Q&A with Jesse F. Keeler and Alex "Al-P" Puodziukas of MSTRKRFT
Photo by Geoff McLean
What began as a simple phone interview with Jesse F. Keeler for this week's profile of the dance duo MSTRKRFT turned into something considerably stranger, and more amusing. Yes, Keeler talked at length -- but when he had to use the primitive toilet in the group's new Toronto studio, he handed the phone to his MSTRKRFT partner, Alex "Al-P" Puodziukas, who contributed some interesting anecdotes of his own. Then Keeler came back on the line, narrating as the pair strolled from their home base to a nearby club, where they were scheduled to plan their set for an upcoming tour that brings them to the Ogden Theatre on March 14.
Click "Continue" to take the walk with them.
Keeler begins by sharing some background about his upbringing, his early love of Rick James, his family's musical proclivities and his discovery that deejaying fit him more naturally than did actually playing an instrument in a band. Shortly thereafter, the conversation shifts to the studio's toilet, and after some jokes about water sports (or something close to that), Keeler departs, and Puodziukas takes over in time to talk about his first remix project with the person who'd become his musical comrade -- one that was never released due to Al-P's use of uncleared micro-samples. A few more stories later, Keeler returns to discuss MSTRKRFT's first remix projects; the flowering of its reputation; a misbegotten Britney Spears job; and dish about Fist of God, a new long-player that features guest spots by the like of N.O.R.E. and Ghostface Killah -- much of which takes place as he and Puodziukas try to figure out which door will allow them admittance to the club.
In the end, they find the right entrance. Don't you just love a happy ending?
Westword (Michael Roberts): What part of Canada are you originally from?
Jesse F. Keeler: I'm from Toronto, which is a little city of seven million people.
WW: What's the first music you remember making an impression on you as a kid?
JFK: My first favorite record was "You & I," by Rick James [from the 1978 album Come Get It!].
WW: How old were you when you got into it?
JFK: I think it was probably about...1979? [He would have only been two or three at the time; he was born on November 11, 1976.] I was like, "I need this record. You need to get it for me." And they did.
WW: It was a very danceable record, as I recall.
JFK: It's what I've always been into, apparently (laughs).
WW: When did you start making music of your own, as opposed to only listening to it?
JFK: I started playing drums when I was about three years old. Everybody in my family played an instrument, so the goal was to find something that no one else played.
WW: Did you have a house band?
JFK: That would've been cool. My dad always said he wanted one. But, no. My sister and I used to play around sometimes, but that's about it.
WW: And then you moved on from drums to stringed instruments?
JFK: I guess so - and it was pretty fun (laughs). My dad played guitar, so I didn't want to.
WW: And that led to the bass?
JFK: Yeah, but after many years. I never thought of myself as a bass player when I was playing bass - although I was actually playing bass the other day and I was like, "Man, I'm still pretty fucking good at this" (laughs).
WW: Did you play in bands when you were in high school?
JFK: When I went to high school, I went to a school where rap and dancehall were the main kinds of music. Nobody really listened to rock music -- myself included, really. My early understanding of music is totally different from what it is now. I never thought of making music myself, at all. I always thought about music as something I listened to and something I enjoyed making -- but I didn't think about making music for other people to listen to.
WW: So you did home recordings just for fun?
JFK: Yeah. It was something I enjoyed doing - make up little songs for myself, stuff like that. But I never thought of having a band or anything.
WW: Did you share the songs? Or were they like the diary with the lock and key?
JFK: I kept them to myself, yeah. I didn't think about music as something I did for other people. And that never really changed (laughs).
WW: Is that one of the reasons your music is good? Because you make it for yourself first?
JFK: Yeah. I'm really against the idea of making music with the express goal of it being liked. People can do whatever works best for them. But for me, what works best is to do what I like. Because no matter what the outcome, I'm happy. And ultimately, it's something I'll do for myself whether or not anyone's listening. In fact, it was something I did for myself whether or not anyone was listening. And then at some point, someone started listening - and then everyone started listening, I guess.
WW: At what point did you venture into deejaying?
JFK: Deejaying was sort of a more natural thing than being in bands. I remember at one point this guy said to me, "Don't you play guitar?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Why don't we, like, jam?" And I was terrified. I was like, "Fuck, I don't want to do that" -- but I thought I should try it. So he brings a bunch of people I'd never met over to my house. I don't know why it was at my house.... Anyway, I played with all these guys, and as time progressed, the six guys ended up being three guys, and then it was me writing all the fucking songs. I was like, "I've never written songs." And I was teaching the other guys how to play while we were doing it, which was really hard. But it made me think about other things differently. I started thinking about all the instruments, with all my band experiences. It was me planning out everything, and that helped me think more like a composer. Which really hurt my guitar playing (laughs). Suddenly, I wasn't thinking about just playing for me. I was thinking about playing in the context of everything else. But it was a great experience, in the long run.
