An interview with Mathew Jonson

Over the past 20-or-so years, Mathew Jonson has firmly established himself as one of electronic music’s best and most loved live acts. Over the years he’s released music on the likes of Crosstown Rebels, Kompakt, Cocoon, Perlon, and of course, his very own Wagon Repair. In addition to his stage presence, Jonson continues to refine his studio skills, utilising a range of analog instruments and rare synthesisers to push the boundaries of electronic music. Then there’s his Freedom Engine Academy online music school, which has quickly earned a reputation as one of electronic music’s best online tutorial sessions…

Furthermore, Mathew Jonson's illustrious career includes his involvement in groups such as Cobblestone Jazz, enriching the electronic music landscape with a myriad of creative collaborations. This summer, he graced the much-esteemed Houghton Festival alongside other notable gigs at the likes of Caprices, and even at the Berlin Philharmonic as Cobblestone Jazz. 

Now firmly based in Berlin, Jonson has never been busier - and it’s testament to his constant innovation that he’s arguably never been more influential too, as his music continues to seduce younger audiences still. And as we soon learn, he’s had a busy 2023 so far. We caught up with him recently to chat Perlon, Cobblestone Jazz, future plans and more…

Hey Mathew, it’s been another big summer for you with a bunch of notable gigs. What were the highlights?

MJ - Hey Stephen, thanks for having me join you and sorry it took so long to pin me down. Houghton! Right there. Badass. They really took it to another level this year!  Caprices Festival. It was their 20th Anniversary so wanted to do something special so invited Cobblestone Jazz performing alongside Zip Ricardo and Luciano. Joining Steffen Charles and the Timewarp crew once again. You can watch that one on ARTE TV.  Lastly, I should mention the Berlin Philharmonic as Cobblestone Jazz - playing in there surrounded by classical musicians to a sold out audience was surreal. 

Are you more appreciative of life on the road following the transition after the pandemic? How did you use that time? You started the Freedom Engine Academy, right? Is this something you’re still involved with? 

MJ - Yes actually - outside of my duties as a father it’s where I’m focusing most of my time. The academy grew very fast so I’ve been working with business consultants the last months in order to keep up with its expansion and feel confident we are taking the school in the correct direction. It’s quite a responsibility to carry so it’s a challenge while touring and having a child but I’m up for it. I didn’t expect to be diving into business on such a deep level to be honest but there is no stopping us now! I’m lucky to have such a great team and even more to have so many inspired participants joining us.

As someone who plays strictly live, how do you mix things up from show to show? Did you ever consider chucking it all in and going down the DJing route? Or would that not excite you as much?

MJ - Well actually I spent 8 years as a DJ and some might argue that those years were also when my best productions were made. It leads to a lot of new ideas blending other people’s music together. I’m actually considering diving back in but perhaps as a duo - It seems more fun. Playing live is second nature to me so it would never be one or the other. Let’s see where things go! 

On a similar note, are you still a record collector though? And can you talk us through some of your favourite records in your collection and what makes them so special? 

MJ - Yes I’m still digging. Won’t stop that! There are a couple artists I collect - Moodymann being the primary one. Gemini, Theo Parrish, DJ Rush, I’m always aware of these guys and still dip into the bass scene from time to time. Favourite records… hard question and it’s always changing. YMO “BMG” would be one that’s always stayed in the listening pile. Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano” recently has been on a lot. Rotary Connection “Black Gold” is getting lots of play - My little girl and I love the sound of Minnie Riperton’s voice and love dancing to her in the mornings we spend together before daddy starts work. 

Who of the contemporary live acts do you love seeing in action? What makes them so inspirational in your eyes?

MJ - Off the top of my head the first thing that comes to mind is last week at ADE I saw a studio live recording of Ramses 3000 and Ben Penn. It was incredibly good and right up my alley musically speaking. Best thing I saw by far in an electronic concert setting was Carl Crag ft. Jon Dixon at Movement Festival (I almost couldn’t get out of bed for it due to the new legalisation of weed in Detroit but glad I did!). 

I wanted to take this opportunity to chat about some of our favourite Mathew Jonson tracks, and figured ‘Marionette’ was a good place to start. Above all else, is this the track that has impacted your career the most do you think? Did you sort of realise you’d struck gold immediately after?

