Interview: Mathew Jonson on his “Freedom Engine Academy” and production process

With a career spanning over 18 years, Mathew Jonson is known and loved by many for his well-crafted melodic sounds and outstanding live performances. Almost 20 years after the release of his debut album, “A Box Full of Magic” on Dekmantel, Jonson has toured the world and signed music to numerous influential labels, including Crosstown Rebels, Kompakt, Cocoon, Perlon, and his own imprint, Wagon Repair. He has also honed in on his studio skills with a collection of analog instruments and rare synthesizers. After a year spent remixing music, Jonson introduces his new project: a music production school titled “Freedom Engine Academy“, where students can learn mixing, mastering, composition, and live performances.

We sat down with Mathew to learn about Freedom Engine Academy, his latest projects, and what we can expect to see from the artist in the rest of 2021.

Hey Mathew! What have you focused in the last year during the pandemic?

Hello, and nice to join you here. What a crazy year!

This massive change of pace made me realize quite a lot about life and how I want to continue on this journey.  I came to the conclusion that I really love being at home, and that I want to spend more time here and in the studio. I managed to finish quite a lot of remixes in 2020. In a time of much uncertainty, it was inspiring to work with other artists – although at times it felt weird writing music for clubs that weren’t open. It was also nice to say yes to some requests, as usually in the past I just didn’t have much time for this type of work.  

After almost a full year remixing, it was time to explore some new musical avenues. Over the last few years, I have been offered multiple times to do Masterclasses or teach in online schools. I thought it was something I would do much later in life, to be honest, but with the state of the music scene – and even just the world in general – it felt like this was the right time to do it.   

That led me to the inception of the Freedom Engine Academy. My team started working on it in October, and we just recently launched the application for the summer semester. It’s a very exciting time!  

Which artists have influenced your sound? What about your collaborations with Frank Wiedemann (Âme), Luciano, and Cobblestone Jazz, and your experience releasing on labels such as Cocoon and !k7?

I met the guys from MDLQ/Cobblestone Jazz in the late ’90s. We had this crazy weekly residency where we invited different local musicians to join us every show. There were some highly talented and quite diverse artists over the years. Many of them, in essence, coached us on how to perform with them and their unique styles of music, as well as support them as soloists. That’s really where I was able to develop the improvisational performance aspect of my work and further my understanding of jazz – largely due to working with Danuel Tate.  

The new collaboration with Frank Wiedemann is really exciting. It’s been great working with him, as we have lots of similarities but also differences in our musical tastes. So I’m always happily surprised by what we come up with together. When we play together it somehow just works and is really out there in terms of the many facets of music we explore. We also share a love for collecting rare synthesizers!

Working with Luciano was spent over 2 weeks on my first trip to Europe and that’s when we made the record for Perlon. It featured vocals by Cassy. We keep talking about a second session, but we just haven’t gotten around to it yet (18 years later). 

Working with Marcus and Sebastian from Minilogue was also fun and exciting. We had some incredibly magical shows together as a trio before they went their separate ways. Sebastian’s “Circle of Live” project has also shown me some fun times for sure. We had an amazing jam with Amp Fidler and Vril in Detroit for the Movement festival a few years back. Amp is an amazing musician and vocalist, so it’s quite an honor to share a stage with him.   

Working with Cocoon was great, and Sven is a hero of mine since when I was a young raver. To have his support as a DJ has done a lot for my career.  Having the opportunity to do two albums with !K7 was also great. It was a fantastic platform for Cobblestone Jazz to really take off after the records on Itiswhatitis and Wagon Repair.  Itiswhatitis was the label that gave us our start, so big respect to Spencer Drennan for believing in us!

It’s no secret that your solo live shows have quite a unique appeal. How do you prepare for these live sets?

For me, it’s really about the people and the setting. I ask myself who am I playing for and what is going to put a big smile on their faces. If they are smiling and dancing, I know I’m on the right path. It’s also important to tell a story and take people on a bit of a journey. I like to end my sets with music that feels good and positive, for example, especially if I have taken them out to the far reaches of space. It’s really about reacting to the moment, though – so even when I may have some ideas prepared for the direction of a set, I allow myself the freedom to move in the direction that feels right at the moment. As I write the majority of my drums and SH-101 lines live, it allows me to perform my music in many diverse ways. So my tracks can take on many different feels and even switch genres depending on what the people are feeling or where I might want to guide them.  

Let’s talk equipment. Your passion for analog gear & live sets is powerful. What tools can we find in your studio, and why?

I really love the Rhodes Chroma and the CS-60 because of their playability and expressiveness. The interface is big and the touch on the keyboards is incredibly sensitive, so you can really connect yourself to the sounds. I love all the classic Roland gear as well. All the drum machines and synths that they put out in the ’80s and ’90s are the backbones of my productions. One very special effect that I own is the Bricasti M7 reverb. This is by far the most realistic sounding verb I own. It adds this very special dimension that other units just can’t touch. Really though.  Music is about feeling and emotion, and you can make it with much less than what I have collected over the years.  It’s a luxury to own a big studio. It’s not necessary to make good music – and sometimes, it’s even a distraction.

