“The Marriage of True Minds,” the forthcoming album from the electronic duo Matmos, could very well come with an owner’s manual. The back story is almost as circuitous and dense as the music.
It’s an unwieldy tale, but here goes. Over four years, band members Drew Daniel and Martin “M.C.” Schmidt conducted psychic sessions based on the Ganzfeld experiment. Test subjects were put into a state of sensory deprivation by covering their eyes with Ping-Pong balls and instructed to listen to white noise on headphones. They were asked to describe out loud what they saw or heard as Daniel attempted to transmit “the concept of the new Matmos record.”
The resulting transcripts became the foundation for “The Marriage of True Minds,” which Thrill Jockey Records will release on Feb. 19. Matmos will give a sneak preview of it at Tuesday’s show at the Sinclair.
You must be wondering the same thing: Who comes up with this stuff?
“That would be me,” Daniel says cheerily on speakerphone from the home he and Schmidt, who’s also in the room, share in Baltimore. “Martin and I take turns, and he had been in charge of ‘Supreme Balloon’ [Matmos’s 2008 album], so it was my turn. I was reading a book that was describing the Ganzfeld experiment, where people were to stare at a white empty surface for 10 or 12 hours to see what happened to their minds. People started to experience colors and shapes and forms, and I thought it was really interesting and the kernel of a songwriting process. We went into it with just curiosity, and four years later the result is a pretty elaborate monstrosity.”
That’s putting it mildly. “The Marriage of True Minds” is a truly mind-bending album, recklessly careening from one genre to the next in search of a deeper exploration of the notion of telepathy. You can discuss it for hours on end, but it’s better to just listen to it. It’s not about its makers so much as the visions of its test subjects, which included both strangers and friends.
“The point of the record, really, is what happens when you let people open up and just feel what’s on their mind,” Daniel says. “It’s sort of the opposite of individual self expression. It’s really not about Martin’s feelings or my feelings. I hate to call it this, but the album kind of is a social network. We did the same thing over and over again with lots of people we didn’t know or have a history with. That’s where it takes on the feeling of a clinical experiment.”
“I think you can safely summarize it by saying we were science-y,” Schmidt says, before poking a hole in the common description for the high-concept music Matmos has made since its 1997 self-titled debut.
“We sometimes have a problem with the tag ‘experimental music,’” Schmidt says. “Honestly, we do a lot of experiments, but the music we present in the long haul is not really experimental. It’s more like the result of experiments. There are experimental musicians who say, ‘I’m going to set up this condition and record the results,’ and that recording is what you hear. I admire that sort of thing immensely, but that’s not what we do. We’re not that brave.”
Stylistically, the nine songs on the new album are scattershot, from pulsing electronica on the opening “You” to the death metal that rumbles on the closing “ESP.” Latin percussion punctuates “Mental Radio,” and “Tunnel,” featuring the voice of fellow Baltimore raconteur Dan Deacon, charges headlong into a mutant strain of techno. Taken as a whole, the album is a lesson in wrangling harebrained ideas and matching them to sonic backdrops.
“I did in fact let the album get away from me, and Martin was the one who grabbed the reins,” Daniel says. “About a year and a half ago, I thought maybe we had the record, and he felt like it wasn’t psychic enough, wasn’t true to the concept, and that I needed to keep pushing. I’m really glad that he did that. Part of the trouble is knowing when to stop. We wanted a record that felt like a cohesive experience and didn’t exhaust people.”
“He had made a bunch of songs that were vaguely about some of the transcripts,” Schmidt explains. “What he had put together was very approachable but not true to his awesome original concept. His idea was so strong that I didn’t want it sold short.”
Given how much the record is dictated by its concept, you have to wonder if someone can approach it cold, oblivious to its backstory.
“Like a lot of our records, it has to work both ways. If someone reads about it, and it’s so pretentious — again, like a lot of our concept records — it better deliver,” Schmidt says. “The music has to deliver and sound like the story we’re telling.
“In a way we’re weird performance artists as much as musicians in that the idea and the story we tell you and the music are all the same thing,” Schmidt adds.” But there are a lot of people who are utterly divorced from the packaging. We’ve had to get used to the idea — which I think is healthy — that the music can stand up on its own.”