Mathbonus equates to serene chord progressions, a signature bass sound, and energetic beats within a genre that is unlike any other. Intricate sound design, humane guitar interventions and astutely processed drums symbolize the depth of his craft. Paired with a mind overflowing with all sorts of ideas, this Oregon-based producer surely knows how to magnify listening experiences. An extremely humble, talented and all round producer talks us through his career up until now.
SOUNDONTIME: How did you first get into music production and how fast did it click for you?
mathbonus: I first started as a college student in my dorm room. I was 18 at the time. I’m not sure if there was ever a moment where it “clicked” necessarily – it’s a gradual learning process. I did get some positive feedback right away though and that encouraged me to continue.
For how long have you been producing now?
I’m 27 now, so almost 10 years!
The United States is obviously very diverse when it comes to music… How is the music scene in Portland, Oregon?
I’m actually from Eugene, Oregon – and I am admittedly not that connected to the music scene. I mostly do my own thing. I’ve played a few local shows but that’s about it.
It’s been about 7-8 years since you released three of your most popular tracks, “There Is Light In Us”, “Fog” and “Orchid”. How do you recall each one of these projects?
They each came about fairly quickly as I recall. “There Is Light In Us” is one of my favorite tracks of mine. It was really special to me at the time, and I look back on it fondly now.
My personal favorite of yours is “Fog”. It has a nostalgic vibe and I also think it’s a track that was very ahead of its time. How did you come up with these chords (the melody and the sound design)?
Thank you! Trial and error just like everything else. Sometimes stuff comes together in a way that’s hard to recreate. I just mess around until I come up with something I like, basically. I had a few tracks I was referencing at the time for the drum programming. The main synth is pretty basic – just some saw chords drenched in stock ableton reverb.
Tell us a bit more about your relationship with the youtube channel Majestic Casual, how did your collaboration start?
They were kind enough to upload my music and that’s about it. I’ve reached back out to them here and there when I’ve had new music.
Why do you think those early tracks encountered the success they had?
That’s a great question. I really don’t know. It’s something I ask myself sometimes, like did I just get lucky or is there really something special about them? And if so, is there something special about them that’s missing from stuff I’m doing today? I’m not sure. Could be a combination of all of those factors.
“A song is like a snapshot of who I was at the time, and that includes my technical abilities as well.”
Up to date, what has been your biggest challenge when producing music?
My biggest challenge is keeping things interesting for both myself and my listeners. I don’t want to just do the same thing over and over, but I’m also aware that people probably have a certain sound in mind when they think of Mathbonus. Going forward I really want to try some new things. I’ve already done some more out of the ordinary stuff, like on Whelmer and Voices. I’d love to do more stuff like that.
Are you responsible for the composition, mixing and mastering of your own tracks? If so, which part do you find the most challenging?
Yes, I do everything. Each component has its own unique challenges, and they’re each really their own self-contained arts. That’s why you often see the different tasks done by different people – people who specialize in each one. I’ve always found mixing to be challenging, particularly because my idea of what a good mix is seems to always be changing. I listen to some of my older stuff and wonder what the hell I was doing. But it seemed fine at the time, and that’s okay. A song is like a snapshot of who I was at the time, and that includes my technical abilities as well.
Your drums feel very alive and punchy. They really kick through the mix. How do you process your drums, and how do you keep them so tight in the mix?
Thanks. I’m no professional so take what I say with a grain of salt, but the biggest tip I can give for drums is to use “parallel processing” – send your drum bus to a return track and compress the sent signal so that the drums are “doubling up” on themselves. I have no idea if this is good or bad practice but I’ve found that it helps the drums feel bigger and cut through the mix better.
“It would be impossible to make music without listening to music, so I owe a lot to other artists.”
Can you give three basic but essential 101 tips for someone who can’t afford a sound engineer to mix and master their tracks?
Make sure you’re comfortable with your listening setup. I do almost all of my mixing on headphones, which will probably raise some eyebrows. But it’s what I’m used to listening to, and it’s what I’m comfortable with. I still like to reference my mixes on speakers, but the actual work is usually done on headphones. Listen, listen, listen to music that you think sounds good! There are some do’s and don’ts to mixing, and it’s a technical skill, but it’s still a creative practice. A good mix can be a subjective thing. Find out what it is you like about mixes that sound good to you and try to recreate it. The most important step in a good mix is getting your levels right. Compression, EQ, etc, all have their place but if the levels of your channels aren’t right, it’s useless. I think they call it “gain staging”.
How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard of mathbonus?
I usually just tell people “I make beats”. I hope this doesn’t sound bad, but I honestly hate describing my music to people. I tell people that I make beats with guitars and synths and usually leave it at that. If they check it out, awesome, if not, that’s cool too.
How did you come up with your artist name?
I just went on an anagram generator website and typed in my real name – Mathbonus is my real name with the letters rearranged.
Many artists have a particular way of doing things in terms of workflow. How does it work on your side?
