Go Deeper

Bang On a Can Marathon artists join forces on new album Treasure State

Posted July 14th, 2010

A collaboration between So Percussion, a quartet of Yale School of Music-trained drummers, and Matmos, a musique-concrète duo of self-proclaimed crackpot, self-taught, DIY-ers is not as unlikely as it may seem. Matmos member Drew Daniel cites “a lot of overlap in terms of their love of hitting things and our love of hitting things and a shared sense of joy in creating music out of traditionally unmusical materials” as what brought them together for their new collaborative album Treasure State,.

The album, which came out last Tuesday on Cantaloupe Music, is the product of five years of “hitting things” together. The partnership began when Jason Treuting of So Percussion sent a blind e-mail asking to meet Drew, who had reviewed So’s recordings of David Lang pieces for KALX where he DJed. The musicians jammed that day not on guitars but on aluminum objects, and that recording eventually became “Aluminum,” the seventh track on Treasure State. The album’s title is a nod to Montana, where the two groups recorded at SnowGhost studios, but the moniker also refers to the state’s mining history, which evokes the spirit of the album–the visceral percussiveness of banging on things and the discovery of hidden qualities below the surface of everyday objects.

“We don’t fly with the cactus, for obvious reasons,” says So Percussion member and Mt. Airy resident Josh Quillen, on taking their “instruments” on tour. That’s right, they play the amplified cactus, the main source material for the track “Needles.” That name also does double-duty to pay homage to the town of Needles, California, alluding to an underlying theme of the album which is a portrait of the American landscape. Matmos’ history of sonic portraiture —their 2006 record was an ode to gay writers—and So’s background of improvising in old barns—grabbing old railroad ties and oils barrels to drum on—informs the tactile collage that makes up the tracks on Treasure State.

Click more to find out how plastic surgery, semen, and the amplified synapses of crayfish nerve tissue fit in.

The album seeps beyond the borders of America at times, like on the title track, “Treasure,” a Martin Denny exotica-inspired romp that sounds like a love boat drifting through the jungle, with Josh playing steel drums and all members “standing around the microphone making monkey sounds.” “Shard,” a song made from the sounds of ceramics, came as a result of a trip the bands took to Fienza, the ceramics capital of Italy.

“We had a workshop thrown open to us of perfectly good looking ceramics that were apparently flawed in some way,” says Martin Schmidt of Matmos, on the phone from Germany where they are currently collaborating with The Forsyth Company on a dance project where the dancers’ movements generate sound. Good thing those ceramics were flawed to begin with, too, because as the track’s name suggests, a bull- (or percussionist-) in-the-china-shop situation was unavoidable. Josh says that for breakage reasons they don’t often take the Italian pots on tour with them, but that American ones work just as well:

Home Depot pretty much has a specific pitch set—we spend a lot of time there with sticks, getting a lot of strange looks.”

Finally, nothing brings you back to the “American landscape” like Bud Light. On tour the groups played “Aluminum” as their encore, drumming on the empties from the beers they had drunk during their set. Josh explains that unfortunately they found that really bad beer cans sound the best.

If the idea of a concept album scares you . . . well, you’re a wimp. But Treasure State’s kinetic energy and elemental textures are very much accessible–“No one’s going to have to get out of the bathtub to turn it off,” says Martin–especially when compared to some of the artists’ past works. In Matmos’ previous work they’ve sampled such oddball sounds as plastic surgery, semen, and the amplified synapses of crayfish nerve tissue. So Percussion made a name for themselves tackling pieces that require feats of athleticism by David Lang, Paul Lansky, and Steve Reich.

Part of the album’s accessibility comes from So Percussion’s desire to avoid the possibility for pretentiousness that four Yale degrees inevitably carry with them, Josh says as he mimes straightening up his tie. It was also very important to Martin that the source materials for the music be identifiable to the listener. “I feel like given what you can do to a recording of anything with current audio software and hardware, there’s not much point in recording all these silly things unless you can actually audibly recognize what they are,” says Martin. In this way, the simple, denotative track names help to decode the sounds that the average listener’s ear might not be tuned to. At the same time Josh acknowledges that for some listeners those concepts behind the sounds will be the initial attraction to the music: “The fact that you’re playing really difficult music on it isn’t as important as the fact that it’s a cactus.”

“Music is an interesting art form in that you don’t know how people are going to be using it or listening to it, and you have to just sort of throw it out in the world,” says Martin. He recounts how Bjork, whose albums Vespertine and Medúlla Matmos helped produce, decried doing movies as opposed to music because it’s “more functional, its part of your life.” It’s true–it’s much easier to remember the songs you made out to in high school than the plots of the second halves of the movies you made out to. If Martin could choose the ideal listening environment for you to take in Treasure State, however, he says it would look like the Maxell guy“sitting in a chair facing the two speakers, and the music is so loud and so killer that his cocktail is falling over and his eyelids are blowing back.”

Maybe this September when So Percussion and Matmos share the stage at the Live Arts Festival’s 600-minute mega-concert Bang On A Can Marathon, it might look something like that.

–Ellen Freeman

Photo of Matmos by AJ Farkas. So Percussion photos by Janette Beckman. Treasure State album art by Robert Syrett.