Like many others, my first exposure to MSTRKRFT was through their hit single “Heartbreaker” featuring John Legend. The pop crossover hit was an absolute sensation – and though it doesn’t get regularly rinsed in clubs anymore, I can be pretty certain that it’s still in many people’s playlists.
It’s been a long time since “Heartbreaker,” and a long time since MSTRKRFT’s last album, Fist Of God, in 2009. In the years after it dropped, they toured the album for a time, and then sort of slipped into obscurity. In 2016, MSTRKRFT are planning, and are in the midst of, a grand re-opening.
Today marks the release of MSTRKRFT’s third and most daring studio album, Operator. In the current electronic climate of digital synths and computer effects, MSTRKRFT went back to the basics and composed this album with almost entirely analog equipment, with a live show firmly in mind.
In anticipation of the album, I caught up with Jesse and Al-P last month in San Francisco ahead of their show at The Independent. I wanted to ask them about their influences and reasoning behind this album, and especially how they would address their fans who discovered them through “Heartbreak.” Listen to Operator below, and check out the interview. Grab the album on iTunes here.
So this is your first album since Fist of God in 2009, right?
Jesse: Mm-hm, yes.
So you’ve been doing DFA stuff since then[, Jesse]. What have you been to, Al?
Al: I’ve been producing for other people.
Anybody in particular, notable?
Al: I guess the most recent thing is this artist from Toronto called Joseph of Mercury, and he’s a really great vocalist. Probably one of the better vocalists I’ve ever worked with. He sounds kind of like Morrissey and Bowie a little bit, but he’s young, so we’re just trying to develop something. Trying to develop music that’s as strong as his voice, and it’s a pretty interesting project.
Jesse: Also, [Fist Of God] was done in 2009, but then we toured it for two years. So the years start to chip away pretty quick. I know we were still touring by the end of 2011, and there was even times when Death from Above and MSTRKRFT would be on the same tour. Death from Above would always play earlier, and then I’d have like an hour-and-a-half. I’d say, “At least give me and hour-and-a-half between so I can change my clothes and wear dry things again.”
Probably a lot more physically intense to do Death from Above stuff.
Jesse: Yeah, we work up quite a bit. It’s just different. So, we were still playing for a long time, and– I don’t know if now I’m answering a question that hasn’t been asked, but we just sort of weren’t super excited about the stuff that was coming to us. Like, “Do you guys want to play another pool party in Tampa?” You know? Hi. We’re the least pool-party-in-Tampa people, ever. No offense to those people. It was fine in the end, but you know what I mean? That kind of–
Al: I think in a lot of ways, too, we had to start saying no to things so that we would be able to have time to develop what we wanted to do next. Because it could have been real easy for us to just perpetually play and just keep saying yes to offer coming–
Jesse: People seem to do it.
Yeah. Your first show back doing the live stuff was South By [Southwest], I believe? How’d that go?
Al: It was great, but here’s the thing about South By is that, first of all the sets are already very short. It kind of [crosstalk] what we prepared for. Twenty minutes of techno is a hard thing to do, right. We had one set in particular was scheduled for 40 minutes but then it got truncated to 20 minutes–
Jesse: –because of a rainstorm and then we played two tracks [laughter].
Al: But it was cool. As you mentioned in the question, it was the first run of dates where we were using our new live setup and for us I think it was a big proof of concept just to see that everything worked the way it was supposed to.
As far as equipment, what is the live setup?
Jesse: It’s literally just a 909, an 808, a 707, two modular synths and a mixer and then we have–
Al: And processing and effects, which is very important.
Jesse: Everything is all analog and all the effects– the reverb’s digital and the delay’s digital, but other than that it’s just kind of a mobile studio.
Do either of you specialize in one set of gear over another?
Al: Jesse, I’ve seen people play modular synth setups before and I haven’t really seen anybody play it the way Jesse does. I feel like Jesse plays it like a lead guitar or something.
Jesse: Aw, that’s so sweet.
Al: No, in all seriousness.
Jesse: This is probably what I’m aiming for.
Al: There’s a lot of music in how you use it. I think people tend to use the modular equipment like we were discussing the other day in more of a sound design capacity where it’s like somewhat random and incoherent.
Jesse: In the modular world there’s a lot of bleeps and computer sounds.
Like Boiler Room stuff?
Jesse: Oh, I’m saying even way beyond that. There’s no beat.
A Boiler Room can get pretty weird.
Jesse: I agree. But it gets where it’s just like– even some of the stuff that gets made, I’m so glad I always think like, “What? What is this for? Who’s going to use these things?” So we’re using all the stuff in the same way as we would if we were in the studio. And actually how we work in the studio and how we work on the stage is almost identical.
Are you recreating the songs?
