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Interviews

Matthew Herbert

Putting on the Spritz

Matthew Herbert If the sight of Johnny Rotten shilling for Country Life butter makes you bristle, and the sound of Bono asking you to save the world by buying Gap clothes hits a false note, don’t despair. There’s still one musical genre you can turn to for rigorous political commentary: big band jazz. The Matthew Herbert Big Band’s new album, There’s Me and There’s You, swings, sways, sashays, and may just inspire you to smash the system.

Herbert is best known as an electronic musician who has produced Björk and Róisín Murphy and remixed the likes of R.E.M. and Serge Gainsbourg. In 2000, he devised his “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music,” a Dogme-like manifesto in which he prohibited himself from using drum machines or preset sounds on synthesizers, and from recreating the sounds of acoustic instruments.

As a result, he’s been recording a series of increasingly ambitious projects, of which his second big band album, There’s Me and There’s You, is the most dazzling yet. It incorporates sounds made by 300 people, and nestled within its elaborate horn and vocal arrangements are recordings of a Coldplay CD being destroyed in the Houses of Parliament, the beeping of the alarm in Herbert’s premature son’s neo-natal care unit, 70 people squirting Britney Spears perfume in the British Museum, and 100 people each singing one word of a love song to someone they’ve never met.

Over the phone from his home in the sea-side town of Whitstable, Kent (to which he repaired after two neighbours in south London were held up at gunpoint), Herbert explains his determination to open up his music to so many participants. “It’s about trying to express some kind of democratic principle in a record that attempts to critique aspects of our current democracy,” he says. “It’s also about trying to abandon some of the ghastly presumption about pop stars and their fans. It seems to me a very abusive relationship, where one person at the top does things and everyone else is expected to admire from a distance.”

In order to produce many of the sounds on There’s Me and There’s You, Herbert recruited 70 volunteers (“it was supposed to be 100, but in a true representation of democracy, we only got a 70% turnout”) to stand on a large staircase in the British Museum and simultaneously perform actions which complemented the ideas behind the albums songs. Hence, in “Rich Man’s Prayer,” we hear the sound of 70 pound coins rolling down stairs and 70 credit cards being cut up; “Pontificate” (about the papacy) features 70 condoms being scraped along a floor, and the iTunes bonus track “Blow the Final Whistle,” which tackles celebrity, includes the aforementioned squirting of perfume.

“We only did that sound once, because it smelled so bad,” says Herbert. “I love the idea that people like Britney Spears have the power to do anything and everything, and what do they do? They bottle themselves in plastic jars that you can squirt behind your ears. It turns out that at [upmarket department store] Selfridges, once a month, they just tip all the celebrity perfume down the drain and recycle the bottles. That’s a brilliant metaphor for celebrity itself.”

Having skirted the edges of the pop machine himself, Herbert regards it with horrified fascination. Big band music itself, however, isn’t exempt from his critique. He recalls the story of an acquaintance who did arrangements for the big band week of the UK show Pop Idol: “They got asked to arrange the classic songs, but with all the minor chords taken out. They had to remove anything that was vaguely dark – sanitize what already are pretty sanitized songs. The big band has a really uncomfortable relationship with that sanitized version of entertainment, even to the point of Sammy Davis, Jr. and his race being the butt end of jokes for Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.”

Herbert’s outspoken political stance allies him with countercultural big band leaders such as Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden. The musicians who form the core of Herbert’s band apparently enjoy being jolted out of their comfort zones, both in the studio and in performance. “With jazz,” says Herbert, “the audience tends to be white, middle-aged, well-off men that have enough money to put together some kind of record collection. We’ve played before Pantera at rock festivals – that’s a different kind of challenge.”

Herbert recalls one particular gig in Syria, which has “four newspapers, each controlled by the state. On one of our tracks we tear up newspapers. We had to take over English newspapers; otherwise, it would have been a serious international incident. The very act of tearing up a newspaper became quite a stirring moment, for [the audience] to see that kind of dissent; it’s amplified by the fact that there’s that many people on stage.”

Significantly, none of the big band’s gestures are purely theatrical: they’re all performed to a score that Herbert has written. And despite the often scathing lyrics sung with prowling intensity by vocalist Eska Mtungwazi, the music is often dynamic, playful, even jaunty. The album’s ironically enthusiastic closer, “Just Swing,” gives us the sense that the band is playing saxophone while Rome burns, but according to Herbert, there’s something to be said for doing so.

“When the world is going so horribly wrong, you can intellectualize it; you can read about it; you can see a film about it, but actually you can stand up on stage, and to cut loose with 20 other musicians and make a massive noise is an incredibly liberating experience.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Nov. 1, 2008

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