In Conversation With: Max Graef
For a twenty-something Berliner, the sheer breadth of Max Graef’s musical knowledge exudes a maturity you’d expect from a producer of a much older vintage. Listening to his productions, it’s not hard to glean that the man possesses a voracious appetite for music of multifarious style and origin.
Over the last few years the self-confessed music fanatic has been making big waves in the electronic scene with his unique, almost lackadaisically composed ‘house’ (if you can call it that). Indeed, explaining the German’s style is a difficult task given its idiosyncrasy. One could call it a delectable smorgasbord of sound that traverses the dustiest of hip-hop cuts, the slackest of funk hooks and an almost prog-rock experimentalism, seamlessly woven together by a mesmeric instinct for arrangement.
Whilst working the crates at Prenzlauer Berg’s famous vinyl cornucopia OYE Records, Graef announced his arrival with a slew of releases on The Gym, Amsterdam’s Heist Recordings and his own Box aus Holz label. In 2014 he earned himself a bona fide rep with his debut album Rivers of the Red Planet on Copenhagen’s Tartlet Records. Comprised of 16 standalone tracks, the LP is a sonic treatise of epic proportions that exhibited hiss deep-rooted eclecticism.
It seems Max very rarely sits still, having last year co-founded Money $ex Records with pals and fellow OYE patrons Glenn Astro and Delfonic, and launched The Max Graef Band – a live psych-jazz incarnation of his genius. We catch up with Max ahead of a live show at Gottwood this June, as we learn of a clutch of LPs over the coming months including a eccentric number from his musician dad, Gerry Franke. We’re genuinely lucky to have caught the dilligent Berliner for a short while!
You’re a Berliner, but you spent a couple of years in London too. How did it compare for you, in terms of lifestyle, and your music making habits? What inspiration were you able to draw on while you were there?
Well in London, when I wasn’t at school, I was spending pretty much the whole time making music at home or making stupid gangster and sci-fi short movies with my best friend who I was living with over there. Here in Berlin I do a lot of different things also because I have a lot more people I know here of course. It’s hard for me to compare since I was much younger when I was living in London and didn’t have to think about grown up stuff so much. We had no money and were therefore forced to be creative I guess haha. London isn’t the greatest place with no money.
You’ve said that Berlin hasn’t had a particularly strong influence on your music. Do you think the city’s rep for being techno’s Mecca overshadows other music being made there?
I think it’s always hard to pinpoint any particular influences of a city. I’m sure Berlin has influenced me somehow since I love to live here and I love to come back here after being somewhere else. We partied a lot back in the days. Raving at Icon with fake IDs. I guess I said that because I hate being compared to the “Berlin scene”. I love good techno but it has nothing to do with my identity. I just want to make music whatever genre it is.
Can you tell us a bit about your route into production? Did you start DJing around the same time?
Music was always there for me. If it was a cheap 12 channel recorder I recorded weird guitar music on or a slow ass computer we produced rave music on a little later, I have always just wanted to make music. The MPC and other hardware came a bit later. I never really thought about DJing until I had to. After a while I loved it and searching for records became a huge part of my life.
I hate being compared to the “Berlin scene”
You’re somewhat of a regular down at OYE Records, isn’t that right? Did that relationship stem simply from record shopping?
I guess it started with an internship there, who I started Box aus Holz with alongside Kickflip Mike and Fiete Treutler. He was the first guy who started buying records in our crew and our excitement for vinyl just followed shortly after. OYE was a central point of a lot of projects, ideas and friendships as well. I met the Brandt Brauer Frick guys at OYE for example and also Tartelet boss Emil. It’s still one of my main sources for records and also the perfect meeting point.
Box Aus Holz has played host to many of your tracks over the past few years. Has it helped in the development of your own sound?
