Patricia Johnson

Music News, Reviews, and Interviews

DJ Set of the Week: Interview W/ Max McFerren

What is it about dark, dingy basement rooms that makes for the best parties? The floor is sticky, the bathroom line is endless, the air is humid and thick with cigarette smoke, and the bar – if there is one – is only half-stocked with my least favorite liquor. In such a raw environment there are no frivolities and no pretension, and all that matters are the subs that shake my bones at just the right tempo. A single green laser cuts through the fog and I’m front and center, dancing like a lunatic with a goofy grin slapped on my face.

In these places I can find the darkest techno and house spinning through the earliest morning hours, shared with a crowd riding the same wavelength and bobbing in unison. This is where underground artists like Max McFerren hit their stride.

The Brooklyn-based producer/DJ first appeared in 2012 with the dancefloor ready Hard Feeling/Tough Homme for NYC label Sci-Fi & Fantasy. After a handful of releases in between, McFerren found himself on South London Ordnance’s radar and was recruited to the UK producer’s new label, Aery Metals. His first release on the imprint, Real Problem, is a colossal pair of techno tracks ideal for a gritty warehouse, and is surely only the very beginning to his success.

I first discovered McFerren through a mix promoting a Sci-Fi & Fantasy release party last fall. The mix features much of his own material plus his techno selections from Brooklyn, Berlin, London, and beyond, and I’ve continued to listen to it almost obsessively since. Today, I share it with you as DJ Set of the Week.

McFerren had some time to chat ahead of his visit to the Good Life basement this Saturday, where he will bring his own fresh tracks and plenty of deep cuts. Below, he shares stories from his first DJ gigs in Brooklyn, explains how he connected with South London Ordnance, and reveals his own ideal club environment (spoiler alert: it’s not too far from mine).

Tell me about what brought you to electronic music. Can you name a specific track, album, or experience that sealed the deal for you?

I remember listening to a CD copy of Prodigy’s Music For the Jilted Generation, which I guess came out in the US in 1995 when I was about 9. My brother had a copy but I didn’t really start collecting electronic music for a while.

The one that really sealed the deal was Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92. I think I heard this when I was 12 maybe. I remember the computers at school had Napster and some of the first cable internet connections in the neighborhood, so we would go crazy downloading music. This was all before the teachers even knew what we were doing. We were downloading obsessively. Entire catalogs during lunch, total completists.

How did you learn to produce and DJ? Which came first?

I started producing towards the end of high school. I had an early Pro Tools rig I would record bands I was in, but also on the side I would do loops and edits a la DJ Shadow. Then I got into Ableton Live when my friend Cory Brown introduced me in 2004.

I didn’t start DJing until about 2008/2009 when some friends pushed me into it. They ran a shit storm of a basement loft in Brooklyn called The Cave and needed someone to DJ their final night. This was before everyone was a DJ… But it was a beautiful first time experience including visits from the cops. After this I was asked to play a monthly night at a Bushwick bar called Tandem. They had a nasty ass back room that seemed to work well enough. We would sneak subwoofers in cause the sound was awful. At this point I was playing a lot of Chicago/Detroit house/techno classics, not really fucking around too much with deep or new shit.

Towards the end when we started to wear out our welcome I started to put out records and got to play some bigger places around Manhattan/Brooklyn. All this time I was rolling around with art kids and didn’t really know any techno people until the first records came out. At that point I started sneakin my way into shows at Bossa Nova Civc Club and meeting all the amazing people there. That’s pretty much home base now.

Describe your creative process. From whom or what do you find inspiration?

At this point I’m concentrating a lot on contributing to some sense of a NYC sound. Not really sure what this is or how I fit, but I don’t think I have to worry about it. I’m just buying records, hanging out, going to parties. That’s all there is really. Someone said, “Humans work in habits not in territories.” But anyway I don’t really geek out on equipment/software much anymore. I just kinda let that all work intuitively. So instead with my music I’m thinking mostly about context, mood, room, etc.

