Artist of the week: Matrixxman

If you’ve been paying any attention to the electronic music world recently, you have heard of Matrixxman. Homesick, his recent debut album for Ghostly International is the culmination point of 2 years spent touring the world and releasing on some of the hottest labels, from Dekmantel to Unknown To The Unknown. Spending the summer in Berlin, with high-profile gigs all over the place, we caught up with Matrixxman in a chilled wine bar in Neukölln a couple of days after his first appearance at Melt Festival. Grab some snacks, pick a nice chair, this one’s a long one.

Photo by  Matthew Gawrych
Photo by Matthew Gawrych

KALTBLUT: Hi Charlie, how did your gigs in Melt and Berghain go?

Matrixxman: Lovely! Melt obviously had a huge crowd and great energy. People were going wild, it was great fun. Berghain was my second time so there was significantly less pressure. I was so nervous the first time round but now that I know a little bit of what to expect it took a lot of pressure off.

KALTBLUT: You said that Berghain fucked you up the first time you played there, in what way?

Matrixxman: To experience techno in its proper environment is something that by and large doesn’t occur as much in the States. Save the odd party here and there, there isn’t really a thriving techno scene. Berghain was nothing short of a profound paradigm shift. It’s a real special place, there are very few places in the world where the vibes are preserved with such reverence and upheld to the degree that they are

KALTBLUT: You’ve never lived in Berlin right? Have you ever thought of making the move?

Matrixxman: Increasingly the option does appeal more to me because of gentrification. Your average 1 bedroom in San Francisco where I live will fetch around 3500 $, which is absurd… That’s fucked if you want to have your own piece of mind. So places like Berlin, or Europe for that matter, definitely have a lot more appeal than they previously did. But the grass is always greener on the other side.

photo by  Matthew Gawrych
photo by Matthew Gawrych

KALTBLUT: How is the current scene like in San Francisco? Artists like Avalon Emerson or the Icee Hot crew have made their way to our shores but how do you find it?

Matrixxman: There’s actually a thriving party scene there. There’s the Honey Soundsystem people who curate some insane parties and run the gamut from house to techno. It’s a predominantly gay scene and it’s the hippest shit in town. There are also a number of other parties, like As You Like It. I played there with Marcel Dettmann last year and it was kind of hilarious for me to see a proper techno party on a Thursday night in a club that would ordinarily not be that full, but it was packed. So there are these occasional anomalies. It would appear that they are aberrations but I think it’s an indication that there are some bits of a scene alive and thriving despite the gentrified asshole tech sector population.

KALTBLUT: San Francisco was the city where things started falling into place for you. How did it happen? Was it a matter of getting your shit together or a series of lucky encounters?

Matrixxman: There were a number of factors at play… Prior to moving to San Francisco, I was living in New-York doing a 9-5 job in the academic test development sector, a glorified admin job. I hated it, it deprived me of the energy to really focus on music. A good friend that runs this recording studio where I live at was in the midst of acquiring the business. That was the beckoning that got me over there. There was a combination of things there, the rent was relatively cheap and I figured out a way to subsist off the bare minimum. I was tending bar one or two nights a week until last year and I found the ideal balance to be able to allocate as much time as humanly possible to music. Somewhere along the line I was able to focus on finishing songs which was the bulk of the problem leading up to that. Why I thought it never happened before was due to my own inability to focus. When you’re young you tend to blame it on external circumstances but when you actually buckle down, put your head down and bust your ass, interesting shit starts happening. If I could urge kids to be aware of one thing, is that you have to take matters into your own hands and not look for any handouts.

KALTBLUT: Was SF also where you started getting involved with Mykki Blanco and Le1f?

