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Kaffe Matthews
Interview by Ron Shubberfull

Issue 3. SoundTrafficker Ezine 2015

When glamorous laptop artist Kaffe Matthews talks about sound, she mentions vegetables ratting around in an old cart, the importance of oil, about drivel, about her fans, about radios strapped to veiled old men – geriatric suicide bombers hobbling to their appointment with death on Zimmer frames. She is the embodiment of contradiction, spouting on about the virtues of recycling and lo-fi while wreathed in a stunning pale lime Roksanda Ilincic dress, an outlandish raspberry Mulberry tote dangling from her armpit.

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In her attitude to creating music, we find no clues about anything. But what is so daring and original about Kaffe’s sound today? Not hymns, but homes; not notes, but notepads; not old cheese, but empty sandwiches – their fillings expunged. Kaffe’s artistry references the piebald history of sound art, from curious ends such as the gay indeterminacy pioneered by John Cage to Nicolas Collins’s and Ryoji Ikeda’s experiments with copying wholesale other peoples ideas and regurgitating them as their own. Her pieces saliently combine market stall aesthetics with the atmospheres of galactic movement while simultaneously departing from old articulations.

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In that famously unreadable lump of hackwork, Please Mr. Rogan Ghost, Stop The Weather, David Toop attempts to ironically employ the title’s metaphor to suggest the ghosts and squalls that run baboon-like through the machicolated playgrounds of contemporary sound art. Using laptops and bargain basement software, Kaffe sculpts inedible bastions of gas, error, domination, buffness and flatulent paradises that wrench the ugliness out of life and present it as stage naked as an unadorned brick.

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Through the confused bewilderment that is performance, she lays minefields of exquisite tedium that jar her fans into the awareness that she is the cat, they the mice, she the panther, they the rodent. Her witless audiences become captives to her insuperable potency and lose themselves in the nest of her will.

It matters not if she gets lost in an Austrian branch of Debenhams, a London River Island or a Berlin ‘everything for one Euro’ shop. Whether on the fifth floor of Macys tasting a Frube or krunked out of her mind on an icy Scottish island, Kaffe takes exactly what she needs from her surroundings and dominates the acoustic perspective. Unlike most improvisers – who are a dull incredulous lot – Matthews collaborates with the ineffable nature of magical happening and even believes in the existence of tree sprites.

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Kaffe Matthews setting up at her mansion prior to setting out on tour in Texas. September 2014. – Photo by Abel Terrera.

Ron Shubberfull Let’s kick off this great interview with your estrangement from working with wood, bows, horsehair and strings and your sudden adoption of the laptop as your primary motif. Was this because everyone else was doing it and you felt you needed to jump on the laptop bandwagon so to speak?

Kaffe Matthews Actually, I think if you check your facts you’ll see that I kick-started the whole laptop thing. I was using laptops before they were invented.

RS Excuse me for asking but how is that possible?

KM I took one of those large old computers apart and placed the pieces in a large laptop shaped bag.

RS Did you make any recordings with this so called ‘laptop’? Did any evidencing occur?

KM It didn’t need to. I am Kaffe. Anyway, it was a word processor.

RS Thinking again of the violin. Did you find you’d exhausted the sonic possibilities of…?

KM Look, Don or whatever your stupid name is..

RS Er.. Ron. Ron Shubberfull..

KM Listen, Donny my sweet. Frankly, you can sit there asking about my past till the cows come home. You won’t be any the wiser at the end. If you didn’t LIVE it, then how can you expect to re-live it. Vicariously? Like a masturbating plumhead who gets off on watching others do it?

RS Do what?

KM This job. This vital job.

RS What job?

KM Look. In this acid house world they’ve built for ourselves the thing that is, yes, over and over, without having to fuss over it twenty four seven, which is something I’m not fond of to doing. All the same, you understand, I might snap at a MIDI trigger, but simply material or any moment the machines can turn around and start running the show, Skynet, robot lovers and the whole caboodle, yes?

RS Er.. I’m a bit lost. Are you referring to those damn supercomputers we’re hearing so much about these days.

KM Yes, obviously..

RS So discovering the laptop made it seem.. as if.. er..

KM No, there’s no mystery here, Don. The best part of playing live was when the laptop would crash, or start printing out instructions for me such as:
‘Stop playing this junk and go catch a number 23 bus’
or
‘After the concert, take the 10.06 Express Coach to Swindon and buy a Domino’s margherita pizza from the High Street’.
Crazy things I would never have thought of on my own.

RS So, did you go to Swindon and buy that pizza, Kaffe?

KS Well, obviously, the computer itself doesn’t eat pizza; I mean, it has no taste. No olifactory/nutritive sensory system to speak of. Have you ever poured coca cola into a laptop, Don?

RS I poured half a can into my girlfriend’s Dell during an argument about me not feeding her goldfish. It blew up.

KS Exactly.

RS Dell replaced it. Free of charge. Luckily, it was still under warranty.

