Machinedrum On Finding The Balance Between Pop And Experimental

Written By Matthew Fiacchi on 10/26/2016

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Machinedrum has been making music for close to two decades now but it feels like he’s making some of the most accessible and forward-thinking music of his career right now.

His new album Human Energy sees him team up with vocalists like DAWN, Jesse Boykins III and Kevin Hussein, with Machinedrum surrounding their vocals with glitchy, pulsating beats that somehow find melody amongst the chaos.

His production on DAWN’s Not Above That versus his own DAWN-featuring track Do It 4 U shows exactly how he can dart between pop and experimental electronica with ease, or combine the two.

We chatted to the producer just after the release of the album and ahead of his Australia tour in November.

So, first off, congratulations on the release of Human Energy!
Oh, thank you so much!

Now, I know you’ve had a busy couple of years, but for those who might not be up to speed, why don’t you tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since Vapor City Archives?
So Vapor City Archives came out after I moved back to New York from Berlin, and I started living with my current fiancé there. I was performing the Vapor City Live show for a good two and a half years after the album came out, and while doing that I’d had scattered moments in the studio, where I had the chance to write some songs every now and then. But I didn’t really feel like any of the tracks really… I felt like they were all too connected to Vapor City Archives, sonically, and they felt like just a continuation of those sort of themes.

So once I moved to Los Angeles, I decided to take a step back and reapproach everything with a fresh mind, and actually take time off from playing shows and refocus my energy into the new album. That’s what I did this year – I started writing the album in January and turned it in in April. It was definitely a sacrifice I had to make, it was very risky, but at the end of the day I ended up creating this album, which I don’t think I would have been able to if I had continued to try and write an album in between playing shows.

I remember when Dos Puertas came out, you copped a bit of backlash because people thought you had a ‘new sound’, but it seems like as you revealed more about the album and what you were trying to do with it, people sort of ‘got it’ a bit.
Yeah, I mean, that was the single that Ninja Tune wanted to lead with, and it was one of those tracks that was sort of a response to what was going on at the moment. And I’ve had tracks like that in the past like Alarma, songs that I was just kind of having a laugh at, really. Just making a track for the hell of it, y’know?

So what was it that made you want to take your music in that ‘new’ direction?
I started working with a lot more vocalists in the past couple of years, I had been working with a lot of vocalists when I was in New York, before moving to Berlin, and I kind of abandoned that for a while. But once I moved back to New York, I started getting back into working with vocalists again, and working on pop arrangements, which I really enjoy – it’s such a challenge for me to write an enjoyable pop song, or something that is going to be accessible, but at the same time hold the same sort of requirements that I have – the taste and influence that really makes a good track, for me.

So keeping that balance between the experimental and pop worlds.

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You’ve obviously worked with heaps of people in the past, but this album is kind of your most collaborative ‘Machinedrum’ album to date – was it a challenge for you to have that collaborative approach?
Not at all! There’s a lesser known album that I released in 2009 called Want To 1 2?

I love that album!
Yeah, it’s pretty chock full of collaborations. I think if anything that was more of an attempt at trying to do a ‘pop’ collaborative record than this one. I mean, there’s definitely some legitimate features on Human Energy, but for the most part a lot of the vocal collaborations ended up being the same approach as I would have to tracks in the past, where I just sampled an old acapella. I decided to go through all my old sessions or newer sessions that I’d done with vocalists and cut up their vocals that they may have written to older beats or whatever and try to incorporate those into a new song or a newer context.

I can’t let this interview go by without talking a little bit about DAWN. How did you guys get connected?
We met about a year ago, through my booking agent, and he introduced me and Jimmy Edgar as well – we both met up with her in a studio here in LA. We instantly clicked, we wrote like three songs in that session, and then just continued to work together over the next few months. She would send songs she was working on, and I would send her beats that I was working on. Even though we lived in the same city, we were collaborating a lot online and sending ideas back and forth, and we kind of let each other do whatever we wanted to do with the tracks – we would let each other rearrange everything.

With Do It 4 U specifically, on my album, she had written a few verses and a completely different hook as well to a different beat that I had made, and then I ended up taking the vocals that she wrote for that track and re-pitched them, rearranged them and everything for a new beat that I had written for Human Energy, and she was totally cool with it. She could have said ‘Uh, no I kind of wanna go with my original track that I wrote’, but she’s really cool like that. She loved the song so much, to the point where she was actually fighting me over it, wanting to have it for her album, but I promised her ten tracks for that one track, so I think she got a good deal.

But yeah, she’s super inspiring to work with, and we have a whole new album together coming out next month, actually. It’s her third solo album, it’s part of a series that she’s been doing. It’s called Redemption and it’s coming out in November, and about 90% of it is produced by me.

