Skrillex, The Darling Of Dubstep, Speaks
If it isn't clear from the cover of this month's Rolling Stone, one of music's biggest stars right now is a 26-year-old with nerdy glasses, asymmetrical hair and a serious thing for aliens. That Sonny John Moore just released his first proper album feels like a cosmic joke: The DJ and producer known as Skrillex has been cranking out recordings, selling out stadiums and winning Grammys for years now, and could fairly be called the poster child for electronic dance music's recent global takeover.
Of course, Skrillex has found success in part by ignoring designations like "studio album," releasing music at his own pace, in small doses and by creative means. His latest effort, Recess, was delivered earlier this month to fans who thought they were downloading a smartphone game.
NPR's Arun Rath recently spoke with Skrillex about sidestepping the traditional marketing machine, the loaded language surrounding dubstep and other dance music, and the lessons he's hung onto from his days fronting a rock band. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Let's get really basic and talk about your sound. "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" seems like a good place to start — when you made that, you were DJing clubs around L.A., and that song just took off.
It was crazy. That song in particular was very inspired by U.K. dubstep. During that time, Smog was a record label that was throwing events in L.A., so I was going to a lot of their shows. They were playing all these real early dubstep records; that whole culture also really inspiring to me. I made that record in my bedroom not really knowing what I was doing, but it just kind of came out.
Can you talk about what dubstep is, that sound that came out of the U.K.?
Dubstep came from grime. Grime is a style of music production: around 135 to 140 BPM, kind of urban, almost carnival-y music, but had some elements of bass and even drum 'n' bass. Guys who were making dubstep in the early 2000s — Skream and Benga and Artwork and guys like that -- were taking those elements of grime but removing the vocals and making them a little bit more aggressive. That's how dubstep sort of started.
The thing I always associate with it is the drop: that moment where the bass just kind of freaks out and you're in a different zone.
Yeah, and I think I took it to a bit more of an extreme level. But I feel like with a lot of records made for DJing, there's always some sort of buildup. Even in techno, where it's really simple, it'll be the same loop over and over again, but then the "drop" comes — and that's usually when the kick drum comes in. Or if you listen to funk and disco, the drumbeat comes in, and then all of a sudden the bass line comes in. It's a similar, dynamic way of approaching how to write music, but taken in so many different ways.
In a song like "Scary Monsters," what are you doing to make those kinds of sounds? How do you get that?
Just toying around with a lot of virtual synthesizers. I always think it's fun to make sounds that almost sound human — even though they come from a computer, there's something organic-sounding about it. That's where the "monster" thing comes from, I think: It sounds like someone's actually talking, but every one of those vowel sounds is just a lot of detailed drawing in little curves.
It's funny — when you make music, you don't really think about how you're going to explain it at the end. People are really, really into the idea of, "What were you thinking of when you made that?" And I don't really think of anything; it just happens, and it's hard to explain.
Well, you're somebody that a lot of people like to talk about, to define you and where you fit into dance music. You've been called "brostep," which was originally meant as an insult — what did that mean?
I guess it was the whole idea that girls didn't like my music, which is really funny and opposite. I think "brostep" was just a derogatory term that came from the heads, the purest dubstep fans that weren't into anything that had too much mid-range sound in it; for whatever reason, they're not into that. But then, I feel like it was either Rolling Stone or Spin who gave Bangarang a review — and it was a positive review — but they called it brostep. And Bangarang is probably the furthest thing from brostep, because the tempos aren't even dubstep tempos. So some people took it as, "Oh, it's a legit thing and it's not a negative thing." It's just a really funny word that has polar-opposite meanings for different types of people who experienced it.
Another criticism that's been directed at you is that this isn't really dance music, that you can't dance to it. "Dirty Vibe" is an interesting example; how can you dance fast enough to keep up with that?
It's all about what your preference is; people hear rhythms differently. I bob my head to it and it gets me into that zone that I intended it to be in. It's what's cool about records like that: You can interpret the rhythms in so many different ways. It kind of doesn't really sit anywhere.
That song includes some guest performers. Who are they?
G-Dragon and CL are two artists that come from Korea. G-Dragon comes from this group called Big Bang; they've been signed and putting out records in Asia since they were, like, 15. They can sing, they can dance, they can rap. They're really in their own world and so disconnected from the media over here; that's why it was really fun working with them. Me and Diplo did the track and CL and G-Dragon are the ones rapping over it. And rather than using synths on the drop, we're using all vocals, just chopping up vocals. We just wanted to do something really weird and fast and crazy.
I'm curious about the collaboration process when you work with other artists. When I imagine you working, you're by yourself in a studio with a bank of computers, just doing your thing. How do you integrate your style and work with other people?
Well I'm mixing and mastering everything myself, so that's where that part comes in. But I come from singing and playing guitar and instruments, so I love collaborating. Some people like to just get a vocal and do it all in post [production], but I'm really involved with the artist.
