Alan Walker: ‘In This Industry, A Lot Of People Will Try To Take Advantage Of You’
The producer on the evolution of electronic music, the politics behind a music release and what he would be doing if he wasn’t a DJ
Alan Walker‘s path has been anything but conventional. The 21-year-old British-Norwegian DJ and EDM producer had his first gig in front of a laptop screen. Inspired by programming, gaming, graphic design, movie soundtracks, and the genres of techno and electro house, Walker learned and honed his production chops on the internet. He couldn’t have predicted the role that the online community would play following the release of his self-produced track “Fade” in 2014, and how a want to make royalty-free online gaming music would burgeon into the snowball hit that was “Faded” in 2015. Five years later, Walker is an EDM force to reckon with and with good reason. There is an unspoken resistance and solidarity in his songs, the mask a symbol of unity and resilience even as his music videos pan over urban apocalyptic moodscapes. He is striking a note with more than 2.3 billion listeners who are tuned into the melancholia and strength of the stabs, synth percussions and ripping bass that thrum beneath the 90 beats per minute of his powerful electronic melodies.
He’s the millennial success story we didn’t know we needed, banishing the trite stereotype. “I believe that anyone can relive my story, walk in my footsteps and achieve the same global success, especially with the resources we have nowadays. I learned everything through the internet. So, it’s just a matter of time before someone else lives my story,” he says. After opening for Canadian pop artist Justin Bieber in 2017, Walker was recently back in Mumbai to perform at the launch of YouTube Music India where his 30-minute set included Mumbai EDM outfit Lost Stories’ remix of “Faded” as an ode to the culture and music of the country. When he has the penciled lines of a schedule disciplining him during tours, there is scarce any time but for looking out the window during car and plane rides, and yet he makes it a point to explore the historical locations of Mumbai, forgetting work and business to be a tourist – if only just for a couple of human moments.
When we meet him, Walker is sans his Airinum mask, letting us speak with the human being behind the music. It’s not difficult to hear Walker laugh, he weaves it into the exchange, which is so absurdly normal, it feels like breathing. Walker aged 17 was a dead-ringer for most of us, stuck in school and questioning what one ought to do with their life. He intended to join the military and serve his country. If not for his music garnering attention, he just might have. He was home when “Faded” debuted on the Norwegian VG-lista chart in December 2015, steering him to at least try and find a future with music. “If it weren’t for the military, I would probably be working at the nearby grocery store,” he chuckles.
Walker’s main priorities when it comes to making music are the melody, the melancholy and the mood. “I think sometimes people focus too much on having the best drum sample or having the perfect drum beat for a song or the perfect bass line, but at the end of the day, the audience, they don’t think about whether the drums sound cool or if the bass sounds amazing, it’s all about the melodies. You won’t be singing and going around beatboxing to the beat – most likely – or trying to remember where the bass line goes. You’ll be going around trying to remember the melody of the song or the vocals. That is actually what I want to try and focus on in my music, because I’ve always been a fan of melodies,” he reveals. During production, he relies on his mood and gut as he sits down and tries to mess around with melodies: “Sometimes, I feel like I am getting somewhere and sometimes I’m just stuck with nothing. It takes a lot of time to find the perfect melody, but it’s definitely worth the time you spend trying to find the perfect melody in order to write the perfect song.”
Ask him about the legacy he would like to leave to music and he breaks into a laugh again, “I have no idea. Just this young guy, from Norway, who started making music for fun and then actually got a break with ‘Faded’ and made history.” In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Walker opens up about his influences, the genres he would like to explore and what scares him as an artist.
As someone who started off young in the music industry, with your first track “Fade” releasing in 2014, how did you combat self-doubt and naysayers in the business?
Well being young, the time when I started off was a good time because I didn’t have a job to focus on, but I still had school which, of course, is also really important (laughs), but I had more free time than the average worker would have to do just music in their free time. So, I think that was a good thing. Musicians and the producers are getting younger and younger, and with everything being so easily available nowadays, people are more aware of the fact that making music is a possibility and a source of income – no matter how old you are. This is inspiring people to start even earlier and I’m seeing people start earlier than when I did (at the age of 16). In Norway, I met a 10-year-old DJ; I think he was 9 when I met him. So, it’s pretty inspiring and cool to see how the young generation is also jumping on the producer and DJ train.
Lay Zhang graced our November 2018 cover and he had a lot of great things to say about you. What was it like to merge C-pop with EDM on “Sheep (Relift)”? What was the process behind it and how did the collaboration come to be?
It was really, really cool. Lay is super cool, fantastic and down to earth and he’s good to work with. Being able to do the “Sheep (Relift)” was amazing, and I think it was also kind of relieving for me to take a step out of the comfort zone and do something other than the typical music I have always been doing. To include Chinese and English in one song – that was very unique and the experience has been really good. It was really, really fun and I would love to do more with him (Zhang).
In Different World, your first album, there were many collaborations – Sabrina Carpenter, Steve Aoki, K-391, Emelie Hollow and more. How do you decide which musicians you want to work with and what kinds of sounds you want enmeshed with your tunes? And how do you go about compiling the album?
