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Armed with a washing machine, Matmos breaks typical sound barriers

Matmos, the Baltimore experimental music duo, have created a new album titled "Ultimate Care II" using sounds produced on a washing machine. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

A Matmos composition can come from anywhere, even the most ordinary corners.

Standing inside the basement in his Charles Village home, M.C. Schmidt runs his index and middle fingers under a running faucet, and then vigorously rubs the top of his washing machine. On a computer nearby, his partner, Drew Daniel, cues up similar recordings of the resulting sound — a curt, high-pitched screech. A rhythmic beat is layered on top, and suddenly the elements coalesce to create a knocking rhythm that sounds vaguely familiar, but also brand new.

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It’s just another day of writing and composing for Baltimore’s Matmos, the experimental electronic music duo whose new album — “Ultimate Care II,” released today via Thrill Jockey Records — was made entirely with sounds produced by their washing machine (the title is the appliance’s model name). The album, their 10th, continues Matmos’ journey as two musicians forever fascinated by sounds that often go unnoticed by others.

Matmos produced as many sounds from their washing machine as they could think of.
Matmos produced as many sounds from their washing machine as they could think of. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

To Schmidt and Daniel, who've been together professionally and romantically since 1993, anything audible is a potential building block.

"We're not good at ignoring sounds," Daniel, 44, said inside the couple's living room recently before offering a local example. "Like Lebanese Taverna, if you've been there, their bread oven makes this super high-pitched frequency that's pretty harsh. It's grating, and kind of mean."

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While they initially bonded over a shared love of the similarly exploratory French style musique concrète, the duo first tried rave dance music. (The creative partnership came soon after Schmidt and Daniel first met at a San Francisco gay bar, then called Club Uranus. Daniel was go-go dancing on the bar, and Schmidt "put a dollar in my g-string," Daniel said.)

As time went on, it seemed the more they tried to pander for acceptance in various underground music scenes, the less successful they were.

"We gave up on being a noise band or trying to be dance music and just thought, 'Let's put those things together," Daniel said. "Surprisingly, we got an immediate response."

The duo’s second album, 1998’s “Quasi-Objects,” whose finale is made of sounds from a latex T-shirt, led to a breakthrough. The group sent 10 copies of the album to a Rough Trade record shop in London, where the Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork purchased a copy. A new fan, she had Matmos remix her single "Alarm Call" that year, which led to Schmidt and Daniel joining her band for her 2001 album “Vespertine,” and subsequent tours, which still seems to surprise the duo.

"Every stage with Bjork, we were like, 'Whoa, this is a weird, one-off thing that will go nowhere," Schmidt, 51, said.

The sudden raise in profile bumped up their standing in the independent music world, even as it jarred the members. (Daniel also noted he believes Matmos has received too much credit for its role in Bjork's music at the time.)

"Suddenly, we're talking about being in her band at Radio City Music Hall or playing Roskilde Festival to 60,000 people," Daniel said. "It was terrifying."

As their time with Bjork eventually ran its course, Matmos released four more albums before moving to Baltimore in 2007, when Daniel was hired to join the English department at Johns Hopkins University as a professor. They came without expectations, and quickly fell in love with the city, which affected Matmos' live show.

"We kept experiencing a lot of raw, improvised music, and that really changed how we played live. I think we take a lot more risks. I don't know if it works or not," Daniel said, laughing.

Since then, Matmos has changed labels (from Matador Records to Thrill Jockey), while releasing four more albums.

To quell any significant creative differences, Schmidt and Daniel take turns in deciding the theme for each album. For "Ultimate Care II," the responsibility was Schmidt's. In fall 2014, while the two were working in their basement studio, Schmidt pointed to their off-white washing machine — the one that came with the house — and asked, "Why don't we make the album out of that?"

The idea was not totally random, as Schmidt is a longtime admirer of the appliance's musical capabilities.

"I love drumming on washing machines — any and all of them. They sound fantastic," said Schmidt, who works part time at the True Vine Record Shop in Hampden. "It makes rhythms. It makes tones. It makes gurgly water sounds. You can start and stop it. And it's 40 minutes long! It's just like a [expletive] album."

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For a year, they exhausted every possible sound the Ultimate Care II made, recording all of it with a contact microphone (which is typically attached to the bottom of grand pianos to pick up bass) and other microphones strategically placed around the appliance.

Cover art of Matmos' new album, "Ultimate Care II," which was released today.
Cover art of Matmos' new album, "Ultimate Care II," which was released today. (Handout)

The result is a roughly 38-minute single track that starts with the familiar cranking twist of a dial and concludes with a buzz that normally indicates a load is done. (It's also the first Matmos album made from a single object.) In between are unpredictable sections filled with whooshes, whirls and surprisingly danceable grooves. Schmidt said he and Daniel never received push back from Thrill Jockey about making an album with their washing machine.

While some Matmos albums have been deemed too abstract, Daniel said the concept of "Ultimate Care II" has a universal appeal since nearly everyone has used a washing machine.

"You don't have to condescend to people. If you say, 'I made a record of a washing machine,' they understand and they're curious," Daniel said. "It's not some haughty gesture. They get it."

With the album finished, the focus now shifts to recreating the album in a live setting. The tentative tour plan is to bring the washing machine to each stop, and have it run during the show. As of a week and a half ago, the duo was still figuring out logistics, like how to avoid mechanical malfunctions.

"Most bands have to worry about whether their guitars are in tune or not, and we have to worry about whether we can supply continuous water pressure to a washing machine on stage," Daniel said. "It's a weird problem to solve."

Finding the creative out of the unusual, however, has guided Matmos for more than two decades. They have fascinated and bewildered listeners along the way, but as long as it continues to make sense to their ears, Matmos will remain on its unbeaten path.

"What we do can sound highfalutin if you say 'conceptual electronic music' but it's actually not. We're very literal," Daniel said. "We start with an object. An object isn't a concept; it's an object. A washing machine is a thing in the world, and it has great sounds."

Skipping a beat, he finished the thought: "Or we think it does."

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