Matrixxman: I had always been interested in dance music but for whatever reason the rap accolades started to come in a little sooner. I was getting good press off that stuff but not really monetizing off of it which was interesting. I was doing well but prior to working with Le1f and Mykki, I’d worked extensively with YG and Ty Dollar Sign who are both huge names now. It got to a point where I thought that the energy I was spending producing for other people could also be invested serving my own cause. A lot stemmed from ‘Wut’, the track I did for Le1F. It was a beat I made in 15 minutes and ended up being his biggest track, playing a crucial role in launching his career.

KALTBLUT: You made ‘Haze Boogie’ too which was huge and you also made some crazy tracks with Sinden…

Matrixxman: I always had an affinity for all the UK stuff. I flirted with garage, grime and bassline. All this stuff is the culmination of me being a failed drum and bass producer. I wanted to make a contribution but I just didn’t have the psychological means to see it through.

KALTBLUT: Are you completely out of the hip hop game for now?
Matrixxman: It’s in my blood so I’ll never be fully rid of it. I don’t feel compelled to make that stuff, but shoved into a corner I would do ok with it.

KALTBLUT: Is there anyone from the current scene that you could see yourself working with?

Matrixxman: Actually there’s no one in the hip hop scene I’d like to work with right now. That being said, I briefly had a stint in dancehall. I produced a riddim that I didn’t properly get credited on. It was something I made from start to finish (alas the other producer took full credit) with some big names on it like Elephant Man, Lady Saw… That did touch onto a desire of mine to get further into the Jamaican scene; not contemporary dancehall, I’ve actually been obsessed with Studio One records. I would love to pursue doing proper vintage dub/reggae, old school Lover’s Rock type stuff. If I were to produce and use a vocalist as part of my musical direction I would head there at some point.

KALTBLUT: Do you try and integrate these influences into your sets?

Matrixxman: These days I’m pushing my vision of techno. At Berghain it’s 90% techno, save the odd new wave, industrial or italo disco track. I try to make it as dynamic as possible because I abhor DJs that play that same 2 hour blend of tracks which are almost virtually the same. I love those narratives where you can ramp up in intensity and go from chill to intense to batshit crazy then strip it back down, rinse and repeat. That’s what’s so beautiful about DJing, it’s being able to present a story.

KALTBLUT: Are there any particular DJs that you look up to in that scene? Your introduction to techno was through Juan Atkins right?

Matrixxman: Juan Atkins is still one of the baddest motherfuckers. I saw him at Elbow Room, which is a real shit establishment. I’ve got no clue who threw that party there because it’s a hilarious place to book Juan Atkins. But for whatever reason, this party was going on there and I was kicking it with Vin Sol. Part of Juan’s signature approach is that he starts off with sleazy boogie that almost sounds like a Leroy Burgess throwaway demo, really dark and sexy… So there was all this funky ass disco and I turned to Vin who is a head, 9 times ouf of 10 he’ll ID on the spot, and he was like  “I don’t know what the hell this is”. He moved up the lineage of house, gradually getting more repetitive and before you knew it you were in blistering techno territory. Very few cats can pull off that “journey through the lineage of dance music” thing. As far as modern day techno DJs, there are a lot of good people out there. I love Jeff Mills, his stuff is obviously more Detroit but he definitely has hip hop sensibilities, which is crucial. I do like the human touch in DJs. The more pervasive sensibility amongst Europeans is to keep a clinical precision. There are some cats out there, like DJ Harvey, who aren’t afraid of fucking it up but by and large the techno esthetic is to keep it as clean as possible.

KALTBLUT: That’s also admirable in some respects…

Matrixxman: It is and it takes craftsmanship to pull it off but there’s something to be said about some dude coming in and manhandling shit. Jeff Mills very much embodies that hip hop approach. Carlos Souffront also embodies everything I love about American, particularly Detroit, shoot from the hip DJs. It might not necessarily be the most impeccable but it is amazing DJing, with loads of character and personality. It’s kind of like a bear all approach and I definitely endeavour to DJ like that.

KALTBLUT: The Angry Frogz EP you released on Unknown To The Unknown is a perfect example of that spirit. They’re the kind of tracks that you can just slam in. It floors me every time!

