Darwin: Okay. Today I get a chance to speak to someone - I'm very excited to have this conversation. His name is Matt Black and he is got a hell of a resume. He is one of the original founder founding members of Coldcut, one of the originators of the Ninja Tune label. He has been involved in countless little software projects in including something that was just recently released called JammPro. We're going to be talking about that a little bit in our conversation, but a tremendous history and a tremendous head full of resources that we're going to kind of dig into. So with that and with no more talking, I'd like to say hello to Matt. Hey Matt, how's it going?
Matt Black: Yeah, very good. the. Glad to be here and glad to have a chance to talk to a techno-savvy audience.
Darwin: Well that is definitely true. I mean this is going to be a group of people that will want to dive in deep. So I know from reading a lot of your biomaterial, you are one of us. You definitely have your arms around a lot of technology as well as art and music. And so with that, why don't we just have you describe a little bit about what you're in the middle of right now. What is your focus right now?
Matt: My focus right now really is the JammPro app. But we have launched it and this is sort of the latest stage in I could say a 25-year development project to make a new type of electronic music instrument. So now I've reached a kind of milestone stage because the new version is the best realization of these ideas and its evolution so far. And so it's out there and I want to promote it - and also I want to use it. I want to perhaps [stop] a little bit [being] a developer and start being a musician. I sort of straddled that boundary quite uneven sometimes. And this part of this trip has been to build the instrument that I want and to share it, but I want to use it to make music. And I've started doing that. So I'm now in a good position.
I think I've got the instrument; I want obviously could develop it a lot further still, but I want to use it and get involved with a lot of collaborations with people. Hopefully spread the excitement of this instrument. We've also just finished our new Coldcut album. Well, it's a Coldcut project - a collaboration with a bunch of musicians from South Africa, London and others around the world. And the name of that is Keleketla! and that is going to be released in June. I think it's possibly the best thing I've done for years. It's all real music with real musicians and John and me have been more in a producer role, but it's now done, dusted and was mastered. I think the vinyl is being mastered on Thursday. We've actually finished it and that's going to come out in June and I'm pretty excited about that.
So that's going to be our next music to promote. I've also just recently released another project, which is the Ninja Tunes first hardware unit- the Zen Delay, which is a stereo tube distortion, delay and filter unit that we've made as a collaboration with Erica Synths. So that's kind of a bit of a baby of mine and my mate Dr. Walker who used to be an Air Liquide, so that's out. So these are three projects I've been working on for quite a while and a couple of years ago I decided to just hold back a little bit on starting off loads and loads of crazy ideas and actually finish off some of the ones which I'd started. The last two or three years I've got a few things actually out the door, which I'm sure people you can relate to that thing of like the excitement of starting something.
But then finishing off can be a bit more of a grind, and the temptation sometimes to jump onto that new idea, get that new serotonin rush in and get on that train. But it is good to finish things. Invention is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration as someone's once said. So I actually have got a slightly a clear table to work on at the moment. Having said that, I believe that we're destroying the environment. We're about to rush off the edge of a cliff to destruction of humanity and the planet with quite some plausible scenarios of disaster there. And I also want to have more time to work on activism to try and contribute whatever granule of positivity I can towards, a better outcome for that. So that's something that's ongoing and sort of a main focus of mine at the moment is that as well with Extinction Rebellion and various other projects.
Darwin: That's really interesting you mentioned that because it's certainly a political activism instead of just political awareness, political activism is actually really starting to become kind of a norm among artists. And so it's something I'm going to want to actually talk about more extensively in a bit because I think that you have a long history of living that, and so I'd like to talk a little bit about those experiences. But before we go on, I want to talk about this latest app, the JammPro app. To what extent is that kind of an extension of the Ninja Jamm product and to what extent do you feel like it's a brand new thing?
Matt: It's very much much an extension of Ninja Jamm as I say, but that in itself is part of a 25-year development trail. In the mid-nineties, we did various pieces of multimedia software and there was a program we developed called DJamm, also with two M's and that was kind of the forerunner of of Ninja Jamm. That was a four track loop mixer. Quite similar concept. We wanted to use it for our live shows. We wanted a way to work more with loops and samples. That was more true to the kind of sampling and cut-up aesthetic. So that ran on a PC laptop. We ran it on windows NT actually because that was the only operating system that was stable enough to use it. Running NT on the laptop was quite hardcore, but we got it working and we did many shows using that.
And the other companion piece of software, which was VJamm, which was us sort of all your visual sampler. So both Ninja Jamm and JammPro go back to that sort of original loop engine idea, which we sort of first realized in the mid-nineties, first versions were written in Macromind Director, actually. And then I found some coders - actually referred to as software engineers nowadays, isn't it a bit more respectful? My mates Camart from Cambridge. A bunch of Buddhists that taught themselves coding and got into being programmers and making some pretty cool stuff. So I met them at the Big Chill Festival and it was with them that I cooked up these initial instruments, which were weirdly written in Delphi, which is Visual Pascal, not the most obvious language...
Darwin: I did an awful lot of Delphi work over the years. So I know it was actually a really great environment to work in. So there you go.
Matt: Yeah, so those guys were my initial crew of software engineers and then what happened was I got a deal with Steinberg, in fact, to develop this and they even gave me an advance, but it didn't work out my - I couldn't keep the project together. This was the late nineties and early noughties and it stalled out and I was very upset because I knew what I wanted to do - and then Ableton came out and I was like, "Okay, well these guys have done something pretty amazing. I guess I would jump on to that."
