Name: Mat Playford
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current Release: Solar on Awesome Soundwave
Recommendations: ‘Whatever you think think the opposite’ by Paul Arden is a great book! And the portrait photography of Patrick Demarchelier is incredible.
If you enjoyed this interview with Mat Playford, visit his facebook account to find out more.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started playing with music when I seven years of age. My mother had a very successful gym / dance studio in Hertfordshire England. It was a place where music was naturally the core of everything. My early passion was synth-based pop music, mainly because of the dance studio influence. Both electro and break dance were fundamental to the music scene at the time when I was growing up, in the eighties.
These sounds were futuristic and were soon absorbed into my world, where they still remain to date. Producing music came later in my teens, whist I was studying commercial music and production at Leeds College of Music in the early nineties.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
In regards to music development, I learned to play what would be called “piano house” on the keyboard, working out the core changes myself which drew me further towards this music scene.
I’m dyslexic, which has made it really tough going. I cannot read music and I have struggled. However I have studied music theory, which is where I was able to understand the changes and the progression in composition.
My personal experience has been developing my owns sounds through analogue synthesisers, and these influences have formed from a sub-conscious through using similar timbre. Mixing and moving these cosmic sounds excites me, but creating this feeling comes naturally for me at the moment.
What were your main compositional-and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The key challenges for me have been understanding the equipment and how to use it effectively. But more importantly, I used to have a poor attention span and this has made progression more difficult in the last 25 years.
The balancing part came once I started to get a grip with different aspects of production, where I then became hyper focused on achieving the goal of getting a finished product out.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
Since the age of seven, I have collected keyboards. I have to say that this has been my obsession for a while, and by the age of sixteen I had five synths. Some of these were complete rubbish and some of them were truly amazing pieces of kit.
Today, I have three jobs which is hard work, but it has enabled me to procure over twenty different vintage tools, ranging from 70 and 80’s models. All of these synths produce the deep sounds I’m looking for in any production.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
This is a great question but I’ll keep it light: I record live into protools and arrange the sounds to conclude the order. I hardly use Midi at all! Humans excel with emotions, machines excel with order I’d say.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Protools lends itself to live recording rather than programming. The human element affects the live parameters.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
On my latest project Solar, I collaborated with Steve Bertie Burton. Much of the music on the album was produced from cutting bits out of the jamming sessions me and Bertie had, whilst drinking beer and enjoying each others company and also working on pre-produced ideas. It was a long process and it’s taken almost 3 years to complete.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work?
A difficult question to respond to as I don’t have a daily schedule with creativity. Creativity isn’t routine in my world. I don’t think this applies to anybody.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Whilst working on the album Solar, I’ve had a clear definition of the finished product in the sense of the overall feel and production. I acquired a book called the Almagest from a “dry old school nautical navigation shop”. This was the first publication that discussed celestial mechanics, written in the second century.
The mapping out and researching of this idea to create Solar came in two stages. Firstly, its words were the inspiration to the album, then secondly its images. This has a direct correlation with the production sound of the album, as well as some of its artwork.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I believe there are many minds sets that you can be in. To be creative, sometimes either experiencing pain or sadness works. In other times, sheer enjoyment or just plain drive can put you in the right spot for many other ideas.
For me curiosity and playfulness can also help you but I’m a firm believer that it could also be sadness. Fundamentally, hope and enjoyment are the key points here: if you enjoy what you are doing, then listeners are more likely to – hopefully - connect with you.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
For me improvisation came from pure hope, as it comes naturally to me in all walks of my life. I remember being utterly blown away once I really caught the ghost of improvisation and began to record it. I found myself not even recognising my creative output. For me this was such a strong emotion, and without a doubt has hooked me to playing live as a genuine vocation.
You always have to pull back the improvisation to structure the composition. Playing live not only enhances but also unleashes the subconscious, to achieve the correct delivery.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I think the production tools have a huge influence on the sound’s aspects, providing you know what you’re buying, as this can really dictate your sound pallet. Sometimes people have asked why I have so many keyboards; to me they all have different textures and timbre, in the same way a painter can have shades of the same colour in their colour pallet. This helps with the composition and detail.
I find the Moog keyboards are great for basslines and lead noises, whereas Roland Polyphonic keyboards lend themselves to big brass strings and warm pad noises.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Well, with the sound healing movement building, there seems to be more information being projected that certain frequencies produce different effects in the brain. There is a great argument that the note A, when tuned to four hundred and thirty two hertz on the piano, can be more in touch with the maths of life and can have a huge calming effect on the mind.
There is also proof that frequencies between thirty and eighty hertz produce oxytocin, which produces social bonding. We all know those frequencies represent the kick drum and the bass in modern dance music to date.
Perhaps this is why we use the clubs like churches, for healing and bonding. It’s also no secret that loud sawtooth waveforms make you grit your teeth upon being heard, suggesting Adrenaline will be produced. So I feel that when mixing these sounds together, it produces the feelings that attract us to music.
There are so many pre-programmed effects of sounds in the human brain, that can be interpreted as the scream of an animal, car alarm or fear. Electronic music manipulates these innate senses that are present within the human mind.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I found that having interests other than music have had a direct link to my music, especially as I’ve got older and become more self-aware. When I’ve learned or searched for knowledge unrelated to music, they’ve always found their way into my track titles. As a result, these things give me a brief on the composition before creating it and because of this, I’ve never felt that my music is on trend.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I believe as technology grows we have been allowed to express ourselves with more ease, and it has opened itself to people with less natural talent. I think as we become more knowledgeable, sound will not only be used to create music, but for the healing process also. I feel as fidelity increases, so too will it’s uses, and we be able to pin point the exact chemical reactions in our brains and discover exactly what they do.