Being consistent listeners of the Cycles radio show and favoring tracks like “Nothing Else Matters” and “F.Y.C.,” we were ecstatic when Max Graham was booked to play at RISE. Not only were we able to hear him play live at our favorite venue, but also got to hang out for a bit before his set for insights on change, social interaction and advice.
How would you say progressive trance has changed from 2001 to today?
►Everything changes drastically with people’s tastes over time. How has [progressive trance] changed? I would say there’s definitely an ADD problem. Songs are shorter, things happen faster, bigger, sharper. A lot of the subtlety of building songs is lost… it’s sort of like an arm’s race to see who can have the bigger bang rather than who can develop something that tugs more emotion. There are still amazing records out today like there were then, but the quality seems like it was better back in the day because you can only remember the good records and you don’t remember the bad ones. In 10 years, people will be saying it was so much better in 2012 than it is in 2022. There are so many amazing young producers now and I think with computers and processing power being cheaper, so many people can come out of nowhere with a computer and make such amazing tracks. It’s really a good time and we just need to accept that these are the changes we’re gonna have to deal with. At the same time, there’s so much good music out there. I don’t get caught up with “it was so much better back then, it’s changed.” It is what it is now and I still love it so I’m happy.
Has your production work has changed between when you started and now?
►It kind of hasn’t. There’s always an innocence with your first record because you have no preconceived notions. Once you get into the scene, you get influenced by a lot of things but I find one of my problems in the studio is that I’m not as in-tune with the new school. I’m not adding dubstep breakdowns to my trance records. I just don’t have the skills to make those kinds of sounds. I constantly fall back on what I know best, which is strings and melody and driving basslines. I don’t think my style has changed that much – but that’s not necessarily for the better – maybe it needs to change a little bit. We get stuck in what we love and just want to keep doing it; some producers change drastically and some stay on the same path.
Recently, a lot of people have been commenting about newer trance incorporating electro sounds. Do you have an opinion toward that?
►If you look at clothing styles from 10 years ago, you’d say “Wow, I’d never wear that today.” We’re not watching “Cheers” and “Friends” anymore, we’re watching what’s on TV today. Everything has to move on and update. I never understand the whining about something not being the way it used to be. I think Tiesto said, “If you like my old stuff, listen to my old stuff,” you know? It’s an evolution. In the early ’80s, someone picked up a 303 which was designed to be a bassline material. It made acid noises and that started acid house, which helped start everything we have today. I’m sure back then, someone was like,”Why are you using that for that? It’s meant for basslines,” but that’s how we move on and you’re not going to like everything that happens. There’s so much great uplifting trance out there that doesn’t have electro basslines in it. It’s out there but it’s so easy for people to complain and make a fuss. Then you hear people like Leon Bolier who makes what he wants and is making such amazing music. I would rather him make what he wants so I can play it, rather than fall into the “I need people to stop complaining on my Facebook page and make what they want, which is stuff people have made before.” It’s a constant struggle, but we just do what we do and move forward.
Between producing and DJ’ing, do you get a different satisfaction out of each?
►Absolutely, completely different. I’m a bit of a hermit; I stay home and make music by myself and I love it if I want to be left alone and turn the phone off for a couple of days. Then, seeing something you created get a reaction on the dance floor is pretty incredible. I think I’m 80 percent DJ, 20 percent producer. I come from the Sasha and Digweed era, getting more satisfaction playing a six-hour set and really weaving songs in and out of each other. A lot of artists today were producers first, then had a hit record and became DJs. I came form the opposite and am actually more comfortable DJ’ing than I am in the studio. But it’s amazing to have those both in your life. It’s the same as the difference between playing a small after-hours cub versus a festival for 90 minutes in front of 10,000 people. It’s so cool to have these varied things in life, but for me, DJ’ing comes first and producing basically helps me have music to play that I love and is an outlet for expression.
-First and foremost, you need to produce. You can have all the PR and marketing in the world but if you’re not making good records, forget it. We have people pushing records down our throats through email, continually asking, “Have you listened? Did you like it?” If it’s good, I will be knocking down your door to sign this record. Don’t put all your effort into reminding me on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere to listen to your promo. Put your effort into making good music and it will happen. Look at deadmau5 – he was unknown four years ago, then he did “Faxing Berlin” and it just blew up overnight. There are so many cases like that. I totally respect people’s persistence, but at the end of the day, none of that is any good unless you have the music to back it up. “A hit solves all problems” is a famous saying.
What’s up with the computer repair store you had opened?
►I have a small Apple service center in Toronto. I was a little bit disillusioned with the [music] scene, some decisions I made and some things that were out of my control back in 2007/2008. So, I took like 18 months off the scene and I had an opportunity to open a small Apple repair shop. It was cool and a perfect opportunity to get involved in a business that will go on a lot longer than DJ’ing. It was something different to do, and I ended up getting back into the scene about a year later.
After the release of Cycles 4 and the Cycles 100 announcement, is there anything else coming up we can look forward to?
