In just a short time, The M Machine have carved a pretty unique space for themselves in the modern music landscape. Mixing live vocals and visuals with synthesizers and programmed music, the San Francisco trio are hellbent on creating an imaginative and enjoyable universe for their listeners. They might be the best addition to the OWSLA label since Skrillex kicked off the whole thing, and they bring their hypnotizing light show to Southern California this week, with stops in Los Angeles and Santa Ana. Ben "Swardy" Swardlick spent some time on the phone to explain how they make their music, what fans have in store on this tour, and how technology and music have help form modern dance music.
Now that Metropolis Part 1 and 2 are over, do you feel like you told that story entirely? Do you plan on going back to that narrative at all?
Well, we certainly aren't going to add a Metropolis Part 3, for example. A lot of the imagery in the stories that we wrote relate to the stuff that makes us laugh and that we enjoy a lot. I imagine that, moving forward, we are trying to finish up an album and the soundset and imagery and the story are all very different but it all kinda comes from the same universe. I don't know if you're familiar with the liner notes that we wrote...
..okay cool. We won't continue that specific saga, but I imagine everything will tie together nicely. it also kinda stems from the same place, from an imagery standpoint and thematically. It will be related, but I would say the specific story of Metropolis is more or less wrapped up.
So we're not doing the Coheed and Cambria comic book, seven album, mega-saga?
This is the kind of thing that does intrigue us and I think Coheed is a cool example of a band that clearly are just a bunch of geeks and that's fun for them to not just write music, but to apply emotions and storylines and then literally put pictures and words to it. I think that's cool. But, if I'm honest, it's not fully developed. We are still in the "hemorrhage as much content and ideas and music as we possibly can" stage and hopefully, soon enough we'll be able to whittle that down into an album.
Everyone credits your M motif to Fritz Lang, but I'm wondering if the 2001 Tezuka reimagining of Metropolis had any effect as well?
Not originally. When we conceived the M Machine and how it was going to work outside of the music, because the music was something that was sort of running its own course. There wasn't any strategy behind it or sort of planning before we went into that first EP, it was more like "This is the stuff we were writing right now." What in culture and literature and film was inspiring us so we could kind of poach a little bit from an imagery standpoint. And that was all Fritz Lang, that was the original 1927 "Metropolis." But since then, of course we've explored the anime and its great and the only way it has manifested itself into our music is during the live show. We use a lot of imagery related to and from the "Metropolis" anime as well.
In an interview, you guys stated that you tend to write the songs that focus on "stories of wandering and exploration." How do you get into your headspace to write that stuff?
A question like that gets answered when you are in the middle of one phase or tendency in your writing style and then by the time that question comes up again, maybe things are different or you've sort of covered a little more territory, which is what I'd say I've done. Same thing with the other band mates, as well. Honestly, it has a lot to do with what you're listening to when you're not writing. As writers, we've sort of started to close up the Metropolis saga, which is when I think I ended up answering that specific question.
Bands like Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins and Nick Drake...people who are a little more poetic and their themes sort of slipped away from the generic "Boy Meets Girl" thing and starts to get a little more metaphoric. Our friend Porter Robinson likes the concept of "painting worlds" or describing or creating worlds, and I think that's sort of something I really caught onto as well. Personally, I know the band's mindset is, thematically, basically influenced from other cool people and other cool writers who have covered that territory before. I don't know if thats exactly the answer you're looking for. It's not so much that you sit down say "Now I need to think about wandering and exploration," it just is sort of what comes out because you're in the middle of being fascinated by other people that have explored that imagery and those themes.
That's fascinating, as I'm a big Nick Drake and Radiohead fan, but it's cool to think of the influence you get from someone that basically was a singer/songwriter from 50 years ago somehow has an influence on technology he could never dream of existing a half-century later.
Something about all of those bands and our friends in modern day bands, something that just has to be said, is that these guys that have a exploratory attitude in their lyrics really shine in their chords too. We really latch onto people that have a soundset or sort of have a chord world that is really interesting and new to us. Nick Drake is a perfect example of that, as his tunings were insane and nothing he plays sounds like something you recognize from anybody else. Where he is going next is hard to predict in a really awesome way.
I can't think of another group that freely collaborates with friends and family in building the entire mythos. What's been the strengths and weaknesses of having so many people having their hand in the process?
The only real challenge, because in general this is such a good thing, and we've had nothing but awesome experiences working with people who are close to us and who we respect as artists and contributors, but the challenge, of course, is having enough for them to do. Moving forward, we only have so many collaborative projects we can undertake at once, but I'd love to put all of these people to work on something if they were still interested and motivated, which it feels like, today anyway, everybody has been. Just a shoutout to a couple of these people, like Scott Pagano who started doing video and CG work while he was working across the street from us is now doing full-time big budget projects for people like Skrillex and Zedd. My sister and one of my good friends from high school were the collaborators for the liner notes and I'd love to have more writing projects for them. Chris Blackstock, one of our longtime tenants and a guy who rents a studio space from us in the warehouse, did all of those Metropolis covers and we'd always love to have a project for him as well. The list kind of goes on, but it's definitely a challenge to keep them around and keep them involved as much as possible. Maybe that's not true, as you move forward and get more in demand and more popular and when you get to that point, there is always a new project that you can throw their way. It's nice to have trust, right, it's nice to know that if you give someone the seed of an idea they are just going to run with it in a way you know you'll like.
We like to spread out our skillsets as well, I think it's always worth talking about Andy a little bit, just in terms of all the different skills he's picked up. For example, we just did this single "Superflat" and the cover art for that one, that was him and that was really fun for us to do and try our hand at different forms. Realistically, what we do is music so it's pretty cool when you can hand off a project with some bullet-pointed ideas to somebody that is clearly going to elaborate on it and master it.
