DJ and Producer, Max Graham, recently played in Atlanta. I sat down with him during setup to chat about his take on trance and techno.
How have you been? What’s new?
Just the tail end of this tour, I’m pretty tired actually. This month has been crazy. The gigs have been better than expected. The crowd has been really good. People have been into the change in sound, really responsive to it which has been nice. I’m trying to work on as much production as I can. I’m getting away to Asia next week for a month. I’m going to spend some time alone in Bali and write music.
You draw from so many different genres. What is your approach to building your sets?
I think it’s quite a natural one. It has to be built over time and patiently, so whatever music fits to build those steps as the night goes. I don’t play anything to hard or too fast too early, or too energetic. I save the more mental or emotional stuff until the end of the night, the classics and stuff. It’s a pretty straight forward formula of building gently and slowly and building towards a peak. Depending on how long the night is, I’ll either get into some classics, or I’ll dip back into some darker stuff if I have an extra hour at the end. The key is really knowing your music well enough to be able to freestyle at any point. If the crowd comes really early with a lot of energy, then I’ll pick it up a lot quicker. You have to read the room. If you’re only playing one style it’s easy. If you’re drawing from so many different genres, they can affect the night differently if they are played at the wrong time. Knowing your music is key.
Speak on your transition from DJing hip-hop and scratching to dance music?
Wow! That was a long time ago. I actually stopped DJing for a while. As kids do, I was young and was getting into skateboarding and other stuff, and then got back into DJing. I was actually bartending and they needed a DJ that night and I was like, “I know how to do it!” but I really had no Idea. I just knew how to scratch. I started working at a teen club playing both hip-hop and dance, so I kind of got a taste for when acid house was popular. Then I got a job at a top 40 club where I wasn’t allowed to play much hip-hop, so I was playing more dance. I was playing a lot of underground stuff and didn’t really know it. I was buying cool stuff and playing it along with the top 40. People that slowly started coming to the club would tell me, “dude, you’re playing really good stuff.” It wasn’t till I got dragged to a rave kicking and screaming back in ’95 and fell in love with the whole underground scene. Then I understood what the music was I finding and playing, and how it was affecting these other people in this other world that I discovered. From then on it was house music all the way.
Your infamous six hour sets at Atomic have been said to be pivotal in developing Canada’s dance music culture. What made those nights so special?
I think there are more things than that which have developed the dance culture. It was definitely my education. It was something special for the time. There were plenty of DJs around doing long sets in Ottawa before. There was a moment in time when the culture was exploding. It was a chance for me to be there every week. The only variable was the music. It was the same crowd, same lights, same club, except I got to change what I was playing and see how it affected people. That was my training to understand how to work a room and how the different genres affected the night differently. They were invaluable for me. I was promoting at the time as well, and the other promoters said I should stick to DJing and focus on that. They took care of everything else, making sure the venue was busy. I just focused on the music.
Cycles, your weekly radio show, has a massive viewership. What are the origins of this project? Where do you see it going?
When I came back in 2010 from taking a year and a half off, I looked at what was really working well to help. My problem always was my production didn’t match my DJ set. I would make a track if I was feeling a certain vibe. People would show up and would expect me to play twenty more tracks that sounded like that, but I played a wider variety of music and it confused people. I wanted to reset people’s mentality for what I play, and thought, 'How can we do that on a regular basis? The best thing would be a radio show.'
I had a podcast I would release every once in a while. It wasn’t a regular thing. The weekly thing gets into people’s minds and it becomes like a habit. It works so much better than putting out a podcast every month or every six weeks. There’s so much music and so much going on, having the live aspect to the radio show meant the people tuned in. We also got a chance to interact with everyone on Twitter and Facebook during the show which was really cool because I can see people reacting to music and discuss with them what they like and what they don’t and get that instant feedback, which is amazing. I don’t know where it’s going. I’m just continuing to push it in the same direction. I love it and it keeps me on my toes
On your sabbatical to Asia, what did you learn about yourself?
I needed to step away to get perspective. I don’t know if there is anything specific I learned about myself, but it’s really just about perspective. That was the first time I went out there to Bali. I quit the whole industry for a while. I didn’t like where it was going. It just didn’t feel right, the direction of the music, how management was pushing me to play in different directions. People thought I just made 80s remakes, but I was trying to go more tech house. People thought I was trance. It was a bit of a mess. I needed to step back and reevaluate everything. Reset. It was good to out there. This was before social media was huge, so you could go out there and be separated from everyone. Now it is super connected. People know what’s going on no matter where you go.
Obviously you love trance, what was the catalyst for the move into techno?
I think the tech sounds have always been in my sets. It’s that the trance fell out. Trance started being so big room style. If they made the kind of records they were making two or three years ago, I’m talking about all my peers, I would still play them. But they all went toward progressive main stage, slightly more like an EDM sound. It wasn’t the trance that I loved. It wasn’t that I started playing more of something else, I started to play less of something else. I couldn’t find any tracks that I liked. I did a four hour end of the year countdown called Trance Memories Mix. It was all trance from four or five years ago. It was great, and looking at the list of producers, none of them make that music anymore. What am I to do? People ask why I stopped playing it. It’s because they stopped making it. I like a lot of groove as well and the electro influence. Trance made it a bit dry. It was losing its sexy groove, but you can find that in techno. It has a shuffle to it so there was a natural gravitation towards that.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Atlanta?
That’s a tough one. There was a place I went that I loved but I can’t remember its name. Actually, I haven’t spent as much time in Atlanta as I should.
What about in Toronto?
I like Terroni. It’s an Italian spot. I buy there pepper sauce and take it back to Montreal with me. I haven’t been in a long time. That city is ever changing and does it so fast that I couldn’t tell you what’s hot at the current moment.
Tell us about your obsession with Snapchat.
I don’t use it that much. I think it’s cool to keep people informed of what you are doing, but I’ll go days without using it, especially when I’m home. It’s not often that I Snap what I’m doing on a daily basis. It starts, usually, when I’m getting on a plane and going to a gig, cause people want to see what’s going on. It’s a form of promotion. I’m much more of an Instagram guy. I love finding that perfect picture and doctoring it just right, touching it up, and then going back and looking at the memories.
What’s coming next for you?
I’m going out to Asia, working on more production. I want to try to have a new album done by the end of the year. I pretty much say that every year, but it never happens, ha. As soon as I make a track, I want to put it out. I don’t want to wait for ten or twelve of them. Building the radio show, the Cycles brand. Doing more Cycles events. Honestly, just more of the same.