An Interview With Matthew Herbert

Michael McKinney speaks to the British electronic artist about the beauty of shutting up to record sounds, creating music as a response to crisis, turning a horse skeleton into a pile of instruments...
By    October 25, 2023

Image via Eva Vermadel

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When Matthew Herbert was in his late teens, he purchased a sampler and threw open the floodgates. He’d spent his childhood listening to left-field electronics on the radio and tinkering with synthesizers, so he’d been steeped in experimental music for years. But, suddenly, anything could be music. He has spent the decades since chasing that dragon, pointing his microphone at all kinds of sources and seeing what comes out. At this point, it’s tempting to view his work as a kind of sonic archeology: microphone and sampler reimagined as a trowel and brush, each track pointing towards entire worlds and illuminating as many nooks and crannies as possible.

This is hardly new to his work. Herbert has long worked in this manner, stamping his left-field sensibilities on myriad styles and aliases. 1998’s Wishmountainisdead, his debut LP as Wishmountain, takes the metronomic chug of so many great techno records and reimagines it as a Ship of Theseus, jettisoning most kick drums for a symphony of pops and clicks and overheard mutters. In the same year, as Mr. Vertigo, he explored barely-there house music, putting together four long-form grooves that are minimal to the point of vertigo. With 2003’s Goodbye Swingtime, he took one of his sharpest turns yet by diving fully into wigged-out big-band orchestration. Neither fully modern nor wholly vintage, it sits at a queasy intersection of timelines, histories, and compositional approaches.

In recent years, though, Matthew Herbert’s approach to experimental music has come into sharp relief. His work under his given name is confrontational and stark, with a focus on contexts and changing meanings. With 2011’s One Pig, he followed the titular animal from birth to death, twisting up a series of field recordings and squealing synthesizers together. It is found sound that makes a point of zooming out to underline its context; it is experimental music made from a documentarian’s point of view. It’s disorienting, unsettling, and, at points, oddly beautiful. Five years later, he returned to a similar well, recording a naked body for 24 hours and submerging it in creaking ambience.

In 2023, Herbert released his latest recording. Recorded alongside the London Contemporary Orchestra, The Horse sets out to explore no less than the story of music itself. Herbert purchased a horse skeleton and went to work, turning its bones into a pile of instruments: a harp, a lyre, flutes. He brought on an all-star cast of British experimental musicians to reimagine early music; he asked Shabaka Hutchings to cast himself as the first living musician. The record runs from modern classical to proto-techno and liturgical ambience; it is riotous, unnerving, and menacing. It is a singular crunch of timelines, fusing modern recording approaches, ancient instrumentation techniques, and centuries of experimental music. It is sonic archeology stretched to its natural conclusion.

In mid-September, we had a chance to catch up with Matthew Herbert, digging into The Horse, his relationship to musique concrète, inherited contexts, and the importance of surrender.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

How are you doing?

Matthew Herbert: I’m okay. I mean, there’s an existential threat to humanity, but apart from that, I’m alright.

What initially drew you to electronic music?

Matthew Herbert: From the age of four, I did classical piano and violin. I’d been performing in orchestras and things. I played in my sister’s big band from the age of 13. I had a pretty music-filled life. I did a lot of it out of boredom, if nothing else. [laughs] When I was 13, I saw a Roland Alpha Juno 2, which is a 1980s analog synth. It’s a really great rave machine: even though it looks sort of sleek, it’s got some really dark noises in it, and it was used a lot in rave music. It was in the music shop by my bus stop, and it was the only synth they had in there; it was all guitars. I went in and I fell in love with it. My parents bought one for me; they took out a home loan and bought me one for Christmas. It was an extraordinary thing to do back then, because they didn’t have a lot of money.

