Matthew Herbert

The inimitable songsmith on making music out of pig’s blood and the musical revolution that has influenced his career.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 27 Jun 2012
  • min read
The inimitable Matthew Herbert is a methodical soundsmith, prizing process and form above all else.

In a career spanning two decades, he has mastered various musical genres from jazz and classical to electronica and house. His production credits include Bjork, Roisin Murphy and Merz, and he has remixed the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Quincy Jones and Ennio Morricone.

Herbert’s latest experimental album One Pig, which uses samples from the life and death of one animal, is out now on his own Accidental label.

Here he talks to M about his creative process, making music out of pig’s blood, and the musical revolution that has influenced his entire career.

Your current project One Pig is part of the One Trilogy. Can you tell me how the whole project came about?
I did my previous record, called There’s Me and There’s You, with the big band and a choir. There were 400 people on that record and thousands of samples. And I’d had long negotiations with the Houses of Parliament about gaining access, which were in fact unsuccessful, so I snuck in and did some recording anyway without their permission. I was recording at landfill sites too. It was a very big production and took three or four years to put together. After that I wanted a break and also to simplify my process and have a year off while I worked out what to do.

I thought I’d make a record out of one thing, but I couldn’t quite decide what that one thing was so I had to make three records out of my one thing! And then what was supposed to be my year off turned into another three years. So the first record was all written by me. It was about the known really, because I thought I knew about myself most in the world.

The second one was in a German nightclub where I’ve spent a lot of my time DJing and playing techno over the past 20 years. So that was half-known, if you like. And then the pig record, which was very unknown. I grew up in the countryside and spent some time on farms but never really spent any time with pigs. For me it was about wanting to do a biography of a life through to death, from birth, through life and beyond.

I couldn’t really do a human and I thought that pigs play such a vital role in our lives, whether we realise it or not. You’ve probably come into contact with a pig product 20 times already today without realising it. They’re in ink, paper and used processes to make bread, milk, orange juice, beer, wine, bullets, margarine, make-up, car brakes, literally everything, and yet they’ve never had a voice. So, in many ways, that record was about giving a voice to a previously unknown or unheard life.

Do you think that’s why One Pig has captured peoples’ imagination the most then?
I think the great thing is that everyone knows what a pig is, from my two year old son to his 70 year old grandmother. There’s no explanation required. Someone saw the show recently and said it was like watching The Titanic – you know what’s going to happen from the very beginning, the pig’s going to die. So it changes how you listen from the very beginning. That arc of birth, life and death is something that musicians and music has tried to express for millennia. Really, with the invention of sampling technology and samplers and tape machines, finally we can actually make that a reality, if you like. It can now be a documentary rather than just a musical impression of it, which is how it has been previously.

Was the idea of One Pig something that you wanted to explore for yourself, or something you wanted to articulate more widely to challenge the way others see things?
It’s definitely both of those things, in as much as I have an impulse to amplify stories that I think are largely unheard or undocumented within music. But I think probably more importantly, it has to be teaching myself something that I didn’t know before. Largely, with a lot of the work I do with sound, I feel in uncharted territory. I remember when I recorded 3,500 people eating an apple all at the same time about seven years ago, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a sound that probably people have never heard before.’ It’s a very privileged position to be in, and I very much feel like I’m really lucky to be exploring the unknown. In a way, it’s a first experience for me, and then hopefully other people through that.

One Pig is obviously a very intense journey. How does it feel to perform live?
It can be quite an emotional show. You can hear it honking and grunting a lot for the first half an hour. And then there are the little details; for example when it’s dead we recorded the butchery and made a track out of that. Part of the introductory beat is the air being beaten out of the lungs. This is pig you’ve heard being born. You’ve heard those lungs take in air in the real world for the first time. Just from a performance perspective it changes – it’s not like playing the piano. You’re playing a body part effectively. There’s a real violence to that, which can be quite unsettling. One of the parts I play is the sound of the pig’s blood dripping into a bucket that creates a little melody. Again, that’s very different to playing a Fender Rhodes. It raises allsorts of complicated philosophical and moral questions, and you consider whether it’s appropriate to use these noises, and how we should react as performers and audience. It’s always a challenge to perform live and it’s always surprising, even for us.

One One, the first album in the trilogy, contained many more songs, in the traditional sense. Did you have to consciously immerse yourself in songwriting or did it happen naturally?
It’s something I’ve always done and probably like most songwriters I started playing relatively cheesy piano ballads aged 12 or 13. When you first start writing songs, they really are songs. The first thing you do isn’t necessarily pig based! So I’d always written songs and for the last few years I’ve sidelined that aspect in my attempts to concentrate more on the sound than the songwriting aspect. It was real self indulgent treat to go back to writing songs again and not necessarily feeling like I had to deal with these bigger subjects in such an explicit way. It felt like a guilty pleasure.

