There’s no question that 2020 was a year that changed the world. The global COVID-19 Pandemic shut down travel and public gatherings for the better part of a year. While things are slowly getting back to normal, we’re still living in a changed world. While there were many who struggled throughout 2020, others flourished. One example of the latter is producer/DJ MAKJ.
For the California-born Mackenzie Johnson, 2020 saw him move to Las Vegas and buy a new home. Have a state-of-the art studio built inside said home, and sign an exclusive deal with venerable Dutch record label Armada. Unbeholden to anyone, Mack has been freed to pursue a more mature sound. To celebrate the release of his latest single “Night Ends” we got the chance to sit down with MAKJ and have an in-depth conversation about pandemic life, maturing as an artist and a person, his take on the current state of music and some hilarious anecdotes. Here is our extended interview below.
What’s up Mack? How was this whole last year for you, what have you been up to?
“Working in the studio. You know, easy as shit for me. So, when everyone was like I don’t know what to do, I can’t go to my job. I was like, it’s kind of normal for me, minus you can’t tour and go play shows.
I can talk to you about my mental health. I’ve been able to have a regiment. Guys that have toured for 10-plus years, myself included, myself, I’ve never really had a routine or a regiment, anything. When I can eat, my sleep schedule, my friends circle, my family, just my overall personal relationships with people. It’s all been kind of fake for the past 10 years. Because, I’m always gone, I’m always meeting new people, I’m always on the road and it’s kind of like a fake life.
So, for this last year, 2020 was kind of eye-opening that I was like, wow, I need to get my health in check, I need to have a better sleep schedule, I need to make more friends. Being able to have my friends, I assess them on a risk level, everyone has those really risky friends who are like, let’s go out, let’s go fucking do mushrooms. You got your homies, that are the ride or dies, that will always be there for you. And you’ve got your low level risky friends that have a wife, maybe golf on Saturdays, like lower risk. I’ve been able to accumulate a bunch of friends like that here in Vegas, and I love it man. I’ve never been happier in my entire life, I have great people I can lean on, ask for their advice.
I feel like here in Vegas the level of respect is more old-time respect. Meaning that it’s handshakes and loyalty. The thing in L.A. was kind of scummy, like how many followers do you have. Everything’s transactional, I was there for like six years. Like I said, 2020 has been kind of a blessing in disguise. It sucked on a job-sense for as you know, there’s just no shows. Kind of stuck in this rut of making club music and being like, what can I release on? No one’s going to clubs. Just being able to be more humanly, that is what I’ve learned from the pandemic for sure…It’s like waking up in the morning and having a plan. Like I work out every single day now, which is awesome. Like not working out, like I go to the gym everyday, but I do something that gets my heart rate up. You know, it makes me go, I got some activity done.
I’ve never had that before because living in L.A. or I was living in San Diego for when I was touring 200 days a year. It would be I was at home Monday to Wednesday, and then be right back on the road. So I had a very small window to pack all these things in. That’s even if I was even motivated to work in the studio. So, just in the last year, almost a year and a half since the pandemic, it’s just like who am I?”
Tell us about your new song, “Night Ends” and moreover, tell us about how you’ve evolved as a producer over the years?
“You know, I’ve done multiple projects for people and helped in writing, and kind of dabbled with like Top-40 stuff back from prior to the pandemic. And kind of where I want to be placed the older I get, 31 this year. So, making just like hardcore EDM isn’t fun, you know. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if I wasn’t a big room kid. So, remembering kind of, how I started to make big room was, I’ll sit at my parents’ house and I was annoying the shit out of them. I always called it frat music, it was like backyard Saturday BBQ music. LMFAO, Lil Jon screaming, MAKJ, Timmy Trumpet, and it’s hard to get away from that.
Because the stigma of electronic music is once you make something and you have some sort of notoriety in any genre, you’re always known as doing that. And when you kind of transition into doing something more friendly for people, meaning I can listen to it in my car at 6 in the morning and not be like, Holy shit, what’s going on? And it’s a hard transition, I’ve been saying this for five or six years.