So I did. So I've been using that for a few years. And then when Apple launched the iPhone and the app store, I thought, "Hey, there's an opportunity here because not only is this an amazing platform in terms of hardware, but also the ability to get something, make an app and get it out there and distribute it worldwide on the net." - [it] was a fantastic way to jump over the bottlenecks of physical distribution, which had been sticking point for us before.
So it took me a while to get my head together and get a team together and get on track. But in 2013 with these guys 'seeper' from London, we released Ninja Jamm and that was the next sort of milestone after DJamm and I slightly cockily said I wanted to create the world's most advanced beat instrument and give it away. And we did that - I think it is pretty advanced and unfortunately I wanted to do it as a Make-Your-Own-Music thing, but I was persuaded - well, I should take the responsibility. We didn't make the right decision. We pitched it more as a remix Ninja Tunes kind of thing. What we found was, yes, there are a small number of people that are into remix thing, but in terms of people that are into electronic music and savvy enough to use an app and want to do something, actually they want to make their own track. So really the ability to load your own samples and just use it in a much more freeform was what people wanted. So I realized that actually that was what I wanted as well, and it took another seven years to get a great team together and deliver the next incarnation, which is JammPro. And along the way of course we picked up a lot more functionality and indeed we still have a long feature list, but we've packed a lot more into the out this time round. And as you've, if you've had a look...
Darwin: Yeah, I got a chance to play with it this weekend and I ended up like hitting that help button an awful lot because it is chock full of stuff. Now. Luckily if you kind of just take a step back and allow yourself not to have to know everything, but are willing to just play with something like the cut-playback, or just the the drill and filter combination on the little slider, you can have an awful lot of fun with that. But I would say that... When I played with Ninja Jamm I was like, "Okay, this is a fun tool for playing around and I can imagine using it for fun remix like games," JammPro feels like a frigging instrument. It feels like an instrument and it clearly is going to take some time to master it. It clearly is going to support you building up a library of tracks to work with it. It has all of those kind of aspects to it that make it seem very instrument-like.
Matt: Oh, I'm glad to hear it. I mean that is very much the aim to do that. There's a lot you can do with Ninja Jamm. And in fact, I've done quite a few workshops where I get together with a bunch of heads and say, "Okay, let's make a pack for Ninja jam." And those have been some very enjoyable workshops. I met some great people doing that. So you know, it is possible to make your own packs for Ninja Jamm, but it's not as easy as just being able to load your own samples into it. And so by making that a lot easier to do, I think we've opened it up and then yes, I very much wanted to put in more performance- and instruments-style functionality to it.
I mean, over the years I've had - we've only just released this version - but I've had the dev version on my iPad for three or four years and I've used it for shows all that time on and off. In fact, there's another secret function - which we haven't revealed in the manual yet - but it can do MIDI out. So I use that. I do audio visual shows with Coldcut and also my wife, Dinaz - she's a filmmaker and we do shows together as well - audio-visual shows where JammPro is providing the the sound triggering, but each sound element and each effect sends out a MIDI stream and we hook that up to Resolume, right? So and we then we make similar layouts for each track as we have in as we have in Jamm, so we'll have four tracks of visuals plus a fifth track for stabs and then a bunch of effects per channel effects. And the clips are triggered from Jamm.
So the each sound clip is assigned a visual clip. You get the BPM clock as well. You set each clip visual clip to be a certain number of bars and it's amazing what a tight sync you can get out of it doing using that technique. And then also audio-visual effects so that if I move say the delay X/Y around that we'll also send out a controller stream. So Resolume and I can have assigned say a video feedback effect. I was thinking video feedback is kind of the visual analogy of delay. So I like creating those kinds of relationships. So we can do a full audio-visual show based on Jamm as well.
Darwin: That's really keen. Now one question though, given the level of detail that you put into this, why do it on the iPad? Why wouldn't you make something that runs on a laptop or something that seems to be "beefy enough" to do this heavy lifting? It seems like what you've done is kind of really built something that is more complicated than we're used to seeing on an iPad.
Matt: Well personally I find the iPad and the iPad Pro, which I've got, which is the big meaty sized one, a great interface. I mean in the words the answer is "touch". I like touch control. I like the fact that when I'm looking at the interface and I'm seeing my clips, I've got my clips named and I touched them. My eye, my ear, and my brain and my hand are all linked together in one interface. Now I don't really get that with a laptop. So to me it's actually a step forward in terms of an instrument interface. So I do find it a great interface. I mean ideally I would have, you know, pressure sensitivity on the touchscreen as well for another degree of freedom. In fact, Apple did do what they called 3D Touch - I think it was on a bunch of the phones - but it didn't really take off and they haven't done it on the iPad.
If they did, I would jump onto that and that would give it another level of expression as well. But what we call the tip control, the way that you can use small finger movements to control effects, I think is quite a good halfway house. I was surprised. I sort of had the idea and then tried it. It's actually very expressive. It doesn't all have to be about big hand and finger movements. You can be quite subtle about it and you can tune into that movement and use your ears to decide how much you want to affect the sound. There is a version of a Jamm which is desktop, but it's our dev version which the devs use to test and build stuff before then building for the iPad. We have considered making a laptop or desktop version and it's something that we would consider if we felt there was a demand for it.
So that's not out of the question at all. The original, like I say, DJamm version is a four channel clip mixer. So we use the QWERTY keys to trigger the clips. There's just enough you can just about get enough keys off the keyboard to do that. Things like the X/Y and particularly the drillter and so on. You can't do that on a computer interface. You need a controller.
