Hyponik

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“I’m so happy to have this family gathered”: Max Graef interviewed

You only need to listen once or twice to any number of his releases to realise that Max Graef has a pretty special relationship with music. From his teenage years playing drums, moving from rock to jazz, and eventually crafting his own productions – Max’s approach to sound has always been entirely naturalistic. Not defined by any particular artist, nor consciously trying to hide away from any boxes, Max has crafted a genuinely unique sound and his productions are wonderful examples of how music can sound so familiar yet totally fresh and exciting. It’s clear that Max’s work is an extension of himself, and it’s this casual and unassuming quality combined with overwhelming talent that makes his tunes both fun and musically fascinating.

Over the last few years, Max has made a name for himself as a formidable producer. In 2014 he released his debut album Rivers Of The Red Planet to great acclaim – fusing hip hop, soul, funk and jazz together with crisp house beats that are almost inexplicable by nature (the term dusty is often used, but does little justice). Max created an infectious record that was somehow more reminiscent of beatmakers like Madlib or Pete Rock, than any house producer.

After the extensive DJ bookings that followed ROTRP, Max decided to embark on an entirely new project. He dropped the samples, drum machines and computers altogether, got a group of his closest friends and musical associates together (which include label mates Alex Seidel and Kickflip Mike, as well as Valentin Handrick, Ludwig Labuzinski and Gerry Franke), sorted a studio and began writing tracks for a full band record which they would later title Dog. I caught up with Max about a month after the record’s release to chat about the whole experience.

So Dog’s been out for a month now, how’s the feedback been for the record?

Yeah definitely some good feedback… And a lot of bad feedback also. I kind of feel like it failed a bit, in the way it was presented. Like a kind of homage. It was our own mistake because we didn’t think about the promotional text and in the end it was the biggest mistake for the whole release. I’m super happy with it and can objectively say I love the music but the way it was presented, as a kind of homage to the ’70s or to Afro-American culture or whatever, none of that was my intention. It was definitely supposed to be something contemporary, of course with the music that influenced us but definitely more like a contemporary jazz, disco fusion, psych thing.

Sure, I wouldn’t say that record sounds derivative.

Yeah, but if you present it in the wrong way, I get why people didn’t get it as such.

So what were your intentions going into the album?

It was really something very personal made with very good friends and something that I’ve been thinking about for so long. I’m so happy to have this family gathered and to be able to try something that we wanted to do together that has jazz, a little bit of techno, a little bit of disco along with the psychedelic and jazz-rock thing too. We basically wanted to start up a project where me and my friends could play together, do the whole band and tour with our music.

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You must have had great fun playing together. 

Yeah, it was Probably in my top ten days list! Recording this album was great.

Have you had a chance to play live much?

We haven’t played live much yet because we have a tour plan for the summer so we wanted to get together, practice and make sure we could make something that people would really enjoy live. We did a show recently at Gretchen in Berlin and we had very little time to prepare and were really nervous, so everything was a bit shaky. But yeah, it was amazing and really overwhelming and people reacted great, which is more important to me than the reception of the record.

From interviews a few years back, it seemed like after your ROTRP album you were keen to do something outside of the DJ/production format?

Not necessarily to get out of the solo stuff, but I definitely don’t feel very close to what’s happening in the DJ/deep house scene or whatever, so I wanted to make sure that I’m not really a part of that. I mean, I don’t want to be a part of that necessarily.

What about the recording of the album? A lot of the songs swing in an improvisational way. How much of the album was free-for-all jamming and how much was compositional songwriting?

Yeah, again this brings me back to the promo text because it said that it was all jam session based or funky jamming or whatever – again our own mistake – but it was pretty much compositions with all the parts. Within the parts there was a kind of freedom for everyone but it was intentional that there wasn’t a lot of soloing. It was intentional that there was a kind of trance-like, repetitive vibe, which is hard to explain. When we play live, obviously it is more improvisational but when we recorded, it was intentional to be structured.

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Listening to the album, it definitely reminded me of early jazz-funk records like Azymuth. Were there any records that you were listening to in particular during the recording or did it just kind of happen without any conscious input?

I’m always listening to music. When I was writing the songs I was listening to a lot of jazz-rock and all that psychedelic stuff which is really important to me. Also a lot of modal jazz. Not necessarily as uplifiting as bands like Azymuth. My intention was much darker. Obviously some tracks are happy but I think that the overall state was much darker and that’s what we were going for.