Matrixxman: Although I don’t make that type of music as much these days, we were stoked with that EP. Those tracks embody some of that Dance Mania recklessness. When mixing that shit you can definitely mix in brisk, there’s no need for an extended blend. You can just play the first 8 bars and get on with it.

KALTBLUT: Are there any plans for you to return to Unknown To The Unknown?

Matrixxman: We’ve talked about doing stuff again but I need to hit DJ Haus up to pursue that. I’m a big fan of what he does.

KALTBLUT: Speaking of labels, what is going on with your label Soo Wavey?

Matrixxman: It started out as a Chicago house oriented label, but as time has lapsed, I’ve been increasingly drawn towards the darker side of the spectrum. We do have some stuff lined up for release there but I’m also pursuing a new outlet to focus on the stuff I’m making which is not Soo Wavey oriented.

KALTBLUT: Let’s talk about the album, what’s behind the title Homesick?

Matrixxman: I was imagining this future where we’d discovered, maybe colonized, numerous worlds out in the galaxy I could imagine people going about their daily business on a totally different planet while having this longing to go back to earth.

KALTBLUT: The album draws on futuristic and cybernetic like emergent AI, interplanetary travel, neuroenhancement drugs, leaving physical form and existing as data… Where does your interest for these subjects stem from? You said you were working in academia…

Matrixxman: I wasn’t really involved in anything of consequence in that field… What initially started it off was this childhood obsession with Star Wars, Blade Runner and all that stuff. Over time I had the realization that the words of the fathers of science fiction were gradually becoming legitimized. We are at a unique turning point in the history of humanity, particularly as we  get closer to the singularity. There’s a lot of controversy over when that will actually hit. Conservative estimates set it around 100 years from now. Ray Kurzweil says it’s 30 years from now based on Moore’s law of exponential growth. The fact that Google has appointed Kurzweil as head of engineering for the artificial intelligence division speaks volumes.

KALTBLUT: If they’re betting tons of money on that horse there’s some serious thought behind.

Matrixxman: Exactly. The implications of that are profound… People would have balked at those ideas 10 or 20 years if a company as big as Google was pursuing that. Their acquisition of Deep Mind too, who are doing some crucial things in terms of virtually mapping a brain. All that means that Google are taking that stuff seriously and I think, as humans, we need to be taking that stuff seriously. It’s not something that’s looming off in the distance; it’s something that we could potentially be confronted with in our lifetime.

KALTBLUT: The themes from the album aren’t exactly futuristic anymore. They were futuristic 40 years ago but now we’re in the said future. How do you think the narrative you are developing is different from what guys like Jeff Mills were already doing 20 years ago, both musically and conceptually…

Matrixxman: I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of 2 polarized extremes. Part of what made Blade Runner to me so endearing was the fact that you had these hyper-futuristic dystopian visions of the future side by side with the film noir aspect. You had this cutting-edge cool futurism and who done it detective type of contrast with highly retro elements of film noir. You can’t imagine a movie like Blade Runner without the noir aspect. Musically speaking my equivalent was utilizing noir as a way of circling back to some “Millsesque” or old-school Detroit sounding themes but then trying to inject some novel twist into them. I’m glad this album didn’t get pegged as just some total retro rehash. It did seem that people did feel some sort of forward moving momentum which was a goal.

KALTBLUT: Is Vangelis an influence of yours? Do you ever play his tracks in your sets?

Matrixxman: That soundtrack is just… I need to actually start introducing them in DJ sets, when applicable. His synth work is unparalleled. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

KALTBLUT: I remember seeing Locked Groove drop the end titles close to the end of set, it felt so dramatic…

Matrixxman: And if you’re off your face on a couple of pills you would start crying. It’s perfection.

KALTBLUT: Besides from Blade Runner have any other sci-fi soundtracks proven influential?

