For Eric Luttrell and Ben Swardlick (aka Swardy) of The M Machine, coming to do an interview at NEST HQ, home of OWSLA’s operations, is in many ways coming back to the place where it all started. They came to talk about their debut LP Glare, out via Mat Zo’s label Mad Zoo, which actually isn’t technically their first album. When they signed to OWSLA in 2012, they agreed to release Metropolis as two EPs instead of one LP, and a collection of B-sides came much later, but it turned that collection of songs into a completely different listening experience than what was originally intended. “We have no regrets,” Ben says, “but Glare definitely represents the pendulum swinging in the other direction. The Metropolis catalog presented this heavy, banging sound that OWSLA fans really connected with, except that was only half the picture.”
If M Machine fans feel like they’ve waited a long time for Glare, it’s because they have – the band hasn’t put out new music since their Just Like EP in November of 2014. But all the while, Eric and Ben have been marinating in the studio, expanding their production chops, growing as individual producers (check out Eric’s side project Luttrell), and embracing the magic of DJing after years of performing as a live band. They also kept busy conspiring and collaborating with the former third M Machine member, Andy Coenen, who left the group in 2015 to pursue a career in tech. Andy’s been developing his skills as a programmer and designed the revolutionary Glare.fm mobile-only app that game-ifies the act of sharing music with friends. You get a couple of songs off the album just from downloading the app, then a friend sitting next to you who also has the app can send you a few more. From there, the only way to unlock the rest of the tracks is to share the songs you already have with more friends.
“Glare.fm grew out of all these conversations [with Andy] about how we could present the album in a way where it’s free, but what you’re paying to us then is the guarantee that you’re going to talk about our music with the people around you,” Swardy explains. “The way the platform works, the songs can only be shared with people who are in your direct proximity. “It was novel and it was something we could accomplish. Andy’s a badass programmer, and he likes to make software.”
Not only was Glare novel in its presentation, for the casual M Machine fan the content is also quite novel because it’s so mellow compared to Metropolis and the much dancier Just Like EP. It’s an album that feels like it has room to breathe. From the first song “Blind” featuring Luisa Gerstain, you can tell this record is going to sound very different than most everything they’ve released previously – it has an almost bossa nova-esque melody and vocals and pulls the listener along, a build-up to the rest of the album. “Voyeur” and “I AM” could’ve been INXS or Joy Division hits 30 years ago but will shine as moody, modern-day festival material. “Heart Sandwich,” which they said made the cut just as a transition even though they wanted to flesh it out into a full song, could’ve been considered prolific in any era when the piano existed – it’s stunning. “The Warehouse,” an homage to the old recording studio and living space in the Dogpatch of San Francisco they called home for over five years, is eerie and glitchy with a melancholy synth solo that sort of sounds like it’s saying goodbye. Each song is very distinct from the rest, but overall the album carries a sense of liberation: Glare‘s refreshing from start to finish.
We couldn’t wait to find out what kind of monumental production they had planned for the live incarnation of Glare, but Eric gently burst our bubble. “We don’t really know. And we’re not trying to rush it, there could be different live interpretations of Glare that evolve over time.” Swardy was quick to jump in with some brutal honesty, explaining, “We got bored playing live. All the magic moments in the show were calculated, in a DJ set there can be more of those moments and they happen organically. Sometimes you don’t expect one and realize it’s happening right as it’s about to happen, that’s so exciting.”
After falling in love with their new album, it seemed inconceivable that performing those songs as a live band wasn’t Eric and Swardy’s top priority. In fact, I felt unreasonably disappointed by their lackluster answer about how the album would be toured. But it was also very appropriate that our interview should be immediately followed by an M Machine DJ set in the Mixmag Lab where I got to see first-hand what they meant about organically-created magic moments. There’s a feedback loop running between The M Machine’s shared-brain and the crowd that’s constantly gauging what they’re responding to and adjusting accordingly. A second loop seems to continually flow between between Eric and Swardy themselves, non-verbally determining the course of the set. Their movements are minimal and mechanical, as if every molecule of their beings are entirely focused on crafting the most pristine musical experience possible.
That DJ set was the sonic equivalent of a masterfully designed and well-built home: done right, it’s welcoming, warm, and makes you feel like this is a place where you can really be yourself. The two aforementioned feedback loops remain synchronized throughout and I found myself having to admit that The M Machine DJ set was every bit as satisfying as the live band performance I saw a few years ago. In the same way they gave themselves room to breathe on Glare, by not trying to force those songs into a live format, they’re giving themselves room to evolve their performance and arrive perhaps someplace very different than an M Machine show has ever been before. Regardless, we’re thrilled to be along for the ride. Head to glare.fm to see for yourself what a fun and viable means of free music distribution this could be, and don’t forget to enjoy their set in The Lab with Mat Zo above.