DAVID & ALAIN MACKLOVITCH
The musical siblings on their biggest inspirations and how their sonic taste translates to art and design.
Interview by Martin Lerma
David and Alain Macklovitch have been making music since they were teenagers. The brothers – who originally hail from Canada – have built some of the biggest careers in the field, with both working as prolific producers, DJs and creative directors. David – half of the electric duo, Chromeo – and Alain – best known by his DJing stage name, A-Trak – spoke with Platform about how album covers made them dream, what about ballet inspires them, and why reading comic books is as important as reading Proust.
Both of you have a lot of titles attached to your careers, but how would you describe what it is that you actually do?
I usually say DJ first and foremost. Everything else that I do comes from being a DJ. On top of that, I'm also a producer, remixer, label owner and sort of a connector.
I always had a bit of a hard time because I was an academic for much of my adult life. Now, I guess I'm a musician, producer, DJ, creative director and record label owner. But deep down I'm still an academic.
"Anything I discovered, especially music, I shared with Alain. We were close in age and shared similar passions. We embarked on this path together and here we are."
What sparked your respective interests in music, and did those interests start at the same time?
I would say it happened hand in hand because we're brothers and we grew up close. Dave is older, so I would hang around him and his friends. As they went along their path of musical discovery and even cultural discovery and getting to know the whole scope of hip-hop, I tagged along. I was lucky to have that access.
I was the older brother, still am [laughs], so anything I discovered, especially music, I shared with Alain. We were close in age and shared similar passions. We embarked on this path together, and here we are.
We grew up in an era where DIY was kind of the norm, at least in the hip-hop scene. Coming up and discovering hip-hop in the mid-90s when the underground was really healthy, it wasn't crazy to create your own artwork for your demo tapes and to create fliers at the copy shop and to organize shows with your friends and eventually learn how to call a pressing plant and press vinyl.
Which we did. We had our own label when I was 18. I co-owned a record shop with some friends by the time I was 20. We were almost on the tail end of that DIY, late ‘90s hip-hop era and then we caught the whole internet era. Sometimes, I don't want to think too much about today's era because there's so much information, so much data. But we’re sailing. Even though we consider ourselves active participants in our respective fields, I think now we can also observe things with a bit of detached bemusement. And I think that might be healthy.
There are also certain kinds of habits that we took on in our early days. Whatever both Dave and I were up to, we would share a lot of resources and contacts. If we were active in one field, it would allow us to do something else. When we started our first record label, we wanted to press our own records and Dave was running a record store, so he knew who the distributors were, for example. And then I was already a world champion DJ at a young age, so I was doing interviews and getting to know journalists.
When we started putting out our own records as teenagers, we kind of realized early on like, “Oh, we know who the distributors are, we know who's writing reviews for this magazine and that magazine.” We just gave each other tasks like, “You call the UPS guy. Send these to that journalist. I'll call this distributor. This friend of a friend knows that person.”
Early on, we realized we didn't really need anyone else to get our ideas out into the rest of the world. Then as the industry changed, we kept that same mentality that we could do things ourselves. If there's anything that either Dave or I can't do, we probably have a friend that can get us there.
"Early on, we realized we didn't really need anyone else to get our ideas out into the rest of the world."
Now, it's about sharing resources. I think it's about two things: number one, we still work the same way. I'll creative direct all of A-Trak’s projects and he'll be the first pair of ears to listen to any kind of music I make. There's still that symbiotic relationship but now we're also keen to share these resources with others and that's why we both started record labels. We started a new record label over the past year and A-Trak’s very very involved in mentoring other DJs. With Chromeo, we’re definitely getting into that sort of mentality because you get to a point where it’s no longer just about you and your pursuits.
Do you think that sort DIY mentality and the interconnectedness you talked about still exists in people who are just coming up?
It still exists. SoundCloud was super DIY and I think any artist that blows up on social networks does it in a DIY way. It takes on different forms, but I think it still exists. It's almost become an aesthetic that's been romanticized and co-opted by big capitalist machines. The semblance of DIY gives an aura and a romance to something. Sometimes, there are bigger players behind the scenes, but nothing is going to look better than an innocuous stand at the PS1 art book fair or a record that feels and looks indie even though Sony might be behind it.
