Live performance for rock music, or pop music is well-established. Pop singers perform alongside a team of professional dancer. Rock bands play their instruments live, while the lead singer cavorts. Basic stuff.
But with Electronic Dance Music, the rules are still being written. What does live performance look like for dance music?
Among those pushing the boundaries: Australian DJ M4SONIC.
At the centre of M4SONIC’s toolkit, the Launchpad. Almost every live producer worth his or her salt uses the Launchpad – but no-one uses it like M4SONIC. Unlike most who use it as a starting points for loops, he uses it for insanely short bursts of sound and plays it more like a traditional instrument than a piece of technology.
Which makes sense, since M4SONIC is a classically trained pianist.
We caught up with the man himself to discuss his craft, performance, and the techniques he uses to push live electronic dance music into new, uncharted territory.
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You say that you kind of use Launchpad differently to how it is supposed to be used. How is supposed to be used and what did you do that was different?
So, it’s called the Launchpad because you would press a button and it would launch what’s called a ‘clip’ and that would play itself. It would loop and you could turn things on or off.
What I did was play just one shots and that essentially meant that it would only make a sound when I was pressing a button. I was basically playing it like a piano – the difference being that one hand was playing the percussive elements. So I was playing a drum-kit with my left and melodic samples at the same time with my right.
It just came naturally to me because I was really bad at music production and I just wanted to play music as it was. It was like a very complicated, difficult way to make music but for me, it was something I really enjoyed doing. But because I was filming it and making performance pieces, people enjoyed watching it.
Have you the dream of working with deadmau5?
Just recently someone posted my video to him and asked if it could be deemed ‘live electronic music’. [He plays] his sets live, where he still thinks what I do is more of a performance of a rehearsal – that it’s essentially not live, but it is.
It’s all freestyle because sometimes I can’t remember what I’m doing so I’ll just make it up as I’m going along. I’m really passionate about bringing back the live element of electronic music. I haven’t met Joel [deadmau5] yet but he knows a lot about it. I’m not sure if he’s a fan, but hopefully!
What would bringing the performance back into electronic music entail?
For me it’s about being real. Being human. There’s so much that can go wrong and I think that’s really, really scary in the music scene. I think we’re perfectionists. But also, the interaction that I can have with the crowd is insane.
Some of the touring I’ve done, you really can really get the crowd quite hyped when they actually understand that you’re responsible for, not just the sound, but for every single element of that song.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made lots of mistakes. There’s been times when I’ve thought DJing would be much easier – when my Launchpad or laptop stopped working or my hands got so sweaty that they slipped and I made just a terrible mistake. But that’s the thing that I respect rock bands for. They get up there and if they have a bad show, it’s down to them, not down to the equipment. I think because we’ve got the technology now, I think people should be pushing the boundaries and making it harder.
Do you think that when DJing live you have to work harder or differently to win the crowd over than what a traditional band does? Do you have to rely more on things like visuals and lights?
Absolutely, yes. I think DJ shows, particularly at festivals, have become very much visual. The DJ is basically a silhouette to what is an insanely huge production and that’s the experience. That’s why we go to festivals.
And that’s my point of difference – why not have my Launchpad fire off strobes and confetti blasters, and for me to be the guy who is actually putting on that visual element as well as sonically?
We have the ability to do that now and I think that’s really, really cool. Pressing play and then getting on the microphone and saying, “Three, two, one, jump,” has been done and I think the crowds are starting to get a little bit bored of that. I’m here to sort of shake things up a little bit, to have a bit of fun.
Do you think there’s a importance to visualisations at live shows because they becomes almost part of the story-telling and immersive experience?
Yes, it’s been really interesting to combine the two. When I played at music festivals, what we’d have is a live birds-eye camera feed projecting the Launchpad and my hands to the crowd, and people would actually almost stop dancing to watch. For most of them, they had never seen it before.
But yes, you’re absolutely right. The reason people need this live production when they go to a music festival is because you want to get immersed entirely in the moment of the music. It’s how we escape our troubles in life.
The two go hand in hand. If you took away all the production and you just had some DJ standing up there playing, it wouldn’t be the same. It would be a totally different energy. So, yes, we need it. We absolutely need it.
So how much of the music and the visuals are pre-loaded into your equipment and how much is doing it on the fly?
It’s sort of at the mercy of the VJ and whether or not I have full control. I was working with a VJ a couple of years ago, actually, and what we had was like this big gear-shifter stick-type thing. I’d give him the nod and what he would do was give me control of the visuals from my Launchpad.
It became a collaboration, which is even cooler in that there are lots of people working together to put on the show. It’s not pre-rehearsed. But it’s still kind of limited. I can’t really see what I’m doing. I have to have little cameras to show me what’s going on.
But there’s endless possibilities too. And obviously endless mistakes that I can make. I can accidentally wipe out the crowd with confetti with the wrong button.
Do you think that your different approach to the genre is the future of electronic music? I know, it’s a bit of a heavy question.
Yes, I hope so. I think we’ve become quite standardised now with what is the industry go-to for live performance, which is fine. I think it allows people like me to sort of stick out as the outlier.
