Makeup & Vanity Set – Talking about Trax and Trackers

Talking about Trax, Trackers & Touring

#Makeup & Vanity Set (MAVS) emanates from Cleveland, Ohio and started making electronic music in the mid 90s. Like many other big names in his genre, MAVS is a result of the mod tracking scene that was booming during the early days of the internet. Since he put on a ski mask in 2004, MAVS has proven himself as a quality brand in every aspect of the electronic music scene that he has touched. He has become a respected name within the early U.S. electro house scene, the chiptune scene, and most recently the synthwave scene.

#How did trackers contribute to your music schooling, is there anything left of the tracker approach in how you write music today?

I grew up in a family that encouraged creativity. We had an upright piano in our dining room, and I took piano lessons from a young age. I used to work through the classical training, but I would also spend a lot of time lifting up the little door to look at the hammers falling on the strings. I always thought the mechanics were more interesting than the lesson work. That was the first time I realized that the there’s this parallel thing with music that involves the complex mechanics behind how the music becomes sound, etc. By the time I was in middle school, we had a family PC, which I dutifully used to play things like Willy Beamish and Space Quest, and later Wolfenstein 3D, etc. I would poke around with Visual Basic, and Dr. Sbaitso on the little Sound Blaster sound card. All of that led me to Quake 2, which had a soundtrack featuring a few songs by a composer called Jer Sypult. I thought the songs were interesting and he had a website, so I emailed him about his music and he told me he used something called ‘Impulse Tracker.’ That started me down a completely new path of making music. It’s funny looking back because there is this parallel to the hammers in the piano and the clicking of the old mechanical keyboard of that PC (I still use a mechanical keyboard to this day ha).

Trackers really taught me to tinker more than anything else. They also made me create music in an additive, often accidental way, which I absolutely still do. Impulse Tracker almost exactly coincided with my discovery of Warp Records, and after that I couldn’t play guitar in a garage anymore.

#Do you think that sharing music on Trax In Space was different to how a debuting artist would go about spreading their music on the internet in 2020?

Yes and no. I think the major difference is back in the TiS days, the communities were much more tribal, whereas now everything is so ubiquitous and overlapping. I met a kid, in high school, making music but only with an app on his phone. The app was intensely intuitive and, directly from the app, he would export his songs to Soundcloud and then create the artwork with another app in his phone. It was really a little mind blowing to see the ease at which those things could be accomplished, but it was also familiar because it was almost guerrilla in it’s method. There were no middle men or labels. It was just a sea of music and the work to put that music out there. That’s always how I saw Trax. I’ll always love the weird early internet place that those days inhabited. Apps are interesting but nothing like trying to flex on people using dial-up internet through a landline connection.

#Did you ever use any pan flute samples in your songs back then?

I will always unabashedly support pan flute samples. I put out a record in 2020 that had a pan flute recording that I recorded, so maybe that’s leveling up somehow.

#I can’t recall if it was on the modarchive or trax in space uploading FAQ, but one of the tips for new composers featuring on one of those communities that I always remembered were “Never share any of your first 10 tracks outside your closest circle”. I guess this is an early take on the “everything you share on the internet stays on the internet” Do you think there is such a bias towards ones own music that is difficult to maintain and what tips would you give to someone who has no background in composing and is starting out with electronic music today?

 

