By Andy Emitt
The thing about sex is that you never know what you’ve missed until you’ve had it. Queer electronic duo Matmos’s newest album, Ultimate Care II — a project that digs deep into revolutionary ideas about sexuality and objectification — is another thing you can’t grasp until you experience it.
When my boyfriend told me last month that we were going to International House Philadelphia to see Matmos perform the album live, I thought it sounded like pretentious bullshit. Fortunately, my shallow attraction to fame lured me in anyway. Years before, my boyfriend had partied with the band while they were the backup instrumentalists for Björk, house-sitting for her in New York; perhaps we would be able to chat with them after, I thought. Never have I been so grateful for my crass love of celebrity or the seductive idea of Björk’s coffee table. Matmos’s live performance of Ultimate Care II ranks among the strangest, most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had, musically or otherwise. I was expecting a mad-scientist buffet spread of equipment, just another DJ set with two dudes wildly pressing buttons and twisting knobs. Naïve? Yes. I left floored, thrilled, washed all over.
Matmos, whose band name comes from the evil planetary substrate featured in the film Barbarella, consists of life partners Martin (M.C.) Schmidt and Drew Daniel. At the performance I saw, they were joined by a guest percussionist playing a washing machine. This was a crucial artistic choice: Schmidt and Daniel crafted Ultimate Care II out of their shared encounters with their very own washing machine, a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II, which not only provides them with clean socks but also, both in life and on their album, supplies a fixed duration, variable rhythms, and external and internal surfaces to bang and sample. Schmidt and Daniel explained during an after-show Q&A led by scholar Heather Love that they trade off creative control with each album. This one belongs to Schmidt, who regularly does the couple's laundry while Daniel is off moonlighting as an English professor at Johns Hopkins University. That same washing machine — hauled up from their basement recording studio in Baltimore — doesn’t simply share the stage. The off-white boxy machine dominates the center, taking on its own star persona.
Ultimate Care II is a pretty genius tech-electronica gimmick, a John Cageian experiment in attention, the erotic, and objects. The album is sold on iTunes as one 38-minute track — their own Lovesexy — and has been grudgingly divvied up into “Excerpts” for the sake of digital distribution on Spotify and other streaming platforms. The word choice is notable: “Excerpt” is Matmos’s cheeky but still diminutive substitution for “track” or “song,” their sly way of bashing the mp3-amplified instinct we have to skip tracks, like or heart our favorites, reorder songs into playlists — our compulsion to split albums up rather than treat them as concrete, unmovable works of art. Ultimate Care II must be experienced in its entirety if you want to experience it at all — but I doubt I could have known this without having seen them on stage, playing live, with a washing machine running the show. It guides their performance through its entire cycle, and the show ends with the conclusive buzz of clothes-washing completion.
The washing machine also becomes a conduit between the two men in an extraordinary way: What might have been just another object between their two intertwined lives, with all the random communications made through it, instead becomes — through percussion, touch, and record — a third lover. Touch is built upon, exchanged, heightened. Call it ménage à Whirlpool.
The performance begins with the click, click, click sounds of the washing machine’s dial being turned. Then, yes, water (concealed behind the machine in a 30-gallon plastic garbage can) begins to pour as the “wash cycle” begins. Water pours out, detergent is added, and on a giant screen behind the band plays a psychedelic montage of melting colors, shapes, and clothes tumbling kaleidoscopic through liquid.
Long-haired Daniel happily nods to the beat for the full hour, while the dapper Schmidt plays percussion. Mostly, this involves Schmidt striking drumsticks on various areas of the machine. On standout “Excerpt Five,” water is sprinkled on the exterior as he smears streaks of sound from the painted metal with involved caresses. Say it aloud, think it again: He plays the washing machine. The washing machine has a solo. If there’s ever been a time to reconsider drop-off laundromats, it’s now. Because, however hard to believe, the way Matmos interact with the machine to create such dizzying music will leave many as it left me: with the immediate desire to go climb inside the dryer or atop the washing machine. The music calls the body. I wanted to dance with the machine, and so did much of the full house.
Of course, the childishness is the point. What is more queer than this, more free to play with everything around them in any way possible? Who else but children make a ‘who' out of a ‘what’? Ultimate Care II, the album and the live experience, frees us up not to touch each other — that would be a pop song — but rather to touch the surfaces around us with renewed eyes. The coffee table, the slant of that tin Art Deco jewelry box, the curlicues of doilies, even a washing machine — all have potential for connection as well as function.
Outside after the show, a circle of fans stared at Schmidt with shy eyes as he spoke to them. One fan brought up the apparent existence of washing machine porn. Schmidt, swallowing back long drafts of smoke, exhaled, unimpressed. “Yeah, actually there’s a group of guys online who get together and each week hang out around another’s washing machine," he replied to our laughter. "They might have five or six early models and will agree to all use the 1950 Constructa.”
“Do you think they know it’s a fetish?” someone asked, grinning.
“Oh, I don’t think that it necessarily is,” Schmidt answered before dropping his cigarette, smiling, and leaving.
When I, too, turned to go back in, I felt each finger wrapping around the door’s handle, cool and comfortingly there, holding my hand in ways not noticed before. Matmos had opened up a world that resonates, throbs, spins with possible engagements and queer, sensuous collaboration.
If you want to see them, they’ll be touring Europe in June with that same washing machine from Baltimore in tow — this time transported via boat.