But at the same time I think getting back to the music being the most important thing will always be the rock solid go-to for what makes an electronic act good.
But I do hope that more and more artists take risks and, yes, I think the future is moving towards what else can we be doing as opposed to just standing up there, waving our hands and telling the crowd to jump.
I read somewhere that you’re a classically trained pianist. How has that influenced your music?
I learned musical theory, so I understood chord progressions and melodies. I was much more orientated towards composition, rather than just rehearsing and playing someone else’s music.
I also had a lot of trouble sight-reading so as I was going up the grades in music theory, I was actually starting to struggle a lot. That sort of pushed me into making my own music.
So that has made it easier – but not just the theory. The dexterity you get from playing on a grand piano, having such hard hammers and building up the muscle memory in your hands – that certainly helps with pressing buttons. I’ve got a lot of fans reaching out and saying they have a lot of trouble pressing so many buttons at the same time. It hurts. It’s actually really quite hard.
It almost seems like that might have been what informed you using the Launchpad a little bit differently; almost like a modern piano.
Yes, absolutely. And when you watch my videos, you see that my hands are actually in chord playing positions.
Would you consider the Launchpad or any of the equipment that you use as instruments?
I think that would be met with some criticism because obviously it’s not like an analogue piece of equipment, it’s very much electronic.
But I think, moving forward, we haven’t really had someone invent the ‘new piano’ as of yet and maybe the Launchpad is that new thing. Essentially what it comes down to is the user being able to express themselves musically and naturally I’ve found myself just playing the Launchpad and so I’m excited to see where this takes us. Because, yes, I think in its own right, it’s a musical instrument.
What goes into your preparation with the Launchpad to make sure all the sounds are going to compliment one another, particularly when you’re changing your chords or building chord sequences?
Progressively over time it’s gotten easier because I know what I want. In the early days I was l just throwing ideas on the Launchpad. That was a really time-expensive exercise.
These days I have a better understanding of what does works and what doesn’t. I’ve also curated tonnes of samples that I can just grab. But it’s all trial and error and I think that’s why the upcoming producers should be really excited by it, because there are no rules.
Anyone who hasn’t studied musical theory; anyone who have never played a piano – this is for them. This is like the new way of musicians, so it’s super exciting.
When you perform live, how much of your tracks and sort of pre-composed on the Launchpad ahead of time versus how much is sort of experimenting live?
I build live shows in my production software, Ableton, and so it’s very much pre-rehearsed and I like to have a pretty good understanding of what I want to perform.
But there’s also an element of experimentation too; dropping in tracks that maybe I wouldn’t have. There is still that art of trying to read the crowd, which was completely foreign to me when I first started because I had no prior experience.
When it comes down to the actual Launchpad performance of my own pieces, I’ve spent hours and hours and hours rehearsing before I get up on the stage to play it. And I still make mistakes and I think the crowd kind of likes it when I do. It sort of throws a spanner in the works and they will understand that it’s real and it’s live, and instead of getting boo’ed, people cheer. It’s kind of cool.
I love that so many of your videos are just a top-down of your hands and some lights on the Launchpad. Yet they’re so mesmerising. Do you have a theory as to why people enjoy watching something so seemingly simplistic?
The game changed again just recently and I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing. What kids are doing now, is they’re programming the Launchpad to just do lights and not play music, and it is just as interesting to watch.
A lot of pre-programming goes into it. But originally the reason why it was just my hands and the Launchpad is I was basically making like a product video – I just wanted to show what I could do. If my hand wasn’t pressing a button, there was no sound.
It actually got torn apart on Reddit. Guys were freezing videos and trying to understand what button did what sound. My next video is actually going to really show what button makes what sound quite clearly. But, yes, it just sort of became the template for all my videos and, for that reason, no one actually knew what I looked like until recently.
Is there anything in particular that you want to experiment with in the future?
Yes, I probably want to get a few more controllers out. I’m playing around with a few others presently and seeing what else I can do. I definitely don’t want to just conform and become like everyone else. I think I always want to push boundaries and find a new thing.
I’m sure you get this asked all the time and I’m so sorry in advance. Can you talk me through the story of being involved with What Does The Fox Say?
It’s crazy. I was working with a production duo called Stargate, and they are quite well-known for ghost-producing a lot of pop records. I was very fortunate to be working with them on several tracks, and one of the songs that I was working on with them had a Launchpad drop.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just one of those things – we were just making music, there was no intentions for the song – but that particular instrumental bed that we collaborated on was sent to the Ylvis Brothers. And it wasn’t known to me until the song had actually been released that it had become, “What Does The Fox Say?” I had absolutely no part to play in the lyrics or anything like that and I sort of, by default, became a ghost-producer on that record.
It was so early in my career that we couldn’t really comment on it because it was sort of like a bit of a piss-take as well and here I am, trying to be this new guy that’s taking on the electronic scene and trying to do things differently and, all of a sudden, the most viral song is something that I worked on. It just didn’t go hand-in-hand.
So, we went quiet on it and didn’t mention it until quite some time later. But, yes, it’s funny. I haven’t actually met the Ylvis Brothers yet. I’m really glad that song did well because it’s helped a lot of kids. But, yes, I couldn’t claim it.