Lobsterfest 2019 Q&A: Machine Girl

By Josh Pettis, Staff Writer
Photo by Joey Medlen

Q&A with Machine Girl (Matt Stephenson) and Sean Kelly post-Lobsterfest over hashbrowns, coffee and other 2 a.m. breakfast foods.

As a fan of some of your earlier works like Gemini and Jet Set Radio Remixes 1, I was really curious what it feels like to move into the sphere of your more recent works like …Because I’m Young Arrogant and Hate Everything You Stand For and The Ugly Art?

Machine Girl: Sometimes the progression between WLFGRL and where we’re at now, it feels like there’s been a direction or a mission, ‘cause like when I first started Machine Girl, it was definitely with the idea of becoming what it is now. It still hasn’t totally reached what I imagined it to be years ago, but now because it’s been years and my tastes have grown, there’s less of an endpoint; it’s just mutating endlessly. I think it’ll continue to do that until I’ve exhausted the project. The Ugly Art doesn’t feel like the end of something, it doesn’t feel like I’ve achieved what I set out to. When we were working on it, that was kind of what I was going for, but because it isn’t that I feel like that will never happen. With the newer shit, we’re writing it feels more freeing because it’s not like I have a preconceived notion of what Machine Girl needs to be.

What have you guys been bumping lately?

Machine Girl: We both listen to a lot of King Gizzard right now. When it was described to us it was as being almost like sludgy stoner metal. The tracks I’ve listened to, at least the ones I like though, are all kind of fast, ripping.

Sean: It’s really aggressive music but still super playful.

Machine Girl: It’s definitely influenced this shit out of us, and not only them, but in the last year, we’ve both gotten really into Meshuggah.

Sean: That was kind of like The Ugly Art’s influence too.

Machine Girl: Not really, that was at the end of it–not like with the production or anything. I don’t really think it influenced it that much. Recently, I’ve been listening to, all the time, that Fire-Toolz alias.

Sean: But it’s not Fire-Toolz, what’s the name?

Machine Girl: Nonlocal Forecast.

Yeah! I’ve been listening to that album they dropped on Hausu Mountain!

Machine Girl: Yeah, Bubble Universe, it’s super sick. A lot of that kind of shit. I feel like there’s a lot of Machine Girl fans who follow me on YouTube, and like, watch what I favorite. And I have a big music playlist that I usually listen to. I just play things mostly off of YouTube, I don’t use Spotify or anything. I’m always adding whatever I get into to it.

I was also wondering about your album covers and the visuals you choose. What kind of goes into that process and the kind of aesthetic choices you’re making?

Machine Girl: Well, I’ve done all the visual shit. Yeah, I’m proud of The Ugly Art. Design-wise, that image, being removed from both of them, I think I like the …Because I’m Young and Arrogant a little bit more. Maybe it’s because The Ugly Art is still fresher…

Sean: Yeah, you can appreciate it later because that album is still going to be unique.

Machine Girl: It’ll grow on me because I hate everything I make until it’s like, years later. I will say that …Because I’m Young and Arrogant, there’s more meaning behind it. With The Ugly Art, I kind of started fucking around in Photoshop, and I was putting dog images together, melding them together–this fucked up deep dream sort of image but with dogs. The …Because I’m Young and Arrogant one struck maybe more of a chord because I was trying to show how I see our interactions with digital media platforms, how everything is so extremely interconnected and how it’s super cumbersome.

What do you think about maximalism in music and the art world, in terms of that kind of overload?

Sean: I think most of what dictates our taste is pretty maximum shit because we’ve just consumed so much media in our lives. Like, we’re just freaks that have seen a bazillion movies and listen to music all of the time, so that for us to really relate to anything it has to be over the top. Sometimes, that’s the stuff we’re drawn to a lot of the times–if it’s sincere.

Kind of segueing, but how did Machine Girl start? When did you start making music and how did everything come together?

Machine Girl: I started playing bass in eighth grade; my friend was a guitar player, and we started a band. Our drummer was shitty, and our guitar player knew Sean, and we got Sean to be in the band. After high school, Sean and I had other projects. I started Machine Girl, and I had the idea nine years ago, but I didn’t make anything with the name until 2012 or 2013. Then it was a solo thing for a few years. Like, I always wanted it to be a band, and I felt like I was ready for the next step, and I hit Sean up.

Sean: That’s when Gemini was about to come out.

Do you have any thoughts on Gemini? In certain places, it feels like one of the prettiest and most complex electronic albums I’ve ever heard.

Machine Girl: I mean, there are things I really like about it, but for me, it was a lot of the mental state I was in while I was making it. That’s why I made it Gemini, like the first six months that I was working on it was like my personal mental peak of my whole life. That was like after WLFGRL came out, and I had just gotten a job. I don’t know, my ego was at an all-time high. I was high on life and everything 180’d really quickly, and I was still working on it–half the album is before that, the other half is after that.

There are definitely places on the record where I get that vibe. It has dark undertones in certain places.

Machine Girl: There are things that I really like about it, I just think it wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve warmed up to that album a little bit. There are songs that I think could be so much better than they are.

How do you guys feel about virtual reality and that side of aesthetics in art? You guys seem really conscious of artificiality in your music.

Machine Girl: I think for me, like, going back to …Because I’m Young and Arrogant, a lot of it’s like anxiety; I’m not necessarily optimistic about the future implications of all of it. I think part of it is that in my few experiences with VR, I was like, “This is crazy, this is sick.”

Sean: I’ve always been blown away and underestimated the experience; it kind of scares the shit out of me. It’s very scary, and that’s why I like the aesthetic, and I like working with it. It’s like very terrifying, and I want everybody to be thinking about it. That’s like, what I talk about with my parents.

Machine Girl: I mean, people are literally going to become VR addicts, like very soon.

Sean: It’s gonna be a serious human problem, and I think people need to start making decisions about it now. My parents are gonna be 70, and they’re probably going to be voting for the next 15 or 20 years. I’m like, “Yo, you need to make a decision about where we’re heading in terms of big tech corporations and what they’re trying to push.” It’s really scary, and we’re definitely both pretty pessimistic in terms of what you’re talking about. Though, where’d we go? That VR lounge in Atlanta, for like VR video games. It was fucking awesome, like so sick.

Machine Girl: It was cool, but even that was not something that I’d be like, “Oh, I wanna go drink with my friends and have one person step into VR.”

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