Speaking of aesthetics, how does your aesthetic taste in music relate or not relate to your aesthetic taste in other things, like the environments you create, and the design objects you love?
It's all part of the same thing. The musicians we grew up idolizing, the aesthetic universe that they created was just as important as the music – sometimes even more important. I think that being from a French-speaking, immigrant family in Canada, those universes created by our favorite artists, like Wu-Tang Clan or Frank Zappa or the Beastie Boys or ZZ Top, lit up our imagination just as much as the recorded music.
We used to study the clothing that Ghostface Killah wore or that Mike D from the Beastie Boys wore or that Biggie wore or that the Mobb Deep guys wore. We used to nerd out over the fonts and memorize the names of all the photographers on every album cover. It was all part of the universe that we could sit down and just discuss with each other and dream about.
I think any kind of aesthetic consideration you make when you're a musician is as important as the music itself because it's all part of a world that you present to an audience. In each of our pursuits, we try to cultivate contrasts so that the things we create and present are not too on the nose. With my band Chromeo, for instance, we came out with a very ‘80s funk sound, but we wanted our artwork to look more like ‘70s classic rock. Then our attitude and our song titles and our lyrics had this kind of postmodern, post-Curb Your Enthusiasm humor and these really weird jazzy musical references. The vantage point that all of us are in allows us to create these juxtapositions and Alain does the same thing.
"I think it's necessary to absorb raw materials or references or sources of inspiration that are radically different from your own creative output."
We both have a few different projects at this point and there's something almost like an exercise that Dave and I have together where we hash out ideas. As we're workshopping the music, we're already thinking about what the aesthetics will be, what the references for the artwork are. If you can't quite nail what the art will look like, there might be something about the music that's not defined enough. Then that tells you to chisel the idea even more because it really should be a straight line to the art.
What's the difference between those things that you're presenting to the public for a specific project versus the kind of aesthetic you cultivate in your own home?
I think that what we have in our homes or what we enjoy privately is stuff that stimulates us aesthetically, intellectually, creatively. If that was the same stuff that we put out, then we don't have any agency. I think it's necessary to absorb raw materials or references or sources of inspiration that are radically different from your own creative output. That way you draw from a whole variety of things and that can inform your very specific practice. Then your practice has all this other information and all these other sources. It would be so literal otherwise.
My music is a very carefully honed, specific thing. But as a person, whatever I read or films I watch or the art that I enjoy, that just informs me on the inspirational level, on a conceptual level. All that gets digested and synthesized into a very specific musical practice. Or when I work with my brother or with Duck Sauce on creative direction, I can pick from other things. But I think it's the synthesis that's important. I know we're all conduits but as a conduit, you still have to re-combine your sources into something else.
Also, I think at this point in our careers, we’ve both been pursuing musical projects for long enough that we're both influenced by things that are not even that comparable to what we make ourselves. There aren't really other bands you can compare to Chromeo and I don't think there are that many DJs who do exactly the same thing as I do in the way that I'll combine really technical turntablism with party rocking on a festival scale. I don't really see Dave be inspired by bands similar to Chromeo. I’ll see him go to art galleries and come home and make songs.
Dave took me to a ballet once and I remember watching it and thinking about the progression and arc of the performance and what it evoked in me. I came home and thought about what I could do with a DJ set that will provoke a similar reaction. To me, it’s more exciting to think about it that way: “I like the reaction that I just had from this thing that's not even comparable to what I do. How can I mold my practice to create a reaction that's comparable to that?”
Maybe it’s because we’ve both been in academia, but we have an aversion to pretentiousness. I think that sometimes when people are too open about the wide breadth of their sources of inspiration, it just comes off a little bit lofty and it's not necessary.
It’s really interesting to listen to you both speak about the different art forms that inspire your own work. What kind of art would you say you're most attracted to?
