Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Mackenzie Johnson, better known as MAKJ at the Magnetic office. For those of you who do not know, or if you do know but need a quick little refresher, MAKJ discovered that he liked music more than most everything else at a young age, what’s more is that he discovered this whilst living in China as a professional racecar driver. Do I happen to have your attention now? Yeah, MAKJ was already well on his way to making a name for himself, only problem? His heart was in the music, not the speedway. And so, he began experimenting with the technical goodies he was able to get his hands on. He went off-course for a little bit, which we will discuss more below, but then he jumped headfirst into the world of EDM culture and hasn’t come up for air since. He has had the honor of private tutelage from one of the best in history, the late DJ AM himself, has played in numerous clubs all around the world and has had the privilege of opening up for mac-daddy names like Steve Aoki, Avicii, Robbie Rivera, Wolfgang Gartner and more. We talked about some things I think you guys will be interested in...have a read.
So what did you do before you came here?
Before I came here today?
I started DJing when was sixteen, Ive done Bar Mitzvahs to weddings to frat parties to you know, crappy little bar gigs…I’ve been there, done that.
Yeah before you came here today.
Well I just had an interview with Wantickets and then I went to Hamburger Habit and had a good hamburger, and before that I went to my manager’s place and played with his dogs for a minute, then I was at the studio before then and then I woke up before that so it was definitely a productive day.
Ok what kind of hamburger did you get at Hamburger Habit? I gotta ask.
It was the double bacon char, it was real good. With grilled onions and then I put jalapenos on it too. It was pretty solid, it’s my once a weeker for sure.
Ohh, nicely done. You know where it’s at. That’s a good one. So first off, I know you’re starting your spring tour soon, is there any specific place that you’re really excited to go to, or where you’ve been before that holds more meaning than others?
For sure. Every time I go to TRYST it's like a—you gotta think of it in Vegas terms. It’s the pictures, you see the pictures, people going crazy…it’s that, but the thing is, the people that go to these events are usually middle America people that go for conferences; so every time I go DJ it’s a challenge because I have to read the crowd in a sense that these people don’t listen to the same music I like to play. So I go there and have to play, you know, oldies and I go play some new stuff, and that comes into my background when I do the bootlegs and mash-ups and that’s, you know, I kinda twist that into my set so definitely going to Trist every month is ridiculous for me, which is awesome. A couple big events... I’m doing Ultra, that’s gunna be amazing. I’ve never been to WMC or Ultra. I’m DJing Ultra, doing the Juicy Beach party with Robbie Rivera, that’s gunna be really fun. SXSW. Pacha with Paul Oakenfold...there’s just a lot of good opportunities that are gunna be coming up in a couple months which I’m really excited about.
I can tell if any other DJ goes to a club and they feel like they did a really good job, the final say is to a bouncer… because one, they’re sober, and two, they listen to this music every single night.
Hell yeah, that’s awesome. As for reading the crowd, I know your sets are very dynamic, how do you know what to play? Do you just go by the feeling?
I have really bad A.D.D. I mean, I feel like most DJs have really bad A.D.D. I really look when I go DJ. I look at the crowd in a sense that if I were in the crowd, how would I want to be listening to the music. I started DJing when was sixteen, I've done Bar Mitzvahs to weddings to frat parties to you know, crappy little bar gigs. So I’ve been there, done that. That’s kinda like the background I come from; I don’t just go out and play these clubs and just play exactly what I want to play, I play for the corwd, I don’t play for myself. And DJs nowadays DJ for themselves; unless you’re Swedish House Mafia and you get away with it. That’s the problem when people go to these gigs, like at Marquee or these big clubs, they hire these DJs and it’s cool but it’s like, I’ve heard the same set fifty times and the same artist you know what I mean, they don’t diversify their sets. For me, I go to the event and I go ok, I see the people in the front and they’re having a great time but I look at the back and I see the people that are in the booths and I see what they’re reacting to because I know the people who are dancing are just usually really drunk or just doing their thing. So I always look at the bouncers and I look at the bottle service girls, if they’re, you know, looking like they’re having a good time I feel like I’m doing a great job because they’re there every single night listening to the same music over and over again.
