Alien Nation

Skrillex has built a massive following and become the face of EDM. He’s also divided the community and marginalized his fellow artists. Can he unite the genre in dance?

Skrillex is everything that’s right and wrong with EDM today. On one hand, the 26-year-old producer/DJ/label head born Sonny John Moore is proof that an underground artist can use social media to create their own fanbase, sell millions of records, tour globally, and even win mainstream recognitions like Grammy Awards without compromising or making pop hits. On the other hand, his success has created a divide in the EDM community and helped reduce what is a vast genre to something less complex than it is. It’s not Skrillex’s fault; because he’s “popular,” other artists try to replicate what he does and media, which covets his sizeable following, focuses on that particular lane at the expense of smaller, but truly talented, acts who operate outside of it. He’s walking a tightrope where he has to maintain a level of celebrity and growth while trying to lead the next group of budding producers to the forefront.

For the last five years, electronic dance music has become mainstream at a rate that’s surpassed the “electronica” phase of the late 1990s. Major labels are signing EDM stars at a much higher rate—Afrojack (Def Jam), Daft Punk (Columbia), Zedd (Interscope), and Tiesto (Republic/Universal) have all signed contracts over the last two years—or are creating separate imprints to house future dance music labels (including revitalizing the likes of Priority or 4th & B’Way, two legendary labels that released material from N.W.A. and Eric B and Rakim, respectively). 

Skrillex has been a huge part of the latest chapter of America’s infatuation with the electronic music scene, or EDM as it’s now known. In 2010, when the 140 BPM dubstep sound from the U.K. was beginning to make an impact on American shores, Skrillex’s take on the style, which featured bright melodies crashing into snarling bass lines and crushing drums on his Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP, propelled both that sound and his career to the forefront of the EDM scene, selling 2 million copies worldwide. At the time, most EDM producer/DJs were well-manicured, clean cut, and European. Skrillex was a punk rock kid from Los Angeles who was more comfortable rocking head-to-toe black and his signature haircut (long, black hair everywhere but the left side of his head, which is shaved to the skin). As a 16-year-old, he’d been lead singer for the screamo band From First to Last, which signed to Epitaph and appeared on the Vans Warped Tour. His peers had always been receptive to his music (dubstep luminaries like Skream have always given Skrillex his props), but the chin-stroking dance music fans (and, to some extent, the media) didn’t hesitate to disparage Skrillex for his distinct, intense brand of dubstep (often called “brostep” because it ushered many uninformed college bros into the scene). 

In 2012 and 2013, Skrillex swept the “Best Dance Recording,” “Best Dance/Electronica Album,” and “Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical” Grammy categories with Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, his 2011 EP Bangarang, and his remixes of Benny Benassi’s “Cinema” and Nero’s “Promises.” His YouTube page, which has over eight million subscribers, surpassed the one billion views mark in April 2013. He’s in demand, collaborating with everyone from Diplo, Ellie Goulding, and Chance the Rapper, to Usher and Ed Sheeran, and even the clothing companies MISHKA and Long. He’s part of the group that runs OWSLA, a “boutique” imprint founded in August 2011 that has become one of the more impressive record labels in the electronic music scene, launching the careers of EDM acts like Zedd, Porter Robinson, Kill the Noise, and others. The label’s regular release schedule showcases Skrillex and his crew’s ability to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s hot in electronic music as well as their tastemaking ability to forecast what will be hot in the future. He’s also broken into Hollywood. Skrillex scored Harmony Korine’s infamous 2012 youth-gone-wild dramedy Spring Breakers, made a cameo in the 2012 animated Disney film Wreck-It Ralph, and contributed sound design to Michael Bay’s new summer blockbuster, Transformers: Age of Extinction. According to Forbes, Skrillex was one of the World’s Highest Paid DJs of 2013, netting $16 million from his various ventures. 

This March, Skrillex’s first official studio album, Recess, debuted at No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Critics had mixed feelings about the effort, which ranges all over the place, from throwback dubstep sounds of “All Is Fair in Love and Brostep,” to the housier-leanings of “Fuck That,” to the quirky IDM leanings of “Doompy Poomp,” to the gritty drumstep of “Ragga Bomb.” Pitchfork said that Recess “feels more like a transitional record than a debut that plays to his strengths,” but that didn’t stop Recess from giving Skrillex his best first-week sales: 47,000 units.

"The hardest thing to do as an artist when all this other sh*t is happening

is getting into that zone where you’re almost bored.

That’s when the best stuff comes out.”

