Max Ulis was one of the first people I connected with in the Vancouver music scene, and rightly so: a veteran of the larger community that has expanded and expanded to what it is now, Max has been an integral part of developing and incubating Vancouver’s post-techno dance music scene since the early 2000s. Dipping his toes into garage and grime when those genres were just getting going, as an essential component of the LiGHTA! crew he brought dubstep to Canada’s West Coast and defined its early history here.
He’s an absolutely killer DJ -- catch him on any given night and you might get an electro-leaning set, a dubstep-leaning set, a house set, a garage set, a modern “bass music” set, or any combination of the three. Ask anyone from the West Coast or anyone else who’s seen Ulis DJ and they ’ll testify that he’s a real monster behind the decks. But he’s an equally adept producer: though his style has changed and evolved -- particularly over the past year and a half -- it’s all been united by a dark, smoky aesthetic, and it’s been fascinating to see him apply it to a UK-friendly series of productions probing electro, garage, and house.
Most recently he seems to have settled on iterations of house, which he showcases on his Futureproofing Vancouver mix, an all-originals minimix that shows off his formidable live set that I witnessed in action last weekend at Subdivision’s fantastic 2 year anniversary party at the Waldorf. It perfectly showcases where Max’s production head is at these past few months: drums that alternately needle and slam, tactile basslines that go from serrated to massaging to downright gritty, in fifteen minutes Ulis envisions a new place for bass music’s obsession with house music to go to, one that hearkens more literally towards rave-out decadence, pitch black debauchery and drug-fueled dancing past-the-point-of-exhaustion more than a lot of his contemporaries who either lean too close to deep/classic house cliches or end up referencing techno in their quest for rhythmic inventiveness. That’s not say either of those things aren’t present here: the track that comes in around four minutes (“Back To Work”), all monochrome chord stabs and grueling vocals, is halfway between electro and techno, and when Ulis’ basslines get sensual and romantic they rival any deep house record.
Ulis’ sound hews closest to Prison Garde + Eames in the grand scheme of Vancouver underground music, a similarly pseudo-dehumanized, hardware-heavy take on house music, but Ulis’ is darker, more jittery, less focused on melody and more on carefully-interlocking layers of percussion, so slicing snares and brittle hats and the almighty kick all work in glorious tandem to create something obviously multi-limbed but totally, completely unified. While those textures might be painted seven shades of black, it’s not oppressively dark: the playful shakers that come into the second half of the mix and especially the Dirtybird-baiting flute track (“Shock,” a collaboration with brother and soon-to-be-profiled Self Evident) are as friendly as anything he’s ever done. But the music remains hermetic and claustrophobic in true Max Ulis style, earning all the more power from it: the busy drum programming leaves little room for breathing once the mix gets going, the basslines smother and suffocate, and the chord progressions usually feel like they’re just barely squeezing through the cracks.
With a release coming out on Montreal’s Swing and Skip and a fantastic remix of fellow Vancouverite duo Evy Jane coming out on King Deluxe, Ulis has a promising 2012 that should fully blossom with the founding of his new label 10Pin, one of the many things he discusses in the interview below, along with his intriguing history and view of the bass music scene both in general and in Vancouver. There’s no tracklist for the mix, as Max would rather remain mysterious, but you can find a few of the tracks on his Soundcloud.
FUTUREPROOFING VANCOUVER: MAX ULIS
RYCE: How long have you been in Vancouver for, and why did you move here?
MAX ULIS: I have been in Vancouver since 1998. I moved here because I needed a change. I was tired of freezing my ass off every winter and working shit jobs in Quebec. My folks had moved to B.C. and I decided to move back in with them and enroll in school. I didn't end up getting any of the classes I wanted so I put school on hold and bought myself turntables.
What was the electronic/dance scene like when you got here?
