Last Friday January 26th I got a chance to sit down with Alex Seaver of Mako before enjoying the re-imagined live set on the ‘Breathe’ tour. You can check out the video of the interview after the review, and the full transcript below!
My first impression of Alex is a good one. He’s laid back, approachable and everything seems natural to him. This attitude was consistent from our initial meeting before the show, right through the concert and really stood out at the end. His passion for his music and fans is evident, and he is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. He paused the show to hug a group of young fans who were overcome with emotion during his performance of ‘Smoke Filled Room’. At the end of the show, he was out by the doors to the club to meet with everyone. Every encounter with a fan began with him extending his hand, introducing himself and asking their name. I was blown away, he is just so happy that people enjoy his music, the smile never left his face.
I had seen snippets of the old Hourglass tour with the band presentation, but the new version that Mako has created truly feels like an intimate indie rock show with a little bit of electronic elements. Every song has been re-tooled to be presented by a band, and each offering is a surprise. ‘Wish You Back’ goes from a quiet electronic piece to a lively violin-filled chorus, popping like the NOTD remix. ‘Breathe’ is the song that sounds closest to its original presentation, but that’s because it was recorded on live instruments.
Apart from the classics, we were treated to his song for League of Legends called ‘Legends Never Die, which was a heavy cinematic score. It played with lots of instrumental tricks for drama, and filled out nicely with Alex’s distinct voice. There was also a preview of his new collaboration with Illenium and Kill the Noise, which he mentioned is a trap dubstep banger. The preview was his opening vocals which lead perfectly into the incredible showpiece (and my favourite song) ‘Way Back Home’. The final standout to me was the new version of ‘Devil May Cry’, which was a monstrous headbanging instrumental breakdown amongst an intense red and white light show.
All in all, I highly recommend this show if you get a chance to visit any of the remaining tour dates here. It’s not EDM anymore, but Mako did tweet recently that he feels like making a “big giant electronic tune right now”, so maybe there’s more to come.
Please check out my full interview with Mako below, including some snippets from the show!
This is just the 4th night of the Mako ‘Breathe’ tour, how has it been received so far?
Really really nicely. We toured with the live band for the first time last year, which was kind of our proper ‘Hourglass’ tour, and that one was kind of a terrifying ride of “what the hell are we doing?” I’d never sang before, all that stuff, so this one is great, because now I’m feeling a lot more confident about what I’m doing, and now it’s also about tying everything together in a really awesome way with the band. So the first 3 shows have gone really well, I’m really happy.
You have only toured once before this for the Hourglass tour, what did you learn from that tour?
It’s insane how much I learned. DJ culture is a certain kind of performance, and band culture is an entirely different thing. I didn’t really see bands growing up because I was a classical dude, so I just thought you play your song, say hello, play your next song, tell a funny story, and then you say hello, and then I just realized I don’t have anything. I don’t know what to talk about, I feel like a standup comedian that’s bombing, I don’t know what to say to people, and then I started watching some other bands now, and it really makes a lot more sense. You can really program the show in a kind of cinematic way and you can guide it in advance the way you want to and choose your moments, kind of like a DJ set a little bit. Programming electronic and acoustic music for a live band is a bit of an art form, it doesn’t always translate exactly right, so it’s been taking a lot of time to figure out how to make thing sound wonderful in the room.
Have you updated the presentation of the show from the Hourglass tour, which was also done with a live band?
Tons of tweaking, yea I learned a lot. The tough part is you can only premeditate so much of it, it’s really when everybody’s in the room playing at full volume do things reveal themselves, and they reveal themselves very quickly. It’s really similar to DJing, where you produce a record in your bedroom, and you really only get if it works when you’re at the club, you mix it in, and either people are reacting or they’re not, you know so quickly. A lot of it is: “I made drums for this song with a computer, but I have a live drummer. Should he play those drums? Should those drums play while he doubles them? Should he trigger both at the same time?” and unfortunately what I’ve found is it’s different for every single song. Every single one we have to configure it just right.
How much time do you spend practising with the live band versus by yourself working on songwriting and practising alone?
The first tour I was manically afraid because it was my first time ever singing in public before. I was practicing for like two months just by myself. This time around I feel a lot more comfortable with it, so I hit it harder with the band, making sure we can get it together. We also put together a new light show for it too, so that took some time to re-tool, and it’s really frickin cool, I’m excited about it. There are certain aspects that I would have loved to rehearse more but the nice thing about a seven-week tour is it just starts to become a finer and finer tool over each night.
