Mathew Jonson: Rhythm, Melody and Chaos
There is a part of Mathew Jonson that enjoys letting go of his rational mind and allowing chaos into the studio. It’s something he’s also practiced with his band, Cobblestone Jazz, as a means of discovering new sounds and ideas. “We would completely let go and allow anything to happen, without judgment,” he says. “Then we’d pick out parts of the chaos that might sound cool. It's like just pouring everything in and then looking at things in a subtractive way.”
With a name so synonymous with electronic music, Jonson requires few introductions. His inimitable style of electro-infused house and techno production has earned him a place among the genre’s pantheon of key innovators. A true collaborator, he has regularly partnered with groups like Midnight Operator, Circle of Live, and Modern Deep Left Quartet, while also dedicating himself to giving back to the industry, either through his Wagon Repair label or his recently formed music education platform, Freedom Engine Academy.
Popular tracks featuring Mathew Jonson
Speaking from his adopted home of Berlin, where he has lived since 2007, Jonson describes a side of his work that transcends mere music production. He suggests that music or sound can be used, “almost as a tool for time travel” – allowing access to different realities that exist simultaneously on earth. “I'm always playing with this idea,” he explains. “I find the concept of shifting reality with music really fascinating. You don't need drugs, you don't need alcohol, you don't need anything. You can change people’s perception of time just by tapping into the way certain frequencies interact.”
Jonson’s musical training began at an early age, in a home littered with instruments. “My dad had a harpsichord, and all kinds of folk instruments,” he remembers. “When I was nine, we got a piano and I started taking formal lessons. I only took five years of classical piano, so I didn't get very far. I'm at a higher level now, just from self-training. But, most of my classical training was actually as a percussionist.”
Growing up in North America, his early musical palette was shaped by influences like Michael Jackson, A Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief, and The Pharcyde. In the years that followed, Canada's burgeoning rave scene served as a perfect conduit for him to connect with like-minded souls who shared his growing passion for electronic music and analog machines.
“I started getting into drum & bass heavily in my late teens. So a lot of the stuff on Metalheadz; artists like Hidden Agenda, Photek, Goldie, J Magic, and Digital, were all very influential to me at that time. I also listened to a lot of jazz, and people like Keith Jarrett. I really love all of his solo piano albums. And then getting into the synth world; people like Vangelis, Tomita, or Yellow Magic Orchestra. I was also really into Gary Numan for a long time.”
Jonson’s tracks are often characterized by the use of hypnotic, captivating melodies that interweave with the pulse of analog drum machines. For a closer look at how he works, he has kindly shared three Live Sets, made during his "One Beat Per Day" exercises at the Freedom Engine Academy. The Live Sets provide an insight into how he creates evolving, rhythmic melodies and beats using various devices and Max MIDI effects.
Download Mathew Jonson’s Live Sets
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Jonson draws on his background as a drummer and percussionist to infuse his melodies with rhythm and accentuation. He describes an approach where he incorporates rhythmic accents, by using his right hand to move higher up the keyboard register. “I kind of create melodies and drum rhythms at the same time in the way that I'm programming the synths,” he explains. “Sometimes it takes me many tries before I like what I've put in. So I just keep on hitting erase and playing it again.”
In his early experiments with melody, and before he had the music theory knowledge to recognize exactly what he was doing, Johnson recalls that he often found himself drawn to playing the black notes on keyboards; finding they often sounded good in the G-flat Major Pentatonic scale.
“I think that method even carried into a lot of the earlier techno records. Then I began understanding what white notes I could put around those black notes. It was just a method of learning and experimenting with the keyboard in a way that wasn't me just sitting there, trying to find the note that I was hearing in my head.”
Having taught himself a lot more about music theory since then, Jonson speaks of his fondness for suspended chords, which are chords played without the third note and replaced with a perfect fourth or major second. He taught himself to play these chords in every key and how to play the different patterns in his left (bass) hand. “I learned how to do all of those things where the bass hand is modulating depending on where the top hand is sitting,” he explains. “I give myself these strange theoretical challenges, which help me find new ways of playing.”
While a solid grounding in music theory often serves as a reliable point of reference and guide, Jonson also notes the limitations of working exclusively within quantized scales. “I was kind of really against it in the beginning, when seeing people programming on pads with quantized scales,” he says. “If you don't have those accidentals – where's all the tension? You need those other notes that are outside of the scale or key sometimes.”
