INTERVIEW: The M Machine (2013)
San Francisco-based EDM group The M Machine gained major attention when Skrillex released their debut EP “Promise Me a Rose Garden”/”Glow” on his OWSLA label. The trio of Andy Coenen, Eric Luttrell, and Ben Swardlick were inspired by the classic movie Metropolis for their follow up EPs and their name. Their remixes of Arty, Passion Pit, and Madeon gained a lot of attention as well. The artistic trio are really involved with the full aesthetic experience of their music – focusing on creating a live audio and visual show as they tour. We caught up with them in Nashville when they were touring with Markus Schulz on the Scream Bus Tour.
DJ Ron Slomowicz: How is the bus tour going?
Ben: We are in a new city every day, it’s great and we are very happy. Markus is awesome and his crowds are really intense which is great for us. Andy just programmed a big video show and we get to use his giant LED screen, so the timing is perfect.
RS: Are you guys playing prerecorded music or are you playing live?
Ben: Both- we do a live show by removing as many elements as we can, while performing live. What that means is that all our lead synths, all the samples, and all the lead vocals that we can handle we perform live. Everything else is mixed, sort of like a DJ thing.
RS: Is the whole set your own music or other people’s music as well?
Ben: It is our own music; there are a couple of remixes of our songs that we play but otherwise it is all our own music and remixes.
RS: Do you guys play the same songs every night or do you switch it up?
Andy: We change them up, but with the first couple shows with Markus we really didn’t have a perfect idea of how his fans would react to our show. It went surprisingly well but we figured that some other music would be even better and we have been adding stuff on the fly.
Eric: We can go a little heavier on the melodic side as opposed to when we are with bass music artists where we put a bigger emphasis on some of the heavier stuff and mixing faster. We have been tailoring it, and I think we are in a good place with our set but to answer your question, we do come in with a tracklist that we intend to do for the night.
RS: How did you guys hook up with Markus Schulz for this tour, I wouldn’t have thought that M Machine and Markus Schulz would be together? Was it like an all M tour?
Ben: It was him, he was interested in us
Eric: He likes the song “Black.”
Ben: When Markus asked his team about getting an opener it was perfect because Hunter Williams, who was putting this bus tour together, happened to be our booking agent as well. It worked out perfectly and it was an attractive tour for us even though the genres are really different. Like I said, Andy had literally just finished his brand new video show and this was an opportunity for him to show that off.
RS: When you perform visuals what kind of software are you using?
Andy: We use Resolume with Maxim SP to talk to Ableton on the other computers so that everything is synched and talking to each other right. For this video show we expanded on the concepts, ideas, and tools to make the content and put it into a different vein so that certain songs will feature a 3D M like our old light wall used to do but now in 3D.
RS: You are the culinary guy, what kind of adventures have you been having foodwise on this tour?
Eric: We have been eating pretty well, but I would say that we have eaten a little too much BBQ which isn’t the worst problem to have. In Charlotte we had a Burgushi which is a sushi, burger hybrid type thing. It was okay.
Andy: Yeah it was the most unique thing that we have eaten on this tour, other than that it’s been ribs, coleslaw, and brisket.
Ben: It’s nice, because the last time we came through we had a certain amount of money at our fingertips and this time we are able to step it up a notch as opposed to hitting up Five Guys and Subway every day. We have been doing our research and finding good local spots that we can walk to.
RS: How is the Emerald City?
Eric: The bus is great and also known that as the green machine, that’s what Markus calls it. Realistically, bus touring is our favorite because airports and flights are exhausting and you never know what can happen with delays and weather. Our lifestyle is awesome and since we have the tour bus now we finish our set, pack up our stuff, and we are free to explore the city or just get some sleep and wake up in a new spot, it’s really ideal.
RS: Any chance that Wizard of Oz might inspire your next EP like “Metropolis” did for this current one?
Ben: No, that is not one of the pieces of inspiration that we have been throwing around but we will explore some new stuff and have a bunch of ideas for what we want to reinterpret and get inspired by. It is undecided but we are writing right now, we really don’t know what it is going to be yet though.
RS: Was “Metropolis” a political and cultural statement of what is going on with the government right now?
