Interview: Matrixxman on Blade Runner, Juan Atkins and AI

The Ghostly International producer chats about his debut album with Anthony Obst

Under his Matrixxman guise, Virginia-born producer Charles Duff has swiftly made a name for himself as one of the most outspoken proponents of futurism in dance music. Following his first production steps alongside Paavo “Earthman” Steinkamp, which saw the duo run the gamut from hip hop to 2-step and future bass as 5kinAndBone5, Duff branched out on his own in 2013. Since then, his solo output has been remarkably prolific and reliably strong, channeling techno’s pioneers while putting a cross-referential spin on their sound that is distinctly of the internet age.

Homesick, Duff’s debut album as Matrixxman on Ghostly International, can be understood as a respectful nod to divergent strains of ‘90s techno styles and a visionary update to their formula. Propulsive DJ weapons sit side by side with emotive ambient pieces, and Detroit, Chicago and Berlin are united under one UFO roof. In its sound design and narrative arc, the album carries the handwriting of both a sci-fi buff and an analog machine freak. Well-versed in futurist motifs of the past, Duff employs them to craft his own musical language of the future.

During his recent stint in Berlin, we sat down with Matrixxman to talk about his musical journey from hardcore and drum & bass to hip hop and techno, as well as his visions for a future in which the separation between man and machine is no longer clearly discernible.

What was it like for you growing up in Virginia, just out of D.C., from a musical perspective?

Back in the ‘90s, there was a lot of cool stuff going on. I got into graffiti writing and a lot of mischief, and I discovered the underground rave scene. There was also a thriving hardcore scene. It was interesting, because a lot of the graffiti writers were more into hardcore than hip hop and I was listening to hip hop. Then all of a sudden I discovered bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi. D.C. played a pivotal role in that scene, so it was cool to get exposed to that.

Then at some point I discovered drum & bass and it changed my world. The sound design on that stuff – particularly from the mid-to-late ’90s – that was like the golden era to me. A good portion of what I liked was actually very techno-inspired drum & bass. I just didn't know that at the time.

Ed Rush & Optical - Wormhole

Were there any local producers you were listening to at that time, or was most of that stuff from the UK?

Entirely UK. I’m not sure if some other people were from the Netherlands or what have you, but for the most part, it was probably 99 percent British. Like Ed Rush and Optical, Rob Data and Kemal, Swift, Dillinja. The sound design was so cool. There’s these guys taking synth tones and sampling them and doing all sorts of crazy effects chains to get all the different drum & bass tones. I had never heard anything like that, so it was very cutting edge to me. A lot of that stuff, still to this day, is very futuristic.

Had you been producing yourself at that point?

I had been attempting. I purchased some real basic gear. I had a Roland JP-8000 and a MPC2000, and then later an E-MU sampler. So I was trying my hand at it, but I didn’t quite have the ability to focus. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve tried harder to focus more, but at the time, I think I was too focused on partying and taking drugs and getting laid and stuff. Just fucking around here and there, as opposed to getting serious about it. But yeah, I was around 18 when I first bought a piece of equipment with the idea of trying to make music. That’s all in Virginia and D.C..

D.C. back then had a real vibrant rave scene. There was a weekly party called Buzz in a fucked up part of the city. D.C. hadn’t been gentrified to the extent it is now. You’d go to these really lawless, dark parts of the city, and wait in these big queues to get into these parties where people were just losing their shit. I was always in the drum & bass room. The bigger room had the techno heavy-hitters like Joey Beltram and stuff like that. I would occasionally go in there, but I hadn’t understood. I hadn’t crossed over to that point yet. That happened more in San Francisco.

Martin Circus - Disco Circus

So how did that happen then? What sparked your interest in techno?

It all started with my best friend in the whole wide world, Paavo Steinkamp. He is the other half of the duo I was in, 5kinAndBone5. We both moved out, with coordinated timing in mind, to San Francisco to go to art school, and he came across this Juan Atkins mix CD for Wax Trax. It had “Sharevari” on it, and “Disco Circus,” and some really good Maurizio stuff, and Convextion. That just totally changed my life.

I heard really good, sleazy deep house in the beginning, a Blaze tune with these really beautiful saxophone riffs, and then some kind of disco. I’d never heard Martin Circus’ “Disco Circus” before, so I hear this and think, “This is crazy!” Previously, disco was kind of cheesy to me, so that exposed me to something else completely. There’s also “Nude Photo” on this mix. Then of course, it goes to Rick Wade, and house that’s kind of a little more loopy and hypnotic, and then before you know it, you find yourself in full-on techno. It exposed me to almost the whole spectrum. This became my Bible, basically.

Dubchild - Voodoo

Then you and Paavo kind of nerded out together over that stuff and really dived into that world?

We’d always wanted to do house and techno. Probably techno, but at the time we had both started going to the drum & bass raves together, so we initially tried our hands at drum & bass but failed miserably. Around 2000, 2001 is when I heard the Juan Atkins CD in San Francisco, and the drum & bass scene itself just wasn’t the same. It kind of lost its magic to me. It lost its minimalism and started to get too overproduced and just became this runaway wall of sound. I also think maybe this coincided with when drum & bass went underground and resurfaced in that weird grey area where 2-step and grime were starting to do really interesting things, leading up to dubstep.

