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Sickened by success: how MSTRKRFT blew itself up to survive

Jon Dekel

Some time in 2010, Jesse F. Keeler and Al-P, better known as the Toronto-based DJ duo MSTRKRFT, came to a breaking point in their musical career. On the one hand, they had never been more successful, playing Letterman with John Legend, earning big paydays and topping festival bills. On the other, they had painted themselves into a musical corner: riding the au courant wave of genre-mashing house with hip-hop to great renown, while essentially becoming the go-to remixers for any indie artist with chart ambitions.

When pop-minded sophomore release Fist of God failed to impress EDM-weary critics, Keeler and Al-P began to reconsider their very motivation for going forward. The offers were still coming in, but the duo found themselves increasingly sickened by the bed they’d made. Something had to give.

Keeler, who had been through a similar revulsion with his other duo, the raucous dance-punk act Death From Above 1979, tried to mitigate the damage by eliminating the group’s live commitments. But it soon became apparent MSTRKRFT would have to go nuclear, scorching the very earth they stood on in order to reset.

“If you're not happy with the way things are, for whatever reason — internal or external — you can't just expect things to change dramatically if you don't make dramatic changes,” Keeler recalls, lighting a cigarette. “We decided to do our utmost to get out of every record deal and commitment that we had with anybody anywhere. We had to stop.”

A couple spare releases aside, by 2011 MSTRKRFT practically disappeared from public life — just in time for Keeler to reunite DFA for a new album, and for the rest of the world to write MSTRKRFT off.

It’s a sunny weekend afternoon at South By Southwest 2016 in Austin, Texas, and Keeler and Al-P are standing on the roof of a Whole Foods. Less than 24 hours removed from their return to the live stage, a truncated DJ set witnessed by tens of stunned (or stoned) University of Texas students settling into St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Their second set, playing ahead of Third Eye Blind to a capacity crowd moments ago, went considerably better, and the duo huddles in the makeshift backstage as passersby vie for their attention.

As part of their rebirth, their new live show is in support of their upcoming album, but it’s also entirely improvised — part of the duo’s new philosophy toward music, inspired by the artistic aspirations of Sonic Youth.

“My other band played with them in Norway and it really hit me: they just exist playing the music that they want and if people like it or don't like it, it doesn't phase them either way," Keeler explains. "And yet there were 20,000 people there wanting to figure out what they were going to do. Which isn't to say if you get weird you'll have a huge fanbase like Sonic Youth, rather if there's a thing that you want to do and makes you happy, there's a chance you'll do it for 30 years," he pauses. "Or until you get divorced.”

“We reference them all the time: 'What would Sonic Youth have done in this moment?'" says Al-P. "The thing with DJing is there's a sense of contemporary thinking that you have to put into a set. The way we're playing now, I kind of look at it as if we're able to play covers of our own material within our new framework.”

“It's kind of like jazz," Keeler adds, "you'll never see the same performance twice.”

“Here's a great quote,” Al-P smiles. “We're producing in real time.”

The road to rebuilding after self-destruction is purposely difficult. For the members of MSTRKRFT, the path was a form of regression therapy, rediscovering their musical agility in a kind of sensory deprivation chamber of their own making, void of any outside pressure. “Akin to how we would operate as teenagers,” Keeler says, laughing, “figuring out the way to make music that would make us excited. It's been gripping.”

“Here's a funny way to put it,” Al-P offers. “Any time me and Jesse had been away from the studio we always inevitably end up starting something called 'Having Fun Again.' And I think there's a 'Having Fun Again 1' and a 'Having Fun Again 2,' four years later. So once we reach that point of starting a session and naming that session 'Having Fun Again,' we know that we're on the right path to where we want to go.”

Ironically, while the pair slaved to rediscover their sound, the zeitgeist appeared to bend to the very concept critics were sceptical of on their ill-fated second album — as pop stars like Justin Bieber revitalized their careers with the help of EDM producers.

“We just thought if this music was going to become pop music and R&B and rap music are going to become more dance music, why don't we make a record based on that theory?” Keeler says. “And it seems to have come to pass. [But] it just wasn't something we were ever going to do again.

“For us, we're just content to have predicted it successfully and occasionally get a shout-out for having called it so long ago.”

That being said, if a certain compatriot were to call, “I would happily work with Justin Bieber,” Keeler boasts. “I actually think Justin Bieber is great. He's sort of like Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield in the early '80s in terms of his interaction with the world. I'm pretty sure he also has cheques of $70,000 lying around. Like that one scene of Chevy Chase in Caddyshack.”

As for their upcoming album, if first single, "Little Red Hen," is any indication, it’s a return to the unencumbered house music of the group's earliest releases.

Both Keeler and Al-P won’t commit to anything on the record until they’re ready to give it a release date, but they say it’s been whittled down from hundreds of hours of recordings, spanning several genres governed only by their whims.

“I look at the album as a cube,” Al-P says. “There's corners of the cube that exist in slightly different genres and stylistic frameworks and approaches but it all works together and supports each other.”

For Keeler, the group’s return comes back to the Sonic Youth philosophy. “We really needed to be artists,” he says. “What we're doing now is we're improving in front of people. That's as far as I think we can go, I think: let's just make stuff up in front of people.”