If you’re expectations for EDM music aren’t high already, it’s time to raise the bar as San Francisco trio The M Machine takes the stage at the Bluebird Theater on March 13th. Besides being a group that sings live and has released a duet of concept albums based off of the 1927 film Metropolis last year, the M Machine’s Andy Coenen brings a reinvented visual experience that will take you through imagined cityscapes all the way down to the depths of the sea.
303 Magazine had a chance to catch up with Ben “Swardy” Swardlick via Skype to talk about the inspiration behind their reinvention, standing out and what to expect this Thursday.
303: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you start playing as The M Machine?
We had an old project together and its been the same three guys since ‘09, so we’ve definitely been writing music together for quite awhile. But The M Machine itself, which is the second incarnation of a band with the three of us, is only a couple of years old.
303: Why the reinvention and new name?
I could talk a little bit about the direction of Pance Party, but honestly we were just young and learning. There was a lot of music that we’d written and released as Pance Party that we didn’t necessarily relate to as much anymore. I think the best way to understand it is that was just sort of us practicing, and then once we figured out what our strong points were as songwriters and producers we got more serious and started thinking about branding and having a cohesive image and having cohesive music. I think writing stuff that was a little bit more serious with sort of a cinematic vibe to it and all that, fit better under The M Machine moniker. Especially with the influences that were cutting through us at the time. The stuff that was inspiring us.
303: How did you come up with the new name, The M Machine?
Right around when we were making that name change, we had also started getting caught up in an old sci-fi film called Metropolis. That’s Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterwork. He did a movie that influenced a lot of movies in a lot of different genres, but specifically had a huge impact on the imagery of modern sci-fi. That movie inspired us back then and it still does now. We sort of dedicated both of our EP’s to it. In the beginning of that movie there’s a scene where this big machine, which is often referred to as The M Machine, explodes and sets off the plot of one of the early points of drama in the movie.
The original idea was to release it as one whole album. So, part two, we sort of approached originally as part of the full length album. But, honestly what kind of binds them now, even more than the music, is the story we wrote to coincide with them. So, if you go to the website you can basically read a short story where each chapter corresponds to a song for all the music in Part One and Part Two. That really was a concept album, even as far as a very specific plot line and character archetypes. It’s interesting to think of it because originally we had this album and we intended to release it all as one and by the time we decided to split it up into two parts we were also writing a hilarious amount of new music. So, that original Metropolis album definitely didn’t come out in it’s first form. Instead, what we decided was to adapt this distilled attitude of that whole album in Part One and wrote a lot of new music for Part Two.
303: How do you take a storyline and translate it into your music?
I guess it really works in both directions. It’s not always like we write down a story and then sort of score it like a movie. It goes both ways. This all would have been created just sitting around Starbucks drinking coffee or whatever, that’s the sort of the place where most of these concepts come from — sort of geeking out on what you think of, what you see, when you listen to a specific song.
So then you start to fill in the gaps. If you have more music to write you can tailor it to piece two. You just kind of listen to it and think about it, and it evokes images and pop points. So, then, we took all those notes and worked with a couple of really cool writers and they helped us flush it out into a cohesive story.
303: Some of you guys have a background in music scoring for video games, right?
Well, that was our original plan when we all moved to San Francisco. So, all three of us came here after college, with the exception of Andy, who had a one year stint at a neuroscience lab. That was kind of the direction he was headed before he decided to have a go at music. But, we all ended up hanging out in San Francisco. If I’m being honest, then the best way to describe that, is it was our back up plan. That is sort of funny to think now knowing what we know about how competitive that industry is.
It’s what you tell your parents when they’re wondering why you ran off to
San Francisco to write techno music.
In the meantime, we all hoped and wanted to have a music career. You kind of need that more serious sounding back up plan. The “professional” alternative.
303: Well you guys sound great, I think it’s safe to say you are professionals. How did you land where you are now?
I hope. And I hope that comes out more in the music we’ve been writing over the past six months to a year. We’re working on an album now and I hope that comes out more. I think our association with electronic music was due to a couple of things. One reason just being timing. Obviously, that was pretty exciting in America over the last few years. And it also makes a lot of sense because we’d been computer people forever, so it made a lot of sense that eventually our instruments would be a computer as well. But, we are sort of sitting back into more singer/songwriter types, which is how we all started. We all play piano and guitar and are singers. I think that that’s the sentiment that you’re talking about it. Not just coming out of nowhere as a DJ, but having a solid base in music theory. That kind of thing will come out even more on the next album.
303: Are there any artists that specifically influenced you while the creation of The M Machine was happening?
Right around then, we were really, really impressed by Nero. Nero was doing a lot of things that inspired us right around that time when we switched. First of all, they’re a group that writes albums. For us that was mandatory. We never really could get behind the small EP/single release plan, and we’d definitely done it. But, it just plays right into this fast music – ADD – almost disposable tunes that isn’t really us. And Nero gets that too. They also have great imagery and they wrote a cohesive album that clearly had a story and a hammered out, cohesive image. So, that was exciting. Then, musically, right around that time, was also when we started to give into some of our old favorites. We listened to a lot of non-dance music. I’d say more than we listen to this new electronic music — certainly at this point.
