Politics scaled with music


Matthew Herbert’s new album “Scale” is easy to like. His signature arrangements of accessible house-inflected beats behind jazzy melodies are polished to a glossy sheen. Strings swoon. Horns sound lushly. Songs like the soulful “Moving like a Train” or “When We Are in Love” positively slink out of the speakers.

But while Herbert is a master of creating seductive surfaces, he is also one of music’s most critically acute musicians. In his live performance titled “Mechanics of Destruction,” he literally destroyed products of mass consumerism such as a pair of Gap Jeans or a Big Mac and mixed the resulting sounds with keyboards and drum sounds to make sinuous dance music. “Plat du Jour” (2005), the most aggressively experimental of his records, used “sounds from the food chain” like the frantic clamor of a battery chicken farm as its sonic palette.

With “Scale,” Herbert’s fifth album under his own name (he also records techno albums as Dr. Rockit), his politics may be more oblique, but they nonetheless form the foundation of the music.

“I am trying to describe a world of luxury and glamour with the warmth of Hollywood,” said thirty-something Herbert from his home in London during a recent telephone interview. “But actually it is underpinned by violence, whether it be historical violence through slavery, past wars or an empire, or contemporary violence like in Iraq, or people in difficult conditions in China making goods for us over here.

“I think when you are an aggressor in a war, you have more responsibility to talk about what is going on,” he adds. “I don’t mean to say that all music should be about war, but on an album, why are there 10 love songs?”

Yet very little of his new release is explicitly political, with the exception of “Movers and Shakers” and its mention of “Christian bones” orchestrating “shock and awe,”

“Partly it has to do . . . with this idea of pollution,” says Herbert. “My world is polluted by Dick Cheney, by [Donald] Rumsfeld, and Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Esso. It is polluted ideologically and physically and emotionally and spiritually, and actually music is the one place where . . . I can exercise a very meticulous and instinctive form of control. Including even the name Starbucks would be like polluting my own music. I want to keep the lyrics almost an emotional response to these stories rather than try to tell the stories themselves.”

Asked if this “response” is influenced by the current political climate, Herbert is unreserved.

“We are storytellers,” he explains. “Look at American pop music: If musicians are telling the story [that says] ‘Look at beautiful women, buy a new car, use violence against your enemies, make money,’ then basically [they] are telling the same story as the Republican Party. Large sections of the pop music industry have just become the entertainment wing of the neo-conservatives. And I think . . . you [can] extend that into technique as well: happy to exploit and unwilling to compensate. Just taking what you want from the world and not acknowledging it or paying for it.”

In keeping with his refusal to become one of those musicians “happy to exploit,” Herbert has laid out a rigorous set of criteria in his “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music,” a sort of music-making manifesto found on his Web site, to make sure that his own music is wholly original. On Herbert’s albums, if it sounds like a real, traditional acoustic instrument, that’s because it is. No drum machines. No sampling of other people’s music.

Instead, Herbert unleashes the sonic possibilities of even the most mundane objects or creates his own sonic “happenings,” using them as the building blocks of his work.

On “Scale,” fans were invited to leave sounds on an answering machine at his record label’s office. He also tracked down the school bell from his high school and invested in 12 meteorites which are recorded, among other ways, being dropped onto the Sunday paper, making a dull thud. For Herbert, how a sound is crafted is as interesting as the sound itself. “The beginnings of time,” he says, “meeting today.”

“Within the album there are extraordinary noises and there are ordinary noises,” he says. “There are sounds of meteorites . . . which is a sound that people are unlikely to hear in their normal life, and there are the sounds of car doors and breakfast cereal that they’ll have heard every day. [Do] the pieces that have unfamiliar or extraordinary noises even on a subconscious level have more of an emotional impact? Do people respond more to that, or are they just suckers for melodies?”

Herbert says, however, that there is “no right way” to listen to the album. “I definitely want people to critically engage with it, but it’s not a prerequisite . . . though I would certainly be upset if it were used at a Walmart.”