"When I go out, I want to hear things I’ve never heard” explains Jesse Keeler, who’s half of the electronic music duo MSTRKRFT. “I feel like dance music was all about that forever, then at least in the last while, people have been too worried about, I guess, losing a crowd or losing fans. … You used to really be able to see the character of the person playing.”
Keeler comes at this issue from a position of authority, and his ideas make sense on their head. The more popular a musical movement gets, the more generic it will sound. MSTRKRFT entered the scene nearly a decade ago. He and Al-P (Alex Puodziuka) surfed the cresting dance music wave with hits like “Bounce” and “Heartbreaker” only to seemingly vanish as the wave crashed and drowned us all.
“I don’t want to say that we did this on purpose, but I think what you call ‘mellowing out’ for us seems like a beautiful resetting time [in dance music] where … it seems like people care a lot more about music again. It seemed like there was a time not so long ago where it just kind of felt like people … they didn’t really care about what they were going to see. They just wanted to see something,” Keeler says.
MSTRKRFT released their first new music in five years in July in the form of a new album called OPERATOR. They’re currently on tour and will perform at Livewire in Scottsdale on Sunday, September 4.
(The last time they were in town, they took separate flights — Al-P’s was late, leaving Keller to start without him. But luckily three songs into the set, Al-P showed up, luggage in hand, ready to go.)
OPERATOR is the band’s first album since 2009. Keller, being the bassist for Death From Above 1979, has kept busy in the meantime, touring and recording an album with his other band. But last year, he started to think the time was ripe to revisit his electronic project.
“For us, it didn’t seem like too long of a gap,” explains Keller. He wanted to make sure that when they made another album, it was for the right reason.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t come back unless we had something to say musically,” says Keller. “I know for me, I was at Coachella in 2011 … I remember walking, hanging out around, and going to the dance tent because I wanted to see friends and stuff. I just couldn’t believe how many times I heard the same songs,” explains Keller. “That’s the dilemma; as a fan, you kind of get burned out.”
Al-P and Keller worked around Keller’s tour schedule, and actually started recording music for what would become OPERATOR in 2013.
“We were a little sick and tired of fabricating stuff inside the computer. Another aspect of it is that Jesse and I both come from band backgrounds, and we always wanted to make electronic music live,” Al-P says.
The dissatisfaction with the idea of an autopilot DJ and the feeling that new fans were missing out on everything dance music should be motivated Al-P and Keller to work with only analog when they produced together.
“There’s a conception that [analog is] a huge limitation, but it doesn’t have to be,” Keller explains. “By the record, we show that you’re really only limited by your creativity.”
For the most part, Keller and Al-P are anti-technologists (except for search-engine optimization, which was a motivating factor in the spelling of their name MSTRKRFT) and were determined to produce something new and to guide fans back to dance music’s roots.
“For us, a big part of this current sound that we’re working with is the sound of all of the analog machines and synthesizers themselves. ... We did want to show a bit of range, in terms of what we were interested in and what we were capable of doing,” explains Al-P. “Sometimes, what we get back from them [the machines] is surprising and unexpected. Instead of shying away from that, we try to embrace it. ... In the end, it always ends up sounding like us.”
The result of their efforts is nothing like the melodic anthems they produced in the past; their gears have shifted to pleasing the real, scrappy dance-music fan (themselves included), the one who’s on the hunt through the depths of the internet and questionable warehouses in inner cities.
“This time, right now, in dance music is one of the more creative times that I’ve ever witnessed. But it’s all in the underground,” Keller says. “I think that right now, there’s so many really interesting artists who are pushing boundaries around and really trying to make their mark by being creative, but that’s not just stuff you’re going to hear everywhere.”
Al-P and Keller explain that they bring onstage with them everything that was used to make the album. So it’s a real, live creative demonstration of how they create music, which provides them with the ability to alter and change their ideas as they groove throughout the night.
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“Half of what we do on stage, we’re making up for the room … We’re actually making music up on the spot, based off the vibe in the room. ... It’s way more work than DJing, but it’s so fun,” explains Keller. “But I think things are mellowing out, at least from what I’ve noticed. The yearning to be challenged and get things done differently and to hear new sounds and new ideas is great at the moment.”
In a full-circle, self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way, the underground creatives they admired turned them into underground creatives themselves, who aspire to inspire and ignite that excitement for dance music again. Their dedication to the underground turned them into mainstream creatives that may again influence a whole other set of underground creatives. Whoa.
“Yeah, it is fun, but it’s also artistically something that I think we feel we have to do,” says Keller. “Real art is made because you have to make it — right? You’re not making it because somebody told you to. We’ve been working away on this music and on this record for the past three years, and we did it without anyone paying attention to what we were doing. Because we enjoy it.”
MSTRKRFT is scheduled to play Livewire in Scottsdale on Sunday, September 4.