Name: Matthew Herbert
Occupation: Producer, composer, remixer, musician
Current release: The new Herbert album Musca, featuring 8 singers and 7 musicians and including the single "Hypnotised" featuring vocalist Mel Uye-Parker, is scheduled for October 22nd on Accidental.
If you enjoyed this interview with Matthew Herbert and would like to stay up to date on his output and activities, visit his official homepage. Or follow him on twitter and Instagram.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
It always starts with an absence.
The melancholy and optimism of art both spring from this point - trying to create something that doesn’t exist yet. Other art can be useful - I find paintings a particular source of inspiration, not for content but for how others organise shape, how they create a coherent gesture.
Social injustice, whether I like it or not, shapes everything I make. Either in trying to shut it out or to deal with it head on. Now I’m older I can see that there is a constant churn of energy needed to fight this ever present right wing distortion, cheating, lying, violence and obfuscation.
We are always on the brink of horror.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
It is often a vague or abstracted sense of what the end result should convey. For example I knew that the last big band record I did about brexit, despite being made with more than hundreds of people, should sound introspective, quiet, intimate - in contrast to the bombast of brexit itself.
Beyond that it is impossible to really know. With the more experimental work, if you knew how it would turn out before you did it, either a) you probably then don't need to make it or b) it's maybe not as experimental as you think.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Sadly this is a luxury one can rarely afford. On average I have to write a minimum of 5 to 6 pieces of music a day, most days, including weekends. For some TV scores I have to write 300 to 500 pieces of music.
There are techniques of course, start early, give yourself rewards, take walks, don't beat yourself up. But making music as a living is about discipline, application and craft. There's rarely time to sit and wait for inspiration or creating the perfect environment.
I often have to write in hotel rooms at 2am after shows using a laptop's qwerty keys as a piano keyboard. The romance of it is a myth!
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
See above. I don’t drink caffeine to try and keep an even state through the whole day. But there really is a danger in feeling like certain things need to be in place to be able to create, as 9 times out of 10, the perfect state is really hard to achieve.
Some of the best-received work I’ve done has taken just over an hour from start to finish, for example the Moloko "Sing it back" remix, or cafe de flore. The latter took 20 mins to write and record. The drums I added later. It was written in a cold concrete room with no windows and a rat problem.
I wrote the theme for "Gloria bell" with Julianne Moore in a car park in Las Vegas. it’s not about the where, it’s about the ….. (see below)
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I always start with the question - why? If you don't know why you're doing it or for what end it can become very saggy very quickly.
For a record I did called 'The end of silence' I knew I wanted to make a record with my band from a single 5 second recording. But it took 12 months of thinking to work out what the sound should be. Often the form comes first.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Hopefully it falls over you in vast crashing waves like a waterfall. Very often it’s a long struggle of trying to take a shower with a teaspoon of water instead.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
As DH Lawrence says, it's me and the wind that blows through me. You have to pay attention at all times. I think Tom Waits said keep your hat upside down out the window to see what falls from the sky.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
You really must accept that creativity is a multiverse otherwise you’ll go mad. There are billions of parallel paths at all times.
Right now I could have written a piece of music instead of answering your questions. Now that piece of music will never exist. You can’t chase endless pieces of work that could/might/may happen. Surrender to the loss!
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
There can be, but it’s also prosaic too: the need to pay the bills. Or the film director wants something different to your vision for a particular scene. Or you can’t afford the musician you really want to perform a melody.
When it’s good of course, when it’s going well, it’s the best feeling in the world. Roisin Murphy and I wrote her whole record in about 10 days. There’s a kind of erotic elation when that happens, like falling in love.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
The digital age is a handy excuse. If we could, we’d probably work on the same pieces forever. It’s finished when it’s not too embarrassing, that it can exist without you by its side at all times defending it.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Too much evaluation kills the thing. You are not the same person you were at the outset so you would do things differently if you were to do it again. Also when you’re independent you rarely have the financial luxury to spend months refining something.
When you’re collaborating on something like a film or a theatre piece, it’s rare to have proper time. Noughts and crosses, the tv series I did we had over a year to work on the first episode and a few days for the final episode.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Really important. I’m involved in all of it. Of the 30/40 albums I’ve made, I’ve produced and mixed all of them.
Mastering is essential to take the music elsewhere, that’s a wholly underrated skill.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I rarely feel empty, more relief. Often about one month before finishing the mixing and mastering I’m desperate to leap to the last few weeks just to hear how it will end.
After I finished the big band record about brexit, made with thousands of players over 3 years, hours and hours of thought and work, many many people working for free on it, people swimming the channel, someone walking the Irish border, chartering a ww2 plane etc etc, one uk music journalist’s entire review in a mainstream mag was ‘parpy brit jazz*’. The rage that I felt on behalf of all those people trying to work collaboratively and positively towards a different political reality (regardless of if the music was any good or not) is the fuel to make me create the next work.
Of course, you feel like shit, too, for a few weeks after something like that. But the friction can be a valuable reminder of why you’re doing it in the first place: people in positions of power and their reluctance to disrupt the status quo that gives them that power.
*as a side note, all three of their words in their review were factually wrong.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Music is invisible.