MSTRKRFT on new album ‘Operator’ and the art of difficult listening [Interview]
The past few years marked a period of extended silence for MSTRKRFT, wherein social media accounts were deactivated and no new music was released. Leading up to their momentous return, we sat down with them to discuss their new album and the unique musical influences that set them apart from other artists.
Having forged a unique and experimental musical trajectory, the men behind MSTRKRFT are no strangers to intensity or complexity. Raised in Toronto’s underground scene, Jesse F. Keeler and Alex Puodziukas (Al-P) have spent the better part of the last decade perfecting the art of difficult listening.
Riding in on the forefront of the wave of early to mid-2000s glitchy, robotic electronica, the duo offered a different edge than than most of their contemporaries, thanks in part to their punk rock roots. Rather than opting to produce music that glides through the ears, they’ve put out track after track that shock, disrupt, and go against the seemingly normal conventions of making electronic music.
“I think for us, it was accepting where we came from and not being afraid to apply that to a dance music framework. We were kind of wondering, is it, you know, is it okay for us to do this? We were kinda just like fuck it, we’re just gonna do it. We’re gonna make electronic music and dance music the way that we make punk music, or the way that we remembered being in punk rock bands.”
And “fuck it” they did, sewing together two records that acted as a discovery process for their sound. Now, ten years have passed since their debut album, The Looks, and seven since their most recent LP, Fist Of God. Saturated with upbeat long-standing favorites such as “Easy Love” and “Fist of God,” MSTRKRFT’s early body of work leans heavily towards the percussive and pays an incredible amount of attention to detail. Their forthcoming record, Operator, however, marks Jesse and Al-P’s acceptance of their artistic process, and showcases the refinement of their production in its purest – and barest – form.
The age old saying of “less is more” embodies the crux of MSTRKRFT’s mastery. To produce complex compositions is a difficult task in and of itself, but to elicit complexity out of an ostensibly simple song, is an artful feat that very few musicians successfully accomplish. Operator is one of the rare albums that succeeds in striking this balance. Superficially, the album’s components sound like a million clashing elements. However, when one listens through the album thoughtfully, it becomes apparent that, instrumentally, there aren’t too many competing elements.
“It’s not that there’s too much stuff going on in our new record, it’s that it’s very intense. It’s very simple, but it’s very intense. We have very few elements, but we’re maximizing the effect of each of those elements.”
Operator‘s composition is straightforward and simple, but requires a focused approach from the listener. In fact, what can be heard consistently throughout the record are instruments and machines that have been carefully selected and then given ample room to breathe, sounding exactly as they were intended. The clap on a 909, for instance, boasts volume as its singular control.
“One of our main goals for this record was, however we record this record, we have to be able to perform it live with the same equipment. So, from the start, it was like a curation of equipment…just defining like, what the sound palette was going to be.”
After defining this palette, Jesse and Al-P pressed play and began to cultivate the intensity that permeates the record from within the explicit confines of their machines. In songs like “Little Red Hen” and “Death In The Gulf Stream,” their practiced restraint is perhaps the most apparent.
“Little Red Hen” is the simplest song on the record, while “Death In The Gulf Stream” is the least edited. On the former track, Jesse and Al-P’s ability to express staggering creativity with only a handful of elements is abundantly clear. The latter track holds a magnifying glass directly up to MSTRKRFT’s creative process. Heads down, with their computer set to continually record, the evolution of the song is on display throughout its course, and moments when the duo land on their synths or factor in their drums can be heard in real time.
Operator comes after an extended period of silence from MSTRKRFT but does more than its due diligence to fill the void left in their hiatus. The album is a little enigmatic, and a little hardcore, but fundamentally, it’s totally authentic. This authenticity comes as sort of a direct contrast to a good deal of the electronic music pouring out today.
“But isn’t it true? There’s an intensity to it. It’s a very big contrast as to what’s going on in electronic music right now. A lot of the like current stuff that we’re hearing is just like ultra easy listening. Where it’s just like these wispy little sounds….”
Wispy and little: Two words that couldn’t be further from the atmosphere that Jesse and Al-P evoke with Operator. Their album is not an easy listen,nor should it be. For two people such as Jesse and Al-P, who posses an expansive musical background and deep technical understanding, it’s only fitting that their music requires the listener to pay a little more attention. The hiatus since the duo’s last album lent way to a thoughtful, meticulously crafted process of production, which demands the listener to challenge his or herself and is deserving of that challenge. However, those who may wonder if MSTRKRFT will wait another seven or so years before proffering their next big release can rest easy. The duo’s fourth album is already nearly halfway complete. As it turns out, difficult listening may be an art form but it comes rather naturally when contrivance is taken out of the equation.
Check out the official video for “Runaway” below: