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mat smith promoInterview with

Mat Smith, the man behind pop music articles and sleeve notes and an interesting music project called THE ENGINEER

Ever since I got into online music journalism, I’ve always been interested in the background characters around my favourite musicians’ releases that add something important to the product we, the fans end up with. With this in mind, over the years I have interviewed personalities such as Anton Corbijn (photographer of DEPECHE MODE and many other music greats), Gareth Jones and Mark Saunders (producers and mix masters of DEPECHE MODE and ERASURE amongst others).

About eight years ago I had the honour of helping to promote Vince Clarke’s then newly founded mini-record label (VeryRecords) and his releases. In addition to the artists whose albums have been released there in recent years, I also got in contact with Mat Smith, who, like me, is a freelancer - readers of Electronic Sound and Clash know him well - and works as a publicist for VeryRecords as well as being commissioned by ERASURE and Mute Records for a number of press pieces. He also wrote the sleeve notes in the booklet of the new ‘Cowboy’ Deluxe-Edition.

In addition to his journalistic work, he also has his own project MORTALITY TABLES, which has just released a new mini-album on cassette and as a digital download. Last November, at the premiere of Vince Clarke’s solo album in London, I had the pleasure of meeting Mat in person and we had a lively chat about our shared passion for music. Knowing how important this project is to him, I approached him and asked him a few questions about it. But then life, or rather death, intervened. I didn’t mean this as a cheap shot, but it was indeed a sad event that forced me to make changes to the interview I had with my friend and colleague almost three weeks ago. Now that the aforementioned label is going on holiday, and before I do the same, I would like to bring this exciting musical venture (THE ENGINEER) to your attention - and this interview with the man behind it.

Reflections of Darkness [RoD]: Tell us briefly about how you became interested in music. Have you had any musical training, have you learnt to play any instruments? Do you remember the first record you bought?
Mat: I grew up in a house where music seemed to always be playing, either on the radio or on my parent’s stereo. My mother listened to a lot of ABBA. Nothing about that was exceptional, particularly. When I used to go to friends’ houses, they always seemed to have the TV switched on, which felt strange to me. My family chose music, and I’ve surrounded myself with it ever since. I tried to play the recorder, which was the instrument that most of us learned as kids. My parents gave me a blue one for Christmas one year. I couldn’t play a single note. I briefly learned the basics of notation at school but very quickly forgot all of it. In early high school music classes I was more interested in recording real-life sounds into the Casio keyboard and using those to make compositions. Not long after that, I started making sample-based electronic music on my Amiga 500. The first album I owned was NIK KERSHAW’s ‘Human Racing’. I was given for my birthday the year it was released, along with a Sanyo portable cassette player. I played that album constantly. I wore out the cassette player after two weeks but I still have the ‘Human Racing’ tape and it still sounds incredible to me.

RoD: When did you discover electronic music? And who was the first electronic artist who introduced you to the world of electronic music?
Mat: My father is responsible for switching me on to electronic music. There were three pivotal events, and they all relate to times I was with my father. The first was one evening when my mother was at her restaurant job, and my father was looking after me. I was playing with Lego in the lounge and GARY NUMAN was performing ‘Cars’ on TV. That performance completely captivated me. The next was driving around in my father’s car while he did his second job as a debt collector. A friend at work had recorded two tracks from OMD’s ‘Architecture & Morality’ album onto a cassette for him. The songs were ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’, and we’d listen to them over and over. The third was SOFT CELL’s ‘Non-Stop Erotic Videotape’, which he brought home from work one day. That was pretty mind-blowing for a five-year old, and I can only imagine he didn’t realise what it was. It was definitely not suitable for a kid of my age, but, looking back, I don’t remember the imagery - I only recall the music. So I owe my father a huge debt for how he shaped my music tastes at a very early age. He was also the one who brought home a cassette copy of ‘The Innocents’ by Erasure and gave it to me. He had no idea quite what he started that day.

