Max Graham Discusses Evolution of Sound, Thoughts On The State of EDM, and What The Future Holds [Exclusive Interview]

max graham interview
Max Graham

Max Graham has taken an unconventional path to where he is today.

Having stepped way from dance music at a pivotal point in his well established career, the Canadian producer took some time to reflect on the real reasons he was creating music. After rediscovering his passions, Graham has compiled a resume that very few producers can rival.

Known for his trademark open-to-close sets, consisten appearances on A State of Trance, and Cycles radio show which is now syndicated in over 50 countries, Max Graham has earned a place among the electronic dance music elite.

With the recent release of Cycles 6, Max Graham continues to build upon his legacy.

The annual review of Graham’s musical journeys, the 78 minute compilation dabbles in the realm of progressive, techno & trance tunes as the ever-evolving Canadian producer continues to experiment with various sounds.

We sat down with the composer to discuss the evolution of his sound, his thoughts on the current state of dance music, and what the future has in store in this exclusive interview.

thatDROP: First, thank you for taking the time to interview with us.

Graham: Thank you for having me!

thatDROP: How has your sound evolved from your early works through Cycles 6?

Graham: By early works do you mean Cycles 1 in 2008 or my first productions back in the 90’s? Let’s go with Cycles 1.

It’s funny I was listening to the earlier Cycles CD’s over the holidays and I think 6 has more in common with 1,2 and 3 than say 4 and 5. I’m always being inspired by different things and producers and 4 and 5 are definitely more on the Trancey tip but still diverse. 6 is a return to my Techier side as that’s been the influence lately.

thatDROP: What would you attribute as your biggest influences in the evolution of your sound and you move more towards ‘progressive techno?’

Graham: I think it’s two fold. I’ve always liked chunky bass and sexy grooves and as the style of Trance I play (128-130 clubby stuff) moved more towards electro as their influence, it’s become less appealing to me. I love melody, strings, pads and chord samples but I don’t relate to the dry electro basslines and progressive mainstage influence in a lot of the Trance I hear now.

I’ve always mixed Techno into the Trance I play (producers like Alex Di Stefano). It just became a bigger part of my sets as I found less and less Trance that suited me. Also, I’ve been finding more producers that are mixing the two like Richard Santana and Thomas Vink. Both making Techno grooves but not afraid to add some melody into it.

thatDROP: Having been producing since before the widespread popularity of ‘EDM,’ what do you think about where the scene is now and where do you think it is going?

Graham: I think it’s great that there’s a very easy-to-digest sound out there that’s bringing lots of new people into the scene. Even though I consider myself miles away from that main stage sound I do appreciate that.

Much like Tiesto’s amazing “In Search Of Sunrise” CD’s and Oakenfold before him, it’s bringing new people to discover the first level of DJing and there’s a natural curiosity that grows for lots of people to dig deeper.

I use the baby food analogy: you start with apple sauce out of a jar but after a few years you want to try Thai food, wasabi, Indian, Italian.

We’re seeing so many people who were into the easy-to-digest mainstage sound a couple of years ago grow out of that and begin to appreciate artists like Digweed and Dubfire. So it’s all good from my perspective. As for where it’s going, that’s a tough one. We’re definitely in a transition year where the walls are coming down between lots of genres so it’s an exciting time to be a dance music fan and a DJ as there’s so much new talent and so many cross collaborations.

thatDROP: You’ve mentioned that you don’t rely on an engineer in the studio. With touring, managing your radio show, and creating new music, time is obviously stretched thin. What motivates you to have a more ‘hands on’ approach when valuable time might be saved?

Graham: I think I just love what I do! Every transition between two records that has my name on it (radio show, live set or guest mix) is sacred to me. That’s the art of DJing, no one will ever have the ear that you yourself have for the way you want it to sound, you can’t train someone to do that for you. I could never be comfortable letting someone else mix my show and take credit for the feeling that’s created from it.

That being said, I do have help with producing. I don’t work with an engineer in the studio but I do outsource my mix downs as it’s simply not my strength. “Evil ID” I made completely alone for example but other tracks I’ve had help balancing the kick and the bass to sound in the right place.

It’s not a time thing, more an ability thing. As for time saving I’m notoriously efficient or at least trying to be, any app or device that can shave time off a process I’m all about it. Also having a laptop means I’m always catching up on things here and there.

max graham tour
Fans will have the chance to experience Max Graham during his Cycles 2015 North American Tour.

thatDROP: Solid Stone has become a staple in your sets, with multiple unreleased tracks on Cycles 6. You’ve stated you believe in building artists rather than just signing records. Speak to his appeal, the sound he creates, and what makes you continue to support his work.

Graham: Well he’s always looking to push the envelope. He’s not afraid to move out of his comfort zone and be influenced by different things. I respect that as it’s the same mentality I’ve always had. It’s worked against me in the past as I don’t really fit into an easily marketable group the way Armin is Trance and Richie is Techno for example, but it’s the way I’ve been as an artist and it appeals to me when I see it in others like Solid Stone.

I do think diversity is more celebrated now than when I was coming up, so anything I can do to help his career I’m more than happy to. He also makes some truly amazing music regardless of genre. I already think he’s a better producer than I am in just the short time he’s been making music, but he’s still open to suggestions about arrangement and direction, which I love. Talented and humble I’ll help any day!

thatDROP: You’ve referenced a quote by Markus Schulz saying “The day I stopped making music for other people and started making music for myself is the day my career took off.” How has this affected your productions, goals, and life overall?

