Add driving beats to vast soundscapes, pepper with twisted distortions and expose to radiation. Alternatively, complete a doctorate in computational biology to the noughties soundtrack of James Holden‘s “The Sky Was Pink” remix, and then throw your test tubes to the wind, grab a laptop + Ableton Live and embark on a symbiotic journey of live shows and production. Enter Belfast born London based Max Cooper, with his unique recipe for an addictive style that can in equal measure assault your senses and harmonize with the synapses like a shot of dopamine to the amygdala.
Without delving too far into the realms of hyperbole, there is certainly a lot to be said for a genre-defining genetic research scientist turned electonica producer – especially one who’s headlining clubs and festivals across the world with an RA Top 20 rated live show and regularly kicking out more EPs and remixes than your average independent record label.
Over the last few years Max has been making waves in the scene with a sound that seems to bridge the gap between ethereal melody and in-your-face glitch. It’s a style that builds on the well established distorted pad noises of minimal, but that grows into the capacious ranks of full blown orchestral symphony – a crucially melodic fusion that might be better labelled Maximal tech (zing!).
Yeah I mean I’ve always approached my live show as a DJ rather than as a producer – I was DJing for a long time before I ever started writing music, and I always wanted to be able to do a live show where I could be totally flexible to play to the crowd and play like a DJ, so I played much longer sets – often 2 or 3 hours or even more. And I have a lot of tracks that I’ve made, maybe 200 tracks of mine in the set, and I’ll be able to mix between any 2 at any point. I’ve also got a wide range of different types of music, from ambient stuff to glitchy stuff, electronica, techno or house or whatever. It’s all about trying to play a different set every time and experiment, and as a result I set it up very differently to most people. My live show is really like sort of a hybrid show, half way between DJing and live.
What about hardware?
I’m using my laptop, used to use my PC actually but eventually changed to Mac because PC was just too unstable, and then I’ve got an APC40 midi controller and an iPad with Lemur, and for my soundcard I’m using an Alesis external.
Nice. So first time I saw you was in a basement in Shoreditch, fast forward a couple of years and you headlined Glade last summer and you seem to be pretty much world-touring right now, what’s next?
I’m trying to finish my first album. I’ve done a lot of releases but people always ask me why I haven’t done an album. These days I guess there’s so much music out there it’s quite important to have sort of a constant flow, and doing EPs and singles is a good way of doing that, but now the time has come to do a full length LP.
I’ve also been working with some really interesting visual artists on music videos. Then I’m doing a nice project, I’m really into finding odd ways to make music – not necessarily in terms of how I make it when I’m sat in my studio but rather how I can find an idea to drive the productions process – so concepts basically. One thing I’ve started on is I’m finding some of my favourite pieces of art in museums in London, and then I’m going to pick 3 or 4 of them and try to closely translate them into music. That should be an interesting project.
I’m also working on a bit of an experimental live show with this 3 dimensional sound grid; you essentially have speakers on poles and you’ve got a 3D field where you can have sound coming from pretty much any point, so you can have explosions and implosions and things flying around and happening in different places, and people can actually be inside that space and explore it.
When are you hoping to get that ready for?
Not sure what the date is, in May I’m going to do my first tests with the rig, so ideally towards the end of the summer most likely. It’ll be some sort of more experimental live show, and that’ll be going totally away from the DJ thing – it’s going to have to be a bit more predefined. Plenty of projects on the go, and busy over the summer with festivals and touring.
Oh yeah? What are the big ones in summer?
Big ones are probably [something that we can’t announce yet…], Awakenings in Holland – that’ll be big, back to Off Sonar.
Nice. So on a totally different note, there’s obviously a fair amount of talk about the fact that you used to be a genetics researcher at Nottingham / UCL, was there a definitive moment when you realised that music was going to be your focus?
Yeah that was when my funding ran out, you know. I was sort of doing both music and science, and I wanted to do both, but in the end it was the music that just ended up working – it wasn’t really a conscious choice, just I was trying to do both until one of them turned into a proper career, and that just happened to be music.
Yeah there’s obviously a big science influence on your producing – mathsy titles about fractals and infinity etc; is this partly about reconciling both interests?
