May 6, 2008
US CD Matador OLE 799
US 2xLP Matador OLE 799
Far Too Much Information about Supreme Balloon:
What follows are some pointers and backstory about the songs on the new Matmos album "Supreme Balloon". When there are no editors in sight this sort of thing can easily go on for far too long so please proceed with caution, especially if you are squeamish about gear porn and namedropping. As Matmos albums go, this one is not about strenuous conceptual gymnastics but the simple enjoyment of traditional synthetic cuisine served in an informal atmosphere.
Song by Song Anatomy:
The arcs of rising and falling pitches that start this song reminded us of a rainbow, and the title stuck: any resemblance to fluttering symbols of homo-nationalist pride are side effects. People have asked us about the Latin kitsch aspect of the song, and we plead guilty to a great love of the Richard Hayman "The Genuine Electric Latin Love Machine" Moog novelty LP from 1969. Having lived in the Mission District of San Francisco for seven years up until our recent move to Baltimore, we have had enough casual exposure to actual Mexican and Salvadorean music to know that this bears only the faintest relation to the real thing. Keith Fullerton Whitman contributed some tasty squelches and zaps from his Doepfer modular synth to brighten the corners, but not everything on here is that high-tech. Consider the lowly stylophone, a handheld novelty instrument popular with British schoolkids that was immortalized during the rave era in the cheesy techno banger "Stylophonia" by the fabulously named UK crew Two Little Boys. The stylophone that is played on this record was sent to us in the mail by a well-wisher and we thank him for this unexpected present. We are even more grateful to Safety Scissors, who forgave us when M. C. Schmidt broke his MS-20 filter knob by tweaking it too vigorously while recording the "horn" part of this song. It's all been patched up now.
The Stylophone and the Korg MS20
Drew made this song by himself while M. C. was away in Los Angeles. Drew knows nothing to speak of about the mechanics of notated musical composition; the Redd Kross song "Notes and Chords Mean Nothing to Me" is a bit of an anthem and nearly made it onto the last SPT punk covers album. Thinking to improve himself by addressing this deep character flaw head on, he bought A Guide to Guitar and Piano Chords while in a Nevada City music shop during a family car trip. A chord progression was dutifully assembled and chopped up out of its pages. A virtual "Autoharp" MAX patch was programmed and made to jump through the chord progression hoops via a video game controller and voila! Try to imagine majorettes twirling batons and leading a marching band in full parade dress when you listen to this one.
One of the MAX/MSP Patch made for Polychords
Thanks to the matchmaking of Ben Rogers at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, in 2007 we played a collaborative improv concert in Los Angeles with Marshall Allen, and he generously agreed to play a solo for us on the EVI (Electric Valve Instrument) to use for this album. The EVI is an electronic instrument that controls an internal synthesizer with brass fingering and sensors that detect air pressure and lip pressure, and it is one of Mr. Allen's signature instruments that he plays with great power in his solo concerts and with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Our pal Frosty at Dublab recorded a stinging 20 minute EVI solo and passed it along to us and we chopped and chomped it into a pop song. M. C. Schmidt added a lot of meaty ARP 2600 parts (cousin to the synth used in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and mixed it down. This one is really fun to play live and tends to drift onstage into a faintly pornographic direction.
