Preview: One Pig

Daniel Cookney talks to electronic musician Matthew Herbert about his latest contentious work One Pig at the FutureEverything festival

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Ever the prolific musician, Matthew Herbert is suggesting that the completion of three new albums was actually part of his “year off”.

Following ambitious undertakings where he recorded 100 volunteers in the foyer of the British Museum plus the extensive back catalogue that has made use of such aliases as Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy and Wishmountain, 2008 was – for him, at least – a potentially more laidback affair. The first two of those long-players (the intimate One One and the site-specific One Club) were seemingly manageable projects that furthered the “real” or “found” sound experiments that Herbert is known for. The final part of the trilogy – titled One Pig – is where things began to get very complicated indeed.

“I spent a lot of time defending my work before I even wrote a note of music,” Herbert explains ahead of a Manchester performance of this, his most contentious work.

“On the one hand, that has been frustrating. On the other, it’s quite exciting: for years I’ve been wondering whether music still has the power to change or challenge the fabric of our everyday lives.”

One Pig documents the complete life cycle of a pig born on a pork farm. Essentially it picks up from Herbert’s landmark Plat Du Jour album to explore the issues surrounding what we eat. However, after he recently drove a tank over a re-creation of the menu prepared by Nigella Lawson for Tony Blair and George Bush, the politically-driven motives of the recordings were seemingly overlooked by critics who saw him as simply being controversial for the sake of it.

The most vocal opponent is animal rights organisation PETA, whose response Herbert now describes as “an undeveloped perspective”. Citing the world of advertising’s favourite vegan Moby as PETA’s poster boy, Herbert suggests its spokespeople might want to question its championing of someone who makes a living “flogging cars, cameras and computers” for huge corporations rather than criticising a musician who highlights the often ugly truths surrounding the issues on which it supposedly campaigns. In the case of One Pig, it does get pretty ugly too – the work doesn’t shy away from brutality.

“People have suggested that the album is often hard and industrial,” he agrees. “But that’s what it is really like: there is nothing romantic about food production.”

Prior to its selection as just one provocative highlight in the programme for the ideas-oriented FutureEverything festival, One Pig made its live debut at the Royal Opera House last October. Surrounded by bales of hay with Herbert and his ensemble dressed in butchers’ coats, the often unsettling sounds (incorporating those from instruments made using parts of the pig) were accompanied for the duration by a chef cooking bacon. Perhaps unlikely to win over PETA, there was a fundamental reason for the latter: it provided a sensory trigger designed by the non-vegetarian Herbert to initiate the audience’s guilt.

“Introducing the smell, you do start to implicate people in the pig’s life,” he asserts. “In the UK, we’ve not been allowed to pass the food from the stage but, when we’ve played in Europe, we have offered people the opportunity to taste it. I honestly thought that, given what they had just witnessed, people would refuse. But, at the end of the performance, they all just piled in. There wasn’t anything left.

“It’s extraordinary. It’s given it a sort of afterlife. For it not just to disappear anonymously into the food chain or be dumped in a landfill is satisfying.

“I love the fact that we’re still talking about it now. It’s four years since starting the project and, despite the fact that this pig was only actually here for 24 weeks, we are still discussing its life.”

One Pig, 18 May, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester,

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