Matthew Ker (MaJiKer) Interview
MaJiKer (Matthew Ker) is a performer, producer, composer, beatboxer and more recently a podcaster. However, he is perhaps best known for his collaborations. He is a true jack-of-all-trades, and his impressive list of collaborators includes artists such as Camille, Juice Vocal Ensemble, Nico Muhly, Gaggle, David Byrne and many more.
Could you talk a little bit about your background in music, and how you came to be interested in vocal music?
I’ve always done music. I started learning the piano at the age of 6, and although I’ve never been much of a singer I did used to sing in choirs. I took the traditional route of sliding from S, to A, to T and ending at B (although I suppose I’m more of a baritone). Even though I enjoyed it, I wasn’t particularly good at singing and it was never my focus. However, I have always been fascinated by the voice.
I wrote for the voice a lot when I did my music degree at Dartington. I realised at that stage that it was a bit of a niche, and that maybe I was quite good at it. I think what I learnt from my time as a student is that I like to have a muse, and it was often a female muse. I made an album in my halls of residence with twelve different female singers (most of whom had never sung before) and my 8track recorder. It was a really formative experience, and I suppose it became a blueprint that I’ve continued ever since – I have a love of discovering people’s voices.
It was working with Camille in 2004 when I really began to experiment with what can be done with the voice. Although the album [Le Fil] was not entirely vocal, we wanted it to be vocal-led and we had a vocal drone throughout. It wasn’t the first time I had played with the human voice in that way, but there was definitely an ambition to see what we could do, and how far we could go with it. And then when it came to putting the project on stage we wanted to take it further again. That’s when I learnt to beatbox!
You’re a massive collaborator whether as a producer, performer or songwriter. What do you take from collaboration, and how do your collaborations come to be?
Sometimes I will have a project where I’m looking for singers – like North – and then I reach out to people. They might be friends, or previous collaborators or new people; and that’s a nice excuse to approach artists and explore new ground. But I think it generally works better when people approach me, because then there is no question about why we’re working together, it is because they have asked for my help. I try to avoid projects where there is an imbalance, or it is driven by one side more than the other. I find collaborations most healthy if there is a mutual desire to work together.
I can sometimes be really surprised by artists, like Zaza Fournier, my latest collaboration. When I heard her demos I wasn’t sure what I could do with them, but then when we met we hit it off right away. She seemed curious and excited to put our heads together, so we gave it a go and now we have this brilliant and fruitful collaboration. I think part of the reason why it works so well is because we are coming from very different places – we can both bring something to the table, but also we can learn from each other and take something away. It has been a valuable experience for me, and I think the most important thing I have learnt is that I need to leave space for surprises!
I had such a great collaboration with Camille. So now there is an assumption that I’m looking for a new Camille, or the next Camille. But actually there is only one Camille. I feel that I would be best placed to work with an artist who needs a bit of guidance or encouragement, someone who would like to push their voice a bit further or experiment with more interesting work. Camille is a very rounded and complete artist, she has amazing control of her voice and she knows exactly what she is doing creatively, so there is only so much that I can contribute. I think I’m looking for people who would like to do more, but maybe don’t have the tools or the confidence to make it happen on their own.
Collaboration is the single most important part of my work. It is a great way to ensure that you are always moving forwards and learning. When you work with other people you are continually being challenged and questioned.
Which part of your job do you enjoy the most? Would you consider yourself to be a producer more than a composer or performer?
I think I find those terms increasingly difficult. I don’t really like being called a ‘producer’, but on a practical level that best defines what I do. I think ‘producer’ implies that the work would never have existed if I hadn’t been there, but that is clearly not the case, it just might have sounded different without my input. I’m a collaborator really; I am part of the process and I help to make it better. The role is flexible, and I like that about it.
At the moment I seem to be developing a reputation as a bit of a guru! I tend to sit down with people and figure out not only how the music can sound better, but also how the music fits with the rest of their lives. That’s not always intentional, it is just that I don’t like to waste people’s time, so if I can see that something is blocking the creativity then we need to talk about the end result. Who’s going to listen to it, and what’s it for? Why do you make music? What are we here for? You think it is obvious, but it never is. Some people like to be heard or looked at, and that is a very different goal from wanting to express yourself. Some people are studio worms, and others are more focused on performing and touring. It is important to establish where the music needs to go, and what we’re working towards. It is hard to be creative if there are distractions, or if there is confusion about who is doing what, or if the work feels aimless. A clear framework from the start means that we can concentrate on what we do best and make some great music.
Could you talk about some of your musical inspirations?
I could try and be clever and go for all of the obscure ones… but, if I’m being honest, you can’t get much better than Björk. She has made a massive impact on musicians of my generation, and so have many of her collaborators. She has worked with loads of interesting musicians and artists, some of whom I’ve been lucky enough to work with since.
Further down the line I discovered Kate Bush, who is unrivalled, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of vocal control and expression. I did a podcast recently with Nico Muhly and I played a Kate Bush track. He then proceeded to take the track apart, and he went through all of the reasons why Kate Bush was ‘totally me’. It was really interesting because he got me completely right, and the same for Kate Bush. He talked about the contrast between treated and untreated vocals, and he also identified that there are sounds which sound like they’re made by one thing, but are actually made by something else.