MJ - The original version which was super minimal had a very special quality about it. It’s one of the only jam sessions that was re-made in the studio. I think India in Me being the only other. I’m not one for revisiting the past. I felt it needed a little bit more to make it releasable and it was worth it. More than any other record (Typerope is a close second) that’s what people think of when it comes to my catalogue. I think Sven Väth and Richie Hawtin were the two main DJs that really took it to the masses so I’m thankful for that. 

There’s a video I remember seeing a few years ago online, of you playing the track at Japanese festival, Labyrinth. I’ve rarely seen a track fit a setting so much! Do you remember this gig in particular? And can you talk us through some of your experiences in Japan? It always strikes me as such a fascinating place to play music…

MJ - That particular set was very special, yes. Japan is amazing - I think mainly as it’s just so incredibly different from living in Europe so experiencing new things there really never gets old. If you enjoy culinary culture and beautiful nature experiences like spending time in hot springs it’s pure magic. Star Festival and Rainbow Disco Club are also definitely worth checking out for those that make the trip. RDC has a big anniversary coming up this year as well! 

Was there a pressure to follow this up with similarly impactful records? Or do you think of things like this?

MJ - I try to avoid the idea that music should be good or bad or better. It kills creativity and is something that hurts artists. Labels, agents and the press should be more aware of this.  Trying to be more creative gets you nowhere. I’m not saying don’t sit down and play. I’m saying when you do play from the heart and play how you feel in the now.  Releases will come naturally if you write music on a regular basis. 

You then went through an incredibly prolific period thanks to the Cobblestone Jazz stuff, and tracks like ‘W’, ‘India in Me’ and ‘Dump Truck’ practically defined that period in house and techno. Although you do all play together sporadically, you don’t put out much music anymore. Is this a conscious thing? Or is it just difficult for you all to get together these days?

MJ - I live in Berlin so our only studio sessions are between weekends when we tour. Mind you, I think we are on the brink of completing another album.  

I think back to that period in the mid ‘00s, and a lot of the music that was being released - and strangely, was quite popular - was quite boring, tech-house and minimal. Those Cobblestone Jazz tracks were anything but, of course. Were you conscious that you always wanted to do something a bit more imaginative and interesting? Or did it sort of just work out like that? 

MJ - If our tracks translate into the current music trends and promoters want to add us to their lineups we feel lucky. Perhaps the reason our music stands out is that we have never followed trends. 

The majority of your most notable work has been released via Wagon Repair, so I wanted to ask about your current involvement with the label. Does it still preoccupy you a lot? Or who’s involved and does what now? 

MJ - I really just own the rights to the brands now. The companies closed years ago as it became hard to sustain the level of quality when the industry turned to streaming. It feels like it’s a good time to release music from that period again though so you might see some re issues soon. 

Let’s rewind a bit and talk about life in British Columbia before you base yourself in Europe. Can you talk us through life there, both personally and from a musical perspective? 

MJ - Musically it felt charged, focused and present. You can literally breathe in the energy from the trees and mountains and ocean and use that to fuel your creativity. I should probably live somewhere that’s a bit more connected to the source in the future. I miss the connection to nature. If you have visited the temperate rain forests in British Columbia you probably understand where I’m coming from. 

You’ve credited jazz as having a massive impact on the honing of your sound. What other genres and artists influenced the electronic music you make? 

MJ - The Melvins had quite an influence on me and are still one of the best bands you can see live. Led Zeppelin, Gentle Giant, Tracy Chaplin, Fleetwood Mac, NWA, Souls of Mischief, Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan, Mary J Beige all come to mind just off the top of my head. Of more recent artists I really like what Abra is doing. I’ve also been influenced by many blues artists that my father listens to and also plays when he performs. Classical music etc … I could go on and on. Recently I’ve also been listening to more and more Latin music. I’m addicted to the rhythms. 

Finally,  can you tell us a bit about your plans for the rest of the year? And what we can look forward to from you over the next while? 

MJ - Get Perlonized in Bucharest this weekend!! Hope to see you there!! 

Check out Freedom Engine Academy here and keep up with Mathew Jonson on Instagram