When I did the record with Chance the Rapper, "Coast is Clear," I recorded his entire band, The Social Experiment — live horns and keyboard solos and all that stuff. I wrote some chord progressions out, had them replay it, reinterpret it. Chance started toasting over it, and it happened really quickly in the sort of whim of the moment. But it was all of our energy together. Before I was doing Skrillex stuff, I was helping my friends record and mix their demos. The group process is half the fun.
You got your start fronting an emo band, From First to Last, when you were a teenager. How did you get from there to the DJ world?
I always loved electronic music growing up. Bjork was always one of my favorite vocalists and I loved how involved she was with the production, how she took elements of IDM and drum 'n' bass and created something really awesome and melodic. I was listening to a lot of Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails as well, so I always had this sort of love for electronic sounds. Between the ages of 15 and 16, I was making records on FruityLoops and Reason for fun, and even did some programming in my band.
And then I felt like it was time for me to leave the band. I spent two years doing it and it wasn't what I wanted to do anymore. The computer was just the way I could express myself, basically. It was just another instrument.
The release of Recess was a surprise — in fact, people first got to hear it through an app you released called Alien Ride, which was billed as a video game.
Before the video game component even came, I wanted to leak my record — but I didn't want anyone to know a record was coming out. And at first I thought about just dropping a link in a Reddit forum or something really random. Then we had this idea of creating an app that you would download and it just had a countdown timer; no one knew what it was. But I was thinking, maybe that's a little boring, and maybe some people are gonna delete it off their phones. So we're like, "How can we keep people engaged for three days and talking about it?" So we created this little video game that's actually really fun and kind of addicting.
It's an Asteroids-style game, really simple, and on the website we had the highest scores. So kids are just playing, trying to get the high score — and we're battling the kids, me and my team. But the whole time, at the top, there's a countdown timer. People are like, "What is this? What's going on?" And some people were like, "Man, I hope it's a new record." It could have been anything, so it's awesome that what they were hoping for, we got to give them.
When you make music, you don't really think about how you're going to explain it at the end.
When I first heard about it I thought, "Well, that sounds like a clever marketing gimmick" — but it's a lot more esoteric. This is kind of more for your hardcore fans, right?
Yeah, it's not to change the world. We didn't do a press release about it or anything. I put it on Facebook, let all my fans download it for free and then just gave them the record. We've never done marketing for any of my records: It's always just been announced on the day of, through my Facebook. I was planning on just doing that with this record, and then I was like, "Let's do something a little extra just for the core fans, who are gonna be stoked."
When you create something niche like that, you're gonna see the sort of people who really are dedicated to you, and that's gonna narrow down a lot of the traffic so you can actually become really engaged with these people.
You are huge now; there's no getting around the fact that you've made it big. It's kind of amazing that this is actually your first studio album.
Yeah. What does studio album mean?
You tell me.
I don't know! I didn't really do my record in one studio, you know what I mean? When you say "studio album," it feels like I went away to a studio in the mountains for a month. But it was made in so many different places — like, the Chance the Rapper record was done in Seattle after one of his shows, just randomly.
You can release music in so many different ways, and even though the mainstream media and certain people might not pick up on it because it's not through the normal avenues, it's still effective. I've put out four EPs in the last three and a half years, and probably just as many or more singles and remixes throughout those years. So I've put out the equivalent of many studio records, just in a different way.
I feel like people don't take you as seriously unless you've done a "studio record" — which is OK, but I think it's also important to not limit yourself to that, and show that you can release music and be successful in other ways. Especially in the world of electronic music, kids are so fast and prolific. They're making stuff, and then the night they made it they're playing it out live, it gets shot on a cellphone, it's already on SoundCloud. So how do you accentuate that movement? That's how I've always kind of seen things. Recess happened naturally. In the beginning, I wasn't even sure if I was gonna release an LP or what it was gonna be, but those were the songs that I wanted to put out at the time.
Does it feel weird for you to release a "studio album" in that way? To do the traditional thing?
The only thing that's weird to me is when people say that — all of a sudden, it's this thing. You definitely get a lot more attention when you put more songs together. But my core fans have never complained; when Bangarang came out, it wasn't like, "Where's the album?" Because they know that I'm putting out remixes and stuff in between. I don't think there's any right way to do it. Maybe I'll make a four-disc epic record one day, and maybe the next day I'll make a single or something.
There's so much texture, so much fine detail and layers in your music. When you're in the final stages of making an album, do you agonize over it? How do you know when you're done?
See, that's the one curse: I feel like anybody that's mixing and mastering alone, it's always hard. When I was in a band, you would write the songs, your producer would record it and that was it. When you're mixing yourself and it's all in the box, in the same place where you've made the record, it's easy to start changing stuff last-minute. So it's all about just committing to whatever you have. It can be agonizing, and there's some things that probably took longer than they should have.
Somebody once said, "A work of art is never completed, only abandoned."
That's the perfect way. I definitely abandoned this record, man.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.