He’s achieved all of this while touring relentlessly, playing major music festivals across the globe, including Ultra Music Festival, Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Lollapalooza. His set with Diplo, as Jack U, was arguably the highlight of the 2014 Ultra Music Festival weekend. The same is true of his dazzling 2014 Coachella performance, where he debuted his audacious new “Mothership” stage setup—a massive spaceship rig designed by Skrillex, his team, and Red Bull that requires “about eight 53-foot tractor trailer trucks to transport.” In April, between Coachella weekends, Skrillex bounces around his downtown L.A. office space—going from a photo shoot, to song placement meetings, to a listening session for OWSLA’s bombastic, forthcoming Moody Good album, and finally to an interview with Complex. He sits in a chill, second-floor studio area with a flat-screen TV hooked up to several video game systems and plaques honoring his one billion YouTube streams and overseas sales. As big a deal as he is, multimillionaire Skrillex, dressed modestly in black Vans, black jeans, and a black shirt, is warm and hospitable, cracking jokes and making sure everyone else is comfortable in his space. Despite a wariness of press born out of the media’s frequent criticism of him, he answers all questions and speaks freely, giving the impression that he is genuinely invested in the conversation about his music and the EDM landscape.

You work in different BPMs and genres but people think there is a stereotypical Skrillex sound. How do you feel about that? 

A couple years ago I would get insecure. I found my tendency was to prove something, but it shouldn’t be about proving anything really, just making myself better and doing what I know. With any artist, if you just do what you do, people will realize what that is—even artists who have grown over the years, who have so many different identities. I don’t know any artists who started at one place and kept that same identity from the beginning. The artists I’ve looked up to for my whole life have all changed or switched up their sound. People who follow me will expect that. But the one thing that I’ll never let go of is the energy. No matter what it is, if I can play that live…. That’s what’s cool about my record: I was testing it live with nobody knowing it and got reactions. So that’s all that matters. Skrillex is a DJ, so it’s gotta make people move, it’s gotta make people get up and have a good time. That’s the only real criteria—the sound is second. It’s more about the energy and my personality.

You recorded Recess in bits and pieces with various artists while touring all over the world. How do you feel that affected the vibe of the album?

It was scattered in that sense. And that created what the record was, because it wasn’t like I sat down and had a concept. It was piece by piece, as much as I could work on it. A lot of people think I was gone, working on an album for two years, but I was touring so much last year and not even trying to focus on a record. I didn’t know what I was gonna release. I was flying all over the place. The most I ever worked on my record was maybe two days a week, like actually sitting down in a studio and piecing it together. With art, you have to move in the wind of the moment—you can’t overthink things and that’s the character it will have forever and that record will be that special moment, because it was done that way.

On your Reddit AMA, you said that you recorded with Chance the Rapper’s band, The Social Experiment. How was that different from what you’ve done previously?

I came from bands. I record live stuff all the time. My favorite thing to do is to produce and work with vocalists. Last night I was in [the studio] with Usher and Ed Sheeran and doing this similar thing where I had this basic track and helped them with melodies and they were writing the lyrics and getting in. That’s almost my favorite thing to do— have musicians and piece it all together. With Skrillex, before I got into synthesis, I was sampling a lot and taking pieces and remixing. I worked with bands and I worked with vocalists—I’m a vocalist myself. I feel like it’s actually a stronger point, even working with The Doors on “Breakn’ a Sweat.” All that was done on camera and had to be done in a day, tracking instruments and getting shit. And the big thing with that is being able to read people and going with the flow and not overthinking things, just having the vibe. That song [with Chance the Rapper] in particular, we just rented a studio that night, we were both in Seattle, Chance had a show, both brought the party back to the studio and that was the vibe of the song. It started with a drum loop and a basic chord progression. And then they reinterpreted that with the horns and some keyboards and I brought it back to my computer and took the bass line and chopped it up and fattened it up.

“A song’s gotta make people move—the sound is second. It’s more about the energy and my personality.”

Where did the idea to preview Recess via Alien Ride, a smartphone video game app, come from? 

The game was actually the last thing, funnily enough. I just wanted to leak the album. The thing about when records leak, it’s almost a bummer in the industry and it’s weird how it has that perception. I like when records leak at the right time and you have everyone else’s label thinking the opposite, but how do you leak the record in a cool way, in a different way? But not like, “Oh, the label fucked up and some guy at a promo event leaked it.” My idea was to leak it through a free app. The initial idea was to have an app and the countdown timer and people go, “What is this?” And assume it’s something. And then my idea was, how about we have a countdown and to pass the time, there’s a little game people can fuck around with. It came out only three days before the album was officially announced.

