How the M Machine went from playing guitars and pianos to pushing dance music's boundaries

How the M Machine went from playing guitars and pianos to pushing dance music's boundaries
Justin Nizer

Bands like San Francisco-based M Machine are helping American dance music grow and spread its reach into every genre. What started out as three friends working in a parallel field -- audio tracking for video games -- snowballed into a full-on band, complete with as-it-happens video production and live vocals. It's not the dance music you're hearing at the major festivals, but it is helping to expand the bubble of EDM outside of the clubs and into the venues around the country. We spoke with Ben Swardlick about how the group came together, how they got on with Skrillex's OWSLA label, and what they hope to achieve in 2014.

Westword:So you're out in San Francisco right now. Is that home base?

Ben Swardlick: We have a warehouse right on the bay. We live and work in a warehouse studio in downtown San Francisco.

How does that work living and working together? Do you ever want to take a break from spending so much time together?

We live in a big space and we do a lot of work individually, as well. We've been living and working together for a long time, and when we need our space, we take it and do our solo work as often as we need to. It works out really nicely for us. It takes practice. Andy and Eric are pretty ideal as far as work habits go. We grind out as many hours as we can, and there isn't a lack of effort anywhere.

Do you guys have any solo projects outside of the M Machine?

We have our hobbies and stuff, but musically, no.

How did you come together as a group?

We did all grow up as the singer-songwriting type. Between us, there was a lot of grass and guitar and piano playing, but as far as working together, Eric and I went to college together and right at the end of our senior year we were getting more serious about music production. We moved out to SF with a half-plan to get involved with sound tracking video games. We met Andy in the city around 2008-2009, and he was interested in getting involved with the same stuff. We all started writing tracks together. At the time, doing game audio was sort of the thing we told our parents while we were working on our rock star music career plan.

I was first introduced to the M Machine on the Porter Robinson tour back in 2012. How did you get on that tour?

We had mutual friends from Chapel Hill (Porter Robinson is from Chapel Hill, North Carolina) and we met him from people, but that's not how we got on the tour. That was just old fashioned, organic internet connections. We were called Pants Party back then, and we heard Porter's first single "Say My Name," which may not have been his first one, but it was his breakout track, and we looked him up. He had listed us as an influence, and we got in touch. Within a couple months, we had the same management, and he came out to SF a couple times, and we just clicked. He has a really similar attitude towards music production as we do. It's quality and effort and tempered slow. We share an opinion on the fast ADD stuff that isn't fueling the festival circuit. That's not an exciting form of music for us.

Why do you think that way about music?

It's hard to say where you tendencies are, and where you end up being stubborn, but I think it's like anything. We were talking yesterday about how you present a song, and how sometimes the context you want to show off to an audience may not be what you think. I would be most excited if there was a maximal musical thought, and it was detailed and intricate, and then sometimes you flip it around from the listeners perspective, the simplicity is what you want. It's funny. I don't know how we've gone down the wormhole that we have, but when we started writing dance music five or six years ago, everything was about intricate detail in your music. Now, guys like Porter, us, and people like Madeon are rejecting this intricate patchwork fabric of intricate sounds. It's nice to go the classic, timeless sounds route. Porter is a good person to bring up because he's really ready to show off what I'm talking about.

Are you still traveling with the same production stage?

It has changed so much. Back in 2012 we were touring with that massive "M" that Andy built. He's a jack of all trades. He wanted to add a visual performance for his role while on stage. He took six months and designed and built this LED driven "M." That thing was great. We used it for a long time. Now it's sitting in our warehouse. After that, Andy realized he kind of maxed out his creativity with that - it was only a 36 pixel video tile. He ran through all the patterns with that, and decided that he wanted to switch over to a digital version. Now we play with an LED screen, or projector situation. He does it all with video now. We come out heavy, and the video corresponds a lot better with our show. What we do is keep it all in the context of the 3D version of the M. We work with a guy named Scott Pagano (Skrillex, Zedd) and he helped us create some live content for the show. That's turned into a real expressive part of the show.  

It's crazy how earlier in your career the music was more complex and detail oriented with a simple visual production, and it has shifted to a simpler, more timeless sound with more intricate attention paid to the visual show. Do you see that indirect relation?

One thing people don't think about too much is sort of what you are allowed to do. We had no reason to use a visual because we were sitting in the opening spot for Porter Robinson two years ago, and we couldn't use his lights. For us, it was getting the most out of a live show that we could. Now things have changed. We do most of our shows as a headlining act, and we have more control when we play.

What's it like going from being at the opening slot to now controlling the headlining aspects: the lights, the sound, and the visuals? Are you as involved now as much as you were when you were packing up your gear after each set, taking down the lights, and preparing for the direct supporting act?

Everything we do now is just as engaging as it was then. If it has to do with how we perform, we want to be as involved as possible. It makes sense. We are in that middle ground where we play 500 to 1,000 capacity rooms that have projections or LED screens. About fifty percent of those dates are in big rooms with big productions, and then the week day shows are smaller, club-like venues, so we are split right in the middle of being a support act and a headlining act. Now, as we climb out of the support role, it's interesting as we grow. It's an accolade that comes, and maybe you have the same experience as a writer, but it comes when you feel like you already deserve it. It sounds hubris. You work your ass off, and try and try, and then it comes. It's exactly what you've been working for. It's a mixed emotion, but we are endlessly hungry for more.

For some reason, that feeling is never what I think it will be. I am never able to sit back and say "I'm done" and "I did it." Do you feel that?

Yes! That glossy, shimmery finish fades away and you look to the people who doing bigger things and essentially doing what I want to do, you realize they aren't lucky. They aren't living in some dream world. They are just a couple steps ahead. As you step into that world, you realize the Hollywood glimmer just fades away.

It's not like all these people were just handed success in some glossy box.

Exactly. That can be disappointing. You imagine you will hit this threshold where everything is gravy, but it's also freeing realizing how much control you have. We can sit down in the studio and write exactly the music we want to write, and we are getting ready to put out an album, so it's a nice time to be the M Machine.

Being on OWSLA, do you feel any pressures to create a certain kind of music?

No not at all. We've never once gotten a piece of feedback when we've turned in music where they didn't like it. I think that it's almost to distinguish between OWSLA and the major labels. It's very indie. It's very loyal. Everyone on that label is a good friend, and Skrillex is very hands-on. He's one of those guys where the trust is there. We played a song for him years ago - it was young - and he heard it, and he's smart, and he knows when people have musical legs. It didn't ever feel like we didn't understand each other. We felt the same way about him. If we flipped positions, we would've signed him in a heartbeat. It's cool that the label runs that way. There isn't going to be a need for creative curating. OWSLA is very happy place to release music for us.

As the M Machine and having the relationship you all have, do you all ever sit back and take a step outside of yourselves and appreciate what you've done?

We try to verbalize that as much as possible. It's easy to get caught in the feedback loop of wanting more, and going after more. We try to feel gratified, but that's really just occasionally. In the grand scheme of things, there's a two-faced thing going on. On one hand, you have the energy you put in, and then there is the landscape of what is going on. In American dance music, it's a big change. Suddenly there is this big market for it. We saw the writing on the wall early on and got into, and now we are moving into something more classic and timeless. We are trying to remain optimistic to continue working hard and crossing over into another market. On top of that, you want to stay sane and keep your brain from going off the deep end.

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