The Creators Project: There’s an article about you somewhere that says you were specifically influenced by a Steve Reich track called “Come Out” early on in your career. What significance did it have for you?
Matthew Herbert: I think I was very lucky that I had a great music teacher named Mr. Story. He taught us a sort of general approach to music through Queen and Stravinsky and Mozart’s clarinet concerto and Steve Reich… all sorts of people. He let us in quite early to one of the fundamental secrets of music: that it’s all roughly the same. It’s just done with different orchestration or different techniques, but it’s principally governed by the same rules, which are tension and release and harmony and discord and other things. Anyway, he played us Steve Reich, which was very influential to me because it was intellectually challenging and stimulating to my brain, but also felt emotional and soulful as well. All the challenging music I had heard before then was based around dissonance. I thought that challenging music was supposed to be dissonant or unpleasant or free from these harmonic rules that had governed the rules of music for so long prior to that period. It was a sort of turning point for me. I do think that’s something I find the greatest challenge—to create challenging and engaging and thoughtful and artistically rich music in terms of the ideas or the content of it, but also to sort of package it in such a way that it sneaks under the radar so that you can engage with it in an emotional way as well as an intellectual way.
You’re known for eschewing typical samples in lieu of building sounds made by ordinary objects around the house or actions like bodily movements. Is there a process for this or an overarching concept? Like, do you say, “Between three and five today I’m going to record a table?”
It’s a combination of pretty legitimate planning from day one and a kind of joyful exuberance because basically I’ve been given this incredible gift—the sampler—that can turn any noise into music instantly. It can allow you to play it on a keyboard. Look at classical music and how much of it is a simulation of nature—bird songs or rolling, expansive hills, or something like that. You don’t need to do that anymore. You can take out a microphone and go out to the hills and record a real bird song, and then your piece of music is the Austrian mountains.
You have very strong ideas about music and how it connects to society in political and sociological ways. Off the top of your head, can you give us an example that someone who listens to Top 40 mainstream music might understand?
Someone who I respect told me this so I don’t have any reason to doubt it, and I also don’t have any hard evidence, but I was told that the vocoder was invented to disguise Winston Churchill’s voice in the Second World War. They probably didn’t expect it to—
Turn up on Kanye West records?
[Laughs]. Exactly, but there’s a strong military relation to everything around us, and we’re happily going along making bits of music without much real consideration for why we’re making music in the first place and why anyone should bother to listen to it in this day in age.