It definitely took a while to discover a scene I had any interest in. If I found a club I liked, I would consistently go to it and generally I liked a lot of the music at the Lotus [now-closed Vancouver club] so that was one of the first places I went -- I found people at the Lotus to be open and interesting. I also used to frequent the now-defunct Chameleon that was under the Georgia street hotel, they had a really good house night and also a drum-n-bass night on Sundays that I really liked. I can still remember standing in the queue to the Chameleon on a Sunday and hearing D Product’s “Faithless” being played and the sheer excitement to have found a night with music that I could really get into. There would often be after parties in standardly sketchy places run by all sorts of interesting people. I used to go to one afterhours that was a ballet studio during the day, I was told it was run by the russian mob (I have no idea if this is true). The DJs played deep house, techno, some funkier bits, but most of the music was dark and intricate and tech-y, John Tejada type stuff. Those were some of my favourite parties back in the day. The bouncers used to tell everyone on the way in that it was a gay party to weed out douchebags, it was more like 50/50 and everyone seemed to get along well.
What role do you think you and LiGHTA! played in the ever-growing dubstep scene in Vancouver?
I think it is safe to say that the Dubforms parties put on by Malcolm Levy and Michael Red brought dubstep to Vancouver. I think those parties created a safe and fun space for people to discover a new sound that really defined the LiGHTA! vibe and aesthetic.
I know you used to do some old grime and garage nights back in the day, can you talk a little about those?
Grime Sessions was a night that was initially thought up by Wilson Hart, he never played any of them, but he put Dr. Jesse Proudfoot, Paul Devro and myself together. The first Grime Sessions was in a super creepy place (now closed) called the Marine Club, I think. It was nautical themed and it smelled like old men. In any case we all had fun and the Shine nightclub took us on to do a regular Tuesday night in their backroom. We were often at odds with the club as we added a sub to their set-up for a while that drew the ire of their neighbors. The night went on for about a year and had it's bumps, Paul was digging on Baltimore club, and I was digging the darker sounds of people like Vex'd, so the night was pulled in different directions and eventually ended. The crowd at those nights was very diverse, we had some good press at the beginning (thanks Martin Turenne) that really helped get it off the ground.
You've since distanced yourself from a lot of "dubstep" and compatible sounds and moved in a housier direction. Is this a new love or rekindling an old passion?
Definitely a rekindling of my first love, but at the same time, a move in a new direction as the house I am digging now is definitely a little more bouncy than the stuff I was playing in 1998. I think the scene in general seems to be a lot more open to hearing many different takes on a style in the same set which ultimately makes it a lot more interesting as a performer.
How do you feel about the way the entire "bass music" scene seems to be gravitating towards house and electro friendly sounds? Do you think it's coming from an honest place or is it more a gimmick? Do you think a lot of these UK producers and whomever that used to make dubstep make house that's actually any good? (big, loaded question I know).
Well first of all I don't think the whole “bass music” scene has gone housey, certainly a lot of the artists from the bass scene that you and I have found compelling have been experimenting with that sound. I really think a lot of the bass guys probably just got bored doing the same thing all the time and also frustrated at the popularity of harder dubstep. Dubstep has become kind of a bad word for some people and they probably felt like distancing themselves from it. I firmly believe that there is good music and shit music, I just try pay attention to good music and tune out the rest. As for dubstep guys that have been messing with housier tempos, my favourite dudes are probably DJG, XI, Scuba, Boddika, DJ Cure, Hxdb, Blawan's "Getting Me Down" is of course absolute fire. It's just like any other genre, some is good, some not so much to my taste....
How do you see yourself fitting into the Vancouver scene? What's your style right now, and what kind of stuff would you play in a DJ set?
I am in an interesting spot right now where I get bookings for [both] 4/4 shows and bass shows. A lot of the bass sets have started around 126 BPM and eventually end up in jukey territory, in those sets you may hear anything from Eats Everything to Loefah to Philip D Kick, I try and cover a lot of territory. My house sets are all over the map, Tom Demac, Boddika, Carl Craig, some Dirtybird stuff and a lot of my new original tunes.
