The Max Cooper Man-Machine
Cooper unfolds his epic and emotive set at Métropolis Friday, May 30
Robyn Fadden - May 18, 2014
London-based, Belfast-born Max Cooper trades in an atmospheric techno of evolving loops and accessible melodies, at once reminiscent of contemporary classical composition and late-night club mayhem. Once solely a DJ firmly focused on the dance floor as it evolved from the late-90s into a new millennium of electronic experimentation, Cooper soon branched out into prolifically making mixes and remixes, his innovative musicality and artistic curiosity balanced with a DJ’s performative intuition. Among numerous singles and EP releases, his tracks show up on labels such as Sasha’s Last Night On Earth, Germany’s Traum Schallplatten and FIELDS, home to his debut album, Human, released in March of 2014.
Behind Human rests a concept that Cooper has mulled over for several years, informed partly by the music realms he frequents, and partly by his academic background in the sciences. While the empirical rigour of his PhD in computational biology might not present itself so readily on the album, the field’s contemplation of machine-like systems within organic matter continues to inspire Cooper – on Human, his music melds man and machine in an astute, glitchy flow not far from what we’ve heard from him before, yet somehow also a galaxy away.
MUTEK: Thinking about the history of electronic music and your own music career interwoven with scientific training, Human is an evocative title for your first full-length album. What are the album’s roots and what was your headspace in making it?
Max Cooper: It was comparable to writing my thesis — it started three or four years ago with a concept, so for a while it was about playing with and developing ideas — and in the last year I just focused on getting it done. I wanted to write an album on the human condition, taking different concepts related to what makes us human and applying them to different pieces of music. I’ve always had a strong tendency to put highly human emotions and ideas into music even though I write very electronic music. The interesting thing as well, is that the more we learn about humans the more we learn about how they are like machines, as far as genetics and biology go — the more we learn about humans, the more machine-like they seem, and on the flip side, the more complex our machines and computers become, the more like humans or animals they seem to become. It’s two sides of the same coin really, both based on a lot of the same principles, governed by the same physical laws.
MUTEK: Though your high-tech academic life is behind you, how much does it still influence your music, if only in an indirect, ideas-based way?
Max Cooper: I’m not using science explicitly to write the music, but it’s a useful creative tool and pushes me in new directions, gives me ideas about what kind of music I could write and the kinds of ideas I could pursue. My PhD is in systems biology, which is basically computational biology or genetics, but I didn’t have anything living — to do that you have to be really organized and go to the lab on weekends, not sleep in, but I’m not very organized in that way, so the computer stuff was much better suited to me. There are a lot of parallels between science and music though, such as setting out on an abstract task and exploring the possibilities, working hard. I taught myself how to make music in a similar way to how I would do a research project, by exploring the options. On a more abstract level, you could say that science is all about patterns in nature and understanding those patterns and manipulating them, and music is all about patterns in sound waves, air compression and so on, and when we listen to music we analyze those patterns.
MUTEK: Considering your relationship to technology, does the technology you use to make music inspire you or do you search out certain tech to facilitate the music you want to make?
Max Cooper: The album was driven by concepts external to the equipment, but that’s not always how I work. When I finished the album, I went out and bought myself a couple of analog synths (a Prophet ‘08 and a Moog Minitaur), as I didn’t have any before, so recently I’ve been writing music that’s very much inspired by having these new machines and seeing what they can do. So, really, it can go either way — I can be inspired by the technology or by something more abstract, a feeling or an idea I can’t put into words.
MUTEK: How personal is your approach to music-making in general and how does it differ from your solo work and your remixes?
Max Cooper: I’m definitely expressing my own personality, emotions and ideas with my solo productions, but with remixes there are two personalities and the tricky bit is to get the personalities to complement each other. I can only write music that is driven by my internal state at the time, music that complements that and feels good. For me, music is quite therapeutic and enjoyable in that. When I get in the zone of writing music, time disappears and I sit in front of the computer and forget to sleep, forget to eat.
MUTEK: You’ve recently remixed songs by Nils Frahm, Montreal indie-rock band Braids, Nick Warren and, at this point, hundreds more. And you’ve handed over tracks on the new album to some of your favourite producers – Rodriguez Jr., Lusine, Harvey Mckay and Tom Hodge (all recently released as an EP titled Inhuman One ). How does remixing and hearing remixes of your own work inform your music-making process?
Max Cooper: I see it as a situation where as long as both artists are writing different music, you should be able to get the best of both artists and combine it – when I do a remix, I need to be able to find something in someone else’s track that grabs me – it can be a tiny element or something more major, but it’s something I think is amazing. I try to complement that. In theory, the result should be strong musically because two people’s work is going into the final product. That’s a reason I’ve done a lot of remixes, because it’s been productive and it’s been fun. I’ve been really happy with the remixes of Human; there’s a real variation in the work – the remix of the track Impacts has insane sound design, is chaotic and intense, while Lusine’s remix is a lush, delicate production. I want people to experiment and feel free to do whatever they feel is right for them.
You’re playing the Friday night at EM15 and you consistently play live while also recording new material and remixes. How do you approach performance?
When I’m making music, sometimes I’ll set out to specifically make a club track or a home-listening track, or one that will work in both environments. And while I think about whether a track will sound “correct,” I also think about whether people will dance to it, which is a whole other thing. The track Apparitions on the new album sounds great in a club but it isn’t very danceable. I do sort of stop proceedings every so often with something like that and people stand and listen. I feel like if I play easy stuff through my whole set, I haven’t really done my job properly – I need to push people’s limits, maybe even piss them off a little before getting them back into something they can dance to. I DJed for a long time before I wrote music, so I still keep an eye on people and try to play what will work. I’m sometimes a bit jealous of artists who don’t do that, as there’s an artistic purity in getting up there and playing exactly what you want. With my 4D show [a large-scale, multi-speaker, immersive sound installation co-created with a technical team in Amsterdam] that is the case, as it’s predefined and doesn’t change while it’s on. At MUTEK/EM15, I’ll be playing a really flexible set with lots of different music, including some of the weirder stuff, but at the same time, if I clear the dance floor then I’ll think about changing my approach...
Max Cooper plays EM15 live at Métropolis on Friday, May 30, with Audion and Voices from the Lake.