Beat Construction: Mocky Mastered Songwriting By Singing To Monkeys

A global maestro with credits from Kelela to Alejandro Jodorowsky breaks down what’s in a song.

The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again, we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction. Today, we talk to Los Angeles' Mocky. The Canadian songwriter and arranger has lent his hand to countless projects over the past fifteen years, including shaping tracks for artists including Feist and Kelela, as well as Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky. This summer, Mocky released Key Change, and it indeed indicated a shift: a blissfully maniacal pastiche of sun-drop jazz straddling high-school musicals, a much sweeter sound than the agitators he typically collabs with. Key Change is brilliant on its own, but most subversive in context, so we talked to Mocky on how he considers songwriting, the nature of collaboration, and whether the entire record is one inside wink.

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How did you get introduced to music?

MOCKY: My brother got a drum kit. I used to watch music videos, and during the commercials I would go and imitate the beats that I heard on TV. Then the drum kit became mine pretty quickly.

What stuff were you imitating?

Hip-hop and stuff like that, early/late '90s stuff. Later, I developed my sound. I used to do these concerts at the zoos of Europe. When I went around to each city to play in a club at night, before doing that I would go to the zoo and do an impromptu concert for the monkeys, or whatever animals. There was usually a few tastemakers and other musicians there. When I first started, I would jump around a lot, get the attention of the monkeys, and they would jump around. Then I realized that didn't necessarily mean they liked it. I refined my style, and got into a bit more of a crooning approach. I would seduce them towards the edge of the cage. At some parts, the monkeys would even be reaching through the bars and touching the keyboard. I would take what I was learning in the afternoon zoo shows, take it to the club shows, and try the same approach in my music with people. In that way I developed my sound—my more lighter touch. I like the simplicity.

How do you step into another artist's shoes when writing for them?

Most of my relations like that are artist-to-artist. It's not like I'm anybody's producer—I don't believe in that. I come from a DIY, punk, electronic music scene in Berlin, where everyone is in their bedroom producing stuff. Sometimes I'll fall into the role of being somebody's co-writer, but at the same time those people are often on my records. The types of artists I gravitate towards write and produce, and have a hands-on approach. That's a credible musician—if you could say such a thing.

For example, with Feist, there was a friendship first. We were just messing around and collaborating on each other's stuff. She sings on my records, and I work on her records. On paper, I am a co-writer and co-producer on her last two albums, but it's so much deeper than that. It's not that somebody behind a desk puts two people together. It's not something they can create. It's a chemistry of two people. It's the same with all my deep musical friendships. Working with Kelela, it's not work. We are on each others' clock. We are like friends, and out of that comes songs. I don't produce Kelela, I'm a co-writer. Every single time it's different, every day they like to do something different—to say more would be, maybe, letting the cat out of the bag.

“I did my time in electronic music, in the ‘pre-DM’ scene, before there was such a thing as EDM.”—Mocky

Your album is called Key Change and titles include "Upbeat Thing," and "Soulful Beat." It seems like a commentary on songwriting. Is there a formula to writing "upbeat" or "soulful" songs?

Umm, yes. But the minute you think you know that, you're missing the point. Because with songwriting, the technique only goes so far, and suddenly it's a sound that's trying to exist in the universe. You might figure out what you think is the perfect drum beat, but every time that drum beat is played, it's played in different moments in time. So you have to build something into the music that is timeless: it can never sound out of time.

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It was more of trying to blur the lines between reality and fiction. The naming is part of my theory of making an album. Each song serves a different function. It's easy to think that albums don't have a place in today's industry, but I think it provides a cornerstone that can allow you to express a body of work, even if it doesn't have to come out like an album, per se.

You technically just press a button to change keys, but it still takes a human decision to do it, at a certain point and in a certain way. Obviously, music production now is very mathematical, but there is this human aimlessness or spontaneity throughout Key Change. You can tell there's a brain making the decisions behind what's played.

Yeah, so much of our lives are dictated by machines—even outside of the musical realm. You are constantly reacting to a prompt from some kind of computer. It becomes more and more our mode of being. It's just taken for granted that when you record these days, you record to a grid, to a metronome. Which is in itself a flat concept—I call that "grid fallacy." Depending on what type of sampler, what type of sequencer your working with, that breakdown of minutes and seconds is going to come out slightly different. It will go off grid. There is no exact measurement of time. Despite our tools and our best attempts, one plus one still isn't two. It's an approximation.

I think with music and vibrations, we get these glimmers of this other tempo, this other way of timing things that is based on human experience instead of reacting to a machine. I did my time in electronic music, in the "pre-DM" scene, before there was such a thing as EDM. But even at its best, techno and, obviously, hip-hop is about the interaction between man and machine. We are getting now to the point where it is the reaction of man to machine, a lot of the times. That's the impetus behind this record: where is the human in all of this?

You made a funny mockumentary about the classic image of an other-worldly eccentric musical genius—guys like Sun Ra. Is that a career model you look toward?

Sun Ra and all these guys are a huge influence. I think part of that is, the mystery of what people love is trying to figure out what the reality is. There is this tradition in L.A. of songwriter/arrangers in the studio system. So you got like Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks, different people like that, who were writing and arranging for the Beach Boys and different groups in that era. Or Todd Rundgren, let's say. They get studio access on the periphery of the industry to create this compositional and arranging production that then gets sampled by hip-hop, and all genres. There's something about that tradition in L.A. that I have copped into on this record. A lot of the tracks were done in studio time before and after other sessions, where I am sort of working on the periphery of the industry, but the industry is changing. So I managed to have access to studios, and then channel that into a fully independent release.

Are you more excited to put a record out as Mocky and perform, or create through producing another artist?

It's a beautiful pendulum. Either one on their own wouldn't be for me.

From The Collection:

Beat Construction
Beat Construction: Mocky Mastered Songwriting By Singing To Monkeys