Acupuncture for music lovers: Matmos

Björk collaborators Matmos take an acupuncture break.

MatmosonLettermanIt’s karmic that I encountered Matmos in my acupuncturist’s office. They look ordinary enough, but you know just by listening to their albums that if anyone is entitled to claim the word “alternative,” it’s this gay San Francisco electronic-music duo.

Appropriately, by weird coincidence, when I called licensed acupuncturist Joseph Chang one weekday to see if I could get him to stick his needles in me after work, at that very moment, Matmos boys Drew Daniel and M. C. (Martin) Schmidt were occupying the two tables in Joseph’s place, the House of Qi, just around the corner from the Jon Sims Center for the Arts. “Come on over early, Joseph said, and I’ll get them to hang around for an interview. Bring your tape recorder.”

It helps to have such pull, especially when your interview subjects are in the midst of a world tour along with icy-hot music goddess Björk, serving both as her opening act and as her band. The day I met them, they just happened to back in town for a short break during the middle of their tour. They had come to Joseph to get body tune-ups and energy overhauls in preparation for the next leg of their journey.

They’re just regular guys, but they’re not. They’re sexy and sweet natured, confess to naughy behaviors, and brainy but not show-offy (at least off-stage), and they welcome the chance to talk about acupuncture.

“Keep in mind we’ve known Joseph since he started acupuncture school,” said Drew, the younger of the two young lovers. They’ve been letting Joseph poke them all these years. And that, too, is an odd fact in light of the fact they both are the progeny of medical doctors. Nevertheless, they have a healthy respect for Joseph’s profession, and a particular fondness for Joseph’s methods.

When they’re in town, they both regularly come to Joseph for treatments, and he lovingly pokes and prods them and twists and massages them to move their qi (chi) around and get them feeling refreshed. His treatments have been instrumental in Matmos’s stunning, meteoric rise to fame.

They do things with sounds you wouldn’t expect, generating all kinds of strange clicks and beeps and electronic hisses and pops and rhythms that somehow coalesce into listenable albums. Their mixing abilities and odd choices in instruments are what got them noticed by Björk, and why Matmos is now recognized as one of the most creative forces in the New Music genre.

And they have Joseph to thank for one of their hits, the piece they open all their solo sets with, and that’s prominent on their latest album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (Matador). It was from Joseph that they acquired a key noise-making instrument for the song ur tchun tan tse qi, Chinese for “acupuncture point detector.”

“At one point in the process of becoming an acupuncturist,” said Drew, “Joseph used as a teaching aid an acupuncture point detector that helps you find acupuncture points. The way it works is that you hold a metal rod in one hand and you move a pin across your skin – your skin is completing the circuit, and your skin is more conductive at acupuncture points than at other places on your body. This machine makes little clicks, and the closer it gets to an acupuncture point, the more clicks and faster, and it makes this incredible noise. We thought, wow, this noise is really cool. Can we borrow that? And we made a song entirely out of it.”

“It was so long until we returned it that we bought another one,” added Martin. Basically we stole it.”

Joseph produced one of the devices for my inspection, but the boys quickly dismissed it as inferior to the one they stole.

“We looked for other acupuncture point detectors,” said Martin, but none of them made the right noise. This one was perfect. So we pretty much stole his technology, and we use it every night on the Björk tour; it’s the first song of our set when we open for her.”

As Martin spoke, Joseph ran the device over, in and around one of Martin’s ear’s, and the thing occasionally beeped at an annoyingly high pitch.

“Right now everything is kind of healthy,” said Joseph of Martin’s health, as determined by the beeps (and his extensive knowledge of how to interpret those beeps). “But the lungs definitely make more noise. The liver is healthy. Stomach is good. Beep! Ah, the kidney has something, so you need to cut down on salty foods.”

Drew winced at the sound, and shook his head. “The version we have makes these pops and clicks like bacon frying,” he said. “It sort of goes from being rhythmic to being tonal. The clicks are so constant it has tonal qualities, and the higher the pitch the more conductive it is. And I sample that and build up a song.”

The duo pride themselves on bringing blatant homoeroticism into their act, and the Acupuncture Point Detector helps them do it. On national television, they’ve been captured by cameras indulging in blatantly homoerotic music making, as Drew sensuously runs the device over Martin’s skin, lovingly producing the kinds beeps and groans that distinguish their songs.

“We do it macro,” said Martin, making a gesture with his thumb and forefinger. “It only shows this much of my skin at a time.”

The album liner-notes for A Chance to Cut presents their technique more dryly: the song “Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi” is “composed entirely from sounds generated while measuring the galvanic response of Martin’s skin to a constant flow of electricity. Changes in pitch are produced as the detector pin moves closer to acupuncture points.”

This is just the sort of techno-geek speak much appreciated by New Music enthusiasts. Dry and to the point.

For those not attuned to the niceties of electronic music in the 21st century, keep in mind that melody is out, rhythm and tonalities and textures are in. When you buy a Matmos album, or go to their show, you’re not expecting violins; you’re expecting all manner of weird devices employed in ways that have nothing to do with their originally intended uses.

Apart from the Acupuncture Point Detector, the boys gather sounds from actual liposuction surgery, refractive eye surgery, and plastic surgeries (rhinoplasty, endoscopic forehead lift and a chin implant, all performed in California); a hearing test booth; pieces of human skull, goat spine, connective tissue, and artificial teeth; and the plucked and bowed cage of their late pet rat Felix.

As they confess on their website (vague-terrain.com), presenting such eccentric music live on-stage present extraordinary challenges. They have “survived on-stage computer malfunction and recalcitrant helium tanks” in locations as diverse as Paris, London, New York, Stuttgart, Lausanne, Frankfurt. Their sound effects alone do not make a song; the success they enjoy comes from a strong sense of musicality mixed in with a desire to channel distortion in interesting directions. It’s their technical skill – sampling, sequencing, mixing, editing – mixed with their keen music sense and a smattering of guitar and keyboard effects that keeps their sound sharp and distinct, if not for the masses, at least for all those unemployed computer geeks searching for inspiration. 

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This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, November 22, 2001