MSTRKRFT Has Rediscovered the Joy of the DJ Booth

Keeler and Al-P will "burn it down" at Heart.
Keeler and Al-P will "burn it down" at Heart.
Courtesy of Last Gang Records
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Sometimes between late-night DJ sets and loud, sweaty rock shows; plane boardings and landings; hotel showers and studio sessions that blur into one another and out of society at large, Jesse F. Keeler thinks to himself: "What am I gonna do after I live this life?" Then, before he can answer, he finds himself reinspired and reinvigorated, and suddenly he's back in the studio or standing behind another set of turntables, and he's doing what he's always done: his best at making it up as he goes.

Keeler, AKA JFK, didn't really mean to become one of the most iconic mustached men of his generation. He didn't mean for his band Death From Above 1979 to put out an album people would love so much they'd beg ten years for a followup. When that band suddenly broke up, he didn't mean to start a DJ-and-production duo that would go on to define the sound of the dance-hipster movement of the late 2000s. But that's exactly what MSTRKRFT did.

"I never thought at any point in my life that I would end up getting to make and play music [as] my livelihood," Keeler says. "Now here I am. I've been traveling and touring off and on since 1993, so it's like, Oh, shit! This is my life. I came to that acceptance only very recently."

It's a lesson Carl Cox helped him understand. Cox is a legendary house and techno DJ who's been schooling his peers and audiences in the highest-form of mixing since before Keeler was born.

"I got to see him play Space one time at Ibiza, and Green Velvet was playing with him," he remembers. "We were over there in the booth, and it was just fucking incredible. He was having so much fun, still challenging himself and whatnot. He seemed like he was just using really small loops, almost like what Richie Hawtin would do, like that Closer to the Edit record, and he was doing that live in front of all those people, having the best time."

Those are the moments that inform Keeler and his partner Al-P. MSTRKRFT found fast success by forging its own path. The duo's debut LP, The Looks, merged elements of rock, funk, punk, disco, and house into a raw blast of sexual energy. Its followup, Fist of God, was even more aggressive but still somehow put MSTRKRFT on the road to crossing over through hits featuring John Legend, E-40, and others.

In the DJ setting, Keeler aspires to create moments through a special mix of original and familiar sounds, new and old and underground alike, that are so memorable and so arresting they become magic in memory. He draws on his own experiences of seeing Carl Craig DJ three mixers in a tiny booth, two in front of him and one behind, spinning around like the vinyl on deck. Or there was the time he caught Boo Williams playing with a live conga drummer and trumpet player. Or the way the guys of Basement Jaxx create their own edits of hits and classics to bring audiences a totally new experience with every play.

"I haven't played a song that I haven't personally edited in, like, eight years," he laughs. "I just got accustomed to the idea that people wanted to put more into DJing very seriously. For every hour spent behind the decks in front of people, I've spent 50 figuring out what it is that I want to do, spending time just still playing records in [Al's and my] respective houses for each other, putting things together, and seeing how best to assemble things, what would be the most emotional things we could do. I can't imagine just being superlazy about it, like, OK, well, here's a Top 10 playlist. I better play these ones; otherwise, no one will like me."

MSTRKRFT toured extensively in the wake of Fist of God, and then they just got kind of "bummed out." EDM had come to rule the airwaves. The sound of dance floors around the world became predictable and dull. They took a little break, went off in different directions to do their own thing. Keeler got back with Sebastien Grainger and revived Death From Above 1979 to much acclaim. That experience kicked the gears clear of webs, and after a rock tour, Keeler and Al-P were back in the studio concocting a new MSTRKRFT album made on tons of analog equipment and recorded live. Operator dropped in 2016, the duo's most abrasive and challenging work yet.

When the time came to tour Operator, they hauled all of that equipment from the studio to every stage. Instead of playing a mix of music from all of their albums, they live-improvised around certain samples of original material. Sometimes they'd make it through 60 percent of a set without realizing they had yet to play a single hit. It was invigorating, if not a little horrifying.

"I feel comfortable saying [playing live] was the hardest thing I've ever done," Keeler says, "to go onstage in front of a crowd and improvise music from scratch. There were moments in the early shows where I'd be on the side waiting to play, shitting bricks. I'd be terrified, like, 'I have no idea what I'm going to do,' and Al would be like, 'What are you talking about? You do this every time we rehearse. We walk in, and we make music.'"

While recording Operator, Keeler and Al-P existed in isolation. They listened to nothing; they took influence from nothing. They created in a cultural bubble. When they emerged, they found the dance-music world had shifted. The music was better, the crowds more informed. The EDM shitshow was over — or at least they had moved so far to the left of it that it didn't matter anymore.

"It was so inspirational, and it made me want to DJ again," Keeler laughs. "I was so excited about the audiences that I wanted to do that again, kind of for them. I don't want to sound altruistic; I just wanna do this. I know that they will like this, and they will appreciate this now. It's not like we're playing a frat-house pool party somewhere and wondering, What the fuck am I doing here?"

Keeler is especially excited to perform in Miami, a city that he and Al-P once played so often they almost considered it a second home. Miami has always been a crowd above the rest, a place he knew people could appreciate solid, artful DJing.

"DJing is really an opportunity to show people things," he says. "The number one goal is to make it a great party and everyone has a good time, but you have the opportunity to show people music that they may otherwise not have found on their own... If it's a whole set of entirely familiar music, it does become very forgettable, because you don't get to have that moment where you're surprised.

"Let us go in there," he promises, "and I'll fucking burn it down."

With Damaged Goods and Donnie Lowe. 11 p.m. Sunday, February 19, at Heart Nightclub, 50 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-912-3099; heartnightclub.com. Tickets cost $25.47 to $38.20. Ages 21 and up.

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