For me, it’s always been, if I hear a really good vocal that excites me or if I have someone come into the studio and we write something, and it doesn’t fit the big room stuff, which ideally, 99% of it doesn’t. So, ‘Night Ends,’ I got that record from a girl named Raphaella and she sang on that MK record, ‘Lies.’ And she was very certain of the vibe that she wanted, she wanted UK House, and I’m like, I’m not your guy. I can’t be here and bust out some pianos, I’m not your dude. But, let me just make something that I feel like this is the vibe of the record, and that’s how ‘Night Ends’ was kind of created. It was one of those records where I didn’t have a stigma. I didn’t have people going you need to make club music, I just kind of went back to my old ways of making stuff at my parents’ house. Like fuck y’all, I don’t care, I’ll do whatever I want to do.
So the prior releases that have been on Armada. So there was ‘Green Light’ and ‘Promises,’ ‘Green Light’ was actually a three-year old record that I got synced with IndyCar, which is a motor racing outlet. I got synced with them and we made it an official release. And I was like oh, this is perfect, it had a club vibe, it was a slotted release right when the pandemic started. So, it was hard to push, and then after that ‘Promises’ came out, with a guy named Jai, an amazing guy from Australia. Him and I recorded the record in like two days. And then it ended up taking a year and a half to release because one of the syncs’ songwriters was MIA.
So, back to ‘Night Ends,’ it was just a spur-of-the-moment record. I had the vocal that was sent to me from that girl Raphaella, she said she wanted this, I did this, three weeks later, it was released. It was like the most organic thing ever, and no one said we want this or we want that, it was just, cool, let’s release it. That’s how it used to be, it was all given up to the artists, the songwriters, the singers, and saying hey, do this, let’s just have this in a natural setting. It’s given me hope, because I see a lot of things coming back to normal, and that was a big, kind of lights coming through the clouds moment.”
You’re also an Armada artist now! How did that partnership come about? I never would have associated you with that type of sound.
“It’s kind of weird, I’ve never released on Armada until 2020, when I signed to them. And it was always Spinnin’. Because Spinnin’ always had great sub-labels, I did a Showtek record, that was on their label, “Party ‘Til We Die” was released on Spinnin’. Numerous amount of other labels that started my career as MAKJ, basically was Spinnin’s doing. To venture off from them to go with another Dutch label, basically right down the street from them, it was hard.
I really love the team at Armada, George Hess, the guy that runs all the radio push, he’s an amazing guy. Stephanie, who’s my A&R, she’s awesome, she has great feedback all the time. And it’s not like that, oh you need to make it like this, no, it’s like, yo dog, this sucks, make me another song. Which, to me, is what an A&R is supposed to do. Don’t sugarcoat a piece of dogshit, let me know how it is and I’ll make it better.
I love Armada, but labels are in a really pickle-y spot, they have to make money, they have a lot of employees, and the only way to make money is through the radio, no one is playing shows. So when Armada would be having a pool party, and having all their artists there, and doing Y & Z to promote their label, and right now, there’s none of that. And it’s been none of that for a year-and-a-half now.
So, it’s very hard to say any label is the best label ever. They supply me with great feedback, they supply me with great songs to start on, vocals and ideas. And that’s what a label should do, they’re sort of like the step parents that you like. They should be able to guide you in the right direction of where your music should be at that moment. And Armada has helped me do that”
What’s your take on the state of the industry?
“I feel like everyone is just kind of producing diarrhea right now. Like, if you go on Spotify right now, this has nothing to do with the curators at Spotify. You go on Spotify and go on the top playlists, you go on Mint, you go Housework, you go to any big EDM playlist, it’s the same shitty music. It’s slap-bass, it’s vocal driven records that make no sense, because they go into the same Meduza-style drop. Everything is the same, which, hey, I get it, if it makes money for the label…It’s like mind-blowing to me. So right now, music is probably the hardest that it’s ever been to make a dent in the scene.
Dah-dah, du-dah-dah, let’s do a sick nursery rhyme right on the drop, and we’ll have it run the whole record and come in with a really good verse. I love it when people come up with genres, and everyone copies them, and everyone’s like, wow, this is a blatant copy. The only person who has ever done that, which I am obsessed with, is Tame Impala. Like, every time, you’re like, yo, this is crazy, this is something that is unique and refreshing.
