By DJ El Toro
Sometimes a synthesizer is just a synthesizer. Which in itself is no small accomplishment. As a child in the ’70s, weaned on Wendy Carlos and “Popcorn” by Hot Butter (we had a very progressive music teacher at Kent Gardens Elementary), I was taught that a synthesizer could be — or at least imitate — nearly anything imaginable. Time has proven this to be less-than-true, but vintage synthesizers boast charming aural properties all their own. And innovative duo Matmos — who are performing live tonight at the Triple Door — explore them to delightful effect on their latest full-length, Supreme Balloon.
Traditionally, creative partners MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel have generated music from more unlikely source materials, using manipulated samples of everything from caged rodents (the Rat Relocation Program EP) to burning human flesh (“Germs Burn for Darby Crash,” from The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast). Last time they played the Triple Door, the guys invited an audience member up on stage, yanked down his trousers, spanked him vigorously and, viola! A rhythm track was born.
Working with an arsenal of old-fashioned keyboards poses some new challenges for the twosome, apropos of showmanship. “The way we’ve learned to deal with making electronic music good and dynamic live is with our sampling shtick,” explains Schmidt. “By sampling objects, and showing people this is how the sound originates, this is how we manipulate it. It becomes a duet, and, hopefully, something beyond that. But this [set-up] has a problem, in that it’s synthesizer in the first place.”
To compensate, gigs in support of Supreme Balloon incorporate even more video. And also, more on-stage action from Daniel and Schmidt. No Rockettes-style choreography, alas, but the latter says he has definitely adopted “a showier keyboard playing style.”
“I’m trying to channel Rick Wakeman, Liberace, Rachmaninoff,” Schmidt continues. “One guy at Oxford actually compared me to Jimmy Smith. And I was like, ‘Oh no, my friend, I am no Jimmy Smith.’ But nevertheless, my little ego swelled up with pride, because he is certainly a good keyboard player. And I’m not. But if I even reminded him of Jimmy Smith, that was a great thing.”
There are other new set pieces, too, including a mind-blowing entrance gimmick. But the band made us promise not to spoil anything. We can only intimate that the performance also leans on another integral component of the governing aesthetic of Supreme Balloon. “We’re trying to think about how sound can be related to light, and vice-versa,” explains Daniel. “Especially on ‘Exciter Lamp and the Variable Band,’ which is made out of samples of people drawing marks on the optical track of film, and then light passes through it, and the variations are interpreted as frequencies. You can draw graphic marks that become electronic sounds.”
This curious technique was invented by British composer and electronic musician Daphne Oram, then later adopted and adapted by Norman McLaren, the Canadian animator and filmmaker. For a better sense of how Matmos have embraced it, take a gander at their promotional video for “Exciter Lamp and the Variable Band.” Or better yet, check them out live on their current North American tour. Because believe me, lots of other nifty twists have been planned. But to preserve the element of surprise, we’ll keep you in the dark until show time.
Matmos – Exciter Lamp and the Variable Band
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.