Interview: Max Cooper about his new album Unspoken Words

Unspoken Words is Max Cooper’s seventh album and after Emergence the second one that was released on a Pure Audio Blu-ray in Dolby Atmos. On his new album Max Cooper combined his music with artistic videos for which he worked with many talented visual artists. We had the opportunity to talk to Max Cooper about his latest album.

We have a couple of questions regarding the current situation. We had to deal with Corona and now we face a quite difficult political situation. Does this affect your work right now? Does Corona still have an impact?

Yeah absolutely! I was supposed to play in Moscow on Saturday, but obviously that didn’t happen. What’s more, one of the collaborators on my last album was based in the Ukraine. Him and his family had to flee. He had some tough stories about what happened and so it’s impacting quite closely in terms of my work and people I work with. With respect to Covid, there are still regulations and I will have to cancel some shows at some point. On the other hand, we are back on the road to a functional music industry, which is a relief. Expecting bumps along the road, we hope for a peaceful resolution when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine situation. It’s painful! This human created thing, which didn’t have to be there, is so frustrating and sad.

Are the shows that you’re performing shows that were booked some time ago or are these all-new shows?

There were a couple of shows that had gone through lots of delays, but 90 % are new bookings.

Unspoken Words is your second immersive release in Dolby Atmos. What makes Unspoken Words different from your previous album Emergence?

So, I mostly did Emergence on my own in Dolby Soho in London, which is a small Atmos studio. I was using pro tools, but I was spending a lot of time experimenting with my first Atmos mix, whereas the new project Unspoken Words was produced in a super professional studio called String and Tins. I had engineers and an intern who helped a lot. Additionally, the lead engineer Will Cohen oversaw the whole thing. The new Atmos mix was an infinitely more professional approach to the Atmos mix using lots more tools. We didn’t only create a digital service provider mix, but also a theatrical mix, which is the one on the Blu-ray. This mix is focused on theatre settings. In my previous album I didn’t work with screens at all. Regarding Unspoken Words we also produced a mix which is less screen focused and optimized for these new head tracking headphones. We experimented with putting different stereo fields in to make the music interactive. It sounds different depending on the direction you face. I have never worked with professionals before, since I’m used to working on my own. So that was really nice and I learned a lot.

What about the workflow? Did you first do the theatrical mix and then the one for home entertainment and the headphones?

We started off with the theatrical mix when we had all the visual content. I wrote all the visual and spatial briefs and then sent them to the engineers together with the videos. Afterwards, we worked on the Atmos mix together. When that was done, we took away the visuals and adjusted them for the digital service provider mixes for streaming. Unfortunately, there isn’t any possibility to stream the audio together with the visuals yet.

Are you planning theatrical releases?

Yes, we are looking into theatre streamings and have already done some. Currently we are trying to figure out how to tour with the Atmos mix and bring it to the theatres, because that’s the best way to hear it, but I don’t usually deal with big budget cinemas. I’m a niche musician and I love the work, the process and the results, but when it comes to bringing it to people, we are dealing with this huge cinema machines and the costs and expectations, which isn’t the way I work. So, we are trying to figure out ways around it.

Is String and Tins used to producing music or is this their first music project?

The engineers write music as well and do a series of releases, not in Atmos, though. They were interested in my music artistically and so this opportunity came along. Also, Will Cohen is a good friend of mine. I’m extremely grateful for the work they put into it and the beautiful result that came from that work.

We feel that the visuals play a bigger role in this project. What was the motivation for that?

I’ve been pushing more and more towards visuals for years. Emergence was actually my first audio-visual project and since then I’ve done several audio-visual albums, where I actually worked with the visuals first and then wrote music for each visual story. To me itt’s a means of communicating a lot that I can’t communicate with music only. Besides, my interest in science and philosophy goes along very well with visual communication. For example, in my new album I was dealing with the idea of unspoken words, which focusses on what I can communicate with music and visual art, but not with words. As Wittgenstein says, our language is not sufficient in order to describe the world around us, but rather leads to a lot of misunderstandings and arguments. We took texts by Wittgenstein and then fed it into the machine learning system built by Xander Steenbrugge, which converts a text into moving images. The result is a really abstract sequence of moving images from this text about the difficulties of language. Every chapter of the album has a concept behind it which relates to the unspoken words theme. All in all, there are many layers to the project: music, science and visual work. Bringing this project to the theatre opens a lot of doors, music-wise. That is to say, in terms of musical creativity I do not any longer feel the need to make people dance, which gives room for experimenting with sound and visuals.

How did the cooperation with the visual artists came along? Did you know them before?

Probably half of them I knew already. Some of them are long-term collaborators. I follow a lot of people online and I’m always looking at new visual art, experiments and installations. Vimeo, for example, is a great source I relied on over the years finding artist, chatting with them and sending them my work. If they are interested artistically, we can often find a way of making it work. I pay people for their visual work as much as I can, because I value it. For me it’s a lot of money. It’s not a lot of money compared to high-end professional filmmaking, though. Sometimes these collaborations are not always easy. Generally speaking, however, they are a really positive thing to do.

"The main goal was to make something positive out of something negative."

I have the impression that Unspoken Words it a bit more experimental than Emergence. Would you say your music has gone through an evolutionary process or has this experimental component been part of your art ever since?

I used visuals in my previous albums. The new one was born from the collapse of the music industry. I was stuck at home and got stressed about whether I can pay the bills without having a job anymore. Music for me has always been this positive thing that I can rely on, a way of expressing my feelings and a way of tackling questions I’m not able to tackle otherwise. It was really a therapeutic album for me. The main goal was to make something positive out of something negative. For me music is my main emotional outlet and this album pretty much focused on this personalized emotional expression. This album is all about the difficulties of being a human and about sharing positive experiences with others, while my previous albums were more science-led. The emotional aspect of music was the core of this album, rather than the technical aspects of music production.

When you’re on tour, how is Atmos integrated into your shows? Are there opportunities to use immersive formats?

No, I always play live shows in stereo. I think some clubs have Atmos, but I don’t even have a way of playing the show in Atmos. I have been working with L-Acoustics. This sound system is much more common and I’ve been working on a special live show using this compatible technology and also video material projected on different screens. When I have a lot of projectors, I can do immersive visual shows.

Thanks for all these insights! Is there anything you’d like to add?

It would be great to reference the website. There were so many great artists involved. We didn’t go into detail about every chapter, but if people are interested, it’s great to have a look at the website. I want to say ‘thank you’ to everyone involved!

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