[Interview] Mac Miller talks “Watching Movies With The Sound Off,” producing music, and goals for the future

Under The Influence Tour 2012 in Toronto

Interview by: Martin Bauman

There seems to be no such thing as a day off for Mac Miller. This year alone, the Pittsburgh, PA native has released four projects (Run-On Sentences: Vol. 1 and Stolen Youth as Larry Fisherman; his second studio album, Watching Movies With The Sound Off; and now a self-titled mixtape under the moniker Delusional Thomas). Add that to his extensive tour schedule (with stops in Canada this week) and the demand of a reality show on MTV, and there’s not much time for slowing down. It would be easy to think that such a busy schedule would compromise an artist’s music, but lately, Mac’s been making the best music of his life; it’s no small accomplishment that WMWTSO holds its own in a conversation about the best hip-hop album of the year, nor should it be overlooked that Mac’s name came up in Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse, putting him in the same sentence as the rest of hip-hop’s current elite. Suffice it to say, he’s doing something right – and yet, if you ask him, he’s not even close to the level he’s aspiring to. We caught up with Mac Miller at his home in Los Angeles to talk about Watching Movies With The Sound Off, why Flying Lotus told him he’s at the greatest stage in his producing career, his goals for the future, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: You’re setting off on a number of Canadian tour dates this week. Tell me about the first time you ever came to Canada.

Mac Miller: Damn…. I know the first time I ever went to Canada, the border was not as difficult. I can definitely remember that [laughs]. I remember the first time I performed there was opening up for Curren$y in 2010 at The Opera House in Toronto, and my shirt had [1 Love] T.O. with a purple heart – there’s random shows where I remember what my shirt was; I don’t know why.

TCUS: [Laughs] While we’re talking about Canada, are there any Canadian hip-hop artists you’re impressed with right now?

Mac Miller: Drake. I’ve got a homie TFHOUSE, [he’s] great. Good people over there.

TCUS: Of course, as your make your way across Canada, fans can expect to hear a lot of material from your latest album, Watching Movies With The Sound Off. On that note, what can you tell me about Birds of the Gods?

Mac Miller: Yeah dude. Birds of the Gods is a f–kin’ awesome documentary that we watched a lot. [We watched] a lot of nature documentaries during the creation of this album. [The documentary] makes birds so majestic; I love that one.

TCUS: What other movies did you watch during the creation process?

Mac Miller: Turtle: The Incredible Journey, Zombies Vs. Strippers, Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio, Moonrise Kingdom… and then a lot of random space odyssey documentary-type shit, and underwater shit, too. Oh, Beetlejuice is another one – that was the first one we watched.

TCUS: Did each song have a different movie to go along with it?

Mac Miller: When I first started doing it, the concept was gonna be that every song was a different movie, and at the end, you’d have to figure out what movie I was watching by what the song was. [In the end], I didn’t want to stick to that concept and be so confined by something that seemed like an exercise in creativity, so I opened the floodgates and let it flow a little more.

TCUS: One of the other interesting things about WMWTSO is that you’ve opted to produce a number of the tracks yourself. What’s your process like when you’re producing a song?

Mac Miller: Oh man, I love it. I just like the long build. Your emotion gets to be there from the jump; you get to put however you’re feeling into every aspect of [the song]. How the song comes together is really interesting, because you’re making the beat, and there might be just random [themes] that – before you even lay down the drums – you know you want to talk about. I love producing; I think producing was a hugely important thing in my life. It’s something to work at and get better, [something] to continue to do a lot, because you can’t just record [forever]. Producing is something you can do by yourself, and I like it because you can create every style of music. I don’t confine my producing just to doing hip-hop records. I want to produce mega pop, indie rock, and every kind of style you can think of – score movies, all that.

TCUS: When you’re producing, is there anyone you’d say you’re modelling yourself after?

Mac Miller: One of my biggest influences – especially in the beginning – has been the Alchemist. I remember I had this one conversation with Flying Lotus when I started making beats – I was playing him a bunch of shit I was doing, and it was jazz shit to hip-hop shit – and I remember him telling me that I was in the greatest stage of my producing career. I was like, “what do you mean?” He was like, “you don’t have a sound that people are looking for; you don’t have a sound to model after or anything like that.” I mean, I’m influenced by all the producers of the music I like: your Kanyes, and Pharrells, and RZA, and everybody. But at the end of the day, I’m just trying to be my own inspiration.