RoD: When did you start writing journalistic texts for Mute Records and its artists? What was your first article for Mute and about which artist, which release?
Mat: I began a blog called Documentary Evidence in 2003, which was focused on my personal Mute Records collection. I’d just write about the releases from a mostly non-musical perspective, explaining how they made me feel. I still write reviews like that today for Electronic Sound. I also got really interested in telling the stories of specific releases or artists, and that led me to interview people who released music through Mute, or were somehow connected to the label. I have a natural curiosity and inquisitiveness, and that seems to mean people like talking to me and opening up.  From there I started writing for Clash, and then Electronic Sound and some other places. In 2017 I got asked to chair a panel discussion with Anton Corbijn, Daniel Miller, Paul A. Taylor and Steve Claydon (ADD N TO (X)) at Rough Trade East in London, about the visual identity of Mute. The first written Mute commission I got was to write a press biography for Chris Carter’s ‘Chemistry Lessons Vol. 1’. I couldn’t believe they asked me to do that, and I couldn’t believe I was being paid to write for the label I loved so much. The team at Mute liked what I did and I’ve been given a few more things to do since then, as well as with the team at BMG who look after the ERASURE reissue programme, and ERASURE themselves.

RoD: Did Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords label and the associated promotion give you any impetus for your own project, which you called MORTALITY TABLES?
Mat: Indirectly, yes, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. My task with VeryRecords was to assemble the press releases. It was the first time I’d worked behind the scenes of a release, where I’d often get involved before the album was even mastered, or before the artwork had even been considered. So I’d be talking to the artists - Reed & Caroline, Alka and Brook - at a very early stage, generally when Vince felt that the album was finished enough for me to listen and for me to start engaging the artists. It took a while for me to realise this, but the process of working with the artists to write a press release became a collaboration - between all of us, and between my words and their music. I wasn’t just a writer but part of the collective effort to put this music out into the world. I did the same with Nick Hook’s Calm + Collect label, working on releases by Gareth Jones, Spiritual Friendship and others.

In 2019, when I began forming MORTALITY TABLES, I envisaged it as a creative community of collaborators. You can definitely draw a line between that and the ideas that began to form as I worked with VeryRecords and its artists. I also took a lot of inspiration from Vince, who didn’t feel that he needed to only focus on the music that people would expect him to release. That sense of freedom, which Daniel Miller also brought to Mute, directly fed into what MORTALITY TABLES has become. I wanted something where I could work with people making sound art as well as people making images. It had to have artistic breadth. I wanted MORTALITY TABLES to be like a gallery, with a portfolio of artists in vastly different disciplines. That’s why Neil Coe deigned the first sleeve image to look like the description of an artwork on the wall of a gallery.

RoD: The name of the project refers to the work of actuaries who measure the statistical probability of life insurance pay-outs. You do something like this in your everyday working life, don’t you?
Mat: That’s right. I work with insurance companies all around the world, and have done for over twenty years. I find lots of parallels between the worlds of insurance and electronic music, and the kinds of people I engage with in both of my jobs. The story goes that I was meeting a friend in a café in Bloomsbury in London one morning. He runs a record label, which is another big inspiration for MORTALITY TABLES. He wishes to remain anonymous, but he is actively involved, in the sense that he must approve anything we decide to do. I call him the Creative Consultant. So I was meeting him and he had an LP of one of his releases to give me. He asked me if I had a bag to put it in, and I reached into rucksack and retrieved a tote bag. It was from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries and had been given to me by an actuary a few years before. The Creative Consultant saw the bag with its logo and Latin inscription (“e peritia ratio” - “reason from experience”) and asked what it meant. I replied, “It’s all mortality tables and shit like that.” The name stuck. We created our first MORTALITY TABLES product that morning. It’s called “Forktalk” and is a conversation between two friends. We do not publish the details of our conversations. Its entry in the MORTALITY TABLES catalogue is MTP0.