Your past music made use of a lot of samples. Do you think that you will use them less so now you’ve done the whole live band thing?

I did sample a lot for sure but I would also record a lot too. Even from the beginning there have always been tracks that have been recorded from scratch, and nothing has changed in that direction. It really is about what sounds best with the music.

Previously you’ve suggested that you view something recorded from scratch, like a jazz record, as a more understandable accomplishment than say, a DJ set. Does Dog feel like your biggest accomplishment so far?

Perhaps that was a bit of a naive and arrogant statement. I don’t really regret it because that’s just how I felt at the time, but right now I feel that they are definitely two different worlds and they have different ways of going about it. I wouldn’t say that they are related. It’s definitely a different feeling altogether.

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Is there a particular track or moment on the album that really stands out for you?

I guess on the record it’s the first track on each side that are my favourites. They are the two that I still really like. The rest I’ve over listened to, and I’m not really into them anymore. It depends how much I like the tracks that I record. Usually, I try not to listen to it too much but sometimes it’s just not possible.

I really like ‘Tangerine’ in the middle.

Yeah, I really like having that on the album. To be honest, it’s not really keeping with the original intention of the kind of musical universe we wanted to build around. Perhaps that’s the reason I’m not so attached to that song anymore, but I still really like it.

What’s next for the Max Graef Band?

Writing and touring, mostly. We are writing a lot of tracks right now and practising. We have a tour in the UK, France, Belgium a few other places.

So you’ll be coming to London?

Yeah, sure! We are playing at the Bussey Building.

Let’s move onto Berlin. Obviously there is a massive electronic scene there. Is there much live music going on that you can get involved in?

I actually ask myself that question a lot. Probably, I mean, there must be a lot. I grew up going out to electronic music events and me and my friends never really went to concerts all that much, so I can’t really say from experience at the moment. Around the corner from where I live in Berlin there’s a lot of jazz going on in this little bar and that’s awesome, but as for the rest of the city, I’m not so sure.

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I remember listening to the track ‘Vino Rosetto’ from Rivers Of The Red Planet and imagining it being played at one of those heavy Berlin nights. Any interest in getting involved in all the techno that goes on around you?

I’m really into the harder stuff and we have projects where we do that kind of thing. I’m definitely open to anything but I don’t really feel associated with any kind of techno scene. I think the whole scene thing is a bit weird but music-wise, it’s super interesting. I just like to be open to anything. Sometimes i’ll feel like playing some techno, sometimes jazz.

The whole Money $ex label has definitely got a distinct sound. Can you remember when it all started coming together?

The crew has kind of always been there. Since we started getting into music there has always been a circle there. Glenn Astro and IMYRMIND were really the only addition, you know. We’ve been doing this since we’ve know each other from 7th grade. Kickflip Mike is the brother of a good friend who I went to school with, Labuzinski went to school with me… And pretty much all of them. Alex (Seidel) was a couple of years below me and that’s how this whole east Berlin crew came together. T-bone for example, who I work with a lot for the labels too, has been my best friend since I was born. Good people. When we were younger the focus was always about making beats. We were always interested in records as well but it was never like, “have you heard this new tune?”, it was more like, “have you heard my new tune?”.

Sure. But when you guys DJ together it tends to be on vinyl, right?

Yeah, pretty much. I sometimes bring my USB and play my own tracks but then lose my USB and end up playing only vinyl again for a few shows. Vinyl is more fun for sure.

Have you picked up any good records recently?

Good question. I guess the most recent release which was really good was DJ Slyngshot – Battlecat, that one was sick.

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Since we’re name dropping, who’s your biggest celebrity crush?

Max: probably Brad Pitt or something

Yeah, he’s amazing…

Max: I just want to look like him! That’s probably it…

Probably! What’s up over the next few months. Any planned releases?

Max: Ive done an album with Glenn Astro. That’s coming out in May or something. There’s also a lot of Money $ex stuff coming. Kickflip Mike’s EP is coming and then we have a kind of psychedelic project coming from a couple of friends from Cologne. We also have some mini album projects coming. My Dad did a mini album for us. IMYRMIND is also doing an album at the end of the year. We definitely want to focus on the album side of things and go in different directions. Obviously the band tour too, which is a lot of work!

Dog is out now on Money $ex Records.

Featured image: Richard Gersch

Words: Lewis Bassett