Beloved Toronto-based electronic duo MSTRKRFT returned in 2016 after a seven year absence. By no means an easy feat, their third record, OPERATOR, came out in late July, and the pair – Jesse F Keeler and Al-P (Alex Puodziukas) are currently on tour around the world, playing fully live shows for the first time in their career. Having been busy with side projects, most notably including Death From Above 1979, it’s clear that the pair have been really enjoying getting back to the MSTRKRFT sound, which expanded and intensified on OPERATOR and their subsequent tour.
MSTRKRFT visited Australia across the New Years festival period and we were lucky to kick off 2017 with them at Field Day in Sydney, for a super quick chat about challenging themselves, touring with a live show after more than a decade of DJing, and finding the balance between too much and just enough.
You’re touring live for the first time ever, how is it going so far?
Jesse: It’s very rewarding for us. It’s a tonne of work, but when it’s happening it’s really fun. It’s interesting, we always wanted to play live, and we finally figured out how to do it, but then it becomes too big. If we have a setup that’s 8 feet wide and takes two hours to put together, there’s a lot of clubs we love to play that we can’t. In those circumstances we’re still DJing, so it couldn’t be totally live, unless we just wanted to voluntarily cut ourselves off from so much. So we’ve been going back and forth. However, after playing live for a year, I think we’re going to go back to DJing. Or, we can do both.
Why is that?
J: It’s tough when you get booked to do live things, there’s a tonne of shit. Two cases are full of cables – just cables! *laughs*
Al-P: I think also for us, we consider our point to have been proven. We’ve played quite a bit with the live setup, and we feel like we’ve seen it through.
J: It’s the end of the year for us, so we’re right at that moment when we’re looking forward. We already have bookings off until February, you kind of always have to be thinking ahead. We’ve been doing this for eleven years now – actually it’s twelve now. I can’t believe it’s been twelve years between 2005 and now. Well, it’s only been 2017 in our home country for about an hour and a half!
With that in mind, do you consider the live show as a way to challenge yourself and learn or experience something new after those twelve years?
A: Yeah, we couldn’t have come back and done the same thing. For us it was self-satisfying. For so many years people had begged us to play live, but our definition of live was much more extensive.
J: Our definition of live is that there has to be room for musical errors, not just technical errors. It’s completely different every day. That has positive and negative aspects to obviously, the main one from an artistic standpoint is really that we’re doing so much work on the stage that we don’t have a sense of how things went until we listen to a recording afterwards. We’re so in the moment doing all this work – when you’re DJing we have four things happening and we’re putting together those four things, thinking about that. But the content exists already. Now we’re taking twelve things and making the content and then putting it together, and also thinking about what we’re going to create next, constantly, thinking, ‘okay I’m doing this right now, where am I gonna go next?’ So all that sort of makes it so that you’re so wrapped up in it that you don’t get to – I don’t wanna say you don’t get to enjoy it, because there are moment where it’s really awesome – but you don’t get to have a sense of how it really feels.
A: One word we’ve been using a lot when we come off stage and assess it all is ‘perception’. Our perception of what’s happening when we’re up on stage, because the time flies by. An hour will go by and it’ll feel like ten minutes. Yesterday [at Beyond The Valley], half an hour felt like five minutes. It’s a lot of work to be up there and I think that disconnects us from the party aspect, in a sense. But it’s really fun when we’re doing something and it starts to come together, and it fully crystallises, and we can get a sense of that.
J: Coming back to your question, yeah, it’s absolutely us trying to challenge ourselves. We had to see if we could do it – we thought about it for so long, fuckin’ years and years and years. It’s just like Al said, everyone kept telling us, ‘It’d be great it you guys could play live.’ We could, but it’d be different.
A: Also back then there was no time. It took us a fair bit of time just to figure out how we were gonna do it, put it all together and get comfortable with it. The setup we’re using now, we’re used to it. Back then, there was no time. We were constantly producing or on tour DJing, it would have been impossible to make that transition. Our time away served us in that way as well.
You’ve spoken about the distinction between “intensity” and “too much” on an album. While was coming together, how did you find that divide?
J: What happened was, we made so much more music than just what’s on the record, a hundred times more, really, about a hundred times more, and the whole record is the result of improvisation from that. We had so much stuff, at one point our list of things we were going to pursue was at 56 or something songs. We kept narrowing it down, but part of how we narrow things down – and actually there’s at least one thing I wouldn’t mind going back to look at. To use that as an example, it had the same energy as another song we wanted to put on the record, so which one do we use? We didn’t wanna have repetition of a feeling. It’s an album, so you wanna be able to listen to it and not be assaulted by it. Even a great metal record, there’s always movement to it. As much as I kinda like that sometimes!