This year marks the 40th anniversary of punk, and Jesse F. Keeler and Al-P, the masterminds behind Canadian electronic duo MSTRKRFT, are sharing their thoughts on the origins of the DIY-rooted movement.
“I’d argue that punk started [in 1965] with the Sonics blowing up a recording console to record ‘Boom’—it’s pre-distortion pedal,” says Keeler. “They created the distortion by actually blowing up the console. In terms of punk as a fashion or a name, sure, I’ll give them 1976. As for it today, I think it’s still going, but it’s got to be more than a costume you can put on.”
Keeler and Al-P say they try to avoid the word “punk.” “It can have all kinds of connotations that have nothing to do with what you’re thinking,” says Keeler. “Like, I’m sure some people that listen to bands like Nickelback and Pearl Jam think they listen to rock ‘n’ roll, and other people would beg to differ.”
MSTRKRFT’s new album, Operator, is ragged, rough around the edges, and acid- and industrial techno-nuanced, and it’s made with a definitive punk attitude. Built for minimalism and live improvisation, Operator features primal howls from their handpicked heroes of the hardcore and post-punk scene, like Sonny Kay of Angel Hair and Jacob Bannon from Converge.
“That’s the world we met in and first started working in,” says Keeler. “I think there’s something about today, and the world we live in right now, where it seems a bit fucking ridiculous to make a super happy, PLUR-y album. Maybe there are things more in common now with 1976, having doom hanging over our heads.”
The album—a no-holds-barred, no-compromises collection built for dark and sweaty, Berghain-esque cathedrals, with certainly no consideration for radio play—was recorded with a portable studio that fit into a single crate. The duo recorded in bedrooms, makeshift studios, and at Keeler’s farm cabin in rural Ontario for an extended stint. Their intention was to make something they could play live, using all of the same equipment onstage—a return to the live PA systems of the ‘90s rave, one could say.
“The 303 and 606 came in a silver purse with a shoulder strap,” Keeler gushes. “They were designed for that reason—so you could throw them over your shoulder with a MIDI cable. People would play at raves with them; that’s what the stuff was made for. It wasn’t made for studios being precious.”
“Being a studio guy, it was a bit of a bummer to not use a nice acoustic environment built around main soffit-mounted monitors, where you know the sound of the room precisely,” says Al-P. “It’s a real pleasure to use that kind of room, but the advantage to having everything mobile was exceptional.”
It’s been seven years since MSTRKFRT released their sophomore album, Fist of God, and while the duo has been busy touring around the world with everyone from deadmau5 to Queens of the Stone Age, the hiatus has left fans wondering if there would ever be new MSTRKRFT material. But Operator has emerged like a singed phoenix rising from the ashes. After an attempt at a sample-based album that didn’t pan out in 2011, they learned to let go of their old ways and make some do-or-die decisions.
“I think the first two albums were stopovers to what we wanted to do with this album,” says Keeler. “The way we work now is how we talked about working since day one, but we never went so far to try it. We had a million excuses to not do it this way, like, ‘If we use all that old stuff, things will drift around, they’ll go out of tune; it won’t sound the same live.’ I think you have to go through all those stages to get to that point of ‘fuck it’—those are all just excuses.”
Operator from MSTRKRFT is available now on Last Gang Records.
Jesse Ship is punk to the rotten core. Follow him on Twitter.