Electronic producers Max Graef and Glenn Astro only met three years ago, but while I speak to them over breakfast in a southwest London café, the duo are sharing bacon as if they were family.
When you make music on your own, you have to find your own way through
Graef, 24, was born and bred in Berlin, while Astro, 28, moved from Essen to the German capital two years ago. In 2014, Graef released his debut album Rivers of the Red Planet on Tartelet Records, and Astro's Throwback arrived the year after.
The pair forms part of a bigger collective of DJs – including IMYRMIND, Kickflip Mike and Alex Seidel – who circulate around the independently run store Oye Records, which specialises in house music. This tight-knit group have also started releasing records on Money $ex Records, which was founded by Astro, Graef and Berlin scene lynchpin Delfonic in 2015.
Graef and Astro have already worked together on two EPs – one for their own label and the other for Ninja Tune – but only last year did they knuckle down to work on an album. The result is The Yard Work Simulator, which was released on Ninja Tune on 27 May.
Do you have different approaches to making music?
Max Graef When you make music on your own, you have to find your own way through. Obviously that will be different for the both of us... We agreed on a lot of stuff so that made it easier.
Are your musical backgrounds similar though?
MG Glenn comes from hip hop and scratching, it's a different life that was never there for me. Hip hop came later, it was always rock or jazz.
I read Glenn that, at a certain period, you moved away from hip hop.
Glenn Astro It was never strictly hip hop. It's weird that I became the hip hop guy. I was always into different stuff. Me and my friends just grew up with this hip hop background, going to the parties, but we were always doing something else.
I don't know if it was a case of 'moving away' from it or just 'growing out' of it.
Is the hip hop approach still there?
GA Yeah, it didn't really change. The approach isn't too different to a house producer.
How was the process of making the album?
GA Quick, like three months.
Was this the longest you'd spent making music?
GA My album [Throwback] took longer, half a year. I wasn't sure how to do it. I took breaks in-between because I didn't feel like I was moving in the right direction.
Are you meticulous?
GA Yes. And also because you're on you're own, you don't know if you're doing the right thing. You start to think a lot and it becomes slower.
Did your approaches change after releasing your solo albums?
GA I'm a bit more free now, I don't overthink too much.
So you have matured?
GA Yes. I actually learned quite a lot from Max too.
MG Just attitude-wise maybe. We learnt from each other.
GA He's really good at harmonies. Sometimes, he would just tell me to leave things as they were and go with the flow.
It must be interesting to collaborate because production is normally a solitary process.
MG It was good to see how someone else would arrange the track. Normally, the work process is the same. For example, you always do the same with the tempo – even if the sounds are different. But when you work together, it changes a lot. There is variety.
For me, jazz is about having complete freedom with the harmonies; there is no rule
GA It was three and a half years ago when we first met. Max showed me some stuff he was doing and I was shocked because most of it was done on a laptop. It sounded like it was a whole band. With this album, he showed me that I don't always have to use hardware to make music.
You were using instruments then?
GA Almost exclusively.
MG We didn't use much VST [Virtual Studio Technology], things like a couple of synthesisers, the Crumar and the Rhodes.
Max, you like jazz. Are there similarities in the way you and a jazz musician would create a track?
MG This is the opposite of jazz. There is no improvisation – unless you use effects. Its never about evolving a track live.
Will that always be a limitation with electronic music?
MG Obviously you can jam and have that improvised feeling but I think in its core it's very different.
For the album, we often thought about having an A and B part, which is typical for jazz, rather than having a song structure or basing the track around a loop.
For me, jazz is about having complete freedom with the harmonies. There is no rule. It's always about how you present it or put it together. That's what makes jazz beautiful.
Most jazz musicians spend their entire lives perfecting one instrument. Does that specialised skill give them more freedom than electronic producers?
MG It's different worlds.
GA Sometimes you meet musicians who are very skilled but that doesn't guarantee that they're going to be a good producer.
MG It's the same the other way.
GA I'll never be a good keyboard player, it's too late for me. Even though I'm learning.
MG I read a funny thing the other day that said rock musicians play the easiest stuff and make it look hard but jazz players play the hardest stuff and make it look simple.
When you learn jazz, it's the same with learning anything. You need to learn how to break the rules later. You don't have to show you have the biggest balls.
Tell me about your crew in Berlin and Oye Records.
MG Oye is always in the middle of everything. It's where everyone meets and we buy our new records.
GA Half of the crew used to work there.
How long has that group been going?
MG It's always expanding. A friend of mine started working at Oye seven or eight years ago.
Did you work there as well Max?
MG I used to for a little bit. I always had records from my dad but I didn't worship them until after I started going to Oye.
Then we [Graef and his friends] started the label Box Aus Holz. Eventually we met Glenn and IMYRMIND, and others that are our friends now.
Do you do a lot of nights together?
MG We've never really done that. With Box Holz, we had three parties. They were all awful. I'm terrible at planning. It's no fun to DJ when you plan your own party. Also, making parties in Berlin is the most unthankful thing you can do.
A tough nut to crack?
MG There's just so much, what can you offer?
GA There's like 15 other parties on the same street.
You have your own crew. Do you not have a niche?
MG I never feel Berlin likes the stuff we do. When we come to England, people like it.
Why do you think that is?
MG It's just the city where you grow up. When we were 14, we went out and raved all night. Now that we're DJing on the weekend, there is no need to go out. I just have a really different picture of Berlin. I fit in there but not music-wise.
How are things with the refugee crisis at the moment?
MG There are the Nazi assholes but in general people were open-minded; they wanted to help. We have friends that are really involved.
The thing is, we are surrounded by many nationalities. I'm a refugee as well. The government and state have failed on every level. Even when you want to help, they make it very difficult for you.
There is an administration office with like three people on the phone, for 20,000 people calling every day.
Are there a lot of DIY solutions from Berliners?
GA There are but if you have a spare room, you can't give it to a refugee. Everything takes so long because everything requires a permit.
MG If you don't have work it's difficult in Germany. If they don't get the permit, it's just a never-ending circle.
They used to say, if you have a job you don't get a flat...
GA If you don't have a flat, you don't get a job...
MG If you have nothing, you can't do anything.