Disco Braniacs

Matmos slides a healthy dose of funk into cryptic compositions

Local electronic duo Matmos is notorious for using unusual sound sources — liposuction surgery, amplified crayfish nerves — on its recordings, and the group's upcoming release The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast is no exception. The 11 tracks are “sound portraits” of disparate historical characters ranging from King Ludwig II of Bavaria to Germs singer Darby Crash, featuring such eccentric audio emitters as snails, semen, sex clubs, the sizzle of a cigarette on flesh, and a cow's embalmed reproductive tract.

The album also features a heap of more conventional instrumentation, much of it played by 46 guest collaborators. Despite this auditory gang-bang, The Rose Has Teeth is far from a sonic blizzard, but rather a remarkably well-assembled, cohesively catchy listen, ranging from evocative soundtrack-like atmospheres and noirish jazz to funk-rock and aberrant disco. In short, it's academically inclined music with a super-solid groove.

Matmos is Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt; the two have been a couple for 12 years, and put out their self-titled debut CD in 1997. Daniel and Schmidt estimate that 90 percent of the new album — due out on Matador May 9 — was recorded in their cozy, keyboard-packed Mission District living room studio. During a recent interview there, the engagingly urbane pair reveled in the opportunity to physically illustrate the album's myriad concepts by busting out paintings, arcane books, CDs of deranged composers, vintage smut, bags of bells and birdcalls, perplexing Japanese DVDs, and the “snail theremin.”

This light-triggered electronic instrument — which looks a bit like a small desk lamp — was used on the track “Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith,” which was inspired by the life and writings of author/weirdo/snail-freak Highsmith. “She wrote a bunch of great short stories about snails,” Schmidt says. “There's one about an entomologist who goes to this island to find this giant snail, and it ends up eating him. In another story, this guy raises snails and they breed so intensely, they end up eating him. She's got a thing for snails.”

According to Daniel, who researched all of the album's biographical subjects in obsessive detail, the writer of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley once showed up at a party with a huge purse containing a hundred snails munching on a head of lettuce. Another time she smuggled some snails out of France in her bra. “So we knew we wanted to do something about snails in honor of Patricia Highsmith,” Daniel recalls. “And I thought maybe we could use the movement of the snail as a way to make music. So I got this light-sensitive theremin. We waited until nighttime, aimed a laser at it, put the snails inside a glass cylinder, and let them crawl up through the path of the laser and affect the pitch of the theremin. They were effectively playing the theremin with their eyestalks.

“It was something that could've just been good on paper,” he added, “but in fact it sounded really strong. We took the entire 20 minutes of recording and folded it into this minute-long snail synthesizer solo.”

While Daniel and Schmidt are extremely adept at coming up with odd ideas, their reputation for auditory adventure brings plenty of contribution from fellow travelers and enthusiastic fans. Case in point: a guy named Leif Fairfield who works at a print shop on 16th Street called One Heart Press. Fairfield contacted Matmos to tell them that each day he tunes the tempo of the shop's press machines to whatever music he listens to, and it occurred to him as he was listening to a Matmos CD that maybe they'd like to record those machines.

Matmos visited One Heart Press, and sure enough, it was an amazing sound. They brought a rough mix of their track “Rag for William Burroughs” to the shop, and recorded the presses chugging in sync with the song. Now the Heidelberg Windmill and Chandler & Price printing presses are immortalized, and credited in the album's liner notes. “It's one of the cool benefits of being a band that has a rep for using unusual sound sources,” Daniel says. “People just write us and tell us about their sound experiences.”

Schmidt agrees, remembering an email Matmos received a couple of years back. “It said something like: 'I was standing by the shore of Lake Michigan in the winter, and the ice on the lake cracked for a mile out. It was this beautiful sound, and I thought of you.'”

The idea of doing an album of biographical sound portraiture came out of a residency Matmos did at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The two recreated their home studio in the middle of a gallery, and for 17 consecutive days, they played music with a host of guest musicians. Each afternoon they would compose a song about the first person who walked through the gallery doors that morning.

“I would interview them about their life,” recalls Daniel, “and we would make it into a song, mix it down, and burn it onto CD. It was very stressful at the time, but it was fun, too. You could decide to be literal, and have the beginning of the song be their childhood, or you could just take one symbolic incident that said it all about them, and try to make the whole thing around that. Some people's lives were a wild rollercoaster ride, and other people were this kind of monolithic plateau. It really just depended on the results of the conversation.” While the Yerba Buena bio-songs were written for and given to random museum goers, Daniel and Schmidt quickly realized that responding to someone's life story was a cool way to structure a composition. And so the initial idea for The Rose Has Teeth was born.

This Friday and Saturday, Matmos will be collaborating with SF's boundary-pushing string ensemble Kronos Quartet at Yerba Buena for a composition entitled “For Terry Riley,” which is the fruition of Kronos commissioning a piece from Matmos five years ago.

The project started with Matmos hauling a carload of household objects such as a magazine rack and a deep-fat fryer over to the Kronos practice space on Ninth Avenue, where Schmidt and Daniel recorded the foursome “playing” the random articles and practicing a piece by legendary minimalist composer Terry Riley. From there, things took a circuitous route. Within days after that recording session, Matmos was asked by Björk to record with her, which led to a year-long world tour with the Icelandic diva. (She actually speaks on the new album's title track; Daniel and Schmidt joke that they want to put a sticker on it that reads “featuring Björk for three seconds.”)

Eventually, Matmos did work up a live version of “For Terry Riley,” which they got to play at UCLA for Riley's birthday party; luckily, he liked it. Matmos performed this prototype version several times as a duo, but all along the goal was to work out a full version with Kronos Quartet. With some prodding from Kronos violinist David Harrington, the wheels were finally set in motion. “We made this self-contained piece,” Schmidt recalls, “and we're thinking, 'They probably don't want to really do this with us.' It was David who came around and said, 'No, we're really going to do this.'”

Harrington was initially exposed to Matmos when he picked up their 1998 Quasi Objects CD. “After I listened to their music, I realized this is amazing stuff,” he said via cell phone from New York City (where Kronos Quartet was hosting a six-day concert series at Carnegie Hall). “I was just blown away by them. I find them very creative; it's been really energizing to work with them.” Harrington adds that he likes the sense of humor that courses through the duo's work, and that an accomplished group like Kronos can gain much from the inventive, non-standard approach of innovators like Matmos. “Kronos is learning more and more about that aspect,” he says. “I think we're expanding our idea of what is possible.”

For Matmos' part, the guys say they were both honored and terrified to be asked to work with a group of Kronos Quartet's caliber.

“It's really weird and kind of pinch-me that we're playing this concert with Kronos,” Daniel says, recalling that the Philip Glass score for the 1985 film Mishima, played by the Kronos Quartet, was one of his favorite records in high school. “Certainly my 16-year-old self would never have believed that I would be standing on stage with people that I was listening to at that age. It's one of life's freakish surprises.”

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