|The joy of techno: Mathew Jonson
The Canadian-born producer has been cooking up beats since 2001 under his own name. RA's Geeta Dayal travels to the Great White North to talk about why he almost became a gourmet chef, the synths behind his success and bagpipes.
As an analog maven in a digital world, it's no surprise that Mathew Jonson's work sounds like little else right now. His signature sound quickly made its way into the record bins (and hard drives) of Richie Hawtin and other top-flight DJs around the world. But there's much more to Jonson than his tools. Just as important are people (his parents' interest in all things music), life events (a lifeguarding gig that almost led to chef school) and places (his roots in the Vancouver drum & bass scene still play an important role in his listening habits).
RA's Geeta Dayal caught up with the producer last year in Vancouver to talk about his musical upbringing, what he'd rather be dancing to and why he finds analog synths easier to work with than computers.
When did you first get excited about music?
When I was quite young. Even before I can remember, from what my parents have told me. I come from quite a musical family: My dad plays lots of different instruments and my mom's really into music as well. I think it began with banging pots and pans and making noises with things in the house. I guess my parents just realized that what I was doing was all really rhythmic, so they asked me if I wanted to take marching band drumming lessons when I was 7. That's kind of when I started really getting into music on a level where I was reading sheet music and playing drums. So it started with that. It was actually a Scottish bagpipe band.
You were playing bagpipes?
No, I was playing snare drum—a marching snare drum. It was really cool though because it wasn't a band for kids; it was a band for adults, and I was the little kid—it was funny to have me around or whatever, but I ended up learning on a high level almost right away.
What did you study academically?
Academically, I went through regular high school, I was a jazz band student, classical band student, that kind of thing. I don't have anything beyond high school.
I did go to a recording engineering school in Vancouver for about three months, because I was on workman's compensation. Basically what happened was that I was a lifeguard and I had a guy die on me in the pool, and then I decided I didn't want to be a lifeguard anymore. The government, after trying to get me back into my job, which wasn't working, agreed to pay for schooling for me.
I wanted to go to school to become a gourmet chef. I knew I would be making money doing music, and that would be my main job, but I figured that if I was going to go to school I would learn something cool, that I would use everyday. But because I didn't have any experience doing that the government wouldn't approve it, they said I had to do something I had experience in. The only thing I had experience in, other than lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons, was music. So they sent me to a music school, but they wouldn't give me a budget to go to the best school in the world or whatever, so I went to this shitty school which was basically a complete waste of time.
I did learn some things just from asking more questions than anybody wanted me to, then I just dropped out because it was so stupid. Everything to do with music was getting drained out of me by going to school for it. I wasn't writing any music, I wasn't doing anything good in that way. All the government money was wasted. Maybe I would have been a great chef, maybe I would have been at a great restaurant. Who knows?
Your dad had a really extensive—
My dad has always been involved with technology, whether it be new computers or studio equipment or synthesizers or whatever. He really got into that. He was managing a Recreation Center, which also had a large theatre in it, so we were always going to concerts of different kinds of music and performances. I would watch from the sound booth, so he would show me all the technical stuff, the keyboards, mixing consoles, compressors. He's more of a musician in an acoustic sense than in a technological sense, but he's always been quite enthused about that kind of thing.
Like Richie Hawtin's dad.
Yeah, it's similar. Except Richie Hawtin's dad is way more technical, whereas mine's more acoustic. His dad is a robotics engineer. Anyway, nonetheless, when all the new home recordings, and synthesizers started coming out in the mid-'80s, we got one. I think it was partly just because my parents wanted to invest in classical piano lessons, but also it was because he wanted the new technology at his house. That's basically how I got into it, because I had access to that.
"I probably listen to more hip-hop, rap and drum & bass than [techno]."
Were you listening to modern classical music, experimental synthesizer music from the '50s and '60s?
I love all that stuff. [I] was probably listening to some of it on the CBC, but I still don't know the artists, I still don't know lots of the names of the groups, I just appreciate music on a wide range of scale. I remember having tapes I recorded off the radio when I was really young, like 9 or 10 years old. To this day, it's still some of the most experimental electronic music I've heard. And it was just stuff that was being played on the public radio station.
I was lucky through the CBC to have access to all that kind of music. It wasn't until really later until I started understanding who people like Kraftwerk were. When I was a teenager, though, all the music I was being influenced electronically was breakdance, electro, gangsta rap, that kind of stuff. Like Public Enemy, 2 Live Crew, NWA. The way I taught myself how to write electronic music was basically by taking those songs and remaking them on my synthesizers.
