July 28, 2014

23-Year-Old Mat Zo Is Just Getting Started

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With the anthemic “Easy,” he topped the Beatport charts this past year alongside Porter Robinson. Then, with Chuck D on the mic, he rode to the top of the Billboard Dance Chart with the funkier “Pyramid Scheme.”

He’s a firm favorite of big-room DJ-megastars as varied as Tiësto, Skrillex and Above & Beyond and he’s even conquered the murky world of drum-n-bass under the pseudonym MRSA.

Now as his debut album, Damage Control (Anjunabeats), hits the stores, Mat Zo is well-prepped for a huge 2014.
With all that in mind, DJ Times recently caught up with the 23-year-old British phenomenon (aka Matan Zohar) at London’s legendary Ministry of Sound club.

DJ Times: You were brought up both in the U.S. and in the U.K. Your music seems quite U.S.-leaning, yet you cite your influences as European names like Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers.
Mat Zo: Everyone’s upbringing affects their tastes, so I guess mine are pretty split! I try not to think too much about what “nationality” my music is, but I am conscious of the fact that, style-wise, I seem to be pretty U.S.-themed.

DJ Times: You’re from a musical family. Your half-brother’s a known Israeli singer now working on a major album deal. Was there a lot of sibling rivalry?
Mat Zo: My half-sister is a budding musician, too. But growing up, we were spread all over the place, so I didn’t see them much. I’m afraid I can’t tell you any stories about intense familial competitiveness.

DJ Times: What came first for you, DJing or production?
Mat Zo: I knew my way around instruments from an early age, but before I’d moved to the U.K. I didn’t know anything about electronic music or DJing at all. I then learned about electronic music mostly by being exposed to it on TV, and I quickly became intrigued and started experimenting with basic computer programs. DJing came along later. A family friend introduced me to it. Then shortly after, a then-big-deal DJ named Pied Piper showed up at our school and took over a music lesson, telling us about DJing, mixing, cueing. I stayed behind after school for hours that day just practicing on the kit he’d brought in. I was obsessed.

DJ Times: Production and DJing are intrinsically linked, despite being different endeavors. Do you find if you DJ more or less that your ideas on production change?
Mat Zo: Yeah, when you start DJing seriously—and particularly when you progress to doing it full-time—it definitely affects your productions. It makes every little thing you think about in production relate back to being in the booth—how it’ll sound mixed with other tracks, how the crowd will like it. It’s not always necessarily a good thing. Perhaps it leads to you closing down ideas before you fully develop them. Also, the more you DJ, the less time you have. I find the best music I’ve written has come from when I’ve had lots of time off away from it all. Sometimes, gigging all over the place and feeling the pressure to put new tunes out within a few hours of allotted studio time between sets is just too stressful.

DJ Times: You’ve hopped up very quickly, reaching No. 1 with Porter Robinson on Beatport within just a few years of first becoming noticed by the wider community. For you, what was the turning point?
Mat Zo: I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist, so actually I never think it’s going particularly well [laughs]. I always feel it could be going better, so I still don’t feel like I’ve “made it” as such. Not yet, anyway.

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DJ Times: You have a unique sound. It’s got the space and style of trancey stuff and it’s got the grunt of electro. You’re a big fan of chopped-up vocal samples. How do your tracks come together?
Mat Zo: There’s no formula. When I get into the studio, I try not to come with any expectations of what I’m trying to do. I’ll have ideas, then I’ll throw down some tempos to work out what kind of pace that idea sounds good at. Then, I base a whole track around that accordingly. I’ve always been a fan of all kinds of different stuff and I’ve always felt as a producer it would be unwise not to constantly experiment with as many different styles as possible, particularly in electronic music.

DJ Times: It’s interesting because your production is busy—lots of elements going on. But with your MRSA drum-n-bass pseudonym—it’s liquid, it’s stripped-back, it’s a real departure.
Mat Zo: I don’t think they’re opposing at all! I feel they both fit with my sensibility of making music. My big thing is melodies. Every track has to be, above all, melodic—and both my Mat Zo and my MRSA tracks are that. The two projects have definitely fed into each other: I’ve learned a lot in drum-n-bass that I’ve applied back into my four-to-the-floor stuff.

DJ Times: Is D-n-B more challenging to make than housey stuff, or easier because there are stricter boundaries?
Mat Zo: Drum-n-bass is very unforgiving. You can make a passable house track if you’ve got a nice fat kick drum you build stuff around. With D-n-B, it’s either spot-on or it just sounds terrible!

DJ Times: You play internationally, but you’ve mentioned you prefer to make tunes in downtime. What are your set-ups like?
Mat Zo: For DJing and for production, I’m all for simplicity. Production—it’s just studio monitors, Ableton Live with a stack of software synths, and a MIDI keyboard. I’ve got some real instruments I experiment with from time to time, but really that’s it. For DJing, it’s simpler still—just two [Pioneer] CDJs and a mixer. That makes life a lot easier for every individual involved when I’m on tour.

DJ Times: You’re now an international name. From where you stand, is it easier than ever before for producers to get noticed because of social platforms and affordable kit? Or is it harder because so many are at it?  
Mat Zo: Well, it’s been a long time since I tried to get my own music out there. I think it’s a lot harder now because there are so many more people doing it. It is harder to get a listen in from DJs. At the end of the day, a lot of big-name DJs will play stuff on personal recommendation, so to an extent there’s still a lot of word-of-mouth and it’s actually harder to get access to big names now.

DJ Times: You’ve made it clear before that you’re not a fan of genres and the “genre-fication” of music. Do you think that with EDM—with the wider, big-room sound—that this is already breaking down?  
Mat Zo: Absolutely. When I said that, it was about three years ago and at that time I was very much associated with trance and I was keen to break out of that pigeonhole. In reality, it’s not especially difficult for artists to bounce around now, as all you have to do is try out different things, and come at music with a different view point.

DJ Times: What do the next few months have in store?
Mat Zo: I’m gonna do my album tour across the U.S. next year, then in the New Year there’s gonna be some Asian dates. In the meantime, I’m going to try and start work on another album. Try being the word—I’m pretty hectic!

DJ Times: Advice for aspiring DJs?
Mat Zo: Keep going. Keep going. Keep going (laughs).


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