I use Ableton. I've got my Push. I like it, but I'm sort of half looking at my Push, then half looking at the screen, my attention split, whereas with Jamm, it's all in one place. So that's pretty natural.
Darwin: Yeah. I think that with things like - I think you called it the "drillter" - the combination of the filter and the drill. I think most people, when they're designing the software, would say, "Ah, that's too subtle of a movement. You're not gonna be able to get a sense of precision. It's not going to work or you're not going to get the right kind of feedback," But you've done something there which is - it just feels right. And the way that you get the little visualizer on the top left means that if I want visual confirmation of what I'm doing, it's there, but it also doesn't take over the whole UI. But also just the amount of movement it takes to make stuff happen. I don't know. I thought you did a brilliant job of that. That was really fantastic.
Matt: Well, thank you very much. I'm quite happy with that and I enjoy using it. Like you say, it feels quite natural. It was a surprise that some one could get a real natural expression out of that. So that one worked out pretty pretty well. Thank you.
Darwin: Well, and good for you as a designer to be able to use your own things. Sometimes when you have these multi-year development processes, by the time it actually gets time to release it, you're so sick of a product, you don't even want to see it anymore.
Matt: No, I've kept my excitement. I like nothing better than getting high and then sitting on the iPad for a few hours just jamming away.
Darwin: Yeah, that sounds like a way to make a living, right there.
Matt: [I've always wanted to] get paid for doing that. I sort of got there in the end.
Darwin: I love it. I love it. So one of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about their background and how they got to be the artist or creator or maker that they are. In your case, you kind of really do span all different kinds of things. I mean there's there's the artistic side of you which is expressed in Coldcut and and the other musical projects that you're involved in. You are sort of like the businessman that has to exist in order to keep Ninja Tune running - and having kept it running for ages. There's the developer maker side of you that is constantly developing software, designing software, working with other developers to do all this stuff. I'm curious what your background is, how you got sucked into each of these disciplines and what were the influences that really kind of helped you define who you'd become?
Matt: Wow. Well, I mean, that's a big question. It's funny enough, I'm actually writing a little piece for The Wire magazine about some of my influences and epiphanies actually' Moment's where I sort of - something shifted because of some information or experience that I had. You know, I can say I was dealt a pretty good hand actually. My mum and dads were well educated people. My grandfather on my dad's side was a neurologist and a professor of neurology. My mom's father was a architect and designer called Wells Coates, who's sort of recently been reevaluated as one of the leading lights of the modern movement in architecture and design. He was a friend of Le Corbusier's. He died before I was born, but I always felt his influence quite strongly. And my mum and dad always encouraged my sister and I in all things artistic and also to read and enjoy knowledge.
And we were, I guess, quite an intellectual family. And I got into science and science fiction at an early stage. I was just recalling this for this piece. I remember getting the flu when I was about seven years old and my dad giving me an old chemistry textbook of his and it kind of, that was an epiphany. It something about those - maybe it was the alchemical symbolistic nature of who these retorts and flasks and formula. It kind of burns itself into my brain. And that was the start of my interest in science. I got a chemistry set later on. I started to devour as much science fiction as I could get my hands on. Then in 1975... Well, the interests that I had in the mid-seventies as a an early teenager, schoolboy, I kind of have used for the rest of my career.
In fact, when I was about 9 or 10, I used to do what my mum called The Sound and Light Show. I'd get some toy robots and some bulbs and buzzers and switches and I'd set them all up and charge my family half a penny to come in. And my mum said, "Oh yes, Matthew, it's a Sound and Light Show!" So that bit of maternal encouragement, I think it was quite significant and I was messing around with radios. I found out if I attached to a motor to a battery in switched on and off, I could hear that on the radio. That was quite interesting. And then in the mid-seventies, the little bunch of geeky friends, we were sort of a proto-geek posse. We had a little radio station that we'd play on the intercom at school, we'd run the disco with some old equipment that we'd sort of found and repaired.
And I was building a synthesizer actually in 1976 out of a a kit in Practical Electronics [magazine]. It was called the Minisonic Two. And my friends, one of my posse, who's called Aiden Sutcliffe - he was better at electronics boards than I was and he worked out that you could take this design that they've given you and you could make it more complicated, more sophisticated. So the Minisonic was a quite a simple little synthesizer, but he worked out that you could take anything and route it to anything else. And he builds a sort of a patch matrix, actually in fact using toggle switches in about, like, a 10-by-10 array of toggle switches that you found a job lot for cheap. And I think that had quite a good impact on me. It's like, okay - well you can take something and then you can adapt it and make it more sophisticated or bend it to your needs.
So that was a watershed moment - and then came a couple of books. One was the Shockwave Rider by John Brunner and this, as I found out years later, is based on Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. He was a futurist from MIT and that book had a lot of influence and John Brunner took it and made it into a sort of scifi thriller. It's credited as being the first cyberpunk book, actually. And it's described as a young bright kids living in the sort of oligarchic totalitarian state who finds that he can use the computer network to create multiple identities and fight back against the system. And I think I must have been, "Wow, the future is going to be like that and I want to be that guy." So that kind of started an interest in computers, which in the mid-seventies there was no access and no information, really just the odd stray of bits of information.
There was a boy at school, his dad was a programmer. And then him telling us about a story about a program called Virus that could send itself between computers over the phone and then freeze a computer. And then you'd get a letter from the controllers saying, "If you want to buy a program called Antibody, put this amount of money in a Swiss bank account." I thought that sounds pretty damn cool! But then the idea that, maybe that sounds almost like that software is alive. That's interesting. And then came the next year, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. So I was moving in the direction of biochemistry and that book spelled out a lot of stuff to me. It provided a sort of framework for understanding how the world works. Everything's about genes expressing themselves in the environment. And it had a number of pretty mindblowing threads, that book.