Have you found it harder at all to get bookings or maintain a reputation with your own style shifting so much in the past few years?
Nope. Some months are obviously better than others but luckily it has been pretty consistent and I seem to be getting away with playing whatever I want. I count myself very lucky. Broadening my style took some getting used to from a lot of my regular fans, but I think they are digging my direction these days.
You've been working on a livepa set for a while, care to explain?
I was asked to perform at MUTEK last year for the New Forms showcase under the condition that I play live. It was something I had wanted to do for years and MUTEK was the kick in the ass I needed. I wasn't going to say no to MUTEK! (I attended MUTEK for the first time in 2009 and was blown away.)
Do you use a lot of hardware when producing your own tracks? Is that sort of analogue/digital dichotomy important to you?
The only thing important to me is that the music is good, that said having some outboard gear can help with that. Currently I use a Roland Juno 106, Waldorf Microwave XT, a super weird sounding Arp Digital piano and some outboard fx.
Most of your own work has a very minimalist, stripped-back aesthetic. Is that kind of ascetic darkness what you strive for or is it just what comes out?
It’s just what comes out.
Do you have anything being released in the near future?
Well that is a good question. I was supposed to have a 12" release with Swing and Skip out of Montreal, but apparently there has been a holdup with distro so we will see how that plays out. I also have a remix of Vancouver natives Evy Jane and Phowa that should see the light of day on 12" in the new year [on King Deluxe]. Also I have a tune with my brother Self Evident called "Eastsiders" that should be released early in the new year, and it features remixes by Cedaa, Hxdb, Prison Garde and Taal Mala. I am also in talks to do a couple other remixes that I can't talk about yet.
You recently started up a label, 10Pin, can you explain that a little bit: its mission, its sound, its fruition, its schedule
10Pin was an idea my friend Lorne B. from Calgary came up with. We have very similar taste and get along great. Its mission is to put out music from the Northwest that we love. It isn't genre specific, the only prerequisite is that the music is great. Expect music from Danny Corn, Taal Mala, Calamalka, Self Evident, Hxdb, myself and a gang of others. The first E.P. features Calamalka and a remix by our pal XI. Lorne and I hope to have the release dates... any day now.
How do you feel about the scene in Vancouver right now, and in North America at large? You've been touring around quite a bit recently..
It seems to be really really different in every city. For people like myself who play music that isn't anywhere near the mainstream, it can be trying. Vancouver is extremely blessed to have a strong music community, full of diverse people and tastes.
How do you feel about the bastardization/mainstream appropriation of "dubstep?" Is it just an inevitability or something that needs to be pushed against? Do you even care anymore?
Your own music so far, despite its sonic commonalities, seems to come from all over the place stylistically. What sort of stuff are you listening to when you're not thinking with a DJ set in mind?
Blues, Jazz, Rap, Folk, Reggae, Classic Rock. I like the Black Keys a lot. I also like silly shit like Ween, Frank Zappa. One record I always come back to is Naturally by J.J. Cale. I have also been listening to a lot of the electronic music I have bought that may not be for the club, stuff like Black Joy, Holy Other, Floating Points. The No Gold album is in regular rotation, it is pretty much my default home listening. Mostly I have just been listening to the Game of Thrones audio books...
Can you explain the mix you've provided? What's in it, how you made it, etc.
My mix is a 15 minute clip of me playing parts of my tunes together, some are finished songs, others are bits of things to be completed that just fit nicely into the set. I performed it with Ableton Live and my Vestax VCM 600 controller. Further down the line I would like to start incorporating a hardware mixing board, outboard fx and my synths.
You can hear Max's individual tunes over at his Soundcloud. The Evy Jane EP with his remix of "Ohso" is due to come out by February 2012, and releases for Swing and Skip and 10Pin are due to come in 2012 as well.