Were you surprised by any of responses to the album as the tracks were being previewed?

To be honest, it was the most positive reaction I’ve ever had, even in terms of people who were like, “I didn’t fuck with Skrillex before this Chance tune.” The cool thing about [Recess] is I feel like there was something for the old fans that they really liked. The biggest thing I noticed was that older fans who I don’t think are into dance culture or dance music, they don’t get the rest of the record. They don’t get “Stranger,” they don’t get “Fuck That.” They only get “All Is Fair” and “Ragga Bomb” and “Try It Out.” Those are the songs. People who may be in Middle America, who have never experienced something like electronic dance culture, say, “Oh, this is what it is all about, this is about variety, it is about dancing and nice rhythm.” Other than that, people who are in current music—and people that didn’t fuck with my sound before—there’s a lot of crossover. My record did crazy in Asia, in Korea, because of that “Dirty Vibe” record [with Diplo, featuring Korean artists G-Dragon and CL]—it’s a bit more spastic and twerky, so I think it opened up to a lot. Even other DJs are playing it, a lot of different DJs who probably wouldn’t have played my records before are playing some tracks.
A lot of people in the DJ community have been saying, “I’m still fucking with this Skrillex record, what do you got to say?” Are people beginning to get you and your music?

I guess so, man. The thing is—and it’s not to toot my own horn, and knock on wood because I don’t take anything for granted—but I’ve been selling out thousands and thousands of shows and selling records. Between all my records, prior to Recess, I sold almost 10 million units. Certain people are coming around, but I still have those fans who previously got what I was doing. The thing about it is there are a lot of people out there who don’t make their own decisions. They go to the tastemaker press that is usually highbrow and talks shit or posts about things that are going to be controversial—they know how to get hits. Readers subscribe to that shit and it molds the way they are. They don’t even have their own taste. That’s why I don’t do a lot of press. I’m going to speak to someone who’s going to give me the time of day and talk about something wholesome because a lot of press spin that. What tastemakers do is they’re programming how these kids should look, in terms of what’s cool, and I was the antithesis of that. I was the un-cool thing because I came from an underground sound but blew up. None of my shit was pop and people couldn’t figure out why it happened. I wasn’t making Top 40 records; I don’t have any Top 40 records. And I never meant to make Top 40 records; that wasn’t my goal for Recess. I’m still learning who I am as an artist, and I’m not trying to force anything. People don’t understand why I got so huge, so all they can do is hate on it and put me in a category.
It’s funny you should mention your 10 million units sold before Recess. You also have six Grammys. You’re doing extremely well by those measures, but those things don’t seem to be what drives you. Would you be OK if you were just a hype-less dude making music and throwing it up on the Internet?

Yeah, that’s what it was for both my bands, when we were right at the brink of crossing over and being huge. I’m an in-the-moment guy. I like to be happy. I like to have fun. People don’t realize how simple it is. It’s all about doing you and going back to the core of why you like making music. I’ve always made music for that kid in me. I read something so awesome the other day about what youth means. It said something along the lines of, being young, the idea of youth, that feeling, that creativity that ties into youth, is not giving in to the things that happen in society that can make you jaded. That kills your creativity and that’s when people burn out. That child in you, that’s the purest form of human. Society destroys that in a lot of ways, whether it’s peers [saying], “You’re not supposed to fucking look like that. You can’t listen to that shit. You can’t listen to Skrillex.” That shit destroys you and makes you jaded, which will inhibit your creativity and what you’re willing to take in as well as give out. And that’s something to protect as you grow up, no matter what you do in life, because that negativity, that judgmental attitude, will put a roof on you. Look at the top of the best of the best of the best: The people I know personally could give a fuck what color, black, white, yellow, dubstep, brostep, underground, overground—who gives a fuck? If you’re feeling on top of the world then you could give a fuck about what somebody else is doing. You’re being critical of something and someone else so much because you have your own insecurities. That’s the essence of it.

You and Diplo did a Jack U set during Ultra Music Festival that was arguably the best one of the entire festival. Was there a lot of practice or thought about what you guys were gonna do?

Not really. We were just like, “This is what I’m feeling, this is what you’re feeling, and we’re just gonna go up there.” We rehearsed a little bit in this little office with some speakers, we fucked around, but the whole idea, the only thing I do is say, let’s just be fun and be crazy. Let’s play loud, crazy records. This is no offense to anybody, there are some amazing producers—but I feel like, especially with the main stages, so many people are making the same sound and it’s very predictable and safe. The only thing I say is, let’s be unsafe. Let’s play stupid records, man. Let’s play stuff you don’t hear on the main stage, stuff even from TrollPhace records, to hip-hop records, to underground records, to Toto’s “Africa,” like fuck it. 

You’ve been closing with that Toto track. Does it have any special meaning to you?

That’s a song I remember from my childhood.

And you just feel like bringing it back?

Yeah, and then Emoh from What So Not started playing it and it’s kind of our song. In my sets, there’s always one of those records that I’ve been obsessed with lately that I like to play and cycle through.

How did you and Diplo go from knocking out a couple records to “We are Jack U?”

It was more like something to represent the live show. Part of it was we’ve worked so much together, we have some records we’ve done in the pipeline. We have some stuff that we made that’s going to go on the Major Lazer record together; we did “Dirty Vibe” for Recess; we have some other singles. We work together so much naturally that we might as well call it something and hone in on what that sound is—everything we’ve made has such a crazy sound, our sounds together. It feels like someone is just jacking you, like you’re getting jacked up. Jack you up, it just happened naturally, I guess.

Last year, you guys said you had four or five tracks together. Are there any plans for a release?

We don’t even fucking know yet, it’s so crazy, in terms of these days of music. Before, it was like, you sit down, you’re in a band, you record 10 songs, you release those 10 songs, and don’t do anything for two years. Now, it’s like, you’re making records so quick, you’re touring so much, but we’re just refining them right now. They’ll come out sooner rather than later. We’re going to have some shit before HARD Summer.
Do you guys ever think of doing a Jack U tour?
Do you think fans would like that?

Based on the response I saw while watching and tweeting about your set, they would fucking love it.
We’re doing some more shows, we’re definitely planning. It would be fun to tour with him regardless.

Outside of the forthcoming material with Diplo, what else have you been working on, musically?
I have a lot of stuff. I worked on some sound design for Transformers: Age of Extinction. Moody Good and I made full-on bass, dinosaur-robots-killing-each-other sounds. Just fucking noises, the craziest Skrillex and Moody Good sounds, but times 10 for that movie. There are Dinobots in this new movie, so we got to focus on that new sound.

Did you guys do music for the movie as well?
It was just sound design. I didn’t want to do music. They first assumed I was scoring but it was nice to say, “No, I don’t want to make music, I don’t want to make melodies, I just want to make crazy sounds.” It was a lot of fun sitting there geeking out with Eddie [Jefferys], who’s just a genius, one of the best sound designers in the whole game, and you heard from the stuff [we made] that he’s on that crazy level where it’s just so detailed and 3D and cinematic.

Did they show you footage from the film to create those sounds?
We didn’t have time to do the whole thing, but we did a good chunk. If we wanted to, they would’ve let us do the whole thing, they were so cool and open. We looked at scenes we could identify with immediately like, “OK, we’ll do the Dinobots.”

One collaboration that we’ve not heard much about was the material you worked on with Kanye West. How did that come together?
That was before the concept of Yeezus was even Yeezus. I was in there in the early times. We were in L.A. and we both had a show in Vegas that same night—he was on the Watch the Throne Tour. That was probably my second favorite show ever since Daft Punk. We rode a jet together and hung out, played each others’ beats, and I flipped a couple samples he had, the beats, with him. When we got to the hotel, this giant hotel suite, he was getting his hair cut and I played back and he gave me feedback and I flipped some stuff for him. It didn’t get used, it was so long ago. He sent me so much crazy stuff that didn’t even make it on Yeezus. We’ve been going back and forth for a while about getting back together again. Our schedules are just so crazy.

He’s not big on sending Pro Tools sessions, right? He prefers to be in the studio with you?
For sure. With how he rolls, it’s the best way to do it. He’s able to do that, get up and fly anywhere, which is really cool.

Do you ever plan on taking time off like that, blocking out a year or half a year to make music?
I need to. That’s my next thing, actually taking time off, because I haven’t. Even though it seemed a little slow last year, it was just so full-on with the label side of things and getting in our new building. But I want to take some time off to really reflect on everything and this is just ongoing all the time.

Will you be working or just relaxing?
It’ll be both, because [music] is fun for me. It’s different when you’re making music under the gun and there’s all this other shit going on. The hardest thing to do as an artist when all this other shit is happening is getting into that zone where you’re almost bored, which is the best thing to do. When you’re an artist and you feel bored, you look for something else to do. You try and do this, you try and do that. It’s easy to be getting shit done fast and being comfortable with what you have. But if you have time where you’re doing nothing and you just get that itch, that’s when the best stuff comes out.