In recent years Atlanta has been emerging as one of the most influential cities in the United States for electronic dance music.
With multiple year round festivals including the internationally renowned TomorrowWorld in addition to a burgeoning underground scene and top tier promotion and event companies, it is no wonder why Atlanta has cemented itself as a premier dance music destination.
Among the slew of talent to come out of ATL is Leah Culver. Performing under the guise MK Ultra – a name synonymous with a government mind control program during the 1950’s – Leah has catapulted herself in to the forefront of the Atlanta EDM scene in just a few short years. Since debuting in 2011 MK Ultra has been featured on Ultra Music Festival Radio with Porter Robinson, iHeart Radio, and Protohype Radio in addition to sharing the stage with names like 3lau, Krewella, illGates, Kill Paris, and many more while establishing herself as one of the fastest rising names in electro/bass music production.
Part of the Iris Presents family, which has been putting on events in the city since the 90’s, it is no surprise that Leah is as grounded, well-spoken, and humble as any producer that we have had the pleasure of spending time with.
We sat down with MK Ultra at Imagine Music Festival to discuss the origins of her name, collaborations with Trinidad James and Waka Flocka Flame, current projects aimed at ending abuse and much more.
thatDROP: First off, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. We understand that you recently got back from touring in Japan.
Leah: Yes. I was in a city which was about a 16 hour drive from Tokyo, about a two hour flight. It was amazing.
thatDROP: What was it like playing for that crowd?
Leah: They were a very supportive crowd. I was very impressed by them. They were very loyal right from the beginning and I was before their headliner so it was kind of cool to get to see their side of it. It was like a whole new world. The way they do things is totally different and it was totally cool to be a part of it.
thatDROP: Was it more like a festival or a show?
Leah: It was a festival on the beach and I was really impressed when I got there. It was bigger than I thought it was gonna be. Getting there was just like a moment for me where I was like ‘wow, this is amazing’ and everyone was so kind. It was cool to be in a place where I don’t speak the language and you have to communicate in other ways.
thatDROP: How did that get set up?
Leah: That was set up through Memphis Universal. My friend works for them and he grew up in Japan so he’s got friends in the club scene. He pulled me through and we are definitely going back. We had a great time. It’s looking like we are going to be doing another tour over there in the future.
thatDROP: When you’re preparing for an Atlanta show do you have a different mindset than going in to these completely unfamiliar settings?
Leah: To be honest, everything I do is kind of winging it. I don’t really think about it too much or mentally prepare that much. I just go in to it with the attitude that it is going to be a good time and it usually is.
thatDROP: You have been working on your first EP and collaborating with Trinidad James. Can you tell us more about that process?
Leah: We just finished a new track called “Tantrum.” I’m really excited because he is really a cool dude and I don’t know if many people are aware of that but he is really intelligent. I like to work with people who are a little more aware of the world and he is definitely one of those people. Hes got a great character and I really enjoyed working with him. He was really sweet because I’m not very hip-hop and he really supported me in writing with him so it was really a great experience from the beginning.
thatDROP: Can we expect and future collaborations with him?
Yes actually. We have been talking about doing more, just me and him.
thatDROP: How about the documentary?
Leah: We actually do episodes – ‘We Are MK Ultra’ episodes. BB Photography does them. They kind of travel with me when they are available and we pretty much film the whole thing from A to B and they work really hard on that. I really appreciate them a lot. They put a ton of time in to that.
thatDROP: Where else have you been recently?
Leah: Right before I went to Japan I went to New Orleans. I actually had some equilibrium issues from flying so much in such a short time. From New Orleans to Atlanta to Japan. When you are in the air alot the pressure changes in your ears. The little hairs in your ears tell you whether or not you are balanced and since I was in the air so much my balance was all thrown off and it took me a while to recover.
thatDROP: I heard you are a pizza fan. Favorite pizza place?
Leah: Who isn’t a pizza fan? New York style. Chicken Avocado spinach is kind of my jam.
thatDROP: If you were stranded on an island an could only have one type of pizza forever what would it be?
Leah: Woah! That’s a commitment. Definitely Antico’s from Atlanta. They have amazing pies. You can’t just get a slice you have to get the whole pie and it’s always a good decision.
thatDROP: You’ve developed a really strong fan base here and it seems that the Iris Family is just so incredibly supportive.
Leah: I must start by saying that Iris is nothing but pure love and I have nothing but respect for Maddy and Glenn (Goodhand). They are a family. They talk about Iris Family but they are a family and I mean that as much as I talk about my own family. They’ve really been supportive and I just love Iris and everyone involved. They are very particular about their staff and do very fine tuned interviews and are really good at picking up on subtleties. Everyone involved with Iris is just a genuinely good, honest person and its really cool to be involved with that. There are a lot of people in this scene and not everyone is like that.
thatDROP: Can you describe your most peculiar encounter with a fan?
Leah: This guy got MK Ultra tattooed on him and he was a sweetheart but I was so shocked. I was like “That’s on your body forever! What if i change my name?” I’ve had a lot of moments where I am just so grateful for anybodies support. I think if you have one persons support that is enough to keep going and if you can make a difference trying to help people see positivity and you can create light for anyone who is listening, that is really special to me. When people tell me that they are listening I am just in love with the whole thing and thats all I want to do. That’s all I want to hear.
thatDROP: In 2011 you were working with a promoter. How did you get from there to this point?