RoD: Dave Clarkson, who is mostly active in electronic and experimental music and WONDERFUL BEASTS, a sound art/electronic music duo consisting of the anonymous Xqui and Carl Knott (boycalledcrow, Spacelab) were your first artists, right? How did you get in touch with them? 
Mat: The release that moved MORTALITY TABLES from something conceptual to something “real” was ‘Two Meditations For Freya’ by GOODPARLEY (whose name has now changed to PLEASE CLOSE YOUR EYES). That was in 2022. It signalled what I wanted MORTALITY TABLES to be: I would come up with ideas and hand them to someone to “respond” to. That concept has stayed consistent through the first two years of MORTALITY TABLES. I’ll come up with an idea and pick someone to get involved. At the last count, there are at least fifty people who are collaborators. And it isn’t just sound projects - MORTALITY TABLES encompasses sound, art, and words. And insurance. However, all rules in creativity are there to be broken, and I broke my own rules in 2023 with the release of Dave Clarkson’s ‘Ghosts Of Christmas Past (Music From Vintage Toys)’. I had nothing to do with the concept of that album, so I guess that’s a bit like MORTALITY TABLES acting like a traditional record label, which is a description I never want to use.

The same is true of Andrew Brenza and Alka’s ‘pod’ and boycalledcrow’s “Kullu”. However, all these releases only existed because of an earlier collaboration, and that’s how I got myself comfortable with releasing these projects. You’ll see a few more of those types of projects from MORTALITY TABLES over the next few years. In answer to your question about how I find artist, it’s actually really straightforward. Anyone involved with MORTALITY TABLES is someone whose music I’ve written about. As for how I choose an artist for a particular project, that’s mostly a case of matching a collaborator to an idea that feels aligned to what they would usually do. However, some of the most enjoyable projects are where the artist is working a long way outside of what they might normally do.

RoD: After artists like Andrew Spackman, Rupert Lally, Simon Fisher Turner and Veryan, two years ago you released a strange and experimental piece called ‘On Mortality, Immortality & Charles Ives’.  The piece is a spoken word piece in which you read out the MORTALITY TABLES’ manifesto: “In life, our one true certainty is death.” This narration, recorded by Gareth Jones, was then sent to Vince Clarke who recorded a musical response to the text, which forms the soundtrack to the release. How did you come up with this, somewhat absurd, idea?
Mat: I had bought a copy of a book by Alex Danchev called ‘100 Artists’ Manifestos - From The Futurists To The Stuckists’ at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2021. I read each of the manifestos from groups like the Surrealists, Dadaists and Situationists as if they were short stories, and it became a really profound experience. On the back of ‘Two Meditations For Freya’, people had started to ask me what MORTALITY TABLES was all about, so it seemed completely natural (and not absurd at all) to write a manifesto. Mostly it was designed to help me understand why I was doing this, and then I decided to explain it to everyone else. That’s when I asked Gareth to record my narration. At the same time I approached Vince and an anonymous sound artist called VENOZTKS to create sound pieces to accompany it. The listener can judge whether it successfully explains what this is all about, or not. It does explain why the composer and actuary Charles Ives is so critical to the evolution of MORTALITY TABLES. In fact, the second MORTALITY TABLES product to be made available was a postcard containing an illustration of Ives in front of a mortality table from 1874, the year of Ives’s birth. That piece was a collaboration with Savage Pencil who had illustrated a lot of the Blast First sleeves.

