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Machine Listener’s Matthew Gallagher Is Constantly Curious, Always Researching

Photo given by artist

Within the first few sentences of my interview with Matthew Gallagher, it’s clear that I’m talking with someone not only interesting, but interested. Gallagher’s artistic practice deconstructs the patterns of sound – waveforms – and uses them as mapping agencies. They are constantly inspecting, looking closer into sound, paint, media. With their project Machine Listener, Gallagher takes on electronic and club music, creating something kinetic and deep – moving both hips and mental gears in the listening experience. Their new album Metonym is at times pensive, like on opener “Charon,” and at others propulsive, as on “Boston’s Boy.”

Additionally, Gallagher is working on an exhibit at Hedge Gallery in Cleveland, showcasing their idea of “research for research’s sake” in many different formats under the words “Research & Development.”

I asked them some questions about what makes them tick – after the jump.

Jordan Reyes: Can you tell me a little bit about how you became interested in underground culture?

Matthew Gallagher: I went to Oberlin College in Ohio from 2009 to 2013 and stayed another year after I graduated. During that time I got hooked up with this really awesome crew from Ann Arbor and started booking shows for them on and off campus. Artists like Chrome Sparks, Fthrsn, Kohwi, Lou Breed, Dreampeter, etc. That was during the early 10s when blogs like Altered Zones and Stadiums and Shrines were really hot and writing about a lot of independent touring artists. At the time Adrian Rew was booking crazy shows too, but I was still at that sad point in life where noise made me confused and angry. A bummer–I missed a lot of wild shit like Rodger Stella, Drainolith, Merzbow, Keiji Haino and dozens of other once in a lifetime gigs. In 2013 when I graduated I needed a studio for my visual art practice. My friend James rented me a room at 3 Door Studios in Oberlin. Aaron Dilloway used to drop by to check out paintings and our yard sales and we became friends. At the time I didn’t quite realize how famous he was. He asked me for help moving into his new record store Hanson Records. I agreed and started hanging there a lot. He would pay me in noise LPs from time to time and pass artists my way to book at 3 Door. I was pretty much instantly hooked. I remember him telling me “Hey you’re going down a dark hole with this stuff I just have to warn you.” At the time I laughed it off, but he couldn’t have been more right. 21 year old me couldn’t have possibly conceived of the breadth of wild unexplainable experiences that come with participating in the global experimental music community. In 2014 Aaron and I booked Smegma at 3 Door Studios. Ben Osborne of Tusco/Embassy/Terror opened that gig and asked me for help setting up his music festival Voice of the Valley… It was a really serendipitous life changing moment. More on that later…

JR: When did you first begin drawing or creating visual art? How did that grow to include all of the mediums you’re involved with today? Do you have any preferred format these days?

MG: I always wanted to be a career musician, but was having a hard time breaking into Oberlin’s exclusive conservatory program. I started taking a few visual arts classes in 2011 and became obsessed with visualizing sound. I would throw on a Laurel Halo record and try to interpret the music while I painted, but ultimately, that was futile. Her music is singular and no artist’s rendition will satisfy. I realized that instead of trying to interpret music, I wanted to literally attach things to sound waves to visually map their movement. This came in the form of coating elastic bands in paint and twanging them across pieces of paper. The paint becomes a mapping agent for the sine wave’s kinetic energy. Once I discovered this, I was incredibly thirsty to expose more unseen forces and chemical processes. This has become the mission of my art practice, and has expanded to many other mediums and formats. I use powerful magnetic fields and metal to create sculptures, wax, temperature, and repetitive processes to demonstrate how organic forms are proliferated, ink and solvent to map capillary action in paper, and most recently I’ve been collaborating with Jeff Host and Jacob Koestler to create large scale installations that are essentially artistic standing wave demonstrations. So no, I don’t prefer a format, but a philosophy of collaborating with the organizational structure of our universe to create art that goes beyond what my frustratingly human imagination is capable of rendering.

JR: You have an upcoming exhibit at the Hedge Gallery in Cleveland. What kind of art will you be showing? Is there a theme behind the grouping you’ve selected?

MG: The show at Hedge is titled “Research and Development,” just like my last show there in 2018. I think the title perfectly describes what I’m doing and I believe strongly in research for research’s sake. Everything has to be applied these days and I think that’s too bad and maybe even dangerous. It’s hard for people to get funding for research without there being the eventual goal of some sort of market development. I say resoundingly: Fuck that. For this show, I’ll be showing the full complement of experiments I’ve been doing in the formats mentioned above. I think it’s really important for these different bodies of work to support and talk to each other. The last show was a huge hit and I am really excited for this one–I’m really pushing myself for it. 

JR: Do you remember your first foray into electronic music? What draws you in about synthesizers, samplers, etc

MG: Totally–my first true love was early UK dubstep like Skream, Mala, Plastician etc. I wanted to make that kind of stuff so bad and I got Ableton Live 8.2 in 2010. My friend Luke showed me how to use it. I remember that winter was REALLY cold. Like -10 degrees in Ohio. We would just stay in for days at a time working on tracks side by side. We were doing a lot of really weird drugs at the time too. Smoking big joints of valerian root, DMT, poppy seed tea, hawaiian baby woodrose etc. It was a wild and special time. Shortly after I got my first and still only analog poly synth–the Roland JX3P, which makes frequent appearances on ‘Metonym.’ After playing guitar in my young life, electronic music has been really liberating because it gives the user access to the full range of hearable frequencies. To quote a hero of mine, Richard D. James: “Forget all the equipment, forget the music, at the end of the day it’s just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That’s what everyone’s essentially after.”