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Machinedrum has been making music for close to two decades now but it feels like he’s making some of the most accessible and forward-thinking music of his career right now.

His new album Human Energy sees him team up with vocalists like DAWN, Jesse Boykins III and Kevin Hussein, with Machinedrum surrounding their vocals with glitchy, pulsating beats that somehow find melody amongst the chaos.

His production on DAWN’s Not Above That versus his own DAWN-featuring track Do It 4 U shows exactly how he can dart between pop and experimental electronica with ease, or combine the two.

We chatted to the producer just after the release of the album and ahead of his Australia tour in November.

So, first off, congratulations on the release of Human Energy!
Oh, thank you so much!

Now, I know you’ve had a busy couple of years, but for those who might not be up to speed, why don’t you tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since Vapor City Archives?
So Vapor City Archives came out after I moved back to New York from Berlin, and I started living with my current fiancé there. I was performing the Vapor City Live show for a good two and a half years after the album came out, and while doing that I’d had scattered moments in the studio, where I had the chance to write some songs every now and then. But I didn’t really feel like any of the tracks really… I felt like they were all too connected to Vapor City Archives, sonically, and they felt like just a continuation of those sort of themes.

So once I moved to Los Angeles, I decided to take a step back and reapproach everything with a fresh mind, and actually take time off from playing shows and refocus my energy into the new album. That’s what I did this year – I started writing the album in January and turned it in in April. It was definitely a sacrifice I had to make, it was very risky, but at the end of the day I ended up creating this album, which I don’t think I would have been able to if I had continued to try and write an album in between playing shows.

I remember when Dos Puertas came out, you copped a bit of backlash because people thought you had a ‘new sound’, but it seems like as you revealed more about the album and what you were trying to do with it, people sort of ‘got it’ a bit.
Yeah, I mean, that was the single that Ninja Tune wanted to lead with, and it was one of those tracks that was sort of a response to what was going on at the moment. And I’ve had tracks like that in the past like Alarma, songs that I was just kind of having a laugh at, really. Just making a track for the hell of it, y’know?

So what was it that made you want to take your music in that ‘new’ direction?
I started working with a lot more vocalists in the past couple of years, I had been working with a lot of vocalists when I was in New York, before moving to Berlin, and I kind of abandoned that for a while. But once I moved back to New York, I started getting back into working with vocalists again, and working on pop arrangements, which I really enjoy – it’s such a challenge for me to write an enjoyable pop song, or something that is going to be accessible, but at the same time hold the same sort of requirements that I have – the taste and influence that really makes a good track, for me.

So keeping that balance between the experimental and pop worlds.

You’ve obviously worked with heaps of people in the past, but this album is kind of your most collaborative ‘Machinedrum’ album to date – was it a challenge for you to have that collaborative approach?
Not at all! There’s a lesser known album that I released in 2009 called Want To 1 2?

I love that album!
Yeah, it’s pretty chock full of collaborations. I think if anything that was more of an attempt at trying to do a ‘pop’ collaborative record than this one. I mean, there’s definitely some legitimate features on Human Energy, but for the most part a lot of the vocal collaborations ended up being the same approach as I would have to tracks in the past, where I just sampled an old acapella. I decided to go through all my old sessions or newer sessions that I’d done with vocalists and cut up their vocals that they may have written to older beats or whatever and try to incorporate those into a new song or a newer context.

I can’t let this interview go by without talking a little bit about DAWN. How did you guys get connected?
We met about a year ago, through my booking agent, and he introduced me and Jimmy Edgar as well – we both met up with her in a studio here in LA. We instantly clicked, we wrote like three songs in that session, and then just continued to work together over the next few months. She would send songs she was working on, and I would send her beats that I was working on. Even though we lived in the same city, we were collaborating a lot online and sending ideas back and forth, and we kind of let each other do whatever we wanted to do with the tracks – we would let each other rearrange everything.

With Do It 4 U specifically, on my album, she had written a few verses and a completely different hook as well to a different beat that I had made, and then I ended up taking the vocals that she wrote for that track and re-pitched them, rearranged them and everything for a new beat that I had written for Human Energy, and she was totally cool with it. She could have said ‘Uh, no I kind of wanna go with my original track that I wrote’, but she’s really cool like that. She loved the song so much, to the point where she was actually fighting me over it, wanting to have it for her album, but I promised her ten tracks for that one track, so I think she got a good deal.

But yeah, she’s super inspiring to work with, and we have a whole new album together coming out next month, actually. It’s her third solo album, it’s part of a series that she’s been doing. It’s called Redemption and it’s coming out in November, and about 90% of it is produced by me.

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