Matthew Herbert

Exclusive interview with the prolific producer as he releases a complete 130 track box set on iTunes

Words : Ben Hogwood

Matthew Herbert has been making music for twenty years and more – but only now has he attempted to round up his contributions to house music. That in itself is a mammoth task, for the prolific Herbert works on several records simultaneously, but he has managed to whittle down the best of his house music to a mere 130 tracks, housed on an iTunes LP box set. The tracks included encompass his early ground breaking record of 1995, ‘100lbs’, and a number of B-sides and outtakes from the time, as well as ‘Bodily Functions’, ‘Around The House’ and ‘Scale’, where his use of manipulated everyday sounds becomes more ambitious. In an exclusive interview to go with the release of this archive material, Herbert talked to DMC World about how his view of house music has changed since the early 1990s, and gave us a sneak preview of what to expect from his studio in the near future. Be warned – it won’t be easy listening!

For starters, though, we asked Herbert how he felt now this record is being released…

“Quite weird, to be honest,” he says. “I now play clubs attended by people who weren’t even born when ‘100lbs’ came out. We haven’t had old DJs before, and we haven’t had bald middle aged DJs either, so we don’t quite know how to behave!”

He isn’t wholly sure of his identity within house music, either. “It’s quite weird, I’ve DJ’d between one and two thousand professional gigs, and I don’t think of myself as a DJ. I’m certainly never on any of those big DJ lists but I’ve done some shows, and played some great parties from E-Werk in Berlin to Plastic People, Mad Rock in Sydney and the Liquid Room in Tokyo.”

He reflects on the type of person that goes to a Matthew Herbert DJ gig – and they’re a varied bunch. “To me I do what I do, and I don’t believe the audience is one fixed thing. One person might be a journalist, another might be a mate, or there might be someone who heard a bit of film music I’ve done. One gig I played was for the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai, and the first 30 rows were government officials, so as you can imagine that was very different to 8am on a Sunday morning in Berghain! Audiences are fluid like that.

100lbs has stayed the test of time, regarded by many as one of the 1990s finest house music albums – but there is a lot more to it than that. “I was trying to create a cleanliness,” he reflects, “because by that time dance music was messy and compromised, and it was even in the 1980s. There was an amazing spiritual open mindedness to begin with, from jungle to hardcore to New York house. Pretty soon those parts began to separate off, and people became proud of their borders. It was starting to fray around the edges, so for me 100lbs was connected to some of the music I liked. By that I mean a lot of German dance music, and the things that Strictly Rhythm and Nervous were doing at the time. It was about creating clarity, and a distillation of choice elements – not using the kitchen sink, although that came later of course!”

The album was the beginning of a career in which Herbert has varied his musical approach widely. “It sounds horribly controlling and slightly obnoxious, but I always wanted to make ten albums, to present a variety of approaches and ideas, and to be judged off the back of that,” he says. “Now I would struggle to present something I was about in one go. Growing up I was in orchestras and big bands but dance music was the way in for me.”

So is it a proud moment to have ‘Complete’ as a kind of life’s work in house music? “I would say it’s definitely not a proud moment, but more a sad moment. One of the reasons I have the music now at Accidental (his label) is because almost all the labels went bust, and I was written off by people abusing the way things worked. In a way it feels like a lament towards an optimistic time, rather than a proud moment. I was 20 when my first record came out on a white label, and then I was 23-24 when 100lbs came out I think.”

“When the first stuff came out I got noticed and started getting gigs. I would go to somewhere like Vancouver, to a party someone had started, then to Moscow. Some of the early American raves were really strange. It was a tangible explosion, but overall it was quite a naïve period, and some people really abused it badly, while some did really well and are still around today. A good 12” then was 30,000 copies, and now it’s only 500!”

Herbert still has to keep his oar in where listening to house music is concerned. “Because I DJ twice a month I have to keep up, but my enthusiasm is in a correlation to how the music is, and at the moment I think there’s a bit of a lull. Some of it is more Chicago-based, but when you’ve been in nightclubs as long as I have, just listening to the sound of an 808 and a 909 in various combinations is pretty tiring 25 years on! I don’t think there are that many surprises now, but things move so clearly. I see dubstep as a bit of a parody, though.”

It was therefore quite refreshing to revisit his house music roots under the guise of Wishmountain – and the ‘Tesco’ album he released in 2012, which brought together his love of house music with his sonic awareness – for this album featured sounds that were everything to do with a supermarket, hence the title. “Yeah, it was quite fun – like a night off. It was about trying to remember some of that naivety, like getting dressed up in teenage clothes and dancing around, trying to remember what it was like. Now I’m so driven by political concerns, so it’s hard to enjoy these moments without feeling that it needs a wider context. Some of the ‘Fruit Shoot’ track was fun, but it was depressing at the same time, the thought that we’re feeding this shit to our children in plastic bottles that will last 750 years. In these moments I find I’m whittling down what little hair I’ve got left!”

Recently Herbert has also joined Carl Craig in Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Recomposing’ series, where electronic producers choose a piece of classical music to reinterpret. His own choice was Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, which involved him visiting the very cabin where Mahler wrote the music, in Toblach, Northern Italy. There he recorded some sounds and ambience for the album.

He took a lot from the experience. “It was a challenge, but at the end it feels very logical, I understand much clearer now what I was trying to do when I set out. When you look back to trace the path that you took, and see how you got to where you are now. What I did was use things that Mahler didn’t have – microphones, amplifiers, field recordings, and so I used these at structural moments. Parts of that I still find incredibly evocative, like the recording in the cabin where Mahler wrote the music. It annoyed me a little at first because you could hear footsteps, but then I thought it sounded like Mahler himself, pacing up and down in his cabin, so like a shot that went on the record!”

There was more. “Bizarrely I had another strange experience, later on when I was asked to perform live in the cabin. There were a lot of animals around, so we put microphones in the woods around and tried to record them. What I’m telling you now sounds ridiculous, but it actually happened, where a cow actually intoned half the main melody there times, but thinking about it, it made perfect sense. I thought ‘Either it likes it, it’s a coincidence, or Mahler took the sound of the cow and took the melody from it, as these cows have been around that area for centuries. We will never know, but it was an extraordinary moment!”

Herbert – as you would surely expect – is a very busy man. “I’m working on two to three albums at the moment. The next will be made from the sound of a bomb dropped in Libya, where someone recorded it on the ground and sent it to me. Without sounding too pretentious, it raises the question of what does music even mean and do? Music made out of a bomb is designed to do something very different than a new Dido record! At the same time I’m trying to do a more song-based record, to not just make difficult music!”

There is also the small matter of Herbert’s management of the Radiophonic Workshop. “It’s very exciting, and bit overwhelming because I didn’t have any spare time to take it on, but now I’m running an institution in my spare time! We’re attached to The Space ( and the BBC actually have put it on hold for six months, but has been successful. It’s amazing how much good will there is towards that. As it moves on I am keen to think of ways to open it up and make it collaborative.”

Given his ability to make albums out of unusual sounds – the lifecycle of a pig, a night in the life of the Robert Johnson club in Frankfurt – is Herbert now at the stage where every sound is an opportunity? “Yeah, but you have to turn it off or you go bonkers! You have to create a form in which to work. The most important thing for me is there has to be a reason behind everything now. That’s the issue for me. It used to be ‘how interesting is the sound?’, but now it’s the story I want to tell.”

Herbert’s ‘Complete’, a collection of his work in and around house music is available now.