Matrixxman: Liquid Sky. It’s a low budget film which is supposedly the most candid glimpse at a post-punk New-York. It has a sci-fi slant to it because the plot is based around an alien that fucks dudes, does drugs and kills them. It’s early 80’s and it gives this beautiful glimpse of post-punk culture in New-York at that time. It’s actually really futuristic in terms of aesthetics and the soundtrack is totally fucked. It’s just jarring synthesis tones, all rather abrasive. It’s not something that’s particularly pleasant to listen to. It pales in comparison to Blade Runner but it was a unique statement at the time. I also really liked the film Contact with Jodie Foster, it’s somewhat dated by today’s standards but I thought that the execution of it was flawless.

KALTBLUT: Going back to technological advances, is there anything that’s mindblown you recently? How do you stay informed?

Matrixxman: I read of lot of Wired and I occasionally hop on onto the MIT journals to keep abreast of various advances. Recently I read about some stuff that I thought that was cool. MIT materials scientist Polina Anikeeva stepped up with recent neural probe designs that are being lauded as the “Swiss Army Knife” of neuroscience. Unlike the more crude means employed previously, they closer resemble our natural nerves and can deliver both drugs, light, and even electrical signals. The implications of this are far reaching in the field of optogenetics (the use of light to control and read neural activity). It marks a step in the right direction for precision mapping responses in different regions of the brain and also possibly offers long term treatments of diseases like Parkinson’s. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The long term applications are exciting to think about. This could perhaps lead to the augmentation of brains’ storage capacity and processing power among other things. What a lot of people are inherently scared of with artificial intelligence is that they think of it as this foreign entity; but what happens if someone like you and I are able to outfit our brains with infinite computational power and storage? We’re not going to lose our humanity, we will definitely still be who we are. We will have the ability to tackle any number of crazy physics problems and cause all sorts of violations of causality. We will just be walking human supercomputers and it’s wild shit to think that this could be possible.

KALTBLUT: So you envisage singularity as something inherently positive?

Matrixxman: There’s obviously a huge degree of trepidation by those who were getting replaced by machines in post agrarian societies. At any given point in history there’s been fear that these things are bad, that they are going to deprive people of opportunities. But think about what this has afforded us as a species. No longer do we have to do back breaking chores to live this quality of life. To me this case is basically the proof that it’s going to ultimately liberate us to do more of what we want. But if you don’t necessarily embrace it, you might not necessarily receive the benefits of it. It’s easy for us to focus on the negative side, being the eternal pessimists that we humans are, but if one were to cast aside the cynical viewpoint and look at it in terms of what it’s going to afford. Imagine if everyone all of a sudden has access to a quantum supercomputer and could print whatever they needed on a molecular level. From the perspective of government or any capitalist entity, that would be their worst nightmare. I question a lot of people’s resistance towards it, because as it stands, capitalism is failing us miserably. Look at Greece, look at the disproportionate allocation of wealth to the 1%. Things are totally fucked and I actually look at this like the light at end of the tunnel. Capitalism will never fully go away because there will always be someone who will figure out some hustle, but it’s going to have a markedly different impact. It’s going to dissolve.


KALTBLUT: I read this piece about self-driving trucks and the general reaction was to cry out about how truck drivers were going to lose their jobs, that the economy built around service stations would simply die.

Matrixxman: Some people are going to think that these things are going to deprive us of jobs, well no. It’s going to allow us to do all the shit we want to do because no one should have to be doing that job in the first place. I’m at odds with capitalism, not saying that socialism is the answer by any means, but at some point when things become more autonomous, we won’t have to worry about how these things are being provided. I think it requires a bit of a leap of faith but ultimately, as things stand, the current situation is not sustainable.

KALTBLUT: The idea of having more free time can also be a scary prospect when you’ve never been able to dedicate time to creative activities…

Matrixxman: Frankly it’s intimidating. I had a bit of an existential crisis at the point when I was able to focus exclusively on music. I was confronted with this dread and terror of understanding that I was now able to sit down and do this constantly… It’s a weird case of an inherent human tendency to want to be put in a suboptimal circumstance, which is fucked up and masochistic.