Another [thing] was the computer. I don't think he Dawkins explicitly said that, but I picked this up that you could compare DNA code in base pairs with computer code in binary switches. And there was an analogy there and I thought that was fascinating. And Dawkins also talks about how you could use programs to run simulations of life using, for example, game theory, hawks and doves, different strategies in a virtual environment to see how they competed with each other. And I just found it incredibly cool and fascinating. And then I taught myself to program with that as a motivation really. There were a couple of demo programs in the electronics magazines and I sort of absorbed it and worked out how to program. I didn't have a computer but I could do enough. I got the idea and then used to get the odd hour or so on the computer somewhere and started writing war games and also these game theory simulations based on the outlines, the ideas Dawkins outlined in this book.
So that was a huge, huge influence. And then of course towards the end of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins brings in the meme concept - that ideas he called memes can reproduce in cultural space, in information space and can spread themselves. And I started to see everything as competition between memes and associations of memes. I think the term memeplex was coined later, but it was a framework to understand the world. And I think perhaps some of our audience can relate to this. You know, I found interpersonal relationships difficult. I wasn't a cool kid at school. I was a bit too old and I was a swot and that wasn't popular. And, although running the disco was quite popular, that was kind of a cool, so I've worked out that you could use technology to be cool.
But you know, the attraction of a world that was rational and logical and that I could understand and control was there. And I think for many people that... I consider myself on the spectrum. I think everyone is, but I can identify with that and it gave me a focus and the ability to concentrate and it's like, "I know I can suss this out. I know I can do this and I can bend it to my will." And that's been that in a way was the start of my career in creative technology. That was like the foundation.
Darwin: So when was the first time that you actually got your own computer so that you could take these ideas and mess around. I mean, one of the things is when you'd write out programs and you'd have to like snag an hour off of a computer at some business or something, that you have to be almost dedicated to the task of trying out your idea. When personal computers first came along - and I was lucky enough to be around for that as well...
Matt: When was that then?
Darwin: That would have been like around 1979, 1980. I shouldn't even say that out loud...
Matt: Well, that dates us. But hey, mate - we've been around for a while. Which is cool. You know, like using computers for 45 years when you know, for me the Commodore PET in 1979 when I left school, I got a job in a lab and they had a PET and I started writing programs on that.
Darwin: Yeah. For me it was an Apple //+, but a similar similar story. But I remember that that was what was interesting is it went from working on a computer being task-oriented to all of a sudden, when I had my own computer, I could just kind of fuck around with it. I could just say like, "I have this really stupid idea. You know what if I need this program where I'm running through a minefield and I just step on mines and blow up. Oh, okay, that's a really dumb game. What happens if I randomize things? What happens if I do this?" For a geek, programming on a personal computer was like a game where life was the game, right? I mean, I had the ability to just like come up on a whim, come up with an idea and if I had the balls to try it and I had the time to spend on doing it - which I had ample amount of time - I could find out if it worked or not. And that was an amazing turn of events.
Matt: Totally. And I mean it is a form of self-expression as well, which as a young person I was hungry for. And I think that's it. That's a common thing for many people. If you want to, you want to have some way to express yourself, but it might not be about being on the football team or being the coolest kid in the class. It might be something else. There are different drives. I like to think that human society needs all kinds of personality types to work as a sort of overall organism. I mean, I suppose it does work, which is a sort of beautiful mess, but yeah, that excitement of sort of a world which you could understand and control and learn from. I mean in a way now I see people talking about teaching programming to kids from as young as five. Some people have a problem with that - and I think sometimes computers and technology is out of balance for young people - but definitely it has an important role.
Darwin: Now one question though is all of this background kind of points to a person who's going to become a really good computer programmer at an insurance company somewhere, but you didn't do that. You ended up, instead, like falling into samplers and dance music and a whole different thing. How did that happen?
Matt: Well, it's funny, I was just writing in this article that if things had gone along that track, I probably working at GCHQ (Government Communication Headquarters) now basically. I mean I did I did come from a sort of, somewhat in... My family was a mixture of sort of Bohemian and liberal and quite tight-assed and conservative as well. And at school I was into music. Music was the key to sort of not just being an accountant I suppose or you know, not just taking that standard cog role. I mean Shockwave Rider did take the rebel idea and sold me that idea. So that was an instance. And then, in a word, once I got to university there was another big influence and that was drugs - and I've got to be candid about it. My sister turned me onto smoking a spliff and I was never the same afterwards.
I took quite a long battle with, particularly, cannabis. It's a bit of a love/hate relationship because I also have suffered from depression and sometimes that shit is not good for one's state of mind. But it did open the door to some other ways of operating and thinking and being and feeling. And you know, later on LSD was a big influence as well. These are not computable, the effects of those things. And because I needed something else. Otherwise, like you say, I'd have ended up at GCHQ and I'm glad that I had those experiences. And I do believe actually, particularly the psychedelic experience is very important. It's been very important for me and I believe that's important and unfairly persecuted part of human existence and humans toolkits to evolve and grow. So that is, in a word probably, that's why I managed to swerve off route and take another track.
Darwin: Sure. That makes a lot of sense. Given that that music was sort of like the tool that you kind of grasped onto as being sort of like music and drugs being a combination that really sort of like, was life-affirming for you. It's yet another step though to dive in music technology and especially with Coldcut, your early forays into sample manipulation and stuff like that was pretty groundbreaking and kind of shocking within the context of the time. What tools we're using. I mean, were you using just like Akai samplers and stuff at that time?
