Max Cooper brings a whole new meaning to Intelligent Dance Music. He refocused his scientific mind from a PhD in genetics to layered polyrhythms and synthetic blips. He has produced a wide range of styles, including techno and glitch. He’s also well known for his visually captivating music videos.
I really enjoyed your “Meadows” video. The videos are a great visual aid to guide the listener through the layers of complexity in the music. What role do the videos play in your musical expression?
For me they’re really important. When I write music, the visual aspect is always a real focus for me. It sort of drives my production of the music. I think quite visually in a lot of ways. And so for me the video has always been a really important thing to work on, and I’ve always made an effort to find artists, even when I was starting out and really poor, and couldn’t afford to pay my rent, I would still pay for artists to make music videos, ’cause I valued it really highly. I love it. If I could — if I had more time or more talent I would work on the visual side of things myself, as well. Unfortunately, just doing music is difficult enough.
I love visual art, and I like going to galleries. I especially love abstract, mathematical, computational videos which are made possible with computers.
How did you find your way to the darkside of electronic music from genetics?
I was always into music and DJ’ing, and pursuing that life all the way through university. My science and my music happened in parallel from a much earlier age. I still love both things, but it sort of came to a point where I had to make a decision. I had to drop one and focus on the other because both things are very time consuming, and in the end it had to be music. I had to let the genetics go.
How did your parents feel about that?
Actually, they were very supportive. My dad — he’s retired now, but he was an academic. He taught engineering at Queen’s University in Belfast. He was like, “Go for it. Go do music. The academic life isn’t the be all and end all.” By that time, I’d got my PhD. They trusted my judgement and they didn’t say anything about it. Nothing but encouragement, really.
In Europe you’re well known for sets that swing from electronica to abrasive techno. Your sound is very diverse. Which genres inspire you the most?
At the moment, the genres that inspire me the most are modern classical and electronica. The only problem is, saying the word “electronica” is a big cop-out, really. It’s kind of a way of saying all electronic music that doesn’t fit into another genre. I guess by that I’m saying I’m really into the strange and experimental electronic music out there. Not all of it, obviously, but that’s where the most interesting stuff is in my opinion, but also I love rich melody. You find that in classical music. That’s all it is in a lot of ways, so those two genres, I’d say.
Your write-up in NME on EDM was very insightful and thoughtful. Skrillex posted an inspiring Aphex Twin track and his fans asked ‘Where’s the drop?’. Is EDM training people to miss subtlety? Or could it be a gateway to help people discover more subtle forms of electronic music.
I think I see it as a natural progression. When I was 17, I used to go and listen to the rave music that was big in the ’90′s. When you’re younger, you want higher energy, and high impact, and you don’t care for the subtleties, but the more you listen to that sort of music, eventually you get bored of that same format and move on, and you get bored of that and move onto something else. It’s great that people are getting into electronic music. I’d say it’s a positive thing for sure.
About your release ‘Conditions Two’. Can you explain what this series is about?
The Condition series ties into my album about the human condition. I like to have concepts for each track, and I was thinking about a nice concept I could use that would tie into my interests for a series of releases, so I went for the human condition, whereby each track is a different aspect of that condition. So it’s a huge scope for experimentation, so the Condition series is themed around the human condition.
Your British Museum podcast is fascinating. You have 12th century Tibetan monks. Thomas Edison, Gregorian Chant, techno, Chinese music in there. How did you choose the sounds for this project?
The concept was to have a mix inspired by a space, so I chose the British Museum because I love the space, and I love the ambient sounds that I recorded in there, and it’s a place where I spent time in the past. So there was that aspect, but there’s also the museum itself. It’s full of a lot of old Eastern artifacts in there. I just tried to find music that represented the same periods as the artifacts in the museum, so I just went searching for whatever old Eastern music I could find, and the oldest European music I could find was that Gregorian chant, and then I just combined that with the most modern computational music I could find, and threw the two together. It was fun, and it seemed to work.
Are there any artists that inspire you that perhaps you might want to work with in the future?
Yeah, I mean there’s loads of great artists out there. Some of my favorites at the moment would be Jon Hopkins. He’s got a new album coming out any minute now. He has an amazing level of production and ideas. He brings together all these different genres and different styles.
Guy called Vaetxh. He’s just amazingly talented. Well, he’s more of an academic than a producer. You can really hear that in his music, it’s insanely technical.
Who else? I’d have to go onto my computer and look through what I’ve been listening to recently.
There’s a lot of great music out there. I think there’s good music in every genre, pretty much. “Voices From the Lake”. That’s another really interesting electronic album that’s sort of recent. Beacon — Beacon are amazing, they’ve got this old Depeche Mode or New Order sort of sound, but in a much more modern way. It’s really nice.
There is a documentary series, it’s called the “Up Series”. Basically the theory says that if you meet a child, and you get their personality, it’s a good predictor of how they’ll be as an adult. I’m curious, has that theory held true for you?
Obviously it’s hard for me to say from the inside. I still feel like a kid. Writing music is one thing you can do and pretty much never grow up. You avoid the standard 9 to 5 and other things that make people have to grow up. Also I like the idea in philosophy — there’s the idea that philosophers should be like children. You should have that wonder and curiosity about the world. If you want to learn, you don’t take things for granted. You try to really experience the world around you and think about it freshly each time. I feel a lot like that. There’s a lot of amazing things out there, and I try to experience it as much as I can. I’ve definitely got a bit of a childish outlook.
Is there anything you want to add? Upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Numb was released at the end of April, with Kathrin deBoer. There’s a music video for that which is amazing. It’s an infographics video about being numbed by the capitalist machine.
I did want to ask you about why you chose her vocals. It’s such a great choice, but it’s such an unusual choice.
She’s got a really interesting voice. It’s not the norm for electronic music or dance music. It’s an amazing jazzy style voice. It’s always appealing to me to try something different. We sat down and had a play and it just sort of worked. We just did this live jam that I recorded, and that was what we used on the track.
Where are you based?
We’re based in San Francisco.
Oh really? The last interview I did was with somebody in San Francisco. I guess San Francisco’s a bit of a hub for new music. I love it there, actually, it’s one of my favorite cities in the world, for sure. Hopefully I’ll be back soon. Maybe you can see the show.
We’re looking forward to it.