That’s interesting, I wouldn’t have thought about that.
Yeah so that’s my background and where I come from. I’ve seen everybody—from sixteen year-old kids to fifty-five year-old dudes so that really helps me a lot.
Nice, I never would have thought to look at the bouncers, they do hear everything.
Yeah see I can tell if any other DJ goes to a club and they feel like they did a really good job, the final say is to a bouncer. If a bouncer’s been there and you go, “hey man did you like the DJ set?” Of course the bouncer is gunna say “Yeah that set was awesome” because you’re the DJ, but if he doesn’t know who you are and you be like “Yo did you like that DJ's set?” And he goes “Eh it was alright,” you know you have some improvement. But if he says “Yeah that DJ killed it,” that means you did well, because one, they’re sober, and two, they listen to this music every single night.
That’s true, I go to the Avalon a lot and I sometimes see the bouncer there, you know, groovin’ and everything but I’ve never thought about it. Sometimes he just looks pissed.
Yeah that’s why it's so awesome having my manager, Ryan Jaso who runs Friday night at Control at Avalon, and so having him, you know, before I was signed to his management going wow man that was an awesome set, you know I really like how you basically were yourself and were diversifying your sound in the crowd and not really caring what the other artists thought but you’re really playing for the crowd, that’s when I felt like ok, this guy knows what he’s doing.
Now I know you went to Cal Poly for architecture, and I know a lot of people are going to school and they want to change what they’re doing, but they don’t know what to do. How did you realize that this was not what you wanted to do; when was that moment?
Freshmen year, for sure. I did it to make my dad happy. I went to Cal Poly and I had to pay for school, I had to pay for everything and you know it taught me a lot, it taught me the value of a dollar but at the same time it’s like, I’m going to this school just to please my dad, because my dad’s very old school. He was a doctor, so he went from high school to college, medical school, wife and kids. Very boring life. I have two older brothers too, so when he looks at me and my other brothers, one is an Abercrombie model, the other one’s a doctor too so when he looks at me his like, “you’re a DJ? What is that?” So it was just kind of the point where I was like ok, I’m already so deep in the music industry, you know I could really do what I love to do and keep doing it, or I could be stuck in a cubicle, you know, having an internship for two and a half years, not getting paid and living in San Francisco, which is awesome, but at the same time I know that I really don’t like doing it. So freshmen year was a big, like knowing how long I was in the lab for, having to finish all my electives was just like ahhh this sucks. But see on the weekends I would be DJing, making my money doing these fraternity parties, and that was for me kind of my getaway.
And how did you tell your dad that you didn’t want to go to school anymore?
He figured it out pretty quick when I started showing him the paycheck I’m getting when I’m going to these gigs, and he was like “oh this is really cool,” and then I started getting more and a little more and then he was like ok, you might have a job in this you know and I finally (this was the first time they saw me DJ) I brought them to Trist and so definitely going to Trist and the Wynn they were like, wow, you know. It was kinda like the “oo la la” type stuff, so I brought them there and they were just blown away. My step-mom and my dad were just like, wow this is unbelievable.
That certainly must have been a nice moment.
It was cool, it was awesome, it was like hey, 'this is what I’m doing now and if you like it, you like it if you don’t you don’t but hey, this is what I do.'
That’s awesome, because a lot of people are going through stuff like that, a lot of people have old-school parents so it kind of gives hope that you can change their minds.
I just watched an interview a couple days ago; one of my friends sent it to me and it was the exact question you’re asking me. If you had all the money in the world, think of it that way; just think not about the money, if you think about the money, you’ll just be stuck doing the same old thing, you know? I know it's hard moving to LA or a bigger city where it’s a little expensive, and you know, not having some money and trying to get started is hard but at the same time, it takes time. Everything takes time, and not being immature about it and not really thinking too far ahead; just pay your dues and do it right, you know? So I feel like that’s definitely been the motto I’ve been living for a while.
