Matthew Herbert

The sound of Russian babies get the big ban treatment

Text by Felix L. Petty

Photography by Socrates Mitsios

Matthew Herbert had just been nominated for an Ivor Novello award for his soundtrack to the film Life In A Day when this interview took place. But even if he doesn't win the gong, the last 12 months have been among the one-time house producer's most successful, with last year's One Pig picking up swathes of accolades from critics. Four years in the making, the album started with Herbert recording the life of a pig, from birth to slaughter to the dinner table. Building complex rhythms out of samples. One Pig reveals how far Herbert has come from the days when he recorded dance music under aliases such as Doctor Rockit and Wishmountain.

To some, building an entire track from the "beep" of a video recorder switching off, as caught on the audio track of the recording of a pig's birth, may seem obtuse. But dig deeper and what connects One Pig to Herbert's earlier projects is his obsession with "trying to get people to listen to sound differently".

"I'm never too bothered about ways in which things are expressed, more about what the impulse was in the first place," he says. "You're trying to sneak or subvert, and engage the audience in a surprising or unique way, whether it's making house music or something more experimental. Music made from a pig being slaughtered, for example."

Needless to say, not everyone is impressed by his ingenuity. PETA described One Pig as "truly disgusting", but Herbert believes this is missing the point. "They seemed to fetishise the pig's death, forgetting it had a voice, a life, a family, a context. The pig's life was cut short, which is sad, and possibly wrong, but it seems strangely reductive to only focus on the death of the pig and does a disservice to the life that went before it. Which is ultimately what the project was about."

Any lingering suspicions that Herbert might be wallowing in death should be dispelled by his new project with his Big Band in which, as part of the Olympics celebrations, he invited hundreds of Russians to send recordings of their babies down the phone to be recorded on an answerphone.

"It grew out of the idea of trying to bypass the traditional idea of Russian cultural history and what comes along with that. It's so rich, so steeped and pointed. I wanted to think about the people, not the culture, to do something incorporating people who were born in the last year, who've still got to learn about Russia, and what it means to be Russian and what comes with that history."

Comprising Herbert and 21 musicians, the Big Band is his most orthodox project yet. But even a seemingly straightforward group are transformed by Herbert's innovative live sampling. "You're always dealing with the history of these things when you take them on. The beautiful thing about the Big Band is that it's a group of musicians co-operating, yet also having their own voice. If one of the trumpets plays a Bb, instead of a B natural, then that changes the harmony for everybody. I like that. It's an expression of community."

This current incarnation of Matthew Herbert's Big Band is a product of his relationship with the British Council, which has previously taken them to Syria. But then politics is always part of Herbert's work - his other current project addresses last year's Libyan revolution, making music from recordings of a bomb being dropped.

"All the technology I use was developed by the military, whether it's equalisation or compression, or valve technology. The Vocoder was invented to disguise Winston Churchill's voice during World War Two. It all comes out of military enquiry. The technology is interesting, but I'm actually much more interested in the idea. That you can make a piece of music out of what's been going on in Libya, rather than trying to write something on an iPhone."

The Matthew Herbert Big Band performs on 22 July as part of The British Council's London 2012 Festival

  • Matthew Herbert