Here's a picture of an EVI, though this, we're pretty sure is not the same model as Marshall is playing...this picture is stolen from http://www.patchmanmusic.com/NyleMIDIEVI.html
Exciter Lamp and the Variable Band
This song is dedicated to Norman McLaren, a Scottish artist famous for the animated films he created with the support of the National Film Board of Canada. Space prohibits us from summarizing McLaren's incredible art in a tiny liner note; seek out the DVDs of his collected works and gasp in awe at the generosity of his innovations in pixilation, optical printing, abstraction, and, most importantly for us, innovative techniques for the graphic construction of sound that he invented by drawing directly onto the audio track of film (similar in effect to Daphne Oram's "Oramics"). We told Jay Lesser that he should go for a heavily swung rhythmic feeling in homage to the tap dance rhythms of McLaren's score for "Mosaic" and he obliged with some ridiculous programming in Ableton Live; Drew used the Tassman software program that allows the user to model virtual acoustic objects, making percussive sounds intended to emulate steel and glass objects colliding in space. M. C. added the idea of quasi-covering "O Canada" in referential thanks to McLaren's lifelong host country. This song ends with a gurgling solo blast created by the Coupigny, a one-of-a-kind modular synthesizer built in 1961 and housed in the INA/GRM studios at Radio France. With some camera help from our pal David Serotte, M. C. Schmidt has made a homebrew video in homage to Norman McLaren for this song which revisits some of the techniques used in McLaren's own work, especially "Lines Horizontal". Apparently, unlike his overt socialism, McLaren's queerness is under-discussed, but it makes this song into something of a continuation of the homo-portrait gallery imperative behind "The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of A Beast".
The Mighty Coupigny
Les Folies Francaises
We met Sarah Cahill when we all performed on the same bill in honor of Terry Riley's 70th birthday, and we were amazed at her performance of a Terry Riley piece for four hands. Martin created a sound on his Korg MS-2000 that we thought would be suited to her speed and dexterity, and that it might be cool to see what happened when applied to a piece of baroque music. We went to her house and she played many different compositions for us, from experimental modernist composers to early music, and we decided together on this selection from the French baroque composer Francois Couperin. There is a nice subterranean link to "Rainbow Flag" in that "Les Folies Francaises" is itself sub-divided into a color-coded series of variations; if our French is not playing us foul, it seems that each section is named after a different colored mask worn by the lovers whose affair it represents, and the complete piece covers the color spectrum.
Korg MS-2000 (with a set list from our Lincoln Center performance)
The music for Les Folies Francaises
When we were in Rome rehearsing with new music ensemble Alter Ego and Terry Riley for a performance of "In C", we noticed a music shop across the street from the theater that sold African and Asian instruments. We went in and were seduced by the Radel "Taal Mala" drum machine, a device that uses analogue synthesis to replicate the sounds of the tabla. This little box comes with many preset "Taals," the traditional beats which serve as the rhythmic spines for the extended performances of traditional Indian music, but they can be re-tuned and sped up or slowed down like an 808. We started to improvise on top of these patterns and the jams kept getting longer and longer and more and more open-ended, losing track of time as the sequencers kept cycling over and over. The result was a flowing late-night improvisation on top of these patterns in which Drew held down the rhythmic bedrock and M. C. played free solos on top on our Roland SH-101, Roland V-Synth, Korg MS-2000 and ARP 2600 synthesizers. Though we have edited and layered some new material on top, the overall arc of this piece was played live. It is intended as an homage to many kinds of music that have inspired us both at different points in our relationship. When Drew met M. C. for the first time the space music of Klaus Schulze, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream was a frequent soundtrack for hanging out and it seems to have returned here; the music of Terry Riley was what we were rehearsing day after day when the first raw materials for this piece were assembled. At a certain point we felt that it could use some voice-like element, but given that we had committed to not using any microphones on the album at any time, we knew that vocoders were verboten. The "voices" at the end are being created with a "Flame" Midi Talking Synth being run through a Boss VT-1 Voice transformer pedal.
The Radel Taal Mala, the Roland SH-101 the Roland V-Synth and the Flame MIDI Talking Synth
This piece began as a collaboration with Nate Boyce, a video artist and frequent touring member of Matmos and one third of M. C.'s other band, the synth trio Phase Chancellor. Nate laid down some gnarly growling vocal textures from our Korg Mono/Poly and they were chopped up into rhythms for an as yet unreleased Matmos song whose working title (as these things tend to go) is "MicroLatinNateVoxxx". M. C. Schmidt played a spacey, mellow melodic line along with those beats, but we found that we liked it better when we stripped it down to just M. C.; later Jon Leidecker aka "Wobbly" contributed some more boops and gloops and we were done. Sorry Nate! We still love you, but we've chosen ambience.