TCUS: I want to get into a couple songs off the album and dig into some of the lyrics. Tell me about this quote from “The Star Room”. You rap, “we all gon’ end up meetin’ at the finishin’ line.” What does that mean to you?

Mac Miller: You know the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”? Everyone always thinks that it’s about, “oh, you take this other road and it takes you to this other place,” but isn’t the actual meaning that all roads lead to the same place anyway, it’s just how you decide to get there? That’s been a big [influence] in how I’ve been living my life recently, not stressing too much whether you turn right or left, because we’re all ending up at the same place anyway.

TCUS: On “I’m Not Real”, you bring along Earl for a guest feature. How did you two become friends?

Mac Miller: Travis – better known as Taco – brought him to my house one time to hang out, and I beat the f–k out of Taco when they came over. And we just became really good friends from then on [laughs]. We just kicked it and decided to make music, and I think we created something new when we made music together – it wasn’t his shit and it wasn’t my shit; it was something new, which is what you want to do when you collaborate. He’s one of my closest friends.

Under The Influence Tour 2012 in Toronto

TCUS: Another up-and-coming musician who’s young and making music – and who you recently went on the road with – is Chance The Rapper. How did that connection come about?

Mac Miller: I have a friend who hit me this one time – because, you know, I have my studio and everyone comes through to make music and stuff – and she was like, “you know who you should get over here is this dude named Chance The Rapper.” I checked it out and I was like, “I f–k with this dude.” He was about to drop his next mixtape, so we reached out to bring him on the tour, and then Acid Rap came out and shit went crazy. It was great; he’s a great performer, and it was awesome to be one of those people that brought him on tour with me early.

TCUS: Have you been in the studio with him at all?

Mac Miller: Yeah, we made some shit while we were on tour. We didn’t really get to sit down and finish anything, but we’re going to. I like his homie Vic a lot, too. Vic’s about to be in LA too; he’s gonna come to the crib. I like Vic a lot – that “YNSP” song is sick.

TCUS: Getting back to the album again, one song that caught my attention was “Red Dot Music”. To hear an artist bring someone onto their album for the sole purpose of demolishing them on a track is an interesting choice. Why did you opt to bring Loaded Lux onto WMWTSO?

Mac Miller: Well, when I watched that battle where he brought the casket out… I love battle rap, first of all. I secretly wish I had the confidence to be a battle rapper. I’ve always been such a huge battle rap fan – and I used to be a battle rapper – so I saw that and I was like, “damn, this dude’s f–kin’ crazy.” It got me to thinking about, like, I’m not an idiot; I know I’m one of those people that isn’t really taken [seriously as a lyricist]. They think that if I got into a battle with anyone they would shit on me; the raps haven’t always been the most respected part of [myself as a musician]. So I was like, “you know what? I’m just gonna have this f–kin’ dude come in and completely shit on me on my own album.”

I texted him and was like, “yo, just ‘Ether’ me. Go in. Don’t hold back.” I just wanted to show, what can anyone really say that changes what’s actually there? You know what I’m saying? And it was also the idea of me making this album and people writing it off, like, “I don’t give a f–k about this album; it’s Mac Miller.” I thought it was perfect. And “Red Dot” is just such a tight ass song for that to come after.

TCUS: What’s your response to people who hear your new music and go, “oh, he’s working with Flying Lotus and Ab-Soul now. I guess I have to give him a listen now.”

Mac Miller: If it was a planned attack, I would’ve been like, “yeah, this is perfect! Now they’ll like me!” I feel like some people think that’s what it was, like, “oh, I came and reached out to Flying Lotus because it would get me the cool points.” Nah, all that shit was organic as f–k. I just moved out to LA to make music, because I had money and I wanted to try and have some adventure, and I ended up hanging around all these people and we ended up making music together. I realize that reactions of other people – they matter to a degree – but they don’t really matter to me at all. It’s awesome to read something that a good journalist writes and that really gets it – that’s a great feeling – but that’s so rare.

