Interviews

MSTRKRFT Discusses Going Punk Rock

By David Jenison

MSTRKRFT released Operator, its first new album in seven years, this past summer, and the Canadian duo launches a six-date North American tour on December 1 that starts in Detroit and finishes in Austin on December 10. If 2009’s Fist of God merged EDM and hip-hop, Operator blends EDM with punk rock, and no song on the album is more aggressive than the closing track, “Go On Without Me.” How intense is the track? In an album review, Pitchfork said the song “thunders and throbs like it belongs inside the S&M club from The Matrix.” Obviously wanting to learn more about the song, PRØHBTD spoke with MSTRKRFT members Jesse Keeler and Al-P. 

What made “Go On Without Me” the right track with which to close Operator?

Al-P: There's no other appropriate place to put the heaviest song you've ever made except for at the end. Also, there's something about making it the last song. I feel like it gives us license if we wanted to continue down that road. Our first album ended with the heaviest song that we had. Or with the song that in our heads was where it might end up going for us musically. I feel like we did the same thing here. There was musically nowhere to go from that point. 

Jesse: Also, interestingly enough, we produced the instrumental as a reaction to the other songs we had already finished. We felt there was a gap in the entire spectrum of the album, and that one happened very fast. We did the instrumental in a couple days. We sent it to Jacob [Bannon of Converge], and he did the vocals within a week and sent it back. It was all just like, well, that's awesome! It was the cap for the album that we needed to fill that gap. I look at an album as a cube. The corners of the cube are the extremes, and then everything else can exist in 3D points within that cube.

Al-P: To touch on the collaborations, Operator satisfies me so much because we started off by considering some other vocalists. When we're trying to design who we wanted to collaborate with, we had a list. It was kind of broad and big, and I use the word grandiose sometimes to describe what we thought we might do at the beginning. It got refined and distilled down to people in punk bands that we listened to when we were coming up, records that we loved. Instead of going big, why don't we go more personal and meaningful to us? Or at least go in a different direction than just finding somebody with a name, which might come off as a gimmick in the end. Jesse had cultivated a relationship with Sonny Kay from The VSS. The VSS Nervous Circuits record was something we would listen to all the time when we were in our punk days in the mid to late ʼ90s. We would often reference it saying, “Can you make the vocals sound like this?"

Jesse: That record was a benchmark for all the records we made. Every record we produced, we would reference him. So to get him on the record...

Al-P: In similar fashion, Ian Svenonius almost seemed unattainable in a weird way. He seemed as unattainable as David Bowie—before he passed away—because we held him in such high regard.

Jesse: We did want to get Bowie. We wanted him to read the [Roland TR-] 909 manual because the first line is, "Getting to know your composer." It's so English-as-a-second-language it's mind blowing. We just wanted him to read it, and we would have used that as a vocal.

Al-P: An overly precise translation from Japanese into English, and it's just very complicated with bad choices of adjectives and stuff.

Jesse: Obviously it didn't work out.

Al-P: It didn't work out. Ian Svenonius, from Nation of Ulysses.

Jesse: The Nation of Ulysses, for reference, because I realize now that we live in our own bubble. For the generation just previous to us, the punk heroes were Black Flag and Minor Threat and whatever. For our generation, Nation of Ulysses was the beginning of everything. Even the way The Refused dressed was a rip off of Nation of Ulysses. The fucking hair cuts. Everything. Everyone from that time was influenced by that second wave of DC hardcore, which was noisy and political in a much more nuanced and thought-out way. All that stuff was such a huge influence on us. When we go to these guys, it would be like someone from the previous generation getting [Henry] Rollins [of Black Flag] or Ian MacKaye [of Minor Threat and Fugazi] or someone like that. They're literally on the same record label and from the same city, but you know what I'm saying? When you say you recognize [Operator] as being a punk record, that's how we were thinking. Punk is such an amorphous blob, and it's not something you can really aim for. It sort of happens or it doesn't.

Is it true that you did not use computers on Operator

Al-P: Everything you hear on the record was performed live with the exception of the vocals. Not to reference other interviews, but someone asked the other day, "You did all these changes and dropouts afterwards?" No, we did it at the time. We've also been DJ-ing for a decade and have a sense of when things should happen, and you apply it. For us, working live and in analog just hearkens back to us being musicians and playing instruments and being drummers and playing synth and whatever else in bands. We get to actually use all the gear of dance music as instruments, which started off just as theory for us. 

A lot of our contemporaries and friends tried to dissuade us in one way or another from doing this. I was driving in a car with Mr. Oizo two years ago, and I told him, "Yeah, we're going to do this all live, including the shows,” and he said, "Man, you guys are crazy! It won't sound good. It never sounds good! I want to do it, too, but it won't sound good." I replied, "Ah, I don't know, man, I think I've got it sounding pretty good!"

[Some artists say,] "Oh, time just crawls by up there." For us, we played for an extra half hour yesterday and didn't even notice. I'm like “Oh shit, we're half an hour over. There was no encore, no stop, we just kept going. Time flies by for us. An hour and a half feels like about 15 minutes. It's so fun and satisfying. 

So yes, it is all analog.

Jesse: Love that. It's a big monolith of a bookend to our answer. 

Photo by Misha Vladimirskiy at Filterless.Co. 

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