Breaking boundaries: Chicago-based producer Manic Focus explores new sides of the EDM realm

By Dana Getz

Manic Focus is not your typical EDM producer. Rather than lean toward the pop-laced, big anthem club tracks as so many producers before him, the young up-and-comer boasts a more laidback sound, accenting synth-laden tracks with subtle funk, hip-hop flavor, and hoards of dubbed-out bass.

His understated style has caught the attention of a slew of big-name artists, including Big Gigantic, Gramatik and GRiZ, who have grown to be regular touring partners for the Minnesota native. A slave to the studio, Manic Focus has produced three original albums, a remix compilation and a catalogue of singles since his 2011 debut. Now coming off an extensive summer tour, he’s gearing up for some equally hectic fall shows, including Red Rock’s Rowdytown later this month. We sat down with the Chicago-based producer to discuss his most recent album, the limitations of genres and the difference between the Chicago and Minnesota music scenes.


Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you first got started with music?

I got into piano lessons real early, when I was in kindergarten. I can’t sight read music but I had a good ear, so my teacher would play the piece and then I would do concerto competitions. I played piano until I was 13 and then my dad got me a keyboard, so I quit piano lessons and started making beats. From then until about four years ago I was making rap beats, and then I saw Pretty Lights at the first North Coast Music Festival, and I saw Moby and Chemical Brothers and decided I wanted to start doing dance music. So the second North Coast I launched Manic Focus. That’s the date I did it—I didn’t perform that year. I’ve been doing Manic Focus for about two years, but I’ve been making music my whole life.

So you were classically trained on piano. Do you incorporate any classical elements into your current music?

I was classically trained, but honestly a lot of that is kind of out the window. I still have a classical background in terms of all the melodic progressions and so forth, and sometimes I like writing those types of progressions and melodies instead of being all shock factor, crazy synths or whatever.

You’re most often grouped in the EDM category, but how would you personally describe your sound?

That’s a funny thing, because I kind of like having fun with it. I put all of my music online for free, so when you download it and it shows up in iTunes I kind of purposefully leave the genre blank. When I make my stuff I’m not thinking of, “Oh, what’s the formula to make a trap song?” I don’t like putting music in boxes. I think good music is good music. If someone hears a song or a melody or whatever and they like it, why does it matter what it’s called, you know? I’m really about blurring the lines as far as genre goes. I’m not going to say I haven’t been influenced by things like trap and house and hip-hop, but I don’t go into a song thinking, “Oh, I’m going to make this a trap remix.” I just let it become what it becomes; I don’t want to be in a box. I want to make music that people enjoy and let them put it in whatever box they wanna put it in, and leave it at that.

I feel like even with producers who aren’t necessarily writing their own lyrics, the lyricism in vocal samples are still extremely important. What samples do you find yourself drawn?

I choose stuff that’s pleasant but I try to sample as little as possible. When I first started I wanted to sample things that people know, like anything from the ‘90s people just go ape shit for.

Have you ever thought about featuring live artists?

Oh, absolutely. On the album I just released, the title track, “Distant Perspective,” doesn’t have any samples. The guy who says the line “Never paid for attention, the skills to Manic Focus” is actually an MC. I’m kind of cultivating his skills. He comes from a poetry and spoken word background, and he’s getting into hip-hop. He has an amazing voice, so I have him on that and on “Definiton of the Rhythm.”

Let’s talk about your most recent album, Distant Perspective. Can you tell me about some of the inspiration behind the tracks?

A lot of it just kind of came together as a project. It wasn’t really made front to back. I made “We Won’t Land” without even having the album in mind, but when I started making more tracks it just made sense to throw that in that section of it. The album as a whole is supposed to be my journey through the music industry over the last two years. The first track is like, “I don’t need to pay for attention,” and then the second track is like, “I don’t need money,” and then the third track’s like, “Oh wait, I’m broke,” and the rest of it goes from there. So I did try to make it a concept album to a degree, but I want people to draw their own conclusion.

What distinguishes it from your past work? I noticed there’s a lot more bass.

Yeah, I think production wise I’ve just gotten better as a producer. I’ve learned a lot from good friends—Big Gigantic, GRiZ, Gramatik, all those guys. My mixes are a lot cleaner. I think it’s the best reflection of where I’m at now. Of course I love my old stuff, but you know, you’re always getting better as you progress through any sort of profession.

You also released it completely for free, which you’ve done with your music in the past as well. What’s your reasoning behind that?

I think it’s just the way to do it now. I’ll be blunt, I don’t really pay for music online. I grew up with Napster, and now everything’s torrented. I’m all about that digital freedom. It’s nice if people wanna donate, but I put so much time into it and it’s just a file. I want people to have it. I want people to just listen; I’m not trying to sell that. It just makes more sense. If you want to build a fan base they need to hear your stuff, and if money is a barrier to entry for them to hear it you’re not going to have as much success.

You’re originally from St. Paul but now you’re living in Chicago. How would you compare the two music scenes?

Minnesota has a phenomenal music scene—incredibly strong hip-hop scene right now. It’s got Rhymesayers—who I grew up listening to in high school—Brother Ali, Atmosphere, Eyedea & Abilities. While the electronic music scene is popping off and they do have shows there, it’s a lot stronger in Chicago. It’s always been stronger in Chicago, so it made more sense to move here and pursue that field. If I wanted to do hip-hop I would stay in Minnesota, which I do. I think I would move back there eventually because I love it and it’s my home, but I’m just kind of enjoying the ride right now.

You’ve had a pretty hectic summer of touring. What was your favorite place to play?

They were all memorable in their own right, but the one that really sticks out for me is Electric Forest. That was just something else. The Forest is ridiculous, it really is. I will pay to go next year if I don’t get booked just because the Forest is that cool.

What’s in store for the rest of the year?

I’m playing Red Rocks—Rowdytown—at the end of September with Big Gigantic, Adventure Club and Carnage, and then I’m touring with Minnesota in the fall, playing with GRiZ a couple times. It’s gonna be crazy.