Max Cooper is as much scientist as he is a musician. Emergence, his visual and auditory masterpiece spanning three years of work, reflects the intersection of his passion in science, music, and visual arts in three dimensions. His music, and the vision behind it, is evocative. Even on the live spectrum, Max has the versatility to play to a captive, seated IMAX audience one week and to a crowd, captivated in an equally dynamic yet much different way, at Printworks the next.
This was our first time at Printworks. Not only did it exceed all expectations; I would argue that Printworks has raised London to a new echelon as a dance music destination.
As a space, we haven’t seen anything else like it. It’s one of the most captivating venues we’ve ever experienced. The scale of it all, from the full hundred meters of the main hall to the ascending observation decks, makes Printworks feel like something out of Metal Gear Solid. Everything about it feels grand. Yet, the narrow dance floors and the snaking corridors give it this sense of intimacy. For as huge as it is, you don’t perceive this feeling of empty space. The lighting and visual effects are done so well that they create this satisfying sense of three-dimensionality. The length of the main hall allows for a pulsing perspective, as impressive from the middle as it is from either end, that takes you through time and space with its signature tunnel of lasers.
As an organization, Printworks and the London Warehouse Events teams are ushering in a new era of professionalism and consistency with live music. From open to close—Printworks events start at noon and run through eleven at night—I’ve never seen an event of this scale run so smoothly. Everything from the layout to the signage to the motivated staff made the Printworks experience consistently incredible. And above all, even though it was sold out, there still felt like there was plenty of space. In a time of overcrowded clubs and festivals, LWE’s event and capacity management is a breath of fresh air.
Before I experienced any of this, though, I had the honor of starting my day at Printworks by sitting down with Max to discuss his roots in music and the technical elements to his career as a DJ and producer. Science was a strong theme to this interview, from Max’s understanding and interpretation of how the subconscious mind works to the more conscious human traits that inspire him to make the music he does. Max has a way with words, so I’ll let him do the rest of this story justice.
When did you realize you wanted to make your life about music?
When I started going to clubs at sixteen. That’s when I started thinking, “yeah I’d like to do this.” At that stage I still assumed I would be a scientist going forward, and that music would be more of a hobby. To be honest, I’d be totally happy being a scientist as well, or doing some other area of research. I love learning. I love expression. I love visual arts. I would be happy being many other things, but music is amazing. I was never solely obsessed with it, though.
Do you have any music theory background?
No, nothing. It was always just intuition. I feel strongly about music. I feel strongly about form. That’s the only guidance I’ve used, really. I have a good friend, Gareth Williams, who also lives in Berlin and releases under the name Satirist. He was always around, and a bit of a studio geek. So I had some guidance with him on the technical sides of things. He had the early version of Ableton back in the day. So I learned some basics from him, but those were the early days. It was many years later—after years of my own developing—that I could get to a good enough standard to start releasing things.
Who were your biggest inspirations when you first started making music?
It’s funny, when I first started I was a bit all over the place. I was coming from a DJ background. I used to DJ drum and bass and breakbeat and hip-hop, some techno, all sorts of different stuff. I started off trying to make all sorts of different genres. I made some terrible electro house and all this horrible stuff, then I slowly started finding what I could do that seemed to be a bit better. It was the more peaceful stuff that started developing as “this isn’t so terrible.”
I got some great electronic influences from this man here, Wazim. Early on I really liked the idea of sort of techno, but then with these interesting electronic elements, like glitch, that have done well for me over the years. I try to present music which is traditionally very loopy and stripped and simple, but trying to fill it with complexity and detail. And still trying to make it danceable, so you have these big elements, but if you want to delve in and listen with headphones there are all these extra things going on to make it more interesting.
When did it hit you that you can make a career in music happen?
It still hasn’t happened. It’s the goalpost move, always. It’s just one of those things that’s endless. I’m so driven to express myself. I think maybe it’s fear of death. My subconscious is going, “we’re going to die, we’re going to die,” like it’s trying to break out of my body. Maybe it thinks if it can get into musical form it can exist outside my body. I think it’s this sort of fear-of-death madness going on. But the goalpost constantly shifts.
I think when I started working with Traum I realized that maybe I can live off it, because I saw other people from that label that were living off it. And I thought, “ok, if I release on here maybe I can do it.” I guess it was the first decent label I worked with, and it helped me put more music in front of people that I would have otherwise.
