Dismissing art-school shenanigans would be a lot easier if it weren't for exciting acts like Matmos. On a walk around the San Francisco Art Institute campus in early May, the college appears pregnant with morose, self-indulgent senior projects. Photographic self-portraits line the walls of this sprawling, multistory campus embedded into the North Beach hillside. A human sculpture made entirely of Cap'n Crunch guards one hallway. It's finals week and everyone's done being creative. Time to drink cheap beer from paper bags and cry "I'll miss you!" into horn-rimmed glasses before summer internships begin. "Abandon hope," reads an enormous quilt.
But hope cannot be abandoned down at the hidden Studio 9 a huge concrete foyer stocked with two hundred art kids waiting to see the famed musicians and Björk collaborators known as Matmos.
The SF-based duo of Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel released their fifth full-length album, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, on Matador in early May to rave reviews. An international tour awaits this summer and fall. The two jam with well-known acts such as Kronos Quartet when they're not opening events at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles or New York's Whitney Museum. They are the musical bridge between the academic ideas of the "sound as art" world and the visceral passion of pop music. And today, they're going to demonstrate how to play a cow uterus like a bagpipe and make it into a booty-shaking club stomper.
Dressed in slacks, tie, and a blazer, like the Art Institute instructor that he is, Schmidt, 42, stands calmly before the crowd and tests a microphone. It's pointed at a nasty white thing in a big plastic bag lying on a silver oil pan. Schmidt welcomes the curious and eyes his partner, 34-year-old Drew Daniel, who double-checks the laptops and mixer settings, then tests his huge keyboard by running his fingers down the white keys.
The hillside location creates an upper deck around the two, and Schmidt's two dozen "Sound as Art" students line the balcony with drumsticks, vacuum tubes, and bouquets of roses for the show. Their final exam consists of performing in the biggest Matmos ensemble assembled since the two began collaborating in '98.
Silence falls. Schmidt holds the plastic bag up to the sun and the audience, and introduces the instrument a formaldehyde-soaked, five-pound reproductive tract from a baby cow. (Obtained via bovine insemination catalogues, because practice makes perfect.)
Schmidt scissors open the top of the bag and the bleached, glistening length of womb, birth tract, and black, hairy vagina flops onto the oil pan. The instructor dons elbow-length surgical gloves, inserts a reverse-flow vacuum hose into the labia, and kicks on the pump.
The white bladder inflates. Showtime.
A couple weeks prior, at Schmidt and Daniel's burrow in the fun part of San Francisco's Mission District, the two unpacked the layers of meaning behind the bovine-uterus-based song "Tract for Valerie Solanas." It begins with the film I Shot Andy Warhol, featuring the life of radical feminist Solanas. Prior to shooting Warhol, the childhood sex abuse victim wrote The S.C.U.M. Manifesto an influential tract that called for the destruction of the male sex, and all man-loving females to boot. A tragic figure, Solanas eventually died mad and penniless of drug abuse and disease at a San Francisco hospital. So moving and bizarre is her story that she became one of ten subjects Matmos selected for the new album's "sound portraits." The duo researched subjects like William S. Burroughs, selected not-so-everyday objects from their biographical research, and built up pop music from scratch. It's a concept album to the tenth power, which just so happens to contain some thrashing surf-guitar twang, bouncing club beats, and kickass ragtime ditties.
"At the end of the day we consider ourselves pop musicians," Schmidt says. "We're superhappy with being the 'crazy sample band.'"
Daniel demurs. He just finished his three-hundred-page Cal English Literature dissertation on the subject of melancholy in stories. The more sensitive and shy of the pair, Daniel is a meticulous live performer who hates it when things don't go smoothly, which they rarely do. It's this push and pull between pop sensation and ivory tower erudition that energizes The Rose and the couple's relationship.
"We have an ongoing struggle with not doing this for a living," Schmidt explains. They could make more money either working full-time or moving away from the fringe of musical tastes, but "the roadway is littered with the bodies of people who tried to sell out," he says. "It's obvious what to do. Get a singer. People want a singer."
"But singers take up all of the interesting mid-ranges," Daniel laments. "And besides, there's voices all over this record."
Back at the Art Institute, Schmidt grabs the birth tract in one hand and pushes on the inflated womb with the other. Sick, slurping queefs emanate from the labia, which the microphone delivers electronically to Daniel's sampling board. He digitally compresses and stretches the emanations, pitch-shifting and delaying the sample until chunky, slushy beats emerge. The foyer crowd starts to rock like a club. Heads nod. The art kids start to smile and dance.
Up in the balcony, Schmidt's class reads aloud from The S.C.U.M. Manifesto's indictment of the time potential feminist revolutionaries (e.g. women) waste eating! playing with themselves! popping pills! traveling! raising dogs and cats! watching TV! listening to music! decorating their houses! sewing! nightclubbing! dancing! visiting! improving their minds! taking courses and absorbing culture! lectures! plays!
The show goes on for an hour. Bongos and vacuum tubes converted to didgeridoos appear, then more dancing and laughing and clapping and a few showers of rose petals. Matmos is rocking the art world to its foundations. "He expanded my world of music," graduate student Lauren Woods said. "I thought it was going to be all electronica, but he really took us back to basics."
"He had me bring in my grandfather's clock and pair of pliers," noted fellow grad student Kelly Yount.
"And I made an entire song out of the sound of me scratching myself," said Woods, who suddenly looked around. "Uh, you weren't supposed to know that."
Ahh, art-school confidential. Matmos can make anything fun.