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Matthew Herbert's One Pig project

Matthew Herbert serves up his political ideologies on a pork-shaped plate with his latest One Pig project – an album telling the story of a farm animal from birth to death and beyond. April Welsh speaks to the ‘super producer’.

Matthew Herbert is at the mercy of fate. He’s a chancer, a risk taker and a man who sees creative potential in the everyday, the banal and the fundamentally brutal. Taking the world around us and immortalising it in song, he strongly maintains the need for accidental occurrences within the realm of music making – often likened to the theory of aleatoricism – largely as a riposte to the repetitious nature of capitalism and the damning perfection of the modern studio which seeks to disassociate sounds from their physical origin.

The primary concern of this avant-garde conceptualist is with the ‘real’; acquiring found sounds from a disparate array of sources and bringing them to the forefront of our collective consciousness in an intelligent way that has deservedly earned him his status as a pioneering electronic musician. The ideological bases of his work vary from political and social commentary to self-reflective contemplation – from Herbert’s 2001 ‘Bodily Functions’ LP, which features audio snippets of laser eye surgery, brushing hair and chattering teeth – to The Matthew Herbert Big Band’s 2008 ‘There’s Me and There’s You’ – a hypermodern incarnation of the protest album which uses the sound of Palestinians being shot by the Israeli defence force in Ramallah to articulate a vehement point about the bloody consequences of war.

And it is the idea of consequence which resonates throughout Herbert’s latest work, the ‘One Pig’ project, a concept album about the life-cycle of a pig, from birth to death, and beyond. Naturally, the record has courted a fair deal of controversy from the outset (PETA tried to have the whole thing shut down), but Herbert fervently dismisses any claims of cruelty, instead defending his long-held belief that we should treat animals with the utmost respect. Using this project to convey a profound political message about the way we perceive and consume meat, he blames supermarkets for feeding us a constant barrage of misinformation when it comes to food labelling but also berates our own shirking of responsibility and the cowardly way in which many of us eat meat but fail to question where it came from. For, as the age old adage goes, ‘ignorance is bliss’ and we are often guilty of hiding behind the unknown. “We don’t see the immigrants picking our fruit, we don’t see the conditions that animals are kept in and we don’t get to see how they’re killed,” says Herbert. “We’re just kept entirely separate from the consequences of our actions and that’s an incredibly dangerous position for us to be in.” Herbert praises The Meat License Proposal, an organisation working towards developing a new kind of law which requires restaurant customers to have experienced killing an animal in order to purchase anything meat-related from the menu and this desire for illumination pervades the ‘One Pig’ record.

Flicking through the hefty canon of conceptual music – from the inward-looking musings of ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘The Wall’ to the fictional characters of ‘Tommy’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ – what binds them all together is the underlying principle of narrative. And that’s exactly what ‘One Pig’ is; an aural biography about a creature whose fated existence would otherwise have gone untold. It’s the third instalment of Herbert’s ‘One Trilogy’ of albums, although quite distinct from his two previous efforts ‘One One’ and ‘One Club’, is still thematically linked. “I wanted to make an album out of one thing but I couldn’t decide what that thing was going to be,” he explains. “For me what links these three albums together is the unknown – the first record was about me and the second one was about strangers but this feels like the most important one because it has the most risk attached to it.”

The nine tracks on ‘One Pig’ coincide with the pig’s fleeting 24-week life-cycle, beginning with its birth in ‘August 2009’, an almost picturesque scene of countryside tranquillity, mostly silent apart from the sound of heavy breathing, the rustling of hay and the distant tweeting of birds. Subdued pig squeals emerge by the end of the track, to a backdrop of fluttering electronic bloops, but by ‘September’ things have got ugly, as Herbert’s uneasy oscillations and urgent, plodding synths are pitted against more perturbing, violent grunts. He recollects: “It was a pretty visceral experience; a weird juxtaposition of utter calm and utter violence. The sow was really freaked out about what was going on because she hadn’t given birth before and so became really aggressive towards her piglets. She bit one on its rump and there was a whole piece of his skin missing. She flung another one across the room and broke its jaw – it died because it couldn’t feed.”

Herbert was not permitted to record the pig being killed due to legal constraints and although he says that this may have taken away some potentially explicit friction from the record, he doesn’t believe that it diminished its impact. “I think the killing would have been overstepping the line slightly and could also have proved to detract from the overall shape and story of the piece,” he says. “If anything, it just highlights the stupidity of our food system where everything is almost hidden from us.” But he does record the process of the butchery itself, in particular track ‘February’, where you can hear the ominous sharpening of a knife.

‘August 2010’ is composed of sounds from his One Pig Feast, where various chefs including Jason Atherton and Kitty Travers were invited to cook a meal using every edible part of the animal. Herbert wanted “every bite to count” and the elaborate banquet was intended to be a celebration of the pig’s life. In addition to this, Herbert commissioned several artists to create instruments from the pig by-products, including a pig skin drum by Stephen Calcutt and a pig blood organ by Henry Dagg, which acquires its pitch by forcing blood up through tuned reeds. Played by Sam Beste, this off-kilter sound can be heard predominantly on the ‘August 2010’ composition.

But one of the most ambitious aspects of the project is the introduction of a brand new instrument - the so-called musical pig sty – which will feature as the centre piece for the live ‘One Pig’ show, taking place on September 2nd at the Royal Opera House as part of Mike Figgis’s Tell The Truth festival. The pig drum will also be used on stage, with a drummer playing samples of the pig’s life, and hay will help to give the illusion of a barn, with pig fat candles and a pig trotter candelabra created to ensure that every part of the animal is put to use. There will a chef cooking live on stage, various looping and electronics and a piano player playing samples again of the pig’s life, but manipulated into something more tuneful. Herbert himself will be playing melody lines as well as sampling what everyone else is doing. “If we do it properly then people should be able to have a multi-sensory experience and immerse themselves fully into a condensed life, until death,” he says. “I would like the show to be a chance to reflect on the pig’s life but I would also like it essentially to be music and to be emotional and moving in some way.”

Herbert was at the whim of nature throughout and in relinquishing control left any preconceived ideas at the barn door. “You simply can’t make it into what you want it to be,” he stresses. “For example, I assumed that the labour process would be a very noisy affair but it was in fact very quiet and peaceful. You can’t think – ‘I’m going to make a rock and roll track out of this pig’s birth’ –because you’re there to tell a story so you have to listen and amplify what you hear, rather than coming to it with an agenda.” On ‘May 2011’, Herbert sings a pastoral lament to the pig and he went back to the barn to record this track. “It didn’t feel right recording it in the studio so we went back to the sty, but when we got there we found out that a pig had just given birth,” he says. “It was incredibly peaceful, serene and a great privilege to be there and it felt like the cycle was starting up again.”

It ends on a poignant and surreal note. “For me, the music is the afterlife; the fact that we’re still talking about it,” says Herbert. “That pig would just have ended up as a meal but I believe that this album has imbued it with a much more physical and tangible end.”

To buy tickets for the ‘One Pig’ live show, go to http://www.roh.org.uk/