And that was it: I was off, really. I loved that synth. I still do, and I still have it. But it blew open all the sonic possibilities that I could possibly want at the age of 13, coming from piano and violin. But it still had its limits. It wasn’t until I got to university, four or five years later, that I saved up and bought a sampler. That’s when everything really exploded. I was like, “Wait, what? Anything can be music—anything I can think of?” I’ve spent the past 30 years trying to think of anything I can make music out of.

When you got that synth, did you have connections to electronic music, or was this unfamiliar territory?

Matthew Herbert: My dad was a sound engineer at the BBC. He had this beautiful Bang & Olufsen hi-fi set, and he was always taking it apart, because it wasn’t very reliable. It had touchpads on it, like an iPod, and this was in the ’70s; it was amazingly futuristic. So I wasn’t afraid of the component parts of it. He had Tangerine Dream albums, and Pink Floyd albums, and things. He wasn’t much of a hippie. He doesn’t listen to it now, but he had Wendy Carlos albums, and [Isao] Tomita, and things like that. It was really part of the landscape of music then. When I was four, Kraftwerk was #3 on the charts. That’s what I’d listen to—that was our pop music. Our pop music was Kraftwerk, The Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, and that sort of thing. It wasn’t just that: you could hear the [Yamaha] DX7 in everything from Phil Collins to Meat Loaf. Synths really shook everything up.

On top of that, because we had no tellies, we’d listen to a lot of radio. All the freaky stuff on the radio was made by the Radiophonic Workshop. The biggest buyer of their services, if that’s the way to put it, was the school’s radio programs. So we’d get Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Dick Mills—all these pioneers of British music, found sound, synthesizers, musique concrète, and all of that stuff. That was being pumped out of our classroom speakers. That was the music we’d do interpretive dance to, as four-year-olds in the school hall. I think it’s really hard to overstate the influence the Radiophonic Workshop had on the psychology of Britain in the 1950s onwards. You had Doctor Who, you had Saturday night television. Pierre Schaeffer and Stockhausen were doing similar things, but it was in universities and academia. In the UK, it was on BBC primetime television; it was in schools. There’s not many things to be proud of about being British, but that’s definitely one of them.

So you were mentioned listening to the pioneers of musique concrète from a pretty young age. What’s your relationship with the style now?

Matthew Herbert: I’m sorry, can you say that again? I’ve got turkeys over here, and they just got a bit—[laughs]

You mentioned your knowledge of musique concrète from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In 2020, you completed a PhD that’s based, in part, on the genre to interrogate power, if I understood it correctly. What’s your relationship to it as a genre, an ideology, or approach?

Matthew Herbert: I love Pierre Schaeffer’s writing. It’s been influential on me, and I think he’s a really fascinating figure who was quite ahead of time in many ways. But I also see him as an antagonist. I see musique concrète as an antagonist. My PhD, in a way, takes an antagonistic position towards musique concrète. He was interested in listening to the sound of a train or a door in purely sonic terms; he was interested in putting it on equal footing with a cello, or something like that. It was a way of saying, “This is just movement of air.” For him, and the acousmatic movement that followed, it’s about stripping away meaning until you’re just listening to sound as texture.

For me, that feels like a colonial approach to sound. When you think that sound is all around us, and it’s everywhere, the idea of stripping away meaning—of taking whatever you want and not having any responsibility to the original source material—felt uncomfortable. For better or worse, I was raised a Methodist. I’m not a practicing Methodist any more. But I was raised in a moral framework. For me, the idea of taking a sound and making a piece of music out of it comes with ethical responsibilities. Let’s say you’re taking the sound of, say, a car accident—you need to interrogate yourself. Why are you doing this? What do you hope to achieve? What are your responsibilities to people who may have been injured in the crash? Personally, I don’t think it’s enough just to listen to it as texture. I think it’s interesting, and you can do interesting music with that. There is some credible acousmatic music, but for my own work, I feel that it’s important to ask the questions around it, and to understand the context around it.

