Matthew Herbert: Swing and roundabout

The sonic manipulator Matthew Herbert doctors the sound of a big band on his latest album. Now, he has rearranged the tracks for the band to play live. Martin Longley hears his musical manifesto
Click to follow

Matthew Herbert has just married his long-time singing partner, Dani Siciliano, whose best-known work is her contribution to his Bodily Functions album from 2001. Not only did she sing and co-write many of its playful words; she was part of a team whose digestive sounds, knuckle-cracks and teeth-gnashing were sampled for the purposes of musical construction. She even emptied out the random contents of her bag, as Herbert enthusiastically positioned his microphones in the search for sonic inspiration.

Herbert's current project exists on a much grander scale but uses the same principles of sonic manipulation. His 20-piece Matthew Herbert Big Band includes pivotal players from the UK jazz scene, such as the saxophonists Dave O'Higgins, Martin Williams and Nigel Hitchcock, the pianist Michael Garrick and the bassist Dave Green. Their sterling efforts are prey to Herbert's sampling whims as he captures the band sound and reshapes it through his computer array, using the jazzers as a real-time sample library. At least, that's the common critical consensus. But, when you listen to the recent Goodbye Swingtime album, a strange subtlety is revealed, a subversive perversion of the old big-band tradition. It opens by standing quite close to the mainstream song-form, gradually increasing its feeling of displacement.

Much of the music, although audibly doctored, could be performed live by most seasoned contemporary jazz ensembles. Indeed, that is what is starting to happen, as the Big Band work through a series of prestigious festival dates.

The Big Band made their live debut at last year's Montreux jazz festival, which was followed by a pair of Japanese dates and several European shows. Herbert also played at last month's Sonar festival, in Barcelona. "It felt a little bit like my graduation," he says. "I've been to it almost every year since '96, doing something in a different form, under different names and for different reasons. This year, I was the only artist in this gorgeous venue, seated, with tickets on sale in advance, for 2,000 people. It sold out so quickly, we had to do another show, and then that sold out. It just felt like a moment when my version of electronic music had arrived, like it had a right to be considered on an equal footing with other music that has appeared on that stage. It felt like we deserved to be there.

"I don't want it to be too easy," he insists. "I don't want people to be able to get it in the first song, what's going on. The show is almost unrecognisable now. It gets to the point where the band know the music a lot more, and they can play it a little differently. It's a big project, and I can't really afford to rehearse it, so there's not really a lot of opportunity to create things in private. The problem is, there isn't really much room for improvisation within the big band, because everyone needs to be informed about what's going on at all times. So, I'm really the only one improvising, in a live setting.

"The interesting thing that we're doing now is that some of the numbers that got the most severe chopping-up on the record, we're now actually re-orchestrating and rearranging as big-band pieces. For me, that's a really fascinating process."

Herbert's compositions appear to be constant works-in-progress. "It's really nice to have the idea of music as something more living, because electronic music is quite a final statement - the composition, the recording, the engineering, the mixing, all of that is invariably done at exactly the same time. And then it's finished, and that's the end of the process. It doesn't allow you to have much of a dialogue."

Goodbye Swingtime features vocal turns by Jamie Lidell of Super_Collider, the New York Brazilophile Arto Lindsay and, of course, Siciliano again, who helps to make its "Simple Mind" number a standard for the future.

"I've been into songwriting for a long time," Herbert says. "Particularly from the Thirties and Forties, but I'm certainly and categorically not a jazz player at all. I would be very embarrassed about playing on a normal jazz gig. I played piano and violin from the age of four, for about 15 years. The first band I played in was a big band, so it meant that I wasn't afraid of the genre. It was a Glenn Miller style, playing to a post-war generation, and then I did a lot of classical stuff, touring with orchestras. From a reasonably early age, I pretty much realised my limitations as a performer. I was much more interested in composition on computers, and the revolution that technology afforded. It opened up the potential immediately. I have to play only once into my computer, from the piano. When you write it down, it's a much more considered, painstaking process."

Herbert tends to improvise, subsequently editing and distilling, often inspired by chance occurrence. He has been immersed in the electro-acoustic method from the start, when he recorded as Wishmountain. "That was samples of a pepperpot, a radio, some crisps and an apple, things around me, turned into club music," he says. "I did that pretty much when I got my first sampler. The idea that you can have bombs falling on Baghdad and turn that into music of your own is enormously powerful. I'm looking for different ways of doing it, because to me that seems the most obvious thing to do, as an anti-war statement."

Herbert prefers such a circuitous conceptual method to the more common approach of writing protest lyrics. He likes to maintain an abstract aura around his songs. "I'm trying to write about something utterly specific but, at the same time, writing music that's essentially an abstract form. There's a lot of different things that I'm trying to present all at once, but the principal thing is that friction of living a life, travelling the world, playing music: I'm living a life of absolute luxury - the way that I put food on the table is by playing my music to people around the world - that amazing life, juxtaposed with the fact that the reason I can do that is that someone else in the world is subsidising the lifestyle."

Herbert isn't afraid of democratic collaboration, either, and has invited acts such as Matmos and Mouse on Mars to make significant contributions to some songs. He has also worked closely with the arranger and conductor Peter Wraight. "He has the perfect mix of knowledge and skill, combined with the desire to try things that haven't been done before - even if you fail, or even if you end up sounding exactly like everybody else."

Herbert composes at the piano; then Wraight scores a prototype arrangement, which is subject to alteration after it bounces back to the bandleader. "Every single note on the record has been thought about and is there for a specific reason."

In the manner of the Dogme school of film, Herbert has created his own PCCOM, or Personal Contract for the Composition of Music: its key principles are the avoidance of sampling anyone else's music and an almost old-fashioned attention to purist acoustic documentation. That is one way of avoiding pre-set programs, which tend to impose certain factory-packaged timbres and textures. "It's just meant to be a way of reclaiming the creative process," Herbert explains. "Drawing it away from one that's defined by the technology. For example, when I go into the studio, the machines are totally empty - the samplers, the computer. As soon as you start to put a noise in, that's when the compositional process gets under way. I should think about that, and make as many artistic decisions about that process as I do about what order to put everything in, what key to be in and what the melody should be. That's a perfectly natural way to write, for an acoustic musician. But for an electronic musician, those things are very much defined by technology."

'Goodbye Swingtime' is on Accidental ( The Matthew Herbert Big Band play at The Big Chill, in Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury, on 3 August (