Describe your studio setup now.
For a long time I worked digitally, mainly because I didn’t have enough money to afford synthesizers, but in recent years I’ve started buying more analog stuff. I’ve got a Prophet 8 and a Juno 6 and a Moog Sub 37, which is my main staple. I’ve got a little Moog Minitaur that I use a lot as well. In terms of effects, the Roland RE-201 classic tape echo, which is beautiful. And I love my Moogerfooger and all my distortion pedals. I’m really into my pedals.
I do a lot of surround sound projects. I’m doing a Dolby Atmos project at the moment, which is like a cinema system. I’m writing an album in a cinema surround sound format. So I’ve got a basic surround sound setup in my studio for doing basic work, then I go to the Dolby studio to work on the more advanced setup.
My IMAX performance was great. I wanted to do that for ages. It was really, really cool actually.
How did that IMAX performance come about?
For a couple of years I’ve been telling my manager and my agent that I really want to do an IMAX gig. Then, for some reason, it just came along. It was an old IMAX place that was sort of an aquarium that wasn’t being used much. In Bristol. Colston Hall and In Between Time were using this space, and for some reason it came across to us, so I was like, “yeah, let’s do this.” It was awesome.
Describe a technical or creative problem you’ve overcome in the studio.
There are always problems. Part of writing music is being a problem solver. It’s like, “ah, this isn’t working,” or just like this old piece of hardware that’s forty years old isn’t working. How can I make this damn thing work? And get something good out of it? There’s a lot of problem solving and messing around with things all the time.
I use a lot of pedals. I was up at five in the morning the other day not able to sleep because I had some idea that I wanted to do, but all my wiring was messed up. So I was climbing behind my desk rewiring all this stuff and I thought, “I should be asleep, but I need to do this.” I finally got it done, and then I knew it was time to sleep. If I’ve got an idea, or a creative urge or the feeling that I need to do this, then I have to do it. And stay up and get it done. I know if I go to sleep, I’ll wake up the next day and someone will call me and my mind will be elsewhere. Then I’ll forget. So it needs to be done at the time.
This hits on a theme we’ve been encountering, most recently in our discussion with Recondite. It’s that of being able to work on an idea as soon as creativity strikes, meaning you can get that idea down more quickly digitally. Do you ever think of it this way?
I have a massive list of ideas that I write down all the time. And sometimes I’ll just work on getting the basic feeling down, but then I’ll take it back to the studio to actually translate the stuff into an analog synth to try and make it better. That’s one of the challenges of trying to write music when you’re touring a lot. It’s hard to get around that. For years I worked just off my computer. So I can work like that if I need to; it’s not like I’m restrained to only being able to write music when I’m at home.
What are your favorite VSTs?
My favorite VSTs are the API tools in Max for Live. They don’t make any sound or anything; they’re basically modulation or cross-linking tools, randomization tools. The way I work a lot is setting up this semi-random chaotic systems where you’ve got one primary linked to others. And random LFOs linked to many parameters. The whole thing can become this organic, chaotic sort of mess. And those tools allow you to do that in Ableton. You couldn’t otherwise use Ableton like that. That’s my favorite way of working. I like to generate complexity and randomness and chaos and then just record a load of that then be able to start building pieces of music out of that.
What makes a great set for you?
I don’t have a definitive best set. Some sets have been amazing for different reasons. Some of them are amazing because there are loads of people, or some are amazing because you had a massive party and you drank two bottles of whisky. Or if you had a really interesting set.
Even going back to last week, that IMAX gig was amazing. That was one of my highlights of recent times. Just because it was great to be able to play on such a huge screen. I’m really into visual art, and I control the visuals as well as the music, so it makes a massive difference for me. It’s almost like getting to play on the best sound system ever. Visually, it was like getting the most visually dominating experience. And also everyone’s sitting down, so you have a captive audience. They have to look, it’s like you get to brainwash them.
If you could play one last set, how would it go down?
Every year, forty of us get together and just hire a big mansion-type place—which is really cheap between so many people—in the countryside in France or Italy. Then we just party for a week. It’s brilliant. We bring the sound system into this grand old building. Visuals and everything. If it was our last night on Earth, I’d want to see my friends for the last time.