How do you approach that in your work? I think about this record, or One Pig, or A Nude. You have a number of pieces that are very explicitly based upon taking something recorded in the real world and flipping it into something new. How do you handle that interrogation of power in your own material?

Matthew Herbert: It really depends on what the subject is. You’re trying lots of different routes into that. For example, on the Nude record, you don’t know who the body is. I’ve never said whose body it is; I’ve never said whether it’s male or female; I’ve never said if it’s one body or many bodies. It’s interesting: that record’s a bit of a Rorschach test. An academic called me a misogynist because of it, but I never said it was a woman’s body, and I never said it was a single body. He was projecting his own prejudices onto it.

There’s a negotiation of power there: do I record that body? For some of that record, I gave the microphone to the person-slash-people, and said, “You record. You make those sounds.” There’s sounds on there where I don’t know what they are, or who or what made them, or what they were doing when they made them. For me, this sharing of power is fundamental to the ethical creation of music. It’s trying to dismantle the idea of a white-male auter, the genius, the visionary, the brilliant man, or whatever. I’m not proposing I’m any of those. But I’m aware that I am where I am, and that I’m doing what I’m doing, because of a whole series of structures that have worked in my favor.

One of the most beautiful things about sound is that, in order to record sound, you have to be quiet. You have to shut up. For me, it immediately became a political act: first, because you’re shutting up; and second, where do you point it? Do you point the microphone at yourself, or do you point it at somebody else, do you point it at Donald Trump, or do you point it at Elijah McClain’s family? Where are you going to put your microphone?

Those are the very first questions. Then, of course, when you’ve got those sounds, what are you going to do with them? If you get the permission of Elijah McClain’s family and record the sounds of his bedroom, that immediately suggests one tonal quality to the piece of music. Is his music full of musical instruments? In that case, it’s a kind of celebration of his life. Is it muffled, or is it empty, because he’s gone? Maybe you intend to record the quiet, but while you’re there, police sirens keep going past, and they mean something. You inherit all those meanings.

So it’s a continuous process; it doesn’t really stop. In the process of putting a record out, you’ve got to choose artwork for it, and you’ve got to give it a title. You’ve got to find a distributor or record label. Will you try to get a piece about Elijjah McClain to #1, or is it going to be independent? Are you going to profit from it? Where might that money go? The meanings are still in flux, too. My neighbor two doors down, who’s a farmer, might have never heard of Elijah McClain. Yet, in the town where he grew up, his name might be very well-known. What happens when the farmer listens to it, has one response, and then learns more about him, his life, and the circumstances of his death? So he listens to the music again, and the music changes underneath him, in a way. It’s all in flux, all the time. We share that listening together. Once you’ve crossed that threshold, you have to keep going, and you have to think about every part. You can’t just dip your toe in the water.

If you’re thinking about how the meanings of music might change, of course it’s complex, because people are complex.

Matthew Herbert: Yeah. With Pig, you might have never met a pig or spent any time with one, other than his bacon. When you’re 80, you might start a pig farm, and suddenly that record means something to you in a completely different way, and those sounds will suddenly be very familiar. But for someone who’s never grown up with them, it’s a completely new thing. There’s no such thing as one listener; there’s no such thing as an audience in that way. There’s just fellow collaborators in meaning.

Do you compose with an audience in mind?

Matthew Herbert: It depends, because I do a lot of composing for lots of different reasons: TV, theater, audiobooks, live shows. So I do bear it in mind. There’s certain conventions. For example, if you’re making dance music that you want somebody to DJ, if it all goes out of time—if you’re making a house track that you can’t mix in and out—you’re going to cause problems. That’s totally fine, but that’s an artistic decision. You have to decide: am I going to make their life really difficult, or am I going to make it a bit easier?

It just depends on the work. In the same way that Pig was about the pig, the question with the record I just finished was, “What would the horse want?” In a way, that’s more of the audience than the listener. If you ask me about ethics and morality or negotiating power, that seems to be my first responsibility: to be respectful, and to think about the thing that’s providing all the sounds for me. That’s the audience.

