Electronic pioneer Matthew Herbert conducts the night club audience as though we are his human orchestra. Dressed entirely in black with a decibel counter under his watchful eyes, he is master of ceremony at the Avant-garde Robert Johnson night club in Offenbach, Germany.

The producer and conceptual artist is orchestrating a strange focus group to sample sounds for his latest musical project, One Club. The album is an attempt at democratising electronic music, to give his most avid fans the chance to participate in the creation of each bleep and beat. We have been warned microphones are all around us – on the ceiling, in the toilets and on the lapels of a fellow clubber.

The audience is asked to kiss the person next to them, to jangle their keys, to stamp their feet, to dance, to laugh: to club. We are told to rattle the change in our pockets once for each of the £10,000 in our pay packet, to whistle in different ways to denote our sexual orientation, to shout out the name of the political party we voted for. The album will be played for the first time at the Robert Johnson on Thursday, 8 July. Herbert will also perform at in Britain at the Big Chill and Green Man Festival in August.

“One club is designed to be both a functioning body of dance music in its own right, but at the same time a celebration of the temporary communities that come together weekly around the world in clubs. Since the record is made entirely from sounds recorded in one night at a German night club, the audience is implicated directly in the outcome of the music and hopefully stronger links are made between the DJ, the music itself and the act of dancing,” Herbert says.

“For a long time now, clubs have accepted a corporate version of reality, with excessive branding and sponsorship, yet reluctant to acknowledge the potential political or social power implicit in large numbers of young people gathering in public places. The One Club project is intended to offer an alternative version of that relationship between the audience, the building, the locality, the political, the performer and the music.”

He told me after the two hour recording: “I was surprised how much pleasure they got from being told what to do. It transformed the space. It was really hard work keeping the momentum going and getting the sounds in a clear enough state to use them. Also, I wanted to record what is really there not to manipulate what’s there. It’s not a laboratory, it’s a night club. With a music studio, significant amounts of money is spent on shutting the real world out. Sound proofing suggests we’re frightened of the outside world where it is inconsistent – but you would record atmosphere.”

Herbert first performed live as Wishmountain in 1995, using only a pepper pot as an instrument. Since then his music has always been conceptually driven – he has driven a tank over a cooking dish and shot it to get a sample. His dance record Bodily Functions was a global success.

At the same time his label has been lauded for its individuality. The Invisible, winners of the 2009 Mercury prize, released their eponymous album through Accidental. Herbert has been described by Paul Morley in The Guardian as a “restless militant outsider musical progressive in a culture increasingly cuddling up to conformity.”

One Club is a ten track dance record which will mark a return to Herbert’s most well known and commercial sound. But is so much more. It is the second of a trilogy of ‘One’ projects which are a departure from the grand, extravagant and awe inspiring Matthew Herbert Big Band project because each record is constructed around a single concept: One One, his most intensely personal record to date; One Club, due to be completed this month; One Pig in which he documents an animal’s life and death.

Transcending the mundane
Each contains the DNA of the Herbert Manifesto: high concept and hand crafted, catchy and compelling. To understand this trilogy – as will all of Matthew’s work – we are invited to examine the handiwork. Like an antique chest of drawers, to know if this is genuine you have to remove the drawers, turn them over, look at the quality of the joins, the hinges, the varnish.

I met Herbert for the first time in a antiquated hotel in central London. He wanted to talk to a reliable journalist about an audacious international political stunt he had performed – but which had gone unnoticed by his intended audience. Herbert has been invited to contribute to the “idents” for the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow last year. When he came to producing the musical introduction for Israel – he decided to include the samples of the gunfire aimed at innocent Palestinians, grinding tanks and the seemingly euphoric sound of water drops. His intelligent, high risk, moral statement had fallen almost entirely on deaf ears.

And so Herbert is consciously a political performer. The website for Accidental counts the number of estimated dead in Iraq, his “One Life” from the album There Is Me and There is You produces one beat for every 1,000 killed following the invasion while Battery is an ode to British resident Bisher Amin Khalil-al Rawi, tortured in Iraq after being arrested with a battery charger.

