By: Chris Clark
Life isn't all about money, pretty girls, dancing and Crown. However, if you're Toronto's electro duo MSTRKRFT, this is where it starts. These aforementioned, self-described "interests," as stated on the group's more-than-colorful MySpace page, highlight some of the comic wonderment and visceral excitement that are Jesse F. Keeler (aka JFK) and his music-making partner in crime, Al-P (aka Alex Puodziukas). Together, they bring their dark underworld sound above ground via some of the hardest hitting electronic music this side of the Atlantic and watch out: they've come back for more.
Today (March 17), MSTRKRFT release their second studio LP, Fist of God, a punk-funk dance party anthology of club bangers, electro rock and high-profile guest appearances from the likes of Ghostface Killah, E-40 and even a selection from new school crooner, John Legend. Possessing more overall depth and substance than their acclaimed 2006 debut, The Looks, this new collection of seething sweat-soakers and panty droppers further fuels the fire burning brightly from north of the border.
Jesse Keeler and I spent an hour delving deeply into the decadence of being MSTRKRFT - a sold-out club packing existence full of heavy beats, hot girls and plenty of Crown Royal. But, it's not all sex, drugs and rock n' roll for the Toronto duo. There's a genre bending new album and the massive world tour to support it with new fans to make and new places to conquer.
IT ALL BEGAN NORTH OF THE BORDER
MSTRKRFT are two close friends who were originally playing music in two different bands - Keeler playing bass in Toronto's Death From Above 1979 and Al-P in the electro-pop outfit Girlsareshort - that came together naturally during the making of You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, Death From Above 1979's album that Al-P was brought in to help produce. Keeler already had his chops deep into the electro world, producing choice remixes for Wolfmother and Bloc Party that gave subtle glimpses into the endless possibilities of his production. From here, MSTRKRFT was born and out went the other bands to make way for the new purveyors of Canadian dance music. It was 2006 and the twosome's connection was readily apparent as they released their debut that summer, an album of inspired duality pitting rock music versus electronics.
JamBase: How did the roots of MSTRKRFT form?
Jesse Keeler: We met in the hardcore noise punk rock scene from the early '90s. That comes across in our work ethic, but at this point I like such a broad spectrum of music. This morning I was listening to Dub Fire and Metallica. I'm sorry I'm rambling, what was your original question again?
JamBase: No worries. So, it all really began with that Toronto scene and has burgeoned into something really special between you two. How has your personal relationship evolved alongside your professional one over the last decade?
Jesse Keeler: Now, we hang out a lot. We see each other every day in some form or another. [We have] known each other for, fuck, probably almost a dozen years. We're still here. We are kind of like brothers. It's heavy.
WE BRING YOU A FIST OF GOD
Now don't get confused, even though Keeler and Al-P are what most would call electronic music producers, they are still musicians at the core. Playing guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, as well as using computer programs and other technological gadgetry, they do it all. They are metal heads but also rap aficionados, multi-cultural and multi-faceted men of music. Nowhere is this more noticeable than on the new album, Fist of God, a heavily distorted, sweatbox foray that features several huge club bangers and a few slivers of sonic sexiness that will leave the masses sweating.
JamBase: Let's talk about Fist of God. The sophomore album jinx is a real thing for many acts. How is this album a departure from The Looks but also a collection that will keep old fans happy while bringing new ones in?
Jesse Keeler: It's just something that's evolved. We started making this record the month we submitted the last record to the record label. It's influenced [and informed by] our remix work. It's hard because we have a pretty broad skill set - I guess that's what you'd call it. It's tough to apply how we want to do things. We write everything and then mix it all at once.
A lot of your fans will be expecting a barrage of chest-thumping beats. How do you think they'll receive it?
The whole album isn't club tracks. We've probably been playing half the record out for the last four months at least, so they should know somewhat what to expect. We've got a pretty awesome fan base. Now that we've been around for long enough, we weed out the initial people who heard that they should be there, that it was the cool thing to do.
But again, how do you think they'll take to the new tracks?
It's hard making a second album because you change so much over that time. People expect something similar and it's hard because you're a different person than you were for the first one.
Our whole model is just to try new stuff.
Are you happy with the finished product?
When we finished the last record we weren't really happy with it. I can't tell yet if I'm happy with the new record.
It's understandable. As a critic, I like the new album because it's enough like the first album but also enough of a departure to bring in new fans, too.
We don't want to just keep doing the same stuff. It's really unsatisfying to us when we feel like we're falling into a pattern. It's like, should we always be doing whatever we want? I think so. I recognize as an artist you want to keep doing different stuff.
On the new album you enlist the help of some guest vocalists and instrumentation. Could you ever take that concept to the road and have a MSTRKRFT backing band?
The hard part is we'd need so many people. The whole guest vocalist thing was an experience. It's a real pain and we couldn't really do all that live.
Continue reading for more on MSTRKRFT...
I just do music, I tried to have normal jobs but I was never good enough to keep going. I love the constant struggle. It's what draws me in and keeps me here. A bouncer told me last night, "You know how you know you're old? The cut off year to drink is 1990!" I was just like, "Fuck, that was the year I got expelled from high school!"
REMIX IT AND THEY WILL COME
MSTRKRFT, along with their two studio albums, comes stocked with an impressive repertoire of remix work as well. These days, they're highly coveted producers, creating remixes for the likes of the aforementioned Bloc Party and Wolfmother and even Usher and the resurgent Britney Spears have come calling. It's in these remix tracks that the listener can gain a broader perspective on the true dexterity of Keeler and Al-P's production. With each new remix they release, a new set of fans arises, each yearning for a different piece of the overall MSTRKRFT sound.