I’m curious about the genesis for the record. The concept is striking on a purely aesthetic level. Is that kind of novelty part of the draw? Where did it come from?

Matthew Herbert: It’s a lot of things. Like a lot of things, it was also an accident. I wanted to make a record with a skeleton; I tried to buy a dinosaur, and I couldn’t find one. The next biggest thing I could find was a horse. I bought it, and I immediately regretted it. It took up a huge corner of my studio for quite a few weeks, and it didn’t smell very good.

Slowly, I realized that if it weren’t for the horse, we wouldn’t have climate change, because the horse powered the Industrial Revolution. Communication and travel would have been harder without horses. It would have been harder to have empires without horses. Horses are no longer free; they were free, originally, and we’ve enslaved them, in a way. We’ve bred them to meet our demands, and we ride them at high speeds on Saturdays and Wednesdays, betting on which will do better. I became totally engaged with the story of the horse.

So I just began. It was, “Okay, I’m gonna make some flutes from the bones.” And I realized I was right at the beginning of music. So, okay, I’m going to tell the story of music. But there’s also a bit of a story factor: there’s something a bit Dadaist about it. You’re trying to make something that cuts through culture, because we’re in crisis. We have to create work that responds to that crisis. We have to offer alternatives. We have to suggest different relationships that we might have with the natural world, which we are, fundamentally a part of rather than separate to.

100,000 pieces of music are uploaded to Spotify every day. It would take you a year of continuous listening to listen to one day’s music. We’re swamped with music: there’s vast amounts of it that’s never listened to. So we have to accept that music is a form of waste as well, now. So I’m looking for stories, sounds, combinations, and collaborations that haven’t happened before. I’m trying to shock the system. I don’t necessarily mean to be shocking to people; I literally mean to shock the system of this violence that we’ve created, that’s designed to do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. We’re shopping ourselves to death, and eating ourselves to death, and holidaying ourselves to death. We’ve built the most destructive system that’s ever existed on the planet, as far as we know. Therefore, we need to challenge that wherever we can, and we need to provoke or create alternatives.

I appreciate that line of thought—it seems like you’re very cognizant of how your work exists in the world.

Matthew Herbert: I think the problem is that the music industry itself is so fragile now, and musicians are so poor and impoverished. The only place left to get paid is doing adverts. So music is being co-opted. I’ve seen people desperately writing music so they can get on Apple ads. It’s a really upsetting turn in my lifetime. Music used to be quite countercultural: about identity, politics, social cohesion, different perspectives, gender fluidity, and racial equality. Now, it’s been sort of smeared into “music to shop to.” It’s a subtle but pernicious shift.

A lot of research went into The Horse, sometimes going into the realms of historiography and archaeology. How did the research and sonic development speak to each other?

Matthew Herbert: Sometimes it’s very clunky, and sometimes it’s very beautiful. During “The Horse Is Put to Work,” you hear the sounds of horses down mines; you hear the sounds of police horses being used to charge at people during riots; you hear horses in the military; you hear horses as they pulled the king of Saudi Arabia towards the Queen on a state visit a few years ago. You’ve got all these sources from all these different years, and they’re all telling a story, however brief it may be. And that can feel quite clunky, because it’s quite montage-y. It feels visually familiar, as a way of organizing media. As a consequence, it ends up as quite a small moment on the record, because it’s, like, “Here’s loads of horse stuff.” It’s also a symptom of the fact that the record was made in six months from start to finish. It really should have been two years for a project of this scale and ambition.