Graham: I went through a tough period in 07/08 where I was trying to make music that would increase my (at the time) falling profile, and that’s a recipe for disaster. I wasn’t creating music I loved and that of course is 100% the wrong way to create from my perspective.

I took a year off and it was during that time that I had that chat with Markus. When I came back in 2010 I did exactly that, made music for me, just like in 99/2000 when my career first took off creating tracks like “Airtight” for myself and seeing them be successful. “Evil ID” is a perfect example, I made a track I truly didn’t think anyone would like, Armada even rejected it at first, but the reaction on social media when I snuck it into sets was so strong I was shocked.

Armin picked up on it and it’s still being played regularly two years later by a lot of DJs. Just goes to show when you make art for yourself and from yourself it can be received better than if you try to follow some formula.

thatDROP: You’ve had residencies at Circus in LA, Gatecrasher in Sheffield, Sona in Montreal, and performed all over the world. What have been some experiences that have stuck out to you?

Graham: Sona definitely, that was just a moment in time back in the late 90’s. I was playing 8 hour sets on vinyl all the time there and the crowd was just incredible. It was so long before there was any money in the business that everyone involved was doing it because they truly had a passion for it. Plus it was our own dirty secret as it was so far from the mainstream.

I’ve had many amazing gigs in my life though, Gatecrasher was incredible too, the “crasher kids” from that era were something else. But the Open To Close sets I’m doing now are some of the best gigs I’ve ever done, so I can truly say I’m at my happiest DJing right now than I’ve ever been.

thatDROP: In the short term, what are you looking forward to, personal or music related, in the coming year?

Graham: Building Cycles as a night that showcases the talent from the show. Cycles Radio has become so diverse but there are still some standout artists, Hollen, Gai Barone, Alex Di Stefano, Adrian Hour and Dosem for example. All guys I would love to have play a “Cycles live” event, and that’s the plan for the coming year.

The show has been doing so well and the reaction and support for Cycles has been unbelievable, so I want to grow that with events that bring the experience into the clubs. We’ve designed a new logo and new visuals for 2015 so I’m really excited to take that out both for this coming US tour and beyond.

thatDROP: What is the greatest compliment you have ever received from a fan?

Graham: Oh wow, that’s a tough one! People that have flown and driven long distances to a show always blow me away. There’s some real effort and love behind a 6 hour drive or a day of travel to come and catch a show somewhere.

I’ve had people make me Kandi and even a couple draw some cool art too. There’s also the messages you get that your song or a set has helped someone through a tough time in their lives, that’s always pretty moving.

max graham interview
“I use the baby food analogy: you start with apple sauce out of a jar but after a few years you want to try Thai food, wasabi, Indian, Italian.”

thatDROP: You’ve stated that one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned is to never make music with success in mind. In this context you are obviously referring to financial success. How would you define success?

Graham: I think this touches on what I said earlier about trying to make music based on a formula or really being creative. Personally, making music for money or a formula or to fit a genre I’m not passionate about leaves me feeling empty, money has never been my goal and I’ve shown that time and again by taking a road where I’m inspired rather than the more profitable one. My friends say had I stuck with Trance in the early 90’s I would be a rich man by now (laughs).

At the end of the day I always put music and art first before an easy road to riches. It’s just the way I’m built.

thatDROP: Having done so much, what is left on your musical bucket list?

Graham: Oh so much, I would love to be able to make my kicks sound like Alex Di Stefano’s but after 15 years I’ve kind of accepted that it’s not my forte. I would love to sit down with Sade and play piano while she sings, I guess that’s possible right?

At the end of the day I just want to keep playing records till the sun comes up and hope there’s enough people still wanting to dance that allows me to continue to make a living.

thatDROP: What is something that most people would not know about Max Graham?

Graham: I get nervous before every show. The anticipation butterflies I guess people would think I’m over after 15 years are still very much there. Keeps me on my toes though, I guess when that stops it will be time for me to stop.

thatDROP: What advice would you give to young musicians?

Graham: Make music you love because you want to make music you love, not because you want to be famous or make money. People can see through the latter right away and there’s plenty of safer and more secure ways to become rich than being a musician or a DJ. Do it for the love of the art. And for goodness sake put proper intros and outros on your tracks so us DJs who like to ride their mixes have more fun playing your records (laughs).

thatDROP: Any thing else you would like to leave fans with?

Graham: Say “Hi” on Twitter and Facebook and I’ll see you at the next show near you, unless you feel like flying a far distance in which case hit me up for guest list!

Be sure to listen to Cycles 6 below.

Order your copy of Cycles 6 by Max Graham, now available through iTunes.

Cycles 6 track list:

  1. Tim Penner – Believe
  2. Chicola & Sahar Z – They Made Me Do It
  3. Solid Stone – Absolute
  4. Tekart – Knob (Dema & Paride Saraceni Remix)
  5. Thomas Vink & Melvin Spix – Detroit
  6. Alberto Ruiz & Hugo Bianco – Black Cat
  7. Solid Stone – Blink
  8. Shelter – Rock Steady
  9. Sam Paganini – Down
  10. Shelter – Pinned
  11. Itzaia & Sopik – Return To Sender
  12. Rick Pier O’Neil – Dark Dancer
  13. Alex Di Stefano – Black Panther
  14. Max Graham – Redemption
  15. Lian July – Ride (Ataman Live Remix)
  16. Thomas Vink – Evolve
  17. Solid Stone feat. Jennifer Rene – Not Enough (Max Graham Remix)
  18. Solid Stone – Red Alert
  19. Gai Barone – Psycles

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