JamBase: You guys are critically heralded for your remix work and have been for some time. These days, are artists coming to MSTRKRFT and saying, 'Hey, can you remix this track?' or are you approaching them?
Jesse Keeler: We haven't really approached anybody since the early days with The Panthers (while Jesse was on tour with Death From Above 1979). We had no idea what to do!
That was a while back, so how does the process go these days?
Most of the time people have just been asking us. The requests are far more than we can do. Britney Spears asked us for a remix and the song comes to us and we're really not into it [laughs hysterically]. Then at the end, we realized that we didn't use any of her vocals in the track [laughs even harder]. I told them, "Hey, we just can't do it."
How did Britney Spears take the rejection?
I don't know. That's what my manager is for. Just yesterday, we were like, "This isn't going to happen. You're going to have to tell them."
IT'S NOT WHERE YOU'RE FROM BUT WHERE YOU'RE AT
Making new albums, doing remix work and touring the world incessantly will hopefully get you places and get your music heard by the masses. Audiences from Toronto to San Francisco, Tokyo to London have experienced the live spectacle of MSTRKRFT over the last several years, culminating in an ever-expanding and eager fan base the world over. Their habitual chain-smoking and bass-blowing beats have been the quintessential atmosphere for parties all across the globe, and the parties keep getting bigger and better. Unlike more American-based music such as jazz and the blues, electronic music is more of a worldwide phenomenon, enjoyed by audiophiles in abundance pretty much everywhere.
JamBase: You and Al-P play all over the world on a continuous and rather crazy schedule. How is MSTRKRFT received differently depending on where it is you're playing on that particular night?
Jesse Keeler: It's not necessarily the place you play, it's all about the fans. Last time we played in Tokyo, it was crazy. When we're there again it will have evolved and be more crazy.
So, the fans just come to the show, regardless of Europe, America or Japan?
Your fan base evolves. We've been around for long enough that [there's a] fan base that's super into it. You want the right people to be there.
Yeah it's crazy. Electronic music is huge here in San Francisco, more so than other places I've lived or frequented. What's your take on the seemingly expanding scope and diversity of the genre?
Dance music is the only music with an expressed purpose - to make people dance.
Well, electronic music also goes hand-in-hand with late night parties and people like to dance at those kinds of occasions.
The way I got into electronic music was going to after hours and seeing all these Chicago guys that cost $5 at 6 a.m. It's a lot like Europe.
How do you get that studio MSTRKRFT sound to translate into the live setting? More specifically, that crazy, frantic energy.
I feel like they're two different jobs. When we're making tracks we think about how they're going to be live. What you learn from DJing crosses over to producing. DJing is rad. We do try to keep it as fucking crazy as possible. We get gray hairs trying to keep those levels up all the time.
MYSPACE IS YOUR SPACE
For musical acts in the post-modern era, utilizing and taking full advantage of the digital age, specifically websites like MySpace, Twitter, Facebook and whatever new spin-offs will come out by the time this article is published, is the key to success. The ability to reach millions and millions of music lovers worldwide with a few clicks is proving to be the best way to share and spread music outside of traditional industry techniques. No more burning CDs and trading them. Today, we get online and file share. We go to message boards and find out about the new hot shit while we listen to a stream of last night's show.
JamBase: The Internet is completely opening up the way music is listened to and shared so that everyone, everywhere can listen to just about everything. How has your utilization of MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites helped you guys get your music to more people?
Jesse Keeler: The Internet makes your life into a reality show. We are the generation of instant replay.
"Generation of instant replay," I like that. Kind of ironic, too many people will take that too seriously I fear.
It's so hard to get irony or your sarcasm to translate into text form.
Yeah well, people in San Francisco certainly aren't New Yorkers.
For sure [laughs]. The East Coast gets that dry sarcasm.
I was checking out your MySpace page a while back and I noticed that you guys have "Money," "Pretty Girls," "Dancing" and "Crown" labeled as your "Interests." That's hilarious. Glad to see you don't take yourselves too seriously.
You noticed that? That's great. We also had "For a good time in Toronto" [where] we left [Al-P's] cousin's email there. He's wondering why his inbox is full.
IT'S A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE
No one ever said making music and being successful at it was easy. The vast majority of aspiring acts never make it above ground, let alone gain any respectable recognition for their art. If it were easy, there would be an even greater plethora of garbage music polluting our airwaves and eardrums. For Jesse Keeler and Al-P, they have taken the beautiful struggle that is being musicians and producers and made it into a promising career as MSTRKRFT. Despite the wide, open road to success in front of them, these aren't two jaded guys making beats in the studio, forgetting where they came from and who they are. They continue to make relevant music and stimulate an expanding audience with their trademark post-punk, funk-electro whatever you want to call it.
JamBase: So, what is it that has kept you going?
Jesse Keeler: I just do music, I tried to have normal jobs but I was never good enough to keep going. I love the constant struggle. It's what draws me in and keeps me here. A bouncer told me last night, "You know how you know you're old? The cut off year to drink is 1990!" I was just like, "Fuck, that was the year I got expelled from high school!"
MSTRKRFT are on tour now, dates available here.
MSTRKRFT - Bounce feat. N.O.R.E & Isis
JamBase | Planet Rockin'
Go See Live Music!