When it came to “Lonely,” I wrote a demo on a train trip a few years ago in China. I met Steve Aoki and we just started talking about doing a collaboration and I was like ‘Yeah, I have this demo laying around that I think sounds pretty cool,’ and I sent it to him – he loved it. We went over the track a few times, until the moment we realized it was ready, and that’s pretty much how “Lonely” or the new version “Are You Lonely” came to life. The process usually begins by sending out ideas to each other and seeing if other vocalists or producers are interested in doing the song. Then it’s just a matter of who says yes and who says no.
“Faded” is your most acclaimed track. Why do you think the song became such a worldwide phenomenon?
When “Fade” first came out in 2014 and then “Faded” in 2015 which was the next version, I think the biggest change was that in 2014 and 2015, Downtempo and 90 bpm (beats per minute) music was unheard of, no one would do that and most people would say that this song won’t do or perform well at all, because no one can dance to it, no one can listen to it, no one can vibe to it, but in truth, people can vibe to it, people can listen to it and people can do a lot of things to it, but it’s also different. People were maybe a little bit afraid of different but “Fade” did it. The song had melodies which were both melancholic and emotional and by just listening to the instrumentals, people could feel like there were lyrics with the song even though there were none. There was a kind of a story being told throughout the song even though there wasn’t really anything. It was just me messing around with the standard 4/4 chord progression and slowing it down to 90 bpm, and it sounded really, really good (chuckles).
How do you see your music evolving or changing in the years ahead and what does the future of EDM hold?
Future of EDM – very, very hard to say. It’s almost impossible to even try to give a prediction because it’s so out of control right now and I think everybody is kind of like, ‘hmm, what’s the next step going to be?’ because now the urban is dominating. I’m just slowly trying to progress my own sound image, but at the same time, trying to keep my roots, and I think I did that with “On My Way” which is the newest song with (Puerto Rican singer-songwriter) Farruko and (American vocalist) Sabrina Carpenter. It was more reggaeton but at the same time very Walker-ish, and has this lead which is very different and still makes you feel happy and good, the melody is really dreamy in a way.
As an artist, what scares you and what exhilarates you?
What scares me is maybe overworking, working too much and that’s something that comes with touring. But working too much on music in the studio, that would never be too much, because then you kind of choose when to sleep and when not to sleep. When it comes to touring, you work on a pre-made schedule every day and it’s really exhausting to keep on traveling, day by day, back and forward, here and there, getting very minimal sleep. I’m used to it, but it’s still exhausting – though I still have fun trying it.
How, then, do you find the balance?
That’s a very good question. I don’t know but I just kind of do whatever suits me. If I want to make music sometime during the day, then I do that and if I want to sleep, then I prioritize sleep because, at the end of the day, when you’re touring, sleep is really, really important, otherwise you will just be really, really tired 24/7.
You’ve often cited Tiësto as an influence and he also remixed your track “Faded” in 2015. What is it about his music and style that you connect with, and is there a collaboration in the books for the future?
We’ve been talking about the collaboration for some time now. There is nothing in the works as of yet, but he’s always been a very big inspiration to me growing up. Since I was 9-years-old, Tiësto was obviously everywhere. He has always been a big inspiration and influence, and he has always been able to renew himself in the music industry – that’s what is really incredible about him. I’m really excited and honored that he was one of the first people who actually picked up my single “Faded” and boosted it by making a remix for his tour. It was fantastic and I’m so thankful that he did it in the very beginning.
What’s currently on your playlist?
A bunch of different stuff – indie soundtracks, EDM, rap, rock. I’m usually listening to anything that could be inspiring or that could cut me off from the typical, because nowadays I’m listening to so much of electronic music. It’s so good to just cut off and listen to other movie soundtracks or rock, to listen to something that is more organic than computer made, or to listen to the piano.
With every collaboration, your style meshes with and forms a hybrid with another musician’s style. Having collaborated over many genres, is there any genre that you’re still looking to explore? Like country, perhaps?
I’ve no idea but country could be cool! It’s always possible but I’ve no idea how. That’s what is interesting about these kinds of collaborations. If you try to do a specific type of genre, you also have to challenge yourself and somehow manage to implement your sound into the sound that is intended to be.
What should budding musicians know about the music industry before they take the leap?
One thing they should know is that there is a lot of politics in the music industry. I had no idea about it when I just made music for fun, but the more you get involved, the larger a picture you get about how everything is and there is always a label behind it and management. There are a lot of voices and politics that lead up to a release on a professional level. I think that’s one thing they should be aware of because I had no idea about it, and when you handle your first contract, you should really get someone to read and check it, otherwise you’re almost always guaranteed to be screwed over. There are a lot of greedy people in this industry and there are a lot of people who will try to take advantage of you. It’s always really important to have some people who will support you and have your back in this industry.
Do you have a message for your fans across the globe?
Thank you guys, so much, for all the love and support. This journey so far has been incredible – it’s impossible to put words to it. I’m seeing love and support from all over the world. Especially here in India where I’m seeing a significant increase in support. When I check my Instagram account’s statistics, it says that 12 percent of my followers are from India and that’s number two on my worldwide list of followers. Number one is Indonesia which is also 12 percent. So, yeah, India is crazy. In general, it means the world to me and I cannot wait to show you guys what I’ve got in the works for 2019.