Leah: MJ was one of the first promoters I worked with. Rave ATL and Kingdom Rave weren’t around yet but he was throwing really big shows so when I was on his radar he has always been supportive and has always put me on.
thatDROP: Is that when you realized you wanted to take a shot at performing and producing?
Leah: My older brother was a DJ in the 90’s and he is 8 years older than me. When I was really little I would hear DJ noises in the room next to me really grew up disliking drum and bass. That was my first interaction with EDM at all and it was all day and all night growing up. I was kind of like ‘drum and bass uggghhhh. I gotta get up in the morning for school.’ But my interests came from my brother.
I would always go in his room and play with his things when he was gone. He has really nice things so he would be really mad to know that I did that but it sparked my interest and I kind of fell in to this. I’ve been a guitar player and singer/songwriter forever but my main goal was not to be a DJ. It was just to make music but it’s kind of working out.
thatDROP: You like to have your hand in other things as well. With your EP, what are some other things you have been doing in terms of production?
Leah: When I hear a song I have always seen a video in my head and when I see a video often times I will hear music to it. When I write a song I almost always immediately already have a video planned and write it out and find out who is the right person to do the video. That’s kind of where we are at right now. I have been doing a lot of writing and I’m kind of excited.
Can I tell you something? I’ve been working on a song that’s about abuse in homes and in relationships and I’m really stoked about this one. I was originally working on a song about being yourself and doing a video for that but then I just got this rush of visual pictures of this whole video that just flooded in and I began writing it all down. It portrays the idea that you don’t have to stay in a situation like that and you can just walk away. I have a really good feeling about it.
I really want to get the message out there to people that need to hear it because it is so common. It means a lot to me about helping because I think those situations are so terrible. It’s going to be shocking and hard to watch. I want it to be like you don’t want to watch it. Well I do want you to watch it but I want it to be really hard to take in. Then I’m going to get the national abuse hotline to get involved. I have been contacting everyone to get sponsors for it so that hopefully it will go viral. Originally I was going to make an acoustic song for it but I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I am going to put my brand in it but the video is really important to me.
thatDROP: When can we expect that video?
I have it all written and the song is halfway done. I’ve been so enthralled with the video. We are filming October 4 and 5 then it’s up to the producers to edit it but I would imagine late October. I don’t know what im going to call it yet but I think it will be a very good thing.
thatDROP: What about the EP?
I was actually just in the studio with Cali Da Kidd and we just made that ‘titty’ song you might have heard. My attitude is “Fuck it. Do it.” I wing it and I had fun and I think they had fun too. We were working on tracks with Waka Flocka Flame and that was a hip hop track. I put a verse on it but my plan is to remix it so I can bring it in to my world a little more.
thatDROP: What destinations are on your bucket list?
I want to see everything. I’m just really in love with the world and truly want to see everywhere. I know that’s not entirely possible but I’m going to try.
thatDROP: How about a certain person or an icon that has inspired you that you would love to meet?
Hayley Williams from Paramore. I think that stems from having been such a big Paramore fan when I was 14-15 years-old. From what she shows she is just a really nice person to everyone she meets and I think that’s really important. I won’t go on a rant about what I think about people that aren’t that way but I think its really important to do it that way. I don’t think I could handle meeting Hayley Williams. She’s such a little ball of adorable happiness. That is my new life goal.
thatDROP: Tell us about the MK Ultra moniker and how it applies to you. Why did you pick that and how does it apply to your personality?
Leah: When I had to pick a name I had less than 48 hours to pick one because, like i said, I really fell in to this. I learned how to DJ maybe the same week I had my first show and I didn’t have a name. My friend justin was like ‘Hey we need a name for the flyer.’ I was with my dad and my dad is ex-CIA in Secret Ops. I don’t know a lot about what he did but I was like ‘What is something? Help me out!’ He suggested MK Ultra.
At the time he gave me a very short summary about what it was and about mind control. It was important to me that my name wasn’t something super feminine. I didn’t want to ride a gimmick. I wanted to have the ability for no one to know I’m a girl going up on stage. I didn’t want to be “DJ Leah Butterfly Lily.”
But as I learned more about MK Ultra, the more I realized I don’t fit it with it so what I am doing is changing it to the notion that you have control of your mind and you have the ability to do any thing that you put your mind to. I also have this idea of making it ‘momentum kinetic energy,’ as in energy in motion. That I can relate to. I can’t relate to the original meaning because of all the the terrible things that it represents. I picked the name, granted 48 hours before, but I can make it work.
thatDROP: You always seem to be writing. What is your method? Is it more stream of consciousness?
Leah: I have a backpack and usually have 5 or 6 books with me. I have my “get shit done book.” There is so much I want to do and if I don’t write it down I might not get to it so I am constantly writing everything down. I’m kind of disorganized so I enjoy writing. There is a certain comfort that comes to me with that physical pen writing on the paper. I can bring that with me everywhere. No matter where I am I always have that comfort.