“If I had to boil it down to a slogan it'd be like, ‘Friends, not samples,’” jokes Drew Daniel of his recent music. Daniel is best known as one half of the duo Matmos, who are famous for doing extraordinary things with unlikely sound sources: a washing machine; the sounds of plastic surgery; the audio archive of a Polish avant-garde composer. In the hands of Daniel and his partner in Matmos (and in life) M.C. Schmidt, samples can do, and mean, all sorts of things. They can comment on our world, draw attention to the unnoticed, or make us laugh. But samples can also give us misleading ideas about creativity.
Armed with a laptop and the latest sample instruments, modern electronic musicians can give the impression of being entirely self-sufficient. They’re the composer, the band, and the producer, all rolled into one. But creativity is always collaborative. Our inspiration comes from the connections we make and the communities we’re embedded in. “I think we have a great romanticism about that lone genius that hides in the hut and emerges with a masterpiece,” says Daniel. “And good for the people that can do that. But that's not the only way to do things. I like collaboration, I like exchange, and I like the flow that results from it.”
The pandemic brought these thoughts to the forefront of Daniel’s mind. “COVID gave us such a long experience of solitude. And I found that solitude incredibly generative, in terms of digging deeply into the studio, but it also gave me this tremendous longing for friendship and connection and other people.”
This longing found an outlet in his solo project, The Soft Pink Truth. Taking inspiration from the extravagant disco orchestras of the past, and working around pandemic restrictions, Daniel assembled a 14-piece “virtual disco band” out of musical collaborators and friends. He sent his players - among them Schmidt and Koye Berry on piano, Mark Lightcap on guitar, Jason Willett on bass, and string arranger Ulas Kurugullu - skeletal demos to jam along to, and then stitched their contributions back into the tracks, allowing them to steer the production process in new directions.
The result was Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?, a psychedelic dance record that celebrates the good times of golden age disco while gently questioning the limits of pleasure-seeking. Buoyed by its live players and exquisitely produced, it’s a dreamy listen but also a complex one, peppered with studio tricks and subversive twists. Creatively, it’s a big step for Daniel - and most importantly of all, he can’t take all the credit.
“I could never have done this without my friends. And I think the joy that the music gives me is not about looking at myself in a mirror. It's like a group portrait.”
The album’s seed was planted a few years back, when Daniel was working on the last Soft Pink Truth record, 2020’s Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? Previously, SPT had been an outlet for strange, acerbic covers albums. There’s “a spirit of irony and mockery” to releases like 2014’s Why Do The Heathen Rage? - which gave black metal songs electronic makeovers - or the more recent crust punk homage Am I Free To Go? These albums came from “mixed feelings about genres that I love, but that politically are dodgy, or that have certain problems,” says Daniel. “I had a lot of fun making those records. I guess I'm in a different emotional place [now], for better or for worse.”
Shall We Go On Sinning…? marked the turning point. It’s a softer, prettier record, swapping the cover/homage recipe for a thicker brew of influences. The record was partly a response to the turbulence of the Trump era, and it shimmers with a sincerity not heard on previous SPT releases. It also features collaborators in a new way - several of whom went on to join Daniel’s virtual disco band. Some sketches made at the time with the vocalist Angel Deradoorian “were much more upfront and direct” than the rest of the album, suggesting a dance floor direction. “But I believed in them and I couldn't stop tinkering with them and working on them.”
Work on the new record began in earnest in a hospital parking lot. Schmidt was inside receiving medical care; Daniel, waiting in the car, opened his laptop and fired up Live. He hunted for a part recorded by the guitarist Mark Lightcap for an old Matmos track.
“I really liked what Mark was doing in this rhythm guitar take. So I put it into Simpler, chopped it, played with some of the settings, and I had this riff. Then I bounced it as audio, did “convert harmony,” turned it into a bassline, an organ part. Stretched that, put it up an octave. Then, okay, let's take the timing and send it to samples of a tambourine. Martin was with the doctor for about an hour. When he came back to the car I had made this groove that I really liked. I was going for a Barry White, Love Unlimited Orchestra kind of feeling: the arrangement keeps building, more and more instruments keep coming in. And that is the song “Deeper,” that starts the whole album.”
From there, Daniel established a working method. Collaborators would play along to his works in progress, often just “demos of basic rhythms and chord shapes.” He would drop their recordings into Live and process them using a range of tools, including Live’s Sampler instruments and the convert to harmony function. “The album would not exist, really, without convert to harmony,” he says. “I'm too stupid to listen to somebody playing guitar and go like, what's the chord? But this system lets you produce a kind of trace, and its unreliability gives you this funny little grit of chaos that you can use to grow something cool. I’m trimming this little bonsai tree of MIDI information, and getting it to grow in the right way.”
Working with collaborators was far from a linear process. Early on, Daniel created a single 25-minute track from their contributions, which he ended up “cannibalizing and demolishing” to create “a suite of seven or eight new songs.” The players might also spark new ideas. “Often I would have people sing or play along with a demo of one song, and I would take what they gave me and cut it in half. Half I would use for the original song and half I would extract and turn into, like, tissue samples to grow an entirely new song. So it became this branching structure. That's why a lot of the songs use the same chords and are the same tempo.”