Matt: Well like everything, we just started off with what was cheap and what was to hand. I mean initially, based on some of the things I've been outlining, the synthesizer, the interest in tech, the school disco, I was always fascinated by tech and music tech and somewhere I got the idea that technology could be creative and computers didn't have to just be about spreadsheets. I started writing the computer games, then you know, the patterns that these... you could make programs that draw shit on-screen. And that was pretty interesting, I think. You know, my dad was an artist and sculptor, so that say I had a good mixture of art and science in my family. Well hip hop was a big influence and my mates and I used to have great parties and we were really into these records coming over from New York.
So we used to make these mix tapes just using a cassette to edit things together initially because cassettes...
Darwin: Just kind of like pause button editing?
Matt: Yeah, but we took it to a ridiculous extent. So we'd all sit around, listening to each other's mixes, going like "Late!" - a nice environment. Me and my mates coming up. That was one of the happiest times of my life. Living with my buddies, getting high and getting really into music, making tapes and you know, a spirit of sort of positive competition with each other to see who could do the coolest mixes and stuff. And you know, that that's also part of it as well to do cool stuff. Now where does that come from? Partly because I think one wants to be accepted and so by doing cool stuff then you're cool. So then you can get accepted. That's also a driver right before Coldcut I got a four track cassette and an MTR 6-into-4-into-2 mixer, which is more flexible than the Portastudio.
Actually, [it's] basically a Portastudio set up. I've got a couple of turntables. I had a humiliating defeat. It's on the decks in Bristol at the hands of Nellie Hooper of The Wild Bunch (who later became Massive Attack). I got convinced to challenge him just as I thought it was a laugh, but it ended up being quite some bruising. But it was great because after that I was like, "Right, fuck it, I'm going to learn." I went straight back to London, bought my SL 1200's and started practicing and until I was a scratch mix DJ and there weren't many around at that time. This is like 1984. I also got into BPM mixing. Now most DJs were either scratch mixes, hip hop mixers, or they were kind of disco mixer called BPM mixes. I thought both were cool.
Do you know who John Peel was? Well John Peel had a big influence on several generations of music lovers. Because what John did was he made it cool to be into a lot of different sorts of music and that's been for Jonathon, my partner and me. That was definitely a common ground. And then hip hop and scratch mixing and BPM mixing gave us a tool kit where we could be into a lot of music and we could mix that shit together and make something outside of it. Start creating an offspring by hybridizing all these elements together. So then initially it was a four track cassette and decks. Then I got an MC-202, which was a little Roland sequencer, but I didn't have the manual.
I couldn't fucking work out how to program [it]. I couldn't get it to make a loop that would work. And then one day, by chance I got a loop that worked. I was trying to rip off "We're Rocking Down The House" by Adonis, which was one of these Chicago house records. This is like 1986 now. And suddenly the loop worked - only later did I work out that you had to enter the step sequences so the length added up to 128 then it would loop. But it was like, "My God, I've got it. Don't turn it off. Just keep it going!" I'm just getting inside the sound, playing with the filter - BowBowBowBaDopADop - and that became Doctorin' The House, which was our first sort of big hit. So then you know, then I got, when we made our first record: Say kids, What Time Is It?
That was just just using the four track and turntables and cassette editing. We got some money from that. I bought a Casio RZ drum machine which had 0.8 of a second of sampling time on it, which was just enough to get four drums off James Brown funky drummer into it so you can make up your own beats, make your own breaks. It was all about Rare Groove and breakbeat then. And at this time I'd met Jonathan who was actually a really cool established figure on the London Rare Groove scene. I was nobody but I could scratch and mix and add some good ideas and we were like, "We like these records from New York by Double Dee and Steinsky called Lessons." They were called Lessons 1, 2 and 3. "Okay, let's do something like this." So I came back to him with a tape. I said, "What do you think of this?" He said, "This is wicked, let's put it out." So we pressed 500 copies and that was the style of Coldcut.
Darwin: That's how it got rolling. Very, very cool. Now, over the course of time, with Coldcut and especially then after you established the Ninja Ninja Tune label, you ended up finding yourself in a position to work with an awful lot of different performers, different producers and stuff. And it could have really easily kind of devolved into you either becoming like business guy or producer guy or marketing hype guy, but you always kind of kept your fingers in technology, right?
Matt: Well that was the fascination really that we, John and I, it was good to make a record and put it out and people liked it and buy it and get some money. But then with that money, we just buy some more equipment. That's how we started. So I'll just sketch in just the beginning of the Coldcut again: a bit after the RZ drum machine and the little sequencer, the little 202, And we got an Atari 1040, and I read about this stuff and I bought C-Lab Creator. And this is where having a programming... I didn't mention that when I left I did my degree at a university, I did biochemistry, but I did a computing option in the last year learning Pascal. Funny enough. And I got a job with a programming company called Logica in London.
So that was my first job and they very generously allowed me to switch from finance - who had offered me the job. I went to an open day there and there was a guy playing video off what looked like a record. I said, how can you do that? He said, yeah, we can encode it and actually we can send video down the phone line. It's called delta compression. I was like, really? That's fucking cool. Then he showed me another thing, which was a sort of pen and tablet where you could draw on this tablet and it would come out on the screen. It was a thing they'd invented called Flare was like their version of Quantel Paintbox - early computer graphics. So as I said, look, I'm really into this. And they let me switch from finance to comms very generously and otherwise my life would have been a lot different.
