Max Cooper performing at Carlisle Church, Belfast
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Music

Max Cooper: "This is the closest I can get to a normal gig"

The Belfast musician tells us about his Red Bull x AVA gig at the city's magnificent Carlisle Church, which streams to audiences this week
Written by Lauren Murphy
Published on

Belfast native Max Cooper is a musician renowned for his attention to detail when it comes to both his visuals and his music.

His highly original, meticulous and often ethereal work made him the perfect choice for the first electronic performance to take place at the city's Carlisle Church, originally built in 1875 and restored in 2015.
The audiovisual performance, in association with Red Bull, AVA Festival and the NI Arts Council, will be streaming free this Wednesday, November 18th at 8 pm. available across AVA's Youtube, Facebook and www.avafestival.com.
We caught up with Max to learn a little more about his background, as well as what we can expect from the performance.
Hi Max, how and where are you?
I'm pretty good – as always these days, I'm in my studio at home, working on lots of music. I'm trying to make the most of the time being at home; having a lot of thinking time, creative time and just trying to get the best out of it. I'm working on a new album called 'Jets' and a film called 'Jets', and various other things, remixes and all sorts.
Have you generally found it easy to be creative this year, then – despite all that's gone on?
Well, to be honest, it's a very therapeutic thing to write music, for me. With everything that's going on and the collapse of the music industry and the rest of it, music's been more important than ever – and writing music is a way of expressing things, which helps me get through things. I think a lot of people make art for those reasons. It's a good way to express things that you can't put into words. So there's been no shortage of inspiration, in that sense.
Did you always want to work in music?
No, I didn't think that I was going to become a musician – if that's what I am (laughs). I always worked in science and that was my training, my early work and my job for a while. But I always had a really strong emotional connection to music, and that was all I needed, really. Even as a child, there was something about chord structures that really grabbed me, and chord structures are a central element of my music now. That's what's driven my music; I don't have musical training, but I rely on that fact that whenever I create a chord sequence that makes me feel something really powerfully, I rely on that to drive my process.
You played violin as a kid, right? Why didn't that stick?
Yeah, I did. Like many parents, mine encouraged me to do these sorts of things but I never engaged with it and never enjoyed it. It was a very mechanical, dry sort of process. It wasn't until I found electronic music that I actually found something that really engaged me. I started going to clubs in the late 1990s, and that's when I started on on the path of becoming a musician.
What sort of stuff were you listening to back then?
I guess my early stuff would have been Pink Floyd, The Prodigy... and early rave and trance stuff, as well. Future Sound of London was one of my early ambient music interests. Boards of Canada, although they were a little bit later. Early Warp stuff - Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre, Plaid, all that amazing experimental electronic music that came from the north of England. That was definitely something that really interested me, although I didn't come to appreciate some of that til later. But you start off with the more accessible ravey stuff, and as with anything, as your taste develops you start to find the simple things a bit dull and other things interesting. My taste has changed a lot over the years, as well - but there's something about synthesisers playing chord sequences...
Do you feel your science background factors into the kind of music that you make?
It feeds into the visual side of things really directly. I spend a lot of time reading science and philosophy and writing down visual ideas, most of the time. Then once I've got the stories together, I'll start scoring music to them and find a way of mapping these ideas into musical structures; figuring out what sort of palette I need for certain tracks or certain shows. I guess my approach to writing music as well, has always been quite scientific - in the sense of self-learning and attention to detail. But in the end, predominantly I'm still writing music the same way as other people do. It's an emotional expression, rendering things that are hard to express in other formats. That's still a very intuitive, non-scientific process.
You've been quite prolific in terms of your releases in recent years – tell us how your most recent album 'Glassforms' differed from your previous work.
That was a really new experiment for me because I was working with a pianist, Bruce Brubaker. Usually, I sit at home in the studio and I'll build these weird devices in the computer that will make my synthesisers do lots of weird stuff, and they've sort of got a life of their own – I'm building these living organisms that try to express songs, is one way of describing it. There's lots of fiddling around and it's a painstakingly slow process – whereas 'Glassforms' changed things totally in that I'm going to stand on stage with a pianist, take a live feed of what he's playing in audio form and also in a digitised midi form, and I need to be able to create something live on stage. There's no pre-rendered parts; it's all a live jam, basically. I worked with a software developer called Alexander Ramsey and we built up a custom tool that I could take this midi information and augment the information going from the piano into the synths. So we captured the show in Paris, I took it home to my studio and improved it and fixed it – because it's always quite messy and chaotic – but I kept the feel of how it works, which is a live electronic thing. So it was a really different experiment, but lots of fun to do. I'm just trying to experiment with as many techniques as I can, and learn as much as I can.
Any albums or films or books that you've found comfort of inspiration in this year?
I loved the A Winged Victory for the Sullen album, I've listened to that a lot this year. Films... I love film; I spend a lot of my time working on visual things, so film is a big part. I did see one good film at the online version of the BFI Film Festival, called 'Possessor'.
Let's talk about your hometown gig in Belfast – how was it, playing to an empty Carlisle Church?
To be honest, I've been doing sit-down AV shows for a while, like the one at the Barbican for the last album, which is online. And also, like at that Barbican show, I've got this semi-transparent gauze screen between me and the audience, so I don't even really see them (laughs). For me, it was the closest I can get to a normal gig and there's still the feeling that 'I have to get this right'. It's a beautiful space: this beautiful old church with a massive roof and arches, and I projected all over it. I brought my projectors and my gauze screen, and we just did what we could in the space to try and make the music really complement the space as much as possible. I love projecting onto natural surfaces, more than onto screens; I often bring projectors with me and just shine them wherever I can, onto walls, the floor, the roof, whatever. I just had to try to work with that amazing canvas and fill the space musically and visually as best I could. And obviously, the AVA guys are amazing to work with – they're super on-the-ball, they came up with the idea and most of the job is done when you've got a space that beautiful, so it was great.
So, why should people tune in – and what sort of set-up should they have? It sounds like the sort of show that a laptop screen and speakers won't do justice to.
(laughs) I think it depends what you're into. If you're used to watching and listening on your laptop screen and laptop speakers, then it'll work in that format. But if there's the opportunity to play it through bigger speakers that'll give you more of the low frequency – because there's a lot of low-frequency stuff going on – then I highly recommend playing it through that, if it's an option. My music is written for audiophiles, so I put a lot of work into spatial signals and low-frequency work and things that you just won't hear on a laptop. But at the same time, I've designed it knowing that lots of people will be listening on a laptop, and that's fine. There's plenty of information in there that'll work as well – but the more effort that you put in, the more you'll get out of it, definitely.
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