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In Conversation With: Mat Zo

2019 has been an interesting year for Mat Zo.

With a body of work that ranges from trance to drum & bass and dates back over 10 years to when he was just a teenager, you get the impression every year is an interesting one for the LA-based artist. But this one in particular has been pivotal.

Having finally put his dedicated drum & bass alias to rest, he’s brought every style he enjoys making and playing under just the one artist name. For anyone who’s been following him it didn’t come as a much of a shock; while he usually kept the 170 stuff to his MRSA project (a name he picked in 2008 when he made his debut on Hospital’s Sick Music and instantly regretted) his output as Mat Zo has always been wide-ranging and prone to surprise bass-ridden twists and turns.

Echoes of dubstep lurk and rumble in tracks like 2014’s Ruffneck Badboy and his Kill The Zo project with Kill The Noise, 2016’s MAD release featured two killer halftime heave-ho’s and his sets have never been shy of the odd drum & bass crescendo. In fact for most of his career he’s made a point of breaking any perceived genre boundaries, subverting expectations and ignoring any advice to package himself up in a neat little marketable box. This year’s output is a perfect example of his musical dexterity.

From the glittery French-house inspired Tracing Steps EP to his twitchy, breakbeat monster Motivate (featured on his precision delivered Mad Zoo label mixtape earlier this year) by way of Emotion Sickness on Bassrush, Zo appears to be in his element, firing out anything he’s pleases to… Including incredible Latin D&B heaters like Games.

A sunny-side slap to the senses, Games has been a vital summer dub for Mat since last year and was inspired by the golden era of big tunes during the early 2000s when he first fell in love with the genre. It comes courtesy of our ten-year anniversary album UKF10 – 10 Years Of Drum & Bass and we reckon it’s the funkiest drum & bass tune Zo has ever released (even funkier than Vice)

It’s his last release of his latest interesting year. We called up Mat to see what’s next and caught him fresh from his recent UKF On Air set at longstanding US D&B institution Respect. A heady blend of classics, upfront cuts and a few hair-raising IDs, it’s a great snapshot of where he’s as a DJ as well as a producer. Looking back to the last time we interviewed him in spring 2016, it’s where he’s always wanted to be.

Even back when we interviewed you four years ago, it felt like this is where you were heading all the time.

Definitely. I’ve just been trying to get better at my craft. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and it takes me a while. I obsess with every detail.

That’s the thrill of the chase. People say drum & bass is the hardest genre to produce. Having explored many genres, would you agree?

I’d say it’s definitely one of the hardest in terms of not having so much space to work with because it’s so fast. The production standards are definitely higher, too. Because of artists like Noisia and Pendulum who raised the bar technically.

So… RIP MRSA. Does this mark you feeling more confident about your drum & bass in a way?

No I just didn’t like that name. I chose it jokingly when I was 16. It didn’t age well. It’s more just me not being able to think of a better alias. Plus whenever I play a drum & bass set it’s billed as Mat Zo anyway. It makes more sense.

Was there any emotion in closing down the project? Or any poignancy?

No there was no emotional attachment. I never played a show as MRSA – for some reason promoters didn’t want to put that name on the bills. So it didn’t feel like losing something. It felt more like returning to something.

Nice. I like seeing artists bringing everything under one name. Fans know these days that the acts they follow should be free to do what they like…

Yeah but it’s hard to make a nice package for people when you don’t stick to one style and one aesthetic.

You’ve never struck me as a nice neat package guy!

No I’m not. But maybe that’s why I’m not as successful as other people.

It’s about the freedom and expression though isn’t it? I think the earlier signs for where you’re at with Mat Zo now was the M.A.D track and Troglodyte. Was that a turning point in any way?

Maybe it was a bit different to what I was doing at the time but it wasn’t conscious. I didn’t feel I was going out on a limb. That’s what I mean about not having things in a nice neat package.

It’s always been in your sets as well.

I’ve always played a bit of it, yeah, but lately I’ve played more and more of it. The crowd is more accepting of it which I’m really happy about.

You’re in the thick of this new wave of drum of drum & bass in the US. How is it?

Yeah it’s interesting, it’s been building up over the last few years. There was this feeling like people didn’t really quite get it. But with more and more DJs playing it and more drum & bass DJs being booked, people have been more exposed to it and the more people see things as the norm then it becomes more acceptable. It’s always been there, but right now it feels like people are looking for something less stale than what’s happening in other genres. Drum & bass feels very fresh to a lot of Americans.