KS Shut up about Dell. I’m speaking so listen. A computer can’t eat soft drinks but it can be programmed to drive the coach. But it’s more about the computer deciding things for itself. Thinking up the really big ideas. A second and quite delicious consciousness.

RH Hold on a second. You’re not seriously suggesting that a computer can have ideas? This sounds like more of your tree sprite fantasizing.

KM Shut up about my tree sprites! You scum! You filthy rag sucking scum! You journalists can’t help bringing it up. Every bloody time. Just because I happened to mention that I might have talked to a tree sprite once upon a time, ages ago. Maybe I was joking. I can make a joke , can’t I? But no. You scum slurping testicle licking journalists. You simply couldn’t resist blowing the whole stupid affair up out of all proportion. ‘Ha ha ha. Let’s all laugh at Kaffe. She talks to a tree sprite called Tixie who lives in an old wooden tennis racket.’

RS Sorry, Kaffe. Can we get back to your trail-blazingly amazing work.

KM Any more tree sprite bullshit and I walk. Comprendo, cabron?!

RS Understood. I wanted to ask. Is it possible to work with sound down to almost nothing, or even actually down to nothing?

KM Yes, and the amazing thing is the audience doesn’t notice. The air is full of buzzing and ticking noises.. and then there’s the listless roar of traffic. It’s similar to what Vaneigem said about poetry. ‘Poetry rarely involves poems these days’. I feel the same can be said for music.

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Kaffe outside Domino’s Pizza, Swansea Tuesday July 2014 – Photo Kathleen Finnegan

RS Is there a relationship between the size of your wave-forms and the amount of noise they make? I mean, are we seeing a scale effect?

KM At times. But when I repeat wave-forms I invariably increase the amplitude pressure.

RS You mean – everything gets louder. The volume ramping up?

KM Shut up when I’m talking! Hence African music. Even a one armed brilliant drummer couldn’t play a bass drum traveling at 1,000 kilometres an hour. I’m thinking if you shot a drummer and bass drum simultaneously out of a cannon like human cannonballs at the circus. The Big Top if you like. If you want to approach music in high velocity terms, you have to be moving as fast as the instrument. Maybe riding a jet. I’ve always liked the idea that when musicians die we might Fed-Ex their instruments to Baikonur Cosmodrome and blast them up into a geosynchronous orbit. To be able to circle the earth and yet never again sound a note. Imagine that!

RS You mean a sort of cosmic space memorial commemorating free sonic achievements made on the soil?

KM Don. You speak such rubbish. That wasn’t what I was thinking of at all. 

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Kaffe Matthews backstage with devoted fans at Santos Party House, NY, June 2012. Photo by Lady Ladezlas Czweikowstoki.

RS Tell us a little about your set up and software?

KM Really, I’m walking in between the extremely sketchy human need for culpability and the aimless pot pourri of cyberspace and conflating the two. Conflation, in it’s French root, suggests breathing. At times I feel my breath is animating both success and failure.

RS So, this is what ties you to tradition. To the gravity of previous works and recordings.

KM No, Don. That isn’t actually how I make my music. I treat the past as a bigger version of the NOW. After all, the NOW is all we have. We can ‘think’ past but we can’t ‘live’ past.

RS I’m reminded of that incredible project of yours. The one on the remote Scottish Island..

KM Unst. You mean Climate Changer.

RS Yes, Climate Changer. The interesting part was where all your equipment was washed away in the storm.

KM That wasn’t me. It was those idiot technicians provided by the Scottish Arts Council. And that stupid girl with the cheap Superdrug French nails. That’s where penny pinching lands you up. With all your data blown out to sea. This can happen in the shifting framework that makes music happen. I also vocally supported the fishermen. They have a hard life, you know.

RS If so, why did they refuse to carry you back to the mainland?

KM They had fish to catch.

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RS So did this disaster prompt you never to work with nature again?

KM Yes. But against my better judgment I was talked into assuming control over a failing project in New Zealand.

RS This was in 2008?

KM No, Don. In 2016. Basically, I had to go out there and sack all the other sound artists but I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve always been brilliant at analyzing a situation and taking remedial action. I ended up on my own with a 6,708-meter-long tube. All day and night I waited for the wind to blow hard enough up the other end so I could record the noise at my end. I waited for as long as the funding lasted which was three months. The wait was awe inspiring – was like waiting for some incredible electronic bus that never comes. This marked the end of my environmental career. The main work is done. Anyone who follows on is engaged merely in mopping up. I guess somebody has to clean up once the party’s over.

RS I’d venture to suggest that this is what drove your work indoors, into site-specific projects. The projects you excel at. Do you find the need to be in a certain place at a certain time inhibiting?

