Epic. That word is painfully overused for all sort of things that aren’t actually epic. An oversized plate of nachos? Delicious, sure, but not epic. The drop in “Tsunami“? Huge? Absolutely. But epic? No. To be epic, you’ve got to tell a story.
The M Machine’s first album, Metropolis, did tell a story. It was a concept album that, in epic form, was split into two parts. It’s all electronic, but it refuses to stick to a single genre. There’s dubstep. There’s electro. Nero did something similar with the futuristic saga of Welcome to Reality, but what makes The M Machine’s effort different is execution. It’s like the difference between Philip K. Dick and Orson Scott Card. They’re the same genre and the same medium, but that’s about it. If you like one, though, you’d probably enjoy the other.
I got a chance to chat with The M Machine headman Ben Swardlick about Metropolis, the trio’s current tour, how art influences their music, and more below.
You guys are out touring for Metropolis Pt. 2, right?
Basically the whole thing. We never had a chance to really get out there and do a headline run for either release, Pt. 1 or Pt. 2. That definitely makes up the majority of what we play live right now.
Who’re you guys touring with?
For about half of the shows, we brought out a group we really like from Montreal called Botnek. They do this techno-influenced brand of electro house that we really like. They’ve been really fun to have on the road so far. We’ve got a lot of big shows. Moving forward, I think it’s going to be even better out there.
I’m excited to see you guys when you come to LA later this month.
We’re excited, too. The Avalon has been good to us. LA in general is just sort of a supportive city for us.
I had a question about the idea of a concept album. It’s not something you see a lot in EDM recently. What pushed you toward it?
You’re right, it’s not something that’s been explored too heavily in the dance music world, but I feel like that’s such a small part of what’s influenced us. We’re very connected, of course, with electronic music specifically — a lot of our peers and general supporters are certainly people in the dance music community — but that’s only a pretty small part of the music that’s inspired us and the stuff that we listen to for fun.
It doesn’t necessarily feel as novel or unique when you consider most of our free time is spent listening to eighties music and a lot of stuff from the seventies. In our listening sessions recently, we’re always putting on a lot of Floyd or Radiohead or Duran Duran, Bryan Ferry… It’s a little bit less out of nowhere if you come and hang in our studio for a bit.
You guys dig a lot of influence beyond electro house and the dubstep scene.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
But you also have a real love of art. Obviously Metropolis was built around the Fritz Lang classic, and your latest single, “Superflat,” is also the name of an art movement. How does art fit in with your music-making process?
Like everything, it just seems to change and evolve for us. When we were writing the early demo, which was a full-length album called Metropolis, we ended up releasing it as two EPs. But when we first got it together, it was just…good timing and circumstances. We were really excited about Metropolis as a film and just the amount of influence that it had on lots of things, certainly music. A lot of people, certainly other dance music artists, have been inspired by the media, have written whole albums about it. It’s certainly not the first time that crossed over like that, even in the dance music world.
That’s just sort of the way it was. I would say that, right now, we’re working on an album that’s a lot more personal and that’s influenced a lot more by what’s going on in our lives and the experiences and travels over the past couple of years. You’re right in that it was influential for us in that it kinda directed the mood and it inspired the story we wrote to go along with it, but that’s not always the way it is. It’s not just going to be another book or another film that directs everything we do going forward.
So the next record isn’t going be as much of a concept album as Metropolis?
Actually I think it’ll listen through just as conceptually, just not so much with a direct inspiration from something else. This time the storyline and the imagery were slowly amassing. It’s coming a lot more out of, you know, whatever experiences in the last couple of years.
More about imagery: Looking at the album cover for Metropolis, it really reminds me of Metroid.
Yeah. [Laugh] It’s not that it was ever something that got brought up. It’s just that we’ve been influenced by video games for so long. Most importantly and perhaps even moreso directly related to games is Chris Blackstock, the artist. That’s a big part, and games have been a big part of his life, I would say. If you look through a lot of what Chris Blackstock has done, those album covers are pretty consistent to his style.
That actually brings me to your newest single, “Superflat,” which is also an art movement. It’s different in that the song draws heavily from Japanese themes and style.
There’s no question there’s a Japanese theme to that whole song, of course, with the Hatsune Miku vocaloid, the holographic popstar used over in Japan. Obviously we had some Japanese themes running through our song. I really wish I could tell you that the cover art was going to be super related to the super-flat style/movement that Murakami made that was really popular. We definitely had ideas for that, but the honest story of it is that that was our working title, and we got really used to it. We really love flat art. Actually, the cover art we had was done by Andy [Coenen]; he dabbles in graphic design as well, and that’s something that he contributed.
I’ve never been to an M Machine show. My friends have gone, and they’ve said it’s a mind-melting sensory explosion. What are you guys bringing out on tour this time?
We’re traveling pretty light. Basically, we’re bringing what we need for the audio performance, and in terms of our visual display, that’s kinda what Andy does on stage. Sometimes it’s just outlining what we generally do up there. It’s just not very obvious. We’re not up there with a drumset or a keyboard. Instead we’ve got controllers.
The way that we approached our live show has been sort of this ramp in responsibilities. When we first got out on the road two years ago, we were definitely new performers. We were basically giving ourselves enough work just performing and ad libbing. It’s electronic music. This isn’t an organic creation. Instead it’s mixing parts and loops and samples and leads, and as we’ve gotten more comfortable on the stage, we’ve gotten to be better performers. We’ve been willing to step out more and more. Now what you see is a lot of leads, a lot of live percussion. We sing a lot of the music live, and additionally, Andy is putting on a video performance.
How do you prefer venues? Small crowds or stadiums?
About a year ago, I would’ve told you the bigger, the better. We were out opening for Porter Robinson a lot, and we’ve played a lot for these guys who draw these giant crowds and have always had these amazing shows.
Now we’re out playing 500-1,000 capacity venues, and the crowd is there for us. People are singing along, and they’re singing the melodies, and if we fake them out and start doing something they weren’t expecting, sometimes they keep singing the words of the song they heard before over the next track and it harmonizes.
All of this stuff that’s very personal for us is now getting reflected and getting appreciated by people who last year were new to us or maybe hearing us for the first time and were out there originally to hear Skrillex or Porter Robinson. The venues have been what I’d call relatively intimate. We’re not talking about tiny little venue clubs, but they’re smaller compared to what we’ve done in the past.
It’s really hard to say! There’re definitely benefits to both. I like looking somebody in the eye, singing along while I’m performing vocals. I mean, that’s crazy. It’s really exciting, and I also like watching a wave of 10,000 people jumping at the same time. That’s also very impactful and very exciting.
So what are you listening to right now?
I’ve been going backwards. I did the whole Radiohead discography about a month ago, which swung me right into listening to The Wall again. I guess for the last couple of weeks I can’t stop listening to Nick Drake. I think his music speaks to a lot of people, but the story of his, too, which is quite sad. I watched the Super Bowl and Bruno Mars…
Wasn’t it great?
Yeah! It was wild! It was so familiar to me. Now I’m going back and watching Michael Jackson at the Super Bowl and stuff like that.
It was wild. I noticed a lot of our peers recently will do a big pop remix. We’ve done this, too, with Bruno. A lot of that initial knee-jerk reaction from fans will be, “Oh, this is some form of selling out” or “This remix is great, but fuck the vocals.” You know, that kind of thing. I think it’s good that everyone got to see that this isn’t some kid who’s got a machine behind him that manufactured his fame. He’s an outrageous performer.
You can see the M Machine live when they roll into the Avalon on Valentine’s Day. Tickets are available, and for more information: