Music by VICE

Mukqs' New Album Is Concerned With the Weight of the Universe

'11,666,666,666,666,666,666' is named after one of Sun Ra's cosmic numbers—which is only one surreal facet of the Chicago producer's new record.

by Marc Masters
May 23 2017, 10:01pm

From the cover of Mukqs new album

The art that leaps from the covers of Hausu Mountain tapes immediately fills your eyes with burning neon colors, warped video game figures, and surreal hallucinations melted across cracked digital landscapes. This bracing juxtaposition comes from the mind of the artist Maxwell Allison, who co-runs the label with his roommate Doug Kaplan. Allison happens to be a musician himself, and his work under the name Mukqs shows a similar knack for smashing together unfamiliar modes. Over the course of eight releases (including splits with like-minded artists), Allison has touched on ambient noise, absurdist cut-and-paste, meditative electronics, and more. "The goal is to never repeat myself," he says via Skype from his home in Chicago. "I want to do all kinds of styles."

The newest Mukqs effort 11,666,666,666,666,666,666—out Friday, May 26—is Allison's first full-length vinyl release, and finds him pointed in yet another new direction: accessible, beat-heavy techno. The album's melodic arcs and insistent pulse are a perfect fit for Midwich, the Chicago label run by Allison's friend James Marlon Magas, the former post-punk frontman (Couch, Lake of Dracula) who himself makes electronic music for the imprint.

Across four tracks that play like a continuous suite, Allison weaves forceful beats and winding synths into heavy webs. It's music that's easy to nod along to, but it also contains dark undercurrents gradually revealed with each listen—in the same way Allison's visual art veils strange themes beneath bright, eye-stretching hues.

When Allison isn't holed away in his apartment making Mukqs music, he's busy playing with Good Willsmith, the Chicago trio he founded with Kaplan and TALsounds' Natalie Chami, and keeping the Hausu Mountain factory running smoothly. We recently spoke to Allison about making 11,666,666,666,666,666,666 (which is streaming in full below), as well his own musical origins, and the collagist processes of his solo work.

THUMP: Do you think of Mukqs music as more of a personal expression than what you make in Good Willsmith?
Good Willsmith is pretty democratic in our approach, and at this point anything goes because we know our vocabularies so well. Our last LP had more spastic switches in between sections that were willfully different in style and sound. So cycling through different styles is present in all the music that we're working on. The goal is to represent a wide, crazy menu. For my Mukqs stuff, it's about expanding that palette. I'm just doing it alone because I have the time and the motivation, and I can make it happen really fast. I can just sit in my room and keep working at it as long as I want.

The idea of using different styles seems more common in underground music now, as opposed to when genres like noise and dance were more strictly defined.
Yeah, I think that as people have listened to these styles of music more they see the connections between, say, New Age and noise. To me, anyone that has ever catered to the idea that these things can't mix is a square. Why on earth would people not want to listen to whatever they can? I find so much joy in so many kinds of music, so there's no reason to pigeonhole anyone. Of course, I totally respect people who have a dedicated scene or style they love. That's awesome. But for me things move in cycles, and I'm interested in whatever moves into my zone. I'm not trying to limit any kind of new interest.

I think a lot of that other mentality comes from people demanding that someone focus on a craft for a long time before they're acknowledged as a member of that scene. Someone could be an interloper, like, "I'm a pop artist making a noise manifesto!" That could be seen as a red flag. But I also love when a deviation occurs and disrupts the idea of what is normal in a scene. Sometimes with lack of reverence for the history of something, you can carve out a new version of it that disrupts the older narrative.

How did you first get into music?
I was obsessed with metal and hip-hop from an early age. I would research those genres religiously online and download stuff from all kinds of weird sources. That process led to many truly amazing listening experiences through headphones at home in my suburban zone. So that transportive power of music, just listening and envisioning a whole other world, is what has led me to playing music.

And you knew early that you wanted to devote time to making music?
I think I always wanted to make music and art in various forms. There wasn't a single point when I was like, "Oh, this is it, I'm going do this forever." That was always the idea. It was more about milestones happening that brought that dream closer to reality. Mukqs could only start when I was confident that it wouldn't be shitty or boring. I needed time to learn instruments and styles and listen to more music to get there.

Do you find any similarities in the processes of making music and making visual art?
Collaging and arranging and erasing in visual art do have connections to making music, in terms of programming and setting up a bunch of sounds that don't tread on each other. The more loopy Mukqs stuff that has intersecting samples, that has a lot common with the visual art. When I'm making visual art, I'm thinking of texture and interactions with different media, like super-pixelated things versus smooth things. That definitely overlaps with thinking musically about triangle waves versus sine waves, and prickly sounds versus smooth sounds.

Where did the name Mukqs come from?
It's just my name, Max, but spelled like the Aphex Twin album Drukqs. That's a very deep record with so many different styles to it. I also picked the name because I love that bizarre combination of letters, with k and q right next to each other. It confuses people. People often spell it wrong, which is hilarious to me.

There are four tracks on 11,666,666,666,666,666,666 , but I get the sense the whole record is meant as one piece.
Yeah, for sure. The track divisions came after the fact. When I play this live, the durations of the individual tracks always change. The songs have the same sounds and patches going on, but there will be a different beat or underlying foundation to parts. A lot of that comes from deciding what gear to use - which synth or drum machine is at the heart of the sound, and what things are the embellishments, so to speak.

What drew you to working in this more beat-oriented style?
When I set out to make a record, I definitely have a style in mind from the beginning, because that will guide my decisions and set up an easier work low for my brain. In terms of why I was geared towards this style, I've been listening to tons of this kind of music, especially Detroit music like Drexciya and related projects. Their catalog is so immense and fun to dig through—it's just an infinite trove of inspiration.

Do you think of 11,666,666,666,666,666,666 as dance music?
I definitely do, but I'm into lots of dance styles. I do envision it playing in a club where someone can dance. It's a little more isolated, maybe, and outside that zone. But I love to play it live and try to make that into a danceable, fun situation.

You made the record "live" without overdubs. How does that work?
Well, the drum machine and synth I primarily used for this album are very capable of saving different patterns for long stretches. So the programming of that stuff is the composition phase, in a way. That sets up the condition for a live take with interaction between triggered samples and arrhythmic paths, where I'm turning things on and off, setting up different flowing beat structures. That's the improvisation phase, which yields different decisions every time. I can play things quietly or blow them out into noise.

Is there a kind of circle between you playing the machines and them feeding you?
I think of it from the perspective of producing a track. So certain elements of the gear are playing an element that's kind of the spine, and then there are decisions that are more randomized, with the turn of a knob or a filter. It's also about listening to the final mix live and seeing what is missing, seeing how things could have a different tonal range or different spatialization. It's like doing an improvised jam session with other people, but they're robots that live in your drum machine, and you decide when they're playing. It's fun in that sense.

Where does the title 11,666,666,666,666,666,666 come from?
Most titles that I choose are from some found source that I've been reading or watching, where a phrase sticks in my mind for its origin and for its visual look. This number is in John Szwed's Sun Ra biography Space is the Place. At one point he's talking about the math that informs Sun Ra's worldview. There's a rundown of cosmic numbers that dictate the universe's physics, and it says that the weight of the universe is 11,666,666,666,666,666,666 pounds. It's also a nod to the common trope of naming compositions with an obscure number, like Autechre does sometimes.