But there’s other parts that I think are really fascinating. I worked with Dr. Rupert Till, an archeoacoustician from the University of Huddersfield. He recorded in the caves in Spain, in front of these horse drawings. I’d visited there and tried to secretly record on my phone, but he’d gotten permission. He went in there and got proper impulse responses to map the sounds. So I took my horse-skin drum: I can play it in my studio, and, using Rupert’s mappings, I can simulate what it would have sounded like to be in this cave in front of this particular horse drawing. Thanks to this amazing technology, I could move around the cave and hear how the drum sounded in different areas. You hear this on track two [“The Horse’s Hair and Skin Are Stretched”]. I hit the horse-skin drum in one particular area, and you have this huge sub-bass resonance. This immediately sounds f*cking scary, and it does something weird to you. It stirs something in you that is weird, and physical, and ancient, and modern.

That track had such a strong impact on me. I said, “Maybe, the reason why this drawing is here”—Rupert and other people are doing research about this—”Maybe there’s a correlation between where the paintings are and resonant chambers, or resonant frequencies within the cave structures.” So, you’re sort of doing real-time archeology, and you’re writing a piece of music at the same time. That sort of stuff became really thrilling, because you feel like you’re living and hearing history, rather than just guessing at it or simulating it, even though it’s a simulation of a different kind.

How did this record surprise you?

Matthew Herbert: I think it surprised me in how the best bits of the record, in my opinion, are the bits where you hear the musicians—and me—out of our depth. I asked them, “Imagine you’re the first person to ever play music.” That’s a real challenge to anybody. It’s a challenge to a musician who’s spent their whole life perfecting the art of playing something. To ask them to play something badly, or clumsily, or amateurishly, or as if it’s a strange instrument—that’s a big leap of the imagination, and a big leap of faith. Even though it’s me talking to you, it’s a giant collaboration. There were so many people involved in the making of it. In a way, that’s what I love most about the record, and what I wasn’t expecting was just that: listening to other people’s curiosity, and listening to them find their way through new sounds and new material. That felt exciting, because it felt like somewhere that has been difficult to open up in orchestral and classical music: that sense of discovery or improvisation. Because the conventions are so strong: they play together, they need music, they’re not used to improvising in the same way. Electronic music has the same problem; computers like you to commit. They’re a series of commitments. That sense of feeling your way through is not always easy to capture in electronic music.

I’m curious about your relationship to collaboration in your work. How has that changed over the years? From an outsider’s perspective, it feels like your work has gotten more explicitly collaborative over the past decade or so. Does that track?

Matthew Herbert: Yeah, 100%. Something really changed for me around the first big band record I made in the early 2000s. I never in a million years thought I would write a big band record. I played in a big band for three or four years, and I loved it. I love the sound of it, but I don’t have the chops to sit down and orchestrate, you know, multiple trombone harmonies. I don’t have the time for it, either. I worked with somebody called Pete Wraight: I wrote the music on the piano, and helped me translate it into a big band arrangement for a film. That worked, and then Gilles Peterson heard about it and said, “Would you do a gig at the Montreux Jazz Festival where some of your old stuff got played by a big band?” And I said, “Okay.” I realized, if I ask somebody for help, then between us, we’re able to do something that goes beyond my abilities. Now, I’m surrounded by people who I think are extraordinary, who can do things I could never do and things that I would never think of doing. As a result, I think it makes the work better.

There’s people like Hugh Brunt, who is an orchestrator for the London Contemporary Orchestra. He does all the Jonny Greenwood scores, and he’s doing Nicholas Britell‘s work at the moment. He’s a conductor and an orchestrator. He’s taught me a great deal, and he’s been very generous with writing out some of the stuff that I’ve done without changing it too much. Some of that’s been surprising as well. It’s like, “Oh, wait, I’m not quite as inept as I thought I was.” I haven’t had formal training: I did drama at university rather than music, so I’m always at the limits of my abilities.

