This year at SXSW was certainly the year of the return. We welcome back with open arms the power electronic dance punk duo MSTRKRFT, comprised of Jesse F. Keeler and Alex Puodziukas (aka Al-P for short). Whilst making our rounds at the festival, we were able to sit down and talk with Al-P backstage at the House of Vans. The master producer and all around cool guy gave us a little insight into the group’s return from a long hiatus, the cyclical nature of art and music, as well as a roundabout journey to his feelings about danger. MSTRKRFT’s new album Ә is coming soon. For now, we lay in wait with the teaser intro track “Little Red Hen.” Check out Al-P’s side of the story below.
mxdwn: How many SX’s have you been to?
Al-P: I’ve done definitely two that I can remember, not including this one. Actually one of them… was somewhere off of 6th St. and they had set up a tent in a parking lot. If you go back into the archives, that’s the one that was closed down by the sheriffs on horseback. They ended up cutting off the sound system and we begged them to turn it back on and when they did, Jesse said something like “Fuck the police.” He used that moment of active sound system to say that, they shut it down pretty hard after that. The sheriff threatened to arrest us, but luckily, our attorney at the time was at the side stage and she talked to the police. She prevented us from being arrested and somehow managed to get the sound system back on so we were able to finish our set in the midst of all this. It was pretty intense.
mxdwn: Have you ever been arrested?
mxdwn: You don’t like to get into trouble?
Al-P: I’m not a troublemaker. I like trouble, but I don’t like to make it.
mxdwn: What kind of trouble? Devious?
Al-P: Maybe not so much trouble, but action. Let’s put it that way… Not devious, but fun.
mxdwn: What do you do for fun?
Al-P: Drink, smoke, listen to music at tragically loud volumes… Right now I’ve been listening to (if you’re talking about things that are appropriate to our world) one of the guys I really like is Lawan from the UK. It’s techno, but it’s very abstract in a way and minimal. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from a lot of his music on the current record.
mxdwn: Who else inspires you?
Al-P: Gary Beck. There’s a track from this band called Die Form in 1980 or 1981 that sounds like current techno music does today.
mxdwn: It’s still relevant?
Al-P: It’s super relevant. The only way that you can tell that it wasn’t made today is that the mix itself has room to breathe. It’s not just a brick wall of sound. Other than that, stylistically, it’s a good example of how art is cyclical, especially in music.
mxdwn: You’re such a dynamic creative duo and it sounds like you’re constantly working on a new creative project. It took a while for this new album to come about. What have you been working on in-between?
Al-P: For me and Jesse it’s been a lot of planning, designing, curating and acquiring the pieces that we need for putting things together. I’m going through the process of figuring out how to make what we want to happen happen with all of this stuff. Talk about cyclical recurrences, we’re using a lot of gear from the first wave of electronic instruments in our setup which makes things exciting and interesting when you’re travelling with irreplaceable things that were built in the late 70s and early 80s. If something happens to them, you can’t just go to the store and get another one. I consider myself more of the mechanic. Jesse’s really great with big pictures ideas and my energy tends to be focused on making things happen and putting things together – execution.
mxdwn: So you handle the arrangements?
Al-P: Technically, that’s one of the things that I tend to have a little more patience for, especially on this record. The way it was recorded was everything was live and running synchronized and then we just hit record on a multitrack recorder, treating it as though it’s a tape machine, even though it’s a computer. There is no real software used to generate ideas or manipulate things that we did on the record. It all came from hardware documented on a multitrack recorder as if it was a tape machine. So we would set everything up, run the machine, go to record, and just play for hours, taking note of moments that we thought could be refined or distilled into a piece of music that would make sense in three to five days. We literally had hundreds of hours of recorded material to sort through.
mxdwn: How did you whittle it down?
Al-P: We started with identifying a moment that feels great and then backflow from there. So if you find the moment where the idea has crystallized and then a way to get to that and then get out of that within three to five minutes, now you have a song.
mxdwn: It feels like you both have a dynamic chemistry when it comes to creating music. How did that develop?
Al-P: Jesse and I met in the mid-90s playing in punk bands and we each had several different iterations of bands with similar members and it was all very incestuous. Bands would come and go. Lineups would change. Then we’d change the band name and have a completely different style. It was a time of constant creation. We kind of tapped into that feeling a lot for this current record where we don’t overthink it. We just do it and let it happen. Sometimes it’s a lot of slogging through stuff that’s not working, but you can eventually hit something that works and it makes that time all worth it just finding that one moment.
mxdwn: Is it just a feeling when something works?
Al-P: It’s a feeling. Going back in time to the mid-90s and then the early 2000s which was really the golden era of MSTRKRFT, we were doing a ton of remixes. I think in the first two years we did two full-length albums and about 30 remixes. That was a very prolific time for us. A lot of our work that comes from that time was drawn where there would just be a remix that we would just have to do. All of that work that we did is transposable to our own music now and our current working methods. It’s really just a work ethic that we carry over from that time when we were doing a lot of remixes and reproducing essentially other people’s music. In the end, it would always become so much more than a remix because we would take it so far. All of our remixes use pretty much only the vocal element, and then we would create an entire track around it, to our own detriment because it’s still their song. We couldn’t bear to do just the bare minimum. That’s one of the reasons we stopped taking on a lot of remix work and really started to focus our energy on just making original writing and production. That takes us to “at” time. We took a lot of time to figure out exactly what we needed to do to play live because that was always something people would ask of us. To be clear, when we’re playing our new record, it’s as live as it can be. There are elements that must be playback or sample-based like vocals because we’re not going to travel around with six different vocalists.
mxdwn: Do you ever have stand-ins?
Al-P: That’s something that will happen every once in a while if we think it works logistically for us and for somebody that we’re collaborating with if we’re in the same city, for example. That is completely doable, but what makes what we’re doing the most live that it can be is that when we perform, most of the music that we’re playing is happening in real time and we’re improvising to get from one piece to another. So in a set, we have what I like to call “anchors,” or songs that are compositions from the record and we need to get to one and then get to the next one. Everything that happens between the anchors in the set is fully improvised real time production based on what we’re feeling from the crowd, how we’re feeling in the moment, and really it’s as live as it can be when it comes to electronic. The other thing that’s very different is that we’re using modular synthesizers now instead of synthesizers with a fixed architecture or synthesizers with a fully designed and inflexible product. With the modular synthesizers, it’s really up to you what pieces you want to have in that sonic toolbox and that really allows you to design sounds that wouldn’t be possible to do on a synthesizer with fixed architecture. The other thing is that it generates interesting results based on operator error. It’s definitely something that we play off of when we’re improvising. The equipment itself inspires us as we’re playing.
mxdwn: It feels like the new track “Little Red Hen” is a great elaboration on previous work and it’s what we needed to take us to the next level in the now. What else can we expect to hear from the new album?
Al-P: I think the first official release from the new album “Little Red Hen” is a great example of how we’re able to be creative with very few elements, which is a theme on the entire record. That being said, I feel like “Little Red Hen” might be one of the more challenging pieces on the album and when we were deciding to release that first, there was a conscious decision being made to put something out that was very challenging as our first step back into visibility after being away for so long.
mxdwn: Was it kind of a mark of triumph or accomplishment?
Al-P: I think it was more of us being really excited about it, feeling that this is really awesome, and wanting other people to be excited about it too. There are other songs on the record that I think are more accessible but we didn’t want to start off with the safe stuff. We kind of wanted to release something dangerous and see what happens.
mxdwn: So you do like danger after all?
Al-P: I prefer danger.