A Conversation With: Max Cooper
Known for his genre-defying electronic productions, live/DJ hybrid sets, a humble demeanor, and a PhD in genetics, Max Cooper is undoubtedly one of the most multifaceted producers of today’s music scene. From releases on labels such as Evolved Records and Traum, remixes of everyone from Gary Beck to Au Revoir Simone, and a stunning debut album, he has a voice that keeps unfolding, layer after layer. Cooper’s love for music and detail is evident in one listen to any track he’s put his stamp on. Although he’s been involved in music since the late nineties, it’s clear that his legacy is just beginning. We met up with Cooper in Detroit ahead of his debut Movement festival performance to discuss Human, the audio/visual connection, and much more.
RP: How do you feel since your debut album Human has come out? Has it been getting good responses?
MC: It seems to have gone well. I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff. For me, I’m never happy with my music anyway… You have you be your own biggest critic. If you want to improve, you have to be self-critical. I worked really hard on it, I did the best I could do, but I’m already working on the next one and new things and there’s a whole lot of room for improvement. I’m never totally happy with my productions.
Has your approach to making music changed at all since you’ve released an album?
I’m definitely looking at things in a little bit different manner now, before I was always releasing EPs and I wasn’t sure whether doing an album would work, and it has worked. The thing that changed is that now, I’m thinking I’m going to do another album and focus on that format rather than going back to what I used to do. I’m thinking more about bigger projects with more space between them.
Are you going to keep working on smaller things in the middle?
Yes, I have several remixes going and I’ll probably do an EP. I want to do an EP of DJ-able release at some point, obviously the album is not something people are able to play. There may be 2 or 3 tracks people can play, but it’s not meant for DJs. It’s something very personal for me and not something that will necessarily fit into other people’s sets.
You have really interesting music videos that tell a story which coincides with the songs. What makes you want to keep making them?
I love visual art. A visual aspect is always a strong influence for me when I’m writing my music and also when I’m listening to music. There’s a very natural association for me between the visual and the audio. When you get it right, the audio and the visual, it’s stronger than the sum of the parts. It makes something between them gel, it enhances both. It’s something I’ve always focused on. If I had more time I’d love to make my own videos and do my own visual art. Because I can’t, I work with visual artists on music videos which I love and do as much as I can. The more I do, the more people I meet in that community and I really enjoy that part of the work I do.
When you’re getting ready to play a DJ set, how much do you do ahead of time? Do you plan to include certain tracks?
No, not really. I listen to my music and try to refresh my memory and think about things I like, but I don’t decide on anything for sure until I get there and see what the vibe is. It really depends. Tomorrow, if 5,000 people turn up, then I’m not going to play the same set as I would if there were 20 people there. The set is very much something that has to be designed to fit the time, the place, the people, and the vibe. Several different factors. I play it by ear and have lots of flexibility to play anything I love, like ambient, post-classical.. If it’s super chill tomorrow I may end up playing really ambient stuff, but maybe I’ll just play banging techno. We’ll see!
How do you think incorporating organic elements into your music makes it different than other electronic music out there?
One of my next EPs will be a collaboration with jazz musicians. Katherin de Boer who I’ve already worked with on the album, a trumpet player called Quentin Collins who’s a resident at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. It’s nice bringing those live elements in with the electronics, but I’m happy to write purely electronics as well. It’s always a matter of experimenting and trying things out. That’s the thing about my music, there’s elements of so many different genres. I love loads of different types of music and it’s hard for me sometimes to restrict things enough to be consistent. Since I’m more of a producer that sits there fiddling with the details instead of playing live synths, working with live musicians is a great way to add a natural feel to the music.
Doing music full time is fairly recent for you. Was there a specific moment you decided to wanted to dedicate yourself to it and put science on the back burner?
Ever since I started DJing in 1997 and did a proper gig, when I was 17 or so, I knew that I loved it and wanted to pursue it. I knew I would’ve loved to do it as a full time thing, but I knew I couldn’t rely on it, so I had the academics. I would’ve been happy doing the academic thing as well, so it was more like I worked really hard on both until one took over, and that was music. The good thing about getting a PhD is that if it’s going well, there’s a lot of flexibility. I used to DJ every Wednesday and go in late on Thursdays and DJ on the weekends and go in late on Mondays. I started releasing right after I finished my PhD, and that was when I knew I needed to give 100% to one or the other, saw an opportunity to do music full time, and decided to try it. That was about four years ago.
How do you think the research process and spending so much time in labs has influenced your approach to music?
The basic answer is that when you do research, you learn how to achieve a goal. You teach yourself how to do it and explore all the options. Just having the confidence to keep working, even when it seems impossible. Doing research and making music are both really hard, and you have to push and push and that work ethic is the same in both worlds. An interesting link between doing science and music is that they’re both about patterns. Science is all about patterns in nature, and music is all about patterns in sound, and there’s laws governing those patterns. Even if you’re not aware of it and thinking of it on that level, that’s what’s happening. There are a lot of similarities, but it’s hard to say how much direct influence there would be.
What influences your music besides music itself?
I generally apply ideas outside of music to each track. The concept behind the Human was to make an album where each track represented a different aspect of the human condition, or common things about being human. The first track, “Woven Ancestry,” is about how people are a product of all their ancestors and how it spreads out across the world and back in time. All these people, all their ideas, and their genetics as well, come together to form each individual. Musically, I took different instruments from around the world and played all of these different length loops, and they combine to form a coherent whole, like a person is a coherent whole of their ancestry. Some of the tracks – like “Seething” which is more intense and angry – are purely emotional, but again a very common thing in the human condition. If you read the track title, you may be able to hear the concept behind it, but I wrote it up and explained the concept for every track and how it relates to music. It’s a useful creative tool because it pushes me to do things I wouldn’t do otherwise. It makes me write in a different way, which hopefully leads to different-sounding music.
Were you very involved in the process of designing the cover art and laying out the album booklet?
Yes, I worked really closely with the visual artist, Ben Slater, who did the album design. He’s a good friend of mine and has done a lot of graphic design for me. If you check out the album, there’s the front cover that’s the front of the head, and the back cover is the same thing from the back, and then you open up the head, and inside you get the tracks of the album turned into visual forms from this software called Photosounder – Aphex Twin famously used it back in the day for when he embedded his face in one of his tracks. He took a photo of his face and put it into the music. We did a similar thing, but in reverse. We took pictures of human body parts, turned them into audio, mixed them into the music, turned them back into pictures, and that’s the inside of the album. It’s interesting, some of the music is really beautiful visually, you can see the chord structures and pitch bends and arrangement… Certain aspects of the music, but in a very lo-fi, glitchy way. That was a nice thing to play with.