Why do you normally like to set yourself boundaries and strict rules?

I think because music is in a crisis point. Technology has, over the past 10 or 15 years, drawn us to go in very particular directions. It’s encouraged us to use samplers to play things like the Vienna Symphony Orchestra or a beautifully recorded Steinway piano rather than the Syrian revolution or a watermelon or whatever amazing thing we can think of to sample out in the world. The programme that I mainly use is Logic Pro to write music and the programme has really changed over the past 10 or 20 years. Now when you load it up it asks you what kind of style you are writing – R&B, pop, singer-songwriter or rock – and loads up a whole series of presets for you, including loops and tempos, ready for you to just do it.

I feel that making music has become a kind of creative consumerism where you’re saying, ‘I’ll have a little bit of this, a little bit of that,’ and you put it all together like shopping. When you think of all the possibilities we have in the world to record and create all these incredible noises and yet music, in many ways, put together in increasingly conservative ways.

Do you have similar rules and templates in other areas of your life too, or just music?
I try to. It’s pretty difficult because I feel we’re in a pretty corrupt and corrupting system. We are living in a system which is designed to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. We should be consuming less, we should be travelling less and eating less. We should be working more in our local communities. But our whole economic and political system is geared towards growth. It’s the idea that we build more, we make more, we spend more, we use more. So it’s very difficult to be a part of that system and not have to abide by those rules. I try to take the train to a lot of the shows in Europe and I’ve tried to stop flying, but that’s proving increasingly hard. I don’t shop in supermarkets, for example. I try to live my life in a local sense. I’m very lucky because I live in Whitstable. For us to survive what’s coming we need to engage on a community level and we need to be more cooperative. Society works best when we collaborate.

A lot of people say they feel overwhelmed by our society…
Because the problem is, the decisions we are being asked to make are, ‘Do you want to shop in Asda or Waitrose? Lidl or Sainsburys?’ The option should be none of those. But it’s increasingly hard when they have such a stranglehold on the market. If we’re not careful the whole system will come crashing down on us. We’re heading for a perfect storm. It’s difficult to know how to position yourself within that.

So your rules are quite politically minded, but your music is different from protest songs in their traditional sense. Is the political element present in the process behind the music then?
For me, there’s been a fundamental revolution in music. If I wanted to make a protest about a political issue a few years ago I would have to sing about it, whereas now I can take a recording and use that instead. Not only that, but it’s about how it’s put together. What kind of label is it on? Is it independently released? How is the artwork put together? Who’s collaborated on this? So everything for me is part of that story.

One of the subjects I want to deal with is our government’s hypocrisy when it comes to the Arab Spring. And so my next record is made out of a war photographer being bombed by a Gaddafi war plane. He happens to be walking along, there are a few whistles out of nowhere and suddenly you hear a bomb, a terrifying noise. It’s a 10 second recording. I’ve rented a barn in Wales and am taking a few musicians and technology people and we’re going to try to create an hour of music from that 10 second moment. For me, that feels far more politically charged than if I sang about Gaddafi and Cameron in words. I still feel the protest song in that way is valid, and it serves a function, but I feel very excited that we now have this literal alternative.

Is there a particular song or artist that has influenced you?
Certainly someone like John Cage, who I retrospectively discovered, is an extraordinary and important figure in musical history. Some of the lengths he went to, to seek our new sounds, are pretty extraordinary. Whenever you think you’ve done something pretty original, you often find out that John Cage got there first! He’s pretty great. For me, its also people like Tom Waits, who I think have got a certain opaque political position but it is expressed in allsorts of different ways. Where he is in the music industry doesn’t quite conform to anything, how the records are produced, the sounds he uses, the people he collaborates with, how he does the press all that kind of stuff. I’m much more excited by a process than the end result and I think we live in a society that always prioritises the shiny finished product. Actually the process is the most meaningful.

I guess if you look at the processes behind most of those shiny objects, a lot of people wouldn’t buy them, or use them, or want them.
That’s exactly right, and there’s part of that in making One Pig. I do eat meat and I did eat pork before making this record, I have since stopped. If we were to hear the stories behind the things we consume and surround ourselves with, we’d be less quick to treat them in such a disposable way.

Matthew Herbert’s Russian Big Band will perform on the Europe Stage, Trafalgar Square, for the Cultural Olympiad’s River of Music event on 22 July. Watch the trailer for his One Pig summer tour: