Just under a year ago, it seemed the electronic music world was on the verge of losing one of its brightest talents to relative obscurity. Mat Zo disclosed the following to Billboard in February 2016: “This album is sort of my last send-off before I go and do other things in life. It feels like I’m ready to go and venture off into other realms.”
The thought of losing such an intelligent artist who’s contributed so much to the scene since his launching his career close to a decade ago was horrifying to behold, yet not entirely unsurprising. Considering the nature of Mat Zo’s ascension, the notion of his exodus from the music industry was even understandable to a point. At age 16, he’d signed his first record. By 18, Zo had begun his swift rise to stardom after being welcomed into the Anjunabeats family with Rush/Defined. Moving forward, the British wunderkind spent his developmental years in the spotlight, as a legion of followers fascinated with his work grew in size and triggered a huge demand for his presence worldwide.
Unfortunately, a side effect of earning his level of fame at such an early age meant that, inevitably, Mat Zo would experience some of the industry’s darker aspects with less experience than many of his colleagues. The artist shed light on his struggles and growing pains in the electronic world during his infamous Twitter confessional in May of 2015. Zo described the disillusionment he’d felt upon meeting his idols and discovering their intentions behind remaining at the top of their game had little to do with love for the music.
“When I was younger I had lots of idols, but then a lot of curtains got pulled back…”
In addition, the producer opened up about how he was nearly conned by certain labels in the past, before addressing artificial elements plaguing the contemporary dance music sphere: ghost producing, and paying for headlining slots at music festivals. Pairing the jarring experiences he’s had thus far with the overall turbulence of young adulthood, it makes sense as to why a jaded Mat Zo would already feel it necessary to move onto a different path in life.
“I can’t really think about retiring right now. It’s hard to imagine what I’d do!”
Things have changed for Mat Zo since the Billboard interview, however. Sitting down with the artist during his MAD tour, he exudes a renewed sense of vigor and passion for continuing along the path he’d started so many years ago in his youth. Zo’s 2016 album, Self Assemble, had been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews and accolades from peers who appreciated his experimentation and mastery over multiple sub-genres within electronic music. Shortly after the album’s release, it was announced that The M Machine had sought out his fledgling imprint, Mad Zoo, as the platform to release their forthcoming album.
Furthermore, Zo finally began find himself musically. He comments on the change in his outlook: “I guess I just grew up, I suppose. When you’re in your late teens and early 20s, you’re a bit more self conscious and not comfortable in your own skin, I think.” Now that the producer has grown into his own, he feels stronger in his standing. “Knowing who I am more makes me more comfortable,” he attests.
A “last send-off” is no longer an option in Zo’s mind for the foreseeable future. When revisiting the question as to what sorts of other things he’d do in his life after music, he noted, “I can’t really think about retiring right now. It’s hard to imagine what I’d do!” Zo did admit, however, that he’d like to one day be able to see the world as a tourist, rather than as a performer on a work trip. Ever the artist, Zo expressed that he’d be intrigued to dabble in writing as well.
Photo Credit: Rukes
“It feels like everything’s already been done before.”
In the meantime, however, the 26-year-old will be focusing intensely on bettering himself musically, and in cultivating his label with the highest integrity in mind as he builds up its repertoire. Zo’s biggest source of inspiration as a producer of late lies in forging heavier, esoteric productions with various time signatures and dense atmosphere – a far cry from his earlier days producing progressive trance for Anjunabeats.
The reason behind this shift in artistry is originality, and the yearning to leave a unique mark on the music world. “I’ve found it really hard to get inspired to write a 4/4 club song recently, because it’s really hard to make it original. It feels like everything’s already been done before,” Mat Zo explains of transitioning into his new direction. “I’m just more inspired by making weird, breakbeat stuff.”
That said, Zo doesn’t plan on ditching club-oriented music completely – he’s just waiting until he can meet his standards of breaking new ground in that domain before he feels able to put out a proper track within it. “I always keep trying, though,” Zo says of producing music more akin to his older style. “It’s just that, over the past year or so, I haven’t made anything that I’ve felt releasable,” he confesses.
The MAD composer’s commitment toward venturing down a more avant-garde avenue has given him a clean slate of sorts in several facets of his career, allowing him to remain in the dance world as a wiser and more seasoned musician. For one, being challenged is what drives him forward. “I feel most driven when the odds are against me,” he asserts. Zo’s career progressed at the pace that it had in part due to his parents thinking electronic music was a waste of his time. Now, his passion is fueled by the drive to successfully map out uncharted areas of electronic music.
Photo Credit: Rukes
“You can’t be afraid to fail. Because, if you do that, you’ll never get anything done.”
Mat Zo takes care to remain humble through his career’s dynamic progression despite his obvious expertise in track composition. He maintains a certain level of skepticism in the quality of work he produces, and believes that the key toward self-improvement is constant effort toward bettering oneself. He stresses the importance of not growing overly confident in one’s work: “I don’t think you should! As soon as you get too comfortable where you are, that’s when you start to plateau.” There is, however, a stark line drawn between humility and fear. While preserving a sense of imperfection is crucial to being able to climb the career ladder, he reminds us that, “You can’t be afraid to fail. Because, if you do that, you’ll never get anything done.”
Tying into this idea is another vital lesson Zo has learned during his time in the industry: separating role models from colleagues. “It’s always nice to have someone to look up to in this field, and there aren’t that many that I have left.” Noisia are one of the few acts that he highly admires, for example, and he intends on keeping them that way. “It’s nice separating that sometimes, you know?” he questions. Past unpleasantries in meeting and working with many of his former idols left a lasting mark on Zo’s perspective: “When I was younger I had lots of idols, but then a lot of curtains got pulled back and… yeah.” If given the chance to work with Noisia, the producer admitted he’d be hesitant to accept for the very risk of once again enduring the same disenchantment he’d felt with the scene until recently.
“Working with [Noisia] might sound like a really great idea, but it might change my whole perception, I don’t know. I sort of started a track, sometime around a year ago, and went to their studio in The Netherlands just to learn some stuff and we started a little idea, but I think I get more fulfillment from watching what they’re doing.”
New wisdom and a rejuvenated sense of self brought about by settling into adulthood have also, in a sense, freed Mat Zo from the confines of his discontentment with the state of the industry. Now a label-heading leader himself, Zo embraces his role in imparting valuable knowledge to his followers, and in helping to lead new fans in a direction where music appreciation and enthusiasm are of the utmost importance.
In terms of the direction in which dance music is heading and his sentiments about it, Mat Zo demonstrates a levelheaded detachment from what had affected him so much before. Zo wisely posits, “I think at the end of the day, the people who are really in it for the right reasons don’t just go away and do something else. They stick around for a bit, because they’re passionate about it. No matter how healthy the scene is, they’ll still be doing it regardless, and that’s the true test.”
One thing is for certain: regardless of the circumstances, Mat Zo will always be among the elite musicians who are “really in it for the right reasons.”
Featured image courtesy of Insomniac.