Are the other guys in Cobblestone Jazz into techno?
Mathew Jonson: Live in Los Angeles, 2008
Yeah, but that's not what they're always listening to, by any means. Danuel [Tate] probably listens to more jazz than anything else. He also listens to electronic stuff, he also likes to hear a lot of jazz-influenced music, stuff you'd hear Gilles Peterson play on his radio show. Tyger [Dhula] is the same way. I mean they listen to everything, but it's definitely more the acoustic or jazz thing, Latin, bossa nova, bebop. I still listen to more of that stuff than I do to techno. But I probably listen to more hip-hop, rap and drum & bass than anything.
How come you didn't end up being a drum & bass DJ?
That's how I started. When I first started DJing from 1995 to 1999 I was a drum & bass DJ, and I kind of lost interest because the music changed a lot. It kind of started getting a little bit cold. It is kind of the direction where minimal techno is turning right now, just kind of getting boring and lifeless. So I played that for a while, then I got into what I thought was minimal techno, the real minimal techno, the deep dubby techno that was coming out in the late '90s.
What sorts of stuff were you listening to?
Like Dimbiman, Minimal Man, even stuff from Ricardo back then, a lot of the Perlon guys, they were even doing stuff not even on Perlon at that point. It was different. Anyway that whole thing started a long time ago, and for me the music that was coming out then deserves the name "minimal techno" more than all this new stuff does. Now minimal techno seems like it's more a pop version of what that was back then.
Can you talk a little bit about how you construct your live sets?
It's all separated for the most part. There's the odd track I play where I don't have it separated, and it ends up being more like DJing. Like "Typerope," for instance: I don't have that separated, but I'll try to fuck it up or EQ it so that I can add new parts, I'll write a new bassline or something like that. But for the most part, 90% of my set, all the sounds are all separated, and they're all prerecorded. I'll have all my basslines on one channel, maybe some pads and melody parts and harmony parts, all spread out on the mixing board. Because they're all separated, I can kind of mix and match—it's kind of taking parts from all the different tracks and then mixing them all together. Almost like playing records, except I'm using all separate sounds. I'll just mix and match a little bit, and then I try to dub it all out with effects on the mixing board.
"I've been making a lot of stuff in the 6/8 time signature [lately]."
When you work by yourself, what's the process like?
My studio is pretty much a big collection of analog synths, old drum machines, a big mixing desk in the middle, a whole bunch of different effects processors, a couple of different sets of speakers, sound booth—I rarely use the computer aside from recording the mix at the end. And for the most part the mix is just a stereo two-track recording. Pretty much 95% of my records are mixed live, so all the mutes, all the arrangements and everything else is done improvised. It's actually similar to the way I would do it in a live setting; I have a bunch of things all separated and then just kind of mix it, which can lead to a lot of mistakes. Sometimes I have to redo the mix eight times because I screw up, [but] it has a little more of a human feel, and more of the natural flow to it.
When I start a track I usually just start with a sound. Sometimes it's something I hear in my head, or sometimes it's a whole track I hear in my head. It happens a lot when I'm walking around, or when I'm sitting in a cab; I'll start hearing stuff, sometimes it happens, I do my best to keep it in my head—to get home as fast as possible and then recreate it.
What do you think about the Ableton Live approach to making techno?
The artwork of Wagon Repair
Todd L. Burns talks to Frank Camping, the label's head designer
How did you get into doing art for music?
I've been drawing and sculpting to music since I was a little girl. But I've only been doing artwork specifically for album covers when Mathew (Jonson) and the boys started Wagon Repair. They wanted a specific look to the music—something someone could be flipping through a pile of records and recognize immediately as a Wagon Repair album. So, they hired me. The perks of being married to a label owner...ha!
How did you meet Mathew?
I met Mathew in 2001 at the Burning Man Festival. He was camped next to me. We decided after knowing each other for about five hours, we should probably be best friends. I relocated to Vancouver five months later and we got hitched.
Did you have formal art schooling?
I went to Long Beach State for Fine Arts actually and was a Ceramics major. I hated illustration and drawing while I was in school and, of course, that's what I've ended up doing for the label! I also studied silkscreening and painting.
Is art your full time job?
