Knocking down dominoes

Local DJing duo MTNMen perform around the globe

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MTNMen
Jeremy Elder

On Jan. 6, Jeff Kassel and Jake Lobel looked out over the crowd at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. The electronic dance music producing duo known as MTNMen had just wrapped up their set, opening for iconic electro producer Steve Aoki — a pretty amazing feat for a couple of University of Colorado students.

“It was a pretty unreal experience,” says Kassel, a marketing entrepreneurship major at CU. “It was the first time that we got to perform a live set instead of on computers for such a large crowd.”

In their four years playing together as MTNMen, Kassel and Lobel have since seen their names posted on local billboards and printed on flyers all over town promoting their shows at local venues such as the Fox and Boulder Theater. They’ve crossed state and international lines to perform and dropped original singles that have gotten over 230,000 plays on Soundcloud and almost 30,000 on Spotify.

But their story starts long before CU, when the two were just second graders at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Newport Beach. While they went to different middle and high schools, their shared interest in board sports, both on land and in water, kept them close; however, communication inevitably diminished over the years. It was not until they both were accepted to CU in 2015 that their expedition into music began. They would proceed to kick off freshman year as roommates in a Sewall dorm room with just a couple homemade beats and a DJ deck that Kassel brought with him.

“Jake tried all the stuff I brought with me to school, and he was good at it and he liked it,” Kassel explains. “Things just naturally took off from there.”

Once the two artists realized the strength in their dynamic and how it allowed them to maximize their musical abilities in a way that resonated with other people, they figured they should put a name on their talent. After coming up with 75 different potential names and writing them out on paper, they decided to get some outside opinions.

“We had people cross out and circle names that they thought sucked or that they liked and MTNMen was one that the majority of people seemed to be drawn to,” Lobel says. “At first I didn’t particularly like the name myself, but once people started saying how they could really visualize the big letters being on a line up, it really stuck with us as a name that could represent us well.”

It was the beginning of an odyssey.

“When we were freshmen, there weren’t that many people our age at CU who were DJing like we were and that were also so accessible, so we were getting all these requests from fraternities to come perform at these huge parties and we had no competition,” Kassel explains. “And when we realized that we weren’t fighting to be heard and people actually wanted us, we started devoting more time to it.”

Devoting more time to music paied off for Kassel and Lobel — literally. They started making commission off of their shows in no time and eventually were able to pay for their bills with no additional help from other jobs.

“I think we honestly realized our potential to make this a real thing when we made our first $5,000,” Kassel says. “That’s when we thought, OK, we can pursue this as something that pays the bills and also gives you such a high when you are doing it. It’s so much fun to make music, play it on big speakers and see people react to your expression in a positive way. Making that a job is a dream.”

Money is not the only marker of success for these two young artists. Their devotion and ingenuity when it comes to making music has been steadily rewarded with bigger opportunities and better connections. They started out playing shows in front of 400-person audiences. Next thing they knew, they were lighting up the stage at CU’s annual WelcomeFest on Ferrand Field, overlooking the majestic Flatirons and a crowd of 2,000 people. Now they can say that their sound has traveled across land and sea as they have performed multiple times in Mexico, different states all over the country and have even made it as far as Ibiza, Spain.

“It’s like dominoes — you gotta just keep knocking them down one after the other,” Kassel says.

MNTMen Shane Stolz

Despite their airtight friendship, making music as a team creates the potential for disagreements along the way. Each has their own taste and preference for music.

“I’m more a fan of more indie instrumental vibes, while Jeff likes hard dubstep and dirty beats,” Lobel explains. “But then we’re on the same page about a lot of other things, like we both prefer singers on our tracks and think that it’s more artistic when lyrics are involved. It’s all about finding a balance.”

By choosing to overcome their differences to find a happy medium, they are able to incorporate their own styles in their melodies. This resilience is evident in the evolution of MNTMen’s music. When they first started, they were fully committed to creating dubstep; however, three years later, they are changing the direction of their craft and attempting to embody an “indie future base” feeling instead.

“We used to be the ‘DJ kids’ that we wanted to be, going crazy on stage and playing all these shows and having fun,” says Kassel. “But after being able to get real life experience by living in Los Angeles together for three months over this past summer and solely focusing on music, we were able to get more into the artistic and musical aspect of things and also see how other successful artists got to where they are now by using super original beats to create something no one has heard before.”

Their new song, featuring fellow SoCal musician Griff Clawson, is set to be released on Feb. 27 and represents a huge milestone for the duo. Clawson attended the same elementary school with Kassel and Lobel when they were younger. They reconnected after the singer direct messaged MTNMen on Instagram inquiring about the potential for a musical collaboration.

After being full time DJs over the summer, the two learned more about working with live instrumentation and have been able to incorporate that into their new work. They are replacing synthesizers with live percussion instruments to generate a more acoustic feel. Lobel and Kassel say this new track is the most important in their catalog  because all the lyrics are inspired by their actual lives. They point to the “surfing vibes” that they incorporated in the new track, a musical nod to their shared passion.

Lobel and Kassel seem to be most adamant about staying true to themselves during this learning experience. They want to go through the motions of producing a track that depicts the essence of their souls and the magnitude of their personalities.

“Our overall goal is to be recognized for the qualities of our personality that we try to put in our music,” Kassel says. “We hope that it translates to the audience as something enjoyable and relatable, yet something that screams authenticity and originality — something that we can call our own.”