MSTRKRFTâ??s Machine Theory

MSTRKRFT (pronounced master-craft) is one of the more refreshingly experimental electronic dance music duos in recent memory. In a genre suffused with all too generic sounds, MSTRKRFT has achieved the coveted balance of critical success and seemingly unlimited creative agency. The band, which formed in 2006, consists of Jesse Keeler (who is also a member of the punk band Death from Above 1979) and Alex Puodziukas (who is better known as Al-P). They’re known for their techy remixes, which they’ve done for The Kills, JusticeBloc Party, and Katy Perry, among many others, but their original music is equally impressive; they have collaborated with the likes of John Legend, Ghostface Killah, and Lil’ Mo. Those who have seen them perform live describe it as euphoric, like watching what shouldn’t be music become music. 

For their forthcoming album, Operator (due out this Friday, July 22 via Last Gang Records), they moved away from the computer and went analog, using machines to generate their electronic sound. The resulting ten tracks are danceable, yes, but they’re also raw, dark, and even a little cerebral. (The album is inspired by obscure military theory, for one thing.) Last week, Jesse and Al called us from their native Canada to talk about Operator and the seven years that have passed since the release of their last LP, Fist of God.

MATT MULLEN: It’s been seven years since your last album, Fist of God. What’s changed in that time?

JESSE KELLER: While it has been seven years between actual records, for us, we’ve been working that whole time, initially in secret for quite a while. More or less what happened was after we released Fist of God we were touring that record for a while. And then we did one more EP, we played a little bit around that, and then we started to say no to every offer that came through. We just needed to have some reassessment time to decide what we wanted to do. And then we started working, in a sense, really from scratch; we saw ourselves as a new entity a little. We didn’t tell anybody about it. We were just working away to create what we have now. Everyone making music, I assume, is always evolving to some extent.

MULLEN: I’m curious about the inspiration for the album. I read that military culture was a jumping off point and the video for “Priceless” features a lot of military imagery.

KEELER: There’s this thing we found on these military blogs; this term “operator” would come up a lot. It’s the idea of detaching yourself from what you’re doing, and reducing your involvement to just operating whatever the machinery is. It’s like a tank operator; the tank is doing something, but the idea is that you reduce your own emotional involvement to that of just operating machinery. You’re not thinking about what exactly the end result is. So, in a sense, that’s where the concept comes from. The idea of it being rooted in the military or that world isn’t really important to the record, despite the fact that we adopted it for the cover. [laughs]

For us, what we were noticing as we were working was the nature of how we were interacting with the equipment; we related to that detachment from what’s happening. I remember when Al started talking about the operator concept, we connected with it quickly, and we sort of applied that to how we interacted with the equipment. Once we stopped trying to insert ourselves into what was happening, into the way we were working with the equipment, it exploded in terms of our ability to be creative with it. Maybe it sounds like bullshit to say this, but in a sense, we’d end up kind of driving the machine, and then we are responding to what they do. It’s a sort of feedback loop. You attempt something, you’re steering the machine in a certain way, you get something out of it that you don’t expect and then you react. You alter it based on this effect that you didn’t intend on happening.

ALEX PUODZIUKAS: There’s an element—this goes back to what we had been doing in that seven year gap—which was the design phase, where we designed this system, and curated all these pieces, and processes for how this setup was going to run. And that’s also how the operator concept comes in. We built this, I’m not going to say it’s autonomous, because it’s not, but I think what Jesse is saying is true; there’s a crazy feedback loop, where you’re inputting something and what you get back from the machine is not necessarily what you expected. I think that’s a huge part of how this record sounds—just allowing the system to run based on all these little processes.

MULLEN: It’s interesting to hear you talk about detachment because you’re known for your collaborations with other musicians. How do you reconcile letting machines do their thing but also bringing in humans, who are more unpredictable?

KEELER: Well, much in the same way as we set up our systems for generating music, when we approached the collaborators for this record, we picked instrumentalists and vocalists and really the only direction we gave them was, “We just want you to do something that you’re really happy with, and you think is awesome,” and really everybody took that to heart. I think Sonny Kay gave us a real masterpiece of vocals. But much in the same way, we’re not trying to command the equipment, we didn’t really give any specific feedback while the vocals were being written, recorded, or created. We just set up the tone by giving them the music that we thought [they] could respond to. And what we got back in the end, somehow each vocal was amazing on its own, but as a whole all the vocals somehow fit together thematically and tonally. The amazing thing about it is nobody knew who was on the record; nobody heard any of the other contents. So we feel like we picked something that resonated musically with everybody, to kind of guide them to give us something that was cohesive in the end.

MULLEN: The “Runaway” video is amazing.

KEELER: I find watching his dancing makes me uncomfortable. [laughs] He makes it looks so easy. I found myself—after I watched the video—trying to dance a little, even though I really can’t.

MULLEN: How creatively involved are you in your music videos?

KEELER: In this phase of MSTRKRFT, we just want to be very careful about choosing the people we want to work with. So if we’re asking someone, or someone is asking us to make a video, we want to work with people that we trust based on what they’ve done, and really hear what they have to say. There’s a thought that creative people might have in general, and I’m sure it expands to much more than just music, but there’s this thought that because you can make music you can make videos, or maybe I could write a movie, maybe I could write a book. How do you know where to draw the line? But I think there’s a value in trusting and working with people who do the thing that they do. Like, I’m sure I could ask my dog’s veterinarian to take a look at my teeth. There’s really no harm or shame in admitting or expressing that there’s a real value in different, specialized fields of art. That’s not to say that we can’t be involved, but I think to try to have this total control over every aspect of things…

MULLEN: You’re be touring later this summer, right? Is that fun?

KEELER: This phase of playing live has been the most enjoyable, the most work, and the most fulfilling phase of MSTRKRFT by far. As we’re performing, about two thirds of what we’re doing every night is improvised for the audience. It was very intimidating, actually; I remember the first time we did it my nerves were going crazy, and I’ve been performing on stages for people for 23 years or something. I hadn’t been this nervous in a very long time. For days before hand I was like, “Can I do this, can I just go up and improvise?” And then we started doing it and time flew by. The first time we did it, we at some point looked down at a watch and we realized what felt like 20 minutes had actually been well over an hour. Time flies when you’re just having so much fun, and you’re so inserted into what you’re doing.

PUODZIUKAS: Really what we’re doing with the improvisational component is we’re taking what we do in the studio to the stage, but doing it really fast. As we’re in the studio we get an idea going and kind of work on it, massage it, start programing around it. And we’re taking that onto stage and doing it as fast as possible to get somewhere, and to get an idea crystallized. I think when people see it happen—between the genesis and the crystallization of the idea—once everything locks in, there’s an excitement that I don’t think we had even when we were playing the biggest crowd pleasers. People are responding to it really well.