In Daniel’s work with Matmos, the act of studio transformation is often laid bare to the listener. Part of the thrill comes from hearing how the source sounds have been altered. Working with his disco band, Daniel’s goals were different. Most of the tracks on Is It Going To Get Any Deeper…? put the spotlight on their live players, seeming to simply let them do their thing. In reality, a lot of production trickery went into creating these natural-sounding arrangements.
“Mostly I wanted to let the contributions [of the players] be foregrounded, and be experienced. [But] a ton of editing has gone into what you do and don't hear from each of these players. I'm processing the hell out of [some parts], but I didn't want the music to call attention to its artificiality.” Instead, Daniel tried to “trick the ear into thinking there was a room full of people playing - for at least parts [of the album]. It's an illusion.”
Throughout the album, layers of real instruments and virtual instruments are stacked for control and color
One technique involved layering his musicians with high quality sample instruments, in order to augment their playing while retaining the grain of liveness. The tubular bells on “Deeper,” for example, are a mix of SonArte’s sample instrument and a bell recorded at the house of the duo Cyclobe, while on “Moodswing,” a single trumpet line by Nate Wooley tricks the ear into hearing a synthetic brass ensemble as real. Throughout the album, Jason Willett’s bass guitar licks tag team with Studio Bass by e-instruments. “It’s a mix of things that are personal and things that are soft instruments. Stacking like that gives it a color that’s unique but controlled, too. People ask me what was played and what was done with MIDI and I kind of can’t tell anymore.”
Beneath this naturalistic veneer, the album is packed with inventive sound design. Daniel wanted these details to be “buried in the mix, things that you notice on your eighth or ninth listen” - though they come closer to the surface in the album’s trippy middle section.
The trippy “Sunwash” features copious parameter randomization with Max for Live LFOs
Take “Sunwash,” for example: a “longform psychedelic cascade of music” that reflects “the weird mixes of joy and fear that can wash over you” during a mushroom trip. The scrambled sonics at 3 minutes were made from saxophone and guitar parts loaded into a Simpler controlled by Kentaro Suzuki’s Max for Live instrument LFO-Cluster. “Simpler is getting flooded with LFO-Cluster information. Every so often you can tell it’s a sax or a guitar, but that just keeps getting scrambled at the level of panning, of pitch, of tuning and detuning information, of filtering.”
Daniel often stacks Max for Live LFOs to give his parts complex, irregular movement. Assigning them to the parameters of notched EQ bands in EQ Eight can give sounds a shifting, mirage-like quality. On “La Joie Devant La Mort,” Jamie Stewart’s vocals are underpinned by a clap that stutters and stretches oddly: the effect of hooking both the sampler and a delay plugin up to numerous LFOs. There’s a crucial extra step here: by bouncing the results to audio and then editing them, you can capture this chaos in a controlled way. “You listen to the results and then decide, well, how much [chaos] do I want? Because sometimes it's just going to explode on you, and it doesn't sound good.”
Elsewhere on the record, Daniel employs a classic Matmos technique: using well-considered samples to bring a world of ideas into the music. For the track “Moodswing,” he took a bottle of Veuve Clicquot to Baltimore studio Tempo House. We hear the popping cork at the start of the track; from there, the groove builds luxuriously over white noise washes of pouring, fizzing champagne. A few minutes in, the flow is interrupted by smashing glass, signaling a switch to a darker mood.
“I was trying to pursue an ambivalence about pleasure, an ambivalence about dance music,” says Daniel of the track’s narrative. “Wanting the ecstatic peak, but also: look at the fucking world we live in. We're on this one way street towards petro-capitalist extinction. It is not a time to forget everything and party. But precisely because it's not, there's a side of us that really wants to. And the champagne fantasy of disco is incredibly appealing, but it's appealing to an escapist side of me that I also have to think about critically. Something like the arrangement of a song can be a way to think about that.”
“Moodswing” features champagne fizz wandering in and out of the arrangement
Pleasure, and the indulgence of it, is key to Is It Going To Get Any Deeper…? For all its challenges, Daniel describes the album-making process as “mostly just me having a complete ball, getting lost in the forest of loops.” Long form disco tracks - he cites the Moroder-Donna Summer classics, and the long mix of Eddie Kendricks’ “Date With The Rain” - produce an “ecstasy that you want to just keep going and keep going. Loop-based sampling environments are the ultimate example of that. And they give the most pleasure perhaps to the people creating the music, because you spend hours inhabiting a way of being in time that's both temporally marked and yet feels endless - because the loops will never stop. There's seemingly no limit to the pleasure that that gives me. And not just me, if the history of electronic music tells us anything.”
In fact, Daniel says, the pursuit of pleasure drives his life more broadly. Aside from his musical career, he is an Associate Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. This double existence makes him stressed and time-poor, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I like to make records, and I like to tour, but I also like to give lectures, and I like to have conversations with young people about ideas. And I like to sit and stare at a poem for a really long time and try to think about why it might move someone after hundreds of years. I don't want to sacrifice either way of living.”
At the same time, doubts linger.
“Anything that you do, it's going to satisfy you and give you joy, or you shouldn't do it. But there's always going to be a limitation. There's always going to be a [question]: Is that all there is? I think that kind of searching is permanent. I'm 51, so I'm old, but I don't really have lessons about life,” he giggles.
With its title suggesting both possibility and disappointment, and its lush-melancholy music, Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This? seems to be probing this doubt. If there’s a lesson behind the album, maybe it’s that pleasure is most meaningful when it’s shared.
Text and Interview: Angus Finlayson