And I’m not mad at that. How can I expect someone to really, really get it fully? Especially with my shit, which is so all over the place. As far as people saying they like it now because of those records, cool, then that was their time to come and start listening. The people that were like, “I don’t give a f–k who he works with; I don’t like it,” then it’s not their time to start listening yet. I’m not really worried. I just know that I had a great time working with these people; we made great music, and we continue to work now. I know what I’m doing; I know who I am and what I’m capable of, and I’m just excited to continue putting out music.

TCUS: A lot of times when artists release an album, they’re very careful not to play favourites when it comes to songs on the album. You took a different approach on WMWTSO, calling “Aquarium” the best song. In “Aquarium”, you rap, “confessions that I have and curiosity about life and death/ most of us will never understand it, we just like the quest.” Can you elaborate on this?

Mac Miller: I think that line came from… Whatever your substance of choice is, if you’re f–ked up or you’re sober, however you like your coffee, you’re having this deep-ass conversation with somebody about life and the meaning [behind it]. Everybody’s so focused on it. What does it all mean? What am I supposed to do? We talk through all the possible variables and all the possible paths and different things that life could be about, and you can make a great case for any side of it. You can make a great case that life is just about evolution; you can make a great case that you have a destiny and you can’t control it; you can make a great case that you[‘re in complete control], or that Jesus is everything, or that Allah is everything, or there is no [higher power].

There’s so many different things that you can make a great case for, and I don’t shut any of them down; I’m open to all of them. I think that in reality, there is no actual conclusion [to that question]. It just doesn’t exist. There’s no way. You could drink Ayahuasca or do DMT or acid, and come back to reality feeling like you’ve figured it out, but you don’t actually know anything. I think it’s just a comment on [the fact that] you don’t ever really get that answer, but we’re all so infatuated with the journey.

TCUS: Playing off that last line, “we just like the quest,” I understand you’re a big A Tribe Called Quest fan. With that in mind, this past week marked the 20th anniversary of Midnight Marauders. Tell me about that album’s significance to you.

Mac Miller: Great segue [laughs]. Ah man. Everything, dude. It’s funny, because the first Tribe album that I loved was Beats, Rhymes & Life – which is a weird one to come in on, but that was my first Tribe album. So you can imagine then when I heard Midnight Marauders, I was like, “holy shit.” I just love that album, dude. Q-Tip, to me, is one of the most creative individuals ever, and I even got the chance to work with him, which was great. I love everything [about that album]; I love the f–kin’ voice in the album – little things like that. I love the whole soundscape of that album, how they used sampling, and how Bob Power and Tip mixed that shit down. The drums sound incredible. My favourite shit about that album is that it’s this mellow, laid-back vibe, but it f–kin’ knocks. You put that in some speakers, and those drums hit like it’s f–kin’ Waka Flocka. It’s crazy.

TCUS: We’re almost at the end of another year. What does 2014 hold in store for you?

Mac Miller: Definitely some more projects. Hopefully a lot of working from home [laughs]. I think the word for 2014 is “concise.” That’s what I love about Delusional Thomas. It’s 10 tracks, right to the point, no grey area. It was a statement, and whether you liked it or hated it, whatever you felt about the statement, it was a statement. I want to approach a lot of the things I do with that mentality; whether it be a tour or a t-shirt or a song or a whole album, I want everything to be a concise message, like, “this is what this is for; this is what I’m doing here; this is what I’m saying with this,” and I wanna say a bunch of different shit, but I just don’t want to get carried away into making a 25-song album, or doing a tour that goes from January to December, when I can just do one tour that goes all over the world at the same time.

TCUS: On a grander scale, what would you still like to accomplish that you haven’t yet?

Mac Miller: So much. And that’s my favourite part. I feel like everybody thinks that I’ve [already] accomplished what I sought to accomplish, but I don’t think I’m even close to being in the same country of where I’m headed to – which is both good and possibly horrible, because my aspirations are so high for what I want to do and what I believe myself to be capable of that accomplishing anything less would be failure at this point. Maybe down the line I’ll realize that if I never get to a certain point, it’s all good, but as for right now, every time I even talk about what I’m trying to do, people are like, “alright dude, [slow down].” I’m trying to be iconic; I’m trying to become one of the greatest of all time, and I’m not saying I am one of the greatest of all time; I’m [just] trying to get better and become one of the greatest of all time – and that’s not just as a rapper, but as someone in music. I think I’m capable of becoming that; I have the dedication and willpower to do it. All I need is the time.