I think a really important distinction for us is that we’re not really trying to isolate a difference between a modern producer and somebody who wrote pop music in the ’80s. This is all synthesized interface music. Sampled drums, most of it done with computers and synthesizers. For us, we’d like to see a lot of what’s going on right now, especially as pop music embraces all of this electronic production, as a continuation of what was going on then, as opposed to dance music or EDM or DJs being how we’re associated or apart of our progress.
Totally. We all have different ideas. I can speak for myself, but I imagine Eric and Andy would have their own dream circumstances. Maybe I can take a stab for them. Eric is our resident ’80s expert and he is sort of on a new wormhole every couple of weeks in terms of some classic, awesome ’80s artist. I think somebody epic like Bryan Ferry or Howard Jones or maybe even Depeche Mode, something legendary like that would definitely get him excited. We’ve all been pretty impressed with Arcade Fire recently, certainly that would be an amazing collaboration. Can’t say enough about David Bowie’s ability to stay relevant. In the electronic world we definitely get really excited about Mat Zo. Porter Robinson’s new music is really great and his new album is going to be very exciting and very popular. It’s very clear that people are ready. I don’t like classifying it as an anti-EDM attitude, but people are starting to demand a little more effort and little more musicality across dance music genres and beyond. I think that’s probably the guys that are making us most excited in that world.
303: A lot of times you guys are tagged as “Indie-EDM,” how did you come up with that, and is that what separates you from the massive pool of electronic artists that are popular today?
It’s definitely a challenge to try and apply genres to anything these days, but certainly there is something fundamentally different about some of the music we’ve put out this far, and all of the music we intend to put out in the future. You’ll notice that on those EPs that you brought up earlier, Metropolis Part I and Part II, it tends to be sort of 50/50. You’ve got progressive club-ready music that sounds familiar to what you would see on a Beatport chart or music that you would hear at a festival, where there’s a lot of electronic acts playing. But, the other half of it tends to be the vocal stuff, the songs.
Where it’s just something we imagine people listening to on headphones or walking to class or going to work. Moving forward, a lot of our music is going to occupy that space, as opposed to that club-oriented stuff. I think regardless of whatever genre or title people try and apply to us, that’s sort of the main difference. We do our own vocals, right? We sing. We like to approach electronic music from a more classic song structure as opposed to DJ ready material.
303: What’s happening on stage during a life set?
So, there’s three of us, me [Swardy], Eric and Andy. Eric is basically mixing a couple things. He mixes tracks and vocals and live elements, and I mean that in the traditional sense, just like a traditional DJ would or somebody working a sound board. I stand to the left of him and I run percussion samples and live lead synths. Andy is on his other side and he is actually controlling the video on stage. He produces our video show in an interesting way. He wrote some software for sequencing different types of media and we get that content from a couple ways. One is from him. Purchasable content and then commissioned content from artists that we like to work with. Usually, it’s been either music video or teaser video content. Lastly, we all sing. We all have a mic up there and we all contribute vocals at different points throughout the night.
303: Is there a specific aesthetic thread behind the visuals with a connecting concept to the music or is it just art that you all like?
There is basically a theme with less of a specific storyline as compared to our album. For starters, the imagery you see on screen is something we decided correlates to the music and feels right. But, it’s not always a storyline like say the way a song of ours like “Tiny Anthem” would be. So, when you go see us, Andy will do a live remix of the music video for “Tiny Anthem,” so you’ll see a little bit of a storyline come out but for anything else, for any other song, like “Deep Search.” That’s a song that we had a written storyline for, but when we perform it live we kind of just draw on the imagery that inspired the song in the first place. For a quick example, that song has always been about this underwater submarine, and so for the imagery during the show, Andy is usually splicing up clips of crazy deep sea creatures and deep sea divers and that sort of thing.
303: What can people expect to see on Thursday at the Bluebird?
I think something that’s worth mentioning because it’s a question that comes up a lot is, where our physical M has gone. We used to tour around with an actual stage piece, a big center piece, and that was something that Andy built. It was an M — you know an LED driven light up instrument thing. He would perform that on stage. So, I’d like to put in a little piece about his video show only because that has, for him, been sort of the digital representation of that. So, you’ll see the M in it’s digital form. What’s fun about that is it kind of connects all of those different pieces of imagery, like we were talking about. So, you’re gonna start the show and you’re going to go flying face first into the M and into your first world, right? And then, we start to transition throughout the show and we pull out of it again — zoom out a little bit on the cityscape that was built for our original teaser videos. And then as you move into a new attitude, we kind of fly back into the M. Then, you get all your new imagery and new content for whatever piece of the show is coming up next.
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Written by Erica Lindberg of 303 Magazine.