“Nature is the original artist. All I’m doing is just looking at nature, just like science looks and attempts to understand it.”
Much is made of Max Cooper’s background, particularly the way his longstanding interest in science has influenced his roles as music producer, DJ and visual art collaborator. Ahead of his specially commissioned DJ/VJ set on our Saturday main stage, we spoke with Max about science, music and what it takes to melt the brains of festival goers across the world.
As a dance music producer (perhaps the only one with a PhD in computational biology), Max has moved from making club tracks that nudged the edges of techno, into a complex electronic world culminating in his most recent album, ‘One Hundred Billion Sparks’. It’s a record filled with dense layers of sound that swell up before evaporating into a fine mist, somewhere between the soporific ambience of Max Richter and the tears-in-your-eyes gleam of Apparat. It’s perhaps not that surprising for a man who grew up with ‘80s pop music and admits that he “was always drawn to big synth riffs and synth chords”.
True to his reputation though, driving much of the content for his recent projects is Max’s academic background. “I’ve spent years studying science and working in science, and I still spend most of my time reading science books whenever I’m travelling. It just happens that what I’m interested in is a great source of visuals and for making new music, both in terms of the ideas involved and actually sometimes in terms of data. Nature is the original artist. All I’m doing is just looking at nature, just like science looks and attempts to understand it.”
“This is the power of loopy, hypnotic music and visuals. You don’t need characters telling stories and talking to each other. You can make a whole film, give a really powerful message and a really beautiful experience just with the abstract visuals and loop-based music.”
His commitment to learning is also obvious in the range of his influences. From the classical minimalism of Philip Glass to the finer points of turntablism, it’s clear Max is someone who obsessively seeks out the unknown. Indeed, it’s Glass who’s mentioned as an important touchstone, especially his soundtrack for the non-narrative art film Koyaanisqatsi (1982). This was one of the pivotal moments when Max realised that his passions for music and visuals could coincide. “Classical minimalism is very similar to techno in a lot of ways, it’s all loops. This is the power of loopy, hypnotic music and visuals. You don’t need characters telling stories and talking to each other. You can make a whole film, give a really powerful message and a really beautiful experience just with the abstract visuals and loop-based music. So that’s the fundamental recipe that I’ve taken on board and applied to the Emergence album, the last album, and the new one I’m working on at the moment.”
The visual dimension is a huge component of Max’s work, but it goes beyond simply making a record and then finding images to accompany it. “The format I’m doing things at the moment is it starts off as an idea that’s generally related to science. Then I find the chapters to tell this story and the various ideas in each one, and then it’s a matter of what music will fit, just the same way as if I was making a film. For each album we made a website so there’s documents online for people who want to find out all the details.”
Yet none of this is the laptop noodling of an artist interested solely in abstractions, but a thoughtful attempt to make music even more affecting for listeners at home and in a club environment. What he sees as “communicating, making an impact and making people feel something” is enhanced by “contrasts, changes in atmosphere, progression. It’s almost like storytelling, and I always want to bring that into my sets and create those unexpected moments where people get a bit of a shock. Visuals really enhance my capacity to do that.”
“It’s going to be a lot more techno and it’ll be more intense than what I usually do.”
It’s in this context he’s worked with LWE previously, on sold out shows at the likes of KOKO, Village Underground and FOLD, and it’s just one of the reasons why his exclusive DJ/VJ debut on the Junction 2 main stage is a can’t miss moment. He explains that it was floated that “maybe I could do a more slamming DJ/VJ show”. Ever one to take up a challenge, he agreed. “It sounded like fun. When people come to my live shows and 6-hour sets, there’s going to be lots of ambient music and really slow stuff. The main stage of Junction 2 is not the place to play that so I said how about doing an DJ/VJ show that’s as much a DJ set as a visual thing. So it’s a sort of DJ/VJ set. It’s going to be a lot more techno and it’ll be more intense than what I usually do.”
Intensity isn’t a problem for Max, the DJ who grew up in Belfast’s “techno, trance and hard house” scenes, but who really came of age when he moved to Nottingham and discovered the power of the breakbeat. He remembers, “I went to a lot of drum and bass nights and got really into it. From there I got into scratching and beat-juggling and the whole turntablist and technical side of things. Those things then led into the big beat and nu-school breaks era, which is when I also started DJing breaks.”
“I’ve never been to the festival, so I don’t know in terms of the hard set up. One thing I did hear was that The Bridge is a really amazing, mad stage. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
Given this background, Max’s Junction 2 performance on the main stage is set to an immersive visual experience that also respects the energy of the crowd although he’s still prepared to get weird when the situation demands it. When asked about his favourite secret weapons for festivals sets he errs on the side of mind-bending. “There’s this amazing Fuck Buttons track called ‘Stalker’. It’s super intense, really slow, really distorted, and really beautiful in terms of the chords as well. I’ve played it a lot over the years and had some really funny receptions. Most people are just blown away by the intensity of the production and the beauty of the track, but every time I play it there’s always a couple of people who get really angry. I was closing this festival in Australia called Rainbow Serpent. It’s an awesome festival and I was playing in the outback, the last set of a beautiful day. Everyone out there was really hot and stuff, I was playing the track and it was just melting people’s brains. There was this one girl at the front who just completely cracked and was really angry. She was flailing her arms about, shouting and just totally insane because the track is so intense.”
If this leaves people wondering exactly what they’re going to get from Max Cooper at Junction 2, then they’re actually in good company because he’s also excited about the prospect of his first visit. “I’ve never been to the festival, so I don’t know in terms of the hard set up. One thing I did hear was that The Bridge is a really amazing, mad stage. I’m looking forward to seeing it. LWE do really high-quality stuff, so I’m sure it’ll be good, and it’s a really strong line-up.” Like the rest of us, he often takes his lead from those closest to him. “I’ll be playing a bit earlier in the day, so I’ll have a good day there. I live in London, so always have a lot of friends at these sort of events. A lot of my friends went last year, which is a good sign because they’re quite picky with what they go to.”
Max Cooper is a kind of AVstronaut, out there on his own taking a spacewalk, bringing back transmissions that combine art and science. Maybe his Saturday set will provoke people into learning something new, or maybe just into enjoying themselves with intense abandon at the hands of a selector who loves Squarepusher as much as Steve Reich. Or, maybe they’ll just slip into the spaces between the beats, find one of those blissful moments he creates, where the melodies of wind chimes float like dust motes in the evening light. To him it’s all part of the same continuum.
Max Cooper plays the Junction 2 main stage on Saturday 8th June.
Words: Stephen Connolly