For me, it’s fine arts more than performing arts. Also architecture and design. A little bit of fashion but only the fashion that hates fashion – only anti-fashion fashion. That's what I try to absorb as much as possible and, of course, literature. But I basked in literature and literary criticism for so much of my adult life that when I put my thesis on hold I was like, “I gotta teach myself about everything else.”
We have really similar taste. I would just add that on my end and, in my house, I love to support my friends too. A big part of what's important to us at this stage of our lives is to buy art from our friends.
Even though we'll go to museums and galleries all the time, there are so many canons and there's not one canon that trumps the other canon. I love Italian renaissance painting, but I love graffiti so much. We grew up writing graffiti, we idolize graffiti writers and I still talk to graffiti writers every single day. There are many canons that can coexist the same way you can teach Proust and also read comics. They're both fascinating. I think that the ability to enjoy all these things makes for such a fulfilling and rich aesthetic experience. And it also takes you away from that pretentious thing. We don’t need that [laughs].
Do either of you have experiences with art that you would consider especially formative?
I can think of three. The first time my mom took me to New York City and – I'm gonna age myself – it was the very, very tail end of the ‘80s and there was still graffiti on and even inside the trains. Both our parents are art fanatics and they’re literature freaks. We grew up in a modest family, but that was a source of tremendous cultural wealth, so shout out to my mom. She put me on to graffiti at a young age and I never forgot it.
Then the first trip I made to Brazil was actually in 2010, so not super long ago, and a friend of mine who lives out there introduced me to Brazilian architecture and Brazilian furniture design. Just the greatest hits, nothing too deep, but people like Sergio Rodriguez and Niemeyer and Paulo Mendes da Rocha and all of those heavy hitters. I had seen a few things, but I didn't know it from the inside. That trip was like my gateway drug to widening my horizons in the fields of art and interiors and furniture design. That changed me. I was older already. Those experiences don't have to happen when you're six years old, they can happen when you're older.
And finally, I wanna say the first time I read Proust. I remember the first time I read Proust, I emailed my mom entire pages of quotations. I just wanted to re-transcribe it so I could feel the pleasure of typing it.
"For someone for whom hip-hop became like a religion, the cover art of the albums that we fell in love with became the world that we wanted to inhabit."
As far as visual arts, it's a trip to remember that my first gig ever was a graffiti festival. That was the first time that I performed by myself in front of people. And I think it kind of put us down a path where we saw visual artists as our collaborators and friends and peers and part of the same organism. We saw how symbiotic it was early on just because that's how we came into the game. That's a big one for me. And then you know as a DJ and someone who fell in love with records at a young age, I just think about record covers. For someone for whom hip-hop became like a religion, the cover art of the albums that we fell in love with – like Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head – became the world that we wanted to inhabit.
I think the interdisciplinary thing that people like to talk about in recent years is the oldest thing ever. Things coexist, like how graffiti related to lyrics and hip-hop and fashion at the time. We love American minimalist art, but even minimalism and post-minimalism were in conversation with critical dialogue and phenomenology and critical discourse. It’s always intertwined. Even though we're musicians, I feel like we can comfortably talk about those other things. They inform everything.
The fact that we grew up listening to hip-hop led us down a path of wanting to learn about samples and what record was sampled for what and understanding which musicians were working with whom. It also taught us to ask ourselves more questions any time we discovered some sort of sound. We have a lot of conversations about things that we discover and a lot of times it's more than just, “What is it about this that I like?” It's also questions like, “When this came out, what was it reacting against? Was there another trend right before that they were trying to change? Who were their peers?” Just putting everything in context like that is the way we've learned to absorb music and art and culture.
All of these forms of art can be enjoyed by everyone. The critic or the professor or the curator’s function is just providing context, and I firmly believe that the context will enhance the aesthetic experience, but it's not necessary. You can have a bomb aesthetic experience without any context. It just adds to it. It's like MSG [laughs]. It's a flavor enhancer. That's why I taught literature. I love the idea of teaching something that no one needs. You can read books. You don’t need some dude with a PhD who speaks Latin to explain things to you. But that person can add a layer and enhance the aesthetic experience and provide context. When I look at what my brother does culturally as a DJ and now as a legendary figure in his field, so much of what he does is providing context.