For monophonic melodies, Jonson’s Roland SH-101 synthesizer has always served as a valuable source of inspiration in the studio and on stage. Although the sounds generated by this instrument may not always make it to the final mix, he describes how they often serve as catalysts for entire compositions. While synthesizer technology is constantly advancing, Jonson notes how the simplicity of the SH-101 helps him to stay rooted in the basics.
“You can't really do a whole lot with the sound of an SH-101 because it's limited. But it does make you pay attention to those basics. Some people forget that things like vibrato, tremolo, and volume are some of the most crucial things that you should be involved with in a sound. This is also why I choose to mix on a desk. So I can constantly evolve the automation of the volume in an intuitive way as the mix is being recorded.”
We asked Jonson what his recommendations might be for those working entirely inside a computer — given the wide availability of MIDI controllers which make the hands-on element of music-making achievable, even with a completely digital setup. “This is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently,” he replies. “For one, because of having a child now, I know that the time I get in the studio will be more limited than what it was before. So it's nice to be able to work just on the computer at home or when I'm traveling. But I do struggle with it a bit. It is a different way of working for me. It lends itself better to different styles of music as well. Writing techno inside the computer can sometimes be a bit difficult because I feel like I need that hands-on element where I can do everything intuitively. For me, playing techno is all about that intuitive movement of subtle changes with the synthesizer, EQ, volume or mute buttons, etc. If I put all that into the computer I feel as though I need to have a pre-programmed template, which allows me to use a controller with tons of knobs on it. I’d need to be able to gain muscle memory on it. It would have to be set up so that the DAW that I'm using becomes like an instrument that I can just practice on. The copy of Ableton Live in my studio has a template that I use. All the MIDI and all the keyboards are pre-patched. But that's really for using external gear at the moment.”
“...your brain stays interested in the sound because it hasn't found a repetitive pattern that it can dismiss.”
As an artist known for his minimalist sound, we asked Jonson if he has ever faced criticism from people who may view his style as too sparse. “Yeah, some people have told me off for being too minimal,” he laughs. “Maybe because they’re getting annoyed by the fact that I'm pulling it off! I just like the simplicity of what each individual synthesizer does and I like the sound of all the different filters. I love the sound of different oscillators. I like to get deep into what's really going on with the waveforms when I'm writing music. So I guess, if you have too many things going on, maybe you lose something in those little subtleties. There's also a side of it that is just purely technical. Because up until I started the Freedom Engine Academy, I didn't really feel like I knew what I was doing in terms of mixing.”
Jonson admits that in the past, one reason for keeping the elements in his tracks to a minimum might have come from gaps in his engineering knowledge. However, his experience at the Freedom Engine Academy under the guidance of Beatriz Artola, has changed his whole perception in relation to mixing.
“I think the better engineer you are, the more instruments you can mix. Because you understand about panning and placement and doing different things to treat the sound, be it distortion or whatever it is to bring separation into things. This is something I understand a lot more about now, because of watching Beatriz mix. But, I think a lot of other producers make music that's overly crowded. It feels as though some people layer tons of different samples over the top of each other or they add a lot of sounds that are a bit unnecessary, maybe as a way of adding energy.”
“Instead of having the melodic rhythm dictated by the player, it would be dictated by the triggers coming from the drum machines.”
In 2015, Mathew Jonson, Danuel Tate and Tyger Dhula released “Northern Lights” as Cobblestone Jazz on Itiswhatitis Recordings. The 11-minute track features a subtly evolving composition of intricate, percussive melodies and syncopated chord patterns. To achieve this particular sound, Jonson and his collaborators spent several hours setting up a modular patch, using six VCAs with six envelopes controlled by different triggers from drum machines.
“We timed the envelopes. We set the attack times, decay times, and release times so that they worked in a way that was musical. So in quarter notes or half notes, or whatever it was. And we were also keeping in mind the space in between. Like the silent moments when those envelopes are not being heard. Once we had that patch set up we were able to write maybe five songs really fast; because they were made by simply playing instruments and assigning them through one of those individual VCAs. So instead of having the melodic rhythm dictated by the player, it would be dictated by the triggers coming from the drum machines. Danuel was holding chords on the Fender Rhodes, and I was holding different chords on the Yamaha CS-60 and just playing drones while moving around up and down the keyboard. The reason why it's so percussive is because of those VCAs opening up the volume.”
For those of us less accustomed to using vintage gear, the concept of using drum machines to trigger synthesizers might be confusing, because a lot of the internal sequencers back then were not controlling the actual rhythms. Jonson explains that the internal sequencers in vintage synthesizers, such as the Roland JX-3P and SH-101, need something to drive them.
