Skrillex: The Mainstream Heretic
On his maiden tour of India this month, EDM biggie Skrillex wants to check out fresh, new electronica acts on the local circuit. As he readies for his visit, the producer opens up to Shiva Soundsystem’s Nerm about how he went from
being the darling of the underground to become a controversial mainstream icon
Skrillex is a divisive figure; possibly more divisive than any other electronic music artist today. Originally finding musical solace as the vocalist of American post hardcore band From First To Last in 2004, Sonny Moore shed the skin of the frontman three years later in search of another musical expression, and soon enough, morphed into the electronic, international behemoth we now know as Skrillex. His organic rise from the guy who brought dubstep out of London basements and into American stadiums, to the guy that produced Justin Bieber’s coming-of-age hit, “Where Are Ü Now” is an interesting one.
After he left From First To Last, all Moore did for the next one year was upload electronic demos on his MySpace page, and lose no opportunity to perform, even if it meant playing at a small local venue or touring as a supporting [read: almost non-descript] act with other relatively bigger artists. In 2010 Moore released his first official release as Skrillex — the EP My Name Is Skrillex — and quickly followed it up with a second EP, and this time on Deadmau5’s label, Mau5Trap.
Things exploded from there. I first heard his music when I was presenting my show on BBC Radio 1 in the UK around the same time. UK Dubstep pioneer Skream had just remixed La Roux’s “In For The Kill” and it was on heavy rotation across national airwaves. It was a track that bought an entirely new genre to the masses. A few weeks later, Pavan Mukhi from UK hip hop and bass group Foreign Beggars gave me a new remix of “In for the Kill” by Skrillex. I didn’t quite know what to make of it; it was so different. Totally aggressive and alien, but at the same time entirely accessible.
I got to ask Skrillex about it — and chew his ear off with a lot of other drunken nonsense — first at his surprise appearance alongside [UK drum ‘n’ bass act] Chase & Status at The Nest, a tiny club in East London and then when he was playing back to back with [English dubstep producer] Caspa at the much larger London institution, Fabric. Since then Skrillex has racked up six EPs and one studio album to his name, not to mention a load of remixes and collaborations. I looked forward to chatting with him again in London ahead of his Asia tour, especially because he’d just done the unthinkable, even blasphemous as some would say — made pop star Justin Bieber credible.
Hey! Long time! So let’s get the obvious question out of the way: Have you been to India before?
Not even on a layover or in-transit or something?
Nope, not at all man. To be honest, I’m really excited about the shows, but I’m just stoked to be there. I’ve heard so many great things about India.
Your boy Diplo came out to India last year with Major Lazer, also for VH1 Supersonic Arcade. Did he give you any tips or pointers?
Actually, you know, half of Major Lazer got really, really sick, and I have quite a strong immune system; I’m hardly ever sick so I’m a little bit concerned! I don’t know what’s going to happen in India; maybe it’s my time! So yeah, the advice was “Watch what you eat!”
Well, I guess you could consider it a rite of passage!
You said in an interview recently about how you adapt your sets to where you are in the world. So if you were in New York, you’d play a lot more hip hop, while in London, you’d switch that out for drum ‘n’ bass. What the hell are you going to do in India?
I don’t know man! I’m always inspired by where I’m at, so who knows? I’m kinda open and always draw stuff from where I am — musically, culturally and geographically. I mean I don’t get to play much Bollywood or sample elephants in the States!
Haha! What about more contemporary Indian music; have you heard any of the new artists coming out of India? There are so many amazing new artists.
You should put me on! Send me some stuff after this?
Of course! There’s a whole load of artists you should check out. Nucleya, who’s opening for you, has done an amazing job of combining bass-heavy sounds with folk music in a way that is totally infectious. And there are artists like B.R.E.E.D, Sound Avtar, Func and SICKFLIP — I’ll hook you up for sure. Speaking of artists of Indian origin, you worked with Pavan from Foreign Beggars on your first EP. How did that come about?
Random shit! I’ve been a fan of Foreign Beggars forever, but in 2010, I travelled to Europe by myself — no one knew who I was — and I was staying with [the electronic/bass music act] Noisia in Groningen out in the Netherlands. Pavan was living with them too, working on projects, and we just did the record while I was out there randomly.
So, totally organically?
Yeah, absolutely. Pavan helped hook up this whole India thing too, so I’m glad!
“I make records in hotel rooms; in fact, some of the best tracks I’ve made have come about that way — in weird places!”
Big up the [media agency] Arms House crew! On that organic, self-made vibe — you’ve been doing it all on your own since you were 16. You’ve been a DIY person since you started out, and now you’ve got access to massive studios all over the world. Has that changed things for you?
Not really. I haven’t really changed the way I work. I make records in hotel rooms; in fact, some of the best tracks I’ve made have come about that way — in weird places! I don’t like relying on a big studio or anything like that. I like being in the whim of the moment and seeing what comes out of it, you know?
You’re a fan of [British electronica producers] Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, who are known as hardcore synthesiser and audio-hardware geeks, whereas you prefer to work ‘in the box’ on your laptop. Have you dabbled with those strange machines with blinking lights, wired together to make noise? Like modular synths or anything like that?