Again, I'd probably have made a lot of fuck of a lot of money doing banking software, but I went into the comms side and so I learned to code assembler and work on these early computer graphics stuff. So that was an important step there, which I forgot as well. But again, it was about computers. Computers can be used for creative cool stuff that allowed me to follow the idea up. So then I got C-Lab Creator and because I had a programming environment, I learned I'd never touched a sequencer before, but I learned to use it in a couple of hours. I've got the concept and I could start making music using a sequencer. And that was pretty damn cool. First I just triggered the drum machine. Then I got another Casio. I think they gave us a half-price - some sampler. The FZ-1.
We've always sort of slightly taken the odd route, so most people like Akai's. But we ended up with this Casio, which was a good box actually. And I've sort of always liked the things that people think are not... I like something that's doesn't scream professional necessarily - a bit left field or you're taking a toy and you're using it for some serious purpose. First baseline we played from a sample was played on the 20 quid Casio, actually one of the very early little samplers, an SK-1. So we always liked that sort of playful attitude and we like toy related me back to my sound and light shows when I was a kid and you know, so that worked. And then we see that Creator was a whole world to get into.
So once I started to penetrate that, the possibilities were endless and then we started making more sophisticated records and we started getting into proper recording studios because we had a hit with Doctorin' The House. You know, this was after having put out a couple of records. Long story short, we got signed and we had our own label initially - Ahead of Our Time - but then this indie company, Big Life, seized onto us and they were like, "We've got this young, singer. We'd like you to do stuff with her." And that was Yazz, and that became Doctorin' The House, then we did The Only Way Is Up later on. And we're also drawing on John's skill and knowledge as a DJ and his extensive record collection. He was really into break beats and he was friends with Dr. Jones, Dr. Bob Jones, this amazing soul DJ. And so that brought me to a bunch of other experiences as well. And suddenly, we were on Top Of The Pops.
Darwin: So when you would go and do live shows, you probably didn't want to haul your Atari/C-Lab combo out on a gig, right? So how did you do a show?
Matt: We did it initially from a deejaying set of techniques. But it was a while before we would do live Coldcut shows. I mean Top Of The Pops you just play the track as the euphemism is "one title, full playback" meaning you just mime to it and you pretend to scratch or play the keyboard or whatever - the musicians union didn't accept DJ then, so we had to register as a drummer and a keyboard player, respectively. So that was quite funny. And I respect the musician's union actually, I'm not sure that DJs are musicians or very few of them are - someone like Kid Koala. He's a musician. But not everyone who plays someone else's records is a musician. And once we got some hits, there was a request. There was an opportunity to do live shows that were more than just deejaying.
And I sort of look back on it now and in retrospect I can kind of see the big picture. And it was this: we didn't want to just DJ because that was a bit boring and you couldn't really do that much. We didn't want to take the studio on the road with us - apart from the 1040, C-Lab which would be bound to crash. And you know, what was really the point of playing a bunch of sequences anyway? We'd of had to take the SSL desk with us as well, which is like, you know, a quarter of a million pounds set up because the studio records we made, we made on an SSL. So really you need that. And then, well, why, why not take the two-inch with you as well? And, but then you know, what are you actually doing?
And it just wouldn't be practical. Another approach would be, okay, let's hire a band. They can learn all these songs, which started off as a bunch of samples and then we can go out as a band. And I remember - I love Massive Attack. I rate Unfinished Symphony as probably the single greatest track of our epoch, actually the electronic epoch. And I know those guys, as I say, when they were The Wild Bunch, but I remember seeing them in New York when they were just dying off and they did this sort of scrappy decks and a bit of effects and people singing and top show and some samplers and it wasn't very good. And they obviously realized this because they went back and the next year they came out with Massive Attack - the band. And that's been very successful. It's a format that's worked for them.
But I wanted something else. I wanted something that was more related to the aesthetic and techniques of sampling and hip hop and cut up. And so I thought, well, we need to build something to do this. And that was the sort of genesis of what's no JammPro. And as I was saying before, we have usable prototypes of that from the mid-nineties so that we could take our material and I think we were probably one of the first electronic bands to recognize the use of stems. So I was like, okay, we're in the studio, we've mixed down the stereo mix. Now what we're gonna do is we're going to go through each track and we're going to mix down the EQ'd, compressed, effected version of that as a separate track. And then we'll have those afterwards that we can do stuff with if we want to remix them.
And then we worked out that we could take that, chop that into a set of loops, which could fit into the kind of memory and capacity of a laptop that was around at that time (which was not very much) but reduce it to a set of loops so that you could then recreate that track live, but that you weren't fixed to a timeline. You won't fix to a structure. You add the elements there and you could really mix them, mash them, improvise with them in a quite a flexible way. And so that was the the genesis of this type of instrument. We wanted it to be able to perform our own tracks live in a flexible way that wasn't boring and was more true to the hip hop and sampling aesthetic.
So once we got us our stems that we could load them into first these primitive sort of Macromind Director - more on the name check, Robert Pepperell and Miles Visman, who were two guys I worked with at the time as Hex, which was kind of cold cuts, multimedia research arm. And we built these bits of software. And then later on I met Camart and I said, "Look, I want it to..." I designed it, they built it. And then we kept iterating that through Ninja Jamm through JammPro to some art installation stuff. There was also some prototypes. We did a piece called Generator for Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. We did another called Synopticon for the Barbican and these were audio visual mixes that sort of took what we were doing with AV and put it into an interactive console format.