However, the musician avoids tendentious agitprop and argues that being a member of a party or group is “the antithesis” of the Herbert manifesto. He is also conscious of the limitations of his own ability to preach to a club audience. “I do sometimes think I am battling against a lot of engrained ideas about what music is and what it can do. People out on a Saturday night do not necessarily want to be challenged about the world.

“There is definitely a sense in the dance music world that I am a party pooper because I don’t just want to have a good time and take drugs, or whatever. There is definitely a valuable place for that kind of sense of transcending the mundane contained in electronic- but it should not only be that.

“People do not think of music being political unless it is left wing. But 50 Cent is talking about using violence against your enemy, oppressing women and making money – they are the same messages as the government. Within the new music there are no overtly political songs – it is all there but it’s much less obvious. For me it is as honest as I can be.”

Tastes, sights and sounds
To understand the political message of Herbert, you need to look beyond bold public statements and lyrics. You need to know that the beats which represent the dead in Iraq are sampled from the bleep of the life support machine of his first child, born prematurely and lucky to be alive. As he says: “It is very easy to say the war is shit, or to catalogue the number of people who died. But what is harder is to represent the personal, which is why the beats in that song are from when my son was in intensive care.” The message of the manifesto is the mode of production.

I arrive at Herbert’s home studio down a idyllic side-street in the newly fashionable Kent seaside town Whitstable and immediately stumble over a microphone angled into the basin of the toilet and another into the sink. The mics are recording the sound of water swilling down the plughole to add the finishing touches to Rowdy Superstar’s first album.

This is vintage Matthew Herbert. There is a manic, almost compulsive drive to record the world around him. This is explained in part by the fact his father worked as a BBC sound engineer. However, the enigma of Herbert is to be unlocked further back into his family tree.

One Club is a fascination in the production process, as is everything Herbert has created to date. Not just in terms of sound engineering, but in the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the smells and tastes, sights and sounds which aggregate into human experience. This informs Herbert’s interest in ethical consumerism, his opposition to war, his meticulous research for One Pig.

Of his early childhood, he says: “I grew up without at TV, we never had one in the family home. My days were filled with playing different instruments, making stuff, drawing. I started piano from the age of four – and played all the way to university.”

Mode of production
Later in the conversation, he adds: “Nobody crafts anything any more. We do not make a table made by a person, we do not know how to recognise a good table or a bad table. My great-grandfather was a master coach-builder and I brought him a table I made at school and the first thing he did was turn it upside down and say it was crap – but he was right. I had not even varnished the bottom.”

The Herbert experience of the world is alienation and Herbert’s music is his resistance. Like Sartre, he is conscious in every moment he lives of the way people no longer love or own what they produce. They no longer ‘make things’. And the commodities which are produced appear alien and hostile. The companies that produce are inhuman and destructive. Herbert’s is not a reactionary, agrarian romanticisation of handicraft. He clearly has no moral difficulty with embracing the new. Instead, the music has the ring of authenticity, of human creativity: it is a call to arms for quality.

Capitalist mass production, capitalist alienation, has destroyed the craft of music, he suggests: “All musicians are using the same samples and techniques – it’s a bit like a giant Lego club and everyone’s given the same blocks and same wheels and everyone is told to build different cars out of the back of it. You are distanced from risk, from the humanity of it by which I mean life is a pain in the ****.

“People today are interested in the product, not the process. We do not see where our food comes from. I recorded at a landfill site and it is one of the most depressing things in your life: Around 90 metres by 90 metres of landfill and they dig it 30 metres down. They fill it hundreds of metres above ground level and that’s just one year’s rubbish from Canterbury. In Whitstable, Hatchards is 150 years old and they replaced it with Costa. Capitalism is the replacement of historical with the ahistorical, with the asocial. And we have no idea where the coffee comes from.”

So with One Pig Herbert will archive through sound the process of a pig being born, slaughtered, butchered and scattered through the capitalist mode of production: drum skin, bone flutes, toothbrush bristles will produce the sounds for the recording. Informed by Christien Meinderstsma’s book PIG 05049, Herbert expects to follow body into paint, heat valves and 185 other products – including bullets. The allegory, as with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is resonant.

An edited version of this article appears in the latest edition of Red Pepper, available online for a very reasonable £10 a year subscription.

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