Tell you what else is fresh? Games. Can we call it the funkiest tune you’ve ever done?

Ha. Thanks. I was really going for summer vibes I guess. I’m inspired by those tunes from around 2004. Barcelona, Tarantula, those type of big tunes.

Golden time. Heavy samples. Power liquid. That was your entrance into this music, right?

I love the term power liquid, that’s great. But yeah that was the era I first got into it. It was being called stadium drum & bass and I love it. Usually everything I write is a homage to that time in one way. You hark back to a time when you were most excited about the music.

The time when everything seems like an enigma, mysteries to unravel. You’re not jaded in any way…

Exactly. And the whole experience of it. Everything is exciting and euphoric. As a producer it’s hard not to over critique the details and just let the music wash over you. So sometimes you have to set your mind back to a time when it could wash over you.

We’re all too harsh on ourselves in that way. Do you think you sit on too much music that could be released as a result?

No I don’t think so. I know when I’ve done something I like. And it usually doesn’t stay that way [laughs] I think an artist’s judgement is usually pretty accurate, though. It’s how you feel inside when you put out something and you have that gut feeling you know isn’t good. I’ve put out things that don’t sit so easily with me.

Do tell!

Oh just some of my earlier trance releases and maybe a few tracks from my last album. But most stuff I’ve released, I’m pretty proud of.

A good message: don’t just hurl out releases consistently…

Yeah it helps you limit things. But some artists don’t have that luxury. They need to keep regular releases out there. I don’t think I have that luxury but I fool myself that I do. Because if I don’t do it this way, I’d release music I’m not proud of.

Back to Games. I’m guessing you’ve been caning that all summer in your sets?

Since last summer actually. I’ve had it for a while now, the reaction is always really strong.

It’s got that universal vibe. You could play this to a non drum & bass fan and they wouldn’t hear the D&B first, they’d hear the Latin vibe first.

I think so. But every genre is an illusion at the end of the day, right?

That’s the quote of the day.

Borders are an illusion in every way. There’s no big walls in the ground dividing up countries. Boundaries are only perceived. Okay so some people are actually trying to build walls, but this isn’t typical. It’s just the vision we’ve created in our minds.

Funny you should mention that. Games tune reminds me John B’s Mexican tunes on his Chihuahua Recordings. He put you in the direction of Hospital didn’t he?

Yeah that’s right, he was the first to introduce me to Tony and Chris. I respect John a lot and love his music. I didn’t know about his Mexican stuff though, I’ll check it out. The last thing I saw of his was Get Stuffed which I thought was hilarious. But I have always wanted to play around with Latin influences in drum & bass. When I’d start going to raves there would be loads of Latin people there and I always felt they got it more than any one else. Like the music was natural to them.

Patife once told us that the whole ‘bassline singalong’ culture started in Sao Paulo…

I’m not surprised at that at all. So much stuff goes back to Latin music. Disco, house, the rhythms in techno. I don’t think it’s given the credit it deserves. So I’m paying homage to that.

I imagine the instruments are fun to play with as a producer for all the little details…

For sure. That one’s called a cuica. Actually there’s an old house track from the early 2000s which gave me the inspiration for using that instrument too. It’s called Pasilda by Afro Medusa. I heard that when I was 12 or 13 and have always loved it.

Another reference point!

Yeah everything I do is a reference to something from my past or my influences. I make quite a conscious thing about it.

Does setting your reference points help you set the limitations to be creative in?

Exactly. I feel everything is cohesive if you’ve picked a mood. And you can’t imagine a mood in your head without thinking of something you’ve already heard that sets that mood. There’s a famous quote that’s something along the lines of ‘creativity is just being able to hide your references.’ I agree.

Without references things would be almost impossibly abstract perhaps

True. I wish I could create ideas out of thing air. I have to have something to base an idea around.

Is Games your last tune of the year?

Yeah, the next one will be on my own label Mad Zoo for the compilation we’re doing which is out end of January.

The Mad Zoo mix earlier this year was great. What can we expect from the label next year? It feels like you’re ramping it up…

There’s quite a lot coming actually. We’ve got some big bodies of work coming out next year featuring a whole bunch of cool people like Rohaan and Groke. Releasing albums was never the plan but there’s an interest and more people send demos and the quality level gets higher. I guess we are ramping it up, I’m always aiming for each release to be bigger or better. But I think that’s just natural progression. Like everything…

Games is everything. It’s out now on UKF10: http://ukf.io/gamesed

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