In between arranging the interview and it taking place, Mha Iri dropped a preview of a new track on Facebook, and it clocked up a whopping 800,000 views in a few days – it has since been watched more than 1.2m times. Timing is everything, and it appears as though there’s a Scottish artist rising and riding high at this time.
SNACK caught up with Mha Iri to discuss travel, production, influences, peers and what’s coming next in the career of a huge local talent.
What was your introduction to dance music, and how did you get involved with DJing?
My first introduction was when I was ten years old, my older brother was really into techno, he was a vinyl DJ. More [an] in the house [DJ] but he helped run events. He’s ten years older than me, and he was about 20 at the time. Also, my dad used to buy us the Ministry of Sound CDs as well, so it went from there.
I started DJing about 9 years ago and six months into learning to DJ, I decided I really want to learn a lot! There was a course called Quantize Courses, through Finish More Music. Finish More Music is a community of like-minded people who want to learn production, or are already learning and are on the building blocks to becoming proficient at production. I took the fast-track course, you get a mentor who asks you to choose a track you want to reference, you get a sampler and Ableton, you draw in your high hats and every element to mimic the track you like. It teaches you how to build energy, take away and how to structure a track in a basic sense.
That’s how I learned, after that track got finished, it was released on a label. It was a small label, but still a label! From there, it’s been a steady stream of learning through one-to-one lessons with friends who are great producers, YouTube, and a number of other things. It’s been a slow process over a long period of time.
Not to put words in your mouth, but you never stop learning.
You never stop, not with Ableton! Same with music in general, there’s always something else. That’s the beauty of it, you can spend your whole life accumulating new skills and new ways of skinning the rabbit, as it were!
Can you remember your first DJ set?
Of course. I was opening the event, the headliners were quite hard, and I played deep house and tech house. That was my first one, which went really well but the second one was a disaster. I played far too hard, too early! It was an opening set, I panicked, I was shaking before the gig, never got booked again by the promoter, which I completely understand. It was a humbling experience, which taught me the way of the warm up, and that you have to respect the artist in front of you.
How do you feel your sound has evolved over the years?
When I first started, I was writing music, but it was within my ability. Over time, I have explored more complex melodic tracks, and delving into the harder side of things, but that’s actually simpler. You have a lot less channels, but you use them in a more intelligent way. You modulate everything a lot and everything evolves over time.
For me, beauty lies in simplicity and learning how to make a simple track without it being boring. That was something I struggled to achieve until the last two or three years. Now, I’m fixated on having as few channels as possible but making the most of each element.
It’s easy when you’re producing to keep adding things because you think it’ll make it more interesting, but all it does is muddy the mix.
Who are the DJs or producers you look up to at this moment?
At this point, I really enjoy Dennis Apec. His stuff is unique and unusual and I enjoy the sound it’s pushing. Who else? Reinner Zonneveld, he’s awesome and he released an album recently. It’s so unusual, every track is different. Right now, a lot of the time, artists reference each other because they think by releasing a song similar to that hit, they’ll get a hit. However, in doing that, they’re losing their uniqueness, and what makes them different to other artists.
Metodi Hristov has always been a producer I’ve looked up to. He uses a lot of elements, he layers things, but it sounds so clean, and I still don’t know how he does that, so I really respect that.
The travelling associated with being a major DJ looks punishing. How do you cope with it?
To be honest, it’s not a big issue for me. I don’t work during the week, during the week I work on music, spend time with my partner, my dog, my cat. We go out in nature and have a nice life. It’s part of the job I don’t enjoy but all the positives outweigh the negatives. Even if there’s a delay, I can plug my computer in and work on music, or read a book. It’s part and parcel of the job and I’d rather do this than anything else in the world.
Your most recent release, The Unexpected EP, came out on Drumcode. How did that come about?
I released ‘Never Go Back To Sleep’ earlier in March. That was a women-only compilation released on International Women’s Day. My management reached out to them and they asked if I wanted to do the Elevate compilation, and I was like ‘yeah, that’s perfect.’ From there, Adam Beyer gave me his email address and said, ‘if you ever have anything you want to send, just send it over.’ So I sent it over and for him, it was different, it wasn’t something he’d usually play or release, but he felt it was a really strong track, and he wanted to do that.
