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"We met in a gay bar," says Martin Schmidt, one-half of experimental electronic duo Matmos, of Drew Daniel, his partner. "Drew was on stage; he was go-go dancing. He was wearing a fish, a plastic fish. I put a dollar in his fish. A guy I was with at the bar said to me, 'You know, he makes electronic music, too.' And I said, 'Really?' because that's not the kind of thing that you think about go-go dancers, you know." Once Schmidt discovered that Daniel was a fellow electronic musician, he had the perfect angle with which to pursue him.
"I used a pick-up line which would have only have worked in the early '90s, which was, 'So have you ever used a computer to edit audio?'" Schmidt recalls. "It's hard to remember that, not so long ago, computers were a more rare commodity than they are today. It was kind of a big deal. And he hadn't, and he came over to my house, and I put my hand on his knee, and magic was born."
Since that fateful meeting, the two — who are paired up on stage and off — have put out seven critically acclaimed albums, worked with artists including Björk and the Kronos Quartet, and crafted a niche for themselves as purveyors of relentlessly creative experimental electronic music. They've become famous for crafting accessible, even poppy, works out of weird sample sources — the sound of hair being cut, a crayfish's neural activity, liposuction surgery, just to name a few. They're also known for marrying the conceptual frameworks of their albums to the samples they use, such as on 2001's A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, which used the aforementioned liposuction sample as well as other sounds sourced from surgical procedures.
If the way they met seems a little strange and their approach to music distinctively offbeat, the paths that brought them to making music seem positively bizarre. Daniel, in particular, had already embarked on a long, strange musical trip before Schmidt ever laid eyes on him.
"I was really into punk rock as a teenager. I also stumbled onto my parents' copy of the writings of William Burroughs, and they talked a lot about tape cut-ups," Daniel recalls. "I thought this sounded interesting and decided to get a bunch of cheap tape recorders, and I started to make primitive collage cut-ups. At the time, I did a punk-rock magazine, and you'd sit with scissors and glue and chop up the National Enquirer, and it didn't take long to jump from cutting up images to cutting up sounds. I really had no musical training whatsoever; I always made music in this sort of collage-assemblage way, since I was like fifteen.
"I was in punk-rock bands at the time," he continues, "but that kind of ended when I went to school at UC Berkeley to study philosophy. I joined a gospel choir, which was kind of a weird decision. I think I just liked the intensity of gospel performance. I was an atheist in the choir, but I just liked the way that, when we played in churches, people would get really moved and really expressive. For me, it sort of reminded me of punk rock, what I liked about punk rock. I guess it was sort of a tangled path of avant-garde literature, punk rock and gospel."
While nowhere near as radical, Schmidt's path was unusually serendipitous in its own right. As a teenage fan of electronic artists such as Brian Eno, Klaus Schulze and Laurie Anderson, his living situation dumped the means to create the same kinds of sounds into his lap. "I was kind of a bum in my youth," Schmidt admits. "I lived with a woman who was a terrible alcoholic, and she had three sons who were much older than I was and who had moved out of the house but had left behind a lot of their rock equipment. They'd left behind like a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a bunch of effects pedals and some synthesizers. And while sitting around, bum-like, day after day, I started plugging those things in and playing with them."
Eventually, when he and Daniel started producing music together, they needed a name. Given how strange most everything else about their story is, it isn't terribly surprising that they chose a weird name for even weirder reasons. They chose the name Matmos, after the sea of oozing, evil muck in the Jane Fonda movie Barbarella.
"It's one of my favorite films," declares Schmidt. I'm a huge fan of all that — I don't know if there's a sub-genre for it — all those super-saturated color, crazy, fantastic Utopian films of the late '60s, like Casino Royale, and Barbarella, and Danger: Diabolik, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. We both love that sort of baroque but modern thing about those things — like too many costumes, the sets are too crazy, the plot is too complicated, there's too many characters, everybody's being completely camp and over the top. I think it made more sense when we were doing more techno-oriented material, but certainly my fondness for that stuff has not dimmed at all. Barbarella is our patron saint."