That really interesting period from the early 2000s to mid-to-late 2000s that had a big influence on me. There’s this producer called Dub Child, who I don’t see a lot of people talking about. But he was making stuff that had drum & bass sound design, but you couldn’t tell if it was a 2-step track or a garage or a grime rhythm. It was kind of like proto-dubstep at the time. This stuff was really cool. Mind you, we also loved hip hop, too, so we basically were trying our hands at every genre, whether it was hip hop, dancehall, UK garage… the whole spectrum.

That was as early as 2001 when you started producing with Paavo?

We were trying to make music back then, but we didn’t really have any success at completing anything. Ironically, we both kind of went off on different paths. He went to Florida, I went to Japan and New York. Fast forward six or seven years and we ended up reuniting in San Francisco. That’s when we started to go hard with music again. That’s when we started actually having some success with hip hop. We were working with YG and Ty Dolla $ign, basically just making futuristic rap music, and also did work with funk people like Fred Wesley and Bernie Worrell.

Le1f feat. Rahel - Air Max

What were some of your early points of contact with futurism as a concept? Did that come from a musical background or is that mostly a separate fascination?

I’d say that I’ve always lusted after these visions of the future, portrayed particularly by movies like Blade Runner and The Fifth Element – even though that was a bit more light-hearted and a little cheesy – of that urge to want to live in this world of the distant future. Paavo is also a voracious reader when it comes to science fiction. He would give me books after he was done with them and that’s what opened up a Pandora’s box of sorts. I started to realize how much of it was interconnected with the music. Techno music is basically the perfect music to soundtrack visions of the future.

Why do you think that is? Is that the way we perceive that kind of “machine music” in the context of thinking about elements of the future?

That’s a good question. I think the fact that it’s predominantly, if not entirely, machine-made, just lends itself to this sort of strident, machine-oriented future, where things are governed by machines. Obviously technology has become an increasing part of our lives. We all depend on it now and that’s just going to continue. There’s also the fact that techno is probably one of the most free-form genres out there. You could literally go out and get a field recording of static hiss and weird noise and put a kick drum on that, and, if you manipulate it right, you can have a compelling techno track. You can’t do that with rap, you can’t do that with other traditional genres. Maybe with noise and experimental music you can, but in techno you can have melody or not, and that’s why I think it lends itself to just having a really broad palette.

Theoretically, a machine could produce it.

Exactly. I kind of like letting that happen. Sometimes, I’ll turn on my 909 and have it trigger a keyboard, and let the machines talk to themselves, with me standing back and just conducting them a little bit.

While a lot of people get concerned about technology, I think it will enable people to do so many amazing things.

Then again, if you think about futuristic music in the context of someone like Sun Ra – it doesn’t have that element of machine music. So it kind of makes me wonder what the element is that makes us associate music with the future. Is it also the narrative around it, that artists assign to it, or is there maybe some sort of essence of futuristic music?

That’s a good point, actually, because one could say similar things about Roy Ayers, “Chicago” for example. Granted it does have a little bit of synthesizer, but to me, the meat and potatoes of that, the chords, the main melodic component, sounds so dystopian to me. I don’t think he’s using drum machines, I think he’s using organic drums. You could say the same thing about Steve Reich. His stuff almost sounds like a beautiful factory from the future with all these melodies upon melodies, cascading. That’s entirely organic material, but to me it sounds incredibly futuristic. I think you might be right, it might boil down more to the intent behind the music, than the actual means.

That, of course, is also very much a part of early Detroit techno. The visions of the Mothership and what Mojo was playing, and people constructing this narrative of futurist escapism around that.

Definitely. You could see people gravitating towards creating this bucolic, idealized vision – or maybe, in some cases, it could be dystopian and more bleak and barren – but everyone definitely had some sort of vision of this far-off place and I think it’s inherently connected with escapism.

Matrixxman - Switchblade

For your album, were you thinking about it a lot in terms of visual ways to construct a narrative of sorts, or did you approach it mostly from a sound design angle?

I would say a little bit of both. The sound design was me trying to reflect that visual element. I feel like the titles correlate, more or less, to scenes, and you can imagine some of them sound like you are walking down a dark alley, worried about getting mugged or something in some sort of post-Kowloon world.

Kowloon Walled City was this place in Hong Kong that was demolished. It was basically what Blade Runner was based on. It was so densely zoned that it became its own little city. The zoning was highly illegal, and there were buildings that were literally centimeters apart, just stacked on top of each other. It was this crazy maze, its own self-contained city.

So for example, a track like “Switchblade” or something, to me, was imagining having to flee some guy with a switchblade in a similar setting. Or, in some cases, tunes were me imagining a certain scene and thinking what kind of music would correlate to that appropriately.

Matrixxman - Annika's Theme

What was the basis for “Annika’s Theme”? I think that stands out, in terms of the ambient and emotional style of it.