Jesse: Yeah. I mean, we have, just for the purposes of playing shows and then now that we have records, we have samples from some album songs that we can trigger and then we do all the– make all the drums up, make up everything else, and anything that’s not there, we’re just making up everything as we go along.
Al: I kind of see it as us covering our own songs because it’s never quite exactly the same.
Jesse: That’s how every band– that’s how if you’re in a band too, though. Like when you’re performing something off the record, who knows what you did on the record, but when you play it– you’re playing the song but it’s not going to be identical.
It’s always kind of a re-creation.
Al: Yeah, I guess I was maybe speaking more to the older material, where it’s like the instrumentation is different than [crosstalk].
Jesse: Oh, yeah, like playing Neon Nights is not going to be–
Al: Yeah, Nights 2016 is different than 2011 or ’07.
Jesse: That’s a huge part of what got us to this point– is all philosophy and conceptual. We had to do more performing-wise. We needed there to be room for errors. We needed to do more than DJ. I still love DJ-ing. It’s tons of fun. It’s been fucking almost two decades of DJ-ing for me. Oh, god, that’s weird to say. That’s so weird to say.
But the way we’re working now, and the way we’re performing now, it’s so much more expressive. Everything that you’re hearing is something that we’re making up for the room. So the DJ-ing idea of playing off the room, although sometimes that doesn’t apply, because people now. But when you’re trying to read the room, there’s an element of that but applied to producing live on the stage, right? So, we’re sort of vibe-ing off the room and making up music for the people in the room.
When we were playing Boston a week ago they wanted an encore and we’re still like, “Oh yeah, shit. Encores, that’s something we might have to do.” So we go out and we’re just like, “All right. Well, we’re just going to make up something for you.” And let’s start working, create something, start making drums and play for–
Jesse: Yeah, no. I’d say half of what we do on stage is completely unplanned. We just sort of feed off each other, and there’s like an unspoken language that exists between us at this point–
With the history of your guys being together for so long there has to be that kind of cohesiveness, that kind of telepathy.
Jesse: There’s still sometimes, “Hey, put some tom shit in there. What’s happening?”
Al: What’s happening. That’s my favorite.
Jesse: Don’t forget the crash. There’s always– there’s stuff to do, but I mean you go from having 2, 3, or 4 things to do at a time to having 16 things to do. To hold it all together and try to keep it exciting. It’s a huge challenge and right before we’re about to do it, every time I’m like, “God this is going to be a lot of work.” But then as soon as you start, time flies by.
Al: Time really flies when we’re out. An hour feels like a 10, 15 minutes.
So, this album has been in production since 2013? Is that about right?
Jesse: Yeah. End of 2013 we kind of got everything together, and done a lot of tests to make sure that we could sync up everything and work the way we had planned out. End of 2013 was when we actually started recording. I mean, there’s stuff on the album from that earliest session times, and then we kept recording as often as we could.
How does it feel now to have it finally about to come out?
Jesse: Pretty awesome. I mean, admittedly, we started working on the next one a while ago. We have like a bunch of music for it. Once we, I don’t want to sound negative, because it’s not being negative, but we needed to work this way. We needed to work all analog and to have all this room for error. No more computer. Computer’s just gone off in the corner.
Al: We needed to do more and have this raw, weird thing. We needed to have this different way of working that satisfied more of like the band guys in us, and as soon as we figured that out, then it was just like a flood of creativity. And for us to work now it’s so easy. We finished the record and we kept going. We still have probably 100 hours of music recorded from the previous recording time.
Some of that makes it into the sets, maybe?
Al: Not really. I was going to say, not really specific things but–
Jesse: We’ve probably been doing [?] sets.
Al: That’s unusual.
Jesse: I’m saying there’s already stuff for the next record. The next record is being played now [chuckles].
Al: Just being re-created completely because it’s fresh in my mind how to get to it.
One of the things I’m pretty interested about is that you obviously have a lot of fans that found you through “Heartbreaker,” which is not at all what is on this album.
Jesse: For us, there’s a song on the record that’s like “Heartbreaker” for us in terms of what it means for us.
Which one is that?
Al: The last one with the singer from Converge. It’s called “Go On Without Me.”
I don’t have the track list but I’ll take your word for it [laughs].
Jesse: It’s track 10. It’s the heaviest song we’ve ever made. But in terms of what it is for us emotionally, that’s the “Heartbreaker” on this record. It’s like my wife said, “You can’t ever make another ‘Heartbreaker.’ That time in your life is gone.” And it’s true. I don’t have the inspiration to make that again.
For the people who are discovering like, “MSTRKRFT is back. They made ‘Heartbreaker,’ it’s incredible.” And then they listen to this. They’re like, “What the fuck is going on.” What would you say to them? Like this is the true MSTRKRFT or is this how we’ve evolved over the past seven years?