►Cycles 100 is March. I have a new single coming out in March, and actually have two or three new things done. I’ll have an album hopefully in the summer. My focus the last year has really been the radio show. I’ve been building Cycles as much as I can. As I said, I think I’m 80 percent DJ and 20 percent producer, so for me, the radio show is an outlet for me to show my DJ programming skills and how I put a set together. The response has been amazing, which tells me it’s working. I look at Armin and Above & Beyond and think I should have started a radio show 10 years ago. I’m super happy with the way it’s going and the reaction from people has been amazing. I really like that I found a crowd that listens to the show that allows me to play techno and trance and progressive, and open with really mellow stuff. It’s a trusting, open-minded group of people and I interact every week on Twitter during the show, which is the best part for me. It’s almost like I have a real-time focus group that allows me to do my thing and gives me feedback. Sometimes they don’t always love it and I’ll always take the honesty.
You’re crazy good at Twitter, notably more engaged than other artists. How do you manage it?
►Some people think I’m on Twitter all day. To me, Twitter is like text messaging. You don’t say, “I’m going to text message between 5:00 and 5:30 tonight.” Your phone is always next to you when you get a text, you reply to it and then go back to what you were doing. It’s part of your overall day. When I’m making music, I may freeze a track for 40 seconds… that’s ample time for me to switch to my browser, see what people are saying and reply to some good tweets and interview requests, then go back to what I’m doing. Or if I get up and go to the kitchen to make an espresso, I’ll grab my phone and check Twitter as I walk. It’s part of my day and doesn’t get in the way of anything else. It’s great to be able to interact without any PR person or middle man.
►I thought Japan was different; they danced less and just sort of stared at you. They were super into the music though, so it’s not that they don’t like to dance. That’s just their thing, it’s almost like a concert. Argentina is one of my favorite places to play. They do this thing – but not as much any more – about five or six years ago they would do this thing where they would all crouch down on the middle of the dance floor and it looked like the floor was collapsing. It would start in the middle and spread out, and when the buildup came and the song kicked in, they would all jump up in the air. I’d get the chills, it was the most incredible thing and made the whole room explode.
I took a year off after high school and was a hip-hop DJ, and then it snowballed. I remember in Montreal in 1996, someone took me to a rave. [At the time] I was DJ’ing at a Top 40 club in Ottawa; I was playing some house, and some of the customers could see where I was going but no one in that club got it. I don’t think I realized it yet, and [some of them] were like, “you need to come to a party with us.” So we drove up to Montreal at six in the morning and they gave me a pill, pushed me out on the dance floor and left me there for like three hours. Then they came back to find me sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the DJ booth. My mind was completely blown, as I saw a place where the DJ’s moves and actions were appreciated by the crowd. The crowd knew what the DJ was doing, knew when the bass was dropped, knew when a new track was coming in. They appreciated it, and I was like, “I have to do this.” After that eye-opening, mind-opening experience, that was it for me and that’s when I knew I was going to stop doing Top 40 and move into house. It still took a few years to find the music I loved and that’s normal when you start DJ’ing. In the late ’90s, early 2000’s, I discovered the epic house sound. That was it for me.Can you differentiate radio DJ’ing from club DJ’ing?
►For me, I try to make the radio show a lot like my sets. Originally I wanted to make it more like a radio show, then I thought, “I don’t want people to come to the club and not hear what they’re hearing on the radio.” I slowly turned the show into how I would program a live set. Sometimes I start the show a little more mellow than how I would start a peak-time set. You can’t sell it when you’re not being consistent, so the radio show allows me to show how I play live and it’s made more people come to my gigs because they have that weekly update of exactly how I DJ live. Obviously you can be a little more clean and tight on a [radio] show than a live set where it’s a little more spontaneous, but for me, I keep [radio and live] similar because it’s like an advertisement for live sets.
What advice would you give to an aspiring DJ/producer?
►Produce, definitely. Keep producing and know that if your music is good, people will be knocking down your door. If you think it’s good and no one’s calling you back, keep working. The other thing is to play what you love. You want to develop a personality, an identity. You have to play what you love because it’s the only thing you can stay true to. There are some DJs where you’ll hear them at one venue, then you’ll hear them at another venue and they sound completely different because they’re trying to make a different crowd happy. The advice given to me early on was to play what I love; some clubs won’t like it and some clubs will, some fans won’t like it and some will. But over time, you’ll weed out the ones who don’t. The idea over time is to find people who have the same taste as you and if you find enough, you can make a career out of it. Porter Robinson tweeted something the other day that made so much sense… he said in like a joke quote, “I’ve been making music exactly like all the famous guys and I’m not getting famous,” and he was like, “that is exactly the problem.” He worded it a bit better, but was basically saying if you are imitating people, even if you’re doing it perfectly, you’re not going to get noticed unless you have your own sound. It is a struggle, but look at guys like deadmau5 and Arty – these guys have developed their own sound. The possibilities are endless in the studio, so just find your sound, stick with it and only do what you love, and it will happen.