I should say as well, along the way this is part of... another important strand is like, okay, so we're going to go on stage with our laptops and our loops and we're gonna improvise. But that might not be very interesting to look at. Let's put some visuals up on a big screen that go with the music. You know, we did not invent this idea - visuals and music have gone together since Leonardo DaVinci in fact, but certainly since the 60s with Warhol and the Velvet, Pink Floyd and you know, when you see these old posters, Jimi Hendrix with Joshua Light Show, you still get equal billing virtually with the main star. I could go on about where those influences come from. John also was really into visuals, he used to teach 3D design. He used to do things like collect old 50's shoe boxes because they had an interesting texture - the cover of Doctorin' The House was a bit of shoe box. This funky psychedelic blue and orange pattern. And the idea that you could sample visuals as well.
Darwin: I mean, you mentioned working with Camart for the development of DJamm; where I ran across the name Camart was in tracking down VJamm, which I remember as being sort of like that brain twist... or like, "Oh my God, everything that people are doing with an MPC, you're now able to kind of do with visuals as well!" And that was kind of a game changer at the time.
Matt: Well, you've got it. I mean, that was exactly what we are trying to do. And so, rewind to 1988 - we've had some hits. I've got a bit more money. I go to Selfridges and I see an Amiga computer with the juggler demo on it. You know that demo? And I'm like, "Right, that means you could make a film on the desktop computer. I want!" So it was literally like that. I got myself a 2000 - and you could get a thing called a VidioMiga - it was only 40 quid. It was a frame grabber. You could sample visuals with it. Yes, only 12 seconds in black and white. But it was a start. With Duluxe Paint, you could take in samples from that and you could draw on top of them and you could make your own visuals or get demo discs around from people.
The demo scene was hot on the Amiga and you know that scene - that was art man, and not enough [people] recognize that was a whole art form in itself. People doing audio-visuals in code on a floppy disk on these desktop machines. Just maxing out, packing it in and doing incredible stuff, which it was part of where we are today. We've computer graphics and electronic art and music. It's not sufficiently recognized. Hats off to those people who did that. And I didn't code myself - I'd sort of stopped coding by now, but I was more into designing stuff and I'd collect stuff like that. And then I might record out a nice demo and I put it onto a VHS tape and then I'd start veejaying by the mid-nineties, I was vibing at gigs as well. So sometimes we do a squat party and Morris would be there and Aphex Twin would be there and there'd be music and I would do visuals along with it.
I took a projector along, the office projector of course for business demonstrations. And, you know, that could blast out some psychedelic visuals and people were quite into it sometimes. Sometimes people just ignore it, but then sometimes, especially with a tripped out audience, you'd look up and you see it really got people's attention with the visuals. And it sunk in actually a wild later, just as a DJ and VJ, what responsibility you had to provide something good, some good nutrition, because people were in a very suggestible state a lot of the time at parties. And so you want to give them something good and beautiful and ideally positive and inspiring. So that was part of the trip as well. But yeah, the Amiga was a big step for me realizing that, okay, what we'd done with sampling and electronic music, we can apply a lot of that to visuals as well.
And that proved a very, very fruitful vector to take, first just mixing visuals along with music, then trying to synchronize it together. Then with a program like Premiere, being able to actually assemble video and the audio on the timeline needing something like the, Video Vision Radius card that was an audiovisual sampler on the Mac. And there was a guy called James Stevens, who is a very interesting sort of cyber activist guy. He started what was - we were in this big warehouse near London bridge, Ninja Tune and a bunch of other interesting startups. And downstairs was Backspace, which was the first public access cybercafe London run by James Stevens and he used to get cheap Mac gear and he sold us this Quadra 840av and this board.
So then I was working with Stuart. We formed this Hexstatic identity together. I gave Stu that and a bunch of nature tapes and the EBN show reel. Let's hear it for Emergency Broadcast Network from New York. They were the first people in my book to do modern digital AV cutup. And it's like, "Let's do something like that!" Respect to America for culturally leading the way, I mean a sob for the state of the country at the moment, but a lot of my heroes come from America. A lot of the culture that's formed my life, whether it was Marvel comics or hip hop or audio visual cutup - a good bit of a cultural dance and exchange and sex between London and New York and and lots of other places as well. But that's one axis I've been particularly, it's been particularly fruitful for me, that's, "Hey, we can do this with visuals and we can combine it with music and that would be really fucking cool." That was a big new epiphany as well, so I got on that and I've been on that for the last 25 years as well.
Darwin: Right on. But that also again led you into the path that you're implementing still today, which is this role of software developer. Back then it was making stuff that could barely work on a desktop computer. Now it's jamming as much as you can into an iPad Pro. And in a way it's kind of full circle to sort of the love of techno geekery from your youth, but at the same time you're really taking kind of a designerly role here rather than just like banging out code. What you're trying to do is, is come up with the ideas necessary to develop things, right?
Matt: Yeah. I mean coding just got a bit too hard, basically, yeah. I don't think I was ever really that good a coder. I'm a bit more of a sort of, I'm a sort of Jack of all trades. I can do a bit of everything, but I'm not really that great. I'm not that great an engineer. I'm not that great of a musician, I'm not that great a DJ. And all that great a coder or that great a graphic designer or a filmmaker. But I can do a bit of each of those things. And I've been able to parley that into some sort of mixed career, but some coding got too difficult and yeah, I figured it was better to have a team of people to help me implement those ideas and finding those people and having a crew and I'm managing those relationships and so on.
