Revelation of the Method
As above, so below, wrote magician-philosopher Hermes Trismegistus. It’s the key to all the universe’s mysteries: the macrocosmos is the same as the microcosmos. The Mackrosoft is the same as its microgram doses. A single bar of music from the brothers is as important as their entire catalog; a single beat represents their entire philosophy. See Cheebacabra’s shape-shifting synthesizer masterstroke, Exile in the Woods, and think Marc Moulin’s angular geometry. This is music as fractals played on a Mandelbrot drum set. Menacing, spiraling, salvia-chewing self-transforming machine elves go to work in the studio, and Cheeba plays Tristan Tzara and picks up the pieces. Also see the Mackrosoft’s jazz-funk organic opus, Antonio’s Giraffe, and think Bob James as primordial Ptah. Like a mad Strindberg indulging in alchemy, atomic arranger Aja West flips Sandoz Lab samples into Fibonacci sequences. He codes Headhunters drummer Mike Clark and triggers the cosmic 808 (RIP R. A. Wilson). Finally, see the adepts’ synth-funk ode to their childhood felines, Flash and Snowball, and think Herbie Hancock Gully-jaunting from synth to sensi. Together, Aja and Cheeba create a blood-brother ritual of dynamic interconnectedness, always macking their slew of keys — Minimoog Voyager, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Roland Juno-60, Korg PolySix, ARP Solina String Ensemble, Yamaha CS-40m, Moog Opus-3, the Cat by Octave, Roland JX-3P, MTI Auto-Orchestra, Ensoniq ASR-10, and the PAiA FatMan.
Halfway between my SoCal post and their Seattle studios, I met the Brothers Mack in an orange room deep below Mt. Shasta to discuss how life imitates clouds.
Where’d the name Mackrosoft come from?
Aja: Growing up in Seattle, mushrooms grew plentifully all over the Microsoft grounds, [where] we’d go to pick them.
And you worked for the Conan O’Brien show?
Aja: I got an internship with Conan O’Brien as the music coordinator. I also worked for the Max Weinberg 7, helping with arrangements. [But then] the World’s Strongest Man tried to lift me in the world’s biggest bowl of chili, for a sketch, and he dropped me.
Ouch. What’s your musical education?
Aja: I don’t read music at all. I got the ASR-10 keyboard real early in the game, influenced by Prince Paul…
Cheeba: We both did the Suzuki School of Music — a real strict Japanese music program.
Aja: We both tried that and hated it.
So, you’re basically self-taught?
Cheeba: I took a few months of piano lessons five years ago in L.A. It was actually really helpful. I learned one scale, and I pretty much use it on everything.
The Mackrosoft albums have amazing horn arrangements, but you’re not writing charts, Aja?
Aja: I can play most instruments, so I’ll record as much as I can first, and leave spaces for soloists. Then I have players come back in and replay the parts. When it comes to horns, I’ll play it in a bad horn sound on the synthesizer [first].
You record with Headhunters drummer Mike Clark and bassist Paul Jackson. Are you looping on Antonio’s Giraffe?
Aja: Absolutely. I did the drums first with Mike Clark. I’d loop everything up and add 808 kicks to punch it up, maybe add another snare, to thicken it, tighten it.
How was recording Fred Wesley?
Aja: Probably the most intense guy I’ve worked with in the studio. You’ll be like, “Can you do a little more of this?” He’s like, “No.” And then it’s like, “Cool.” [laughs]
When did you start collecting synthesizers?
Aja: We were always huge fans of the Knight Rider soundtrack — funky TV show intros like CHiPs, where it’s just sick synths. And we were like, “What makes that shit?” I bought a FatMan kit, because I wanted to figure out how this shit works. I learned what was going on in the inside.
Cheeba: Mike Simpson, one of the Dust Brothers, lent me his MPC for a while. That was my first serious production machine. Once I switched to Pro Tools, I started playing a lot more instruments myself, as well as recording other players. That’s when we started collecting [synths] more.
Aja: And the Dust Brothers had every [synth]. We could figure out what’s what without having to purchase it first.
Cheeba: One of them was addicted to eBay, buying every synth that came on eBay, no matter what condition.
At eighteen, you interned with the Dust Brothers?
Cheeba: Ended up working there for three years. Aja and I did a Fight Club remix. I got to beatbox on tracks. I got to meet musicians and learn a lot about running a record label. Instead of college, I went to the School of Dust.
Reveal your recording method.
Cheeba: For Exile, a lot of that began with a bunch of us on keyboards playing over different beats I looped up. Nothing premeditated — just started jamming. Then it took me a couple years to edit that stuff down to something cool — kept just the ten percent that worked.
Hence the abundance of change-ups?
Cheeba: Exactly. There’s going to be a lot more of that.
Aja: It’s a fine line between making the chaos and making the funk.
Cheeba: Kind of like short-attention-span funk.
You make it work.
Cheeba: The secret to that is in just deleting so much stuff, and that’s a hard thing to do.
Black Market (Columbia) 1976
Weather Report has long been a major inspiration for both of us. Joe Zawinul’s keyboard work is truly unparalleled. Even before his use of analog synths, the aural palette Zawinul had created through the combination of keyboards and effect pedals was astounding. On Black Market, Zawinul dominates on his preferred synth, the ARP 2600, even inversing the keyboard on the title track (the lower he played the notes, the higher the pitch). This is also the only Weather Report album in which saxophonist Wayne Shorter played the Lyricon, the first-ever breath-controlled analog synthesizer. Played like a horn, you could modulate the sound with the strength of your breath or the pressure of your lips on the mouthpiece, creating a very expressive and dynamic result. We regard Weather Report as one of the most innovative and soulful groups of all time.