I think finding inspiration takes a series of intense introspections and a subsequent lack of fucks given. At some point in that cycle I’ll have my eureka moment and I’ll just sit down and jack out 20 tracks with terrible working titles. Then there’s the period where I need to forget about what happened and just let everything chill out so I can listen again with fresh ears and name them. At that point I can figure out what to do with the mess.

What’s your ideal club environment, either as a DJ or an audience member?

Steel Drums was the ideal club environment. RIP. Only place I felt completely comfortable in NYC. I would Gogo dance there (for free). It was the quintessential big dark techno room. I think at one point there was one strobe light on a motor hanging from the center of the ceiling. It was at that threshold of being big enough but but not too huge for the audience it intended to attract. In a club it’s important that people can choose to hide out and creep around or freak out in the middle. It also had the best bookings in the city.

You mentioned that you used to live in Boston — can you share when and why that was, and if you dabbled in the music scene at all?

I went to Berklee but I was a studio rat the entire time. I never left. Studio time was precious there so I got obsessive. I was learning to record 30 piece Orchestras because my friend had those connections. He works on American Idol now. I also lived with another guy who was producing Electro/Trance/Techno and I’d sit in and watch him work, which was probably the most eye opening experience of my life production wise. I also played in a noise band for a few shows but that was it.

How would you describe your niche in the Brooklyn music scene? How has it influenced you?

I’ve made so many amazing musician friends in the past few years. Truly genuine honest people working their fucking asses off, going broke, just to put out records. I’m still learning my role in the scene. I feel like I’m getting better presenting techno in different kinds of rooms for different levels of interest. Having the opportunity to play at somewhere like Bossa Nova Civic Club gives me the freedom to stretch out a bit and find my voice… I mean people know they’re going to get some kind of 6 hour night of all house/techno, so you don’t have to really fight that. It’s just such a fucking hustle here in NYC and I think that mentality influences everything we do. One interesting thing that seems to continue to happen is once a NYC label blows up, they pretty much move operations over to Europe. Europe is still seen as the promise land. But really this opens up new territory constantly, especially with the shows you’ll see on any given weekend.

Do you see yourself hanging out in Brooklyn for a while or do you hope to move elsewhere?

Definitely not in the position to make any big moves right now. But really everything is going well in NYC right now. I’ve never had more fun living here. I’d go to Europe for a few months if I had the chance.

Tell me about your latest EP for Aery Metals.

This EP is an extension of my Shoot The Lobster record STL002. The focus was definitely to introduce that sound into a bigger room vibe. 002 has this deceptive feel that I wanted to make more obvious. I mean those old tracks are like 122bpm; not exactly big room. The new ones sit around 130 so they roll much more. I also wanted to reuse some elements from that second Sci Fi & Fantasy record that I thought didn’t get much attention. I’m really in love with writing melodies on the Korg M1.

How did you connect with South London Ordnance?

Him and his partner found a copy of STL002 in a London shop and hit me up on Soundcloud. Simple as that. I think everyone should release their own music to start. Not only do you learn a shit load, you also contribute to the scene by paying into it all. It’s important to invest everything you have mentally or maybe even financially if you give a fuck about your music and especially something like vinyl. But yeah, so Oscar (SLO) also recently played in Brookyn so we got to meet and vibe out. And wadda ya know he’s a cool fuckin guy who knows how to push some fucking rekids.

You also just recently released a new album on Vancouver label 1080p under another alias, MCFERRDOG. Can you tell me more about that and what you’re going for with this project?

Fuck what do I even say about MCFERRDOG? I think ultimately I’m under Richard MacFarlane‘s spell and I don’t know what is happening to me. Feels like a Disney movie.

What have you been listening to lately?

Just got the new Head High shit and I’m blown away even though Shed prob doesn’t care.

What are your plans or goals for this year?

Release records under secret new names and get caught.

Some readers may not know what they’re in for next Saturday… what can we expect from your show?

Fun ass techno. Nothing scary this time.

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