That’s particularly true for singers as well. I can sing, but I don’t think I’ve got the best voice, and I don’t think I’m necessarily the best person to be the vehicle for my songs. But there’s all these people who love singing and sound amazing: let’s work with them instead. Like I said, I think it ultimately makes the work better, because collaboration brings in a system of checks and balances. If they think it’s sh*t, they won’t go along with you. [laughs] It always helps to have someone telling you it’s sh*t. But, yes, collaboration is really important to me. I have to write somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 pieces of music a year. There’s no way I could pull that off if I wasn’t able to call up a drummer, vocalist, or arranger, and say, “Can you play this for me?” “Can you sing this?” “Can you transcribe this?”

Talk to me about the collaborations on The Horse.

Mattew Herbert: The best musical instrument maker I know, Henry Dagg, lives up the road from me. He was the first person I called to do the bone flutes and the harp from the pelvis. Once I had the flutes, I said, “Well, there’s only one person I can think of that’s dedicated their life recently to playing different kinds of flutes, and that’s Shabaka [Hutchings].” His Instagram feed is filled with him playing different flutes in different locations. So: there’s the guy for me. I was very lucky and blessed that he said yes. He was one of the first people I worked with, and I said, “I want you to imagine that you’re the first musician in the world.” It was a real career highlight: I asked that question of him, handed him a flute, and he said, “I’m really struggling here.” And then, five minutes later, he’s playing something extraordinary. It was a really beautiful thing.

At the other end of that, I wanted somebody from an older generation. Evan Parker is a real underground hero, both here and around the world. I hope he doesn’t mind me describing him as [being someone] from an older generation. I wanted that sense of age and experience in it somehow; and he’s been right on the edges of the avant-garde. I do feel that a lot of this record is, in part, a bit of a love affair to the edges of British music: the instrument-makers, and people like Evan and Seb Rochford, people that have made a significant contribution to the edges of British music. I wanted to gather them into one place. It wasn’t just the musicians; I worked with two sound designers: Rana Eid, in Lebanon, and Ella Kay, in the UK, to create the sound landscapes.

Again, this is something I could have done myself, and it’s something I would have loved to have done. For example, with the last piece, “The Horse Is Here,” the horse is finally there and free, and we’ve created a kind of horsey heaven for it. I called up Rana and I said, “I want somewhere for the horse to be free, and I think it needs somewhere to eat, and I think it needs sunshine, and I think it needs some running water.” She built the soundscape for me. But she’s living in Lebanon, and it was a difficult time when I called. So that sense of freedom—how she might interpret freedom is likely to be different to how I would interpret it.

To go back to the idea of interrogating power: that, for me, feels appropriate, or exciting, or educational. I’m saying to somebody I’ve never met in person but have worked with in the past, “Make me a piece about freedom using the sound of a horse in a field.” For me, it’s this idea that the way we construct music, and the way we choose collaborators, should offer the audience some clue as to how we think the world should be organized. In this case, it’s a world that’s tolerant, that’s kind, that’s respectful, that allows you expression, that allows you to have whatever f*cking body you want, that allows you to love whoever you want. I feel that it’s important to use those spaces to propose an alternative; we’re not just saying that Trump is a dangerous, violent fascist and a danger to the entire planet. It’s also posing an alternative.

Talk to me about accidents. It’s in the name of your record label, and it’s in the Personal Contract for the Composition of Music you wrote 20 years back. How has your relationship to mistakes changed over the years?

Matthew Herbert: I think it’s baked into everything now. I’d call it something else now; I don’t think I would call it mistakes. I’d probably call it something like “surrender.” It’s about trying to develop a different relationship with surrendering. For example, I recorded 25,000 chickens hatching at the same time. I thought it would be an incredible sound, but actually, it was a really ugly sound, because there were huge fans keeping the chicks at a certain temperature. These chicks are exactly the same breed and exactly the same age. So when you add 25,000 of their cheeps together, it ends up being a single tone; you get a single tone of chicks, and there’s a big, ugly throb from the machines.

I was so disappointed, because I thought it would be something very special. But, a couple of weeks later, I said, “Look, that’s the story.” There’s nothing romantic about killing 72 million chickens a day for food in America. I think that sense of surrendering to the material—of surrendering to what you’ve got and not what you think it should be—it’s much more like that now. I wouldn’t see it as an accident now. I’d see it as me not listening properly.

