Matthew Herbert is one of electronic music’s chief innovators, adapting a conceptual vision to the world of . With his Big Band project he’s turned a genre widely believed to be retro on its head, reworking it into a music that is startlingly relevant. Ahead of his performance at Sunday’s Electronic Beats Presents at Jazzfest Bonn, he talks about the personal and professional influence jazz has had on him. Based on a conversation with Louise Brailey.
What I’ve learnt from jazz, and particularly about improvisation, is absolutely, completely crucial to the artist I am now. However, my relationship with it has evolved over time, I really came to it through standards. When I was fourteen my school music teacher brought in some Cole Porter and George Gershwin records so that we could study the songwriting. I know that’s not strictly jazz but the use of a harmonically complex, melodic song as a starting point for improvisation is a key part of late-twentieth century jazz. Fourteen was also the age that I joined my sister’s school big band. We used to do weddings and play Duke Ellington alongside big band versions of Whitney Houston. However, I really came to big band music through a film which I was working on, a hip-hop and house musical Les défi in France. The director wanted to big band music so I had to write some quickly. It wasn’t something I’d ever done before but I worked with an arranger called Pete Wraight who I’ve worked with ever since. Then Gilles Peterson asked me to do some big band versions of some of my old pieces for Montreux Jazz Festival and it kind of accidentally existed from then on. The problem with a big band is that it’s really addictive, there’s nothing else like it; there’s no other acoustic ensemble that makes such a loud noise. It’s a really visceral sound, it’s men and women blowing through pieces of metal tubing. You’re physically moving air about with other people’s lungs. It’s way more rock’n’roll than a guitar band.
For a while I was a bit intimidated by jazz because I’m not a great player. I studied piano for a long time and but I don’t sit down and practice three hours a day—I play to write. Still, I realised a few years ago that the jazz aesthetic was really important to thinking about sampling and the improvised aspect of what I do. In the Big Band live show, I’m the main person improvising because I’m sampling everything the band is doing and messing with it, changing it, playing it back in different places and different ways. Of course, the sampling and effects interventions that I make onstage have to be musically sympathetic to everything else that’s going on, you can’t just fire off an E flat major chord sample over a B minor pedal. Subconsciously you have to be doing it constructively otherwise onstage you’re ruining the hard work of 19 other musicians. It’s helped me to think about how to improvise, and it’s taught me the most crucial skill of improvisation, which is knowing when to shut up.
I think the big band acts as a template for how we should organise ourselves on a societal level: everyone does their bit independently, ultimately feeding into a harmonic and dynamic whole. While it’s a real liberation being able to work on your own in the studio and do things on your own terms and in your own ways, there comes a point where you reach the limits. It’s a useful metaphor for life: I don’t make my own trousers and I don’t make my own cheese and yet I regularly eat cheese and I regularly wear trousers. We need other people to do other parts for us, we should be acting as a community. I think it’s impossible to view society through the filter of atomisation without then applying that to the way it’s manifested in music. There’s more people than ever making music on their own—and that’s fantastic in some ways, affording people opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had. At the same time, it it tends to lower the overall standard of the people working on the music itself. I’ve really had to raise my game to be able to play with some of these jazz musicians. I can learn so much from a person who has spent three hours a day for the fifty years playing the trombone, rehearsing and crafting. That’s something I could never do on my own. As a consequence I feel humbler to know my place in the scheme of things a bit better—which is certainly not on top.
It’s ironic really, when I first started doing the big band project I got called old fashioned a few times. But if you add up the number of big band albums that have been made—this is off the top of my head—you must have somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 albums. Yet you talk about the number of house records being made, it’s probably coming up to well over 50,000,000, so in a way house music is the more old fashioned, it’s repeated itself more often, it’s moved on in such tiny increments. In many ways there’s something more radical about rediscovering an older form and using it in different ways than doing something everybody else is doing at that time. That feels extremely conservative and reactionary, in a way. I also feel quite frustrated listening to a lot of new jazz music being written today, it feels like it’s waiting for the next stylistic thing to happen. I believe there’s a fundamental revolution happening in music, you can make music out of anything, a bus or ten thousand babies being born at the same time or a lemon being squeezed or the revolution in Syria or Vladimir Putin going on holiday—anything. Therefore it seems strange to me that extremely competent and credible and brilliant musicians still feel compelled to stay within the safety of a particular instrument or particular texture. It just feels like musicians have surrendered and given up on the idea that music can change the world. It’s frustrating to me that collectively music has become safer somehow, the risk has gone. If you’re not prepared to fail be laughed at then you’re going to make music that stays within a safe set of parameters. I realised the minute I started to make more political music and make my political views known that I would immediately lose a whole load of audience: people who didn’t agree with my politics would walk away. But if it’s important to me I have to be prepared to take that risk. ~
The Matthew Herbert Big Band will be playing Electronic Beats Presents @ Jazzfest Bonn on June 1st, 2014.