Matt Karmil on the Illness that Shaped His Musical Path

The PNN affiliate on his commitment to self-education and stylistic diversity

In the past few years, Matt Karmil has made plenty of great records under his own name, but he’s actually been helping other artists make their records for even longer. A British-born artist whose initial forays into music and production were fueled by extended bouts of illness that kept him largely isolated from his peers, he eventually found himself working in recording studios as a producer, mixer and session player.

Much of Karmil’s adult life has been spent in transit, as he’s logged time in cities like London, Paris, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Berlin and Cologne, quietly making music of his own at each stop, but it was in the latter city that he connected with artists like Jens Uwe Beyer and Ada, who heard some of Karmil’s music and signed him up for releases on their respective PNN and International Records Recordings labels. Karmil’s sound often varies wildly from one record to the next, but everything he touches displays a real attention to detail and a clear love of sound. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Shawn Reynaldo on RBMA Radio, Karmil recalls his defining struggles with a debilitating illness and the experience of making music while moving all across Europe.

Fredrik Skogkvist

How did being sick affect your life and having time for music?

I got ill, unfortunately, when I was nine years old. I had quite a difficult period where I basically had the flu for eight to nine months of the year until I was 13. Then it was diagnosed as the Epstein-Barr virus. It became a bit clearer what the illness was about, which was relieving in a way, but obviously at that age you don’t really have emotional maturity to deal with that kind of isolation or illness. It led to quite a depressed period and a lot of isolation from my peers, not really being able to go to school. I discovered music as a sort of a therapy, I suppose.

By 13 I was obsessed with music. It manifested itself first in playing guitar and went through some recording and ambient stuff. I was able to borrow a 4-track tape recorder from the school that I went to at the time and kind of lived with that in my bedroom. I had one microphone and an Amiga 500. I would experiment with trying to put some ravey and electronic sounds together at the same time as playing guitar. The guitar kind of took over for a few years. In my early teens, I was more into acoustic and rock music than electronic. There wasn’t so much of an electronic influence to absorb – this was like the very very early days of the internet. Access to information and getting into scenes and finding out about stuff was quite difficult.

Being ill absolutely changed the course of my life, towards self-education. I realized that I would have to find a way to dedicate myself to something and really focus and get something out of my position. That’s where the guitar really came in. It worked on every level, as a sort of meditation and education.

I read that you had one teacher that steered you towards classical music.

I had a fantastic guitar teacher. I went there a semi long-haired rock guitarist wannabe. Within about an hour, he inspired me to realize that the world was bigger than rock music, and that at 14 I should probably diversify my interests a little bit. He said, “Well, we can do some lessons, but I’m not going to teach you how to play the guitar.” I was like, “What do you mean? Why?” He was like, “You’ll find that you don’t really need lessons with that. I’ll teach you other stuff which will support that.” We went through music theory and history of music, and the physical process of learning how to physically play the guitar better, with refined finger movements and what not. After six months of this very planned, disciplined lecturing, I was really quite enlightened to the idea of art music or avant-garde and classical, and where they came from and where it sits now. I’m truly, truly happy for that experience. That really, really shaped my access to the vocabulary and the history of music. It really was a fundamental change to be exposed to that.

Being a DJ is a great way to be the outsider/insider at the same time. You can be in the middle of the party, but you don’t really have to talk anyone.

When and how did you discover electronic music, and how did that change your perspective again?

Transitioning from traditional musics to electronic music I would say came three or four times during my life. As a ten year old I would enjoy rave tapes, around ’89 and ’90. That was one level of understanding or interest. I liked the really fast sounds. I guess there was some early jungle in there towards the end of that period. It was really interesting, not really knowing what sampling was, but hearing bits of other people’s songs that you knew from your parents playing it. Hearing it in this really different context was like punk. Next would have been the more avant-garde and the first electronic composers. The next time electronic music was really on my radar would have been when I was around 16, starting to hear the Chemical Brothers and stuff like that, where you had this crossover rock/Big Beat dance music. Around that time I started to hear Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune records. It was immediately interesting to me, hearing hip-hop sounds without rapping. I was very into lyrics at that time. A lot of the issues of rap music didn’t really concern me. It wasn’t my struggle or my issues that I was discovering, although the music was really appealing to me. When I discovered instrumental hip-hop, I was like, “I understand where this is coming from, and it just doesn’t feel fake for me to represent this.” The aesthetic and the tone, and people like DJ Premier, all these producers, I was loving it.

It was also one of the first outings of the equipment and the aesthetic. You could hear these machines – although I didn’t know what they were at the time – but the artifacts of sampling. Like, remembering hearing 12-bit sounds on Cypress Hill records and really obsessing. 16 years old, finding Mo’ Wax, Ninja Tune and Skint, and starting to see second generation sampling where you would get snatches of hip-hop records brought into English labels, and artists taking little bits and pieces of that. Starting to see the crossover of those things, like Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry. I was certainly into that. Or hearing how the different techniques were coming together.

Probably two years later I was listening to a lot of avant-garde music and then looking at the early electronic composers. I’d been DJing a lot from about 20 years old, almost daily around London. I started producing and making beats for people in London around that time as well. I was playing a lot of drum & bass and jungle. Then I stopped DJing. I started to get so busy making music with other people.

