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Random Rules Playlist 014: Matmos Family Tree
Tracing the musical output of Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt, and their new album on Smithsonian Folkways, 'Return To Archive'
The term ASMR wasn’t coined until 2010, but Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt have been making musical ASMR basically since they started the band / project MATMOS, way back in 1994. ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a concept that is familar to almost everyone, which is why the term caught on so quickly as YouTube videos labeled ASMR started to rack up millions of views. Everyone knows that tingly, goosebump-inducing feeling of pleasure that a certain type of sound can trigger - namely, whispering, crunching, crinkling, humming, page turning… you get the picture. The earliest mainstream examples of ASMR are probably moments from Björk’s Vespertine tour where Matmos were part of her backing band, and Martin Schmidt would do things on stage like walk on a bed of rock salt, shuffle a deck of cards, or run his hand through Drew Daniel’s hair with a contact mic to create percussive sounds that mimic the Vespertine album, which Matmos helped shape and program. The majority of this loosely chronological playlist consists of official Matmos releases, plus Daniel’s solo releases under The Soft Pink Truth moniker, as well as a plethora of collaborations and remixes, including Björk, Rachel’s, So Percussion, Liars, Current 93, June of 44, Wye Oak, Oneohtrix Point Never, Melvins, Subtle, Phoenecia, John Wiese, Amen Seat, Negativland, Chaunter, David Grubbs, People Like Us, Piano Magic, Max Tundra, Mouse on Mars and more!
I’m not sure if Daniel and Schmidt would be happy about being called musical ASMR, I tried to find an interview where they offered their take on ASMR without much luck. The duo actually first bonded musically over their love of musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry.
It is clear that they are aware that what they do is closesly related to ASMR, and have had some fun with that idea, as you can see in this video:
If you’re unfamiliar with the music that Matmos makes, each album has a concept based around the source material used to create the sounds you hear within, ranging from the actual sounds of surgery on A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, to Quasi-Objects, where items like balloons, latex and wire clothes hangers are among the instruments used, to Ultima Care II, an album derived entirely from the sounds of the duo’s washing machine of the same name. The most high concept Matmos album (and a personal favorite of mine) is The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast, where the duo re-enacted scenes from the lives of queer icons that influenced them, like Joe Meek or James Bidgood, recorded the audio of the re-enactments and used that as source material. The story behind the Bidgood piece is kind of amazing and I’m choosing not to include it here to keep this newsletter family-friendly, but it’s worth looking up for more open-minded readers.
The latest Matmos album, Return To Archive, is a collaboration with the Smithsonian Folkways label, with the label’s archive of science and nature-themed releases as source material. In high school, one of my dream jobs was to run the Smithsonian Folkways label, so that I could curate releases exactly like this one. The album is exactly what you would expect might happen with Matmos given full access to recordings of insects, frogs, dolphins, etc. The album’s highlight, “Mud-Dauber Wasp,” takes recordings of the titular flying pest and turns them into a full-on industrial banger. Insects make another appearance on “The Way Japanese Beetles Sound To A Rose.” Return To Archive is the first Matmos release to draw exclusively from previously released commercial vinyl / CD releases as its source material (and I do use the word “commercial” loosely here), making it unique in their discography but continuing their ASMR meets musique concrète signature sound.
Daniel and Schmidt’s careers pre-Matmos are a little hard to track down, but there are a few crumbs here and there. Daniel was a part of the punk / hardcore scene in Louisville and frequently collaborated with King G and The J Krew, a jokey rap-rock project that included future members of Rodan, June of 44, Rachel’s, Retsin, etc. He was also in the Louisville punk band CRAIN:
Here you can see a very young Drew Daniel playing with another short-lived punk band he was in, Cerebellum:
Schmidt spent his formative years in an industrial outfit called IAO Core which Daniel was also a part of:
IAO Core makes more sense as a precursor to Matmos than say, CRAIN, although Daniel has pointed out that his roots in the punk / DIY scene in Louisville has informed everything he’s done in his later years and the way he’s approached making music with no formal training.
Shortly after Matmos formed, they were also a part of a short-lived glitchcore / noise project DISC, which also included Lesser (aka J. Lesser) and Kid606, making it almost a glitchcore supergroup. The glitchcore Boygenius, if you will. The quartet released two albums, two EPs and a collab with K.K. Null before disbanding:
In an interview, Daniel revealed that Björk discovered Matmos by simply buying their first CD at Rough Trade in London (she was also well-known as a frequent customer at Other Music in NYC around the same time, so this tracks) and reaching out to them to remix her and collaborate. This eventually led to the duo programming several tracks on her landmark 2001 album Vespertine and touring the world with her for a full year:
Here’s a few more Matmos catalog highlights that are not available on Spotify: