound can do. It’s challenging, but in an often staid musical landscape, Herbert’s political awareness, dialogue, and active interest in the world around us tempers it. Last time I spoke to him, he was enthusing about how technology had freed musicians to move from impressionism to documentary, how he could now make a record of the conflict in Libya, without merely interpreting it. “The role of musician is one of storytellers and diarists and spokespeople,” he says, and this record is “trying to conjure up ghosts and mirages of human stories amongst that carnage, like a family photograph in a bomb crater, picking out bits of human emotional resonance.”

If it’s an uncomfortable listen, it was just as uncomfortable to make. Instead of taking the recording and digitally manipulating it into a piece of music, Herbert programmed an instrument called a sty harp to play the noise and the control the sounds. From there, they recorded it in situ, capturing the noises of the barn they were using and the world outside – listen closely and there are flickers of birdsong and wind mixed in with the sound of destruction.

Mark Herbert, portrait colour, Robin Sinha

It testifies to the distance between the band and the event, but also to the musicality, the form that the piece takes – of musicians improvising with the noise. “It sounds a bit pretentious to say it, but I do think of it as a jazz quartet record, and that’s how I put it together. I wanted the musicians to be musicians, even though we were playing an electronic bomb noise. I wanted people playing that, rather than computers. You come in with the melody and the sense of the structure, and you say ‘let’s play it through and see what happens.’”

Herbert’s work has always circled politics in the same way he does when in conversation. He seems disappointed with what he describes as a “blank time for meaning” in modern music – “I don’t think, as much as many musicians would like it, music doesn’t exist in a bubble.”

“When we talk about the political, we mean ‘left wing political’. All public gestures are political,” he continues, “for example if your music isn’t seeking to change anything then that is a political act, because it says you’re happy with the status quo, and you’re ok with how things are. These bombs are still being dropped, still exploding. It seems a very asymmetrical relationship between the things that happen now and the things that happened in the past: it may feel like the bomb going off now is more important than the bomb going off back then. I can’t really think that is fair or true”.

Matthew Herbert, B&W portrait, Robin Sinha