“Finish Him!” - Jesse Keeler Wins at Mortal Kombat

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By Lori Kennedy

As half of two duos—MSTRKRFT with Al-P, and Death From Above 1979 with Sebastien Grainger—Jesse Keeler is well known in the electro and dance-punk scenes for his bass-shattering beats, buzzing synths, and grinding guitars. So when Keeler was approached to curate the soundtrack for the latest installment of the Mortal Kombat video games—of which Keeler is a fan—he was stoked to lend his club-thumping talents to this virtual throat-ripping project. The end result? A sonically dark and appropriately evil collection of songs, with each track reflecting a different character in the game.

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Keeler spoke with Keyboard about choosing the artists featured on Mortal Kombat: Songs Inspired by the Warriors (Watertower Music, 2011) creating his own track for the album, “Deathstalker (Scorpion’s Theme),” and his tools and techniques for the production process.

How did the Mortal Kombat gig come about?
Someone who works at Warner Brothers approached the manager of our label [Teenage Riot], and we’re fans of the game. We played a demo of the game and thought it was cool. We—me, Adrian Martinez [Keeler’s manager], and Jamal Dauda [label GM]—pitched the idea that we could get different artists and pair them with characters from the game.

Did you personally pick the artists who appear on the album?
We worked on it together at the label, so it was me, Adrian, and Jamal. The three of us brainstormed about who we thought would be right. We approached people, and as people got back to us gradually, we got it together. The artists seemed to know which character they wanted to work on right away. We gave everyone simple and straightforward direction as to what to do. We told them what feel to go for: dark and evil! [Laughs.] We told everyone to be as dark and as evil as they could get, but to also keep in mind the character they’re working on. I mean, Johnny Cage [a “good guy” in the game] doesn’t need a really dark, scary track, like Sub-Zero or Scorpion would.

How much hands-on involvement did you have with each artist’s track?
The artists on the album are all people whose music I respect, and they’re all people who we trust with the responsibility of doing something appropriate. After all the talking, I don’t like to be told exactly what to do. If someone wants something really specific, I usually tell them that they should probably do it themselves. I don’t like to operate that way. We don’t run the record label that way. If we say we want to put something out for someone, we want them to have all the creative control. I didn’t wanna have a record label where I sat there and told someone to swap out kick drums or change an arrangement or whatever. I wanna deal with people I trust musically. In terms of involvement, the artists would send in tracks, and the only involvement we ever really had afterward was a couple of tracks where maybe one song was initially sent in as a demo, and maybe we said, “Well, you could go further with this or that or make it scarier.” We’d tell them to not be afraid of playing around with arrangements because we weren’t asking them to make tracks for a club. This project had a different purpose, so you could play around with the arrangement. Other than that, the stuff came in, and it was right for the most part.

Warner Brothers had a mastering guy they were using, and it was important for me to make sure that everything was mastered by the same guy. Ideally, I wanted it to be all done at once in the hopes that it would feel cohesive, despite the fact that the music is dramatically different from track to track. I think it worked out pretty well. The overall tone makes sense, despite stylistic differences. For me, the most work I did was for the track I did for Scorpion [“Deathstalker”].

Can you describe step-by-step how you created “Deathstalker”?
I work in [Avid] Pro Tools. I did this track at my home studio. The MSTRKRFT studio is all analog, but in my house it’s pretty much all digital, with the exception of a Doepfer Dark Energy synth, my Wurlitzer electric piano, and some guitars. I try to work just in the box at home. It’s funny, because that track is composed of a bunch of sounds from different soft synths that weren’t intended to be, I believe, what they ended up being. For instance, the main clicking melody that starts at the beginning of the track—it’s a tuned rimshot sound from the Predator synth by Rob Papen. I’d drawn out this elaborate thing that got faster and faster and just moved off-grid. I programmed this part, and when I was trying it out with some different patches, I got this drum click, and I thought, “This is perfect.” I ended up using that and just processing it to get some more tone out of it. I ran it through a [Universal Audio] SPL Transient Designer plug-in to get a little more length out of it.

The main sort of swirling pad sound was from [Native Instruments] Reaktor. It’s funny because I had just installed Reaktor a day or two beforehand. Working on the song was a bit of a learning experience with that synth, because there are all kinds of automation things I wanted to figure out that I just had to learn how to do in Reaktor as I went. I was like, “How do I do this? I have an idea.” [Laughs.] It’s funny that I didn’t understand anything about the program when I started, but I had to get it together by the end.

A lot of producers might not be bold enough to use an unfamiliar tool on a mission-critical project like that . . .
Whenever I get a new piece of gear, whatever it is—even if it’s a cowbell—I need to use it right away. I always wanna dive in with any new piece I have. I was trying out different things in Reaktor. I had to move myself a bit outside my own box to get the track done with the feel that I wanted. I’m really impressed with Reaktor in general. It’s one of those things where I’d been intending to use it, or trying to get into it forever, but I never got around to it. I’m so impressed with how it sounds, and the possibilities really are endless. I feel like an idiot for not using it for years. I’d probably be more popular now if I had used Reaktor earlier in my career. I had my cousin, who’s also a producer, come over, and I was showing him things in Reaktor, and he said, “What the hell? Why have we never used this?” [Laughs.]

Do you prefer the in-the-box approach of your home studio, or the analog synths of the MSTRKRFT studio?
Well, there’s a funny thing that happens when you have access to both—they feed off one another. We have a really nice modular synth and all this analog stuff. Sometimes, I’ll stumble on a patching idea in a soft synth that then makes me think, “Whoa, I should do that with my modular, but I never thought of it before.” Maybe it was a little complicated or wasn’t as intuitive for whatever reason. I have lots of ideas like that, where then I take it to the studio and find myself standing in front of the wall of modular, re-creating whatever I’d stumbled on digitally.

