It wasnt so long ago that I discovered this guy. Matt Lange had sent me one of his favourite tracks of the moment and it happened to be the Max Cooper remix of Hot Chip - I Feel Better. Needless to say Max Cooper’s back catalogue got a serious rifling through and my wallet got considerably lighter. Highlights for me were his remix of Microtrauma – Contrast, his Echoes Reality track, and his timeless rework of Kura – Crystal Clear.
If you like being transported to another world when you listen to music then you’ll probably be into this style of delicate techno and ambient. Max speaks of applying science to his music (he has a PhD in genetics), likens music production to systems biology, and uses trial and error in production. But whatever he is doing, it sounds great. IDJ magazine said that Max has “consistently proved himself to be one of the most peerlessly beautiful recording artists in modern dance music”, an accolade that I’m sure doesnt get thrown around too often. Now a firm fixture at some of the best dance music events, he orbits the globe with a never-ending gig schedule.
Lost In Musik interviewed him as part of our Firestarter book on musical inspiration and thought we’d ask a few bonus questions while we were at it. We are finally getting to see him live next month with the advent of FIELDS, a new night in London showcasing more off-the-wall acts, something the dance music scene is crying out for. Based on the list of artists that inspire the vibe of the night (Four Tet, Apparat, Underworld, Jon Hopkins, Sigur Ros… etc) it should be an epic event. Plus I’ve just found out my old housemates, Ghosting Season, will be playing so that’s another reason I’m looking forward to it! Max will be playing a 3 hour set, and if his online mixes and recent Resident Advisor podcast are anything to go by there’ll be some special stuff in there.
That is enough from us, time for the main act. We dive straight in with the deep questions in this interview so we’ve included links to more Max Cooper interviews at the bottom if anyone wants to know the usual background stuff on him. Here are some beats to enjoy while you read on…
We’ve recently written a lengthy article on the value of music and piracy, we wanted to get your thoughts. There’s talk of a law being passed in the UK that would allow internet censorship, primarily to crack down on piracy. A bad excuse for Orwellian control or a necessary restriction on something that is crippling the music industry?
Straight on it with a proper question! Do you not want to know what my first record was? I guess for this the crux is how they go about the censorship. If it’s done in a way which only prevents illegal distribution of music then great, but freedom of legal information has to come first, so if it’s going to interfere with that then I’d say it’s a bad thing.
With music releases often not being a viable source of income (regardless of their quality) do you find yourself thinking of other ways of making money from music, or do you purely do what you want and see what happens?
I used to design my tracks with other peoples response in mind, but as time has gone on I’ve got more selfish and am making what I want with less consideration for whether other people will like it or whether it’s a good business move. I’ll probably end up making some obscure crap that no one but me will enjoy! It’s a balance, I think you’ve got to push it as far as you can and give yourself the chance to make something exciting and new, while facing the obvious necessity to live from the music somehow.
We’re excited to find out how the Amiino project is coming along. Can you update us?
So to elaborate, Amiino is a project I’m working on with Gareth Williams and Nick Bugayev from Liine. They design amazing software such as Griid for iPad, Remiix apps, and special Ableton Live tools such as Kapture – all well worth checking out if you haven’t done already. The idea with Amiino is to bring in some of the modelling techniques and ideas I used during my PhD in systems biology to drive novel music production and performance techniques. We’ve done some interesting experiments and have lots of ideas to explore, but as for the moment life is limiting progress! It’s not easy living off music or establishing a music software company as I’m sure you can imagine, so an Amiino product is yet to be launched. All in good time though, none of us are in a hurry with it, it’s best to let these things fall together naturally when the time, funding and ideas are all correct. I need to get my dang album done first haha.
You have a lot of people making videos for your music, is the combination of visuals and audio something you want to actively pursue?
Definitely, I think that video can massively enhance the power of music and vice versa – it’s not a coincidence that most great films have great film scores. I will definitely be touring live visuals with my live show at some point, but I don’t want to do something half-arsed, so it will happen when the time is right.
You have several tracks designed around a concept (Harmonisch Serie for example), do you have a concept in mind before starting all your tracks?
No not all, I work across the full range of the concept driven-ness scale. Sometimes it’ll be a concise concept from the start, sometimes (probably most often) it will be working off some loose emotive idea, trying to put that down in music, and sometimes I’ll just aimlessly mess about trying to find something I like, although I have to say when I work like that I don’t have as good a rate of making good pieces.
