Be it music, dance, art, or experimentation, Baltimore is a town that breeds artistic expression. Local electronic duo Matmos has been breaking the mold for almost 20 years now, known for their mixed mediums, unusual instruments, and synthesized soundscapes. Now, on their ninth, new record, they take it to the next level, with an album created entirely out of their very own washing machine, Ultimate Care II. On the heels of its release, we chatted with Martin “M.C.” Schmidt and Drew Daniel about cycles, sounds, and Baltimore’s fertile music scene.
How’s everything going since the album’s been released?
Drew Daniel: We’re figuring out all the details about how to take this show on the road. I’m a professor at Hopkins so spring break is the time to go on tour.
What needs to be figured out?
Martin “M.C.” Schmidt: It’s really just the logistics of getting all of us across the country on time. We’re bringing some of our friends, and, of course, the star of the show—the washing machine itself.
Cue the lights! I didn’t realize you were going to actually take it with you.
MS: Yeah, we actually play the washing machine live—with water!
Do you put clothes in it?
DD: No but we make a big show of putting colorful fabrics in at the start because we want people to realize we’re actually running the machine.
MS: We already played in Baltimore.
Right, at Floristree.
MS: People really liked it.
DD: I know it sounds suspicious, because we’re big-upping ourselves, but I gotta say, it was a really good vibe. People were very good listeners and really got into the moment when we stopped playing and just let the washing machine go.
MS: There were like 200-plus kids there and when we got to that minute? Everyone was absolutely quiet, which was very impressive.
That must be one of the hardest parts about your performance. But I imagine its mic’ed.
MS: It is mic’ed in many ways.
DD: There’s also video that Martin shot from inside the machine that’s projected above.
MS: I got waterproof cameras and put them in the machine while it was running.
DD: We go hard.
MS: We exhaust that damn washing machine, that’s for sure.
Every inch. What was the genesis of this idea?
MS: Well, in a way, kind of from laziness. In that, our ‘recording studio’ is sort of a lofty word for our laundry room. Or perhaps, ‘laundry room’ is too low a term for our recording studio. But our laundry room and our recording studio are one in the same, so maybe there’s something about the washing machine coexisting in the same place where I think about sound. And the washing machine has a very complete music to it. It runs about the length of an album. It has rhythms and tones and it does a little song and then stops and then does a different little song. The filling song, the washing song, the rinsing song.
DD: We have this habit of trying to hear the noise of everyday life. Once you have that habit in mind, its sort of hard to shut off. And you do notice that washing machines are sort of funky. As the water fills and shakes, you hear these patterns that build up and fall apart.
MS: The classic noise that everyone knows is actually not the washing machine; it’s shoes in the dryer.
DD: And if you think about it, that’s so funky.
MS: It’s a cliché but everybody knows about this weird thing. Everyone has a relationship with that rhythmic or a-rhythmic sound.
You’re so right—everyone knows that sound.
MS: But the washing machine is more interesting.
DD: Yeah, the washing machine has these metallic patterns but also these liquid sloshing sounds and I think that makes it very rich musically. The filling of the washing machine is very peaceful and meditative and Zen, but then the wash and spin cycles have really pounding, fast tempos. They’re very, like, hardcore techno.
Rough and tumble, pun not intended.
Those noises are extremely ordinary and recognizable, but put together, they become so unique and complex.
DD: Yeah, I mean, it’s been weird for us to do laundry after this album. It now feels like putting our record on.
I love how it begins with the cranking of the knob and the running of the water. And then it evolves—or devolves, however you want to put it—into this completely other world.
DD: We start with a note and then pull you into a sort of fantasy world, like a Jacques Cousteau undersea documentary if he went into our washing machine. What kind of machine do you have?
I honestly don’t know. It’s like this big, white, ancient beast that hangs out in my closet and makes terrifying noises in the middle of the night.
DD: Is it a front-loader or a top-loader?
DD: Okay. Is it the one with the dryer built on top of it?
Both: Ohhhh! I had one of those.
MS: For many, many years.
On this album, intentionally or not, you anthropomorphize the washing machine. It seems to come to life—it turns into this living, breathing thing.
DD: The music explores the object on its own terms, but as you break out in to the music and make a suite of different patterns, some of which are kind of aggressive and harsh or wistful, then the object becomes humanized, subject to the different emotions and moods they make you feel. Like, you know how when you’re doing the dishes or mopping the floor, you’re busy, but your mind wanders and you often process something about your life? Chores are an engaging work but are also a weird form of therapy. There’s labor, but the labor is also kind of an emotional labor. You turn an idea around and around. Well, there’s something kind of obsessive in our music, too. Like the construction of a format that’s made of all these little details. But I think everyday life is also like that. Maybe I’m ranting here…
MS: Poor Drew is an English professor.
Don’t worry, I was an English major—I feel your pain. But tell me a bit about the process of actually making this album.
MS: I’m not kidding when I say it was partially laziness.