I’m also interested in vocal music, and particularly vocal music from around the world. I’m obsessed with music from Georgia at the moment – Hamlet Gonashvili performs the most beautiful and expressive music. And of course Bulgarian vocal music is stunning – I love the sound of groups like Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares and also Trio Bulgarka, who have actually worked with Kate Bush.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love pop music. I’m fascinated by the structure of songs, and the way in which songs are put together. There is something about the precision of pop music that really appeals to me. I also like stories, and so it is important to be able to hear the words and the melody. I have sometimes struggled to get into opera – although I am trying – and I think that’s because there is so much vibrato that I can’t always hear the words or the tune. When something is sung a bit more plainly, or perhaps in a more ‘pop’ style then I find it easier to unravel. But it also comes down to the fundamental questions like, ‘What is a good tune?’ – and this is a question which will fascinate me till the end of time. That’s why I love the Eurovision Song Contest, because you have three minutes to convince the whole continent that you have written the best tune.
Could you talk a little bit about the difference between the vocal scene in France, and here in the UK?
I’m not sure how I feel about the term ‘scene’. For me it has been about personal connections. When I moved to France I thought Camille was part of a scene, but then I realised that she wasn’t the tip of the iceberg, she was the iceberg – she was just doing her own thing.
Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’, which is like a ‘scene genius’. He talks about Russian impressionist art, and certain periods in art history when there was rich investment, and there were collectors and galleries – all of that support helps to nurture musicians and artists. But I’m not sure how important any of that stuff is these days, we have the internet now and that means a whole different thing. You could have a load of people in a city all making music in their bedrooms and posting their tracks online – there isn’t the same need to meet in person.
What I like about your website (LaLaLa), and I’m trying to do a similar thing, is that there’s a sense of bringing people together. It is so important to nurture this idea of community and build relationships with people. I’m always keen to go for coffee, and to chat in person, and to go to gigs, and to meet with people. It is a small world if you want it to be, and there is something quite reassuring about that.
The reason why I’m hesitant about the word scene is because sometimes you can feel like there is an exclusive club and you’re not a member. I’ve come to realise that there is no club, and that actually you make your own circles. A ‘club’ is just a collection of people who you like, and who are making interesting work as you see it. You can support them by going to their gigs, and buying their music, and maybe even working together. I’ve felt for too long, particularly since living in Paris, that I’m missing out on something here in London and that I’ll never be part of the club. But actually people are generous and open, and all you need to do is turn up at an event and introduce yourself. Go to gigs and say hello – it really is that simple – that’s how I met Sam Lee.
What’s next for MaJiKer, have you got any exciting projects coming up?
I’m really excited to be working on a sonata for beatbox and piano – it will feature me playing the piano and beatboxing at the same time. I have a few musical elements already in place, but I’m going to develop the project early next year. Actually, I’m glad to be talking about it at this stage because it will help to motivate me, and hopefully the project will gain some more momentum.
Other things I’ve got going on include my new podcast series, which I’m planning to keep going. I’m still touring with Zaza Fournier, and we’ve got some more gigs lined up for next year. I’m also working with Juice on their new project which involves them hitting things (and that’s been good fun). The first task has been to train them how to hit stuff, because you don’t become a percussionist overnight. I’ve set them some homework to help them improve their percussive techniques – they’ve got some tricky paradiddles to master before we meet next.
And also, I’m a big fan of the Eurovision song contest (as I may have already mentioned) and all I’m going to say is… watch this space!
What have you been listening to recently? Have you got any good recommendations?
I listen to loads of music, but I’m not much of an iPod person. Part of the reason for starting my new podcast was actually to make myself listen to more music and discover new things. Preparing for the podcast has been a great way for me to engage with music, and also my guests have introduced me to some really interesting artists and sounds. If you listen to the podcast you will get to know the music I love, and you can hear me talk in lots of detail about the music I am most passionate about.
At the moment I’m busy making music, and so I don’t have as much time to sit down and listen to albums in the way that I used to. I’m still listening to a lot of music, but it tends to be more for reference and to spark conversation in the studio. I do my best to keep on top of what’s new, and I regularly listen to little bits of lots of things. I like exploring on SoundCloud and YouTube and knowing what other musicians are up to – I think it is important to have an overview.
When it comes to new releases I like to pick a couple of albums every year which I think are brilliant. This year my chosen albums are:
1) Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs. This album is amazing, and it is right up my street. For the most part it is electro-pop, but at one point it launches into a piano and string sonata, and the whole album is constantly surprising. It is ambitious and creative, and it feels really contemporary.
2) Roisin Murphy – Hairless Toys. I’m really chuffed that the album has been Mercury nominated! It is quite a difficult listen and it has a very particular mood. It took a little bit of time for me to get into it, but it is definitely worth the wait and now I think it is a small masterpiece. She has the most interesting approach to song-writing, and to her voice in general. The album is wonderful.
MaJiKer has just launched a new podcast called ‘Music Meets with MaJiKer’. Hosted by Matthew, every episode invites a different guest to share and discuss three tracks, including one track of their own music. The podcast is an informative and detailed dissection of the chosen tracks, but also a fascinating insight into Matthew’s guests.
For more about the podcast: http://majiker.com/PODCAST.html