It changes all the time. I like to mess around with sounds and chords, drum patterns, etc, until I come up with a basic loop that I like, then I expand from there. I only recently started paying more attention to things like song structure, so my older tracks are a bit more free-form, I suppose. I have my go-to plugins I return to – I use iZotope Trash 2 on almost everything these days.
You use a very rich palette of sounds. When you are at the composition stage, do you have a “go to instrument” you use to write chords and melodies or is it rather different sounds that trigger the composition process?
You may have noticed that I use a lot of “Reese bass” sounds – the detuned saw bass that I use on almost everything. That’s a staple for sure. I use guitars a lot and I have some plugins that I return to, but it’s really a new process every time. I’m always looking for new sounds.
Which artists do you owe the most to? Which ones do you believe had the greatest impact on your evolution as an artist?
Shlohmo was the biggest inspiration for me when I first started. I’ve borrowed a lot from him over the years. I’ve referenced bands like Beach House and Bon Iver as well for some of the more guitar heavy stuff. It would be impossible to make music without listening to music, so I owe a lot to other artists.
Your bandcamp bio reads “im very serious”. How serious are you?
Haha. Pretty serious, I guess. It’s kind of a jokey bio, ironically. But I am serious about music.
To which label are you currently signed?
I work independently, but I use “Repost Network” to distribute my music to iTunes and Spotify, etc.
As with most of my things, the name was a last minute decision. I just like the word. I think it has cool connotations. It’s more of an association thing – it doesn’t mean anything literally, I just like what the word makes me think of.
One of the tracks on it is called “strain”. Do you find music production sometimes to be a “strain”?
Yes, sometimes. It can be really frustrating to have long extended periods where I can’t come up with anything I like.
What’s your favorite track on that record and why?
Probably “Flicker” – not to be too self-indulgent but I think it’s a good synthesis of “classic Mathbonus” and what I’m currently trying to do in terms of sound design. Particularly on Down I wanted to focus on these big bass sounds that combine bass guitar and synths. I quite like the bass on Flicker.
On that same record, Down is (actually) the first track I heard of you. The introductory synths on it, which carry on throughout the track are wavy and got me instantly hooked (a bit like on “Fog”)! Can you talk us through how you came up with them and what kind of processing you applied?
Trial and error, just like Fog. It’s a fairly basic synth with a lot of reverb with a short decay applied, and that’s about it. This is a sound I return to semi-regularly, and it’s very simple to make. Just some saw chords and some reverb is all you need.
The picture of the tree on the cover of “Down” gives a sense of imperturbability. Why this artwork?
I was just particularly fond of this image. I’m a photographer as well and it was one of my recent pictures. I like to use my own photography for my cover art a lot.
Your artwork is also spot on, especially on “Nobody Here” (released in 2015). Who are you working with?
Thanks. I make most of my art myself, occasionally borrowing drawings from friends (like on Solicitude and Holy Park). Nobody Here features a couple cell phone pictures I took, manipulated in Photoshop.
How much of an impact does nature have on your inspiration?
It’s not really a conscious thing, if it does. I’m sure subconsciously it affects my mood and whatnot. I’m a photographer so I appreciate things like the way light falls on different objects. A beautiful day is something kind of magical – the way it lifts your mood. I like that. I probably write happier stuff in the spring and summer, but I don’t know.
“I find that guitars just immediately humanize a track, though. Like it makes it sound like there’s a person on the other end of the recording instead of just a computer.”
You’ve released a myriad of tracks and LP’s so far. What’s your own favorite track so far and why do you have this relationship to it?
It’s really hard to say. It might be “Fissures” off of Voices. I wrote it at a really weird time in my life. I was going through a lot, mentally. I can’t even explain the state of mind I was in, it was just a weird time. It came about really naturally one night when I was just jamming. I definitely think it’s one of my more powerful, yet understated tracks. I’d really like to do more songs like it.
You have quite a unique style.. and you’ve been around for quite a while, but how difficult do you find it to remain relevant as an artist in the electronic music industry?
Hmm.. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt part of the electronic music industry – I’ve always done my own thing. I definitely don’t get the play counts I used to, which used to bother me a lot. I suppose it’s only natural, though. I still have dedicated fans that return time and time again, and that’s awesome.
We’re curious to know more about your current studio setup. What sort of equipment do you use?
I have the very definition of a “bedroom studio” – it’s just my computer, an audio interface, my headphones, and a couple of bad old guitars. I use a lot of different software as well. iZotope Trash 2, BiFilter2, Valhalla Vintage Verb – I use these on almost everything.
What’s your favorite piece of equipment?
I guess probably my guitar. It’s an old Ibanez with only 5 strings. It’s probably worth like 20 bucks. It’s broken right now actually, which is really sad. I can’t get it to make a sound. I find that guitars just immediately humanize a track, though. Like it makes it sound like there’s a person on the other end of the recording instead of just a computer. And it’s a really versatile sound. A guitar is a really great starting point for all kinds of processing. It’s a good raw sound.
To the fans who will be reading this interview, what is one message you would give them?
Stay home and stay sane. Do something creative.
What are your plans for the coming months?
I’ve been playing a lot of video games and not going anywhere. These times are really challenging. I hope things will get back to the way they used to be very soon.