Class Cutups

Experimental electronic duo Matmos uses elective surgery to carve out an audience

Matmos' fourth album, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, can be experienced in two distinct ways: Before Liner Notes (BLN) and After Liner Notes (ALN). If a listener blindly plops the disc into his player without a look at the packaging, he will form a disjointed, yet oddly inviting, first impression. He'll notice occasional abrupt and drastic changes within songs -- enough to make him peer at the CD player to see if a new tune has begun -- but for the most part the stuff will go down like pop music. Granted, it's pop music made up of sharp little percussive bits, squealing clarinet, and peculiar vocal samples, all meticulously arranged by the heavy hand of the sequencer. But it beckons the listener closer even as it remains a safe distance away.

If that same listener cracks open the jacket, he may find his studied composure crumbling as he discovers that the sound sources for the seven songs are elective surgeries: liposuction, laser eye surgery, acupuncture, and nose jobs. In keeping with the medical theme -- Matmos members Drew Daniel and Martin C. Schmidt are both doctors' sons -- the album also includes field recordings of hearing aid tests, human skull caressing, goat spines knocking, and rat cage plucking. The next time the listener puts the album on, he unwittingly begins playing the Name That Broken Bone game: The music has quickly moved from a tap-your-foot-while-you-feed-the-cat vibe to an oh-God-is-that-what-a-burning-retina-sounds-like? experience.

Does this chasm between BLN and ALN mean that A Chance to Cutis avant-garde? Is the record a clever spoof on the "inhumanness" of techno or just a calculated ploy to cut through the morass of similar-sounding electronica?

"I certainly hope it hangs together as an album and is listenable without knowing anything about it," Schmidt says. "[Then again], I've always been an avid liner note reader and I like the idea that it adds another dimension to the sound that wasn't previously there."

Either way, Schmidt concedes that the overarching concept "does make for easier interviews."

"Electronic music is so abstract that if you give people a frame through which to interpret [it], they're going to jump at it," Daniel agrees via speakerphone from the New York apartment the duo is sharing while working on Björk's next album, Verspertine. Occasionally, the morbidity of the samples backfires -- a few journalists told Matmos that they liked the record until they read the notes and found the sources too grisly.

"I don't get it," Schmidt admits. "It's not like they were life-threatening procedures or anything."


As with any successful concept album, execution is what separates A Chance to Cut from mere marketing gimmickry. For instance, the whirring, synthesizer-esque melodies that hold together "Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi" are uniquely playful and dancey -- even without the knowledge that Schmidt made them by placing an acupuncture point detector against his skin. Likewise, "Lipostudio ... and So On" isn't about liposuction at all: The twitchy, sputtering house music stands on its own two wobbly legs, whether you think the gurgling, sucking sound is a fat vacuum or a Slurpee machine. Over the course of the album, Matmos dispenses with such old dichotomies as accessible-vs.-experimental as if they were so much cellulite.

The stylistic diversity of the end product -- which is so pronounced that talking about any kind of "Matmos sound" is virtually impossible -- results from the duo's procedural methodology. "If there's any principle that unites all the records we've done so far, it's the idea of a cutup -- of a collage -- as structure," explains Daniel. "But as far as what musically the end result is going to resemble, we really don't feel committed to a genre."

"We let the sound itself guide what the song is going to be," Schmidt adds. "It's kind of a spacey granola thing to say, but that's really how I think about it. If a sound suggests a certain style, we'll just literally follow that down. So whether it ends up being a country song or minimal techno, that's where we'll take it."

In this way, the liner notes serve as a bandage holding together a wound that's threatening to dissolve into unrelated sonic plasma and tissue. The concept gathers the disparate numbers -- the fine-grained clicking and hissing piece "L.A.S.I.K.," the stompy tech-house number "Spondee," the cinematic, modern-classical, brooding tune "For Felix (And All the Rats)" -- under one general health sciences HMO.

One thing that separates the group from its peers is its penchant for using sources that many in electronic music avoid altogether -- the acoustic guitar, for example. "Three Guitar Lessons," a track from Matmos' self-titled 1997 debut, sounds like an idiot savant's first encounter with the six-stringed instrument. The players tap the wood pensively, twist the tuning pegs haphazardly, and scrape and pluck the strings irreverently. They treat the guitar as just another object, rather than as an instrument with a particular mode of operation. Matmos' next project, which won't be released until the duo finishes its yearlong gig as opening act for Björk's world tour, will be composed solely on pianos. "But we'll be playing them both inside and out," assures Daniel. "We'll approach them with a certain innocence."

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