When you first did Hourglass the album, you wanted to do something COMPLETELY different from DJ culture, and you discovered that incredible sound. When I first heard Breathe I thought it was really recognizable as distinctly Mako, but it sounds like you have been working a lot more on yourself vocally –
Definitely, yea man that’s a really great insight you had. I took a lot of lessons from the first tour, and it’s funny because the first songs I ever properly sang were ‘Our Story’ and ‘Way Back Home’. I go back and I listen to those and it’s like…cringey in a loving way? I didn’t know what I was doing and I had never sang before and there was so much extra autotune and poorly chosen effects and it was mixed awfully, and it’s just so fun to look back. It’s like looking at old pictures of yourself doing something really silly, but you were really trying, you put all of yourself into it. I don’t feel bad about it but it’s really nice to feel the growth. To use it on ‘Breathe’ as an actual tool, it’s like a weapon in my arsenal now. Let me do some crazy vocals at the end of the songs because I CAN do it now, I could never do that before. Before I might need to fill out the end with more track because that’s the only way I could make it boost, now I can do things vocally. Like you said it’s hard to find an identity as an artist, and production and sound design was never my strongest suit, and finding the identity of Mako inside my own voice just made so much sense and it’s really helped figure things out from there.
With ‘Let Go of the Wheel’ it took you year from when you first had the idea to when you had your final product and it turned into a track on Hourglass. Was ‘Breathe’ the same way, is it the beginning of an album or EP?
I want it to be, it was similar to ‘Let Go of the Wheel’. The tough thing is when you’re not making purely progressive house which is what I was doing, when you’re in progressive house there’s like a mold, there’s a structure that everybody knows and it’s really comfortable to make music in that because there are rules, and I like rules. Musicians like rules because then it’s not limitless. You can constrain yourself to doing the most amazing drop, and the most amazing breakdown, but when it’s just wide open it’s like anything could happen here. What should happen and what do I want to happen? For me, organic instruments are such a big deal for me so the guitars are all live and even the percussion is all live too, I recorded all that stuff slapping on guitars and drums. There’s a lot of cinematic stuff, there are a lot of brass and strings and pianos. And then, there’s me singing, that took like 8 months to get it all right! It’s so hard to just make it work! When you hear everybody’s finished records your like “yea, that’s great” but sometimes they go through just…journeys to get there.
Listening to Hourglass start to finish, some of your League of Legends remixes, it’s obvious that those cinematic elements you’re looking for are present in your music. Are movie scores and cinematics something you discovered you loved at Juilliard or did you always love them?
I always loved movie scores, but I didn’t always know I wanted to do that stuff. I mean I don’t know how old you are but for me it was Lord of the Rings coming out, yea so you’re in the same range as me, that was like our Star Wars in some sense. Like all of our parents they were so moved by Star Wars, for me it was Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores, and I always got chills listening to that kind of music. I went to college for French Horn and then decided “Why don’t I start writing some stuff?” I think my real love affair with writing film music started in college and I moved out to LA to do that, I still had never heard of electronic music before. I was really in my own little tunnel vision world, and it was Logan who brought me out into the real world, and now it’s all about combining all my favourite things. I developed such a love for progressive house and electronic music, with cinematic music, pop stuff and indie rock stuff so it’s kinda all swirling around in there.
Would you describe writing a composition for a symphony as similar to sitting down and writing a whole produced electronic piece?
There are similar elements and there are extremely different elements. I used to write full orchestra stuff by hand in college and there are certain things, it’s called orchestration when you’re looking at the vertical score with all the instruments, and there are rules about ways they interact the best, and there are a lot of things about producing that are similar to that. You have high frequency to low frequency, and things center around the kick and there are vocals, and there needs to be space and you can’t clutter things, but the big difference is I would describe electronic production as so much more mathematic. I’m looking at graphs and EQs and filters and I’m using all kinds of compression and things that have number parameters rather than sonic parameters. With the transition I had no good sense of what a good bassline is or what a good groove is, because classical music just develops constantly, it never really sits in a pocket, it just kind of goes and goes and goes. All those things were my strength which is writing melodies and creating harmonies and emotional stuff, but I’m still struggling and trying to catch up to making great drums, making things drive and a mix sound punchy and huge, it’s not a fluent switch unfortunately, but what I hope is that whenever I feel really comfortable I’ve got an expertise in a couple different worlds. My favourite artists are guys that seem to have borrowed from a couple places very elegantly, I love that stuff.
I sensed a bit of melancholy with Logan leaving Mako, how has that been?
