Derek Osei-Owusu interviews Cyrus from Machina X…
Hello Cyrus, how are you?
I’m doing great! Thank you for having me.
You are a producer and musician, how did it all begin for you?
Well, I never considered myself musically inclined until my late teens, when it just sort of happened, after being exposed to rock, punk and electronic music through video games. I started out with my dad’s old guitar, a few chords and a notebook. Once I got my hands on some music software, I found I really got a kick from playing with sounds, mixing and listening back to the results – exploring all the musical possibilities that were opening up to me.
What did you listen to growing up?
I was exposed to all sorts as a kid. Even when I wasn’t actively listening to music, my dad’s regulars (Beatles, CCR, Simon & Garfunkel, ABBA) all stuck with me. Later, many artists from the early 2000s – people like Avril Lavigne, Qemists, Backstreet boys etc, even some Japanese pop music – pretty varied and as I mentioned, video soundtracks – those had a big influence on me. Then came Drum & Bass which was a game changer for me with the likes of Pendulum, Netsky, Spor etc.
You are part of the duo Machina X with Annie, how did this come about?
Well, I found an online songwriting course from Sheffield in the first quarter of 2016, I’d had a rough year due to ill-health and music had taken a backseat. That’s where I ‘met’ Annie, contacted her for a trial collab after hearing her submitted track – the only electronic composition of the bunch — she’d sampled this weird, old, organ music into her composition intro and it caught my attention. Initially we agreed a one-off but ideas sparked better than expected and we found we got on pretty well too – one project turned into two, then three and now here we are with a couple of EPs out there, a couple of internet radio awards…
You’re located on separate continents, Annie being in Yorkshire, UK and yourself being in Myanmar, what’s been a challenge and a positive aspect of the way you two collaborate?
The challenge is Annie. Haha, just joking, though it can get intense because we are both passionate about how things should sound. We’d both agree the time difference and each other’s availability can slow us down, plus all the usual internet snags. Not being in the same studio prolongs the process – a lot of to and fro with demos, takes, those final tweaks and fine tuning a mix, yeah, that’s where the challenge is. On the other hand, being the duo mix we are not only means we can offer each other the usual objectivity and balance but also a sort of Yin and Yang vibe because we’re very different, culturally and otherwise. That East/West crossover can often result in something pretty cool and distinctive.
You have been played on stations in the UK gaining a lot of momentum with your releases, how does it feel?
It’s really exciting and humbling at the same time and we value the indie radio scene as much as the national / regional radio play we’ve been lucky to have had with the BBC. The support we’ve been shown from so many directions, particularly from the likes of the Trust the Doc shows and MNRO on Exile FM, Russ Evans Electro and so many of the dedicated electro shows in the UK and elsewhere has been immense and we are so grateful for that. There’s a real community feel too (so important for indie artists like us). The belief in and validation of our music by others via these platforms is something we never take for granted.
Your music is cross-genre, how do you usually approach a writing session?
I’ve always approached my work like building Lego, having spent my childhood with it. I find something to act as a base, be it a riff, a hook or a chord progression, and then build the framework around it, slowly picking and choosing elements and parts that might fit it best. I try to take it as organically as possible, and an idea has to flow effortlessly into full form. If I have to force something, I know the end result won’t be as good as it can be and the boundaries of genre can stifle this. I usually send Annie a fairly fleshed out demo that she can work on and bring lyrics and melody and whatever she thinks, to. Once she gets involved creatively with it, I’m never sure how it will evolve – which can keep a track fresh for me. Like Clockwork is a great example – I’d never heard of the speaking clock, very British, but its addition works brilliantly. She also came up with a binary chant in Being from our first EP, it spells out a phrase rather than just being randomly repetitive. There can be an underlying nerdiness to our creativity. Have to rein her in sometimes, haha!
What for you has been an essential part of your recording set up?
Definitely my computer and associated software / plug-ins etc! Of course if voice or guitar recording is necessary, my audio interface becomes essential – it’s good to have the option of incorporating organic instruments at times like I did with The City. With Annie in charge of the vocals 99% of the time, if I had just my computer over on my side with all the software, Machina X would still be fully functional. That said, I love having my synths and keyboards around and I do enjoy noodling on piano – I was lucky to have lessons for a while. Burma is a bit of a backwater though so I do have an appreciation for minimalism.
2020 has caused a lot of people to reflect. What is something you’ve learned about yourself?
2020 certainly left a mark. It’s been tough for sure though the silver lining is that I had more time to ponder and better appreciate life, warts and all. It also gave me more perspective, to appreciate the things that I am in control of, and to not panic over the stuff that’s beyond that.
COVID has impacted the creative industry in a big way, what has kept you motivated?
I can see it’s been really tough on creatives in the regular world but to be honest, from my particular perspective, I’ve always been isolated, given my underlying genetic condition – more or less an enforced recluse all my life. So, I’m self-motivated by necessity, especially when it comes to music. What gets me up in the morning are the possibilities and wonderment of what little ideas and soundbites I’ve saved over the years might potentially blossom into – just diving into the thick of it with a cup of coffee. When your choices are restricted, inspiration can be found in the most inconsequential things; the sound of a tyre squeal; a cat’s meow that sounds somewhere between A and A#, or even how the old air conditioner hums and oscillates like a sub bass.
What artists are getting you excited at the moment?
Hard to say at this moment. Hmm, well we’re regularly exposed to many fresh sounds and artists on all the radio shows we support and we’ll often go check out some of those – I know Annie’s playing the new Project Blackbird album a lot. We’re watching the bigger acts like Grimes, London Grammar, Chvrches too as they evolve, looking forward to see what kind of music they come up with next. We can still get excited dipping back into the stalwarts of electronica: Gary Numan’s Savage influenced some of our Cyberphere EP production for instance…then we’ll go off-piste, maybe start vibing off elements of a Mozart composition – it can be particular sounds and sonic structures that excite us.
You are also involved in remixing, how do you usually approach remixing a track?
As Machina X, we’re still new to the remix scene, to be honest but when there’s a track to be remixed, I first try to see what value we can add, in line with our style – give it a different spin. I feel that since we all perceive and interpret a track differently, it’s important to give a fresh take on that track, and make sure that our interpretation and sound is translated into any remix.
Annie is from Yorkshire, is there anything that makes you curious about that part of England?
Plenty! I’ve always been interested in England as a whole – I actually have English ancestry if you go back far enough. I’d love to explore the smaller towns around Yorkshire and learn some of the history. It’s on my bucket list to take a bike ride around Yorkshire countryside with Annie someday too – the landscape is pretty impressive – a lot of hills though! Of course it would also be great to get in a studio together over there and maybe play some live gigs.
What are you looking forward to next?
Well, we’re doing our best to work on a few new projects at the moment (including a collab with another producer we’ve admired for a while) – and despite everything, we do have a new track finished with more planned for a third EP. Crazy times can lead to interesting outcomes. That said with how things are over here and the chaos it’s brought, it’s a constant struggle staying creative, oriented and connected. Despite all that, Annie and I are still working as and when we can on our music, thinking outside the box, so hopefully there maybe a few surprises in 2021 and I’m curious about how Machina X will evolve, actually. Watch this space!