“With an SH-101, if you're putting in a sequence of notes, it will loop for eternity. The only thing that's going to tell those notes when to actually play is a trigger. It's just a tiny pulse, like a distorted square wave. In the Roland 909, the rimshot sound has a separate trigger output. So you can turn the volume down on the rimshot and instead use it to send a trigger output to an external synthesizer. On the Roland 606, the low and high tom have a trigger output that is made for triggering the SH-101 sequencer, the JX-3P sequencer, the Pro One sequencer, or whatever. You can use it to trigger modular synths as well. So we're using those. We are basically just using those very small pulses and then using the envelopes as the way of saying what happens after the pulses hit.”
Jonson uses LFOs to bring out certain notes or frequencies within his synthesizers. He mentions how he likes to run them out of sync, as this leads to a subtle shifting of the modulation over time.
“If you have a sine wave LFO on the filter cutoff of your synthesizer, and let's say you had the LFO synced to quarter notes, starting in a positive phase. If you adjusted the cutoff frequency so it’s cutting off the sound completely, and you start playing around with that sweet spot where you're getting a little bit of the bass, but maybe not so much of the highs — that means that you're only getting the high frequencies in that part of the LFO waveform. If the LFO is not synced, then due to the shift of the LFO you can use it to create melodies that are slowly evolving. Because, let's say for 30 seconds you are hearing the first beat of a 4/4 bar and you're hearing high notes, but in the second beat you're not. Well, as time goes on, all of those high notes will come through. If you have a melody with a very wide range of notes in the upper and lower register of the piano, you can use these LFOs to do all kinds of very interesting things. You can also do it in very subtle ways using amplitude modulation or ring modulation where you just have little nuances created with LFOs that are out of time.”
“There's something that happens inside the brain with chaos that it just loves.”
Expanding on the topic of LFOs, Jonson describes how he increases the modulation on his sounds to a very high level, in order to really feel and hear their intensity. He then reduces the amplitude to a barely audible level. “I might just back it off to a point where you can't even hear what's going on at all,” he explains. “But something is happening there. Because, even though you may not even be able to discern that anything is happening with that waveform when it's crowded by other sounds in the track, the modulation is creating an organic and evolving element which you may not perceive. I don't know quite how to describe it, but your brain stays interested in the sound because it hasn't found a repetitive pattern that it can dismiss.”
Jonson is talking about the brain’s tendency to search for patterns, and how, when it finds one, it stops actively looking for more information. He suggests that this can lead to a “tuning out” phenomenon when listening to music, particularly when the same sample is played repeatedly.
“If the brain finds a pattern that it can explain, then it doesn't need to continue thinking about that anymore. It looks for more chaotic things that might be happening. So if you're playing the same sample over and over again, the brain is just saying ‘okay, yeah, I know that I don't have to listen anymore.’ And then it starts getting tired, bored and less entertained. There's something that happens inside the brain with chaos that it just loves. It makes the brain very active. White noise, for example, is the best way of creating tension in the brain where it's looking for a pattern. So it's kind of funny that in all of this techno music, everybody's using these air sounds with all this white noise going on in the build-ups or the breakdowns.”
There is a scientific explanation behind what Jonson is saying. By introducing white noise without a clear rhythm, the brain is made to actively search for a pattern, making it more entertaining when the rhythm is finally introduced. Jonson applies this same ‘chaos theory’ to other sounds he creates, bringing a sense of subtle movement.
“I do the same thing with flangers and phasers. Let's say on a phaser, I'll turn the resonance way up high so I can hear where it’s coasting around. Then I’ll back it off to the point where you can't even hear the phaser at all. But for some reason, you can listen to that track for 15 minutes even though it’s the same pattern over and over again. But in reality, nothing’s the same, because everything is slowly morphing.”
Her Blurry Pictures (Original Mix), by Mathew Jonson
Perhaps it’s these subtle intricacies that helped Jonson’s 2005 melodic techno hit “Marionette” become such a stand-out record. Despite its seemingly simple surface, there's something undeniably special about it that has resonated with so many listeners. Jonson’s ability to discern why this might be is a question worth exploring.
