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Matthew Herbert's Brexit Big Band

Matthew Herbert talks to Clare Stevens about his new Brexit Big Band album, released on 29 March and consisting of reflections on the nature of home, identity and what it means to welcome and be welcomed.

As this article was in preparation at the beginning of February it was impossible to predict what is actually going to happen in relation to the UK’s membership of the EU on 29 March – would we leave with No Deal, would a plan B or C suddenly be accepted by parliament, would the implementation of Article 50 be deferred or would it be revoked altogether in favour of a second referendum? But one thing is certain, according to composer and performer Matthew Herbert: 29 March will definitely see the launch of The State Between Us, an album by the Brexit Big Band which is the result of a two-year musical collaboration inspired by the Brexit process.

In contrast to the political negotiations, Herbert’s project has developed smoothly and to schedule. The idea of a musical response to Brexit, celebrating artistic collaboration and communities across national borders, came to him immediately after the 2016 referendum. It began in England when the UK government triggered Article 50 on 29 March 2017 and has consisted of concerts, recording sessions and workshops across Europe by the Brexit Big Band and Choir, directed by Herbert himself, big band conductor Pete Wraight and choral conductor Esmeralda Conde Ruiz. At each show the personnel changes, to include local amateur and professional choirs and instrumentalists who perform alongside the band’s regular lead players. The State Between Us features over 1000 musicians from Britain and the continent, and its release at the moment that the UK is scheduled to leave the EU will be the culmination of the project.

‘One of the things we weren’t anticipating was quite what a mess Brexit would be and how quickly it’s changing,’ Herbert says, ‘so in fact we formed our own journey and our own perspective on it. But it was always going to take us two years to complete our collaborations and recordings anyway, so at least we’ll be sticking to the timetable, even if nobody else will!’

Photo credit: Chris Plytas

Herbert has an eccentric musical CV that includes scoring ten feature films, writing, producing, DJ-ing and performing in genres ranging from House, hip hop and protest pop to musique concrète, with collaborators including the playwright Caryl Churchill and chef Heston Blumenthal. He founded his own record company, Accidental, in 2000, and works predominantly with electronic music, describing himself as ‘known for ignoring the boundaries and mangling the conventions traditionally associated with the genre’.

The dominant theme of a previous Matthew Herbert Big Band Album, There’s Me and There’s You, released in 2008, was power and its abuses in the 21st century. It combined de luxe avant-jazz arrangements with polemical lyrics and artfully selected noises, including some specially orchestrated sounds from significant sites such as the British museum and the Houses of Parliament.

The State Between Us by the Matthew Herbert Great Britain and Gibraltar European Union Membership Referendum Big Band (to give it its full title) works in a similar way. Its sixteen tracks reflect a journey on foot across Great Britain (and beyond) imagined in beautifully elegiac melodies carefully woven with site-specific recordings. A walk along the Northern Irish border produces a track called ‘Backstop (Newry to Strabane)’. World War II planes in flight rub against a Ford Fiesta being broken down into its component parts; the loneliness of a cross-channel swimmer follows a single cyclist riding around Chequers. Here, the evocative sounds of empty harbours, and factories being demolished, of ancient trees and the calls of soon to be extinct animals ebb and flow through music that poses one hugely significant question – Where’s Home? – and leaves the listener with one resoundingly hopeful answer: You’re Welcome Here.

Asked how closely his ensemble resembles what people would think of as a traditional Big Band, Herbert responds that ‘it’s probably pretty far away now. We've done a cover for the first time on this record, of Moonlight Serenade, but even that has been slowed down and messed with. I'm interested in pushing the form in many directions at once to try and find new ways of organising that familiar line up of musicians – crucially though, trying not to lose the thing that makes it special in the first place. At its heart though it is still five saxes, four trombones, four trumpets and a rhythm section.

‘It’s been the biggest collaboration I’ve ever done. It feels like in order to create something that rejects the divisions of Brexit, we had to demonstrate the principles by which we can and should live and work together: kindness, tolerance, love, pleasure, creativity and openness. It's extremely worrying that these values are under threat at the moment.

‘I'm not a leaver or remainer any more,’ he adds. ‘I've moved on. I suspect many people are the same - Brexit has been a huge, expensive distraction from the real problems in our society, in particular the emergency of climate change.’

Clare Stevens

This feature first appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of ISM Music Journal.