Belfast-born, London-based producer and DJ Max Cooper operates at the outer margins of electronic music. His projects run the gamut from high-brow conceptual multimedia projects to ambient soundscapery to churning, heavy experimental techno DJ sets. As is fitting for a guy who holds a PH.D in computational biology, Cooper brings together cerebral and visceral on the dancefloor in a way that few others can.
"I certainly have a quite banging, techno side of things and then also the totally ambient soundscape side of things," Cooper admits. "I like the challenge of turning up somewhere and feeling out the crowd. I feel really good at the end of the set when I feel like I've challenged myself as well as everyone else and tried to do something new."
In this attitude, Cooper is an anomaly on the dancefloor. "I do think there is often no concept to a lot of dance music," he says. "But I wouldn't call it lacking in the sense that a lot of people don't want a concept. It's music just designed to make people dance and have fun. I think, certainly, there's a lot of room for showing people in clubs more, a bit more meat to get hold of mentally, something more rich and nuanced. That's why I'm trying to do what I'm trying to do."
"Fragments of Self," from the 2013 EP of the same name.
Cooper's collaborative work with contemporary classical pianist Tom Hodge was borne out of a desire to add a human touch to all those highfalutin' machine sounds. "I thought it'd be nice to work with a real musician for once," he laughs. "Y'know, rather than be sat in front of my computer fiddling around with things."
The duo first came together on 2013's Fragmented Self EPs, two collections that bring together atmospheric field recordings and Cooper's glitched out electronica under Hodge's piano performances. The duo became fast friends creatively, despite being nearly strangers at the time of the project's inception and Hodge's admittance to being a dance music neophyte. "I was never a raver," he explains. "I'm not a big clubber. I never have been. I've kept it that way as well, it's beneficial to have this culture clash, coming from a non-club world. I hope that brings something that wouldn't be there otherwise, even though piano has an amazing lineage in club culture."
Although he may not have a closet full of kandi, Hodge is no slouch on the keys and provides a nimble counterpoint to Cooper's glitchy adventurism. "Tom is very flexible as a musician," says Cooper. "Whatever I throw at him, he seems to be able to work with. I think i've probably pushed him – We did a live show recently and I was throwing loads of glitch at him and asking him to play live piano over these impossible sounds. And he did it, amazingly! He's able to adapt to situations, which makes things great for me. I can just throw weird stuff at him and he'll turn it into gold."
Artefact's four tracks include the ambient and emotive "Remnants," the vast and propulsive "Resonant Expanse," and the two-part sound-art collage "Teotihuacan," from which the EP's inspiration was drawn.
Cooper recounts the visit to the Mexican ruins: "It's massive, what was an ancient city, with these beautiful, huge structures and pyramids with cosmological theories behind them all. It was clearly some sort of advanced culture, but we basically know nothing about them because the Spanish destroyed all the culture and information. I was asking the people there what things were and people didn't really know. That was the starting point for the EP, that track. The idea of these remnants and artifacts and the ideas of memories."
From there, the tracks were formed through satellite collaboration. "Either Tom would sit down, play some ideas, and send them to me and I'd pick out little bits, edit them, and send it back and he'd play over it again," says Cooper. "Or, like on 'Teotihuacan' where I sent a basic chord structure and Tom scored it for a cellist and then play over it himself."
The duo can be found opening for Cooper's audio-visual show Emergence
Live, a similar cycle of collaboration takes place, only in the immediate and with an audience watching. "It's essentially Tom playing the piano and Fender Rhodes and me with my laptop and controllers playing off of Ableton. We're taking a feed from Tom that's coming in through my computer which I can send through an effects matrix to process Tom's sounds so we get a bit of interaction. And then some parts, we totally go off the trail and experiment with free-form parts."
This kind of performance would make most producers and classical DJs quiver at the knees in fear, but Hodge, who also has a jazz background, is more than comfortable. "I couldn't actually do a concert if it didn't have an improvised element," he says. "That's what keeps you right in the moment. It feels totally natural."
The duo have been playing gigs with Cooper's audio-visual Emergence project (video above) and subverting convention with every note. "Me and Tom did a gig recently in a concert hall that was a sit-down gig," Cooper explains. "I ended up playing some techno and it went over really well." The whole collaboration has run so smoothly that the only thing left to do is for Hodge to release his own EP of EDM bangers, but don't hold your breath on that. "I suppose at some point I'll end up at one of Max's 5AM sets and get to experience it in its full glory," he laughs. One step at a time.
Jemayel Khawaja is Managing Editor of THUMP.