Smash It Up! The Musical Tomfoolery Of Matt Button

Exploring the world of musical cut-ups and eccentric sound collisions.

As regular visitors to this site will know, we’re big fans of musical mash-ups – the art of taking existing musical works and creating something unique and (dare we say) often better from these disparate elements, turning the familiar into the unexpected. We’ve covered the work of Bill McClintock and DJ Cummerbund in that past and have been loving this sort of thing for a couple of decades – somewhere, we have a couple of CDs worth of early 2000s mash-ups that are all great, many of which are now lost in time. The downside of the mash-up is that it is often done without the permission of the original artists – or, more to the point, the copyright trolls who have snapped up the rights to their recordings – and so can sometimes have a finite life, especially before YouTube became the main home for these tracks and allowed the ‘owner’ of the original tracks to monetise them.

After our last McClintock post, Matt Button got in touch to suggest that we checked out his own creations, and they proved to be an impressive collection that often used more esoteric tracks in the creation of something new. This is work that is very British in style and content, as much designed to create a sense of amused nostalgia overload as anything. I mean, who else out there would be mixing Sweet and The Sweeney?

Intrigued enough to want to dig deeper, we fired off a bunch of questions to Matt, exploring both his own work and the wider trials and tribulations of creating cut-up art from pre-existing elements.

When did you start creating mash-ups? And as an aside – is that a term you’re happy with?

I started making Smash Ups (as I prefer to call them) over seven years ago. But I’ve been making music for over 40 yrs now. My main instrument is drums and I’ve been in all sorts of bands all that time. The longest-running musical project is Mongo Shakers – a band I created with a great friend who sadly died four years ago, back in the mid-Nineties. Around 2015 I started mucking around with some old recordings of a band I was in, called Spandau Wigan. We were a ‘Glam Mock’ band who loved the Sweet, Mud, Alvin Stardust, and The Glitter Band and played cover versions that both celebrated and made fun of the whole genre. I started experimenting with combining our slightly feeble cover versions with the real thing and shoe-horning in as many musical in-jokes and Seventies cultural references as I could. At the same time, I was learning how to use Garageband to make music and so I was happily applying those new skills to the daft musical ideas I had. And during lockdown I began making videos to accompany my songs too. As so much of my source material is from YouTube that I thought I should use the visual as well as the audio elements. But I am still learning and it’s huge fun as well.

I had a significant ‘lightbulb’ moment when I went to a gig in Chislehurst Caves and saw a bunch of local bands; no one famous or particularly noteworthy. However, one band of pub rockers were having the time of their life bashing out the usual cover versions. They also had some basic steps and moves to liven up their stage presence. In the middle eight of one song, they turned their backs and punched the air together. And I saw the bass player was wearing a satin dinner jacket with The Rubettes logo emblazoned across his back. This was in 1980 when the Rubettes were long forgotten and glam rock and bubble rock were anathema to the post-punk zeitgeist. That single moment made me realise you don’t have to take yourself seriously when playing rock music. In fact, the whole thing is a huge laugh.

In terms of mash-ups, I was really inspired by Mark Vidler’s Go Home Productions which were incredibly creative and also funny.

Also, the music of People Like Us who have been working in the field of cut-ups and collage for many years – this is still one of the funniest things ever:

So I am inspired by musicians/artists who have a sense of fun and joie de vivre and create works that are original, highly creative and unpredictable. I love the idea of art that makes you laugh and is uplifting. It’s both a difficult and rare field to work in because you have to avoid becoming a novelty act by steering clear of humorous lyrics and funny sounds. It’s the difference between The Birdie Song – lightweight, comedic, childish, throwaway and Tiger Feet – musically adept, massively good fun and incredibly well arranged and produced.

How do you go about stripping elements like vocals from tracks? Is this something that you can do without fancypants audio gear?

There are apps that claim to be able to isolate vocals from a track, and I used this approach once but the vocal still had a slightly unpleasant digital distortion to it. I look for stems/isolated vocal tracks and for bits of songs that are acapella. But combining a vocal from one song with another doesn’t always require a clean vocal track. A good EQ/filter can do a lot of the work. The elements that require detailed work are the BPM/tempos and the key.  You have to find musical elements with similar tempos but you can adjust tempos by 10-15% depending on the song and the instruments. The tempos of basslines are tricky to adjust; they can sound watery and wobbly if the tempo has been altered too much. Equally important is establishing and adjusting all the disparate elements to the correct key. Some musical elements can be re-tuned to the correct key but I try to source musical ingredients in the same key.

What percentage of ideas refuse to come together? I’m guessing that not every idea works once you get down to it, much like my own projects.

Loads of them – I have many projects that haven’t worked or I haven’t finished because there’s something missing that I can’t quite identify. But I often start with a title or name, such as Sladé, The My Generation Game, Can CAN Can the Can?, Status Presley or The Essex Pistols and take it from there. I have a hard drive full of half-baked experiments and dead ends of projects that have just got too big and unwieldy. My Seventies sport-themed smash-up is a case in point. And my attempts to combine Carry On with P-Funk, too. Usually, the main criteria are: does it make me laugh? Is it a big idea?

Do you feel the need to avoid certain tracks because of overkill from other creators? Like, have certain samples been done to death?

I love the notion that ‘all art starts with a blasphemy, i.e. art comes from subjects that shouldn’t be touched or combined. To me, this is where creativity springs from – the blending of unexpected and surprising elements, e.g. Bruce Forsyth and the Who, Cliff Richard and Led Zeppelin, Suzi Quatro and Can to name a few. So whilst some samples/artists may have been done to death, the art is in putting them into a new context and finding a new perspective on them. Having said that, there are some genres/samples I’ll avoid because they’re just not my thing and I don’t find them very inspiring: I am not a fan of house music, for example. And there are plenty of super-skilled musicians working in this field already.

On the thorny issue of copyright – how much of a pain is this, and who is most likely to complain – the music artists, record labels or copyright trolls?

I am very wary of it and have had Smash Ups blocked from some platforms because their algorithms have detected copyright material. I’ve not put any Smash Ups on Spotify for this reason, but I’ve put them on YouTube, Soundcloud and most recently on Bandcamp.

Do you have a grander scheme in mind with all this or is it literally just for your own (and other listeners’) entertainment?

There is no grand plan behind all this. I like being an artist in the purest sense – I am beholden to no one and can follow my muse as I like.  It’s certainly not a money-making exercise; I’ve got a full-time job and career that keep me busy. So there’s no external pressure to produce anything or make compromises. I just love pursuing and realising slightly silly musical ideas. I call it music tomfoolery.

Where can people find your work?

I think the best place is YouTube – I have a channel and a playlist full of almost all my Smash Ups including all the videos.

I’ve got a Soundcloud page too.

I’ve also got a site for Mongo Shakers on Bandcamp which includes the latest collection (Super Smash) but no videos.

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