Air Max '97 has become the figurehead of, or at least shorthand for, a certain sound in Australia. It wasn't like it all happened by accident, but it's not like he really plotted it either: it's just a testament to how far good work — relentless work — can propel someone.
There are constant tours — Asia, America, Europe — coupled with an even more constant stream of mixes and remixes. Before that there was club ESC, a night which ran for a year, a satellite connection to the global club underground. And if any producer of a certain ilk comes to Melbourne, Air Max '97 is likely to fill one of the support slots. This month: Oneohtrix Point Never and Fatima Al Qadiri, days apart.
He leverages his position productively, using his reach to lend momentum to other artists. The clearest example of this in practise is DECISIONS, a record label he started last year. As DECISIONS, he released Waterhouse's Empty Gallery in March. Next up, another Air Max cut: the HPE EP. It will be DECISIONS' third offering, and Air Max's fifth release. There's a fourth to come soon, from Sydney's Jikuroux.
We meet Air Max (Oliver in this setting) to talk about some of these things, but more about what was going on before all this happened — he was a relatively unhappy artist — and whether he's happy now. He drank a whole litre of coconut water while we were talking, which probably isn't good for you.
When you decided on the name, did you just anticipate becoming famous enough that Google would divert to you, not the shoe?
No! I didn't think about that at all. I think I'm fond of ambiguation. A lot of people think I'm a sneaker-freaker too, I'm not.
What's the difference between you and Air Max '97?
I don't think there's a lot of space between the two. The way I try and conduct myself in my practise as Air Max '97 is the same way I'd like to conduct myself as a person: as in, it's true to who I am and my ethics. It's not a character or a parody. Because the name is appropriated from a big corporation, I see that it could be viewed as insincere. Actually, I'm a very sincere person. It's not ironic, it's not a persona.
Have you been strategic in your career, or lucky?
Lucky? It's been very organic. I used to focus on making art and doing exhibitions. Music was this thing I'd do on the side, as a treat for myself. Then I burnt out with art, so I embraced music a bit more. I put some stuff on the internet, and that got a very small ball rolling, which has since snowballed and become something bigger. I guess I've learned some business sense along the way.
It's not your natural instinct?
I don't know. Maybe not — I think Pisces aren't very good with money. It's been easier to develop a business sense with music than it had been with art. I feel like in contemporary art that was always this elephant in the room, whereas with music, the financial side of it is a little more straightforward.
So music is easier for you, in general.
Yeah, it is. I've been thinking about it a lot. I've found myself describing it to people by saying I have a more healthy relationship to my creative practise as a music producer than I did as an artist.
Is that because of the mechanics of the industry, or because the things you're making are easier to produce?
It's a combination of stuff. There still are existential crises all the time, but they're less frequent and less intense than with art. I'm easier on myself with music than I was as an artist. There's just a better ratio of energy in and energy out. I feel like I invested so much in art — financially, socially, emotionally, intellectually — and it sometimes felt like I was just hollering into a dark void. The rate of return kind of felt like, nothing. With music, I feel like I get out what I put in.
You put out other people's music now, too.
Yeah — but I don't like a lot of music. It has to be just right for me to like it. There's a thing that I could potentially release right now that on paper makes a lot of sense. But I'm not 100 percent passionate about the music. So I don't think I can release it. It's the same with DJing. I realised at a certain point that the one thing I need to never do is stop playing music that I love, 'cause otherwise what's the fucking point? I guess that means there's a ceiling to what I can do and where I can go. But I would rather have that ceiling and remain passionate about what I'm doing than like, change what I'm doing to make it appeal to more people but be miserable. I think there's definitely a ceiling for me in Australia, and I'm struggling with that quite deeply.
Do you anticipate it being necessary to leave?
I don't know. There's a lot that I'm really fond of about Melbourne, and the friends in Australia that I work with. It's a blessing and a curse, being over here. I was just in the US for a month — it's cool for it to be kind of special and exceptional when I'm there. But then I go to LA and everybody is just around. I can just have a conversations with people — like Kelela or Prince William or whatever. Experiencing that is a bit sad because like, if I lived there that would just be my community. It is super difficult to have genuine creative relationships with people remotely. I don't really know if I need to move or not. I'm open to it, but conversely, I don't want to take Melbourne for granted because I've lived overseas before and it was a fucking struggle. It's very traumatic to move city and country. If I'm going to do it again I want to make sure I'm properly prepared.
Do you think HPE is fun to listen to?
Oh my god. It's hard for me to know what it would be like for anybody else. I've been putting it on to help myself get to sleep. It's a very intense record for me because it documents this moment of anguish. I was having a really hard time when I was writing this music — a bad breakup, kind of getting to the end of my tether with a lot of stuff, and three people in my life being like "you should go to therapy" and me being like, "ah okay, yeah I probably should." Then going to therapy.
And they were right?
Yes! It is so important. I can't believe it took me this long. I'm a whole new person. The record documents that rock bottom, and then this new sense of becoming. But it is very squeezed and choked and splintered — it's intense.
And you listen to it to fall asleep.
I'm somebody that listens to my own music and plays my own music in the club, but I know there are some people that don't, and I find that hard to understand. It's hard to describe what listening to my own music does for me, but it's important.
Are you an extrovert of an introvert?
Maybe somewhere in between. I think I'm better one-on-one than in a big group. I think of myself as more introverted but then I surprise myself when I'm around other people.
You do seem able to maintain a lot of satellite relationships around the world.
I've been doing that all my life though. Like, reaching out through the internet to find friends, or a sense of belonging, or nourishment or something.
So, your reasons to live are something like friends, travel, music —what else?
Love, becoming, family, laughter, feelings, the sun —
— you're going wild.
There are a lot of reasons to live! I feel like I've been more alive in the last two years of my life than I ever have been.
HPE drops Friday June 17th. Catch Air Max '97 on tour:
June 17th, Melbourne, DECISIONS3 Launch @ The Sub Club
July 1st, Berlin, BOO HOO @ Ballhaus
July 22nd, London, Tropical Waste @The Waiting Room
July 28th, Osaka @ Circus
July 30th, Tokyo @ Circus
August 5th, Taipei, UnderU @ KornerAugust 6th, Seoul @ Cakeshop
Photography JT De Mallory