Eat to the Beat

Martin Herbert on Matthew Herbert


Left: A live performance of Plat du Jour at the Sonar festival, 2005. Right: Matthew Herbert.

I expect to be offered psychoactive drugs and scalped tickets outside a concert. But an apple? Then again, the Barbican Centre’s concert hall is used by classical musicians, and this is a Monday night Matthew Herbert gig—or, more specifically, a performance of the British electronica boffin’s recent eco-friendly platter, Plat du Jour. Someone has already pressed a complimentary copy of The Ecologist magazine into my hand, and the audience (gaunt metropolitan girls for whom the apple might be a little fattening and who say “dude” without a hint of irony, guys who work for hip-hop labels like Stone’s Throw and dish about “folktronica”) is plumped out by lots of clear-skinned kids sporting brown corduroy and white dreads. The apple, meanwhile, is guaranteed English—unlike pretty much all the apples you get in English supermarkets, as the bandleader points out onstage—and pesticide-free. When Herbert, mid-concert, exhorts everyone in the audience to take a bite at once, they make a big crunchy noise that he samples for future use. Most of the people in the audience have done this for him before: “Now it’s apple time,” he says. “Woo woo,” says the audience. Herbert stamps his white Wellies and congratulates us on our percussive skills while the two aproned chefs cooking stage right gaze out happily. Welcome to the Rocky Horror Ecology Show.

Herbert (no relation, so far as I know) is, along with San Francisco-based Matmos, electronic music’s premier materialist. On previous records he’s sampled the sounds made by household implements, the human body, and books by Chomsky and Michael Moore. Plat du Jour’s clattering polyrhythms and wandering chromatic melodies were built up from samples of foodstuffs implicated in the worldwide decline in nutritional standards allied to the pursuit of the corporate buck: Broiler chickens, Coke bottles, sugar- and salt-laced snacks endorsed by celebrities, etc. Its sonic structures correspond to statistics about excess and starvation: “These Branded Waters,” a track employing manipulated mineral water, is 5 minutes 30 seconds long because, says Herbert, “sanitation coverage is fifty-three-percent in Bangladesh.”

All very clever, but as the band—including a percussionist playing Pyrex jugs, Coke bottles, and raw eggs, and three people, the classically trained Herbert among them, manning samplers—runs through the album for the final time on this tour, precious few heads are nodding to the beats, which makes you wonder whether the self-imposed constrictions have resulted in a dearth of thrills. (Herbert himself is jerking as if he’s being electrocuted.) Then again, it’s a seated audience and there’s a spectacle to be viewed on stage. The aforementioned chefs are continually preparing food, some of it to be sampled—not meaning “eaten”—and a fan—not meaning “a person”—wafts the scents out into the audience. (In previous performances they sampled everything; but, laments Herbert, “that took too long, and it didn’t always sound very good either.”) The scent of toast takes a long time to go away, as Scatman Crothers pointed out in The Shining. There’s also some grisly footage of supermarket chickens and microwave meals scrolling past on a screen above their heads. The best use of this is for the penultimate track, “Nigella, George, Tony, and Me,” in which the meal Nigella Lawson cooked for Tony Blair and George Bush during a state visit is run over by a Chieftain tank manned by a crazed-looking Herbert.

The audience goes nuts for that one, but they’re clearly expecting it: The whole affair has the feel of a self-congratulatory rite, the £20 ticket price a tithe dropped in the collection box for the privilege of reminding oneself how impeccably socially aware one is. That self-confirmation happens at all gigs, though. If, thanks to Plat du Jour, one goateed English hip-hop dude foregoes the burger-chain feedbag in favor of healthier fare—as I did on the night train home—Herbert might fairly say it was worth it.