I try not to plan anything — I was with Diplo at [Canadian Rock band] Arcade Fire’s house and I wrote a hook on a xylophone — I’ve never played one before but I just like use stuff that’s in front of me. So I’ve used hardware a little bit. I don’t like relying on hardware because it’s not always around, you know? I like having an idea on an airplane and just make it on my computer real quick, on the spot. I’m a fake geek! People think I know a lot about stuff but I really don’t; things like mixdowns and EQ [equalisation] and all that stuff is kind of secondary compared to the vibe of the record. Maybe that’s something I’ll get to down the road. I respect it a lot but it’s all about capturing that vibe, right then, for me.
In terms of how you produce, is it fair to say that the way someone like [American hip hop producer] DJ Shadow would use a crate of vinyl and search of samples, you use YouTube and the web as a virtual ‘record crate’?
Absolutely man! I mean, for me, a lot of times one little vocal sample from a random video on YouTube would influence an entire track. Like the girl’s voice I used on “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” saying ‘Yes, oh my gosh” pretty much set the whole thing off — it inspired the rest of the track.
You’re an artist that’s constantly looking to the future — to new music. Do you ever get a bit nostalgic? Like taking a bath in entire discographies of the past — for example when you worked with [rock legends] The Doors?
It’s crazy because I love new music and there’s so much new music out there but a couple of years ago I got crazy into [celebrated American jazz/blues singer] Nina Simone, [Canadian musician] Leonard Cohen and [Scottish rockers] the Cocteau Twins. I listened to every single record. Right now I’m really into songs and melody and there’s just timeless music out there that is so strong, you know? With the Justine Bieber record — we made sure the song was the strongest thing and everything followed that. I think with electronic music for the dance floor and DJ tools — it’s kinda in the moment and has a real shelf life which is great, because it’s always about the freshest new sounds, but when you tie that together with a real song? That’s when it becomes something more and that’s the way dance music is going now.
That’s kind of going full circle for you, right? Going from bands to electronic music to back to song-based music? I mean, for me, I was into death metal and when I heard drum ‘n’ bass for the first time — [English drum ‘n’ bass pioneer] Goldie’s “Saint Angel” in particular — I was sold. That was the future. What was the one electronic track for you that caused that leap?
I listened to a lot of electronic music forever like hip hop and sample-based stuff, and even [American Rock outfits] Nine Inch Nail and Marilyn Masons with a lot of electronic influence. But it was when I saw [French Electronica duo] Daft Punk play in 2007, I was like, ‘Yo, this is the best thing you could do!’ It was more than just the music and the live show; it was the fact that you looked around and every type of person was there. I came from the screamo scene and I loved the music, but the scene was so opposite to what punk rock was, which was all about being yourself. And I’m not judging people, but it became so pretentious and some people at the shows were too cool for school. Almost like the new jocks. I’m not generalising that everybody was like that. It was just when I saw Daft Punk, everyone was so happy and no one cared where you were from.
That’s interesting, because as you’ve gone from the underground to the mainstream, you’ve also come under fire from the same sort of cliquism from the dance music world. Do you give a shit?
No way! You can’t care about what people say about you! Honestly, if you’re an artist and you cause polarizing opinions, that’s awesome. You know what’s worse than being hated on? Creating something that no one even notices. If it has an effect on someone, you did something there. That’s what art does. That’s how you can measure its validity, in my opinion. The fact that it does something to culture, or change the way people think and go, ‘What the fuck is this?’, whether they love it or hate it. When no one even notices it? That’s bad art.
Art doesn’t have any rules, music doesn’t have any rules and if there are any, you should break them all the time and not be afraid of doing that. And that’s what electronic music has allowed people to do; the distribution chain is broken, you can make what you want and get it out there. Even visual arts, fashion and design have become more open because of the Internet.
On the flip side, how do you deal with going from being, like you say, an artist, to essentially a celebrity? That must piss you off?
You know, you can look at anyone’s life and it’s never perfect every single day. And if it was, it’d be pretty boring. You need challenges. I think it comes naturally when you’re doing so much stuff. To be honest, I don’t think about it too much.
You know, the times I’ve met and hung out with you — and also through our mutual friends I know this — you’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and you maintain that. How do you not let your ego affect you?
I mean, a lot of people ask me that and I don’t know. Would you let it affect you?
I think, in the past, I probably did. In brutal honesty, especially when I was younger. Now I can look back and say that. But you seem untouched by it and that’s awesome.
You know, I’ve been doing music for a long time but I haven’t changed anything. I don’t have an excessive lifestyle — I mean I spend on things to expand what I’m doing — but I’m doing the same things I always was, I have the same friends and haven’t changed my lifestyle. I’m pretty simple. My friends from LA are the ones that keep me real and the ones I care about most.
(Nerm is a broadcaster, DJ and the founder of London-based collective Shiva Soundsystem)
This article appeared in Rolling Stone India Issue 0092: October 2015.