KALTBLUT: I guess you don’t regret it at all?

Matrixxman: I don’t regret it but it shows that there’s a certain amount of conditioning, that we are almost programmed to think that we should be doing something we don’t want to do.

KALTBLUT: Going back to the album you find some big drum tracks, which is what your reputation has been built on, but there is also a large proportion of ambient tracks. Were you doing this before or was it the album format that pushed you to experiment?

Matrixxman: The EP format never really lends itself to exploration and as a producer coming from a varied background, I’ve always had interest in stuff that eschew the trends. Part of it was also to provide some counterpoint to the techno. A lot of it also stemmed from the fact that Ghostly probably wouldn’t have wanted to put out an album that was entirely blistering techno. There was an element of crafting something that was in line with the Ghostly aesthetic. More importantly I did feel like it was crucial to flex some sort of ability to weave in and out of techno and not necessarily be confined to its strict limitations.

KALTBLUT: They also make the album feel like an actual album, not just a collection of club tracks.

Matrixxman: Yeah exactly, I’m glad it served its purpose.

KALTBLUT: What was your setup like for the album, was it a full on analog war?

Matrixxman: Predominantly. There were instances of using plugins here and there but for the most part it was all machines. Lots of Roland, lots of 909, which probably made the most appearances. Lots of 808, a bit of 606 drums, lots of TB303. I actually use that on loads of tracks even ones that don’t necessarily sound like acid tracks. There were a bunch of Yamaha DX tones and Waldorf Microwave too.

KALTBLUT: You’ve collaborated with plenty of artists before but on Homesick the only featuring is Vin Sol. He seems to have had quite an influence on you. How did you guys meet?

Matrixxman: He’s basically my best friend in the whole wide world. We’re similar in that we come from this hardcore hip hop background. He was predominantly DJing hip-hop, which was what I was producing at the time. We first met in New-York and we always knew that we shared a vision. We explored the roots of dance music together, really getting into disco, proto-house, italo and all the stuff that led to house, then techno etc… First and foremost he’s a really talented dude, he’s got an insane record collection and an insane gear collection. We share similar vibes and ethics. We both worship Ron Hardy and the legacy of the Music Box. We’ve always endeavored to make shit that would be on par with real deal raw shit from the hood.

KALTBLUT: On the album, the vibe is definitely more cinematic though; Augmented in particular.

Matrixxman: I appreciate that. Coming from the background of a producer who has done interdisciplinary production, working with a plethora of genres, it’s actually been a life goal of mine to really sink my teeth into that cinematic soundtrack approach. I’m highly flattered that these things could connect and that you can see the visual component in mind with that stuff. I’ve actually flirted with real basic classical arrangements in a track called A Two Pill invention. It’s me attempting to do counterpoint. Granted, I can’t actually play what I compose. I did it through midi but it does have relatively complicated classical counterpoint elements going on. This is stuff that I would love to see through and execute if I do a proper movie soundtrack at some point.

KALTBLUT: You’ve said that for you, techno is the perfect soundtrack for technological innovation but reversely, do you think that people that work within these fields understand techno?

Matrixxman: Part of the reason of why I subconsciously might be so vocal about expressing these desires to be aligned with all these kind of environments stems from the fact that there’s this gaping void. I’d be highly impressed if cutting edge scientists that are trying to assemble nano-technology or people that are trying to make neuro-science advancements even know what techno is. Maybe I should give them more credit but there’s definitely a divide. I’ve seen very little mention in the press about the proponents of these movements giving two fucks about the music that is arguably the most futuristic music. That’s very presumptuous of me though, I don’t actually know what the actual state of things is.

KALTBLUT: The only actors of the electronic scene that get respect from academia or the highbrow cultural scene are people that have tailored their output to that crowd. Take Jeff Mills and his work with orchestras for example. Goldie too. The only way he gets some wider appreciation is when he proves he can score for an orchestra.