It’s tricky, because with modern technology, you can make a guitar sound like a sheep, and you can make a sheep sound like an atomic bomb, and you can make an atomic bomb sound like a string orchestra. Everything is possible. Again, it’s the slightly colonial aspect of roaming free across the sonic world, taking whatever you want and doing what you want. When you’re working with sounds rather than musical instruments, it’s about allowing the sounds to be what they actually are as opposed to what you want them to be.

It’s about accepting the limitations of things, like the format, too. I used to only want to record at 96kHz with the best possible equipment. I bought an incredible recording device, and I never use it any more. I do a lot of my recordings on phones. That stuff is important, and I love good quality sound, but you’re in dialogue at all times. I can’t always carry this amazing Swiss recorder around; it’s very big and bulky, and it’s not very subtle. If I want to record something quickly, gently, and surprisingly, I’ve got a recorder in my pocket. So that’ll do. I think there’s something about accepting the terms under which you’re engaging with the world.

Are there any key ideas you try to stretch towards? What are you reaching for?

Matthew Herbert: Well, you’re always reaching for transcendence. That goes without saying, I guess. You’re trying to connect with some kind of force that exists outside of your body; with a force that connects you to other people, and the world, and a room full of people, or whatever. So transcendence is always there. But I’m still trying to start a revolution with my music. I’m still trying to bring down the government with it. That’s unlikely to happen, but it’s still what I want to do. Pieces of music have brought down governments, and pieces of art have changed the world. So it must be possible. I often think about the Rite of Spring and the riot that did or didn’t happen at the premiere—it’s disputed. But, clearly, there was some friction around it. That friction is still there in music: the idea that you could play a piece of instrumental music and it would cause problems for an audience. I think that’s a really compelling proposition.

In 2008, I made a record called There’s Me and There’s You. That record is about power. I tried to get into the Houses of Parliament to record the corridors of power. It wasn’t very controversial; it’s a very basic idea. I wanted to record the corridors of power and listen to what the architecture of governance sounded like. They thought about it for a year. The Parliament is run by its own members; there isn’t another body. They said no, because they thought the piece of music would bring the house into disrepute. And I said, “What? Wait a minute.” Musicians have long ago given up the idea that a piece of music could be a threat to the government. If you ask any musician, “Could your music be a genuine threat to the government?” I would say 80% of them would say, “I would like it to be, but probably not really.” But here was my government telling me that! Here was my government saying, “We’re worried about your bit of music,” which is pretty great. That’s given me food for thought: if they’re worried about it, then f*ck—let’s go.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Matthew Herbert: I’m doing a couple of film scores. I’m doing a really big musical in Chile, about feminism and consent. It’s the new film with Sebastián Lelio, who I’ve made five films with; he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film with A Fantastic Woman. I did the one with Florence Pugh with him last year. So this one’s his next film.

I’m still trying to make a record out of a billion things. I’ve been trying that for three years, or maybe longer. But, if I multiply one sound by a billion, I still can’t work out what the sound would be.

Just for clarity: literally one billion things?

Matthew Herbert: Not a billion objects, but a billion audio events. So I’d take one sound and multiply it by a billion. If you consider the power you might have to amplify a particular sound by a billion, what would it be? Would it be the birth of your kid? Would it be a nuclear explosion? Would it be Trump going to jail? Would it be a glass of water? Would it be a drop of your blood? I’ve tried all of these things, and none of them work, really. So that’s what I’ve been trying to solve for three or four years now. That’s what I mean about surrender. At one point, I’ll wake up, and go, “Ah! It should be a badger.” So it’ll be a billion badgers. I don’t think I’ll make it out of a badger, but you get my point. But, yeah, you’ve got to surrender. You’ve got to give it time.

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