How the M Machine went from playing guitars and pianos to pushing dance music's boundaries

Categories: Profiles

Justin Nizer
Bands like San Francisco-based M Machine are helping American dance music grow and spread its reach into every genre. What started out as three friends working in a parallel field -- audio tracking for video games -- snowballed into a full-on band, complete with as-it-happens video production and live vocals. It's not the dance music you're hearing at the major festivals, but it is helping to expand the bubble of EDM outside of the clubs and into the venues around the country. We spoke with Ben Swardlick about how the group came together, how they got on with Skrillex's OWSLA label, and what they hope to achieve in 2014.

Westword:So you're out in San Francisco right now. Is that home base?

Ben Swardlick: We have a warehouse right on the bay. We live and work in a warehouse studio in downtown San Francisco.

How does that work living and working together? Do you ever want to take a break from spending so much time together?

We live in a big space and we do a lot of work individually, as well. We've been living and working together for a long time, and when we need our space, we take it and do our solo work as often as we need to. It works out really nicely for us. It takes practice. Andy and Eric are pretty ideal as far as work habits go. We grind out as many hours as we can, and there isn't a lack of effort anywhere.

Do you guys have any solo projects outside of the M Machine?

We have our hobbies and stuff, but musically, no.

How did you come together as a group?

We did all grow up as the singer-songwriting type. Between us, there was a lot of grass and guitar and piano playing, but as far as working together, Eric and I went to college together and right at the end of our senior year we were getting more serious about music production. We moved out to SF with a half-plan to get involved with sound tracking video games. We met Andy in the city around 2008-2009, and he was interested in getting involved with the same stuff. We all started writing tracks together. At the time, doing game audio was sort of the thing we told our parents while we were working on our rock star music career plan.

I was first introduced to the M Machine on the Porter Robinson tour back in 2012. How did you get on that tour?

We had mutual friends from Chapel Hill (Porter Robinson is from Chapel Hill, North Carolina) and we met him from people, but that's not how we got on the tour. That was just old fashioned, organic internet connections. We were called Pants Party back then, and we heard Porter's first single "Say My Name," which may not have been his first one, but it was his breakout track, and we looked him up. He had listed us as an influence, and we got in touch. Within a couple months, we had the same management, and he came out to SF a couple times, and we just clicked. He has a really similar attitude towards music production as we do. It's quality and effort and tempered slow. We share an opinion on the fast ADD stuff that isn't fueling the festival circuit. That's not an exciting form of music for us.

Why do you think that way about music?

It's hard to say where you tendencies are, and where you end up being stubborn, but I think it's like anything. We were talking yesterday about how you present a song, and how sometimes the context you want to show off to an audience may not be what you think. I would be most excited if there was a maximal musical thought, and it was detailed and intricate, and then sometimes you flip it around from the listeners perspective, the simplicity is what you want. It's funny. I don't know how we've gone down the wormhole that we have, but when we started writing dance music five or six years ago, everything was about intricate detail in your music. Now, guys like Porter, us, and people like Madeon are rejecting this intricate patchwork fabric of intricate sounds. It's nice to go the classic, timeless sounds route. Porter is a good person to bring up because he's really ready to show off what I'm talking about.

Are you still traveling with the same production stage?

It has changed so much. Back in 2012 we were touring with that massive "M" that Andy built. He's a jack of all trades. He wanted to add a visual performance for his role while on stage. He took six months and designed and built this LED driven "M." That thing was great. We used it for a long time. Now it's sitting in our warehouse. After that, Andy realized he kind of maxed out his creativity with that - it was only a 36 pixel video tile. He ran through all the patterns with that, and decided that he wanted to switch over to a digital version. Now we play with an LED screen, or projector situation. He does it all with video now. We come out heavy, and the video corresponds a lot better with our show. What we do is keep it all in the context of the 3D version of the M. We work with a guy named Scott Pagano (Skrillex, Zedd) and he helped us create some live content for the show. That's turned into a real expressive part of the show.

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