Matthew Herbert Sets The EU To Music With His Brexit Big Band

Nov 24, 2018
Originally published on November 25, 2018 10:57 am

British musician Matthew Herbert is best known as an electronic artist, who goes by various aliases, including Dr. Rockit and Radio Boy. Right now though, he's in the midst of a two-year "apology tour" across Europe with his Brexit Big Band, Herbert's musical response to the British government's plan to leave the European Union.

The tour, an ongoing artistic process, will culminate in an album to be released in March 2019, on the day the U.K. is supposed to leave the EU. The Brexit Big Band has played five concerts so far, and its last performance on Nov. 25 coincides with European leaders gathering to finalize a potential Brexit deal.

Herbert started the Brexit Big Band just over a year and a half ago, when the British government triggered Article 50, the get-out clause for any EU member state wishing to leave the union. So Herbert set Article 50 to music. "I was like, 'Wait, I don't actually know what Article 50 is,' and I read it and actually it's quite simple," Herbert says. "It's quite sad. It's about the breakup of a relationship, really. It's a little like a no fault divorce, so there's a sort of tenderness to it."

For the Brexit Big Band Tour, Herbert is working with a different set of local musicians in each European city. He intends to show that just because Britain's political leaders have given up on Europe, it doesn't mean all of Britain has.

"I wanted to stand up for the values that I think are under attack, which are the values of tolerance and compassion and kindness," he says. "I want to defend those values vigorously."

Although Herbert is best known for his electronic work, the musician has been splitting his time for more than a decade between composing alone on his laptop and working with a big band. Herbert sees a strong parallel between the way a big band works as a large ensemble that both collaborates and improvises, and the way the European Union works as a collective of independent states.

Herbert's surprised there has been so little artistic reaction to Brexit from fellow musicians. "At a time of great political shifts, I feel like as musicians we should be trying harder to present meaningful critiques," he says. "It's hard to imagine that the musicians of the '80s would have taken it lying down in a way that the British music industry is at the moment."

Herbert laments that the soundtrack to Brexit, so far, has been an onslaught of insults on talk shows and squabbling in Parliament. In addition to trying to drown out the jeers and political fracas of Westminster, at his concerts Herbert asks the audience to rip up copies of The Daily Mail, a pro-Brexit tabloid, which he then samples electronically. The ensemble also plays "You're Welcome Here," a song written for the EU migrants who have become targets for the pro-Brexit camp.

The Brexit Big Band is currently working on the March 2019 album while touring. Herbert's hoping to record what may well be a rowdy chorus of voices.

"So we're setting up a choral session for members of the British government to come and join in, and we'll see how many of the [Vote] Leave campaigners actually turn up to do it," Herbert says.

Herbert has scheduled the final concert of his Brexit Big Band tour for the city of Rome, where just over 60 years ago, the European Union's founding treaty was signed. "It feels a good place to finish somehow," Herbert says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A British musician, Matthew Herbert, is on a tour of Europe to apologize for Brexit, Britain's planned exit from the European Union. So far, Mr. Herbert and his Brexit Big Band have played five concerts. They play their last tomorrow night, the same day that European leaders are gathering to vote perhaps on a potential Brexit deal. Esme Nicholson caught up with Herbert on the Berlin leg of his tour.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Matthew Herbert started the Brexit Big Band just over a year and a half ago...

(SOUNDBITE OF BREXIT BIG BAND SONG)

NICHOLSON: ...When the British government triggered Article 50, the get-out clause for any EU member state wishing to leave the union.

MATTHEW HERBERT: I was like, wait. I don't actually know what Article 50 is. And I read it and, actually, it's quite simple. It's only five points. And it's quite sad. It's about the breakup of a relationship really. It's a sort of no-fault divorce, so there's a sort of tenderness to it.

NICHOLSON: So Herbert set Article 50 to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORDS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) End the wars, let us go, I'll begin the end (ph).

NICHOLSON: For the Brexit Big Band tour, Matthew Herbert is working with a different set of local musicians in each European city.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPET WARM-UP)

NICHOLSON: He says he intends to show that just because Britain's political leaders have given up on Europe, it doesn't mean all of Britain has.

HERBERT: I wanted to stand up for the values that I think are under attack, which are values of tolerance and compassion and kindness. And I want to defend those values vigorously.

NICHOLSON: Herbert is actually best known as an acclaimed electronic musician who goes by various artistic aliases, including Radio Boy and Doctor Rockit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCTOR ROCKIT'S "CAFE DE FLORE")

NICHOLSON: He's been splitting his time between composing alone on his laptop and working with a big band for more than a decade. And he says a big band is the ideal ensemble to give a musical voice to the idea of the EU.

HERBERT: For me, what's really fantastic about a big band is the surrender of power. When you think about writing music on a laptop, particularly electronic music, we're little Trumps. We are effectively just unchallengeable, unimpeachable, little mini dictator, you know, where we have control over every element. And we can just release it into the world without ever having to leave the safety of our own room or invite anybody else in.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREXIT BIG BAND SONG)

NICHOLSON: He sees a strong parallel between the way a big band works as a large ensemble that both collaborates and improvises and the way the European Union works as a collective of independent states. He's also surprised that there has been so little artistic reaction to Brexit from fellow musicians.

HERBERT: Music's become quite boring. It's been very safe and conservative, I think. And at a time of great political shifts, I feel like as musicians we should be trying harder to present meaningful critiques. It's hard to imagine that the musicians of the '80s would have taken it lying down in the way that the British music industry is at the moment.

HERBERT: Herbert laments that the soundtrack to Brexit so far has been an onslaught of insults on talk shows and squabbling in Parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BERCOW: Jeremy Corbyn.

JEREMY CORBYN: Mr. Speaker, Labour respects the result of the referendum. But what we don't respect is the shambolic mess that this government has made of negotiations.

NICHOLSON: In addition to trying to drown out the jeers and political fracas of Westminster, at his concerts, Herbert asks the audience to rip up copies of the Daily Mail, a pro-Brexit tabloid, which he then samples electronically.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREXIT BIG BAND'S "TURNING PAGES")

NICHOLSON: The ensemble also plays a number called "You're Welcome Here" written for the EU migrants who have become targets for the pro-Brexit camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE WELCOME HERE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) If you're out of place and you don't feel right, if your hair's not straight or your skin's not white, you're welcome here.

NICHOLSON: Matthew Herbert and his Brexit Big Band are currently working on an album, which is scheduled to be released the day the United Kingdom is supposed to leave the European Union next March. And he's hoping to record what may well be a rowdy chorus of voices.

HERBERT: We're setting up a choral session for members of the British government to come and join in. And we'll see how many of the leave campaigners actually turn up to do it. Between you and me, I don't think many will show up, but they've been invited.

NICHOLSON: Herbert has scheduled the final concert of his Brexit Big Band tour for the city of Rome, where just over 60 years ago, the European Union's founding treaty was signed.

HERBERT: It feels a good place to finish somehow.

NICHOLSON: For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.