Matthew Herbert Goes Farm-to-Studio
London producer presses a pig’s lifecycle to wax
“I thought, if I was a pig and I was being eaten, I would want to be cooked by some of the best people in the world.” –Matthew Herbert
British music producer Matthew Herbert has pressed the farm-to-table movement to wax, literally, with his ambitious new album One Pig. The concept album tracks the 24-week lifecycle of a pig, from birth to the dinner table. Herbert, a near-legend within the European experimental music scene, visited the pig every two weeks and recorded sounds like the rustling of hay and the occasional oink—eventually mixing the audio files with his own instrumentation.
The final act was an epic dinner arranged by a food stylist friend, which saw Herbert’s pig cooked by big-name chefs like Jason Atherton and nose-to-tail godfather Fergus Henderson. For example: The shoulder was cooked in cherry beer while the head, braised with five spices, was sided with summer vegetables. Henderson was given the honor of frying the tail. And all the action was recorded for the record. Not your typical dinner party.
I spoke with the producer from his studio outside London to talk food politics, an unjustified PETA smackdown and how he plans to play the album live.
Your album is definitely a lot to take in. First, why did you choose to base an album on the life cycle of a pig—and not other living things like chickens, quails, corn. You could have done something with tofu maybe.
I wanted to do a human, but that's not really possible. You could die before your subject and all the rest of it. So I thought about other animals and it was really striking how long pigs have been with us. I mean, they really are man's best friend. Pigs were domesticated before dogs and are easier to train than dogs. They are highly intelligent. They are taboo in some societies and worshiped in others. And they taste delicious.
To use a term I hate using, but to use a term that is indicative of so many things. I’ve read that you are a bit of a foodie…
Since I travel with my music I've grown to understand and appreciate food from a whole variety of perspectives. I've done well over 1,000 shows in different parts of the world and you normally get taken out to dinner with promoters, so you find yourself having some pretty extraordinary meals and eating some [dishes that are] pretty challenging.
Food is an expression of culture. It is an expression of identity. It’s an expression of the self, of family, of memory, and so many different things. It is something that we have to do and something that we do generally do three times a day. So what we consume and how we consume it tells us an enormous amount about societies. We live in a world of extraordinary flavors and combination and smells, but in actuality the vast majority of it is processed shit. The same processed shit wherever you go. It makes you realize how mono-syllabic our food culture is.
I think a goal of a lot of media outlets, ours included, is to try to change that. We’re establishing that food is more important than a lot of other elements that people cherish in their lives like cars and clothing and the latest album even.
There is a greater awareness in some sense, but it’s getting worse in a much larger way with fast food. Cultures that don't historically have problems with obesity and health epidemics are seeing that.
Your points are very well articulated and you clearly have educated yourself about food policy. So I find it very ironic that PETA came after you when the album was announced.
PETA plays an important role. Their principle position is that we should respect animals and I find that very hard to disagree with. The incident [between us] felt like a bit of self-publicity. It felt like they wanted to draw attention to their own stuff rather than engage in what I was doing. I was pretty disappointed that they didn't bother to call me about it or talk to me and find out why I was doing the album.
Switching gears. You hosted an epic meal that was recorded for the album. How did you get all those chefs to come?
I thought, if I was a pig and I was being eaten, I would want to be cooked by some of the best people. I employed a food consultant called Rosie Sykes who has written a cookbook called The Kitchen Revolution and she herself is an extraordinary chef. So a lot of the people are her favorite chefs and people she knows. I know a few of them.
The dishes you served ranged in style and origins—there’s Asian and Spanish and dishes from the UK.
We wanted to imagine all the different ways pork is cooked around the world. Also, we paid attention to sound as well. So the crackling was important.
How will you play the album live?
I think obviously the biggest absence is the pig, so we built an instrument that can play the pig’s noises—the manipulated samples of the pig’s life. At some point a chef will start cooking behind us.
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