Matthew Herbert wants to create something that’s the opposite of Brexit — about collaboration, about creativity, about love rather than hate.
Source: PoliticoOn a recent night at the Barbican concert hall in London, British electronic musician Matthew Herbert was standing on stage with a 110-strong choir and his 16-strong Brexit Big Band — including a saxophonist with a disheveled Union Jack draped around his shoulders.
Herbert had opened the show crooning “The Only Word Left is Goodbye” and his band had just played a gently swinging number that set the words of Article 50 to music. Then came a technical glitch. Nonplussed, he glanced up at the audience knowingly: “The way this is going is the way Brexit is.”
Herbert made his name in the 1990s as a house music producer, making the sort of seductive electronic tunes you’d stumble across in bars from London to Croatia. He remixed everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to Björk. More recently, he’s made a specialty of turning unlikely concepts into critically-acclaimed music.
On one record, he draws exclusively on the sounds of a pig’s life — from birth to butchering — to highlight the realities of meat production. (PETA, the animal rights group, did not approve). Another relies on the soundtrack of everyday goods, including a Starbucks’ Frappuccino being poured down a sink, to make a statement about the evils of consumer culture. Last year, Herbert released an album made using only the acoustics of the human body. It included, to the horror of some, a track called “Is Shitting.”
Such records have made him a critical darling. The New York Times profiled him in its style magazine (for his music, not his sharp suits) and praised his records for “resembling nothing else out there.” The Guardian called his music madcap at first glance, but claimed that once you talk to him you quickly realize “it’s all the other musicians who [are]crazy.” He’s been invited to work on everything from operas to Eurovision.
Herbert’s latest project will test even his ability to turn unlikely subjects into good music.
The Brexit Big Band — a two-year-long project — will see Herbert crisscross Europe on what he’s called “an apology tour,” composing and performing songs that respond to the U.K.’s exit from the European Union. An album will be released the day the U.K. formally leaves — in March 2019.
The opposite of Brexit
Brexit, in theory, should be a ripe subject for musicians. Its negotiations are filled with plotlines and characters straight out of an opera — just think of Theresa May’s desperate longing for a good deal; Jean-Claude Juncker’s frantic attempts to keep the peace, or the palpable awkwardness at formal dinners between the two. Britain’s exit will also put the future of its youth in a perilous state, something you might expect young talent to use as fodder for their art.
But few musicians have taken on the subject — with the exception perhaps of Mick Jagger, who released the unsubtle singles “England Lost” and “Gotta Get A Grip” in July, inspired by the “changing political situation.” And there was French rocker Bertrand Cantat, whose single “L’Angleterre,” which came out in October, was seen by some as an attempt to get his fans to forget about his 2003 conviction for murdering his girlfriend.
Most British artists seem keenly aware they risk losing half their audience overnight by touching the subject. Or maybe Brexit is just so all-pervasive they don’t want to have to sing about it too.
For Herbert, “it was just a feeling I had to do something,” he says, speaking by phone from his home in Margate, Kent, an area he calls “UKIP central.” He wasn’t surprised by the vote’s outcome but is still clearly saddened by the divisions it exposed. There were few jokes until we got off the topic of Brexit.
He recalls that, overnight, his local barber’s became a place to avoid speaking politics. Margate’s diverse residents — from its taxi drivers to its hipsters — would all sit silently judging each other across the room, he recalls. What most upset him was the story that was being told, “that the root of all our problems was Europe — that simply was not true.”
“[The] Remain [campaign]did a particularly poor job in crafting a coherent story about what it means to be part of the EU,” he says.
Is he making a belated advertising campaign for Remain? “Maybe it is that,” he says, “but the crucial thing for me is that this is a response to Brexit rather than about Brexit. I want to create something that’s the opposite of Brexit — about collaboration, about creativity, about love rather than hate.”
Herbert initially thought the project would focus on the nitty-gritty of Brexit. “When I started out I wanted to do something very on the nose about the political process,” he says. “One of the first pieces that I wrote was that one setting Article 50 to music. But things change every hour, it’s impossible to keep up in a way. If I was to write about whatever deeply unpleasant thing Boris Johnson said last week, by the time I’d finished he’d have said the next deeply unpleasant thing.”
The emotional arc of Brexit became more important. “In a way, it’s become about relationships, about separation, about divorce. And that’s surprised me as that’s not something I’m normally a fan of in political music.”
At the Barbican show, the emotional songs clearly worked best. The audience — 99 percent Remain, if I had to venture a guess — barely moved throughout, as though recalling how they felt the day after the vote.
One soulful number, performed by London-based singer Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne, repeated the line “Be here, be still” as if in prayer and brought to mind the murder of British MP Jo Cox ahead of the Brexit vote. (The song, it turns out, is about the suicide of one of Herbert’s family friends.)
For another, “You’re Welcome Here,” Debebe-Dessalegne sang about the people the Brexit campaign riled against (“If your parents put you on a boat alone…”) The choir punctuated every line with a chorus of “You’re welcome.”
“There were some Europeans in the choir who were in tears when we first rehearsed that,” Herbert says. “One said, ‘In my whole time living here, no one’s ever told me I’m welcome.’”
The project’s focus could still change, says Herbert. He’s not ruling out that the final album could feature tracks about policy minutiae, from the size of the divorce bill to what happens to mobile phone roaming charges once the U.K. leaves.
The final outcome is almost as uncertain as Brexit itself. How the project develops will, in part, depend on the reaction it receives. Herbert wants the Brexit Big Band to play shows in Britain’s Leave-voting heartlands, but its main focus will be on touring the Continent using local musicians and choirs.
The band recently made an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival and is booking shows in Germany, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Ideally, Herbert wants to take the project into the heart of the EU itself and is angling for an invitation from the European Commission to play in its building. (In any case, he’ll be hitting Brussels in January.)
Turning anger into song
It would be easy, of course, to dismiss the project as self-indulgent — a consolation to Remain supporters to reassure them that Brexit hasn’t changed who they are or what Britain is, and an outlet to moan about those they hold responsible (the Barbican performance involved a track in which the ripping up of hundreds of copies of the Daily Mail, the U.K.’s notorious pro-Brexit tabloid, created the song’s drum beat — a sight met with laughter and cheers in the audience).
At least one early review also criticized Herbert for making gentle lounge jazz rather than filling his songs with the anger that clearly motivates him. This point clearly rankles. Lyrically the show couldn’t be more angry, Herbert counters, though he concedes some of that anger may be lost in the performance’s fairground-like feel.
“The music is about seduction … trying to seduce audiences towards a story they wouldn’t normally want to hear in the context of a night out,” Herbert later writes in an email. “My anger toward the injustice of it all is laced through the whole thing from top to bottom.”
But you can’t sustain a revolution with anger — you need optimistic action, and that’s what the band is doing by reaching out across the Continent, he says.
Despite the controversy that’s sure to surround the performances, there’s no denying Herbert has stepped out on a limb in a way others haven’t. The show also makes Brexit fun, moving and occasionally even funny.
At the Barbican, Herbert left a piece on paper on every audience member’s seat and asked them to write a message addressed to Europe, then toss it onto the stage as the band played its final song. It was a riotous few minutes as hundreds of paper planes flew through the air, turning the most adult of concert halls into a children’s party.
Herbert, smiling broadly, picked up a couple of the planes at his feet and read out the messages. “To the people of Europe, I’m sorry,” went the first. “I like your cheese and wine,” went the second.
Alex Marshall is a freelance journalist based in London.