Indie dance duo MSTRKRFT first worked their way into our playlists when single “Easy Love” broke back in 2006, then cemented their place in our indie-electro vernacular when “Heartbreaker” (done with John Legend on vocals) stampeded into everyone’s DJ sets in 2009. It’s been quite the hiatus since their last full album, Fist of God, but now they are back with Operator, due out on July 22 via Last Gang Records.
Truth be told, Jesse F. Keeler (aka JFK) and Al-P began work on Operator back in 2013 at their Toronto studio. It’s a testament to years of a carefully curated arsenal of hardware and synths, a journey that saw them not only try to accurately represent where they were sonically, but figure out how to replicate it during a live performance. The result was a mad scientist’s lab of equipment, with a spaghetti-like sea of cables connecting stacks of 808s, 909s, and other apparatus (seen dynamically at work in the video for “Party Line”). “A big part of the sound is the curation of equipment,” says Al-P. “There’s no trickery—what you hear is what you get and we’re not manipulating anything afterwards. We set limits for ourselves sonically and stylistically as far as the palette goes.”
As an album, Operator is jarringly different from MSTRKRFT’s other releases. It’s dark, industrial, and post-punk with elements of electro mixed in, lending a dystopian feel to a very raw soundscape. There’s no replica of “Heartbreaker” here, but plenty of distortion and hypnotic, grinding synth loops. Now, debuting the militant and Orwellian video for “Priceless” from Operator, we caught up with JFK to talk about censorship, nerding out, and their personal punk recommendations.
Why did it take so long for Operator to come together?
JFK: After touring Fist of God for about two years, we wanted to take a break and think about how we wanted to work going forward. I guess we could have just kept doing what we were doing at the time, but it wasn’t satisfying us musically. We decided we wanted to be able to play fully live, and that meant whatever we did in the studio needed to be on gear we could travel with. We spent a while curating that and doing tests to be sure that this was what we wanted to do. After we got all that figured out, then we would rehearse like a band… and record while we did. That’s actually how this record came together.
This record sounds harsh and more industrial than your previous work... why is that?
JFK: It wasn’t a decision we made, in terms of sound or style. The only real change was making a decision to not censor our ideas or worry about what the end results would be. We just wanted to make things that we connected to emotionally. Not to say the previous work wasn’t reflective of where our heads were at the time, but back then, I don’t think we would have let things get this heavy or noisy.
The new live setup looks overwhelming with all of the gear and cables! What was the thought process behind it?
JFK: A lot of the cables are processing related. People in a club are used to DJs playing mastered audio, so we knew we needed to have everything to achieve that onstage with us. The fun stuff is all the drum machines, mixer, and our two modular setups. Working with the Eurorack [modular] format means the instruments get to evolve over time, and it really satisfies the gear nerd part of our brains.
In many ways, Operator sounds more organic than a lot of music that is made on computers. Why do you think that is?
JFK: Probably because it’s all essentially live recordings, just without an audience. The songs all started off being 20 minutes or longer, so we edited them down to fit on the album, but most of the experimentation that led to the different moments that became songs is on there. Sometimes it’s very apparent, like on the song called “Death in the Gulf Stream.” That’s pretty much unedited. I’m not sure how that could happen naturally with a computer.
You’ve said this album meant to be totally, and completely you... would you say that “old” MSTRKRFT pandered to what was popular?
JFK: Not at all [laughs]. What we mean is that previously our records had a concept that we worked toward or drew inspiration from. This time, the only idea was that we would do whatever we wanted. With Fist of God, we did think that the concept was where dance music was headed, because certainly when we made the record that wasn’t what was happening. I remember showing DJ AM “Heartbreaker,” and he was so confused as to why we would make a song like that [laughs].
This sounds so entirely different from everything going on in dance music right now. Was that intentional?
JFK: It’s a nice thing to hear, but no it wasn’t intentional. The only reactionary part of what we are doing now is really playing live. The concept of a live show in dance music as something where happy errors or improvisation weren’t possible was very unappealing to us.
What do you think of the current trends in dance music? Do you have a guilty pleasure song?
JFK: I think there’s great stuff happening in dance music, and there always will be, it just takes a bit more work to find. I love when I hear a track and learn that it almost doesn’t exist online. My guilty pleasure song is this one song my kid loves called “Best Friends” by Sophia Grace.
There is definite emotion to Operator. Would you agree? What kind of emotions does it bring up for you?
JFK: Yes, although I don’t know if we can ever listen to it the same way someone else can. It’s hard to hear it without also thinking about all the micro decisions that were made through the process. The record is a reflection of where our heads were at while we made it. There’s a bleakness to it at times that I find sort of comforting. Sometimes I listen to it and think, “There isn’t really one happy moment on the whole album” [laughs].
What punk bands would you recommend people check out?
JFK: Definitely the bands of the guys who did vocals on the album… The VSS, Nation of Ulysses, and Converge. Some others that we love are Arab On Radar, Crom-Tech, Crossed Out, Daughters… I could list many! Oddly, I just noticed that list is alphabetical. Not on purpose!