This Electronic Group Made An Album Entirely With Plastic And It's Not Total Garbage

Photo: AP

The plastic pollution crisis of our own making may seem like an odd inspiration for album, doubly so when the item that sparks that inspiration is a 25-year old plastic fish jockstrap. But that’s exactly what put plastic on experimental electronic group Matmos’ radar.

Plastic Anniversary, the resulting album released last month, is at turns both delightful and kind of sickly. That record was made entirely using the plastic we throw away everyday, and while it’s experimental to be sure, it’s also highly listenable. The 11 tracks capture the manic nature of plastic, from its production to polymers piling up in all corners of our planet. In doing so, they make objects that have become nearly invisible in our daily life impossible to ignore, just as the plastisphere threatens to crash down on us.

But first, about that plastic fish jockstrap. Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt, the duo behind Matmos, have been in a relationship for 25 years. They met when Daniel was a go go dancer wearing the aforementioned plastic fish jockstrap.

“I held onto this one object that I thought was important to our relationship,” Daniel told Earther. “Our keepsake was made of plastic. And I went and found it and it was kind of falling apart. That got me thinking about plastic, how it has this long material afterlife but that it still corrodes and degrades that it does, in fact, fall apart.”

Recording in a recycling facility in Whitefish, Montana. (Photo: Courtesy of Matmos)

The tracks build up and decay in a rollercoaster of squeaks, squeals, and squelches from everyday objects. Styrofoam, milk jugs, buckets, the throwaway card that comes with credit card offers, PVC pipe, straws, the container you spit into for a 23andme DNA test, and records are among the mundane items Matmos turned into musical instruments along with more, uh, esoteric stuff like a police riot shield the Albuquerque Police Department sold on eBay (you can buy your own).

The plastics themselves hold surprising dualities, sonically speaking. Styrofoam emits a high pitch noise when crumbled, but strike a big sheet of it with a mallet and in Daniel’s words, “you actually get that incredible low that sounds like trap music like Young Thug or Future-style bass lines” on the track “The Crying Pill.” On “Thermoplastic Riot Shield,” drumming on the riot shield yields a bongo-like vibe while dragging fingers across it produces a shrieking sound that harkens police sirens. Even without track names indicating the objects that created them, it’s impossible to not feel the presence of plastic.

“That’s why the music is very cluttered and frantic and why it’s sort of manic depressive, like there’s this sort of happy uptempo [feeling], but there’s this slightly like sour, melancholic aftertaste,” Daniel said.

The start of the plastic age—which began in the 1930s and gained steamed following World War II—felt like an era of endless possibilities. But by 2019, the sheen is long gone and we’re living in the long shadow of regret. Though plastic degrades, it never really leaves us. Instead, the disintegration of our “useful” plastic objects releases microplastics into the environment. They’ve been found everywhere from drinking water supplies to the high Arctic. Even our air is likely pregnant with microscopic hunks of plastic, which then work their way back up the food chain into our bodies. Recycling, our main strategy to deal with all the plastic, is broken.

“I don’t want people to start thinking differently,” Schmidt said. “I want them to use less fucking plastic. We’re beyond the stage of sort of examining our lives.”

Drumming on a riot shield in the studio. (Photo: Courtesy of Matmos)

At the same time, we’re also trying to dig out from under the avalanche. Single use plastic bag and straw bans are starting to pop up around the world. A majority of U.S. adults are down with banning some single-use plastic, according to a 2018 poll. But there’s still a lot of work to do. An experimental music duo is, of course, not going to turn the whole ship around, and that’s not really the point of Plastic Anniversary anyways. But art plays a role in shaping culture. And we all have a role to play in reshaping our relationship with plastic. That may mean forsaking it or finding alternatives, but we can’t succumb to drowning in a sea of our own waste.

“People like to make these virtual scenarios of collapse because it sort of fast forwards beyond the hard work of change,” Schimdt said. “It’s easier to sculpt picturesque ruins that rebuild the roof.”

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