It's hard to say whether a great music experimentalist is unusually focused or just easily distracted. For the moment, at least, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt would appear to fall into the latter camp.
"You have to come see this, Martin!" Daniel shouts giddily, pausing a moment before clueing me in on the excitement. "I'm sorry. Martin and I made one of those magic crystal trees. You remember those? It's just little paper sticks and then you pour this magic liquid, and six hours later these crystals form. We just made one last night, and when I went to bed it was still looking really scraggly and crappy, and I thought, ‘Well, the magic's gone. It's not working.' But I woke up this morning and went downstairs and it was like wham! These rainbow crystals had formed all around. It looks really cool."
"Oh, Drew, it's beautiful!" Schmidt chimes in from a second phone.
This seems like a fitting introduction to the electronic duo known as Matmos—veteran musical collaborators and life partners whose approach to composition is also a bit like turning paper sticks into crystal trees. (The guys love the metaphor, not too surprisingly.)
After a decade in San Francisco, Matmos relocated last year to Baltimore, where Daniel had earned himself a gig as assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. As a fortunate consequence, Matmos found a welcome home for its nouveau brand of musique concrete inside the highly imaginative and rapidly growing Baltimore scene.
"We feel lovingly embraced by Baltimore," Schmidt says. "It's a very fluid music scene, in that I don't think I've been in so many bands since I was 19 years old. I've been in like five new bands since I moved here. Some grow flowers and some wither away like time-lapse photography, but they are all fun. And it's with all different people— kind of like an orgy room of partnering and re-partnering."
One of those so-called orgy room partners, in a presumably platonic sense, is Dan Deacon—the archduke of Baltimore's indie scene, and another of the big-name performers taking the stage at Big Ears. This news actually comes as a surprise to Daniel, whose motivations for playing Big Ears always involved more than just the festival's cast of all-star experimentalists.
"I think the shear incongruity of that kind of music in that part of the country appealed to me," Daniel explains. "I grew up in Louisville, Ky., so to me, that part of the country is not a place I'm suspicious of or condescending towards in the way I think a lot of people are.
"I think a lot of people who are in New York or L.A. kind of pooh-pooh the rest of the country and don't really assume that people there have any curiosity about experimental work. But my experience, growing up in Louisville, is that I was totally famished for it, and really intrigued by the examples of it I saw around me."
Big Ears attendees can expect to hear some material from Matmos' latest LP, their seventh, Supreme Balloon, an album that continues the group's tradition of mining creativity from restriction. In this case, the entire record was recorded exclusively with synthesizers and with zero microphones. In many ways, it's the duo's most accessible (a word they dislike) album yet, but it's also garnering the usual quota of seemingly oppositional adjectives, including "quirky" and "intense."
"That's a great odd couple right there!" Daniel says with a laugh. "I don't know if our music is intense, frankly. I guess some of what we do sounds silly. I've always liked humor in music, but mainly when it sneaks up on you sideways. To me, Nurse With Wound's music is very funny in some places, but it's not merely quirky in a sort of dreadful, Benny & Joon idea of what quirkiness means."
"Oh no, not Benny & Joon," Schmidt concurs.