Photo: GOTO PHOTOGRAPHY
As the sun sets over downtown Los Angeles, the appropriately named MAD ZOO house is alive with a menagerie of unusual sounds; there’s strange music coming from the recording studio as well as another set of laptop speakers out in the living room, a sewing machine voraciously stitching in the corner, a fire crackling, and there’s both a cat and dog who at some point inevitably manage to knock into one of the countless potted plants both indoors and on the porch and balcony of Mat Zo‘s Mount Washington home. Over the past few years, the label he created as a platform for his own releases has evolved into a hub for multi-disciplinary musicians, to the point where Mat is now spending as much time putting on for fellow artists via MAD ZOO as he is working on his own music. With the help of label manager Andrew Conde and fellow artist/officially unofficial label co-founder Ben Swardlick aka Swardy, Mat has been able to organically grow MAD ZOO into a collective for music producers who produce more than just music.
“I brought Swardy to live with me because it’s his fault that MAD ZOO exists in the first place. He’s the original Dad Zoo,” Mat explained with a sly smile. In a 2016 conversation Swardy barely recalls after a show in his former hometown of San Francisco, he managed to convince Mat to open up MAD ZOO to other artists after completing an album called Glare with his former musical project The M Machine. “At the time I didn’t want to turn MAD ZOO to be something that I had to work on,” Mat confessed. “But then I heard the album and loved it, so I had to release it. After that people started sending us demos, and then we found Shadient, and it all kicked off from there.” It certainly did, and now up to their ears with more brilliant demos than they have the capacity to release, MAD ZOO finds Mat, Swardy, and Andrew rolling up their sleeves every day to manage distribution, marketing, and A&R.
Swardy was quick to note that the term ‘record label’ is a rather antiquated term for what they’re actually doing: “Be visibly interested in your friends’ art, and if that means a record label then cool,” he said. “But I really think that’s an old term for pals who are supporting each other on the internet instead of waiting for other people to make it cool to support them.” In an era of mass oversaturation in music where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be heard as an independent artist, it seems joining forces is the most efficient way to create a community around your work. And even at the level of having become demonstrably successful touring artists as Mat and Swardy have, managing their platform is still DIY AF. If you release on MAD ZOO, there’s a substantial chance that Grammy-nominated producer Mat Zo will make your album artwork for you by hand because he’s also an absurdly talented visual artist who can’t seem to resist the urge to be hands-on when it comes to presentation, but largely hands-off when it comes to the music.
“We let the artists free reign over whatever they want to make, but with some small creative suggestions here and there on how a release can come out better,” Mat said in regards to MAD ZOO’s A&R process. When asked if there’s an underlying ethos to the label, there’s zero hesitation in Mat’s answer. “We’re all doing stuff other than music, we’re all creative people who like being around other creative people. Everyone at the label makes some other kind of art, so we like to think of ourselves as more of a collective, as an outlet for people’s creativity.” Before Mat became a music producer, he wanted to be a graphic designer. For him, creating promotional assets for MAD ZOO releases is something he’s able to do for fun. In addition to his graphic work and digital paintings, the MAD ZOO talent pool also boasts merch design and embroidery (via Swardy), as well as a VFX artist and video editor, singer, and still more graphic designers. “A lot of people do their own artwork on the label. We’ve got a guy coming out called Lapsung who just did his own artwork, it’s a recurring theme. We seem to attract a lot of people who have other talents so we try to encourage that.”
These two are such prodigious and seemingly compulsive creators, they seem to have no reservations when it comes to throwing themselves into a new creative endeavor. MAD ZOO’s new handmade merch initiative is the product of Swardy buying a sewing machine about six weeks ago at the time of this writing and throwing himself into mastering it using trial and error with help of some bootleg embroidery software he discovered on a Reddit thread and bought on eBay that’s probably 20 years old. Below, we see Mat modeling the new MAD ZOO dad hat, which will be sold exclusively at their LA show this coming Friday, November 30th at Catch One (formerly Union) — if you’re in town, get tickets here.
“I love going down rabbit holes,” Mat admitted in regards to the sheer volume and range of his creative output, and it seems like he’s in great company. He also shows us a few other musical rabbit holes he’s been down in the studio, including a monophonic analog synth as well as a Talk Box, which he says you can’t use well unless you have a huge mouth. And as the MAD ZOO team is trucking along down their respective rabbit holes, their fans are engaged in real-time updates and conversation on Twitter in a thread that seems to be going 24 hours a day. It contains the usual hype and banter we find on artists’ social media pages, but also a great deal of encouragement. Although these Mad Dads admit they have more epic content to release than they do time and resources, the way they communicate with their MAD ZOO ride-or-dies is inherently motivational. “If you have a vision for something and you really believe in it, chances are if you work hard at it you can turn it into something,” Mat says to every artist out there unsure of where to start when it comes to creating and promoting their work.
We also demanded to be taken on a walk down memory lane as to how Mat and Swardy met in the first place, which was on Porter Robinson’s Language tour in 2011. That bus tour was a first for all three acts and cemented ongoing friendships, which is a rarity amongst touring artists according to both Mat and Swardy. “Sometimes you have a really awesome, close experience with an artist on tour but then you leave it and you don’t know if you’re still friends,” Swardy explained. “Not that there’s a reason why you wouldn’t be friends necessarily but that factor hasn’t come into play yet because you’re kind of obligated to hang out when you’re on the road.” During the tour on a Sunday they had off in Salt Lake City when literally nothing was open except a sex shop, a bond was solidified over a suction-cup stickable dildo they threw at various targets like a spear, and that bond has yet to be broken.
Our last question was in regards to how Swardy and Mat’s perspectives have changed from the Language tour until now, because we wanted to know where those bright-faced young lads pictured above thought their careers were all headed back then. “God, looking back at old AMAs is so embarrassing,” Swardy laughed. “I am so preachy and full of optimism at like 23, 24, as if I had any idea about fucking anything. People were like, ‘How do you make it in the music industry?’ I should’ve just said ‘I don’t fucking know, call me in a few years.'” As for Mat, he said back then he was bitter about how he was perceived in the trance world at that time and didn’t know what he wanted. “I was dissatisfied back then, but now I’m pretty satisfied! ‘Cause I can do literally whatever I want. I got to a point where I could make music for a living and that was all I had to do ever.” Interestingly, though, getting to that point as an artist didn’t fulfill him nearly as much as supporting fellow creators via MAD ZOO.
Head down their rabbit hole in the ongoing playlist below and we hope to see you at the MAD ZOO RE:UNION party this Friday.