WW: When it comes to deejaying, some people don't see the musicianship in it. They think you're just playing somebody else's records. I imagine you feel a lot differently about that...
JFK: Well, deejaying is an art form every bit as much as photography is an art form. Anyone can take pictures. You can take your camera and take pictures -- but there's a big difference between photographic art and you or I just taking pictures with our camera-phones. Not to say that can't be done as art... (Pause) Who the fuck is calling me over and over again? Do you know what area code 512 is?
JFK: [To Alex] Do you know what it is, Al? [To WW] They've called me like fucking twelve times... Oh, never mind. It's London. Sorry. Anyway, deejaying is like that. The way we approach it is, we try to make it as musical as possible and have the constant combination of songs being more than the parts. If you're thinking about things that way, you can keep things going. But also, deejaying is different from other ways of making music in that it's got an express purpose - which is, you're there to make a party, and maintain the party, and have people go crazy and have a good time. Which is a lot of fun, because you're having a good time and going crazy at the same time. It's a symbiotic relationship. You can't deejay really well and have nobody dance, because then you didn't deejay really well, you know?
WW: How long did it take for you to develop a personal style? Where people could listen to a recording of a set and know instantly it was you?
JFK: It's taken us quite a while. It was really just finding our feet. We didn't plan on deejaying as MSTRKRFT. We just planned on being producers, and then people started asking, "Can you deejay?" And now, this is what we do -- and we try to make it amazing all the time. A lot of our friends don't really try. They just kind of go up and wing it every day, and that can work, too. There are many different ways of doing it. But for us, we want it to be as thought-out and as intelligent as possible.
WW: So you're not one of those DJs who goes into a club and looks into the box to see what's there. You've got it plotted out beforehand...
JFK: We do that, too, but not as often, and not when we're representing our brand, so to speak.
WW: Tell me about the formation of Death From Above. How did that come together?
JFK: That was actually just a guy I lived with... (Pause) Could you hang on for a second? [To Alex] Hey, are you pissing now, Al? [To WW, amid laughter] Oh, man. We're in our new studio space, and it's not done and there's no walls. But there's a toilet in a corner.
WW: Nice. It's like a cell.
JFK: Yeah. There's no walls. You know how these guys should build the bathrooms? There's a women's door and a men's door, and you open it up and there's just one room with two toilets side by side (laughs). It sounds like a party.
WW: You're the party expert. You're making pissing into a party.
JFK: I'm sure it's happened before (laughs). Like a French porno or something.
WW: If you guys get into any golden showers action, video it...
JFK: (Laughs) Oh, Denver's always been a good time...
WW: Is that what people should expect when they come to the show?
JFK: A golden shower? No, I promise not to piss on anybody -- but I do have to piss. Let's have Al do the interview for a minute...
[The phone is traded and introductions are exchanged.]
WW: I was just talking with Jesse about Death From Above -- and I know that you did a remix of one of their songs. Was it in 2002?
Alex Puodziukas: Yeah, and actually, that's an interesting story. The original mix I did of that was great -- it was a killer club track. But it utilized samples -- or, as I like to refer to them, micro-samples. At the time, I had a group -- well, I like to refer to it as a group, but it was just myself -- called Horny Emotion, which was similar to the kind of thing being done by this guy named Akufen. He made a record basically sampling clips that were microseconds long off the radio. He just strung these clips together from all kinds of different songs and all kinds of different vocal clips. Although his approach was a little more abstract, my Horny Emotion project, I felt, was a much more musical approach. I'd take six or seven or eight disco tracks, or soul or R&B tracks, and stretch the loops to fit the tempo and then pitch them all into the same key and just start chopping little bits and pieces into each other.
With that approach, I did a remix for, I think, "Sexy Results," and it was great. And I submitted it to the client, or to the record label, and they loved it. But then I slipped up and told them there were micro-samples in it, and they freaked out.
WW: So there's no sample small enough so that it might not wind up with someone else getting a songwriting credit?
AP: Right. Basically, no matter how small the sample is, if they know it's there, they're afraid to touch it. It's always been an issue for us, because we hear so many tracks and we play so many tracks that DJs and producers make that are clearly full-on samples. It's like, "How are you guys getting away with this?" Throughout our career, people have always been busting our balls about not using samples, because we never really have used samples -- and we'd love to. If we were allowed to use samples, who knows what we could come up with? Like I said, me with Horny Emotions, and Jesse had a bunch of other productions he did pre-Death From Above and pre-MSTRKRFT that were all sample-based. It's awesome to use samples.
