In an era where very few musicians dare to give their views on controversial issues, Matthew Herbert is one of the outspoken few. Having become known for his innovative use of field recordings – his projects display the idiosyncratic traits that those methods bring to the fore. His new album is a prime example. The final part of a trilogy, One Pig, tracks and records the entire life of a rudimentary farm animal – from birth to plate – a life that is bred purely for our own fulfilment. The piece uses elements of the pig throughout – a drum made of its skin, an instrument which uses its blood – to show where we’re willing to go in order to make money. It’s a critique of capitalism but also of our removal from any such world. It’s due to show at Deloitte Ignite, curated by Mike Figgis – at the Royal Opera House on September 2. We spoke to Herbert to find out the thought behind the piece and to see how it would translate into a live setting.
Dazed Digital: How does ‘One Pig’ fit in with the rest of the trilogy?
Matthew Herbert: I wanted to make a record out of one thing, but I couldn’t decide what that one thing was. So the first record was just me; the second was one I made in a German nightclub, with a group of strangers; and then the third is made out of a pig, a living thing of which I know very little. The trilogy is about moving further away from the idea of the artist having an all knowing perspective. It’s in line with a shift that seems to have taken place in our society of the individual taking precedent over any sense of community. I think the artist has followed that shift and we’ve become quite self-obsessed, so I’m trying to get out of the studio into places of risk.
DD: Why do you think that shift has taken place?
Matthew Herbert: It’s an inevitable product of capitalism, which prioritises the right to make money over anything else. When people want to make money they think less about the consequences of their actions. And especially in this society, we’ve become utterly and wholly divorced from the consequences of our actions. You might be going to a conference about some kind of ethical or cultural debate and go to the café at lunchtime and there’s some chicken that’s been injected with pork fat or you eat pork from a pig that’s lived in a concrete stall for its whole life. The consequences of our choices are hidden from us. The government has exported industry, it’s also exported pollution, human rights violations and everything that goes along with it. We’re so removed from those actions that we’re now in a pretty dangerous place. It’s the job of artists to close that gap.
DD: Is that the main theme behind this piece?
Matthew Herbert: Yeah. I eat meat, and the older I get the less comfortable I am about that, but I do eat meat and I thought it was important that I understood the consequences of that. It’s quite a metropolitan presumption to the whole record – if I lived on a farm or a more rural area then it would be less of an issue but living in a city we just get everything from a shop. We don’t see these things in action. For me, a lot of my music starts with an underlying principle that I’m out to inform myself. And, hopefully, in the process of making that public, share some of the things that I’ve learnt along the way.
DD: How is going to translate into a live setting?
Matthew Herbert: Well we had our first rehearsal last week so I’m clear on some aspects and baffled on the others! The biggest problem is the pig – there’s obviously a huge absence at the heart of it. So what we’ve done is built a musical pig sty in the centre of the stage. You can play the frame of the sty and that generates the noises of the pig in a remembrance of it. Then we’ll have musicians on the outside playing, in more ‘musical’ ways, but just pig noises. For me the whole show will end up more with remembering a time, rather than an explicit demonstration.
DD: Is the idea that throughout the show the space that the pig leaves will become more and more obvious?
Matthew Herbert: It depends: you have to ask the audience! It’s one of those things where you set up a series of circumstances and you’re never quite sure of what the outcome is going to be. It was the same with making the record: I had no idea of how it would sound until it was finished. With the live show you have to do something as morally and artistically appropriate as possible and hope that some of the intention makes itself known. It’s going to be chronological though, I know that much. It seems like the most logical path to take.
DD: Why weren’t you present at the death?
Matthew Herbert: The vet didn’t let me. We only found one that was going to allow us to record and the vet who attends said it wouldn’t be possible for us to record. It’s a very secretive industry, obviously when you’re killing vast amount of animals – in America alone they kill 72 million chickens a day. They’re killing a lot of animals and it’s a pretty closed and peculiar world with people who are fairly suspicious of the intentions you might have. I think it’s disgraceful in this day and age to be expected to put these things in our bodies, but not have any right to know how they’re made. The fact that I wasn’t allowed to do it annoyed me, artistically, but politically it felt wholly appropriate for me to be able to see what they’re doing.
DD: How did the festival appearance come about?
Matthew Herbert: I’ve known Mike Figgis on a fairly casual basis for a number of years. I think he’d heard some of my music and we had a conversation when I told him about the pig record and he was up for it.
DD: Anywhere else?
Matthew Herbert: Yeah, we’re going to Italy and Japan where we’ll be using local chefs at some of these places. It won't be a huge tour but we’ll take it around.
Matthew Herbert will perform One Pig at Deloitte Ignite on September 2.