Max Cooper is a London-based electronic producer, originally from Belfast. I’ve been following his music for years and it felt like the right time for an interview as he has just released his debut album, Human. A man of contrasts and extremes when it comes to his music, he has a strong academic background, including a Ph.D. in Computational Biology, and perhaps the most humble personality I’ve met in years. If given the choice, he admits, he’d be living atop a mountain just writing music. We met a couple of weeks ago in a small café where we had a long chat about his work…
WiD: I’d like to start by asking what would you be doing if you were not a musician?
I would be doing genetics, because that’s what I was doing before I went full-time with my music. I was a scientist practicing systems biology, which is basically making computer models of biological systems, which I really enjoyed. I thought that would be my career, but music somehow took over. I still really enjoy science though, so that’s what I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing music.
WiD: You have a scientific background, what kind of scientific modus operandi can be found in your music? [*question by Lorenzo Cibrario].
I guess a lot of the time I use scientific concepts as inspiration. It’s still very much a creative tool, there are scientific ideas that I try to communicate through my music but it’s not like I’m using science specifically to write the music, it’s more of a creative method.
As an example, the first track of the album called Woven Ancestry is about how each person is a product of the genetic information of their ancestors; their ancestors spread out over locations across the world, and all of their influences come together to form each individual. Trying to represent that idea musically I took different ancient instruments from around the world and played them with different loop lengths and melodies to form a coherent whole.
WiD: In our review we said that your music is a hybrid of different genres, gathering inspiration from classical, organic sounds and techno. How would you describe your sound?
Well that’s a good description you’ve given. I guess my music is very varied, but there are a few key features that run through it. Melodies, emotion, details; I love detail and complexity, creating contrasts and maximising the musical differences unexpectedly so that suddenly it turns direction and gives you a shock. I also try fusing different genres and taking ideas from all of these genres. So there are a few things I guess, but what you said is pretty accurate.
WiD: You started your career in music as a DJ and remixer. How challenging was it to evolve to what you have become now from a DJ to a producer?
Very, very difficult! I was DJ’ing for a long time, I wanted to play clubs all the time until I eventually realised that I had to write music. Things were a bit different when I started DJ’ing in the 90’s, there were people coming through successfully as DJs and not producers, but as time passed they became rarer and rarer. In the mid to late 90’s most new acts were producers so I realised that I needed to produce music. I started writing music and working really hard on it for years before getting it to a decent standard.
It was very frustrating because I was essentially self-taught, I just learnt everything by trial and error. To be honest I still feel like I’m on that path; I still feel like my music is not there yet. I need to keep working and pushing because some of the music out there is so amazing that when I listen to it I’m totally blown away.
WiD: Do you have any really old tracks on your album?
The oldest track on the album is probably three years old. I started the process a long time ago, I had the concept of the album and I let it come naturally. The concept was to be an album about the human condition, and each track a different aspect of the human condition. Most of the tracks happened in the last year and a half.
WiD: We know you are a true music aficionado and that can be seen in the unexpected tracks of your sets. As an electronic music producer what are your thoughts on modern classical music? Can these two genres be connected?
Yeah, I think they can totally combine. I love classical minimalism, it’s very similar to electronic music in a lot of ways, a lot of classical is similar to techno minus the big kick-drums. That’s something that I have always loved, especially now with a lot of neo-classical guys coming through. Classical music is very compatible with electronic music, a lot of these artists like Nils Frahm are crossing over so that there is no defined boundary, it’s a continuum of all the different types of music and they can be fused in whatever way you want.
Obviously there is a boundary in terms of how it’s performed, but you can fuse the two together and have great results. Craig Armstrong did something in the late 90’s, some nice sort of classical-electronic fusion or Venetian Snares’ Rossz Csillag Alatt Született that was quiet a big influence on me. There have been great examples of classical-electronic fusions. Although I feel that there is still a lot of room to explore.
WiD: It took you a while to release your debut. Were you working on the album all this time or working on other projects as well?
It’s only the last two years or so that I’ve been focused on the album, before that I was doing album tracks and other projects, remixes and going back and forth.
WiD: What is the concept behind Human? Why did you think that this was the most appropriate name for something so mechanical?
I guess this name is the most concise way of describing the approach of the whole idea, the concept of the human condition. The overall concept gave me plenty of room to explore and also an excuse to do extreme things musically. An example is the track Impacts, which is really mechanical, aggressive and nasty and then it’s followed by Empyrean, which means “heavenly”, and it’s warm and beautiful.
People are complex; they are so multifaceted, they are sometimes hypocritical, and they don’t make sense individually, so it gave me the opportunity to push in different directions and explore and do what I love to do, which is to have massive contrasts and not be constrained to one genre or style.
For the first album I wanted to have total freedom, so it’s like saying to myself that I’ll just do what I want and I don’t care what people think of it.
WiD: If you had to choose your favourite song, which would this be and what is the idea behind it?
My favourite track on the album is probably Potency.
Humans have so much potential; if you look at the world that we live in and the complex environment that we’ve created, we are animals but we’ve got this huge potential to achieve amazing things.
The track is an attempt to represent intensity and seething, the power of people, but it also feels a bit distorted and heavy. There is always more there, but it only shows a fraction of what was possible; it’s bursting with emotion and energy. It’s that feeling that you want to explode and you can’t get it out of you, like a silent scream.
There are no drums, but just layers of distortion, a mix of analog distortion from a Moog, tape saturation, guitar amps and digital emulation distortion.
WiD: How important is technology in your live shows?
Totally. I don’t play any instruments, and the way I write music is very “non-live”. It’s not a live process it’s just me fiddling around on my computer, moving notes and stuff. I approach my performances from a different perspective as DJ’ing is my background, even when I’m playing my music. I have all of my music with me, I think about track selection and interacting with the audience, but I’m not playing things live. I don’t have synthesizers, it’s my computer and controllers and thinking about the overall progression of the set and the development, so it’s totally technology reliant.
WiD: What about the 4D shows?
Well the 4D show is different, I perform that from a different way. Every track has to be really carefully selected and specifically designed for the system. First of all I have to take all the elements of each track and decide, if music was a physical entity, what shape would it be and how would people interact with it? I then have to take every sound and make it a reality, decide how it moves around the space and how all the different sounds interact within the space so it can be a coherent experience. It’s a lot of work to prepare each piece of music, it’s completely different from when I’m playing live.
WiD: So, last question, if you had to choose one new WEEKID artist for us, who would this be?
It would be Rob Clouth. He releases under his name Rob Clouth and under the moniker Vaetxh. I use a lot of his tracks in my mixes so if you’ve listened to my recent mix for FACT you can hear two of his tracks there. Under Vaetxh he makes the most hyper-detailed, amazing sound design. In my opinion he is the best technical producer out there. He hasn’t released much yet, but everything he does is mind-blowing. You should definitely listen to him.
WiD: Thank you Max.
Max Cooper is playing on April 9th Live at Boiler Room.