JR: What about dance music? I don’t know if folks would always call Metonym “dance,” but it definitely makes me move! What do you like about dance music? What about the kinetic aspect of music in general?

MG: Dance music is the best! Sometimes it’s hard to even call it music. It’s like invisible sculpture that forces you to move. My best friend, Jake Johnson who plays as Moltar has been getting me into this really sick Swedish hard techno – artists like Glenn Wilson and Steel Grooves. It’s different than making music or sound art, much more craft oriented and anonymous. Two aspects I think are essentially human. Some of these tracks have like 6 views on youtube, but when you unleash them on a room full of like minded people, have very powerful unifying, political effects. There’s nothing more dangerous to special interests than a room full of people that only need each other and some sick tracks for happiness, self expression, and spiritual fulfillment. 

JR: How’d you get hooked into doing VoV in West Virginia? I’m sure you’ve answered this before, but I’m curious.

MG: Picking up where we left of on the first question–After the Smegma gig in Oberlin, Ben Osborne asked me to come to Millstone, West Virginia with him and some other crew members to begin preparing a site for Voice of the Valley. The location was very remote, literally on top of a mountain. The work was grueling – chopping down giant trees and clearing the wood, landscaping steep hillsides, jackhammering boulders out of the quarter mile uphill dirt driveway. Some of the work days I felt like I was going to die, but it was so worth it. I’ve helped to organize VOV every year since then, but in 2017 took on more responsibility with organizing and making the fest more financially and culturally sustainable. There is a board of around 8-10 people now and the volunteer coordination is much tighter. It makes everything run more smoothly so the party can go harder. Meeting the community down there has been really incredible. West Virginia gets shit on all the time in media – by northerners, and by their own politicians and outside corporate interests. The reality down there is much different. The locals are radical, forward thinkers with a deep connection to the land and its history. I can’t say enough good things about it. They’ve all welcomed VOV with open hearts and minds and we couldn’t be more lucky to host such a special event in such an amazing place. 

JR: Did any events or concepts lend themselves to the music on Metonym when you were creating it?

MG: All of my music is heavily inspired by my experiences in West Virginia. It’s classified as a temperate rainforest and the level of biodiversity is unreal. You can’t un-see a 120 foot tall tree filled with millions of lightning bugs, a black bear cub running across a meadow, meteors blasting across the night sky, or a ’96 Ford Ranger with a tree growing through it. It’s a really special ecosystem and a really inspiring place to run around in the woods. ‘Metonym’ attempts to synthesize some of those feelings. 

MG: The final track Scanner/Amma Eyes was an attempt to recreate music I heard in a dream. This alien chorus was projecting from the sky while UFOs flew around above us on a beach. I distinctly remember asking Ben Billington in the dream–is someone going to play a set? And he responded “the sets already happening – it’s fucking killer.” I used a sample of my favorite band The Bulgarian National Women’s Choir with a lot of generative processing from my Octatrack to recreate the sound I heard. That was a challenging process, but I was able to reproduce the music I was hearing in the dream. 

JR: You’ve mentioned that it was recorded live – what do you like about that? Is it the “happy accidents” aspect or something else?

MG: Yes a lot of these tracks happened spontaneously. What this means is I spent all of 2019 making patterns and synth patches on my Octatrack, Machine Drum and other synths. During the process of making ‘Metonym,’ I collaged together different patterns and patches at different tempos to make these tracks. That’s a super fun way to make music. Spend a lot of time on the front end making sounds and then use the sequencers to collage them together. You get some really wild combinations and, yes, unexpected ‘happy accidents.’ 

JR: Do you get down with reading much? What kinds of things do you like to read? Any recommendations?

MG: Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Warhammer 40,000 Codices. It’s a tabletop miniatures game with this insanely detailed and expansive lore. Imagine Imperial space Catholics using genetically engineered superhuman warriors to fight psychic demons and hostile technologically advanced alien races all over the milky way galaxy in the 41st millenium. It’s actually a really amazing critique of fascism as well as being a hilariously ridiculous sci-fi narrative. I always wanted to play it as a kid but its rules are a little complicated and you have to assemble and paint the models yourself. Not super kid friendly. I also really like Wikipedia and scientific literature spend a lot of time researching evolutionary biology and physics.

JR: Are there any artistic mediums you’ve yet to try that you’re curious to? If so, what are they?

MG: I’d really like to collaborate with a physicist on some projects. It would be awesome if someone offered a residency at a research university where I could use some of their equipment or create new equipment for messing around with art to demonstrate principles of physics and chemistry. 

JR: What all is in the future for Machine Listener and Matthew Gallagher?

MG: My next record is being released by Cleveland’s Unifactor label. They do an amazing job and I’m excited to work with them. I’m also really stoked to continue releasing records with Hausu Mountain. I can’t speak highly enough of that label and the attention to detail they give their releases and representation. It’s one of a kind and I feel very lucky to work with them. I’ve also been exploring my gender identity more and have been using they/them pronouns. I’m looking forward to playing more with my appearance in the coming months. It feels really good and I’ve had some key support from friends and loved ones on this new journey!

JR: Anything else you’d like to say?

MG: Yeah, I’m an anarchist and I hate politics and think ultimately a lot of it is completely futile, but lets go hard for Bernie this year, k?