Art is not my full-time job. I am a hairdresser in Beverly Hills. I also work on set design, runway and photoshoots. I love being creative. It’s all I know how to do, really.
What's the process of designing a cover for Wagon Repair? Do they send you the music first and then you go to work? Or do they match up the pre-existing art to the release?
They send me the music, I get drunk or high and make art to it. Then I hope and pray that the producer of the track loves it. It's really their call. That's the idea behind the whole process: to give the producer the chance to complete their art through me. Once in a while people will have seen a piece I have done and claim it as their own for their next track, but mostly it's from scratch.
What other artists have influenced you?
To be honest, the artists that have influenced me the most have been my friends around me that are artists as well. In school, I had a crew of artists I hung around with and we were all taggers and had our own style but similar to each other in a lot of ways. We would bounce things off each other and draw over each others pieces. It was really cool.
Who are the two people on the cover of 7.19 FM David?
The two people are random pics that actually represent me as a little girl and, then, as a grown-up...except the older girl has way more style than me! That piece was actually made a really long time ago. It was a representation of me growing up Catholic and how hard my coming-of-age was for me. If you saw the original work, it's only like a 5x7 piece of work that is completely hand-stitched. It was very tedious. I worked on that piece for over 40 hours. Mat saw it and wanted it for a cover, so that was one he picked out before there was even music for it.
I just recently got a faster computer and have Ableton Live, and played around with using the samplers in Ableton and this kind of thing, and the sequencers as well. I like it, but I wouldn't want to have to do my whole track in a computer.
I do see it being valuable for some things. We [Cobblestone Jazz] do use Ableton, for some basic percussion. It's definitely a good tool. But to do it all in Ableton and all on the computer, I would have a hard time with it. On the other hand, playing drum & bass, all of it would be on the computer. I would much rather use a computer to make drum & bass or breaks than use [hardware].
Why do you use analog synths? They seem like a real pain to work with…
When I make a piece of music I want a very specific sound, and that sound has to be very easily tuned to the rest of the track. All the frequencies, all the harmonics…[it] has to be exactly where I want it. I know synthesis inside out, so I can look at a synthesizer and create whatever sound I want. It tends—when I'm using digital synths, newer synths or even ones on the computer—what seems to happen a lot, is you go through preprogrammed patches someone else wrote and it's not necessarily what you want. It's like rifling through drum breaks.
With analog synths, you take it from the oscillator, that square wave, and you put it through a bunch of filters and envelopes and change it into whatever you want. If you know what makes up a sound, then you can basically make whatever you want from analog synthesis. That was the whole idea when the big modular synths were being made; it was all about harmonics…harmonics to mimic those instruments.
What synths do you use?
System 100M, SH-101, JX-3P. I have a digital one, which is a Nord Lead 3. And I also use some Yamaha synthesizers which are really cool, older ones. I use a bunch of stuff. For me, it's ten times easier to use analog synths than using digital ones…if you talk to someone who doesn't understand the way a synth works, they would rather use patches and maybe do some things with it, but they don't actually know how that sound is created.
You do have a signature sound. I can listen to a track and say "that's Mathew Jonson."
A lot of it is just using the same synthesizers. My sound is because of the gear I use. I could play you tracks which I've written where you wouldn't say that's Mathew Jonson because I used a computer and it's drum & bass or hip-hop. I tend to use effects and synthesizers in a pretty similar way. For a long time I didn't have a lot of synths, so a lot of those older It Is What It Is records were made with the same two synths—the SH-101 and the JX-3P. The JX-3P is the high part and the SH-101 is the bassline.
I have a bunch of tracks that are not dance music at all, almost like a mix between drum & bass and I don't even know. I've been making a lot of stuff in the 6/8 time signature now, which is generally not what's played in a lot of the clubs, but it's the basis for a lot of traditional African rhythms, Polynesian rhythms, Latin rhythms.
What do you like to dance to, if you were just out having fun?
I like dancing to drum & bass. [laughs] I like dancing to techno sometimes, deep house is fun to dance to, Theo Parrish, Moodymann, all that kind of stuff…but generally if you stick me in a minimal party, or a techno party, I definitely won't be automatically dancing. If you stick me in a hip-hop club or a drum & bass club, it's pretty hard for me not to dance.
Published / Friday, 26 September 2008
Photo credits / Header photo: Lars Borges
Live photo: Christopher Soltis