That is the ultimate formative flow for an artist. It’s do whatever you want, whenever you want. I wish all artists could have a feeling of that. Basically, the feeling is, when someone starts a new song, and they just produce a new song without knowing it’s going to be big, that is true artistry. But, making a song, and going, oh this is going to make a lot of money because it sounds like that, it’s like playing Russian Roulette with your artist. It’s hard man, trust me. And being in the big room kind of scene, and kind of progressing as an artist, and the mature level of the sound I’m making, going into more organic style music. Dude, it’s hard, especially trying to please your fans. Like, when are you going to make another song with Hardwell, or make another Party Til We Die? No one wants to party or die right now.”
As the lines of genres get blurred more and more, who are some artists outside of the dance music sphere you’d like to collab with?
“For me, collab-ing with artists is great, but it takes too much time. Like, a lot of time. Like, I had a record with Tinashe that came out in 2019, and that record was three years old. It has to be cleared by labels, all the writers, it’s a process. I would love to be in studio sessions and just watch people work. That’s where I see myself being able to collaborate with someone.
I don’t want to compare myself to him, because I’m not Pharrell, but Pharrell is the type of guy who would always be in that right session at the right time. He was able to put his sauce, his signature Pharell-ness on his record. Being a producer. I don’t see myself doing that, I see myself as kind of learning a trait. Say if I got to sit in a room, with, I don’t know, Korn. I know that I could sit there and learn and be like, damn, I didn’t know you could do that with a vocal, holy shit. Or if I sat in the room with Tame Impala, and I was watching him play every single instrument, and I would be going, wow, I’m a piece of shit, all I can play is the keyboard.That’s how I learn.
But, EDM aside, everyone’s doing the same thing. Calvin Harris is one of the exceptions of EDM that makes you really go, huh, everyone has the same equipment, everyone has the same, either Logic, or Ableton, or Q-base. I feel like it’s where your mind is set at that moment of your life, what you’re trying to accomplish. Like, I used to live with Kayzo, I lived in the room adjacent to him, he was in the living room. We were attending Icon Collective. And Hayden would just be making, fucking the worst dubstep of all time. I’m like, bro, what, the fuck, are you making? He was like, I’m just feeling it right now. That is extraordinary to me, that is the most amazing thing!
And he would come in and be like what is this progressive house shit, what are you doing? That is where I learned so much about where people are in their own lives. And, going to Icon there’s like four or five studios that were all adjacent to each other. And I would just hear Sam (Jauz) producing like this horrible house song. And I’m like, I would never do that; and I would not do that on my record because I would hear him do that. It’s all about, you need to know your tools in the toolbox, you have to know what you’re doing.
You can’t just sit here like I’m just going to hit a bunch of buttons and hopefully it works, sometimes you get lucky. But, long story short, it’s all about where you are in your life, and at the same time, it’s can you set a goal for yourself. Could you set, I’m going to finish this record, I don’t give a shit if it sounds horrible, but if I can finish this record, that’s all that matters. And produce the kind of music that you want to produce.”
Tell us what’s in store for 2021? Are you playing any shows anytime soon?
“No live streams recently, live streams are kind of dead in the water right now. Over saturated in like the first two weeks. I did one, I did the Insomniac one, which was great, they have this major setup. And that was the only one I ever did, and after that, everything got really weird. And everyone’s like no one’s watching live streams anymore. I get people wanting to go ‘party’, I’d rather just go outside and go sit and watch the dogs jump up and down. For me, I had shows the last couple months in like Texas and Florida. I’ve been booked for a few festivals for the end of the year, but now they’re getting cancelled and moved to 2022. So, I have no idea what’s happening, I have no idea. I’d rather ask a pigeon that’s outside right now.”
Any good life advice or funny stories from quarantine, and any words for the fans?
“Don’t have Taco Bell four nights in a row. You’ll end up clogging your house drain, one of my buddies was here for like two weeks and he helped me put together the studio and stuff, and he had this obsession with going to every major fast food place every other day. And he’s like a decently in-shape guy, I have never smelt a shit like that in my entire life. Like I’d rather go sit on a fucking 15-hour red eye flight where everyone ate curry the night before and is farting the whole time than ever have this guy do what he did and stay at my house. So that’s a life lesson, don’t eat a whole bunch of fast food in one week.”
Check out the latest single from MAKJ, “Night Ends” out now on Armada.