Yeah definitely – for me, doing something creative is always about drawing on your influences, and the things that make you different from everyone else. So for me, I’ve spent a lot of time as a scientist and I’m really interested in that, so it’s natural for me to try and think of ways of linking that with the music.
Also it leads to loads of ideas, like I mentioned earlier I’m really into finding ways of driving my productions with science, art and nature etc., there’s a huge, rich array of things to draw on which can be sort of translated into music. Obviously the translation is very indirect – it’s generally some sort of creative idea, rather than a technical thing – I’m not using equations to write my music, which has been sort of misunderstood in the past. I have looked at doing a really technical project tying my PhD simulations into music production, and really explicitly linking the data to drive aspects of the music, but it would be something much more experimental.
Yeah you probably wouldn’t be releasing that on Traum any time soon…
Have you ever read “Godel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter?
Yeah I’m actually reading that at the moment! It’s kind of 3 of my favourite things all combined into one, and more. I guess Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem has always been one of my favourites. And Bach was obviously an amazing musician who did all this really mathsy and technical music, and then I used to love M. C. Escher when I was a kid. It’s just insanely detailed and deep you know? Layers and layers of meaning. No doubt it’ll provide me lots of new ideas for tracks and things, a treasure trove for sure.
Yeah it’s pretty incredible isn’t it. So back to basics, can you tell me what you produce in? How do you make your crazy trademark gitchy sounds?
I use Ableton Live, and then my glitchy stuff is generally a combination of lots of different things. A lot of the time people ask me how to make it, and the answer is to take as many strange techniques as you can think and chuck them all together. There’s a correlation between how complex something sounds and how complex the techniques used to create it were. It’s defined by complexity to some extent, and therefore you need a complex experimental process to actually make that. The main thing is just to mess around with stuff and try to combine lots of techniques together. I’ve also got lots of little samples from lots of different things that I’ve synthesised or sampled over the years off records or field recordings.
Real stuff that you’ve recorded with a microphone?
Yeah I do a lot of field recording, as well as sampling off little tiny hisses and clicks off records and things like that. Building up your own sample bank of strange sounds is very useful for glitchy stuff. Then after that it’s a matter of how you can generate a lot of movement. You can edit the sounds so that you have repeating units, but whenever they repeat they sound different. You can do that by hand or you can use things like beat repeat in Ableton, or you can just use midi drum machines to trigger things off in interesting ways.
Max Pro Live is really good – the interface for MSP, a programming language for making software music modules. It adds a lot more potential to what you can do with Ableton, really great for creating total chaos. You can just make loads of stuff happen at once, automating hundreds of parameters and having one thing modulating another, and building these complex machines. Another good way to do that sort of stuff can also be with sends, where you send one thing to another and then that sends to something else, and you can generate these big feedback loops – linking into Godel Escher Bach again – and whenever you build them in the right way you can get quite generative complexity coming out of it.
One of the other key features for glitchy stuff is once you’ve got this generative thing going on and it’s a bit uncontrolled and mad you just record it, and then you go back over it and pick the good bits.
As well as house and techno making its way further into the mainstream recently, a lot of people increasingly seem to be digging sort of harder and darker sounds; your style has always been pretty crossover, do you feel like you’re kind of trying to make harder music more accessible for a wider audience?
Whatever concept I’m working on, or whatever vibe I’m going for, I’m just trying to optimise that and make the best music I can within that idea… but that said my idea of what’s good will also mean that it should be accessible – I don’t want to be so niche that it’s got a tiny audience. I’m trying to make music that anyone can like basically, so yeah I guess sometimes I do delve into the harder / darker techno sort of thing, but also on the flip side sometimes I do totally ambient or orchestral or relaxed music which you can play to your granny.
Yeah my granny loves it. So to finish up, who would you love to collaborate with?
I guess Jon Hopkins would be pretty high up my list, he’s just amazing… head and shoulders above everyone else.
Track for a blissful sunrise?
If I’m playing my own stuff then Dominik Eulberg – Sansula (Max Coopers Lost In Sound Remix)
Track for a banging 4am warehouse?
Max Cooper and Jeet – Fisted… that one’s just brutal
Track to play a girl that you’ve brought home
You need a whole… what… 45 minutes?
Alright Max, thanks for taking the time to chat to us, we look forward to more releases and hopefully catching the live show soon.
Excellent, take care.