Matrixxman: I’d be lucky if anyone in Academia even knew who I was. I’d actually be stoked. Part of the reason why I’m even trying to foster this dialogue is to help these people realize that we are in essence sound-tracking what they are doing. If they’re listening to folk music or classical music from some dead dude that composed 400 years ago, the likelihood of that person being aware of what they’re doing is next to none.

KALTBLUT: Now that the album is out, what’s on the cards for you? Are you going to maintain your fast-paced release rhythm?

Matrixxman: There’s something to be said about quality over quantity. I’m still a rookie for all intents and purposes, but the good thing now that I’ve achieved a modicum of stability, that I’m actually touring and making a living from this, is that I feel less thirst and desperation for putting something out for the sake of putting it out. While many people might be enamored by that type of approach, I’m thinking about being a little more calculated, about making sure that what I put out is something that really reflects me. What’s hilarious now is that there’s a hailstorm of remixes I did prior to the album which are coming out in the next couple of months. While I’m not saying they don’t represent me anymore, it was still me doing what I was doing at that point prior to the album. Chronologically it’s different. Tentatively I’m supposed to do an EP with Dekmantel, which will be fun. I have a ton of my own techno that needs to see the light of day and I’m trying to figure out how we will present that.

KALTBLUT: What would you be right now if you weren’t Matrixxman?

Matrixxman: I’d probably be a psychologist. I’m really fascinated with psychology. That or a visual artist. I studied fine art for a number of years before falling off and getting into music. I had a little too much going on in the days of my youth, which also reflects why I wasn’t able to get my shit together. What would you be doing out of curiosity?

KALTBLUT: Well I always used to enjoy working with kids, in summer camps and stuff. It’s never a career I decided to pursue fully because I never thought it was something that could be a lifetime fulfilling ambition. It’s got this connotation of something that you do when you’re young, as a summer job not as a career. But I guess being able to have an influence on kids and push them in directions that a lot of parents don’t necessarily push them towards to is something that should be valued.

Matrixxman: I know exactly when you’re talking about. I actually make it my duty whenever I’m sitting down with kids to prompt them about what they want to do when they grow up. Most often you’ll hear “I want to be a doctor”. Then if you ask if that’s really what they want to do, the answer is most likely “sort of”. If I hear any ambivalence or mixed feelings about what they’re professing they want to do, I usually tap into that some more. Then you start hearing things like “What I really like is architecture” or something more science related. I tell them my story. I tell them my parents didn’t really understand that what I wanted to do was different than what they wanted. I tell them that they can do whatever the fuck they want to do with their life. You can see that glimmer of hope, “oh shit, my wildest fantasies can come true”. No one told me that as a kid. I wish someone would have sat me down and told me “you want to make some fucked up futuristic music? You can do it”. We have these weird societal expectations to confirm. Our parents obviously just want to see us be sheltered and as financially comfortable as possible, when that is a conflict of interest in terms of what would benefit us most on a personal enrichment level.

KALTBLUT: Growing up, you rarely meet the kind of people that tell you that you can be who you want to be; that the hobby that you love could actually be your life. You always kind of wish that you wouldn’t have spent so much time playing Final Fantasy 7 when you were 13.

Matrixxman: That’s the story of my life. To my mum’s credit she was always telling me to not beat myself up. I occasionally reflect with regret that I should have been doing this in my teens. She always says that my path has actually helped me do what I do better now, that I shouldn’t discredit my current trajectory. But in my mind, things would have been exponentially better had I started doing this earlier.

KALTBLUT: You probably wouldn’t be where you are right now though… Maybe you would have become a really successful drum and bass producer.

Matrixxman: And then burnt out young and got some girl pregnant haha.

Homesick is out now on Ghostly International. Grab a copy over at Juno.

Interview by Thomas Romana