INTERVIEW: Drew Daniel on living in an Italian castle, suicide, and plastic!

You may recognize the name Drew Daniel from any number of his musical projects from Cerebellum/Crain to his solo hip-hop act Pope Lick, in some small ways the precursor to his dance music alter ego as the Soft Pink Truth. But let’s be real: you know Daniel from his work with the acclaimed duo Matmos, who’s indescribable work is playful, clever, and peerless. It’s that dedication that led the pair to work with Björk on her records Vespertine and Medúla. His contributions are many and storied, both musically and academically; he’s exactly the kind of interesting person that we love to talk to here, and guest correspondent (and longtime friend to Daniel) James Miller was pleased to have an opportunity to catch up. Sample Matmos below, and read on living in an Italian castle, suicide, and plastic!

Never Nervous: What were you two crazy kids doing in Italy?

Drew Daniel: Improbably enough, we were asked to apply for a “composition residency” at Civitella Ranieri, a sixteenth century castle in the Umbrian countryside in Italy. We don’t think we are composers (we are a band that tours and puts out records), but the jury deciding about musical matters decided we were worthy and the result is that we have been given five weeks to just live on the grounds of this castle in a recording studio built into a converted pigsty. We’re working on two different Matmos albums and I am working on a scholarly book too, so we keep busy.

“We don’t think we are composers (we are a band that tours and puts out records).”

The castle is inhabited by fifteen other “fellows” (poets, painters, composers, diplomats, architects) who are delightful. The whole thing is quite surreal; you truly feel that you are living in some kind of chivalric daydream. It’s hard to believe this is reality. The castle has old paintings and spears and murder holes in the battlements to pour boiling oil on attackers and a crypt where the aristocratic family is buried and bright green lawns and banks of flowers and ticking grandfather clocks and it’s all just a bit much really.

NN: You were recently in Louisville to remember your stepfather, Martin Sussman, who passed away in March. Tell us about him and why he was important for Louisville.

DD: Marty ran The Vogue Theater for many years, and during his tenure he turned it into a space that hosted underground culture, live performances (punk rock to juggling), silent movies, art films, and programming that was deliberately open, inclusive and almost aggressively cultured. Through his programming, and his staunch defense of the kids who hung out at his business, he treated Louisville as a place that had smart, passionate and diverse people. He didn’t condescend to anyone and he was pretty brave about what he would put on. You would have bikers coming to see Blue Oyster Cult concert films followed by a gay dudes going to see Derek Jarman movies with maybe a Charlie Chaplin matinee. Marty advocated for culture at a time when there was some staunch resistance- especially when fundamentalists picketed the Vogue and charged pornography for showing “Last Tango in Paris”.

NN: You’ve written a book about melancholy and the Renaissance, a book about a Throbbing Gristle album, and essays about topics such as “queer minstrelsy” and black metal, among other things. Tell us about your latest book project.

DD: It’s called “Joy of the Worm: Genres of Self-killing in the Age of Shakespeare.” It’s a literary critical book about a wide range of attitudes towards self-killing in the English Renaissance (this was before the invention of the word “suicide”, hence my slightly odd locution). I’m curious about scenes of suicide within literature and art that somehow reach toward but fail to achieve tragic grandeur or seriousness; I’m especially interested in how genres can kind of sag and warp or distort under certain kinds of pressure, and the result is suicidal camp or suicidal slapstick. It’s a messy and sometimes funny book on a serious, dark subject. In the process of working on that book today, I have had to ignore a beautiful, sunny summer day in the countryside, closing my curtains to remain indoors and think only of the lonely deaths of people four hundred years ago. This book has itself forced me to take up the attitude of the suicidal, to track and inhabit their manners, obsessions and often cramped but strange and sometimes magically vibrant worldview. It isn’t necessarily a healthy thing to choose to do.

NN: You wrote a song about suicide, “The Fuse,” when you were in Crain. Have you grappled with melancholy, depression, and suicidal ideation? What would you say to anyone going through those struggles who’s having a hard time perceiving daylight on the other side of darkness?

DD: Sure. Like a lot of queer people, the effect of social marginalization is internalized self-hatred. That’s a burden that is the flipside of the “pride” dimension to being in a minority. It’s hard to talk about without becoming cliché but you should realize that your emotions change as you change. Jennifer Hecht makes a good argument in her book “Stay” that you owe the future version of yourself the right to make other decisions. You have a debt to the future in the present. That argument will work on some people and it won’t work on others. I don’t want to advocate survival in all contexts, because how do I know how much someone other than myself is suffering? I don’t. But for me, I’m glad I survived because my life took forms I never could have imagined. But that doesn’t give me the right to force other people to make the same choices I made.

NN: For some people, Louisville is only a place to escape. For others, Louisville is and always will be home. It seems that you don’t fit neatly into this dichotomy — although you left Louisville for college and never moved back, you cite its influence, usually speak of it fondly, and return for visits. What’s good and bad about Louisville (or maybe “Louisville” as you perceived it during your formative years here in the 1980s)?

DD: I loved so much about Louisville growing up, and the pain and trouble I felt was so mixed in with the great stuff that it’s hard to know sometimes where one starts and the other ends, or whether you’re being truthful when you tell old stories of your adolescence. I was and remain deeply inspired by people I knew and was friends with, but I was also in the closet and struggling with lots of unhappiness and rage without outlet, living a double life and lying to people all the time to keep the closet going.

It sounds so cliché to drag out the old phrases about “punk rock saved my life,” but yes the idea that kids can create things for each other on their own terms and that what they made was not just honest but actually compelling and powerful, sometimes even Art with a capital A, makes me feel lucky in retrospect- but it didn’t give me the courage then to be out or honest in certain ways. Who knows if my life would have been better or worse had that happened? In any event I’m glad I didn’t get murdered while cruising Cherokee Park, and that I lived to tell after taking certain risks.