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In the end, nothing sounds as good as the analog modular synth. I’ll argue that point with anyone forever! I haven’t always owned a modular, but I think personally I was doubting a little bit just how different it would be—how much better it actually was. The first time I plugged it in, and just listened to the oscillators, I was blown away. It just plain sounds better. There’s no comparison.

Was the “Deathstalker” track created entirely in the box?
Yeah, although I came up with the melodies on my Wurlitzer. I’d say 80 percent of all the music I’ve made in the past five or six years has been written either on a piano, the Wurlitzer, or my Rhodes 73. I write on those because you don’t get caught up in the sounds right away. It’s just about the music. From there, I figure, “Well, at least now I have the building blocks of something that will go together and be nice.” Then, it’s getting into sounds and patches and playing around with all the things that you can do there. After that, you’re sort of free to just fiddle around with knobs. At that point, maybe you say, “Oh, well given this, now I wanna change this note.” You can always go back and change it, but I think having the music first is better than searching aimlessly for a sound that’s supposed to lead you to the music that doesn’t work so well for me. I’m sure it’s not the same for everybody, but that’s how it goes in my head. The melody is the best place to start. Those sort of initial musical decisions—that’s when you’re a musician.

Keeler and MSTRKRFT cohort Al-P

What happened after you came up with the melody?

I tried to roughly get the MIDI notes going. I have the M-Audio KeyRig 49 controller, and I get MIDI into Pro Tools with that. I sort of use whatever sound, it doesn’t matter—sometimes I’ll just use the piano sound to keep me from fiddling too early. From there, I spent a long time on that clicky, rimshot-type sound we talked about, and on auditioning a bunch of kick drums. I actually made the entire track with a different kick than the one I ended up using. It was the last thing I did. I thought, “You know, this isn’t the right sound,” and then worked on that after everything was done. Then in my playing around with Reaktor, I stumbled on this pad sound, worked on that for a bit, and found that it really felt right. It’s really just a kick drum and that clicking melody, and the pad had that darkness it needed. And then from there I envisioned what the movement would be and how it would change. I just wanted it to be something that would plod along for a bit and then open up and become something more like an A-B part with a transition.

It’s about two minutes into the song when the beat drops out . . .
And then I introduce that big ugly synth? [Laughs.] I know that sound was in Reaktor, but I don’t remember exactly what it was. I know I had to edit it a bunch of times to get it to do what I wanted. It’s really just a lot of pitch-bend. [Laughs.] Pitch-bend and some filter automation. All that together seemed to work.

How long did it take you to create the track?
How I work at home is that I’ll work on something for a little while and end up walking away, going to sleep, cooking dinner, watching television, just doing something else, and I’ll leave the session up and open on my computer—sometimes for days or weeks—and keep walking back to it. Every time I walk past that part of my apartment that I can’t avoid, there’s that evil screen looking at me [laughs], waiting for me to do more. I just start chipping away at it. I think that for the whole second half [of “Deathstalker”] I had an idea at about two in the morning, and I programmed that in, played it, then perfected it. I got pretty deep into Reaktor, getting it to make the sound I wanted.

How does that contrast with your workflow in MSTRKRFT?
Well, with MSTRKRFT, we generally have a much more complete idea in our heads before we start. When we’re making a track, we both have a complete idea of how the song will be in our heads, and then it’s just a matter of whether or not we’re actually having the same idea! [Laughs.] It just takes us a little while to figure out we’re there.

A little arm-wrestling?
Yeah, because neither of us is that certain. I might know completely what I want, and we may have discussed and believe we are working on the same thing, but it may not actually be the same, which I think is cool. I like that sort of back and forth without really saying anything until we sort of stumble on the end result.

What was your first synthesizer?
It was a Roland Juno-60 that I got for $245 when I was a teenager. I actually still use it all the time. It’s the only synth I’m using now with Death From Above 1979. I had to decide whether or not I wanted to bring this old piece of gear around, but I thought, “If it sounds better and I know how to use it, then yeah.” Everything about it is intuitive for me, so I’ll just keep hauling it around until it breaks. And then I’ll cry. [Laughs.] You know, it really does sound better, but there are limitations in analog gear. A lot of times the limitations are based on what the designer was thinking and what they had to work with around the time they were making it. I’m sure you’ve heard of the great interview with the guy who made the Roland TR-808. If you get it translated from Japanese, he’s still disappointed with the sounds. He’s like, “Ugh, the snare sounds like hitting two pieces of bamboo together; it’s not what I intended.” For him, he was trying to make real drum sounds, and I’m thinking, “Hey, dude, that’s the sound of all electronic music. Don’t be upset about it!” [Laughs.] That’s just the way it is. Sometimes you can look at the routing on some old analog gear and, however intuitive it might be, it’s really limited. With the digital stuff being made now, kids can route whatever they want anywhere and play around. I think for them, sometimes, to go back onto an older piece of gear, it might be really frustrating, like, “Wait, why can’t I send this envelope to the pitch before it hits the filter? Why doesn’t this LFO sync to the MIDI clock? Why can’t I get the repeat rate happening in time with something else?”

What’s your studio setup?
I have the one-generation-previous Mac Pro. I also use a Digi-003 Rack. And I have half-decent monitors that seem to work really well. They’re old Yorkville YSM-1s. Just recently, I got this Peavey CS-1400 power amp that actually sounds so much better than the amp I was using before. It’s so dramatically better. I’ve always been a fan of Peavey stuff, but this power amp just blew me away.

What pieces of gear can’t you live without?

Pro Tools, my Roland SH-101, as of late my Modcan modular synth, and the Wurlitzer 200A, which is my main writing tool.