Let’s go backwards. When and why did you move to London?

Moved is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I went to London a lot when I was 18, 19 – that was the principal reason for me going there. A friend of mine, we were hanging out a lot and he asked me if I wanted to come and play sometimes. I did. It was quite a special thing for me to be able to. I was so ill that to be able to socialize at all was quite a good focal point. I hadn’t been to school so much. I was quite awkward around people. Being a DJ is a great way to be the outsider/insider at the same time. You can be in the middle of the party, but you don’t really have to talk anyone. It was a really fundamental thing for me to have any sort of social life.

Matt Karmil - Reverse Peephole

It was quite exhausting. I would literally go from my parent’s house, go and play one night, stay another one night, and then go back and sleep for another three or four days. Then through being in London on my own I started to meet producers and songwriters. I had been learning a lot of stuff about packages and hardware as well, so I had been making tapes and bits and pieces of songs. Instrumental hip-hop beats that fit in quite well to pop music. When I met some people that were making pop music and I was asked to contribute some beats, it went quite easily because I also knew how to record, and I knew how to play the guitar and sample and everything. It quite quickly turned out that I was making a lot of music. It had really never been a plan to work in music like that, but it was an effortless transition somehow.

When did you start moving around Europe and living in different cities?

When I started to get well I moved to the forest in Sweden, so I was 25 years old. I had been in London a lot, it was tiring and I was working a lot. When it became possible for me to do that I went for it and absolutely had a brilliant time living around 17 kilometers to the nearest shop. Tiny village, nothing going on, no distractions, and I had loads and loads of music equipment. I would say it was the second phase of starting to find some level of artistic freedom, and clearing my mind from working on other people’s ideas and starting to establish myself. Realizing I could put together some music which I am a little bit more connected to, but at 25 I you can’t live in the forest forever.

At that stage I started to get the travel bug feeling, being quite imprisoned of being ill when I was younger, and not being able to move around. I moved to Stockholm for a while, working in Paris from time to time, working in London from time to time, and travelling quite a lot. From there I went Cologne, Berlin, back to Cologne for a bit, back to London for a bit. It’s still a loop now that I keep moving around. I am always travelling so much even when I am living somewhere, I haven’t really found anywhere to settle quite yet.

What brought you to Cologne?

I’d been living in Paris for a couple of years and I had friends from music I was working with in Cologne. One of my really good friends, we were riding along in his car one day and I put some music on that I was making and he said, “What is this?” I said, “This is what I am doing for fun.” He was like, “I know some guys in Cologne that make music, I am sure they would really like this,” and I said I didn’t really know much about the scene there. He took me to meet someone, who was actually Michael Mayer and we sat down for a bit. I didn’t know who he was at all. “How are you doing?” “Cool.” “Let’s listen to some music.” He was like, “This is cool.” It was very, very positive. I ended up moving to Cologne – it seemed like a nice place and it wasn’t as busy as Paris. I found a really, really cheap place to live on the other side of the river from the city.

That is when I met a lot of other guys connected around Kompakt. I stayed there for two years and didn’t do much other work at all, and that was an absolutely fundamental time for establishing my self-identity musically. It was a real inspiration seeing how singular and dedicated and how very particular music like this is constructed, and it is not really a team effort. That was an absolute fundamental change in realizing, “OK, I could probably interest myself with this for quite a while.”

How did the reaction to your first record, the Reverse People EP, affect your career?

When the EP came out it was quite a shock for me because I had been working on pop music and all sorts with other people for some time, but always in the background. All of a sudden I had my name as the main name on the record, starting to get letters from people that I have heard of, and I liked their music, asking me to do remixes and to come and play and stuff. I felt like a kid again. I guess I was 30 around that time. It was a complete rejuvenation for me. It was a really, really wonderful time.

Matt Karmil - Live The Dream

At that point PNN asked me if I would like to do an album with them. I’d been doing music so long that I had some other designs or desires to express as well. At that point I started to put together the bones of my first album, which was - - - - [Minus Minus Minus Minus] on PNN... When that came out it was also well-received in a different way, because it was not as hype-y as my first 12". It was really lovely to see that I didn’t have to be too brash. I could relax and take my time with it and experiment with ideas and people would actually get to hear them.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced?

Something that I struggle with a bit is diversity, or difference between my records in some way. I’ve really honed it down from playing very out-there beatless music and solo classical guitar music towards an electronic sound. I think in many ways my sound is still quite wide, and that’s both a bit of a curse and a bit of a blessing. It’s lovely because I get to work in different things with different people. At the same time I think it’s become quite hard for people to identify with what I’m doing, especially in an electronic music context. It can be quite a singular sound that people can expect producers or musicians to have and I can imagine that if one person likes one of my records that perhaps they really hate another one of them, because they’re not all using the same ideas in some way.

I put out two albums at the start [of 2016] in very close succession and I think I have a couple more in me quite soon, but I don’t want to repeat myself. It’s very important for me to try to keep moving and absorb new influences, and occasionally new equipment. [But] it has much more to do with the experience that you’re having in life than the equipment that you’re using.

By Shawn Reynaldo on March 1, 2017

On a different note