Andy: That is a good question, and I would say that we each hold on to our political beliefs but we don’t really put that out in the music that we do. What we try to do musically is much more to create an aesthetic; we try to create something that is effortful on all fronts from the visual, technical, and the story side. We want to put as much detail and effort into it and that is our number one focus.
Eric: The story of “Metropolis” is a very politically-motivated movie but we didn’t decide that we loved the political story and wanted to make it our theme, it’s not what we are trying to throw out to the world now.
Ben: But I do think that is resonates
Andy: It totally does, it is a powerful story.
RS: You guys are San Francisco-based so I think about The Consolidated from the ’90s and how they brought political action to their music, I kind of got that vibe from you all.
Ben: It’s not really our thing, and although we are all extremely opinionated guys one thing that we all agree on is that is not our goal. The only thing that we feel that we have the right to comment on or have an idea on is craft and art since that is what we do every day. We certainly have our leans but I don’t think that it is supposed to make its way to into the music because what we talk about in our story lines are things that inspire us purely from an artistic standpoint.
RS: And The M Machine comes from the movie Metropolis?
Ben: Yes, the M Machine is a machine in the movie Metropolis, obviously it’s a silent film so you don’t really get a reference to the name but the machine is the big machine that explodes in the beginning that sets off the plot.
Andy: It is the engine that runs the city for all of the rich people
Eric: There was a reference to that in the episode of Futurama that we were watching today, there was an “M Machine” in it and there were all these guys working and it exploded with sludge coming out of it because it is in the mutant world.
RS: How did the three of you guys meet up?
Ben: Eric and I went to college together at UC Santa Barbara. We started messing around writing tracks and started getting excited about electronic music during our senior year. We went up to San Francisco and we were going to test our music writing individually and together and also had an interest in getting involved in game audio. We met Andy who had the same idea and was coming from a singer/songwriter background, but he switched pretty quickly and got excited about writing dance music. It has been 4 ½ years now.
Andy: We were pretty much on the same page musically and creatively from the beginning, we have been working together for a long time and had very little success for the first part of it but it helped us establish a really good communication system. We can talk about music in a way that is specific to what we do and it is really important to learn how to disagree without getting angry and to learn how to communicate about things that are really abstract, these are things that take time and we have been lucky to have that situation.
RS: How did you all get discovered by Skrillex?
Eric: We just met him at a show in San Francisco
Ben: It was one of his earlier shows; he was playing at a tiny club in Santa Cruz called Motive. It was booked by our current manager who was doing all of the bookings for that club. We were his first clients and he told us that he had just booked a new guy called Skrillex, he was totally unheard of at the time. We picked him up at the airport in San Jose on our way to Santa Cruz and we had an awesome car ride. He is a really interesting person and very positive and was really interested in what we were doing. After the show he told us he needed a place to stay for another day before he left for Australia, so he stayed with us in our big warehouse. We spent the next day hanging out with him in the studio talking about everything from his early work to our stuff. We clicked and from that point on we have had a good relationship with him. We had some music that we were ready for him to release in a serious way and he was totally down and positive about it even though it is really different from what he does.
Andy: It is a funny origin too, because during that same visit we were just starting to chat with Porter and we realized that we knew each other and had been tweeting each other for a while. Sonny showed us a new remix of this guy named Zedd and was all excited to have him do a remix of his track “Scary Monsters.”
Ben: It was a pretty defining interaction. He had a working draft of “Scary Monsters” that he showed to us and it was clear to all of us that it would work.
RS: We can all agree with that. Did you guys make the anime video for “Tiny Anthem?”
Andy: We worked together with our visual artist guy named Chris Blackstock. He does all of our cover art and all the liner note art to conceptualize the story that distilled most of what we were trying to say in Metropolis Pt II. We came up with all of the scenes and the ideas and Chris did all of the character and set design. We worked with a studio in Brooklyn called Augenblick that did one of our favorite cartoons from a couple years ago called Superjail. We reached out to them and told them we loved their work and would love to do a video. They actually had a three-month gap in their schedule and loved our music as well as Chris’s art and jumped on board and it turned into a really cool video.
RS: Random question to you Andy – why did you quit tweeting as @ErsatzPop?
