Published Jul 25, 2016It's been seven years since MSTRKRFT duo Jesse. F. Keeler and Al-P released their sophomore album Fist of God, and a lot has happened in the interim. Aside from Keeler reforming his other band Death From Above 1979 to release The Physical World, to much praise, both members' families got bigger with the birth of their children. Perhaps fatherhood had a divine influence, or maybe their tastes simply evolved over the years, but Operator boasts a very different flavour than its predecessor.
It's dark, for one, and a lot more mature. The catchy loops of their formative years are still there, but what's lingering amidst the circuitry is now much more sinister. What was once a radio-friendly smattering of EDM and hip-hop has been churned into DIY techno-punk more likely to be emanating from a dusty basement than a car stereo. The album's collaborators too are quite telling: where once was John Legend, Lil' Mo and Ghostface Killah are now Sonny Kay, Ian Svenonius and Converge scream demon Jacob Bannon.
On Operator, these guest vocalists were given carte-blanche with regards to creativity. "We didn't give the vocalists any direction, they just went for it," Keeler tells Exclaim! It didn't even stop there either: the freedom of flow seeped into another part of the band, one that could even be considered their third member, the machines.
"There's a reason we called it Operator," Keeler explains. "Myself and Al are really just the operators. The machines are, in a sense, making the music and we're just driving them. There's all kinds of stuff on the record where I only have the vaguest idea how we ended up at that point."
A lot of this spectator musicianship, and the overall meandering sound that Operator plays host to, comes down to a slight shift in equipment. Though this latest record is far less reliant on computers than their previous material, MSTRKRFT have always used analogue gear, but this is the first time they've incorporated a modular synth into the mix. This piece of gear is well-known for having a mind of its own, but the modular's influence on Operator is spookily independent at times.
"The fifth song on the record is called 'Playing with Itself' and most of that track was recorded while Al and I were out of the room," says Keeler. "We were actually outside in the sun, enjoying some beer and a cigarette, and we came back in and listened to what had been recorded. It was funny because, when we walked back into the room, we tried to insert ourselves into the mix, thinking 'Oh, ya we could make this better,' and we started messing around with it and very quickly it just fell apart. So, what ended up being on the record is about 90 percent just what the machines did on their own, while we were out of the room."
Taking this into account, it's easy to see how the band ended up with hundreds of hours worth of material. As the computer kept recording everything that the machines pumped out — MSTRKRFT at the helm or no — the track times started to resemble prog-rock marathons.
"Pretty much every song on the record started off being about 20 minutes long," says Al-P. "I mean, it's not like it's hundreds of hours of three-minute pop songs. The amount of material we recorded was mountainous. I think in lot of ways that this album is a masterpiece of editing and assembly, because it takes a lot of effort to find the right moment and then to know how much of the raw material to put around it. So, just kind of allowing certain amounts of raw material to make it to the final cut was a challenge for us, but rewarding, because after the assembly was completed you can sort of sit back and hear a part evolve and crystallize and then that's the song."
Whether it's because of the machine's influence or perhaps pouring over hours of audio remains to be seen, but MSTRKRFT seem to have to have found their sound here, and it's not built on a grandiose concept, but more on creativity through limitations.
"If anything, conceptually on this record, it's about 'Let's make a record with these pieces of equipment and that's it,'" says Keeler. "Let the machines do what they do and sound how they sound. I hope people like this record because there'll be more of this kind of stuff to come. I'll happily make much more music like this. I dunno if it just took us this long to be comfortable enough to make this kind of record. You know, you date one or two women before settling down, so I can't see why that wouldn't apply to other situations."
Operator is out now on Last Gang.