Al: I think it’s more just– every album is kind of a snapshot of where you are artistically at that moment. I think Operator exemplifies the initial moments of when we finally got everything working the way that we wanted to in our setup.
Jesse: Everything we learned making the first two records was applied to the third. I think there’s a very good chance that going forward this is probably where MSTRKRFT wants to stay in terms of how it feels. This is the most personal, in a sense, record that we’ve ever made. This is the most honest reflection of where our heads are at, this album. I don’t know if you’ve heard the whole thing or not.
I listened through it once, but I’m definitely planning on going back through it again before too long. You guys are about to finish tour, actually. You’re doing tonight [in San Francisco] and then LA tomorrow and then finishing up in Toronto. So how has the tour been so far?
Al: It’s been awesome.
Jesse: Yeah it’s been really fun. The first show was weird because we had altered the way we had set up some things from Texas, and then from there on it’s been great. And Chicago the other day was awesome. Could have just kept going.
You also did some DJ sets as well though, right?
Jesse: Yeah. Well, the catch with having gear and a huge box full of machines– the getting it from one place to another is hard, so our gear was driving us. So while our gear went from Boston to Chicago, we went to Ottowa, played, and then it gets there in time. Then the gear left Chicago, we go play Denver, and then we come here and the gear got here yesterday. So that kind of that’s the reason why.
That makes sense.
Jesse: Better than just sitting around, waiting.
Normally I’d ask if you have anything for your show tonight, but this is not getting published for a while, especially with EDC coming up. I guess, thinking about how I’m publishing this in the future–
Jesse: Specifically for tonight though, just as an example of how much fun this new way of working is. We have about three new modules, because we’ve stopped at a couple synth manufacturing companies on the way. We have about three new things what we will introduce tonight, so when we get to the sound check, we’ll be installing new things. Setting this up, and then they’ll be in the show. That’s sort of one of the things– we are massive nerds about gear, and this is just allows us to dive deeper than ever.
Another gearhead is Joel, deadmau5. Have you ever worked with him or been to his studio?
Jesse: No but we’ve known each other for a long time and he wants me to come over to his house and fly drones.
That seems just like his thing.
Jesse: Yeah. He’s got ATVs and like snowmobiles and stuff.
Final question: after the tour is over, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Jesse: I have to go on tour again immediately [laughter] [crosstalk]. I don’t know. I think honestly the next thing that we’ll be doing until we play again, which is in August, is just working on more music.
Al: Once we get off tour, I’m going to be scouring all of our live recordings, because every night we also record the multitrack of what we’re doing. So we can archive and also maybe use one of the improvisational pieces as like a starting point for the next record. If we hit something really cool, we’ll always have it recorded.
I can imagine on stage it’s like, “What did you just do? That was cool. What did you just do?”
Jesse: Sometimes, “Do you like this? Do you like what I’m doing over here?” It probably sounds– I don’t know if we make it sound cool or ridiculous, but it’s so fun to make this music up in front of people. Like the first few times I’ll admit it was terrifying, even though it’s something I’ve done a million times. Like just walk into the room and make something out of nothing. I had a great moment the other day that I think it speaks to this.
When we were in Denver, there’s this great modular synth company called WMD that’s based there. One of the things they wanted us to do, because we were going to go by and we were actually — we designed a module with them and [inaudible]. Now we’re adding ourselves in that way. One of the things they were hoping we would do is just come in, and we’ll record something there. And all of our stuff, like I said, was in a car coming here. So we just went in, and we just brought two drum machines– carried them up in our bags. Just set up, and then using this nice modular setup that they had– but nothing in their– there wasn’t any modules we were familiar with. So it was all brand new to us. And we just started working, and then it– ended up performing in this factory, and then everybody that worked there– I didn’t– We didn’t know–
You didn’t realize at the time.
Jesse: Because we were facing a wall–
Al: Hunched over.
Jesse: And we’re just working away. And then we played for however long. At [chuckles] some point, I turned around and realized, “Oh there’s a whole crowd now behind us.” And these are people who work on this stuff every day. They design it and make it, and they’re like, “Can’t believe you guys just did that, with all this stuff that you’ve never even touched before!” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I guess so. I don’t know, it’s how–” And so we made all this stuff and ended up– that’s also recorded.
Oh it is? Okay, good.
Jesse: So yeah, it’s funny how that proved to me how– that, oh yeah, of course we absolutely fucking do this. It’s just a big risk. When you decide, “I’m just going to go for it.” And not have anything– there’s nothing to fall back on. Going up in front of a crowd and DJ-ing, you’ve got a million outs. If things aren’t working out, you can always–
Jesse: You can find a way. And there’s just no– there’s no way. I don’t know, I really like it. I really like that challenge and also the freedom to be able to just– it’s so expressive.
Image via Exchange LA & Insomniac