In Conversation: Max Cooper

In Conversation: Max Cooper

The electronic maestro reflects on 'Unspoken Words'...

Visuals and aesthetics have always played a huge role in Max Cooper’s work. An electronic musician by trade, Cooper’s background in computational biology has heavily informed his creative process throughout the years - always keeping a keen eye on how visual collaborations might compliment his lush techno soundscapes. Cooper’s fifth full-length album, 'Unspoken Words' is no exception.

A stellar 13-track odyssey that examines the universal experience of being human, the LP sees Cooper leading listeners through experiences of escapism and connection in his own inimitable style, with personal stories of reflection, acceptance, grappling, idealism and rejection. The record is also supported by a visual metanarrative Blu-ray, further cementing Cooper’s keen reputation for visual collaboration. But while the visuals are an important aspect of proceedings, it’s the music that brings everything together.

Paul Weedon caught up with him to discuss the project. 

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Can you expand a little on what ‘Unspoken Words’ means to you?

I guess music has this great capacity to bypass language and just go direct to our intuitions and our feelings and it's a method of communication. You take a snapshot of the way you're feeling at a point in time and you put it into musical form. Then, hopefully, the listener gets at least part of that same feeling that you're able to communicate something really internal, which is why a lot of us love music. It sort of allows us to share the challenges of being human and loving people and share it in a really personal way… Sometimes it can make you dance, or whatever. It can alter our moods. We all share common emotional states and common challenges, mental challenges, and just we all live in the same world. So I think in theory, anyone can share in the same experiences and ideas that I've put into the album.

As an audio-visual artist, there's something incredibly textural about your work. The artwork for Emergence felt like a very strong visual representation of that record. Does one lead the other?

I think the link is the common appreciation that there's a grounding in nature, but not just looking at a tree or going somewhere nice on holiday. I mean, what is nature? What are the systems upon which nature is built? The cover of emergence by Andy Lomas was a simulation of sticky particles. He had millions of sticky particles bouncing around randomly, and if they started sticking together, so it naturally did this growth-like process. So what happened with the artwork was that you got this emergent, beautiful object, very reminiscent of a biological structure. It looked like a fern or something, and actually, the cover was in this double helix, which referenced DNA, so he could influence the structures a little bit, but it still had this random growth aspect to it… And he'd get these emergent structures that would look like recognisable nature, even though it wasn't. It was totally simulated.

At what point do the visuals and the music collide?

I love those aesthetics and those ideas. Sometimes I can put them into the music. There was a track on that album called ‘Order from Chaos’, where I was trying to work with this idea of emergence: how would you get a random system to then create an emergent musical system? I had these recordings of raindrops hitting my window and the raindrops are all random. But then I was able to force each raindrop slightly more and more towards a drum grid, so that from this randomness, slowly, this rhythm would emerge. Then I built the piece of music around that rhythm…

The links are there really foundationally in terms of what I'm interested in: the aesthetics of nature, the aesthetics of natural systems, and mass and biology and chemistry - those ideas are always with me aesthetically, because that's my training. I'm not trained in music or arts. I'm trained in the sciences. So I have an aesthetic sensibility, which is linked to the same ideas that I've been putting into all the music videos, because I'm able to find people who can simulate these things… I'm searching out people who have an aesthetic, which is linked to my aesthetic, and I'm using my aesthetic to make music and they're using their aesthetic to make visuals.

I understand that the actual process of creating some of these pieces can end up taking you hours. If you can even quantify it, what's the longest that you've ever spent on a specific track? And is it ever really done?

When I'm in writing periods, say I'm spending 12 hours a day writing, if I do that for seven days on one track and then I might spend a month on the track [does calculations] that's only 336 hours.

Jesus.

That's not that much! I thought it'd be more… It's hard to say, but I basically get really obsessed when I'm writing music. I mean, I love it. I find escapism in it and a sort of therapy. It really suits me, making music. But it's also very obsessive and while I'm in the zone, I just have to keep going, really hammering on it and staying up all night and just pushing and pushing. Whenever I find something, then I have to try and extract it.

The start of the piece of music is like I can see there's something that's starting to come out and I'm like, ‘I have to extract this thing from myself’ and it's just like trying to wrench it. And generally when I finish a piece of music, that process leaves me really exhausted. I sometimes make myself a bit ill by not sleeping properly and that sort of thing.

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Yes, that whole thing about it being a form of therapy does kind of slightly get undone.

Yeah, it's true. I see what you mean. Sometimes it's really painful. The early part of writing a piece of music is usually a lot of fun and that's really the therapeutic part. You're really just enjoying it. But then trying to finish a piece of music, that sometimes becomes very painful - particularly when I've got 200 layers of stuff going on and it's a mess, but it's very satisfying, even when it's difficult. It's satisfying to finish. But as you said, it's never finished. There's always more that can be done, but I have to be pragmatic, because music is my job and I have to finish stuff.

I have to release things, otherwise I don't get paid. So I need to release music. So I have to just say, okay, I've set myself a time limit. And I say this thing has to be done by this time. And I'll do the best I can. And then, and sometimes I'll bin it, sometimes I'll get to that point where I've done the best they can, and I've spent months on it, and then I'll just think it's not good enough and I just won't release it.

There's obviously a distance between you recording something and then putting it out. What is the timeframe? When were the majority of these tracks recorded versus the album coming out in March 2022?