After that, I sent him ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ which was originally called ‘Out of Control’, and it had my singing vocals on it, which he wasn’t really into. I commissioned someone to do the rap for me, and he was happy with that. There were a few back and forwards, editing vocals, pitching them up and down then settling on them. And then ‘Filthy’, the other track, I wrote in a couple of days, it was one of those ones. I sent it to him a few weeks before the release, and I didn’t hear back from him. When the release was announced, it was just the two tracks, and he said ‘Where’s ‘Filthy?’ I want ‘Filthy’’, so that ended up getting released as well.
How has it been working with Drumcode?
So far, they’ve been great to deal with, really professional. I love their artwork, I love their ethos, they’re a respected brand, they’ve been around for some time and they have a great history. It’s a dream come true to release on a label of that calibre, it’s something I’ve been working towards in my career. Me and a friend of mine, also a producer, we’ve always said we’ve made if we release on Drumcode – so there we are!
You’re playing some of their big events, aren’t you?
I’m playing at Watergate in Berlin for Drumcode, which will be a three hour set, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Now that The Unexpected has been out for a while, how has the reaction been?
The reaction has been amazing. In a club, festival, wherever, it’s amazing and whenever I see big artists supporting it, which has happened a lot more with this one release than any of my other releases. Any time I watch a video, it gives me goosebumps. Amelie Lens has supported it a lot, Joyhauser, they’ve been staunch supporters, as well as Adam Beyer, who has played it at major events.
The feedback, generally, from people is really positive. Last night I had a guy who came to meet me in Frankfurt, he said when he was walking around the room, people were saying I hope she plays ‘Unexpected’. For me, it’s that track that helped to push my career, one of those tracks that’s experimental but it’s worked out, it’s good.
Are you able to share what’s coming next?
I can’t share anything officially, I am looking to do a self-release. It’ll be a retake on a classic, but I can’t say anything more than that. I also have tracks with big labels and they’re sorting out schedules for, so I can’t say anything, but I am excited.
When it comes to samples, how do you find them, and do you find samples first and then make music, or vice versa?
With the song, I call it ‘Silly Llama’, it’s not called that, it’s called ‘Beast Boy’, but the vocals sound like she’s saying silly llama. It’s an Indian chant vocal, with that track for example, I was on Splice, going through ethnic vocals because I wanted to find something. I found that, I thought this is perfect, different and fresh, it’ll be great, so I built the track around that.
In general I use Splice, it’s a sample platform, you get your own user interface where you can download samples, you can keep them in key order. If I’m writing a track in a specific key, say F minor, I’ll type in techno in my search bar, set it to F minor as the key and find things. If I see anything that inspires me, I’ll bring it in, I’ll start to chop it up, transpose it and play around with it. From there, that’s where the creativity takes place, it’s not usually based around the sample, it’s more finding samples, playing around with them and manipulating them.
Obviously, I’ve got my melodies, that’s completely different, that’s all done by me anyway. Some of the pads might be samples.
How do you go about planning live sets in relation to studio mixes?
Live sets aren’t planned, for me, if I’m playing in front of a crowd, it depends completely on the crowd, the energy of the room, the size of the crowd, the slot time. I have so many playlists on my USBs, I go between and choose what I think suits for that event. I might have a general idea of what I might want to play but usually it changes when I get there and discover what’s going on at the event.
With studio performances and recorded mixes, it’s methodical and I’ll usually have an idea of what I want to portray in the mix. Say the Terminal V mix, that was two hours, for me that was about showing the scope of my musical range. With the Filth on Acid release, that was hard techno, well for me, it’s hard house.
We grew up in Scotland, we know what hard house is, but maybe other places aren’t so fussed about it. Hard techno is quite broad, so it was listed as hard techno. But yeah, it’s about showing I have a range of styles, melodic, acid, harader, slower and communicating that to people. I wanted to show the different genres I enjoy and also taking people on a journey. Showing them a bit of trance, melodic, happy, but also dark, the best thing you can do is take people on a journey, regardless of whether it’s in the house, recorded, a club or a festival.
