Music & clubs

“I still want a relationship with Europe”

INTERVIEW: Ahead of opening this year's UK-themed Wassermusik festival at HKW with his Brexit Big Band, Matthew Herbert talks about renegotiating British identity and a government grant that backfired.

The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band with the London Brexit Choir (Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne: vocals) perform in the Barbican Hall on Monday, 23 October 2017.
Photo by Mark Allan
Mark Allan

Photo by Marc Allan

British experimental producer and composer Matthew Herbert undoubtedly has a knack for setting political issues to music; drawing attention to mass produced meat by sampling a pig from birth to butchering or recording a bomb exploding in Libya to name a few. His latest project, the Brexit Big Band, now follows the UK leaving the EU in real-time: from Theresa May triggering Article 50 until March 2019. In July, Herbert will take this enormous collaborative endeavour, comprising countless acoustic contributions to his Brexit Sound Swap website and hundreds of local musicians he worked with on his so-called “apology tour” through the UK and EU, to Berlin.

What was your initial goal in collecting the sound of Brexit?

It was about collaboration; trying to get out of my own bubble and work with different people across Europe to create a project that would help shape British identity after Brexit. If we’re going to be separate, I still want a relationship with Europe. And so it’s up to me to define what kind of relationship I want to have. For me, that’s about creativity, it’s not about banking or financial trade.

Do you have difficulties following Brexit in real-time?

I was assuming that there would be a clear path to follow, but [the government has] got no plan. My project became really messy and unfocussed about six weeks ago. I was trying to make concrete pieces of music about something that was just intangible. I needed to take back control of this process and that’s when the album started to become more exciting again: I bought a car, and we took it apart; someone is swimming the English Channel for us, and we’re going to record that; we’re going to go up in a World War II fighter plane.

You got in trouble for supposedly using a government grant to apologise for Brexit.

I had a lot of angry people having a go at me. It was quite shocking how hateful it was, which seemed really strange to me because I’m trying to create a piece about peace and tolerance and compassion. So, I turned the abuse I got into lyrics. One of the songs on the record are all the names I got called, and it just sounds really silly and funny when you set it to music.

Will you be working with Berlin musicians?

We have German musicians and we have a German choir put together just for the concert. That’s a really important part for me, working with local musicians in that way. We’re working with 600 musicians and 1500 singers, which means a lot of logistical work. It’s not about trying to find a local celebrity to come and sing one piece of music. It’s trying to build a whole show with a whole new group.

Is there an overall theme emerging?

It’s about remembrance. Remembering the dream behind the European Union and what that means or should mean to the UK. And in all the talk of Brexit we should remember that Britain has a lot of other things to take care of as well: poverty and exploitation and the privatisation of public services have all tangible effects on people’s lives, including death through austerity. It’s those kinds of things I want this record to be in remembrance of.

Matthew Herbert’s Brexit Big Band Jul 27, 19:00 Haus der Kulturen der Welt