The M Machine are Kicking Their Own Asses
We talked to the trio about tough touring schedules, favorite candy bars, and working with big daddy Skrillex.
Photos by Razberry Photography
For a Skrillex-approved trio of festival favorites, The M Machine have a relatively concise tour rider: vodka, Knob Creek whiskey, some hand towels, gum... and a souvenir from the city hosting them. According to crew member Ben Swardlick, the best souvenir he's received was a "jug of coffee milk, which is like, what they drink in Rhode Island." But Swardlick wasn't as stoked as his Rhode Island-bred mother, who was in the crowd that night. "[She] was really excited," he said. It's surprising to hear sweet momma's boy sentiments from an OWSLA anthem producer, but those moments will tell you a lot about one of the most versatile outfits in contemporary dance music. The M Machine is comprised of Swardlick (nicknamed Swardy because, well, who wants to pronounce that), Eric—known for the handlebar mustache that his eager fans recognized as we snuck around the back of the venue—and Andy, a neuroscience major, engineer, and all-around nerd.
Swardlick's cohort, Andy Coenen, developed, programmed, and built the group's iconic "M" LED wall by hand—an immserive centerpiece that's followed them around at various times throughout their touring history. Currently in the midst of their headlining Metropolis Tour, the group's dynamic was lively, lucid, and suprisingly peaceful at times. They prefer quiet "chill time" to raucous pre-game sessions when preparing for a live show. At that very moment, a sold-out crowd was restlessly awaiting their their arrival at one of New York's new hot spots, SLAKE, just south of Madison Square Gardens in Midtown Manhattan.
We caught up with the trio in the marble-floored, gilded lobby of the lavish New Yorker Hotel, only a short walk away from the venue, and touched on everything from their "super human" label boss Skrillex, to their new album, to their unshakable group dynamic.
Can you tell us how the Metropolis Tour is going?
Eric: The tour's going really, really well. The crowds are super engaged, and a lot people know all the music—it's not something that we're used to, so that's really cool. I would say the highlight was Avalon Hollywood last weekend. That was just insane, one of the best shows we've ever had for sure.
Swardy: You see ticket sales before you go out, so we know that shows are selling and we already knew that people are going to be there, but I think, like Eric was saying, the really exciting thing is to see people engaged. When they start belting out lyrics and singing along to the melodies of your songs, that's the tingly moment.
How do you guys prepare for your shows? Do you have any special rituals?
Swardy: We like to have at least an hour of chill time. It doesn't have to be solitude or anything like that, but we usually try to get away from the noise for a little while, and we're pretty mellow before the show goes on. Then we just drive the energy right into the performance. No actual rituals, I don't think.
Eric: Sometimes the travel schedules can just be insane. We've done a few shows on this tour where we literally traveled all day, didn't sleep the night before because we were en route to somewhere—to fly across the country—to get in just in time for sound check, to then do your show. You know, it's really all about getting mentally prepared after flopping around the country all day.
Swardy: The quiet room scenario might be more circumstantial just cuz of our itineraries and stuff. Just having a minute to breathe is pretty important.
You're signed to Skrillex's OWSLA label. What's that like?
Swardy: The Skrillex team is one big blob of really friendly, really hardworking, and really caring people, so it's like a really loyal club. Certainly working with any indie label that's trying to be cutting edge and trying not to get locked into a certain sound or certain genre is exciting. But I think what we're usually most thrilled about is specifically working with Skrillex's team, just cuz he's a fantastic human and he's done a lot for us. We're super thankful for that.
How often do you work with Skrillex?
Swardy: He's he's not involved in any of the music production. We live and work in San Francisco. When it comes to just about everything else—strategy moving forward, looking at outlook, that kind of thing—Skrillex is very involved. I think he is still number-one for A&R, and I can't imagine anybody else drumming up the music, finding talent. He's very hands on. "Superhuman," we usually call him.
Tell us a bit about the production process. What's it like working with multiple people in the production phase?
Eric: We all work separately on our own little projects. We build these projects up, and when they're about fifty-percent done, and we're confident with the idea, it might be something that can turn into an actual M Machine song. Then we all get together and work on it—add vocals, do harmonies, new percussion in some parts. But the collaboration part usually doesn't start until about fifty-percent through a track, or at least until the idea is there, like the main jist of the idea of a song.
Andy: One of the big advantages to working in a trio is just that there's such a large amount of music to work with. We constantly write when we're back home—all three of us at the same time—and we'll always have a pack of 20 or 30 songs that we're working on. And when one sticks, then we all jump onboard and finish it, and turn it into something that we are all really proud of. I think that's kind of a unique way of going about this work. There aren't that many trios out there. It's a funny process compared to a traditional band, who sit in a room with the same instruments, and jam out a song. For us, we start with these seeds, and we all envision where we might think about taking it. It's exciting, it's fun.
What are you looking forward to in the rest of 2014, coming into the summer festival season? New EP?
Swardy: We're of course excited about coming into the summer season, but honestly, we're working on an album right now. This tour is mostly centered around Thursday through Sunday dates, and then we are back home for the weekdays. It's just, like, instantly back into the studio. We're almost running on fumes right now because we've been trying to put everything into these shows, but also at the same time write, write, write, write. So I would say pretty much the only thing we are thinking about is the album.
The M Machine live at Slake in New York
You brought up performing in intimate venues. Can you describe the ups and downs of performing in a relatively small venue like SLAKE tonight, as opposed to a large crowd, like at a festival?
Swardy: When you're this close to somebody, and you can see them, and hear them singing along, that's definitely the reason why those smaller shows are cool. But, we put a big emphasis—and Andy specifically—puts a big emphasis on visuals. What you see during our show, we put a lot of effort into it. Andy built a pretty cool platform for being able to do that. So when we get to play a big venue, that's where he really gets to shine with big LED walls, the confetti, the cryo, and all these extra bells and whistles and stuff. The benefit of those big shows is definitely the spectacle. It's addictive.
Tell us a bit about the live production.
Andy: When we started M Machine, one of the things that we wanted to integrate right from the beginning was a really nice, immersive visual world for the show. We were really excited about some of the stuff that was happening in dance music when we first started the project. There was this big arms race of production; people were hiring crazy 3D artists to make videos for them. There was all this art going into the visual side of things, which is something that I found particularly exciting. So when we started the project, we built a big LED "M". My cousin and I built it by hand, wired the whole thing up, and programmed it. We wrote some software to program it to synchronize with everything we do live on stage, sort of as a visual representation of the mood and atmosphere that we're trying to create. So for Ultra this year, in response to a lot of touring with this big lighting rig, we decided to switch it over to the 3D virtual version of it. Touring with an actual, big stage piece is tough logistically—it makes so that you can't play certain shows. You can't roll it out onto the stage during a festival show—it's a little bit limiting.
We wanted to bring our live show and our immersive, cinematic experience to those sorts of venues. Doing it all in 3D and in video means that you can literally do anything. We have a song called "Deep Search," and all of the visual triggers and cool content used for that song are from Blue Planet, the deep ocean film. So you get like all the crazy angler fish and weird shrimp, alien creatures—and you can turn them into really crazy hypercolor versions of that, and pattern them on the screen. Use that as your palate for representing the sound and world that you're trying to communicate to the audience. It's really fun.
I'll leave us with something fun. What's your favorite candy?
Eric: Oh, Fast Break.
Swardy: Fast Break, one-hundred-percent.
What's a Fast Break?
Swardy: It's has the flavor of a Reese's cup—but add Milky Way.
Eric: So, it's a Milky Way, but instead of caramel its Reese's peanut butter, and it's really, really good.