You can stay in pajamas the entire time.
MS: Yeah, exactly. We could make a whole album and never have to call in a guitar player or move a microphone further than the other side of the room.
DD: It became kind of social, anyway, because a lot of our friends are musicians and are over at our house hanging out. Some were even over at our house doing laundry. So we’d say, oh, hey, Sam [Haberman, of Horse Lords], do you mind drumming with Martin? Or, oh, Dan Deacon, will you come bring your rig? Even though the star of the show is always the washing machine, different people with different skills can turn it into a different sort of instrument. They have a different ear for what to do with the same object. So it was really fun to make this record.
MS: But to really specifically answer your question, I would break it into three categories. There’s the washing machine running on its own. We recorded it washing clothes, with mics inside and out, on the surface of the water and the engine, for those deep motor sounds. And then, to be perfectly blunt, there’s us hitting the washing machine…
That was obviously going to be my next question.
MS: This is probably what made me think that this would be a good idea in the first place. I love drumming on a washing machine. This came from the ’90s, when, in ye olden days, they were made entirely out of sheet metal. Every surface being a different size has a different drum sound to it. Like the front is a great kick drum. It goes like bughhhhhh. And the sides are higher pitched, so they’re like tom-toms. And the top makes a good snare. When you open the lid, it makes a great bell sound, like a clonggggg. And then there’s the cranking sound at the beginning, which we also use later like the Latin percussion instrument where you rub the stick . . . clrrrr-chh-chh, clrrrr-chh-chh.
MS: Yes. And then we play a lot of drum brushes on it, too. But then the third category would be playing the machine while it’s running. Our friend Jason Willett who runs True Vine Record Store is another music weirdo. He wanted to turn it on and off and change its cycles really quickly—the kind of stuff where your mother would be like, ‘Don’t do that!’ And I must admit, as the owner of this washing machine, I was like ahhh!
DD: But it sounded really cool.
MS: He was playing the machine in a way I hadn’t thought of. He thought of it in a different way. That’s why other people are really useful. They give you ideas you never had.
To your knowledge, has anyone done this before?
DD: I mean, never say never. Washing machines have been around for a while. Somebody told us that a composer once tried to notate the rhythms of washing machines and then have traditional instruments play them, which is a cool idea. But I don’t think anyone has done a whole album out of just one washing machine.
MS: This is going to be all artsy and pretentious, but by no means did we think this is the most original idea in the world. In fact, we kind of knew it was a good idea because it’s so, sort of, dumb. But the music that we made is the important part. Even if you make a record out of a washing machine, the music still has to be music. And I’m not saying it necessarily is to anyone. So has anyone ever done this before? It kind of doesn’t matter.
I guess it’s like asking if anyone else has ever made a record with a guitar before.
DD: Exactly. If someone else made a record out of a washing machine, they’d make a completely different record.
MS: Exactly, exactly, exactly. And maybe the whole thing in a way is a given. If we were a regular band that usually made music with guitars and drums and then suddenly came out with this, I’d say, yes, but we’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s what we do.
DD: We work with weird stuff. And, you know, for us, that feels natural, because we’re not trained with any instruments. I mean, I’m not a violinist. Martin has some piano playing abilities.
MS: I had piano lessons in sixth grade and my music training ended there.
DD: Our ignorance partially means that we’re more interested in responding to the objects around us and seeing what sounds they make and then making music out of that. A trained composer thinks in terms of pitches, chord progressions, and that’s all valid, but there’s a lot of music like that, and we aren’t trying to replace it. We’re trying to do something else.
MS: I just don’t want people to think we’re like: this is the greatest idea ever! We know its sort of silly. Like, no question.
Do you think you’d do it again with another ordinary object?
DD: Oh yeah. People ask, oh, what’s next—the toaster? The vacuum cleaner? I think a lot would depend on which toaster, which vacuum cleaner. For us, we know this machine and we love its sounds, so we had a basic confidence in that.
Well good luck on the road. We’re looking forward to a few more sets with your Ultimate Care II machine in Baltimore. It’s awesome to hear that the first show was met with such open arms.
DD: People are amazingly open to weirdness here.
MS: It’s always hard to generalize about an entire city, but the music scene in Baltimore is so much more exciting and open and ready than other cities for what is generally considered “strange.” There’s something about Baltimore where people are—and, oh, I don’t want to use this cliché, but—unpretentious. But it’s kind of the truth. People in Baltimore want something to happen. They want it to be fun now, and they’re willing to bring it. They don’t want to sit in judgment.
It seems like as long as you are authentic, you’re given a shot.
MS: In places like New York or San Francisco, there are a lot of folded arms. Like, is this really cool enough? There’s very little of that in Baltimore. They’re like, I don’t care if it’s ‘cool enough.’ I’m deciding for myself. And I came here to enjoy myself or be illuminated so I’m going to give things a benefit of the doubt, which is a very fertile ground to be an artist in.