You played Rave The Planet, in Berlin (formerly known as Love Parade), an event with more than 300,000 attendees. How do you get your head around that?
You don’t! I played the year prior to that, and before that, and all I can say is I wanted to do it again. I had done it but I had so much adrenaline running through my veins and the truck I was on was so busy. It was packed, you could barely move and people were pressing the decks, it was so intense. It went like that, and it was done, and I thought, I want to do it again. You look out there and see the sea of people, and I don’t think something like that can happen in Scotland.
This year, I was opening the Parade, an absolute honour to do, when I first started, there weren’t so many people there, they were all queued down the line. As you start to go down, you see all the people behind you, it’s amazing, it genuinely makes you feel emotional. After you finish, you’re overwhelmed by it, to play in front of that many people, and have that many people listen to your music. What’s really nice about the parade is, its people of all ages, older people, people with their kids, it’s varied, and people there who love music and who want to have a nice time in the sun. It’s a beautiful experience.
Years ago, I said I’d love to play at The Parade, but it stopped for a number of years. So yeah, to have the chance to do, unbelievable.
We’re speaking before you play in Glasgow, in a modest basement room. How do you reconcile your sets to best meet different moods and expectations?
Going back to the conversation we had before, it’s about setting the tone and reading the mood of the crowd. Depending on the crowd and how they feel, you modify what you play. For me, I’m versatile in what I play, it’s not an issue for me, but yeah, reading it, figuring out what they want and being able to give it to them while staying true to what you want to play.
At that level, there must be an element of psychology to what you?
Yeah, I suppose it is. Most people have that or production, so to have both, that’s a really special thing.
When you create songs, do you approach it solely as the song itself, or do you think about the live experience?
I approach it as a song, when I’m producing, I’m not thinking about the label I want it to go on, or the direction. I’m letting it happen as it happens, and then I’ll try and shape it over time. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself on how it’ll sound. If I do that, it can cause a creative block. With Drumcode, I really wanted to release with them, and ‘Never Go Back To Sleep’ was one they took but for years, I was trying to write something that was Drumcode style, and I couldn’t do it.
It blocked me, I was so focused on creating something I thought they wanted, I was forgetting what I wanted to do, bypassing my own creative process. If I can give advice to anyone who is producing, write what you want to write and do what makes you happy. If you lose that side of it, you might as well go and work in an office, because you’re not enjoying it anymore. It’s so important you enjoy it.
What inspires your ideas in creating songs?
It can be based on a feeling, a lot of the time, my track ‘Your Heart’ I wrote that at the height of Covid. The lyrics were ‘open up your heart’. The reason I wrote that, I felt there was a lot of division between people in many ways, political opinions, lockdown. I wanted to remind people of a simple message to open their heart and we can have different opinions and respect people, we don’t have to be at war with one another. We’re going through something difficult at the moment, let’s be open with each other.
A lot of the time I try to convey a positive message about current events, to subconsciously reach people.
You’re really engaged on social media, offering competitions for gig tickets regularly. Is this something you enjoy?
Yeah, definitely, it’s about creating a community. I’m really thankful I have so many engaged people that follow me and interact with me. Last night for example, one of my German followers who’s also an influencer, we met at Ikarus Festival, Mayday Festival, he came to this event and he stands behind me, behind the decks, we have a glass of champagne, have a chat and dance. It’s nice to go to a different country and engage with people and feel like I’m part of something, and they’re part of something.
I don’t want to be this artist that’s up here and I’m not engaged. The only reason I am where I am is because of the people that support me. I have another guy called Erfan, based in the Netherlands and he always brings me a gift. I have a keyring of my cat engraved on it that he got for me. I appreciate people like that, it makes my life better and makes me really thankful I have these people that support me.
What do you want to do in 2024?
I would love to play Awakenings. I can say, I think, I’m doing an Awakenings podcast, that’ll be a one and half to two hour set for the podcast, so I’m hoping that’s a positive indication! Hopefully more Drumcode events, I’d love to play a Filth on Acid event as well. Just key festivals I have my eye on, but we’ll see how it goes, so yeah!
Find out more about Mha Iri plus upcoming gig ticket info at mhairitechno.com