The experimental electronic band Matmos has made galactic waves in a genre where most artists exist like agoraphobic monks for the pleasure of other cool kids in back rooms. They made their way to Baltimore in the late aughts from San Francisco, where rent seemed to double every time they returned from tour.
Given their collaborative history with some of music’s biggest names, while residing on multiple prestigious labels, you’re taken aback by their “Cheers”-like demeanor as they yuck it up with the crowd, or share a smoke outside the Metro Gallery on this late summer night in August with nerds like myself who’ve had the pleasure of working with them on a handful of tracks and stages.
Back inside, the crowd settles in as they enjoy some much-appreciated A.C. and a good stiff drink, or whatever your pleasure, as member Drew Daniel waxes philosophical on sampling from the The Metro Gallery stage.
“The thing about sampling is that it has an inherently fetishistic dimension. Every object is a miracle.” He shrugs. “Somebody said that on Instagram. I don’t know who.”
Drew continues: “So when we take an object and sample it, and make sounds with it, it feels like church, and it feels like this (the object being sampled) is the host, and this is Jesus’s body, and you have to worship it.”
Martin Schmidt, the other half of the electronic duo, interjects from across the table covered in laptops, iPads, keyboards and props, in a voice that sounds like Ted Danson meets Steve Martin. “But some things are bad.” Drew jokingly tosses up a middle finger at the bad.
Martin continues, “and let’s face it, plastic is one of them.” He holds up the plastic water bottle from which he’s been drinking. “For example, bad. The idea that we manufacture this thing that outlasts us by 10,000 times in order to conveniently put water in our face for f***ing five minutes is obviously a terrible idea.” Drew looks at the audience commenting “this is your Saturday night, right?”
Martin suggests swapping out plastic bottles for aluminum cans to which Drew jokingly remarks “hey, why don’t you run your own venue if you’re so full of ideas?” Martin quips “I doooo.”
He’s referring to The Red Room, a Waverly space where he and others host a plethora of experimental acts. Martin continues “God I wish there was water available there. It’s the driest place on Earth.” This garners some deep chuckles from random attendees who have frequented the beloved noise venue.
Most of us, aside from a handful of super fans, are unaware that this seemingly random chatter, albeit very entertaining, is indeed part of the show. Martin takes out a plastic oblong blue capsule that’s about the size of a kids football. He opens it and ponders the object like one who’s just stumbled upon something peculiar. This sense of childlike discovery is ever present with Matmos – and it’s sincere. He alternates between twisting the capsule open and closed which emits a chirping sound. Then he knocks the two hollow halves together making sounds one might hear in a 1940s radio-Western to indicate a horse galloping at incongruent intervals.
Soon enough these sounds are modulated by Drew into a rhythmic pastiche that brings to mind futuristic baby elephants tap dancing in clogs. Half the audience unconsciously bobs their heads while the other half stands transfixed, pulling away from their phones or any random smatterings of conversation that are almost non-existent at this point.
People have come here for the unadulterated physical joy of now. The moment is enough. The opening number builds up to a climactic point which sounds like the score from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” smashing into a colony of synthetic birds to a beat that sways through you like ancient smoke. You notice more folks getting their whole body into it. This is an impressive feat for a genre that can at times feel didactic and jarring.
Through years of honing their craft, Matmos has struck a balance between the utilization of ethereal sounds hidden in our bodies or washing machines and structuring them into strangely pleasing – albeit avant-garde – soundscapes. Their music suggests that any and all things can be exalted onto the altar of song. We are tacitly asked to accept all possibilities. Yet we are given a rhythmic map that feels familiar and welcoming.
The quietly provocative mini Ted Talk on object fetishizing and Jesus which Drew kicked off the show with comes fully to the surface as Martin takes out a vinyl copy of Bread’s 1972 hit album “Baby I’m-A Want You,” the Eucharist if you will. He has the audience in stitches with an uproarious impromptu standup routine poking fun at the schmaltzy inner gatefold picture featuring closeups of each band member’s face, or as Martin puts it “their fowl little faces.”
Martin breaks the record apart into shards, one of which he holds against the table’s edge while using his other hand to thwap at it making it somehow sound like a tennis ball being hit at a conga line. Drew intercepts these sonic bits from his side and begins molding them into a composition that a blindfolded person might mistake for an air popper with a good sense of rhythm. It is playful yet infectious, building into rapid syncopated Burundi-like patterns echoing off the walls of a Martian canyon. Then, just like that, it halts. The crowd eats it up.
From here Drew and Martin direct members of the crowd, who’ve been given noise making mechanisims prior to the show, that this is now the time for a participatory number. Folks are encouraged to take part with whatever may be on their person. Drew jokingly imparts that “we don’t expect Tito Puente but we do expect obedience.” I happen to have my mammoth set of keys which I jangle to a certain degree of success.
The song begins with a deep swirling beat that thumps like a pair of boots in a washing machine at the peak of the spin cycle. Drew and Martin run around the audience with mini speakers, projecting elements of the composition in random proximities, altering the texture of the piece in a delightfully abrupt way which brings you to feel that much more present. You hear sporadic hoops and hollers from attendees which almost feel unconscious, like something being exorcized from the collective body of the crowd.
By this point the piece has morphed into a parade of self-actualized vacuum cleaners humming in high-pitched unison with intermittent bassoon hits. Random scattered clicks and clacks of our terrestrial noise-makers bring a sense of inclusion back here on Earth. At Matmos shows, you never feel self-conscious because everything is so damn weird that you get lost in it. People who I’ve seen at a thousand shows wearing comatose expressions are transformed in this environment to tactile beings. We escape our heads. This is Matmos’s gift to us all.
From here the artists leave our visual periphery. Our eyes are drawn to a screen which projects a kaleidoscope of abstract images as if through a transom from some space pod which shows us a thousand possible worlds with tantalizing hints of the strange moments one might partake in there. As we descend back to Earth amidst the steam of other worlds crisscrossing through prisms of yellow, violet, and orange, we see a pair of ghostly hands reaching towards a red sun encircled by a gold ring while Doctor Who-like tones emanate at us.
For the last number, Martin takes the stage with an acoustic guitar of all things. It’s a surprise all the more compounded after that Bread preamble. He strums a very straightforward “Walk The Line”-like rhythm coupled with a hypnotic bass drone tastfuly accompanied by some “Once Upon a Time in the West” percussional textures. This transitions into some well-placed merriment with Martin blowing into a strange red whistle, creating bird-like sounds accompanied by Drew’s funked out rhythm from behind his control room table, which crescendos in a finish that is one part Human League, one part George Clinton. As the final number ends, the Metro Gallery audience shows their deep appreciation with hearty applause. Drew is visibly touched by this and points to random audience members shouting “YOU’RE ON THE TEAM, and YOU’RE ON THE TEAM, YOU’RE ON THE TEAM TOO, YOU’RE ALL ON THE TEAM!”
The genius of their performance, and of their band as a whole, is how the duo manages to effortlessly string together seemingly disparate elements into something adorably smirky, cohesive, and incandescent. Which is what they once again accomplished this August night in a deceptively effortless fashion.