There's been a whole, a whole story in itself. But, my JammPro crew, I've got three guys who are the main engineers on it and we get on really well and they're great to work with. So, as I've got older, I've found I'm better at being able to hold those kinds of groups together and not let my ego piss people off and stuff. So that's one of the advantages of getting older. I think one's experience of people means that one can operate more in that way. So maybe that's why one tends to drift into a sort of manager or you know, the best, the best job actually for anyone out there has been Creative Director - that's the best and just have a great time coming up with crazy ideas and someone else has to do the hard work of coding them or making them happen!
Darwin: But I think actually though, one of the things that's important in what you do and what you bring to the game is being a Jack of all trades. I feel like in modern society, the Jack of all trades role is kind of treated like, "Oh, it's too bad you're that if you really want to make a bundle, you have to specialize." Right?
Matt: It would be sad if that was the case. I think these things pull and push simultaneously in opposite directions. And if you look at music, for example, there's a lot more people making music nowadays. Right? And the roles that used to be: for example, writer, composer, arranger, singer, engineer, producer remixer, DJ, mastering, manager, live performer.
Darwin: That's all called being an electronic musician now.
Matt: Yeah. For many people that's coalesced and you'll find at least some of those roles, some people doing some or all of those roles. And I think it's good. I mean for me it's been, I continue learning. I'm still learning all the time cause I'm not very good at anything. So there's still a lot to learn.
Darwin: It's funny - you're very good at sort of putting yourself down. But I think anybody who looks at your history of accomplishments would beg to differ. Now unfortunately our time is already long up, but I don't give a crap cause this has been a great conversation. But before we go, you mentioned earlier that you're kind of getting involved in more activism and I would say that there has been over the years, the music that Coldcut has produced has often had kind of a political edge to it. Being in the UK you've got a lot of political turmoil of your own to have to wrestle with. But also with your feelings, your sense of wanting to be engaged in things like ecological preservation and stuff like that - this puts you in a position of sort of have a global political view as well. I'm curious, from your perspective, how effective can artists and musicians be in the realm of activism and politics - and what for you represents a concrete way of pursuing that?
Matt: Yeah, I mean that's a huge question and one that we do get asked - "Can music really be political?" I do believe that art and music can have a political and sociopolitical meaning and some weight to them. And there are many examples. So we do often get asked that. And you know, it's like, "Hello, come on, look at the history and you will see good examples of that." Off the top of my head I could mention Banksy, a seriously brilliant artist and social commentator. I could mention John Hartfield who invented political photo montage. I could mention Pink Floyd and Roger Waters and The Wall, which has a pretty clear agenda of leave the kids alone and let people think for themselves. And fuck off, you Fascist bastards. I could mention Sun City and the role of Artists Against Apartheid and Rock Against Racism in helping make it not very cool to be a racist and changing what they call "the political discourse", changing the needle so that, in fact, people wake up one day and realize I'm not down with those old fashioned attitudes or I'm with acceptance and I'm prepared to put my hand up and say, "Yeah!"
Greenpeace is an organization I've worked with quite often. Timber became a bit of an anthem for them - that is about deforestation and how those things affect people. I just had an interview with Maceo Plex who's a well-known techno and tech house DJ and producer. As a young guy working the records store he heard the piece Timber and he thought were really cool and it helped launch him into making music himself, but also introduced him to ideas of deforestation and conservation. So I just heard that the other night from him. So sometimes one doesn't know what effect one's work's going to have. But I think art and music should be about something; a funky beat and exciting noises are all very well. But for me, I like it to be about something. And what could be more important than the world we live in. The environment we live in, politics is the air that you breathe. It's the bus that you wait for, it's the truck that is poisoning you. It's the guys in the city making 100 million out of another coal power station, which then gives your grandkids asthema - everything is connected and it's a fitting focus to bring that up to the surface and shine some light on it and be aware of it and be amongst it.
Darwin: Fantastic. Unfortunately our time is well up. But before we go, I'd like to just kind of fill people in on where to go to check things out. And, especially with this new releases of both JammPro but also the Zen Delay. Where would people go to find out more about this stuff? Are there a lot of like YouTube videos and stuff that can kind of be introductions?
Matt: Yeah, there's a, there's a good intro video for the Zen Delay and another one for JammPro. I think if you search that you'll find them. There is JammPro.net as well, which is a good sort of introductory resource. And probably we should have a page to pull all these things together, but yeah, that it's out there, you will find it. There's a nice video for the Zen Delay I made with The Bug in Berlin, that's a pretty cool little video and there's also some good YouTube videos demonstrating as well. So hopefully people will enjoy those.
Darwin: Sure. I mean, given all of the things that you've done and you continue to do, I'm wondering what is sitting on your work bench, that might be getting done soon. You obviously have this Coldcut project that you're going to be releasing, but you must have like 17 other projects here, too. Right?
Matt: I've concentrated the last couple of years on wrapping stuff up. There are some other things I could talk about which are out there now. One of them is an app called Bogus Order, with granular visual synthesis, which is another concept. There's the Robbery video game which we got out there as well. You have to jail the bankers to save the world. And I've got some other stuff, but at the moment I want to get on with using my instrument and in enjoying it. And like I say, trying to do some kind of a granular positivity to help with the world's problems. Now that sounds pretty preachy, doesn't it? I just want to, I want to be positive and contribute for benefit and have a good time. So that's enough to be getting on with.
Darwin: Yeah, it sounds, again, like a nice gig. I appreciate that. So, Matt, I want to thank you for taking the time to have this chat. It was really fantastic to talk to you.
Matt: Thank you very much for your support. Big up to the community, my brothers and sisters, the geek did inherit the earth. So let's keep rocking. Bye.
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