KM No, Don. You’re totally off the mark. I think you read far too many e-zines. I take no notice of places, people or clocks. Why would I? Take the other week. I was in a bright attic twenty nine floors up in an abandoned drug factory on the outskirts of Zurich, playing five sets a night to the flakiest audience I’ve ever encountered. It made me think the factory owners had accidentally left a vat of Valium powder behind and the audience were taking turns to snort it all. There were piss puddles on the ground, holes in the roof and stormy clouds overhead chasing all the cats from the place. There were enough cobwebs to construct a full scale model of the Twin Towers and in one corner, a pair of human skulls with lumps of scalp still attached. I loved every moment. Noreen, my tour manager practically wet herself when she saw the cause of death. The skulls had been smashed in with a blunt laptop. She was so freaked out and begged me to be allowed to leave. I couldn’t stop laughing.

RS Did you introduce yourself? Each time I’ve seen you perform, you have avoided making contact with the audience. I presume this is your way of establishing a really close contact with the audience – by ignoring them.

KM Naturally, as true adoring fans of mine I want to reach out to them. But you have to be careful not to pamper your audience. It’s better to maintain that divide between performer and hungry consumer, Otherwise, the world would be clogged with faux performers and then where would I be?
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Kaffe soundcheck in Ljubianka, 2018. Unknown backing band. Photo by Grokky 99.

RS Ah, that’s not so surprising. I’ve listened to some of the recordings I have of your live shows and always end up thinking – ‘Kaffe wasn’t there’.

KM Essentially a DVD has to stand up on its hind legs and walk across the room. Performing has nothing do with titillating with people and much more to do with shocking them into waking up by sending them to sleep. My software engineers are currently devising a workable 3D avatar so I can be beamed anywhere around the globe instantly.

RS But how would you keep an eye on your audience? After all, an avatar is just a glorified projection, smoke and memoirs. What if they decided to go down the road and buy a doner kebab in the middle of your performance? I say this because you have a reputation for locking the doors when people try to leave your concerts without your permission. There was that unfortunate episode in Dundee with the guys who got burnt when..

KM Shut up about Dundee, Don. What you don’t seem to get is how linked I am with my audience. They gaze up my at face, tears rolling down their cheeks. They watch me fend off the paparazzo, jump into a cab after drinking three bottles of prosecco, slap some sense into an an uncooperative sound engineer and waiting on stage for my nails to dry while the feedback drones on and on and on. They hear me scratch my leg and a trickle of delight runs down their spine cords. They stand at my feet like tame hamsters while I sonically tickle their underdeveloped psychic bellies. I’m the only thing that makes their sad drab featureless little lives liveable.

RS Let’s talk sound installations. The sonic bidet.

KM A bidet is very much a physical appliance for me. I actually need to get a hold of it with both hands. The bidet actually has an extremely long provenance. You have to go back to just after the war days..

RS The what? The Iraqi war?

KM No, idiot! The war days. V sign day, the atomic bomb, Winston Mandela, Hiroshima mon amour..

RS Oh, I’m with you now. You mean after the Second World War..

KM After the war days, Italian critic Germano Celant called for artists to throw off the chichés that society had attached to them. The temporal linky thingy, flash in the gas pan.

RS Meaning?

KM Memory – a bowl of chopped nuts, a catflap banging in Rhyl on a Monday afternoon. The epistemological congruence of woman, machine and music. The where and how that dirty old tramp got into the room in the middle of my performance.

RS I’m afraid you’ve lost me again.

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Kaffe gracing the cover of Danish ‘HEAT’ magazine shortly after winning the 2016 Jury Prize for her installation ‘Buff Sonics’ at Catford Library. Used by kind permission – Glazbeen Venceri Magazine

KM Something I used to do a lot was to erase what I was writing in order to understand life. But then I saw it made more sense to erase it before I wrote it. That way I saved on using needless paper..

RS So less trees chopped down..?

KM I presume so..

RS Less forests hacked to pieces..?

KM One presumes so.. Where are you going with this?

RS Less tree sprites evicted from their homes.

KM Bastard! Shitpack! Elephant-turd-painting faced second hand hack regurgitating rip-off yellow press filth peddlar! Fungus-growth-licking journalistic scum-lined newspaper arse wanking internet bastard!

RS Sorry, Kaffe. Sorry. I am. Really, I’m sorry. I promise I won’t mention tree sprites again. Ever. Back to your amazing inspiring work. Did it work?

KM Did what work?

RS Your work.

KM It always works.

RS The work is about the work.

KM It’s nonchalantly about the blank verses the mark.

RS The blank verses?

KM No! Not ‘the blank verses’. The blank – comma – verses – comma – the mark. Idiot! In fact, thank you.

RS Thank you? For what?

KM For deciding me. I’ve decided I’m going to start stopping talking to idiots who start talking to me before they start talking.

RS Kaffe! Where are you going? Come back! We haven’t finished with the interview yet. I haven’t asked you about the tree sprites..

KM It’s my laptop. I forgot to buy the pizza. It’s still going round. My laptop will kill me. Ciao, babes..

RS But Kaffe, please. Please don’t go. Ed, my editor, will murder me if I don’t come back with a/

KM Oh.. and start looking for a new career, pen wanker! You’re finished in this town!

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Kaffe practicing attaching a makeshift tracking antenna to an escaped tree sprite. Photo by Nobby Turgidson’s boy.

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