Growing up in Portlaoise in the 90’s, a listless town with a population of 22,000, Matthew Flanagan aka DeFeKT travelled to car shows up and down the country in search of his teenage kicks. But it wasn’t the cars that interested him so much as the CDs car-owners played in their stereos. The CDs emitted tonal frequencies tuned to amplify speakers to the point of extreme loudness which, played at full blast, would make the entire vehicle vibrate uncontrollably. Listening to the CDs at home Matt would position himself in front of his speakers, tune his stereo to amplify the bass and just sit there, absorbing the physical soundwaves.
Obsessed with noise and vibration Matt found himself buying a new speaker every time he went to a fair, reaching the point that when he did eventually buy a car, its souped-up sound system was its most impressive feature. “When I was 17 I bought this really really shit car….the car looked like shit but sounded unreal.” Matt traces his affiliation with Miami Bass and love of analogue to this phase of precocious noise experimentation. Although he didn’t know it at the time, a lot of the CDs he’d bought featured Miami Bass artists such as 2livecrew and DJ Salt. “I was just getting CDs. And there was a sound I liked. Which later I learnt was Miami, at that time I didn’t have a clue. And later I worked with a lot of Miami producers which is interesting.” In fact, Matt’s first big break releasing his own tracks in 2008 was for Miami artist Larry McCormick (aka Exzakt).
The opportunity arose when Exzakt performed in Dublin that Matt helped organise and ended up staying with him for a week. Matt made the most of having the ear of one of Miami Bass’s legends and played Exzakt some of his productions when they visited his small studio in Kilester: “He was literally god to me. He said, ‘That’s very like the stuff I like to make, sounds similar.’ So I got a release out of it.”
When Matt reveals the name of that first release, neither of us manage to keep a straight face. ‘K-Oscilate…..What was I thinking, like.” A glitchy, tightly layered electro track interspersing distorted acid progressions, wobbly laser-shaped harmonics and spacy synths, it displayed Matt’s control steering intricate productions. For a first release, its impressive.
The track was positively received and its success had a domino effect. Off the back of the initial collaboration with Exzakt Matt was invited to release an EP with the Irish label ‘Takeover’. The release of the Stimulus EP was a game-changer for Matt, garnering international attention and earning Matt the support of techno heavyweights the likes of Dave Clarke: “I was instantly getting recognition, or people were listening to me. These classic electro guys were like, ‘Oh my god, your track is amazing’”. With enviable ease Matt managed to charm his way past the industry’s notoriously selective gatekeepers and consolidate his industry reputation as a fresh yet sophisticated producer.
As he recounts his ascension Matt is upfront but never arrogant, and his sincerity offers a welcome departure from the faux-modesty usually adopted during artist-interviews. However, he is equally prone to self-derogation, taking pains to remind me throughout the interview that he was a “nerd” growing up, and at one point even apologises for talking about himself so much (I remind him that’s the point!).
A further theme which Matt continuously circles back to is that of identity and acceptance. On one hand, peer recognition came easy for him. “I never felt like I had to break in”, he says, acknowledging the attention he attracted starting out. On the other hand, despite, or more likely because of this early success, he found himself struck by imposter syndrome. “I was a guy from Portlaoise. I was into cars. Why the fuck am I doing this music? I don’t look cool.” Although big industry names were singing his praises, Matt didn’t feel at home in their approval. “At the time I didn’t feel that way, I felt like an outsider”, he continues.
I suspect this identification as ‘outsider’ is long-standing, a designation embraced, if not encouraged, by Matt himself. Reflecting on his time as a ‘heavy metaller’ with long hair growing up, Matt tells me that at weekends he preferred staying at home making music and was the self-professed “nerd of the group”. His affinity with the margins signals creative restlessness and a repudiation of conformity, a desire to never be just one thing.
Prioritizing music over his social life didn’t feel like a sacrifice because producing came to Matt naturally. “Even at an early age I loved doing this, it made me feel good. Not many things make me feel good, so I’m going to keep doing this”, he tells me.” This ease ensured that he was consistently releasing records, which Matt reckons was pivotal to building a fan-base early-on in his career. Nevertheless, his dedication came at a price, most significantly the effacement of his personal life. “I sacrificed my whole twenties for this music….. I’ve thinned out relationships. I’ve thinned out myself. I’ve thinned out friendships, I’ve thinned out family in some degree.”
Due to the physical reprieve he experienced producing tracks growing up (“It would make me physically feel well”) music has always held a healing properties for Matt, the significance of which would only reveal itself in later years. In 2016 Matt noticed he was displaying physical symptoms similar to those experienced by his father (Matt grew up watching his father struggle with MS). One year later Matt himself was diagnosed with MS, an auto-immune disease for which there is currently no cure. Like most people who live with chronic illness, Matt outlook on life bifurcated into ‘before-‘ and ‘after-diagnosis’. “It’s been a crazy journey physically, mentally. It just changed everything in my life.”.
When Matt began taking medication for MS he decided to adopt a clean and salubrious lifestyle, which included giving up alcohol. “And for Irish people, everyone fucking drinks. That was quite difficult”. However, the effects of MS fatigue can manifest in his movements being off-balance and jerky, and on occasion fans have mistaken him for being drunk at gigs.
The physical toll of MS may have forced Matt to slow down his DJing career, but he has made a very deliberate, albeit challenging decision, to find positive creative inspiration in his diagnosis. One of Matt’s latest releases, ‘Magnetic Resonance’ released in September by Winthorpe Electronics is more playful than Matt’s previous releases and provides a subtle nod, deriving its name from MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imagining) machine. The EP’s most popular track ‘Split My Mind’, whose name conjures the damage MS inflicts on the brain, is positively uplifting, and its jagged acid baseline and rapid synth melodies propels the listener forward. The EP’s artwork features Matt as Mr. Potato Head, whose appendages can be dissembled and reassembled, is intended as a juxtaposition: “It’s an opposite position to how serious the tracks are. It’s a piss-take of myself.” It’s also a figurative middle finger to the solemnity and gratuitous violence that has become emblematic of industrial techno, from which he is keen to distance himself.
Matt is only a few years older than me but at times he talks as though there were a generation between us. In spite of the playful artwork, it strikes me that Matt’s vision as a producer has acquired a gravitas usually reserved for the twilight of an artist’s career. Whereas beforehand he was focused on making “bigger tracks, tracks that do well”, Matt now hopes his music will have a positive impact and leave a legacy that shows people facing struggles (physical or mental, he stresses) that they can still thrive.
His avuncular nature becomes most apparent in his diatribe against Instagram, whose instantaneousness, he laments, deprives fans of the pleasure and hard work of proactively following an artist. Sounding more baby boomer than millennial he concedes its popularity amongst younger generations, telling me: “I get it. It’s modern, it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s for young people, it’s happening.” Upon seeing my laughter even he knows he sounds ancient and joins in giggling, “How old is that?”