As Herbert gets ready to bring his grooves to Trabolgan, he tells Don O’Mahony about his anti-Brexit project and happy memories of previous visits to Cork.
Brexit has been an infinite source of absurdity but amid its attendant chaos it may not have been too ridiculous to suggest the best person to deliver it would have been musician, DJ and producer Matthew Herbert.
When the British voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the Trabolgan-bound artist initiated his ambitious Brexit Big Band, a project which saw him collaborate with over a thousand European musicians; embark on a tour across the continent; and release an album, The State Between Us, on March 29, the day the UK was scheduled to depart the EU.
He delivered, showing the organisational flair and imagination lacking in Britain’s politicians. Naturally, it’s not a role he would be comfortable with.
“It was important to me, I guess a source of pride as well, that even though we’ve got a hopeless and pretty malicious, small-minded government that we could still do our bit. Like politicians aren’t the only people that can have plans or that can do things. And it was important to me that we deliver what we said we were going to do when we were going to do it,” he reasons.
When the UK accepted an extension to that date in March, Herbert stuck to his self-imposed schedule and released his album on the appointed date. And while the dust from the Brexit fallout has yet to settle, Herbert just wishes to move on and concentrate on more pressing social and political issues.
“I realised actually Brexit is just a joke anyway,” he fumes. “It’s a huge con trick and it does nothing to solve the real problems that we have in our life. And actually I want to get on and talk about the other stuff. I want to talk about climate change and inequality and social justice and lack of funds for public health care and education. All the problems that we face as a country, particularly around climate change, and actually Brexit is just a huge expensive distraction from those real problems regardless of which way you voted.”
Remarkably, Herbert is something of a lone voice among musicians in terms of addressing the pressing social and political issues of the day in his work. Where the late 1970s and 1980s saw orchestrated efforts like Red Wedge, Artists Against Apartheid and Rock Against Racism, this era of political chicanery, conservatism and xenophobia has produced nothing comparable. Herbert’s take on this is typically considered.
“There’s always people engaged but I think that it just coincides with the instability now of being a musician.
He tells of his publisher getting a multi-page pdf statement from a record label on behalf of another artist, with a cheque for £200.
“We get no money from streaming; gig income is under threat. The only real money that people can still get paid is with brand partnerships and commercials and syncs and things like that. And that obviously has a really diluting effect on the power of music because adverts want you to buy stuff. They don’t want you to call for revolution or they don’t want you to really change the status quo. They just want you to keep buying stuff that they make.
“So musicians now are as insecure as everybody else, as Deliveroo drivers.
Since arriving on the scene in the mid-to-late-‘90s under the moniker Herbert, a producer of deep house, he quickly developed into the artist known as Matthew Herbert, a creator of more ambitiously conceptual records such as 2005’s Plat du Jour, a sonic collage commentary on the food industry created from sounds culled from all facets of food production, and 2013’s The End of Silence, an entire album composed entirely of a five-second audio recording taken from the battle of Ras Lanuf in Libya.
It feels like an absurdly big question to ask him if music can change the world but it’s to his credit that he does not demur.
“I’m not sure I would do it if I didn’t think it could. I think the problems are so important right now. You know, we feel fascism making its way. The language of fascism, we hear it in the mainstream now, coming out the mouths of Fox News reporters in America and out of Daily Mail journalists’ mouths and the cover of the Daily Express and things.
“And the sort of hatred and the division that’s there, the problems are so urgent that I don’t think I could just make music to play in hotel lobbies, just like wallpaper.”
Matthew Herbert’s approach to music may always be forward-looking but he confesses to having many memories of the legendary Cork club Sir Henry’s, which he first played at back in 1997/1998.
“Sir Henry’s is still like this mythical place. And I’m 47 now and part of me wonders whether I even invented it, whether I dreamed it, because it was a long time ago now.
“I think it might have been the first time I played or possibly the second time. The flight was diverted to Dublin because there was a hurricane and a taxi driver drove me at 110-miles-anhour down from Dublin, down to Sir Henry’s. It cost £250 in the taxi. And I just went straight on the decks and played a record and played the last 55-minutes.
And it was about community. The memory of it is really empowering actually in the age of Spotify.
“And something like Sir Henry’s is a real counter to all of that, which is you get a couple of people, like the Fish Go Deep guys, you get those guys and a friendly venue and you build up a community of people, teaching them about music and sharing a love of music and growing together.
“It’s always a brilliant reminder that club music doesn’t have to be banging techno as well, that it can be slow and spiritual as well. It’s definitely in the top three clubs of all time in my thirty years of doing it.”
Matthew Herbert appears at It Takes A Village in Trabolgan on Friday May 10.