I think the terrible reality of how segregated Louisville was then (and maybe still is now? I don’t know) [editor: yes it is] only became apparent to me when I left Louisville and moved to Berkeley, California, where race and diversity are explicitly engaged and on everyone’s minds all the time. It’s not that Kentucky was somehow “worse” than the rest of the US of A, but that my own blinkers were up when I was in the midst of some still valid, still transformative experiences of DIY hardcore self-empowerment, and only later did I really grapple with what should have been apparent to me all along. So the good part and the bad part is people.

NN: Would you say there’s anything uniquely good or bad about Louisville people? What was it about that era that incubated so many interesting projects and people?

DD: Honestly I think a certain defensiveness that came from cultural and geographic isolation was a good thing. We didn’t have an easy pathway to Los Angeles or New York and we didn’t have the internet disseminating a version of what was cool. Things came down second or third hand and got to mutate a bit more? I’m not sure I can be objective about that era, but it was at a point when the original rules of punk rock were sufficiently distant and decrepit that other forms kinda broke through.

“We didn’t have an easy pathway to Los Angeles or New York and we didn’t have the internet disseminating a version of what was cool.”

NN: Matmos is well known for its concept records and exploration of musique concrète. You constructed the last record, Ultimate Care II, out of sounds made by your washing machine and even took the washing machine on tour with you. Is there a concept for the next record? If so, what is it, who chose it, and why?

DD: I have chosen it. It’s going to be made out of plastic objects. I think about history and survival and the stubborn longevity of objects a lot, because of my work as a Renaissance literary scholar and something about knowing that our cups and bottles and plastic wrap will be circling the oceans of the planet for millennia as microplastics just gives me this weird cold sad angry feeling that I wanted to amplify and work with. Maybe it’s the flip side of the joy that playing with Legos as a child gave me, of plastic as the ultimate flexible material that served my will? Plus it’s a kind of formal challenge: our associations with plastic are mostly negative and sonically it’s not the most promising of materials either. So the “challenge” aspect appeals to me too: what are we going to do with this?

NN: Any idea about the timetable for the recording and release of this new record? And can you tell us anything about upcoming Soft Pink Truth projects?

DD: No idea, because you just don’t know how obsessive and detail-oriented you’re going to get. We can add so much to the music and then cut a lot away and start over, and we do that over and over again. So it’s hard to predict. Same with Soft Pink Truth- it’s such detail oriented music that it takes me a long time to make something that feels up to snuff. But who knows? I might get tackled by some weird idea that holds me hostage and won’t let go. I’m almost 50 so I don’t even know what business I have making dance music and maybe that’s a good thing because it means it’s going to come out all wrong.

NN: In an interview with Interview, you said “we’re like a band that’s been infested by a couple,” and in regards to an upcoming 20th anniversary show you said “in gay years, that’s like 1,000 fucking years.” Give us some anecdotes from your daily lives that will also illustrate the reasons for your long-lasting relationship.

DD: Oh God, it’s hard to talk about without collapsing into that “smug married” vibe that I think is gross. As a child of divorce, I definitely don’t want to suggest that lasting a long time is necessarily a good. It is if you’re happy, it’s not if you’re not. Break up if you are miserable, people! Really! Your kids won’t resent the divorce more than they’ll resent a chilly, loveless home. That’s my cranky gay thought on the subject. But as for us: we overlap with each other a lot with respect to tastes, habits, preferences, druthers. We complete each other’s sentences, order the same stuff on the menu without knowing in advance that that will happen, and that kind of pseudo-telepathic mindlock is just the result of two and a half decades of nearly constantly being together. There’s not a lot of distance between us and that is good and bad too.

“Break up if you are miserable, people! Really! Your kids won’t resent the divorce more than they’ll resent a chilly, loveless home.”

NN: If you do a Google image search for “Matmos,” some pretty adorable, amusing, and/or attractive results come up. Although Martin almost always has this quasi-formal, mid-20th-century, pervert-scientist-librarian aesthetic, your appearance varies from photo to photo. Do appearances matter to Matmos, to you, or to anyone else? Should they?

DD: When you’re a band, it’s part of the promotional lifecycle that you do photoshoots. Martin is a bit like Charlie Brown at this point. You find what works for you and stick with it. He found a kind of early 60s Burroughs / youth minister look and held on and it works for him and for me. I’m mostly just eager to avoid that gay couple as matching pugs kind of effect, where you both wear plaid and have beards and wind up looking like Salt and Pepper shakers or something. Where style is concerned, I just want to be a counterpoint to Martin if possible. I think appearances matter if you’re going to perform or be up on a stage. You should be worth watching. But that doesn’t mean you need to be conventionally “attractive” or whatever. Find your zone. I’d rather watch Gwar or people in corpsepaint than skinny models with guitars. I do kind of like it when people don’t look like what they sound like. That’s cool. William Basinski is a great example here. Totally drop dead fabulous. Not some nerd in a grey cardigan (like me).

“I’d rather watch Gwar or people in corpsepaint than skinny models with guitars.”

NN: Tell us what you’ve been reading, listening to, and watching recently.

DD: Reading: Octavia Butler, Paul Muldoon, Marcel Benabou, Wayne Koestenbaum, Petrarch, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Adam Phillips.

Listening: Laurel Halo, Napalm Death, Umfang, Loscil, Kate Soper, Max Eilbacher, Morton Feldman, Rrose, Siege.

Watching: the sunset, Twitter, our relentless and ongoing national decline.

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