Music is about feeling and emotion, and you can make it with much less than what I have collected over the years. 

You also make music under different aliases like Freedom Engine, with your “A Box Full of Magic” release in 2019. Tell us about your goal with these projects, and how their productions stand out.

Freedom Engine was born under the idea to have a multi-platform creative outlet. There is a track on Itiswhatitis, a label, a live act, and now the new music academy. As a live act and artist alias, it is meant to be my expressive outlets for music that is completely free of restraints vs the expectation people have of MJ being for the dance floor.

Tell us more about the Freedom Engine Academy.

We are offering 12 weekly lessons over 3 months that will span between 1.5 and 3 hours. At the end of the course, people will have written themselves a live set with all of the ideas from their exercises and also had the chance to collaborate with their fellow participants and myself.  

In these classes, I will give detailed descriptions and demonstrations of how I write music, synthesis, performing live, how the studio works, how I program sounds and drums, and the way in which I piece things together. I also get into methods of finding inspiration and intention, what it actually means to each person to create and share their music, and what purpose that music holds. Music, for me, is also quite a spiritual journey – so the classes will also get into my connection with that realm, and the benefits of making music for well-being.  

Beatriz Artola and Erik Breuer, who are both professional mix and recording engineers, will share their vast knowledge of their particular areas of expertise. Danuel Tate and Sarkis Ricci will instruct contemporary piano and music theory and their deep understanding of the art of improvisation.  Nathan Jonson will demonstrate creative ways of using Ableton Live 11.

In the future, we also plan on doing remote workshops and conferences where participants will be able to work with our team in person. That’s when things will really get going!

What does your typical process look like? Any particular gear you love to use? Can you share a few tips you’d offer to aspiring producers?

The first step is the intention. For me, my music serves many outcomes. Much of my music is meant to be therapeutic and as a way of coping with struggles I may be having. Other times, I might be writing music for the dancefloor. Sometimes it is a way of teleporting myself to other dimensions or inviting the spirits of the land to use me as a medium. Sometimes it’s a mix of all of these things. Music allows us to create some very real and expansive mental states, so anything is possible if you can hold a clear vision of it.  

In terms of visualization: sometimes I imagine my music as a way of touching people’s emotions and internal experiences using sound as the catalyst. More specifically, many of these tracks are not meant to be one specific emotion – but instead, simply a key to open the door for others to connect deeply with their own feelings. I’m using music as a way to open the emotional door to myself as well. Perhaps it is because in the past I seem to have struggled with verbalizing my emotions, so I have been self-treating in some ways I’m sure. I want my music to connect people with themselves and those around them. I like to reflect these possibilities in the titles of my songs to pose interesting questions or allow multiple interpretations. Take Love Letter to the Enemy or When Love Feels Like Crying, for example.  

The second step is hearing the melodies before playing it. So I do all kinds of things to distract my ego from jumping in and distracting me. This could be looking at art or reading a book or even having a nap. I’m now on a path of understanding yoga on a deeper level. I think this will be my main tool to achieve a creative state in the future. Once I’m there, I can create some very sparse ideas that will help conjure the melodies to the surface. These are things I will be demonstrating in the academy.  

Once I find melodies, things really take off – and it’s about finding ways to develop songs and then also find ways to resolve them at the end of the piece. If you can go on a full spectrum emotional journey inside one piece of music and come out the other end feeling like you really traveled to some different facets of your being, this is a magical feeling.  

The next step is about knowing when a song is finished. I’m very conscious about reducing and keeping things minimal. An analogy would be if we talk about minimalist visual art. We can make one focused stroke with a brush on canvas, and that stroke can turn out to be a beautiful and moving thing – depending on the intention and ability of the artist. If you then add some small strokes, you have to balance this throughout the piece. If you then add more details, those details also need to be balanced around the painting. Soon, the ferocious energy of that one stroke becomes the background instead of the foreground. For me, it is important to not get too carried away and keep the energy of the intention and emotion clear. Sure, if I want to show everyone how complicated I can make something, I could use every synth in my studio. But from my point of view, it’s more about asking what truly gives meaning to a piece of music. For me, that is the melody, harmonies, and rhythms, and the way those frequencies interact with each other and what momentum they create.

If I were to pick one instrument as my paintbrush, it would be the Roland SH-101. It may be the most simple synthesizer in my studio.   

What are you planning for 2021? Any new releases in the pipeline that we can look forward to?

Next up is a remix I did for Fred und Luna entitled “Nicht Musikalische Stadt Unter Schritten”,  and then Matt Tolfrey’s “How it’s Gonna Be”.  Xx Isis xX wrote two songs called “Time” and “Dame tu Vaneno”, which I produced for her, and we hope to release these towards the end of the year.  Until then I’ll be focusing on the academy!  Thanks for having me here with you : )

Catch up with Mathew on his Facebook page, Soundcloud, and Instagram, and feel free to visit Freedom Engine Academy in case you wish to hone your music production skills and learn more about how to perform live.

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