You talk about your live set comprising 100+ songs that you then restructure, can you tell us a little bit more about your set up for our readers? Do you have special fx that you use to alter tracks on the fly or do you prefer to play them unadulterated?
Yeah my live set is pretty simple at the moment, but gradually getting more elaborate with time as I get used to each new technique and piece of software/hardware. For the moment I like to do it partly like a DJ set, where I have full access to my whole catalogue of 120 tracks or so, which I can drop in or out at any time. This way I get to play to the crowd like I was DJing, trying to find out what will work best in terms of the flow of the set, and focusing on effect driven detail (like in my productions) rather than getting too bogged down thinking about when to drop a hi hat (which I don’t think people listening really care about anyway).
To aid this style of set, I have each piece of music represented on a single channel in ableton live, split into sections so that I can drop intros, breaks, drops etc as I please, structuring the overall flow and maintaining the original detail which I have toiled over. My tracks also aren’t very loopy, usually with long sweeps and progressions over minutes, so it gets around this issue too. The fun stuff I fiddle with from second to second is effects, much as the same as the effects I use to produce my tracks, but layered on top of the originals for a double layer of mayhem! Everything is controlled with the Akai APC40 and iPad with some top secret new software from Liine which I can’t mention yet! So to answer your question, yes, I do fully adulterate my tracks with effects when I play them live, the aim is always to toy with the boundary between order and complete confusion, but I don’t think I’ve quite got there yet, there’s plenty more room for mangling.
Epoch, from the new Miocene EP on Bodzin’s Herzblut imprint
I believe Ólafur Arnalds is an artist you admire – have you ever considered doing a show like his ‘live’ shows with music composed on the spot?
Haha, if you could see how I make music you would see that that would be impossible for me! I’m no pianist or trained musician; I make all my music pretty much with just a computer and speakers….literally nothing else for most of it. It’s some sort of fiddly trial and error system I’m working with, no graceful expression of new ideas here. That’s the thing I love about modern production technology, it allows you to form your own way of getting internal ideas out into musical form without having to take any formal training. The only thing you need is a sense of whether any given change is better or worse, you could literally make good music on that basis alone with no other knowledge, if you were willing to randomly change settings in your production software long enough to reach a good solution. It’s exactly the same as the evolutionary simulations I used to run for my research, and how nature is able to create such amazing complex, efficient and beautiful machines without any knowledge of its action. It takes a long time though, so it’s helpful to know what you’re doing a bit if you want to make more than one killer tune every million years or so.
Do you feel attending a Steiner school benefitted you’re development as an artist?
It’s impossible to say for sure, but yes, the Steiner schooling system is more focused on creative activities than others, so I would guess it helps in artistic pursuits, and any field where innovation is helpful. I find there’s a big disconnect between the way things are usually taught in schools and universities and the reality of doing the subjects in a useful way in the real world. Schooling systems are often too focused on regurgitation of information in order to maximise grades, which is itself a skill of limited use. I think the Steiner schooling system is a little more balanced in its approach.
Musically, what would you most like to achieve in the next 10 years?
I would be happy if I could just make some music that I’m happy with (obviously). I’m never happy with my music you see, everything is full of faults and weaknesses, I constantly feel like the musical results aren’t as good as they could or should be.
It takes a lot of time to become world class at one thing, nevermind two. Do you feel like you had to forego anything in life to get where you are in both the music and the science, and do you think you may return to science later in life?
Haha I can safely say I’m no world class musician, and definitely no world class scientist! I published a couple of scientific papers, but they didn’t exactly rock the world of genetics. I have sacrificed a lot to do what I have done though yes, especially when I was on the transition from living off science to living off music – those were dark times of solitude! I miss science research loads though, and I’d certainly like to go back to some sort of academic lifestyle sometime in future yes. Constant touring and sleeping on planes isn’t a long term solution!
So there we have it, a little insight into the mind of a contemporary musical wizard. If you’re into social stalking you can follow him through the usual mediums (Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud). And one last thing, Max’s new Miocene EP lands on Herzblut, Mr Bodzin’s label, today. Check it out here and his great video packed website here.
Other Max Cooper interviews: