Popular music becomes harder to wrap your head around as you get older, but shit’s so weird these days that you don’t even have to be that old to find yourself flummoxed by it. The majority of people in their forties don’t get Taylor Swift, lots and lots of thirtysomethings are baffled by the success of Drake, and plenty of twentysomethings can’t wrap their heads around Fetty Wap.
But there’s something special about the extent to which no one gets EDM. The term itself is a strictly American invention; in the rest of the world, it’s just called dance music. (It’s like how only we call it “soccer.”) But a rose by any other name would still be worth the $6.9 billion the genre raked in 2014. This year, Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival drew more daily visitors (135K) than Coachella (99K), yet the media focuses almost exclusively on the latter.
Here’s another example: During a recent visit to Charlie Rose’s bat cave, the first question posed to Sonny Moore and Wesley Pentz, aka Skrillex and Diplo, aka the duo Jack Ü, was, “Do you think of yourself as musicians, or something else?” Say what? For real? We’re really still having the are-computers-instruments debate from the ’90s?
For the record, I think Skrillex and Diplo are awesome (well, mostly). And I drink my morning coffee with Charlie Rose nearly every day. It is no small feat to explain EDM to that guy, let alone his audience. Skrillex and Diplo did their level best, but their were a lot of unspoken questions (and answers) left hanging in the air. Here is an abridged transcript, with my suggested additions in italics.
Charlie: Do you think of yourself as musicians, or something else? You don’t play guitar like Bruce Springsteen or trumpet like Miles Davis. How is it possible you could make actual music then?
Diplo: In 2015, you have to be able to have one foot in creating the music, and also in the creation of the media around the music … It’s bigger than just getting a guitar and putting something together. In addition to all the software for making music—actual music, Charlie, it’s the cat’s pajamas—these newfangled computers make videos and graphics and even run light shows. It’s like having all four Beatles, Brian Epstein, Abbey Road Studios, and the art director for the Sgt. Peppers’ cover all in one machine. Plus, it’s connected to the cloud. You’ve heard of the cloud, right?
Charlie: What has made [EDM] so popular? It’s huge, a $6.9 billion industry. And yet, no guitars?
Skrillex: The timing, the internet, being able to share media, happened at the same time that computers and music programs are so accessible to people like us who are younger, which, unfortunately, Charlie, is not something older folks are going to understand, given that AOL still has 2.2 million dial-up subscribers in 2015.
Charlie: But it also has huge energy. It’s almost as if it were real music.
Diplo: As producers, our job is … to make the loudest, the craziest, the next, the biggest—something that you haven’t heard before. As compared to most other forms of conventional pop music, which are exceedingly safe and formulaic and made by committee, which, come to think of it, is what most EDM sounds like these days, too.
Charlie: Let’s talk about forming Jack Ü … it is rather extraordinary for two people who are really, really good to come together. Often what you have is two people become really good and then they split. Like, say, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, or John Fogerty and Creedence, or Loggins and Messina.
Diplo: Electronic music is collaborative. [We’re] always mixing music with things you wouldn’t expect, like a rapper, a rock singer, a country artist, someone who does pop. It’s kind of like when Michael Jackson worked with Eddie Van Halen for “Beat It,” or when Frank Sinatra sang with the 5th Dimension. Have you seen this clip, Charlie? Look at this clip. This clip is insane.
Charlie: What makes Justin Bieber tick? You guys are young and tattooed and probably on drugs 24/7, right? What’s up with that?
Diplo: I dunno, man.
Skrillex: Maybe at a certain point when you’re surrounding yourself with people who aren’t conducive to things you should be doing, it can throw you. The music business is so full of people who will just suck the life out of you until you’re dead—vampires, viruses, choose your metaphor. That Taylor Swift seems invulnerable to this makes her so much creepier, when you think about it.
Charlie: You tour what, 300 shows a year?
Diplo: Yeah, about that. This weekend me and him both did 15 shows between Thursday and Sunday. That’s one of the advantages of not lugging an army of stage hands, musicians, and instruments around the country just to play one gig. All you really need is decent WiFi.
Charlie: Sometimes the audiences are as big as 100,000 people? 100,000 people!? You’re telling me this many people want to listen to the sound of circuit boards and microprocessors? I assume that’s what this music sounds like—the floor of a factory or something.
Diplo: That’s what most people who don’t understand this or any music say—that it all sounds the same to them. It’s the most common thing you hear from anyone about any type of music they’re not familiar with. Think about your favorite genres of music and how little you knew about them when you first heard them, compared to how much you appreciate them now. Electronic music is the same way.