Andy: For me the idea of people caring about me and the silly comments through something like Twitter just wasn’t appealing. I want people to respect the art that I present through the M Machine. I don’t really want attention nor do I find the modern social network thing that appealing. I enjoyed maintaining casual relationships and chatting with people but with the combination of not really caring and being very distractable, it killed that whole thing off pretty early. If there is a project associated with it or something that should have a voice then we may go back into that.
Ben: We haven’t been very active on our personal Twitter accounts, but I do personally want Andy to be available just because we represent the audio side of the M Machine and only Andy really fully understands the live show and the visuals because he does all of the programming and designed all of the software. I can only do so much in terms of responding to questions about it, so I think it would be cool if he were available for that kind of thing but I totally get it.
Andy: That is sort of a downer for us because the whole project that we do is big in scope and ambition. We want it to be something that is iconic and lasts a long time and there is something about the Twitter culture that doesn’t really fit that. It is sort of superficial because one hour later it is as if the tweet never existed.
Ben: From an artistic perspective, I would say that it is the exact opposite of everything that we do, we are temperate, slow and very deliberate and the social networks tend to be ADD and all over the place.
RS: It is like crystal meth, it just goes quickly. Speaking about crystal meth, did you all listen to the Crystal Method track that leaked today?
Ben: No, I was just tweeting with them because they are playing some of our music in their radio show, how was it?
RS: I really haven’t focused on it too much but I know that they are playing your show on Sirius tonight.
Ben: Yeah they actually tweet out to everyone what they are going to include in their DJ sets. It is really a cool crosspromotion because they get a retweet from us because we are excited that they are playing our music and they get a little extra help pushing the show.
Eric: I would love to check that track out.
RS: Are you all involved in the pennybirdrabbit thing that y’all tweeted out today?
Andy: Yeah, we have done recording with Penny, some of the tracks and the original demos were recorded in our studio, but we aren’t on anything that is coming out right now. Our interaction with Penny has just been helping her with some demos and she sang on our track “Ghost In The Machine”
Eric: Penny is just tremendously talented and we really had a lot of fun writing with her last year and would love to do some production work with her again, but we are a little too busy with all of the various things that we have going on. She is working with some really talented song writers and producers; it’s easy to like Penny.
RS: Going back to social media again, between Vine*, Twitter, SoundCloud, and Facebook, what is the best way for people to keep up with you guys.
Ben: Definitely Twitter, we are most interactive as a band on Twitter and you can get our whole attitude and opinion on there.
Eric: Everything is on Facebook though; you can find our music on there too.
Andy: Yeah but Twitter is really the only site that we have fan interaction on. It is hard to do that on SoundCloud and we used to be able to but we are just so busy. If someone sends us something that has a seed of potential we reach out to them and give them tips though. It meant a lot to us when we were first starting out and people did that for us.
RS: How was the Winter Music Conference for y’all this year?
Ben: It was sick, it was really great!
RS: Any highlights?
Andy: Our show was fun, we played on the OWLSA takeover of UMF radio which was amazing because all of our best friends where there. It was awesome when we were all at Mansion for Zedd, and of course Skrillex’s secret set.
Eric: I think that the coolest part about it was meeting a lot of people that we have interacted with through the internet but we have never gotten a chance to meet in person. These are idols of ours like Boys Noize, Alex Metric, and people that we have so much respect for. It was so cool to meet them and see how cool and talented they really are.
Ben: It is wild and cool to hear that they like our music as well. That’s crazy.
Andy: It is the specific difference between winter music this year and winter music last year. All of these people were nice but they definitely hadn’t heard our music. A year later it seems that our music has seeped its way into their DJ sets, Sonny really promotes like a madman for us. It was awesome to meet Boys Noize, Alex Metric, and Funk Agenda who was a total boss, he was super nice and into our sound.
RS: What do y’all want to say to your fans out there?
Eric: I think that if we could say anything to the fans out there it would be thanks. What we do is difficult and it’s hard to get out there in today’s climate because it is effortful, slow, and doesn’t follow any trend. We try to do something that is fresh and unique whether through the art, music or technology, we want to put something together that is really special. For just a few people to care and to know that people are excited means so much. Thank you all so much.
Interview conducted Scream bus tour in April 2013.