Brainy techno producer Max Cooper took time to be with his thoughts for his autumn 2018 release One Hundred Billion Sparks, staking out his sounds in a cottage on a hill atop absolutely nowhere, Powys. The album was accomplished with a restricted selection of analogue equipment, about the size of Cooper’s car’s boot, every inch of hardware owed in creating a huge scape of varying texture, sound, and percussion.
With a doctorate and a taste for the analytically intriguing, Cooper digs at new verges with the relish of both a scientist and an artist. These beautiful ideas are what provoke the Max Cooper audiovisual experience, such as the one set for Clwb Ifor Bach when he returns to Wales in March.
Buzz: So a lot of One Hundred Billion Sparks was written in rural Wales. Was the landscape influential to the sounds or the writing process? Similarly, why was isolating yourself important for this one?
MC: Yes, the Welsh landscape formed a big part of the project. I stayed up on top of a valley near Llawryglyn, which isn’t too far from Llanidloes, south-east of Snowdonia. It was a place called Gribyn cottage, with beautiful views and not many people around. That’s what I needed. I’m always getting frustrated with the barrage of information and deliveries and expectations for constant communications we have these days, and I find it a big distraction from my music creation process, which is very time consuming, me not being able to play instruments with any proficiency, but still aiming to make very melodic expressive music. I also love tiny musical detailing and hidden surprises to be found in every track, so all in all I like to obsess over my music, which needs time and peace. Gribyn looked like the place for me, and it turned out to be perfect.
I switched off my phone and emails and tried to have zero human contact for the month, which was a weird experience, and not always enjoyable, but it gave me a clear focused mind to try and express the ideas I wanted to. The whole project was about the mind, and looking inward free of as much external clatter as possible, so the act of isolating myself in the valleys was also directly tied to the project concept as a whole. When I needed a break, I walked the valleys and tried not to piss off too many farmers, and I did plenty of trips over to Machynlleth on the amazing hilltop road from Llawryglyn.
You’ve described some of your earlier work as “personal” to you. Can you run through some of Sparks’ themes with us? What are we listening to here?
I went for a story of the mind with the release, starting with the building blocks of computation and logic (Rule 110, Emptyset, Incompleteness), then basic systems for constructing meaning (Reciprocity, Phi) and going into higher level mental constructs (Identity, Platonic, Lovesong, Memories). I chose ideas which I find interesting in terms of the science involved, and which also lend themselves to beautiful visual format, to which I could score each piece of music. That’s the way I like to work these days: every piece of music has a visual identity from the start, and I create the music and the visual story in parallel, like I’m scoring to a film which I’ll later direct.
It never comes out exactly how I imagine, of course, but it seems to be a productive approach to making music, as it pushes me in new directions, and provides lots of visual content which I also control for the live shows, such as the one coming up at Clwb Ifor Bach. The whole show is a visual story, as much as a musical one. The ideas in the album are summarised more fully at onehundredbillionsparks.net.
I’m probably stepping on another interviewer’s toes here, but there’s a huge variance in the sounds, percussion and textures coming in – not only as the tracks build, but during the more ambient sections as well. How much of the new album is analogue v digital sounds?
The Sparks album is almost entirely analogue synths and pedals, because of the creation process. I took as much as I could fit in my car and then restricted myself to this key group of analogue synths and effects: the Moog Sub 37, DSI Prophet 08 and Prophet 6, the Moog Minitaur, Big Sky, Timeline, Geiger Counter, Moogerfooger Ring Mod and Midi Murf, Industrialectric RM1N and Echo Degrader, Fairfield Circuitry Meet Maude and Shallow Water, El Capistan and Memory Man.
It was a great chance to get to know my synths better, which reaped rewards in terms of the general sound design I think. I did add some digital processing later down the line, particularly with the glitch elements, but that’s just small detailing. Not that it matters whether it’s analogue or digital, really; I think the main thing was just having focused time hands-on with a restricted set of synthesis paths to really explore and try and express myself.
You’ve hit a fair few styles in your career, some unexpected stuff and some revisits. Where to next?
At the moment I’m working on a Philip Glass project with the pianist, Bruce Brubaker. It’s a fusion of Glass piano with electronics, where I’ll be bringing my studio synths to the shows, all sit-down concerts, to do some live synth explorations. Then the next big project is Yearning For The Infinite at the Barbican in London, which will be the launch of a whole new audiovisual project and album, all about the history of our obsessions with the infinite in religious and scientific/philosophical contexts. Again, something which lends itself to, by definition, massive audio and visual intensity, which is something I love to try and create.
As a bit of a cratedigger I have to ask – what have you been listening to lately?
Helios, Barker, Synkro, Bing & Ruth and Lusine.
What are we going to see/hear when you play Cardiff in March?
It will be a big audiovisual spectacle with plenty of unexpected turns. I don’t pre-plan the content in any detail, though – I’ll wait and see what people are into.
words JASON MACHLAB
Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff, Fri 22 Mar. Tickets: £14. Info: 029 2023 2199 / www.clwb.net