The Korg Mono/Poly (This picture was stolen from http://www.thehiddentokyo.com/otemachi-00.html)
The artwork for this album is the result of some behind the scenes meddling and collaboration. The soundfiles for the bonus track "Hashish Master" (see below) were sent to our pals Brian Whitman and Tristan Jehan of The Echo Nest Corporation, a hardy crew of benevolent computer geniuses from the MIT Media Lab who work in a programming intensive manner on the manifold relationships between music and meaning (whew!). They crunched our song and produced a graphical representation of it (it's a "waterfall plot of timbre coefficients", if you must know) which we passed on our to other friend Robert Syrett, who produced a delightful watercolor rendition of the song, and then used it as a landscape over which M. C. and Drew are floating in The Supreme Balloon. Robert's art work is deservedly celebrated in savvy circles of ever-widening diameter, and the resulting combination of digital and analogue representational techniques seemed to us like a useful visual rendition of what we were up to on this album. Plus it's really pretty, and was made even more so by the capable fingers of Rex Ray, who layed out the many different formats and helped us to follow through with our logo idea and who put up with overhearing a lot of couple fights. Way to go, talented/gullible friends!
The Skinny on Those Fancy Bonus Tracks:
We met Terry Riley at a concert in his honor in which we played our piece entitled "For Terry Riley", which was itself built out of samples of the Kronos Quartet playing his early composition "Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector" (the same s how where we first encountered Sarah Cahill referred to above). A few years later, after getting to know him a bit through friends in common we finally got up the courage to ask him if he would play some keyboards for our synthesizer album and he generously invited us to visit him at Sri Moonshine Ranch, his rural seat in Northern California. We brought our ARP 2600 along and set it up in his studio and he played some wickedly fast improvisations for us on an ARP patch that Martin created on the fly that had a weird, tangy tuning. As soon as a quasi-Arabic melodic figure emerged, Terry suggested that we were "channeling the Hashish Master of Skunk Hollow" and the song title seemed inevitable. We then chopped up and manipulated Terry's solo and built it into a song which we often play live in a more "heavy metal" arrangement for synths and guitars. Given the slightly ominous heaviness of the resulting song M. C. felt that it didn't quite fit the overall mood of the album. Drew pouted and made it into a vinyl only song and a downloadable track available online so that listeners can choose for themselves whether or not it fits. The Master stands alone. There is in fact a neat historical association between hash and the enjoyment of keyboard playing, as evidenced by Theophile Gautier's pen and ink drawing of J. J. Moreau de Tours playing the piano inside the infamous Parisian gentleman's haunt Le Club de Hachichins, drawn under the influence of hashish.
Primarily built out of one of Drew's MAX patches, this rather sentimental number features Jay Lesser's rhythms and a four hankie tearjerker of a melody by M. C. Schmidt. The title is (we think) the Russian word for "winter" and its weepy, depressive nature might have led it into the Siberian exile of bonus tracks.
This homage to the squelchy acid techno of yore has been obsessively re-worked so many times that it has become something of an illegible palimpsest, folding in so many synth overdubs and trick sy edits by Drew, M. C. and Jon Leidecker that it's no longer clear to any of us just who played what when. There is an alternate universe in which this song forms the basis of The Soft Pink Truth's live cover version of the The Jungle Brothers immortal dancefloor burner "Girl, I'll House You", but this version heads into a more celestial direction.
This is essentially a solo M. C. Schmidt track, and was constructed by layering the same ARP 2600 and Roland SH-101 figures over and over at different tempi while subtly adjusting filters and parameters. It was originally intended to be the first track of the album, and has a circular, canon form (not to claim coolness by association, but one clear reference point for us would be the song "Ceres Motion" by Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co.). Appropriately enough given its pacific nature, it also appears on the "Peace (for mom)" compilation released as a tribute in loving memory of Marilyn Whitney, the mother of Jon Whitney, our generous host at Brainwashed.com.
