The music of Matmos, a partnership between the composers M. C. (Martin) Schmidt and Drew Daniel, often elides boundaries between musical genres and acoustic and electronic sounds. The duo’s latest album, Ultimate Care II, will be released on Thrill Jockey on February 19, 2016, and is a single long-playing track that the musicians, made entirely by sampling the sounds of the washing machine at their home in Baltimore. The appliance’s model name lends the album its title. Though the machine’s manufacturer, Whirlpool, declined to sponsor Matmos’s tour, the duo will nevertheless embark on a short run of shows at the end of this month, with performances in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.
AT FIRST it was a kind of dare—can we even do this? Then the washing machine began to seem a lot richer, in terms of its sexual and cultural politics, than we first thought. The album is not just a futurist celebration of everyday mechanisms as music, but also a reflection on how this machine creates a space in your day for dreaming, for time when you might dissolve into a little bit of a reverie. It gives you a baseline upon which to free-associate as you sit there and hear this drone. We want to have an experience that’s long form, and we think this album lets people have that.
There is still this idea floating around that all nonclassical music is made for impatient teenagers, and everything one does has to be measured against its popularity with such a young audience. We have a reputation as being willfully perverse, difficult people whose work takes hours to explain—but this time it’s easier: We made an album out of a washing machine. But we didn’t want to change what we actually do, and that’s a strange middle ground to inhabit. That’s what’s inspiring to us about musique concrète and the way it could be an academic form on one face and then have this other face that’s, like, Perrey and Kingsley’s The In Sound from Way Out! , something utterly pop and which can circulate in that sphere—yet they belong to the same DNA.
The limitation of working with the machine put pressure on us to take its palette of sounds in the directions we wanted through synthesis and transformation. The sound of the washer with no clothes in it is more muted than with clothes in it. It’s more of a low-to-mid-range slop sound. And with clothes in it, it has much more high frequency content. I tried to do some laundry every time we used it. Dan Deacon brought over a weird modular synth rig that made these incredibly fast complex patterns and then sent that to a control voltage to MIDI converter, which would turn the signal into notes. And then we fed those notes to our samplers that were filled with samples of washing machine sounds. So we ended up with this kind of ecstatic pattern from him on the record, like a bit of his sheet music but played only by washing machines.
For the tour, we’re getting a special rig constructed with a submersible pump and a regulator, so that we can supply the machine and drain it safely on stage. Twenty-five gallons of water on a stage is not something your sound person wants to hear about. But you’ve got to dance with the one that brought you.
Electronic music in particular right now is so fertile and molten and in the midst of a lot of change. We’re not done with objects, though, and what they afford. There’s the boom now of object-oriented ontology and people obsessing about “thing theory.” This album is maybe picking up the same questions but from a different direction. I would much rather hear a bowl of chocolate pudding than an 808 kick drum.
We’re interested in the perversity of objects and the material world. One goal that’s been pretty consistent across our work is that it’s not about self-expression so much as letting the world in, allowing the world’s textures to be the music—a queerness that’s not human. A lot of queer, trans, and African American electronic artists are now talking about issues of representation explicitly, and also making records that are really good. But this music, from Wendy Carlos on, has always been a place where one explores such questions: What is natural, what is the body, and what is the virtual? What’s possible—what electronics makes available—goes beyond the acoustic immediacy or the givenness of bodies to open a space of freedom. Those utopian ideas are easy to make fun of, but on the other hand there is a political edge to the utopian imagination. Electronic music is one place where people are thrashing out those visions.