It Ain’t Half Odd Mum!
On first entering the Hall it seemed surprisingly, if not shockingly, empty for a long-standing and respected act such as Matmos. One factor was that Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins was playing next door at the Festival Hall and probably drew some people who would have otherwise have gone to Matmos. However, it soon became clear that the real reason the hall was so empty was that there wasn’t much appetite for the French support act O F F Love.
A tattooed hipster in shorts with a scarf covering his face walked on and some decent but unexceptional electronica kicked in, accompanied by blurry youtube downloads of boy bands dancing. Then he opened his mouth and began to sing in sickening auto-tuned boy band style and it instantly became clear that rather than carrying out some clever pastiche or deconstruction of the style he sincerely identifies with it.
The result is neither convincing, nor incisive nor tolerable, especially after a clearly-planted and over-excited woman emerges from her seat to writhe with him while he holds a rose and sings. Before the point when I left the audience had already diminished even further.
Returning after the interval, the hall has filled out nicely. M. C. Schmidt walks on stage and proceeds to read what seems to be a parody of a self-help text. With his 1950s-style suit and glasses and his sincere delivery he creates a simultaneously homely and uncanny atmosphere. It strikes me that Matmos are playing with same mode of American folksiness that David Lynch works from.
The difference is that where Lynch takes into more pathological territory, Matmos increasingly emphasise the quirky and the playful. At one point Schmidt bangs the table he’s reading from and we begin to hear a distant bell. This slowly grows louder while he speaks and eventually we see his collaborator Drew Daniel walking down through the crowd to the stage while ringing hand bells. This was certainly a charming and stylish entrance start to the show.
What follows is quite surprising. With Daniel and Schmidt at their stations, flanked by a drummer and guitarist, they launch into what could be a recording of some early 70s cosmic jam session that went subtly out of kilter. This keyboard-led piece was very musical and at least partly sincere. Next Daniel assumes vocal duties and Matmos go briefly go metal before meandering off into more jokey territory.
In between songs Schmidt is an engaging host and knowingly comments on a new track about Alan Turing “one of yours… one of ours”. This track is the most serious of the night, backed by a tastefully grainy video of an Enigma machine and scrambled and unscrambled messages. At times it’s almost in dark ambient territory and is fairly convincing.
Yet after this brief lapse into seriousness, it’s time to quirk out again. At what seems to be the start of the next track there’s a piercing (but interesting) noise audible from the analogue unit at the front of the set-up. Daniel then seems to work on fixing it, adjusting various sounds before a video of the unit appears. While the work continues we now also see a hand adjusting controls on the screen. After a while the unseen operator turns to face the camera and we see that it’s Schmidt.
As the analogue test sounds continue, the on-screen Schmidt reacts to each new sound with various bemused expressions. As he does the real Schmidt twitches and jerks in synch with the reactions of his on-screen counterpart. It’s very well done and again it’s charming but perhaps a little too knowing and a little too lengthy.
The real party piece is much more hands-on. The video shows a male posterior being spanked and with each impact there’s a suitable live electronic sound effect. Once the track has been underway for a while Daniel walks over to Schmidt for what seems like a chat. Next a coin is tossed and as the loser Schmidt has to lower his trousers for a miked-up spanking by Daniel. Meanwhile, the guitarist has to spank the taller drummer.
At first he’s quite tentative and can’t really get a good sound but after a while he gains confidence and hits a groove. So now there is the spanking video plus two amplified live spanking sessions going on: not an image that’s easily forgotten. By the end of the piece the sounds are tight and Matmos once more prove their skill at syncopating the most unlikely sound sources. They also demonstrate the essential paradox at the heart of their work.
Despite this and other overtly kinky sexual references they just can’t help coming across as incredibly clean and nice. No matter how explicit they are, sleaze somehow washes off them.
The energy given by this track would have been a good point at which to stop, skilfully poised as it was between their playful and innovative poles. However we get an encore which most of their loyal audience lap up but which is a bit too self-consciously goofy for my taste.
The slapstick elements of the last piece lead me to re-interpret the rest of the show retrospectively: rather than understanding Matmos as a quirky part of the nineties electronica wave, maybe we should actually be interpreting them as a continuation of a much older tradition of musical comedy, albeit achieved with some very high-tech methods.
To take Matmos too seriously would be to fall into their trap. The clear and inescapable parallel that emerged for me at this show was with the work of British musical spoofs as performed by Eric Morecambe (famously once conducted by the legendary Andrew Preview) and by Les Dawson, perhaps England’s greatest avant-garde pianist.
Somehow, I think Les might just have approved.
From Speak and Spell to Laibach.