The Spiral Slice
This is the rarest of the bonus tracks and is found only on the Japanese CD version of "Supreme Balloon". It is also the most "rock and roll" of the songs made for this album (or at least Drew likes to think so), and is constructed out of some throbbing low end sounds sourced from Keith Fullerton Whitman's Doepfer modular synth and a shredding, ear-piercing high-end set of sounds created by Safety Scissors and M. C. Schmidt on the Electro-Comp 100.
The Electro Comp 100 (center)
The new album from Matmos finds the dynamic duo taking a holiday from conceptual responsibility, skipping the outre sampling antics in favor of a lighthearted "cosmic pop" record made entirely out of synthesizers. Leave it to Matmos to invent a hard and fast rule that they have to follow even when they're just having fun: the creative restriction this time around is that "Supreme Balloon" is an ALL synthesizer album and no microphones were used at any point. That's right, no household objects played in a percussive manner, no snails or blood or amplified semen, no acoustic instruments, no voices of famous people for five seconds, not even any half-way cheating with Vocoders, just synthesizers of all shapes, sizes, eras and nationalities being snipped, folded and reshuffled by an arsenal of samplers and computers into colorful sound-origami.
Gear fetishists take note: the exotic and antiquated synths used on the record heavily spotlight the classic 60s/70s/80s consumer electronic rigs of Arp, Korg, Roland, Waldorf and Moog, and feature modular systems from Electro-Comp, Doepfer and Akai (hell, even a stylophone and a Suzuki Omnichord show up); these were recorded at home in San Francisco, California and in the SnowGhost studio at Whitefish, Montana. But there are also completely unique, one-of-a-kind modular curios present, such as the "Coupigny" modular synthesizer housed in the INA/GRM studios at Radio France in Paris and used extensively by some of the titans of musique-concrete. Guest players invited to the party include living treasure of American jazz Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra (he plays the E.V.I. or Electronic Voice Instrument, a breath controlled oscillator, on "Mister Mouth"), Bay Area troublemakers Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly), East Coast electroacoustic sages Jay Lesser and Keith Fullerton Whitman, and classically trained pianist Sarah Cahill. Plus, our roll-call of the good and great would be remiss if we didn't mention that the gatefold double vinyl and ITunes edition of the album also includes the bonus track "Hashish Master" that features a guest solo synth improvisation from none-other-than minimalist mastermind Terry Riley(!). Though it was recorded all over the world over the last two years, the whole shebang was finished in Baltimore, Maryland (the band's new home, at least as long as Drew Daniel is a professor in the English Department at Johns Hopkins University), and comes encased in some truly gorgeous watercolor artwork by Robert Syrett.
To break it down: the album drops with a bumpin' front end of four rhythmic workouts (perky, stomping, toe-tapping, and shuffling, respectively) that coach Perrey & Kingsley and 8-bit video game music and kitsch Latin Moogsploitation into some freaky positions. Then things take a classy European vacation in which the baroque composer Francois Couperin's "Les Folies Francaises" is given the Wendy Carlos treatment. Then the band turn a corner into unexpected, ambitious new territory and things swell to a truly ridiculous/heroic climax. The jewel in the crown is the album's title track, a 24 minute monster synth jam that builds from a lone Roland SH-101 wobbling your sub-woofers into a celestial, psychedelic epic whose spiraling arpeggios recall the sidelong LP-era mind-journeys of Cluster, Mother Mallard and Vangelis. Riding an insistent tabla pattern courtesy of a "Taal Mala" drum machine from India, warm, bubbling layers of analogue synthesis, and the chattering and chirping of MAX patches shaking hands with boutique EFX pedals, it's a long strange trip indeed. Things cool down with an ambient air kiss and it's over.
We know you're probably shaking your head and thinking to yourself, "an electronic band makes an all-electronic album? These guys must be CRAZY." And you'd be right. Consider this revenge for all those Queen records whose liner notes said "And nobody played the synthesizer!", and a sweet surprise from a truly unpredictable American band.