Box aus Holz was the result of a huge creative input in music, videos and ideas in general with no label being interested in working with us. At some point we just thought “fuck everyone” we are just going to do this on our own and started the label. So I guess Box aus Holz is how everything started to get a bit more serious and therefore super important for all of us in the crew. It was great to have total control over records by only really good friends, that meant a lot to us. Obviously the sound of Box aus Holz has changed over the years which I really like. It is almost like a diary. I would never buy the first 3 records in the catalog today (laughs) but I’m still proud of what we have released since 2013!
At some point we just thought “fuck everyone” we are just going to do this on our own.
You’ve recently launched Money $ex with Glenn Astro and OYE partner-in-crime Markus Lindner, AKA Delfonic, so does that represent a new chapter for you now?
It’s definitely a new concept. We want to focus much more on artist EPs and LPs. Often we tried pushing whoever we want to release music by doing something they always wanted to do but who haven’t had the chance to, in order to get something people maybe wouldn’t expect. But it’s also about the freedom of each individual artist to just feel free to put anything they want on their Money $ex release. I don’t think it is a new chapter necessarily though. Box aus Holz is still very present as well as our TORBEN project. We are still the same crew only a little expanded maybe.
How are things shaping up with the label in 2016?
We got a lot of LP’s coming up: Stevie Up In Smoke is an anarchistic hip hop improv by some of our favourite beat-makers from Cologne for example. I’m quite excited about people’s reaction to the record. My Dad, Gerry Franke is going to release his Freak’s Brew LP with some disco, jazz, rock and a lot of weird shit. We got an album by psy-funk project The Julius Conrad Group to be released later in the Year as well as IMYRMIND’s first full length. Knowsum finished a great record for us. Dexter is working on one…And a lot more stuff… Not sure if 2016 can handle all of these (laughs).
The Max Graef Band is another big project you’ve been working on lately. How did that come about? Have you always experimented with live instrumentation?
My roots are in band constellations and in jazz and rock music. I’ve played guitar since I was 13 and had drumming lessons since I was 8. I’ve always been interested in every way of creating sounds and music. I was dreaming of doing a proper band project again after producing on my own for so many years and finally we realised it. We actually played in the group we’re now before. Back in school we were called The Hardcorejatz. We played The Meters covers and simple jazz standards. The band is a great family project with only close friends experimenting with sounds and styles. It’s great to finally have a project where I can use my love for jazz and psychedelic music properly as well.
How did you find the transition into playing live sets?
A live realisation is always difficult. With our band it’s mostly about practicing since we haven’t been playing in a band for so long, but the last year it was really growing and everyone was getting better at their instrument again quite fast. So far we didn’t play many shows with the band but I think the live set-up is getting there. It’s a lot of work writing all the parts for each instrument and getting better as a unit as well but it’s definitely never ending fun.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you usually buy records that are unplayable in clubs. Do you feel the club setting can be too limited in what crowds expect to hear nowadays?
I definitely buy a lot of records for DJ purposes although I also love to play weird stuff that doesn’t always work. I think a crowd is really dependent on warm up sets and the curve of your own set. If you manage to do it smoothly it’s possible to make people dance to Polish jazz rock in the middle of the night in any club I think. I love records in general though, mostly for listening pleasure. I guess that is what I was trying to say in interviews before. Collecting records is great fun.
it’s possible to make people dance to Polish jazz rock in the middle of the night in any club
And what would you say your collection is mainly comprised of?
It is hard to say. Probably jazz. I collected a lot of German jazz and also tons of Eastern European stuff. I’ve got into all the progressive rock and jazz rock bands from Germany over the last years, as well as Brazilian stuff and weird French labels like Pôle for example. So it’s very mixed. Too much good music in every country! There’s a lot of house and techno as well actually.
What’s on the horizon for this year?
Ninja Tune album plus a tour with Glenn Astro spread through the year. A European tour with the band in the summer and some music projects under different names, or just as a producer.
The Max Graef Band plays a sold-out Gottwood this June.