Charlie: How are you changing? Have you thought about your future? What do you want to be when you grow up? Will you ever get a real job?
Skrillex: When we first started breaking into the scene, a lot of credible people who are musicians considered us musicians, but, like, the media and the outside world didn’t. Now I think people trust us a little bit more, because we are multi-millionaires who draw bigger crowds than most of the artists on the Top 40 combined.
Charlie: Your sound is starting to cross over.
Diplo: People are starting to cross over to our sound, yes.
Charlie: How do you measure success?
Diplo: I want music to give me goose bumps, when I listen to the record that I made. Also, the aforementioned money and enormous popularity is nice.
Skrillex: Where we really shine, and what this thing’s all about—DJing, what we do—is we’re curating the soundtrack to this amazing live experience, and this is really important, because if you haven’t seen one or both of us live and actually felt what it’s like to be a part of that experience, then you are missing out one of the quintessential live music experiences of this century. It’s like turning down tickets to see the Rolling Stones in 1964.
Charlie: Wes said of Sonny that there is no precedent for what he’s doing and what he could do.
Diplo: He’s the first guy I met in this DJ world that has a rock star presence. He’s from a band, so he can handle himself onstage.
Charlie: Is that just natural or does that come from being a musician onstage—you understand movement, you understand presence, you understand how to relate to an audience?
Skrillex: There you go with the musician shit again.
Diplo: [To Skrillex] This is going well, I think.
Skrillex: [To Diplo] Sure, but he hasn’t asked about drugs yet.
Charlie: What was it like taking over the Garden? Madison Square Garden? Normally they play basketball there, or sometimes Billy Joel performs.
Skrillex: It was a good bucket list thing. Check it.
Charlie: Yeah, check it. What else is on the bucket list?
Diplo: Do Charlie Rose’s show.
Skrillex: Do Charlie Rose’s show.
Charlie: One of the interns here told me that [y]ou also have a reputation for being able to spot trends. What does that mean?
Diplo: There are a lot of kids in our scene. It’s not limited to just dance music. A lot of rap music, underground rock music—it’s all part of our scene right now.
Skrillex: And done the same way. Young kids in hip-hop, or music you can’t put a genre on—it’s made the same way we make it: It’s made in our rooms with our friends. Nothing’s fancy, we don’t need these suit people around checking up on us.
[Charlie smiles and taps the table in approval, then looks to gently caress Skrillex’s hand.]
Charlie: What about drugs?
Skrillex: [To Diplo] See?
Charlie: This is what the Guardian wrote: “Molly’s ascent to the mainstream lexicon has roughly coincided with the ascent of Skrillex and the clumsily named electronic dance music (EDM) to the top of the U.S. dance music charts.”
Diplo: It’s his fault [points at Skrillex].
Charlie: You’re responsible for the ascent of Molly?
Skrillex: No, I’m not, because I make music and don’t sell drugs. I don’t condone drugs and I don’t use drugs. I do it for the music. Right now I’m going to dissemble for a minute about LSD’s relationship to psychedelic rock, cocaine’s relationship to disco, and ecstasy/Molly’s longstanding relationship to electronic music, which extends back 30 YEARS at this point. The level of international hand-wringing about rave culture’s particular association with MDMA is and always has been blown way out of proportion. Nearly half the songs on country radio are about getting drunk while driving trucks, yet you never read about country music’s alcohol problem. Please stop scapegoating EDM as the only type of music whose fans get dangerously fucked up and sometimes injure themselves. Getting too fucked up and injuring yourself is part of the history of every genre of music, even seemingly innocuous genres like jazz (ask Chet Baker) and classical (Beethoven was a drunk).
Charlie: Where do you think you and the music will be in 5 years? Do the names Z-Trip, Sasha & Digweed, or Darude mean anything to you?
Diplo: Everything we’re doing is growing … I’m just happy people are paying attention. The fact is, tech bros, hedge-fund managers, and the women who date them—our core audience—all those dudes are loaded, and if they’re willing to spend $10,000 for bottle service at a Vegas club to hear music whose long history is completely lost on them, then hey, I’ll take their money and build a music empire with it that circumvents the traditional label structure. That works out well for everyone. Even you, Charlie.
Skrillex: I believe that artists like us are at a renaissance of how you can create art and music through technology. And that’s awesome. That can lead to anything, including Miley Cyrus, but you take the good with the bad.
Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He’s @gkamps on Twitter.