RoD: Released on June 16th, the 40-copy limited edition cassette THE ENGINEER is a charity project for Alzheimer’s disease featuring Vince Clarke, Penelope Trappes, Chris Illingworth, Barney Ashton-Bullock, Lara Jones, Simon Fisher Turner, Hattie Cooke, Gareth Jones, Veryan and others. The title character is your father, isn’t he? Is that why you chose Father’s Day as the release date? Tell us a bit about this project!
Mat: The title character, the engineer, is based on my father. This project dates back ten years, probably longer, a long time before MORTALITY TABLES was an idea. I wrote a short story that tried to deal with my feelings about my father as he approached retirement. He lived for work, had no hobbies or friends, and I envisaged him struggling to cope with the concept of stopping work. I was angry when I wrote it, but I was also scared for him. It’s fiction, but it’s rooted in his reality. His actual retirement was very different to what happens in the story. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2018, and that’s why we’ll donate all profits from THE ENGINEER to the Alzheimer’s Society. Sadly he passed away shortly after THE ENGINEER was released. When I published the story on my blog, an electronic musician called Laica (Dave Fleet) offered to create some music inspired by the story. He composed a beautiful piece but the project never got completed. A few years later, I came up with a different idea, which involved someone narrating the story with a piece of music behind it. That version also never got off the ground at all, but I liked the idea of asking someone to narrate the story. That’s when I asked Barney Ashton-Bullock if he would do it. He has a brilliant speaking voice, and it was perfect for this story.

It was Gareth Jones who suggested the idea of having different artists respond to different sections of narration. He said it was a bit like the Surrealist game ‘Exquisite Corpse’. I think of Gareth as my spiritual guru. He has a way of unlocking ideas, and freeing you from obstacles that are only there because you’ve put them there THE ENGINEER wouldn’t exist in this form if it wasn’t for Gareth. From there, it was a case of picking the collaborators and asking them to respond to a specific 30-second section of narration. No one heard the full story, and no one asked to hear the whole thing. The order the artists agreed to say yes determined which section they got. The only rule I gave them was that their sound response needed to last exactly thirty seconds. There are two editions of THE ENGINEER. One is a digital file that combines the narration and sound responses. The other is a cassette that splits the narration and responses apart. That means the only place you can hear Vince Clarke’s sound response without Barney’s narration is on the cassette, which has now sold out.

RoD: Barney Ashton-Bullock (the creator of Andy Bell’s TORSTEN projects), Vince Clarke, as well as Reed Hays, Alka and Gareth Jones will be familiar to most of our readers, but who are the other contributors?
Mat: Again, everyone involved is someone I’ve written about. When I came up with my collaborator list for this, it was important to me to achieve some sort of diversity. So a lot of the artists here are electronic, but you have artists covering everything from Pop to Sound Art. That was deliberate. I also wanted diversity of textures. That’s why I included Charlotte Keeffe, Chris Illingworth from GOGO PENGUIN and Luce Mawdsley. When you put all 29 sound responses together as a single piece, it sounds like a right fucking mess. As the responses were coming in over a 30-month period, I realised that the sprawling, messy quality was a lot like my father’s Alzheimer’s - ideas form, are quickly forgotten before they develop, and are then replaced by something else. That wasn’t planned, at all, but now I can see it was a subconscious idea that must have been there from the moment that Gareth suggested involving lots of artists.

RoD: What plans and ideas are currently circulating in your head? Will it be something journalistic or another MORTALITY TABLES release?
Mat: I’m always writing, and I’ve got a few big things underway right now, including something for a label I’ve done a few pieces for before. In terms of MORTALITY TABLES, now that THE ENGINEER has been released, all activities will he paused until later in the summer. We’ve released a huge number of products in just over two years and I need a break. We’ll return later in the summer with Season 03 of LIFEFILES, which is an ongoing project where artists respond to my really basic field recordings. We’ll also release a single from PLEASE CLOSE YOUR EYES, an album from Andrew Spackman and the full version of Andrew Brenza and Alka’s ‘pod’ collaboration. I’ve been working on one of several projects inspired by Charles Ives, ‘Central Park: A Picture-In-Sounds’, which will be issued as a “score” in October, along with some additional performances of the piece. We’ll begin work on another large-scale collaboration called THE IMPERMANENCE PROJECT.

Other things will happen. Other things will not. You can find more information about MORTALITY TABLES releases under this link:
Use code “janos” for a 10% discount off anything in the MORTALITY TABLES catalogue.

I would like to end this article with a personal message from Mat Smith, who asks the readers and the music listeners to support, if they can, the Alzheimer’s Society, which has received the proceeds of the tape release mentioned in the interview. If you feel able to, please donate to directly.

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