Keith Moliné

The Wire, May 2006

“What is this notion of 'Basque'? It's a construction, of course.” Mattin, the laptop improvisor from Bilbao, is taking me to task for having once labelled him 'the Basque primitivist' in this very magazine. “Putting the words 'Basque' and 'primitivist' together,” he asserts, “is what the right wing in Spain has always done: everyone who wants a Basque nation is a mindless terrorist. And at the same time the PNV (the Basque Nationalist Party) also tries to feed the myth of this pure, authentic and irreducible Basque identity.”

  Nevertheless, Mattin's music has an undeniable roughness, a lack of politeness that sets him apart from other more hi-tech, high-concept laptoppers. He's a contrarian, intent on going against the grain at all times, never doing what's expected of him. His albums can dwell on hellish noise (such as his 2004 Pink Noise collaboration with ex-Hijokaidan vocalist Junko) or centre on the flimsiest wisps of sound - he has recorded with both Taku Sugimoto and Radu Malfatti, probably the most restrained musicians working today. “Most of my work has to do with the preconceptions that people might have and trying to contradict them, trying to put a different perspective on what can be done in a performance situation,” he says. “I try not to make a hierarchy of sounds, I try to deal with the instrument against the way it was conceived. Often with computer musicians it's a macho kind of attitude, one guy with a laptop, very enclosed. So I try to break this by playing with the lid closed, or with the computer off, or with just the speakers.”

 Mattin refuses to see the laptop as an abstraction, a magic box of algorithms. For him it's a tool, an object, which he demystifies by dealing with its very physicality as a simple plastic construction. Not only does he use its internal microphone to produce feedback, moving it around in the air to vary the signal, but he also taps the keyboard and rubs, hits and bows the casing. I ask him if he feels these techniques run the risk of being considered mere gimmicks. “I'm not a virtuoso,” he insists. “The techniques are experiments at that moment, not attempts to develop a trademark.” In fact, it was partly through attending a series of improvisation workshops led by that least gimmicky of musicians Eddie Prévost that Mattin hit upon this methodology. “His workshops were about having the opportunity to explore your instrument without restrictions, and not just your instrument, you could challenge situations, break the structures that were holding the workshop together,” he says. He has gone on to work regularly with Prévost in the group Sakada, who have performed widely and recorded several albums, most recently Askatuta (2005).

 Mattin invokes Walter Benjamin's notion of “means without ends” in his exploration of Improv praxis and the whole issue of intervening in the marketplace. “Benjamin said there are two kinds of violence, mythical violence and divine violence. Mythical violence is the foundation of law and reinforces and preserves the law. Divine violence goes beyond that which can be categorised and bureaucratized. This violence is about pure mediality, it's not about achieving a goal or an end. And in certain ways this can be applied to improvised music. It's about pure mediality, not trying to consolidate any structures.”

 I ask him to define what improvisation actually means to him in the light of these notions. “It's not a product, it's not trying to reach a goal, it's a matter of constant process and struggle, and trying with other people to develop something,” he replies. “That 'something' doesn't have to fit a definition, to be identified as a language, it's research into finding things that interest and motivate you, or conversely you find problematic. Things are put in place constantly, contradictions come all the time. If a bad sound happens, you can't reject it. It's in the performance, it's happened. You might not be happy with it but you have to deal with it. Maybe you make another bad sound!” Mattin is intent on applying these ideas consistently, across the creative and logistical aspects of his practice. For some time now he has limited himself to working with free software, because the collaborative nature of its development and distribution reflects that of the improvising collective and his anarchist principles. He also labels his output as anti-copyright, and negotiates with the various labels that release his work to be able to make it available for free download on his website.

 Mattin has a slew of releases imminent, including superb duo albums with trumpeter Axel Dörner, Birchville Cat Motel man Campbell Kneale and a further meeting with Radu Malfatti. Possibly the most interesting development is his move into the rawest, most ragged rock music with his Song Book series and his group Billy Bao. I ask him if there's some satirical intent behind these projects, cocking a snook at the singer-songwriter boom and the continuing commodification of punk rock. He denies that either project is a joke, though he concedes that there's an element of absurdity involved. “I describe Song Book as me doing the cheapest Lou Reed that I can,” he grins. “I mean Lou Reed has made some bad records, but I'm sure I've managed to make much worse. What I'm trying to do is use improvisation as a way of exposing structural and ideological clichés of rock music, and in turn use song structures to demystify the so called spontaneous freedom of improvisation. My lack of great singing and playing ability adds a lot to making it sound not quite right, which really fits the recording process - straight into the internal microphone of a computer.”  

 While the Song Book releases sound almost wilfully shaky, Billy Bao are a monstrously exciting noise combo, particularly on the Auxilio album, recorded in front of an audience who sound like they can't quite believe what they're hearing. A more different album from the upcoming Malfatti collaboration would be hard to imagine. “I really appreciate extremes, I'm not into middle grounds,” asserts Mattin. “I like testing people's reactions and even testing the speakers when the noise gets very physical. For me that's very liberating, noise free of rhythm and structure, the things other music has. With noise everything can have a place. But at the same time I remember getting the first Bernhard Günter record and thinking, wow, this is really something. This is an extreme exploration into a different territory. It can be equally interesting to work with that kind of perception. I'm a binary kind of guy.”