WW: When you went back and redid the production for "Sexy Results" without using samples, did you like it as well as you liked the first one?
AP: To be honest with you, no. It was like, "Fuck, just get 'er done. Get it done and get paid!" (Laughs.) I'm an artist, but I fancy myself more of a producer, to be honest -- and the meaning inherent in the term "producer" is "to produce...to generate product." So at that point, I had to bite the bullet and give them something.
WW: Was that the period when you and Jesse decided to work together as a production team?
AP: Yeah. This was right around the period when we were talking about starting something, which turned into MSTRKRFT. And actually, MSTRKRFT came from the title of the LP I was working on as Horny Emotion. We thought it was a fitting name for a production team, and just grabbed it.
WW: You and Jesse had known each other for a few years before then, right?
AP: Yeah. I think I met Jesse in '97 or '98.
WW: Do you remember the circumstances?
AP: Yep. We were at a YMCA or a Mason's Lodge or a Rotary Club playing a punk show in our respective bands at the time. That's where we first ran into each other. But, you see, the thing about that scene at the time is, it was so closely knit. A band would end up with two of the same members from another band, and they'd go for, like, half a year, and then the lineup would switch a little bit -- and they're another band all of a sudden. The amount of output in this little community we were involved with at the time was really amazing. Through meeting Jesse, through those punk bands, we would do records together. Like, I would record his band, because I was the guy who wanted to become the recording engineer and who had the tape machine in his parents' basement. I recorded a lot of bands from that time, and in that area.
WW: Has doing those kinds of recordings paid dividends as the years have gone by? Was it good that you learned the most basic type of recording techniques and then were able to expand from there?
AP: Exactly -- more from a technical aspect. When I finished high school and went to New York to try to become a recording engineer, I felt like I was going in there with some knowledge, although it wasn't very useful for the things I ended up doing in New York, which were mostly rap records. But it was a good foundation.
[Jesse returns, the exchange is made, and he gets up to speed with the conversation that took place in his absence. In the meantime, he and Alex start walking toward a Toronto club.]
WW: At what point did you guys do your first remix?
JFK: The first one we did was for this band called the Panthers. It was pretty random how it happened. I was on tour with them, and they were playing this song ["Thank Me With Your Hands"] every night, and I thought, "Wow, this really has, like, disco lyrics, but it's a rock song, a metal song." So I asked them, "Are you guys into it?" And they were all into house music, so they said, "Yeah, sure." It was different, because we were on tour -- so when we got to Toronto, we said, "Just come to the studio and we'll record the parts we want, and do what we want with it." They came by, we set the BPM at the speed we wanted, made them play it at the speed we wanted them to, with the click track or whatever. And after they left, we made the remix for them, and it was awesome, and they were super-excited. It became the biggest song they'd ever had, and they were pretty excited about it.
WW: After that, did your phone start ringing all the time with more groups wanting you to do remixes? Or was it another song that triggered the flood?
JFK: That one got us our initial work, and then after that...I remember being at South by Southwest in 2004, and I was at some party, and this DJ friend of mine from New York was like, "Have you heard this track? It's, like, fucking amazing, and everyone's playing it. Have you heard it?" And I'm like, "Yeah, dude, that's us." And he's like, "What?" He couldn't believe it. Then people were coming up to me and they were like, "Hey, can you do that for us, too?" That's how it began.
WW: At this point, I'm sure you're overwhelmed with remixing requests, but you've got your own albums to make. How do you decide when to take time out to do a remix? Is it based on the song? The artist? Or a combination?
JFK: It's really a bit of everything. Sometimes we'll do a remix because we think it could be rad, but the artist and the song, initially, are not. Other times we do it because we're like, "This song is already huge, and it'd be a good idea for us to get our grubby hands on it." And sometimes we'll hear something, and we'll be like, "We want to remix that." You'll hear it for the first time, and in our minds, we already hear it all chopped up - hear it the way we'd want it. That kind of thing happens. Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often. We're so busy doing our own shit that... [To Alex] Are we going the right direction? We're further east than we want to be, right? [To WW] Sorry about that. I'm kind of turned around today.
WW: No problem. I came across an interview in which one of you guys said you'd been asked to remix a Britney Spears song, but you were too busy to finish it. Is that an indication of how crazy your schedule is?
JFK: Yes, unfortunately. What we had finished, I really liked. It was a combination of that and also, when we got pretty much done with her remix, we were like, "Ah, shit, we didn't really use any of her music or anything." (Laughs.) That was the real problem.
WW: What song was it for?
JFK: "Radar"? [The song is from the 2007 album Blackout.] We actually realized at some point, "Wow, that sounds really good" -- and then we noticed that we'd done the whole track with just her backup vocals. And we didn't even use a complete line from it. It was like a partial sentence. And we were like, "No one will ever know what's going on with this."