“I was definitely channeling something when I made that record. It's a strange one for me. Because of the state that I put myself in when I wrote it. I actually don't really feel as though I wrote it. It may sound quite weird, but I also don't really get much enjoyment from the record being a success either. Because I don’t associate myself with writing it. I feel like I was in such a trance. And then there's a lot of records which I feel very emotionally connected to, which certainly some people like. And then I think great, I'm so happy that people relate to me. Whereas “Marionette” is just like this total outside entity. I think that's also why I titled it “Marionette”. Because it was like I was the marionette, being controlled by the spirits or whatever.”
Music is a multi-faceted endeavor for Jonson, driven by varying motivations that interweave in his creative process. He describes how his spiritual inclinations infuse his music with a depth and authenticity that might be lacking otherwise.
“There are so many reasons why I do music. I do music for meditation. I do music to have fun. I do music to make money. I do music as therapy. I do it to communicate. There are so many different aspects to what this is. So they all interplay with each other. And certainly, if I didn't have that deeper, meditational, spiritual side of things happening in the studio, then perhaps the music that I make might sound a little bit more plastic”.
So, what are some of the pitfalls in a creative process that might result in music sounding “plastic” or contrived? Perhaps “over-analyzing and over-thinking,” Jonson suggests. “If I'm consciously trying to do something, or analytically putting something together, or even using music theory, just the simple intention of doing that, makes me ask myself — why? Sometimes using music theory as a way of writing music - like finding a chord progression, for example - sure, can be fulfilling. However, for me personally, I tend to try and educate myself as much as I can, but at the same time, not be constrained by that education too much. Because I like to listen for the melodies and parts. I like to wait for those things to happen in the studio and on stage naturally rather than noodling around on a keyboard trying to figure out what a song is. I prefer waiting for something that's inside of me to come naturally, or just appear from my subconscious, my guiding spirits, or whatever other kind of energy is in the room, or the land.”
Having performed all over the world at this point, Jonson has a theory about how the Earth’s varied resonances and polarities influence the way he plays. “I notice it more in sound check than anywhere else, because once I start performing in the crowd, then my ego gets involved and it's about a party and delivering on the dance floor. It may sound extremely far-fetched, but I think about cultures of people. Like when humans have spent a very long time in one area of land, it has certain frequencies and resonances coming from the Earth. I think about how sensitive we are as humans and how that can actually put us in tune with these different dimensions and therefore, potentially give us access to different spirits as well. We're all kind of resonating with each other. I find these things very interesting. They’re just subtle things that I notice. I certainly don't want to say I’m an expert on these things or that I believe what I’m saying is 100% correct, but it's just something that I'm intrigued by.”
With music that possesses such an intoxicating, transcendent quality it is not surprising when Jonson mentions his connection with the spirit world. He speaks of his infrequent, but memorable experiences as a medium, one of which may have occurred on the coast of Canada.
“We were holding a party on First Nations land. There were a lot of totems around and it was just a really beautiful space. And for me, it felt a little bit strange to be raving where we were, let's just say that. And so I sat down for some time before going up on stage and basically just invited the spirits that were on this land, out of respect, to use my hands and express music if they wanted to. And I remember getting up on stage after some meditation, and when I went to hit the start button on all my equipment, there was a power surge that came through from the generators. It actually erased all of the patterns and all of the sequences that I had written. I had to start with a blank slate and make everything up on the fly in order to play. So I thought, okay, interesting…”
Jonson’s work continues to inspire new generations of musicians and fans and his influence will undoubtedly continue to shape the future of electronic music for years to come. In the midst of the pandemic, he saw an opportunity to start passing on his knowledge through Freedom Engine Academy; something he may not have had the time for while touring. Initially, he considered offering mentorships, but soon realized his own limitations in areas such as piano theory and engineering.
“I feel so lucky to have been trained a little bit with piano and as a percussionist. I’ve tried to pick up what I can as an engineer. But I'm certainly not one to be instructing that. I am capable of teaching people how I perform live, how I interact with other musicians and the methods I use to make remixes and produce tracks. These things are individual. And if people are fans of my music, then there will be interest in seeing how I've done things. But, I care very much about what information people are getting. So I chose to also bring on mentors that I would go to myself. We have two recording and mix engineers, Beatriz Artola and Erik Breuer, who have worked with everybody, they're very experienced. We also have two piano instructors who teach music theory and dance music history. No student is going to walk away from the academy with more than they’ve put into it, in a way. But, they’ll have access to people who are completely at the top of their game. And it really does seem to be changing people’s lives. So I’m really happy that it’s working out because it just feels like something where all of us are giving back into the music industry.”
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Text and interview by Joseph Joyce
Photography by Frank Zerban