I started a lot of the work during the first lockdown. It's probably been a year and a half. I mean, I had them all finished a good six months ago, if not more, so I probably worked on it for a year and a half from start to finish… I think with creative work in general, anything that requires a subjective viewpoint about whether it's good or bad, then you're in a world of pain whenever it’s your own work and you’ve totally lost your subjectivity because you spent so long working on the thing. I think it's the same for a lot of creative work.

In terms of working solo on something like this, because it is something that you live and breathe for such a long period of time, when you give it to the label what's the process? I know it's not like working with a band where you can kind of bounce that stuff off a creative collaborator.

As I've gotten older and I've done more releases, I've gotten more and more into not having any input from anyone else with the music. I went through a phase when I tried to get input from everywhere and tried to think about where my music fit, and what works and what doesn't work and all that stuff. And it led to some of the worst work I've done.

I think there's something in just trying to be honest and express a feeling and an idea as honestly and accurately as possible and not worrying about what genre it is, and whether people like it or not. And I think my experience has been that the ones where I get that most honest expression are the ones that people like the best, as opposed to trying to build something that people will like, or that's deemed ‘correct’, or getting other people's feedback. I think, particularly for the sort of music I make anyway, that's what I'm searching for. I'm trying to find ways of expressing human feelings, I suppose. And, and for me that means, actually, less feedback. And just trying to be more honest with myself is the route.

The Symphony in Acid website is nuts, by the way. What was the impetus behind that? It's a real sort of lost art doing stuff with HTML like that.

I collaborated with Ksawery Komputery, the code artist. He built the website, he's the master coder who can do the cool stuff that I can't. But yeah, we did a project together before on Joep Beving remix I did. He built this really amazing code based video project, so with a few of the projects on the new album, I was trying to communicate things that I couldn't put into words. And then I was like, how do I make visual analogies of these? and then some of the some of them, I could make visual analogies quite directly. Some of them I needed some help with the visual analogy, and I thought I'd turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was a philosopher that tackled this problem of words and the difficulties of communicating with the language that we have, and the ambiguities and the errors that our language introduces into our conversations…

I went to Ksawery and just asked if he could figure out a way of taking all the audio stems and syncing the stems to the text near these Wittgenstein texts. Feeding this incomprehensible, mad philosophy text to do with the problems with language and our place in the world… and then had it all synced that to this really complex dense, rigid structured piece of music that sort of fits the rigid incomprehensible structure of the text. So there was a sort of aesthetic link there.

You encouraged people to create visual interpretations of your work. That sense of creative community feels like it’s a really big thing for you.

Yeah, it's exciting. There's a lot of different angles there. That's why I love doing these projects. I'll start off with a theme and then just start delving into it and talking to collaborators, and they'll come back with other ideas and bounce things around. Each collaboration and each idea just spawns more ideas. It's a really enjoyable way to work. I don't have to write music. I really enjoy reading about sciences and philosophy in nature and chatting to people and just having this wider scope to my work just keeps me interested, basically.

Mesh, my label, started a Discord channel and it's been great… There are so many opportunities opening up at the moment with technology and arts, basically. It’s a pleasure to get to spend time with people who are working on these things. Really unreal and inspiring.

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There’s an important visual element to the album too. It’s worth mentioning the Blu-ray that accompanies the record. It’s like there’s this entire sort of ecosystem that accompanies the record.

Yeah, there is. Every piece of music has so many ideas in there and then they map to visual ideas and then there's visual projects, and then all the visual projects joined together into a narrative… but I also don't want people to have to know about that stuff. I want the album to work as a standalone thing. If you get something from listening to it, then that's all that matters. All the rest of the stuff doesn't really matter, unless you're interested, I think it's just there. This is the way I generally present things: here's the music, there's a video, if you're interested you can read the description of the video, and then that'll probably send you off on some links to other things and you can go deeper if you want to go all the way down and you can get to my essays and random YouTube videos explaining things.

I'll try and provide as much of the depth as I can, but I don't think it's necessary. I don't think a lot of the time when I go to a museum to see art, I don't want to read the why. It should make me feel a certain way. I just want to look at it and make my own interpretation and then after that, maybe I'll read about it and then compare, but I quite like letting the art of its thing and there's a lot to be said for having our own interpretations of things and getting what we need from the art rather than being told what we should feel.

Changing topic slightly, you became the first techno artist to play the Acropolis in Athens last year.

I think it depends on what you define as ‘techno’. I think John Michel Jarre played there a long time ago… It depends what you define him as. I think I’m safe there - this is a question of definitions, there have been other concerts there in the past. But yeah it's a rare thing.

What did it mean for you to play there?

The Acropolis is on the top of this hill where they’ve got the Pantheon, this famous site of ancient philosophers and the rest of it. And the Herodes Atticus Theatre is the part I played, which is built into that hill - it's like a natural amphitheatre built into the hill of the Acropolis. So it's just this epic scale, historic, spectacular. It's really intense. And the thing that makes it so intense as well is because it's huge. I think that the amphitheatre holds like five thousand people or so…

You're immersed in history, but then the acoustic is really close because it was designed pre-amplification, obviously, so the acoustics are designed in such a way that you can hear from the back of the theatre. You can hear somebody speaking on the stage, so it's got a really close acoustic feel. But then when you combine this really close acoustic field with this huge space, it creates an unusual experience. It just feels odd. You expect this big cold cavernous feel, but you get this really close, warm feel… It's a sort of magical place, basically, and one of the most intense and special experiences I’ll ever get to have, I expect.

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'Unspoken Words' is available now.

Words: Paul Weedon // @twotafkap
Photo Credit: Alex Kozobolis

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