WW: What's the latest one you've done?
JFK: The latest one we've done is for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs [the track is "Zero"], and I think it's going to come out really soon -- and it's awesome. And the next one we're doing... Well, I don't really want to talk about the next one we're doing, just in case we say, "Fuck it," and we give up. But the next one I think we're doing is for Keri Hilson and Lil Wayne.
WW: And you've also got Fist of God coming out. When you started recording it, did you have a specific idea about what you wanted to do? Or did you just head into the studio and wait for it to take shape?
JFK: Originally, we wanted to make a really American record. It's funny: Last night, I was with this DJnfriend of mine, who's been involved with techno stuff since the early '90s. And I'd never said that to him, but he said he loved the record, and he was freaking out about it -- and then he said the first few times he'd heard it, he was like, "Man, this is like the American techno record -- the American techno record that never existed before." Which was cool. It was cool to hear it from somebody else. And we really did make it just for America. If the rest of the world gets it, that's cool, too. But it doesn't make that much difference to me.
WW: How did you decide what voices you wanted on the record?
JFK: We really worked with our manager a lot. It had a lot to do with feasibility. Like, if we asked for Michael Jackson, it probably wasn't going to happen. Maybe next record -- but this time around, it wasn't going to happen. And a lot of it had to do with, like, us saying, "We'd like to work with this person and this person and this person" -- but you notice we didn't work with anyone who's ever done with music like this before, and part of the difficulty was selling them on the idea.
WW: Convincing them that they wouldn't be a fish out of water?
JFK: And getting them into it. Like N.O.R.E. on "Bounce" -- he got it right away, because of his background with reggaeton. He was used to making party music, and he was, like, the rap- and club-anthem guy. Nobody made club anthems and rap anthems like that before N.O.R.E. pulled the Neptunes out of nowhere. So he was an easy sell. John Legend, he said yes immediately, because we'd just done a remix for him [of "Green Light," also featuring Andre 3000]. He was like, "Wow, I love this. I want to do more stuff with you guys." And we were like, "Well, we happen to have this ballad. We have the words written and everything." We made a little demo of it and sent it to him, and he said yes right away, too. So it's different with everybody. It all depends on whether or not they got it -- and now they all get it, because they've heard the finished product.
Like, when we did the track with N.O.R.E., all he heard was the drums. He found the synthesizers confusing, so we turned them all off. He tracked with just the drums, and when he heard the final product, he said, "Oh, shit!" -- especially when we were in a club and he saw everyone going crazy. He didn't understand the break; he didn't understand what was going on. And that makes sense. If people don't have any experience with it, it can seem like a pretty odd kind of music.
WW: You talked about growing up listening to a lot of hip-hop. Was the opportunity to work with E40 and Ghostface Killah kind of a nod to that period?
JFK: Yeah, and I was super-excited the whole time -- and it still freaks us out a little bit, that all these people would work with us, and we managed to complete it. [To Alex] We're supposed to go to the silver door. The silver door. [To WW] We're actually about to go into the biggest club in Toronto and decide what we're going to play on this tour right now.
WW: For the entire tour?
JFK: At least for the next three days in Mexico. We're going to try and sort something out. [To Alex] That's not a silver door. We're supposed to go to the silver door and ring the bell. [To WW] It's just going to be us in this massive, enormous nightclub. We'll be by ourselves in the middle of the day.
WW: I know people keep asking you about whether you're going to start adding live music elements to shows or continue to do DJ sets. For you, is the DJ approach the best way for you to present your music?
JFK: I think it's the most fun thing we can do for the audience. [To Alex] I don't see a silver door. Maybe it's on the other side. Damn it! I don't know. [To WW] Deejaying allows us to give the best party to the audience. Because, you know, when you're playing live, you're performing, and people are watching, and they don't have to participate in the same way as they do at a party. And I think for us, I think what's most important is for people to say, "That was the best party ever." That's what I want. I don't want them to say, "That was a great show, guys."
WW: So it's not about you? It's about the finished product?
JFK: Yeah. I'd prefer for it not to be about us. Like I said, it's a symbiotic relationship between the DJ and the crowd. We could DJ incredibly from a technical standpoint, but if there's no party happening, it's a failure.
WW: And if there's no party, it'll feel like you guys in this club. You might as well be alone.
JFK: Yeah (laughs). Regardless of how many people are there. There's no way for a DJ set to be good if the party's not happening. [To Alex] Oh, there it is. [The buzzer rings] You've traveled around the city with us today...
WW: From the studio toilet to the hottest club in Toronto.
JFK: (Laughs.) With MSTRKRFT as your guide.
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