Mat Zo has always made electronic music that’s just a little bit smarter than a lot of the rest. Coming to prominence in his late teens, Zo’s work within and beyond the trance genre of his origins has long pulled off the rare amalgamation of originality, technical precision and soul — all while being relentlessly danceable.
So it goes with Zo’s third LP, Illusion of Depth. Released Oct. 9, the album is out via Anjunabeats, the label founded by Above & Beyond . It was where Zo got his start with his 2013 debut LP Damage Control, which contains EDM-era classics such “Caller ID” and “Lucid Dreams” and which earned him a 2015 Grammy nomination for best dance/electronic album.
Now 30, the English-born, Los Angeles-based artist is delivering some of his best work to date on Illusion of Depth, which spans jungle, rave, melodic trance and DnB and maintains the cockiness Zo’s earlier output while also demonstrating his maturity as a producer and human. Body-movers such as “Love Songs” and “Next Chapter” will increase your already significant distress about not being able to dance at a club for the foreseeable future, while the soaring, multi-movement “Paralysis” will provide you with the emotional catharsis necessitated by this garbage year.
“I was getting really tired of how clean everything is in this corner of dance music,” Zo says of the album in a statement. “Above all else, I wanted to make an album with grit, texture, and attitude. I wanted to make a f— you statement to the safe, sugary, fluffy world of a post-EDM trance.”
With Illusion of Depth, the middle finger has been definitively raised. Here, in his own words, Zo gives the backstory of each track on the album.
“In Media Res”
This track was an exercise in simplicity. The whole idea was to create a whole track around a simple two-note motif, but keep it interesting throughout. I tried to create interest by constantly fading between 16th note and triplet timing and also by introducing new sonic elements throughout. A huge inspiration came from Wolfgang Gartner‘s track “Menage a Troi.”
“Love Songs” is a journey back to 2004, around the time I started making music. I had the vocal sample sitting on my hard drive for a couple of years, and I always kept going back to it just playing chords on top of it, trying to figure out what to do with it. One day I was listening to “Another Chance” by Roger Sanchez, which was an old favorite of mine, and I realized some of the ideas from “Another Chance” would work really well with that sample. I wouldn’t say I ripped it off completely, but I definitely borrowed a lot from “Another Chance.”
“The Next Chapter”
This track is a total homage to prog trance in the ’00s. That was when I was first getting into making trance and at the time it was all about big basslines and minimal synths. I took that vibe and gave it a more up-to-date energy. I also updated the mix a lot for the album version.
“Problems” feat. Olan
A big part of the conception of the album came from working with Olan. She’s a highly skilled singer, songwriter, and producer and we’ve known each other for years. We had been in the studio working on a bunch of material before this, and that helped us grow a common musical identity. When it came to writing this album, we were already comfortable with each other. This allowed the songs on the album, to be honest, opposed to a bunch of toplines plastered on top of already formed tracks. Every song we wrote together is personal, sincere and holds a lot of meaning for both of us.
Olan adds: “’Problems’ was a song that came together seamlessly at the time. We wrote the entire song in a day, but its meaning and depth wasn’t clear to me until recently. It feels like a conversation with myself or some inner spirit that’s trying to find some neutral ground or peace when I’m overwhelmed by things I can’t control. The lyrics seem to be about accepting things as they come and trust the voice in my head that tells me to keep trying my best.”
This little track is a bit of an oddball. I wanted to make something with the energy of “Song 2” by Blur, but with the sonics of Chemical Brothers and Soulwax. I think of it as a nice bit of relief, since it’s the first live-sounding track after a bunch of very electronic sounds.
“Fly While You’re Still Free”
This started as a sample I ripped from YouTube, but the quality of the sample wasn’t good enough, so I changed the lyrics a bit and sang it myself. At the time of writing it the world felt like it was heading into troubling times. No one knew what was coming, but we could all sense that something bad was around the corner. With this song, I wanted to capture that feeling, but instead of framing it in a doom and gloom perspective, I wanted to capture the feeling of the last moments of freedom in a beautiful way.
Once again returning to the sounds that I first fell in love with, “Petrushka” is another homage to ’00s prog trance. The name “Petrushka” came from my childhood cat who was named after the ballet by Stravinsky.
Petrushka the cat had a bit of a tragic story. Petrushka once lived with three gay men, one of whom was our downstairs neighbor, but he was left all alone with a cat after his two other lovers left him. The cat reminded him of his ex-lovers, so he gave the cat to us and my dad named him Petrushka. Our neighbor never seemed to recover emotionally from being dumped by two guys at once, and Petrushka was a pretty miserable cat.
This track was almost on my second album, Self Assemble, so it’s pretty old. I held off on it for years until I was confident enough to execute the idea successfully. It’s a bit of a tradition in my albums to have a token 2step garage track, so this is the token garage track on IOD.
“Colours” feat. Olan
I really like the way this turned out. I always get my best results when I start with a full-formed song and then use that as a sample. “Colours” was a song I wrote with Olan a few years ago, and I took that reworked it into what you hear today.
“Paralysis” feat. Olan
This is by far the most meaningful track to me on the album, also the oldest. I wrote it in 2015, and it originally had a synthetic vocal. I later got Olan to sing it and she absolutely nailed it. The lyrics are the most personal lyrics I’ve ever written. In short, it’s about dealing with my own mortality and the transience of everything.
This track is built around a really simple, almost pre-renaissance sounding melody. It’s almost on the verge of being corny, so I had to be really careful to not let it drift into cheeseball territory and keep it somewhat psychedelic. That said, I did want it to be a really positive end to the album since my last album had a really somber, almost depressing finale.