For the members of the electronic duo Matmos, the Annex Theatre's recent production of Ubik was more than just a chance to see Philip K. Dick's story of psychic warriors and corporate espionage brought to the stage.
In it, they saw the driving concept of their new album, The Marriage of True Minds, serve as inspiration for artists in another artform. Concepts are key with Matmos, a band that has used found sounds to craft songs dedicated to influential historical figures and assembled an album from the recorded slurps and gurgles of medical procedures.
"It was just fun to suddenly be [watching] a play in which telepathy is a core plot device, because obviously we've been obsessed with telepathy for the past couple years," says Drew Daniel.
Telepathy isn't so much the theme of the new album as it is the means by which it came to exist. During the five-year stretch since the last Matmos album (Supreme Balloon), Daniel and his musical and life partner, M.C. Schmidt, placed around 50 people-friends, relatives, fellow musicians, and willing volunteers-under the Ganzfeld experiment, wherein participants wear headphones playing white noise over their ears and ping-pong ball halves over their eyes as a soft light shines down on them.
The sensory deprivation allows, in some cases, for hallucinations or psychic imagery to appear in place of the white space engulfing the eyes. Parapsychologists believe that the experiment opens up a pathway for extrasensory perception and that messages can be sent to people under Ganzfeld conditions.
As Daniel and Schmidt used this experiment on, for example, local musician Ed Schrader, the choirmaster of Keble College in Oxford, and all manner of other people, Daniel would be in another room, trying to transmit his theme for the new Matmos album. They requested that participants say what they saw, and it was from those transcripts they got material for the new album (more on that in a bit).
Did it work?
"I'll say this-and I haven't said this to anyone before-there were sessions where people hit it quite exactly that I didn't use on the record. And there were sessions where people were way off that we did use on the record," says Daniel. "But there is one song in particular that is very, very close to what I was thinking-like, really close. And I won't say which one. One of them is hiding in plain sight, it's the answer."
Schmidt sits up in his chair in the couple's Charles Village living room. "That's news to me, what he just said."
Because beyond that information, Daniel isn't revealing the theme to anyone, not even Schmidt. He doesn't want the record to be used as proof by people who believe in ESP or those who don't. But there's also a thrill in having a secret accessible to no one, he says, likening it to the Marcel Duchamp sculpture With Hidden Noise, where a round circular object was bolted shut by two metal plates, forever trapping the "noise" inside.
"It's a hard line to walk, right? Because I don't want to be full of shit, but I also don't want to get tempted to reveal something when revealing that actually will shut down the field of meanings that I'm hoping to keep alive," says Daniel. "But it stays alive if it's speculative. Yeah, I don't want to close it off. But I also don't want to just seem like I'm being coy."
Schmidt cuts in with a playful impersonation of a stoner: "It could be anything, man."
"He's being like an art student," Schmidt continues. "I taught for many years at an art school and, yeah, the nightmare of some kid makes a piece of shit or just does some stupid thing, and you're like, 'Soooo, what's this about?' and they go, 'What do you think it's about?'"
They both laugh.
"Maybe I shouldn't talk anymore," says Daniel. "I've already said," in an adopted faux-snooty tone: "'It's like a Duchamp sculpture.'"
"If I read that, I would want to barf."
The results from the sessions were not all usable. Some would hardly say anything-"It's like a boring car trip"-while others would tailor their responses to what they thought sounded ideal for a Matmos record, such as "quantized clicks," a term very specific to electronic music.
One thing that kept coming up was triangles. This could be for one of two reasons. While in the other room, Daniel says he would form a triangle with his hands and press it against his head before trying to transmit his message. But they soon realized one of the last things subjects saw before having their eyes covered was the tripod holding the video camera used to record the session.
"I mean, in England, in Baltimore, in the other ones we did, people visiting Baltimore who weren't from Baltimore, fucking triangles, triangles, triangles," says Schmidt. "For me, in a weird way, that's the purest use of this concept as a generator. It's seriously like, 'They're feeding us this shit.' Like I mean, it's a genius idea Drew had: 'Let other people make the decisions.' Like, 'Oh, triangles? Cool. So I'll make videos with triangles."
Herein lies how the translation worked. Some of the recordings were used for vocal samples. "Very Large Green Triangles," for instance, features Schrader singing and describing what he saw, and "In Search of a Lost Faculty" has samples of multiple people describing their vision of the shape during session.
Daniel and Schmidt used this information to inform the instrumentation throughout the record too: Many of the songs break down to the clanging of two triangles.
In certain cases, they followed the transcripts exactly. Other times, they would be interpretive, as when "metal brackets" were taken to refer to handcuffs or shackles, which they then found online and used to record rhythms.
"Even though there's a certain conceptual germ, we allow ourselves to free-associate out of the transcript for some songs," says Daniel. "Some songs are very literal and really constrained. Others are very loose."
Along those lines, certain songs, such as "Mental Radio," are faithful to one particular transcript, whereas others, such as "Tunnel," pull from multiple sources.
Bookended by covers of Holger Hiller and the Buzzcocks, The Marriage of True Minds has everything from Baltimore Club beats to doom metal to surf rock woven into its tapestry. Even with its throw-in-the-kitchen-sink use of genre and the very specific nature of its concept, the album's densely packed soundscapes swirl, pulse, and envelop, forming moments that are some of the most arresting and accessible in Matmos' body of work.
In the Baltimore music scene, they found plenty of willing collaborators, in both guest musicians and people willing to be test subjects, to make it so.
"I love this about Baltimore: People are down," says Schmidt. "The music community here, I think it has something to do with like the free improv infection of all scenes in Baltimore. I don't quite [know]. But people are just, 'Yeah, sure.' They say yes before they've even heard what the commitment is. And that's wonderful."
As with many other Baltimore bands, Matmos found a home for the new album on Thrill Jockey, the venerable Chicago indie label that has made a habit of signing some of Charm City's top talent, including Arbouretum and Future Islands.
Turns out, in the process of going through the possessions of Louisville musician Jason Noble, who died in 2012, someone discovered a note Daniel had sent to Noble back in 1995 asking him to pass along a demo tape to Bettina Richards, founder of Thrill Jockey.
"It's kind of funny the long cycles and the time things take sometimes to happen, but they do happen," says Daniel.
The message found its way to the intended recipient, even after all those years.