You might think it’s odd for Dimensions to be hosting Matthew Herbert at Dance Tunnel this weekend, in a year when he’s not actually playing their festival, but ut that would be ignoring how significant a role he’s played in the musical direction and philosophy of the festival. Below, Dimensions booker and in-house Herbert fanatic, David Martin, waxes lyrical on Herbert’s cerebral genius and picks some lesser-known classics to justify his obsession.
Matthew Herbert is a genius. There, it’s been said. Not that I’m the first person to say it but ‘genius’ is a description that’s offered up all too frequently these days, so perhaps I need to qualify it.
I don’t mean genius as in he just wrote the latest pop tune that has made it into that charts and is 80% made up of a sample from a slightly obscure record of yesteryear. I mean a proper, bona fide, socially conscious and creatively original, genius. I mean a genius in that he thinks of things in a multifaceted way, and develops concepts and approaches to his art which actually have a meaning and seek to demonstrate his wider political or social views, or seek to teach us more about ourselves, our lives or the world. From composing songs about the Iraq war for a small army of musicians as part of his big band project, to producing a whole album about the food industry using sampled sounds of said food stuffs, or the sewers in which said food stuff ends up, Herbert’s output has long been marked as concept driven.
Much has been written about Herbert’s approach to writing music, which remains underpinned by his Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifest of Mistakes), setting out the self-imposed rules that govern his production processes, including points such as “no replication of traditional acoustic instruments is allowed where the financial and physical possibility of using the real ones exists”. Some of his most avant-garde works have been well publicised like his ‘pig record’ One Pig, in which Matthew documents the life of a pig from birth to the point at which it was slaughtered. The idea being that pigs, and the products and food that they provide us with, are intrinsically linked to our modern lives as humans. All of this points to the fact that Matthew Herbert is somewhat of a cerebral chap. You might therefore, be forgiven for thinking that all of this meaning behind his music might have a somewhat debilitating effect on his music’s ability to actually move us emotively and in isolation from his messages. You’d be wrong.
I first discovered Herbert’s music in the late nineties through his irresistibly danceable and now highly sought after Parts releases, which explored his interest in US house music. These releases forged new ground in the minimal, glitch, micro and tech house worlds and led me to his Bodily Functions record a few years later, in which he experimented with samples taken from the human body. However, it was always the music that drew me into his message, not vice versa. You see, Matthew Herbert’s music is just so addictive.
It was around this time that I started to book him to come and DJ at my events in Leeds and there he continued to demonstrate his capacity to carry out the two jobs of telling a story whilst remaining so damn funky that you can’t help but move. One particular memory of him opening his set with a snippet of a George W. Bush speech about the Iraq war remains. The episode set out his views on the war undeniably, views that weren’t lost on the crowd that were jam packed into the club to witness him play. The volume of the crowd that night is etched in my mind as Herbert proceeded to stitch three hours of house, techno, jazz and disco together into what continues to be one of my favourite DJ sets ever, proving that the art of DJing isn’t beyond his gift either.
So, it’s probably clear by now that I’m a bit of Matthew Herbert fan. It’s well documented that he’s written classic after classic, with Gilles Peterson once proclaiming that “we just won’t realise that they’re classics” at the time. From ‘Take Me Back‘ to ‘Café De Flore‘, ‘The Audience‘ to his remix of Moloko’s ‘Sing It Back‘, Herbert’s music has influenced countless artists the world over. He’s worked with Quincy Jones, Slum Village, Bjork, Jamie Lidell and Serge Gainsbourg but here I wanted dig slightly deeper to set out a few of my particular Matthew Herbert favourites: album tracks, B-sides, remixes and DJ mixes that possibly don’t get quite as much mention as some of his more well known works.