Pop culture repackages the past. In so doing, it reduces the past to a cheery vintage version. This is nothing new; trends and subcultures have been steeped in nostalgia way before speeded ABBA TikTok audios and three-month trend cycles. It’s difficult to tell the whole story, to impart the full feeling of a specific time and place, so we readily consume the sanitized edition. (It’s easier to dress up as a flapper than a polio victim!)
A group of theorists in the late 2000s, notably Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, were disillusioned with what they saw as the stagnation of popular music. They reimagined nostalgia in a generative light, as a way to reactivate feelings associated with a specific past context. The genre was termed “hauntology”, after Jacques Derrida’s use in Spectres of Marx: a melancholic, largely British style of electronic music fixated on activating and mourning moments lost in time. Musicians such as Burial and The Caretaker used vinyl noise, tape hiss, antique synths, and industrial drones to evoke memories of past spaces, particularly of 90’s rave culture — for many, an ecstatic, utopian collective memory.
Drew Daniel, Shakespeare scholar at Johns Hopkins and one half of the electronic duo Matmos with his partner MC Schmidt, calls the hauntological aesthetic an “instant pathos machine”. It allows us to listen back to a grainy version of what we once knew, working as a metaphor for the lossiness of memory. Matmos, with their reputation for collaging sounds from unusual, non-musical objects, is equally interested in the question of material referents for intangible emotions. They’ve sourced audio from, among others, liposuction surgery, plastic, and their household washing machine.
Daniel spent his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, where he first encountered the rave scene up close. “I had a first boyfriend that threw illegal parties under bridges, and he had a mobile soundsystem. The idea of an illegal party that you do just because you want to do it was very inspiring to me.”
However, rave culture’s anarchistic rootlessness quickly turned into an industry. “The rave dream died essentially because capitalism turned it into expensive parties with expensive drugs and it was about ingroups and outgroups,” says Daniel. In this respect, hauntological music is especially compelling. “It’s a lot of people reflecting on a lost utopianism. There’s a thing in the past, a feeling that they want to return to, and they can’t feel it again, so they’re reflecting on pleasure at a distance.”
On Matmos’s first album, there’s a piece called “Always Three Words” that’s made out of two walkie-talkies owned by Daniel’s first boyfriend. “Doug loved gadgets and technology,” Daniel says, “he was a car mechanic, he was a real tinkerer. He died of AIDS, and after his death, I had these high-powered walkie talkies. I noticed that if I set them both to transmit at the same time and held them over a 4-track, the walkie talkies would generate this field of interference that would be picked up by the record head as noise.”
“Always Three Words” isn’t an elegy in the traditional sense. The piece, like hauntology, investigates what it means to mourn something via its lingering material traces. But it’s in a different emotional register entirely, with a pounding snare and glitchy, abrasive lines that sound like a sputtering machine.
On Doug, and the close friends he’d lost to AIDS, Daniel says, “I want to remember that they were funny and silly and they liked songs with strong driving rhythms. I don’t want to pretend that they would have wanted me to make a drone record. Cause they wouldn’t. Nightclub culture is sort of corny and facile, and it can often be a space that’s kind of racist and marketed in ways that are really sexist, but it can also be a space of really utopian feelings, where you feel connected to other people in ways that are powerful and that stick with you your whole life.”
In the broader sense than hauntology, electronic music as a whole, as an art of sampling and processing sound, examines the preservation of materials of the past. This is especially relevant for a band like Matmos, who makes records with unusual creative constraints. For example, 2001’s A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure is composed of the sounds of medical technology. “The goal was to light, fizzy, silly pop music out of liposuctions and chin implants,” Daniel says.
They intended the extra knowledge to change the music upon the second listen. “We’ve had people tell us that they liked the record until they found out that it was made of liposuction and then they thought it was too gross.”
Indeed, it’s almost misophonic. It makes your skin crawl, to hear human fat being sucked through a tube, let alone in a dance-floor beat. Unlike hauntological music, which is interested in the somber reification of auras past, A Chance to Cut packages the noises of the immediate technological present. Daniel recalls a moment in the liposuction where the surgeon played, essentially, a “human fat solo”:
“The surgeon was like, ‘oh, you want sound right? Let’s use a bigger cannula,’ and he picked out a wider cannula to insert into the incision and suck the human fat out. He was sort of playing the wound, moving in and out of the incision because it would make a better sucking sound. I’ll never forget it.”
The record is much less reverent of the past, too. Daniel’s father and stepmother were doctors; MC Schmidt’s father was also a physician. “It was kind of Oedipal, to use a psychoanalytic framework, like the son is pretending to be the father but maybe making fun of the father, making these kind of rhythmic techno-pop instrumental dance workouts out of what our parents do for a living.”
Moments of more sober reflection come later on the record, though. The track “memento mori” is made entirely out of drawing a violin bow across the brain pan of a skull (which, incidentally, had been used by Tibetan monks in certain ritualistic contexts as vessels for wine). “for felix (and all the rats)” is made out of bowing the bars of a rat cage, which had once housed their pet rat Felix. With the extra knowledge, the sound takes on a different resonance — of the skull as a tool for learning anatomy as well as a moralistic reminder of one’s death, for example.
Compared to the hauntological aesthetic, Daniel says, “Matmos is sillier because Martin and I are just sillier. That doesn’t mean we don’t think there are serious topics, it just means when we’re artists we want a layer of humor to be present.”
Daniel calls it a “camp survival strategy”.
“To me”, he says, “queerness implies a certain kind of camp suspicion of self-seriousness. The straight world doesn’t want queer life to survive, and I repay it in kind by refusing to take it seriously. A world that doesn’t want me in it, I don’t feel obligated to take seriously, and I refuse to.”