March 2019

Arts & Letters

Clicks, plinks, hoots and thuds: Matmos’s ‘Plastic Anniversary’

By Anwen Crawford

Matmos. Photograph by Theo Anthony

The American experimental duo embrace the ‘sounds’ of a ubiquitous material

The introduction of plastic bags to supermarkets began during the 1980s. How strange it is, and how saddening, to realise that their rustle has only existed within my lifetime. The squeak of styrofoam packaging; the dull scratch when you run a fingernail across a disposable polystyrene cup; the thck of a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle, dropping into a polyethylene wheelie bin: none of these sounds is even a century old. We inhabit a world – including a sound world – that plastics have but recently transformed.

Long-running American experimental duo Matmos, no strangers to the sonic possibilities of objects, have created their latest album, Plastic Anniversary (released March 15), entirely from the sounds of plastic things. Here are plastic dominoes, plastic whistles, billiard balls, and more. Some items are common to the point of banality: an ATM card, a toilet brush, a salad bowl. Others carry with them a more sombre charge: a police riot shield, an emergency stretcher. The clicks, plinks, hoots and thuds of these things – source recordings digitally processed by Matmos members Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt – have been combined, here and there, with an array of plastic musical instruments, and plastic bins used as percussion.

The result is often perky, sometimes shrill; this isn’t quite pop music, but it’s not not pop music, either. It’s pop-adjacent, and embraces those very qualities for which “plastic” pop is derided, first and foremost by being a music of manufacture. This is literally so on “Breaking Bread”, the opening track, a rubbery dancehall number made from the sound of vinyl records by the Californian soft-rock band Bread. “No sampling of Bread’s music took place,” declare the liner notes. Instead, Matmos have sampled the sounds of those records being destroyed. The springing, almost hectic tune that results, composed from the mass-manufactured plastic format of vinyl itself, is a reminder that all recorded music – even (or especially) the meticulously played, high-fidelity sort once favoured by Bread – is a type of artifice. Plus haven’t you always kinda wanted to smash a Bread record?

No album concept has ever proved too intricate for Matmos: A Chance to Cut Is A Chance to Cure (2001) had its basis in field recordings of surgical procedures; The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (2006) was an object-based tribute to a gallery of gay and lesbian idols; The Marriage of True Minds (2013) the result of experiments in telepathy. And though these frameworks sometimes run the risk of rendering their music rather too abstract, as if each album were merely a report on a hypothesis, Matmos have also retained, as a counterbalance, a good part of punk and post-punk’s irreverent spirit. Like Devo before them, Matmos love the synthetic for its own sake. Plastic Anniversary is a salute both to plastic materials and to plastic as an idea: its convenience, its immediacy, its ebullient modernity. But present, too, is a sense of horror, for in its totality the album reminds us that plastic has escaped our control – it engulfs oceans, chokes animals, clogs landfills, permeates the food chain and accumulates, microscopically, in our bodies.

At least the sound of billiard balls is comforting, familiar. Hard to mistake that cascade of clicks as one ball hits another, then hits another, with anything else. But what would you expect synthetic human tissue, as on “Interior with Billiard Balls & Synthetic Fat”, to sound like? Like a syrup being poured? Like a set jelly wobbling? And in the absence of any knowledge of the object’s sonic qualities, how do we know what to listen for?

After the introduction of billiard balls, which can’t help but bring to mind the kind of leisurely and crowded place where you might hear them clicking, the music drops, as if through the floor beneath the billiard table, into somewhere more expansive and strange. Soft pads of melody meet squelching beats and twinkling, pin-like notes, so that the interior of the song’s title – perhaps a room, or the inside of a body, or both – becomes a kind of outer space: a plastic cosmos. It’s unexpectedly lovely, but only because you might expect a material like synthetic fat to be unpleasant.

Objects generate all sorts of social meanings in their context and function as objects, though we don’t always think consciously about these. An ATM card means economic access. A washing machine – as featured on Matmos’s previous album, Ultimate Care II (2016), named after the model of machine – means housework, and further, who might be expected to do it. But removing such an object from its usual context and repurposing it as a sound source is almost guaranteed to confound our assumptions.

In fact, the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II was Schmidt and Daniel’s own washing machine. As a romantic as well as collaborative couple, who draw upon their domestic life and possessions for their work, the duo turn queer into a verb: they queer objects, making them do all sorts of defiant and surprising things. Their personal history intertwines with their creative methods on Plastic Anniversary’s title track, the mid point of the album. “The first time I saw Drew he was dancing on a bar wearing nothing but a fish over his genitals,” an amused Schmidt recalled during a 2011 interview. “A plastic fish, it wasn’t a real fish.” And so it is that “Plastic Anniversary”, a reflective piece coloured at points by celebratory flourishes on plastic trumpet and trombone, features falling poker chips, an exercise ball, and a plastic fish jockstrap.

“The language of musique concrète was very appealing to us,” Daniel commented, during that same interview, while speaking of the duo’s formative influences. “But so was the vocabulary of techno and electronic dance music.” Their combination of experimental
techniques, kinetic rhythms and punk stringency (only certain types of object, for instance, or recordings made to a specific set of rules) grants objects new energies, almost a kind of sentence, through sound.

Take “Thermoplastic Riot Shield”, also from the new album. Like Ultimate Care II, it’s a composition made only from the sounds generated by a single object. And yes, the track clatters and thumps, as a riot shield will when it comes into contact with a baton, or a body. It’s also filled with hissing plumes, harsh whistles and an insistent bottom-end groove, like some early ’90s rave tune disassembled and then welded back together. (Listeners familiar with the work of contemporary British producer Lee Gamble, who draws upon exactly such source music for his own work, may recognise affinities.) The evocation of this era in music history is no accident, given how heavy-handedly rave parties were policed then, especially in Britain. Yet as the track develops, “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” suggests that the object itself has become the party, in some other world where police no longer enforce the law, and weaponry dances.

This upside-down, inside-out feeling is particularly vivid throughout the second half of Plastic Anniversary. “Fanfare for Polyethylene Waste Containers” features members of a high school drumline playing said containers, as if the waste bins themselves were honouring, yet also mourning, their role in holding all the other plastics we chuck into them. “Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom”, which, according to the liner notes, takes its title from a historic boast of the Bakelite Corporation to have invented this “fourth kingdom” – neither animal, vegetable nor mineral – begins with whistles and a thumping drumline, but the mood soon turns from triumphant to brittle. The artificial duck calls that quack through the piece are a reminder of what plastic has done – or rather, what we have done with it – to destroy the natural world. But they could also be the reprimands of all the plastic ducks that exist, as, adrift on ocean currents, they watch their feathered cousins struggle with gyres of floating plastic rubbish, and wonder why human beings are this awful.

The album winds to a close as “Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom” gives way to “Plastisphere”, a soundscape of churring insects, blowing winds, ocean waves and calling birds – only it isn’t, because it’s created from bubble wrap, plastic bottles, packing tape and Lego bricks. And here at last comes the emergency stretcher, on this finally bleak patch of earth, to cart away the mounting casualties of plastic.

Though it eddies its way from gleeful to elegiac, Plastic Anniversary is not, in the end, a record of despair. Matmos have too much curiosity about the world to ever succumb to hopelessness, or misanthropy, and though their enquiries are shaped by methods and materials that can be disconcerting, even grotesque, they are playful above all else. Plastic Anniversary is testament to these puckish, twisty ways; a future music made from objects that must be superseded if there is to be a future at all. And remember that we may never be rid of plastic even if we want to be: it’s already inside of us.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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