You didn't just print out a photo of the Master Sword and say "Come on, just do this.."
No...that was Andy's first Foray into Cinema 4D, he was interested in getting some basic know-how with a 3D computer graphics program. He was already pretty good with photoshop too...
Are these considered DJ or live shows? Is it mostly a space constraint that decides for you what kind of show you're going to put on?
These are live shows. The idea behind this tour was to try and hit as many markets live as much as possible and you're always going to have a couple where the venue can't support the live or doesn't have the tech requirements that will meet, but for the most part, all of the shows on this tour are live and the ones down south in LA and Santa Ana will both be live.
I was assuming it was a space constraint that kept it from being a live show, but is it more about getting the tech from the town you're in or do you travel with everything you can. What determines between the two when you go on tour?
There are two considerations. The first is pretty simple: Can we do our video performance while on stage? Andy, while on stage, is singing like the rest of us, but in terms of his music contribution, that's it. Otherwise, he is controlling the visuals, so we need some kind of projection or LED wall visual set up and if the club doesn't have that or doesn't have space for it, we'll go ahead and just do a DJ set. The only other factor, in terms of how we decide DJ or live at this stage is, occasionally, we'll play a smaller club with a DJ booth and no real stage and we wouldn't try and cram in there to do our show.
Do you feel pressure to top your visuals with each new tour and how easy would it be to modify the M Machine you have built?
I wanted to clarify one thing, because its come up a couple times recently: the M, the physical LED light wall we built a couple years back, we actually don't tour with anymore. I'm not sure if we've done a good enough job of making that known. That instrument, which is a creation of Andy's that we built in San Francisco, we toured mostly just for the Language tour which was us, Porter Robinson, and Mat Zo. We had some headline dates after that that we brought it around for, including a couple of OWSLA tours and maybe a few one-offs in North America, otherwise, since then, Andy started developing his video show which is instead of the M light wall.
To answer your question, Andy is constantly mining, creating, and sourcing out new content for the video show. It is a pretty cool project and we'd love to have the chance to show somebody sometime because his system for triggering a synced video show is pretty elaborate. He's got something like five computers running, both MacOS and PCs, because he likes different software that only run on certain platforms and they all kinda have to talk to one another. I'm probably not doing his process justice, as it's sort of technical but, yea, he loves that. As far as topping it, everything we tend to do, we just keep expanding and just nix the parts we don't love or have gotten tired and just keep adding more content and testing it out live. There is still a lot of motivation there but that is definitely another project that we'd love to find some third-party pros that can get involved, just because, basically, the way I put it is that Andy has a lot on his plate.
Do you see him triple-booting with SteamOS sometime soon?
Yea, totally, he'd probably be perfectly comfortable doing that and if there was a reason to do it, he wouldn't hesitate. I'm not sure I knew that was a thing, is that Steam as in the gaming launch software? They have their own OS?
Yea, they made their own that is based on Linux. They are making their own consoles that just run Steam, but Steam now also sells software beyond just games.
I think I saw the demo of the controller, it looks pretty awesome.
You've been coy about an indie game project you may be scoring. Any details on that?
Unfortunately, no, I would say that our interest in working with games, especially smaller indie games, is really high. So when we were asked to get on board with this project, we kinda started on it right away which is great, because certainly we were excited, but we are so far away from when they begin the scoring process that I don't have any details. I certainly am under NDA and can't talk about the game itself, so I'd say it was my bad for jumping the gun with the excitement, but it's something we definitely will do moving forward as long as the opportunities come. One of the cool things is that we're in a city where its easy to make those kind of connections as well, because it is a very vibrant scene here.
So you heard it here first: M Machine scoring Halo 5. Big indie game!
Yea, I think at this point we're more interested in getting involved with those downloadable Xbox Live teams. Pretty excited about Braid and Fez and all of these beautiful...Super Meat Boy and stuff like that. It's nice that, artistically, there is still so much effort going into the indie games. That might be where our heads are at right now but who knows, asked me that in a year and I might have a different answer.
What kind of videogames are you guys currently playing?
We have a 3DS cruising around with us. Eric is sort of the Zelda buff, he's always working on a Zelda game. I actually just started Wind Waker for the first time, but I only play at home, and thats on a Wii U. We sort of grew into Nintendo guys, which is funny because we all grew up with different consoles and all kinds of different games, but not a whole lot of PC gaming going on among us. Now, because of our time commitments, we're not putting 50-100 into games like RPGs anymore and there is something about Nintendo which is nice to just sit down and play Galaxy for a few hours or get a Mario Kart crew going or something like that. I certainly wouldn't call us serious or heavy gamers, just something to take a break from the studio.
I have this crazy theory that Final Fantasy games sort of predicted the rise of EDM. FF8, X, and X-2 all feature these crazy light shows, thumping dance music, and are done so to highlight this sort of youth-driven space rave culture. Any thoughts on that?
No question. I always like to think of that scene from Grandma's Boy, where that dude is sitting reclined back looking up at his monitor, programming to Aphex Twin. There has always been an awesome correlation between games and dance music. I think the obvious connection is the chipset, because the first music coming out on these games was literally being live synthesized onto a little chip. This is the beginning of midi and computer controlled music, being created on the fly, which is super cool. You take that and combine it with the fact that the people using computers for music are probably using it for everything else in their life, as well, which includes games. I totally see your connection and I'll sign your petition, it makes a lot of sense.
Tickets still on sale for the LA show at The Avalon. CLICK HERE