It’s definitely a good one. So when you’re working on your music, are you the type of person that shuts everything out? Are you very focused?
Not really, I mean most of my big songs that I’ve done have been in airplanes, so it’s kind of random, you know? I’ve been sitting next to some fat old lady and some inspiration came out because she burped and I’m like, 'oh hey that’s a cool sound, let me try to make it into this.' So, for me, I’m not really that guy that posts a picture on facebook going “music time > world," you know what I mean? So I’m not really that guy, but as for inspiration for me, I have a little thing, you know how your iPhone has a recorder on it? I have a little thing that I walk around with and I go onto like, bridges and I clap and make my own claps and you know, I record tires, etc. I think about it like the Hanz Zimmer way, you know the guy that writes all of those movie scores? I’ve watched a lot of interviews of what he did and he’s just like, same stuff, just go outside and record some stuff and try and make a new sound off of that.
I was on a plane going from Vancouver to Toronto and some dude just pulled out a nail clipper and started clipping his nails next to me and one landed on my arm and I flipped out.
So you listen for all of these sounds that people would probably just take for granted.
Of course, everyday. But the thing is sometimes I use them, sometimes I don’t, but I mean, one of my songs, one of my minimal songs, "Conchy," the main lead of the track was actually from me throwing a rock in a tunnel and it made this really cool reverby, echoy sound and I recorded it about four or five times and I processed it, brought it in and that was my main lead on my track, which is cool you know? It’s different.
It is definitely different, do you have a favorite sound that you’ve found so far?
No I mean, there’s like, generic ones I’ve used but I mean I’m really big into the big tribal stuff, a lot of tribal African drums. I remember the Nicky Romero track, "Flash," his remix of "Flash" from Green Velvet and it’s the most basic drop ever, its a kick and a snare, but the way he has them in a drum kind of a marching pattern? To me, that’s the best.
Nice, nice. Well I know that a lot happens when you’re traveling, it’s different places, different cultures. Is there a times that’s stood out? Something random that happened or some experience that you’ve had during your travels so far?
I’m a primadonna, I hate traveling, I hate like, random people; the gnarliest situation happened to me: I was on a plane going from Vancouver to Toronto, this was just a couple weeks ago. And some dude just pulled out a nail clipper and started clipping his nails next to me on the plane and one landed on my arm and I flipped out. So, that was just, uhhhhhgg.
What did you say to him?
I was just like, dude, this is fucking disgusting. Everyone kept hearing this “clip, clip,” and I’m just like, what is that? So I look to the side and it's like, it was me in the window, another dude in the middle and then that guy on the isle and I’m just like, what is that ticking? And people kept looking behind their seats and there’s this big, fat guy, his foot on the little tray clipping his toe nails and his finger nails and I’m like, that’s brutal. I can’t even, that is just next-level. I don’t know what they do in Canada, but I guess that’s the thing they do.
That’s disgusting, I had a little shiver down my spine there.
It was pretty intense, for sure.
Alright, I’ll round it off with this question: For Ultra, is there any specific song that you’re looking forward to playing or any specific aspect of Ultra that you’re waiting for?
I have a lot of originals, I mean I have about seven or eight now that are just sitting, you know? A couple of them are signed, a couple of them we’re waiting for the release of them, one of them is a really big collab and the other one is just we’re trying to get that on the label right now, I just finished just yesterday, so we’re sending it now, so most of my tracks I’m going to be playing I’m going to be kind of the selfish dude and be playing a lot of my originals.
Well if there was ever a time to do it, that’s the time right?
Yep, Ultra would be the time to do it so I have a lot of big originals planned and it's only another month before, so I have that much more time to make more. Probably my whole set will be originals or my bootlegs so I’ll definitely have a really cool kind of energy set, which I’m really excited for.
Well thank you for sitting down and taking some time with me!
MAKJ currently has a tour going in the US, Canada and Mexico, for the full list of dates check out his Facebook page.