That was me essentially taking a moment to step away from techno and connect with a more emotional moment, I suppose. Annika is a real human being that does exist in life, but it was also kind of fused with this concept of an artificial intelligence persona that has been realized, but is not fully human and has awkward discord when it comes to interpreting human emotions.

Just because a machine becomes self-aware, it doesn’t mean that they are going to be able to immediately connect with us on a level that we connect with each other as humans. So that was me kind of playing with these ideas of, “Okay, what if we did have this Annika artificial intelligence entity that is aware, but then doesn’t necessarily know how to exist in the context of a human relationship?” I was trying to touch on this sense of longing, or a forlorn sense of yearning, yet show it as something that is not fully connecting, something that is ultimately bittersweet, but painful. That was the basis.

Do you follow the scientific research on that very closely?

Definitely. To the closest extent possible. To my knowledge, there haven’t been any crazy leaps and bounds. We recently passed the Turing test, which was supposedly a big landmark, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, because we’re still far away from actualizing real, strong AI. Right now we’re in the weak AI phase, where we are creating intelligence that can learn basic tasks. We’re still quite far away, but I’m eager to see that stuff come to fruition.

I feel like a lot of the times in popular culture that is very much tied to a dystopian feeling of humanity being damned once artificial intelligence takes over. But you seem to come from a more optimistic point of view.

I see people’s anxieties and it should obviously be approached with caution. The implications of actualizing artificial intelligence could potentially be irrevocable. No matter how much we try to contain it, it’s going to do whatever the hell it damn pleases. With that being said, I would much rather align myself with it, rather than take a stance of this human being trying to suppress something. Mind you, we treat it as this external entity that’s removed from us. That’s all fine and dandy, assuming we’re creating artificial intelligence in this humanoid thing that we’re creating. But what happens when we are able to augment our own bodies?

There’s a lot of really cool stuff going down in neuroscience. Basically what I think is going to happen is, when we get to the point where we can implant and enhance our brains on a nano-level, then human beings will be outfitted with a super computer with infinite storage capacity... That’s really going to obscure and blur the line. Because then we can, in theory, be very similar to the outcome of creating this artificial intelligence, but we’re human, initially.

I’m fully confident that we will achieve some sort of mental notation system at some point.

It’s also interesting to think about how the increasing development of technology then influences music-making. I don’t know if you’ve read much by Adam Harper, but he wrote a book in which he outlines a lot of the infinite variables in music, and talks about how the way that we are raised in Western society is very much coming from a very isolated way of understanding music. Actually the variables are pretty much infinite, and so he’s opening up a discourse on how music-making in the future might look like. What are some scenarios that you could picture?

While a lot of people get concerned about technology replacing jobs, I think technology ultimately is going to enable people to do so many amazing things. Case in point, the sheer fact that nowadays one can, with very little formal music training, make some relatively complex arrangements with MIDI. That, to me, is a wonderful example of technology making things possible that were previously inaccessible. There was no other way to compose music if you weren’t able to sit down and score it out a hundred years ago.

In the same way that that was a radical paradigm shift, I’m fully confident that we will achieve some sort of mental notation system at some point, where you can think of a melody and have it transcribed. Because if we are able to move prosthetic limbs and do relatively complex, independent digit controls with brain waves, then there’s no reason why we won’t be able to maybe, at some point, correlate that with musical notes. If you had an app that lets you score what you’re thinking or hearing, that would be amazing.

Then there’s also the possibility of augmented reality-type synths. Nintendo 3DS has a cool thing where you put a little card down on a table. It uses a camera, so you’re looking to the screen, but the table, as you’re looking at it, will raise up and do weird things and you’re interacting with the environment in the game. It’s actually really addicting, it’s really cool. The same thing should, in theory, be applicable to synths. We could be able to have any number of things we could be manipulating in virtual space without the need for the physical keyboard necessarily.

Had Blade Runner been entirely futuristic and not had that retro palette, it might not have had the same magical qualities.

In a way, the music that you’re making is rather retro-futurist. The sound is not very different from what music producers imagined the future to sound like in the ‘80s or ‘90s, for example.

I appreciate that. To me, that’s flattering.

Are you also thinking about going a little bit away from that, at some point, and just exploring radically new ways of producing?

Definitely. If there’s one thing that I’m hell-bent on, it’s eschewing people’s expectations. The second that people start to expect anything, my knee-jerk reaction is to just go off in a totally different direction. This is some weird, fucked up punk rock sensibility that I will never be able to fully kick.

So that being said, yeah, obviously I’ve explored vintage drum machine palettes and what have you in depth. But the other techno I’ve been making, while it does have tiny elements of that, it’s less hinging upon the same elements, just exploring the mood.

Circling back to Blade Runner again, I’ve always had a fascination with film noir. To me, the reason why Blade Runner was so beautiful, is because of that precise juxtaposition of hyper-futurist sensibilities, with this beautiful old, vintage, harsh-contrast lighting, sort of like a detective movie, and the trench coats, and the steamy murkiness, and all that stuff. Had Blade Runner been entirely futuristic and not had that retro palette, it might not have had the same magical qualities that it has. I think one could apply that same methodology to music, perhaps.

By Anthony Obst on August 17, 2015