When I was studying in college, I spent some time making breakneck digital music and listening to things like whatever Kid606 was putting out on his label to fill in the gaps between Aphex and Autechre releases in the late 90s, 2000s, and I got super into the stuff Cex was putting out, specifically his first couple records. I remember he had this really prolific blog and he told an aspiring electronic musician something along the lines of ‘lock yourself in a closet and make music for 5 years before you release anything,’ which is maybe too hardcore, but the ethos is correct, in my opinion. It’s really crucial to spend time discovering your voice. I think many people start off and want to be up near the top of the mountain, when in reality you’re basically back at the shop trying on hiking boots at that point. It’s true of nearly anything skill-based; you have to put in the work. Working in a creative field is even harder, because your competing for attention that in many ways requires you to be good at what you do, so you have to work harder than everyone else to get better at what your doing. I was watching an interview with Thundercat recently and he said ‘If your feel sucks, you suck.’ Sharing your work with others is often fraught with peril and anxiety. It’s stepping out off the cliff. If you’re starting off, maybe email musicians you like. Reach out! I always respond to emails I get when I have time, mainly because that was me in the beginning. Start small. Get a synth. Learn it inside and out. Make music every day. The rest will come. Be patient. Be nice. Never stop learning.

 

#You have previously talked about the carbon copy nature of the contemporary synthwave scene. Could you elaborate a bit more on that, and is this something you struggle with a lot when you compose?

 

One issue that can come up in any genre or scene or whatever you want to call it, is just the sense of imposter syndrome, which is definitely something I go through from time to time. I’ll get hired to score something and immediately i’m locked in this mental joust about whether or not i’m capable of even making music again. It comes back to trying to do something new or trying to challenge myself to get better. I used to panic when those feelings would kick in, but now I think of it as a healthy part of the discovery process. Not having that feeling would be worse, in my opinion; then it just becomes like an autopilot or something.

 

#You have done quite some touring both as part of a group and alone. How could you compare that, both on and off the stage?

 

Touring on your own is hard. It’s isolating. When I started scoring more as well, I would go get on a plane and fly somewhere and be sort of the foreign body floating around in this new place, then I’d go back to a hotel room and be alone again. To cope with that, I would start going to hotel bars and watch soccer. I watched the 2018 Champions League final in a hotel bar in Newark, NJ with a bunch of guys from Colombia.

I think it’s fun to work with other people. It’s a collaboration. I think it’s maybe one reason why you don’t see loads of musicians cross over into film scoring because you’re suddenly shifting from a dictatorship to working under the stewardship of someone else’s creative vision. It can be hard. It’s important to find people who respect the work you do and respect your voice. It’s vitally important to learn how to say no. In the beginning, I would say yes to everything because I had no experience. It’s hard to find the point at which you can start to turn things down or say no to a possible collaboration. Not everything is meant to happen and that’s okay. It’s interesting because I work from a studio in my home, so, when the pandemic happened, being in isolation wasn’t a seismic shift. It taught me a little about how much we lean on technology to provide that sense of connection, and how that sense is and isn’t real. I’ve played as part of a few streaming music performances since the pandemic, and it’s definitely not the same feeling. It’s almost somehow harder- like more voyeuristic or intrusive, having cameras pointed at you, in your own space, which is maybe something you don’t open up to the outside world so much.

# What about the open source nature of trackers? That anyone can look into the “code” of any song and see how it was done… That is something you can’t do today.

 

The open source of tracker music made it so people could break apart your songs and rip your samples, sure, but it also contributed to the sort of anarchy of it. If you listen to the Sex Pistols or something, those guys could basically play three or four chords, and anyone can learn those chords, but not anyone could have made their music. I could go sit in Producer X’s studio, but it doesn’t mean that I’d be able to make their music. There’s something really intense and beautiful about creating something and then letting go of it.

# How do you relate to your old work from five, ten or twenty years ago? Are there things out there that you which would go away or would you be prepared to share your pre-MAVS handle and old modules with the world in 2020?

 

No regrets. A lot of that stuff is gone into the ether. I re-purposed some of it under the DAAS, and that stuff can be found on Bandcamp if you look not so hard, but beyond that, most of it is long gone. I don’t really look back. I have a lot of gratitude for those times and sounds, but the experiences I suppose are the most important pieces for me. There’s some kid out there right now making some possibly mediocre music that in twenty years time will be the foundation for something better. No regrets, ever.

Endless Destiny (DATA093) by Makeup & Vanity Set will be released via 12″, audio cassette and digital on September 25th, 2020.