I have a huge regret that we didn’t communicate things a little bit clearer, and it wasn’t necessarily up to me and Logan because we had some outside forces that made it awkward for us to communicate what was going on, but we are on super great terms, he actually came out and opened for us in Michigan three nights ago, came out and played some shaker, he’s gonna come out for a couple nights as like a little surprise appearance. What actually happened was he was in law school for the last couple years, killed it, passed the bar, and then got a huge offer at an amazing firm. The dynamic between us was so different than most people. I actually made all the music, all the way back from ‘Beam’ until now, and then he would meet me on weekends and be kind of the leader of the DJ set. So he would prepare the set, I would write all the music, and then at almost the right moment, his life took off in a different direction while I started making other stuff other than dance music. We talk all the time, I talk to him all the time , so we’re super close, there’s no bad feeling for us but I really don’t ever want anybody else to feel let down you know, because this is like the most important thing to me, is to make people feel like they’re getting everything that I’ve got to give. What I see is an interesting narrative online which is Logan was the electronic guy, now that he’s gone, no more electronics, and the truth of it is that I made all the electronics, and then I decided to make other stuff. It was all penned by the same person. It is true that by the time Logan moved off for his job, I got into some other stuff. It is an interesting chapter mark in the Mako sound. I’m so proud of him, he’s an amazing dude. It’s pretty phenomenal to have built Mako with me, while going to law school, and that’s impossible. I don’t know how he does it. I can’t. The only thing I can do is music, I wish I was that talented.
When you’re writing what do you find most challenging, lyrics or the production?
I would say the production is the bane of my existence. I love songwriting, I love just creating, composing, all those things are great, and then making it sound huge…so hard for me. I think it’s hard for a lot of people, and the other difficult thing is that the sound of everything shifts so quickly. Before it was like new subgenres of dance music would come and go so fast, but now it’s like hip-hop is all the rage. People don’t want to listen to big melodic stuff anymore, but it’s like oh, that’s my favourite stuff, do I learn how to make hip hop drums? And you hear some artists do it, like an Imagine Dragons record comes out and it’s like hip-hop drums, with sick basses and his voice and it does really well. And then you hear Coldplay which is kind of almost like produced by pop producers now, it’s not really like a band anymore, and then you hear other bands go different directions. A lot of us are kind of at a crossroads, who you want to be and what you want to do, and I’m always been partial to just doing what I love rather than what everybody else is doing. But it’s a crazy experience, when you’re building a thing and you have a team and labels and all that stuff, they are just trying to yank you in directions constantly that you don’t feel comfortable going. Sometimes it’s for practical reasons, and sometimes it’s for reasons that are selfish for them and not for you. It takes a lot of strength and I fail and succeed all the time at picking the right path, it’s a constant battle. I get disappointed when I feel like artists are doing something that’s not true to themselves, like any fan would, but I also can understand it a little bit too, because I know how complicated it can be. I feel like my own happiness comes from making beautiful music, as beautiful music as I can so as long as I’m doing that I feel like I’m heading in the right direction.
Any artists out there right now that you see what they’re doing and love it, you want to link up with them and do something?
There’s a lot man, there are so many great people making music. The one thing that makes me a little sad is that not all the people that I’m loving are like, succeeding like, numbers-wise and all the ways those things happen. It was around Hourglass where I started listening to a lot more bands, like indie electronic artist, so I started sliding from Swedish House Mafia who kinda quit and I moved into ODESZA and Porter and all those guys, just so beautiful. And then I started getting into weirder guys, this artist called SONNE or Son Lux, and then it started getting into like avant garde electronic music and I don’t make that stuff but I was really inspired by it, then I got into Sigur Ros and all these Icelandic bands, it’s so beautiful and cinematic, and then Logan is obsessed with Radiohead so I’ve been listening to them for a long time, man they’re just so good. There are so many places to still be inspired which is great but you want to see all those people win too, because when everything is tropical house or hip-hop or whatever, it’s like a smaller field for the rest of us to feel comfortable exploring and y’know, still being able to pay the rent while making music that’s really authentic.
One final question: When are you going to bring out the French Horn? Join GRiZ in the future funk!
Those guys are so good, I love that set. I think I saw GRiZMATiC at Electric Forest, it’s so fun. It’s gonna happen! When I was in China recently for League of Legends I was doing this song with them and they have a full, amazing orchestra come out, they fly them all out, and the horn players found out I used to play, so they told me “You’re bringing your French horn next time” so I said okay, next time, Worlds, I’m gonna do it, and then I’ll start incorporating it into the set.