It’s been a wild ride for the ever-impressive Mat Zo. Having launched into the upper echelon of the electronic music world from a young age, the Grammy-nominated, chart-topping artist, DJ, and label manager has flexed his unique genre-blurring vision on imprints ranging from Anjunabeats to his own Mad Zoo imprint and most recently, our very own Bassrush Records.
While freeform bass experiments may be all the rage these days, Mat has been carving his own path and steamrolling his way through genres since he was sixteen years old. Able to inspire and pull the heartstrings as much as he’s able to twist the synapses or hit it hard on the dancefloor, Mat’s output is bold and impressive not only in scope but in the sheer breadth and depth of his body of work.
Taking a turn into drum and bass territory on his latest release for Bassrush Records, Mat Zo returns to where it all began as he seems to be revisiting the inspirations that drove him to early success as a teenaged producer, with an updated and fresh new twist.
Some of Mat’s earliest memories are of his mom teaching him how to play the piano: “My mom was a professional concert violinist and teacher,” Mat says when asked about his musical upbringing. “She would always listen to classical music and she tried to start me off on violin and piano. Eventually I landed on guitar and stuck with that mainly. My brothers were listening to a lot of grunge, rock and alternative and my favorite bands at that time were Rammstein and Alice in Chains.”
While there were a few attempts made at starting a band with fellow classmates, it wasn’t until Mat left Cleveland and moved in with his father in London when he was eleven years old that his future as an electronic music artist would be sealed.
“I was suddenly thrust into this world where dance music was not only popular but mainstream,” Mat says. When asked about his move from rock to electronic music, Mat is equally inquisitive: “I didn’t even know it was considered electronic music back then. To me, Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim sounded just like bands whose beats happened to be perfectly on time.” [Laughs]
Soon that casual interest would turn into a full-on obsession as his dad bought Mat a computer and a MIDI keyboard. With his first PC running Logic 5 on an 800 MHz CPU, the processing power was so slow that Mat remembers not even being able to hear what he made until he exported everything to an audio file.
“When I eventually got a better computer and could hear what I was making that made things a lot easier,” Mat says with a smile. By now, Mat’s influences had expanded to include artists like David West, Lemon Jelly, Moby, Groove Armada, and the Chemical Brothers, and his early productions attempted to emulate the sounds of those he was looking up to. “At first I was trying to copy their sound but it almost always ended up sounding like old trance.”
Experimenting with “everything” as he put it, Mat’s approach to genre was fluid as he crafted trance, drum and bass and breakbeat-influenced tracks with equal passion and fervor. “My dad is an artist,” Mat explains. “He taught me the artist ethic of creating every day, creating something from scratch. For him, it was all about the mentality of seeing a project through.”
A talented painter in his own right, Mat is quick to agree that some of the art techniques he learned from his father continue to influence his own approach to mixing and music production. “It’s more like a technical thing than conceptual,” he continues. “He taught me more about putting attention into detail and taking your time and really concentrating on what you’re doing. That’s what I took out of that period the most.”
It was a mindset that immediately paid off as Mat began posting his music to numerous forums and online communities spread across the web. His music began to get noticed and as Mat tells it: “somebody got a bootleg of mine to Tiësto and he was interested in me doing a remix for him and I did and that’s where it all took off.”
Mat was only 16 years old and things began moving fairly quickly from there as interest from Armin Van Buuren, Marcus Schulz, and Above & Beyond came pouring in. “At that point I had no idea of what structure a DJ would even look for in a tune. It took years and years of actually being a DJ to learn that as well as learning what sounds good in a club. I quickly learned that what sounded good on radio was a completely different experience.”
Requests for Mat to DJ soon followed and he remembers his first paid international gig in 2008 as being a turning point in his career. “I didn’t even own a pair of CDJs at that point. I had played shows before for my friends and had practiced a bit but definitely didn’t feel confident on the decks.” The gig was a pre-party for the Trance Energy festival in Holland that from the outside looking in would seem to set Mat on a clear-cut path towards trance music stardom but even then, Mat’s flexible approach to genre would rear its head and begin to hurtle him towards an uncharted path that was all his own.
“At the time I wasn’t really aware that sticking to one genre was a thing you had to do,” Mat says. “I was really young and naïve and didn’t really think about those things. I was making all sorts of stuff at that time and for me, it was just about trying to get the confidence to get to the point where I could make and release whatever genre I wanted to explore.”
He sent an early drum and bass tune of his called “Hacker” to John B who sent it to Hospital Records who played it on their podcast and eventually led to the creation of his drum and bass alter ego, MRSA.
“As a teenager in the UK, especially coming from America, you’re immediately surrounded by drum and bass,” Mat offers up when asked about his love of the genre. “In 2003 when [Pendulum’s] ‘Tarantula’ came out, that was the biggest fucking tune at the time and every teenager was singing it. It was impossible to escape drum and bass so obviously I wanted to make it too.”
Surprisingly, rather than connecting the gnarly basslines of drum and bass to his early love of grunge, Mat saw more of an affinity between trance and dnb in his mind. “I didn’t think about it as the rock music of electronic music like I do now. At the time guys like Logistics and prog-trance dudes were the same thing in my head.”
Rather than seeing trance and dnb as oppositional forces in his head, Mat had no sense that he was breaking any mold or pushing any boundaries with his prodigious output at the time. “I didn’t think about risks career-wise at that point. I was like, I make music, people pay me.”
In hindsight, it was fortunate that no agent or manager came on board until 2011, when Mat’s career was already in full swing. It’s not too hard to imagine a savvy brand-conscious manager trying to downplay Mat’s proclivities for producing music outside of what had quickly become a successful lane.
Flash forward to the present and Mat is coming full circle on both the trance and drum and bass front. While slowly phasing out his MRSA moniker in favor of gathering all of his output under the name Mat Zo, the resurgence of Mat’s drum and bass output and appearances the past year has not gone unnoticed.
From an epic drum and bass set at Nocturnal Wonderland last month to his Bassrush Records release last week, Mat seems to be riding a wave of inspiration that shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. With a highly anticipated appearance alongside Logistics tomorrow in Los Angeles all the way through to a forthcoming dnb release on UKF and rumors that he and Kill the Noise are continuing to cook up a mysterious project in the lab, there’s no doubt that the coming year is going to be a huge one.
“I’m trying to make it full circle,” Mat says when asked about his continued evolution as an artist. “I’m trying to return back to the things that made me fall in love with producing in the first place.”
Mat Zo’s “Emotion Sickness” is out now on Bassrush Records so lock yours in here.