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Stories from a Pro: Skrillex
With four EPs, six GRAMMY Awards (including Best Dance/Electronica Album), 300 shows a year and a long-awaited debut album on his plate, Skrillex is the biggest—and busiest—dance producer on the planet.
He's remixed Lady Gaga, La Roux, Bruno Mars and more, and has recorded with the surviving members of The Doors. He also swears by Ozone for "tightening up your mix," and loves to mess around with Trash.
Sonny Moore, aka Skrillex, is ensconced in a plush recording studio in downtown Los Angeles, calmly awaiting the arrival of a pair of rock legends. A film crew is there to document the moment—one of five segments that will end up in director Amir Bar-Lev's Re:Generation, a documentary tribute to our modern obsession with electronically manipulated music, as seen through the eyes of some of its top producers. As Skrillex preps an agro-dubstep beat to blast over the monitors, we suddenly catch a glimpse of his guests: Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek, also known as one half of The Doors. Later in the day, drummer John Densmore is expected to drop in, making this the first time all three will have played together on a track in more than 30 years.
"At the time I started making electronic music, it wasn't a certain scene," Skrillex says. "It was just something we liked to do. The Doors, I felt like they were the same way. There was no plan. They just made music and they were themselves. They were like, in the Amazon with a machete, just chopping away, just going for it and not really knowing where they were going. So we really connected, and I think we made a really good record."
For Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore, the session was little more than a loose jam, but Skrillex set about chopping and screwing a few select loops into a finished song called "Breakn' a Sweat," one of the more tribal-sounding highlights of his Bangarang EP, released last December. It's just a taste of what the 24-year-old L.A. native has tapped into since 2007, when he quit his gig as frontman for the screamo-thrash outfit From First To Last to devote himself full-time to DJing and producing.
Drawing inspiration from the nu-school work of Flux Pavilion, Doctor P, Noisia and other artists from the UK and Europe, Skrillex has virtually remade dubstep—a club-ready amalgam of dub, drum-and-bass, speed garage and other alt-techno styles—into a sound all his own. His toothy synth lines dominate the midrange, and can cut through a packed dance floor like a samurai sword through butter. Both his splashy snares and floor-scraping drops (the essential "hook" in dubstep) figure prominently in a production style that's sleek and metallic, but also free-spirited and accessible.
Beyond the music, what's incredible about Skrillex's rise—he was nominated for five GRAMMYs this year, including Best New Artist—is that his notoriety is almost exclusively fan-driven, with little-to-no marketing muscle behind it. He released his 2010 debut EP My Name Is Skrillex for free on his MySpace page, and followed that mere months later with Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites(released officially through Deadmau5's Mau5trap label, in a joint venture with Big Beat Records), which took over Beatport's Top 10 within days. One standout track from that EP, "Kill Everybody" (more than 25 million plays on YouTube to date), showcases Skrillex's signature "talking" synths—a staple of his live set, and a big part of why his Mothership Tour was one of the biggest-selling traveling road shows of 2011.
"It was 322 shows in 2011—almost every night!" he says, feigning exhaustion. It's clear he thrives on the energy. Watching Skrillex for any length of time, even in relaxed interviews, is a study in kinetics: he's always moving, always listening and always thinking of his fans when he brings them a new idea, whether it's on his laptop or during one of his epic sets. "It's crazy, and it's not easy. It's like having a child. I haven't had a child, but I've heard people talk about kids. You're up all night, you don't sleep, and there's a lot of attention. You have to feed them when they need to be fed, and you have to wake up when they need your attention. You just have to be there—they're so precious and fragile and cute, and it's also the most rewarding thing ever."
"If somebody is calling you a sellout, usually it's a regurgitated word that people use when you get big."
You've said, "There's no such thing as a sellout anymore. People don't make millions of dollars making records." It's an interesting observation, given that you've taken some heat from the "dubstep underground" for sounding too commercial. Does any of that even bother you?
I don't know exactly how I was quoted. I mean, you can definitely sell out in the sense of doing something outside of your own personal integrity, you know? But at the end of the day, man, if somebody is calling you a sellout, usually it's a regurgitated word that people use when you get big. Those people aren't real fans. The minute anything gets big, they don't really give a fuck about it after that anyway.
I guess what I was trying to say is in these days, it's hard to make a living doing music. There aren't million-dollar budgets flying around from record labels, and no one is selling multi-platinum records, so it's a blessing if anybody can make a living doing music at all. So you do what need to do to be happy, but there's plenty of things that I won't do, because no matter how much money is involved, I'm just not interested in it. I'm very particular. I mean, Scary Monsters was not a commercial release. It came out on Beatport, and there wasn't anything commercial about it. There's no three-and-a-half-minutes pop song, and it was never played on radio. So it can be called commercial depending on what your definition is, but it's not on radio, and nothing else came off it on MTV or anything.
That's the thing about today. Something is commercial when there's a plan and a design to make it apply to a bigger demographic, and there's none of that in my music. It's just a song. I never thought it would be as popular as it is now. There's no verse-chorus, verse-chorus, big sing-along hook—there's nothing like that. I've never spent a dollar on marketing for anything I've ever done. Even with the Mau5trap thing, there was no marketing money. It just comes out, and there's a lot of stuff out there that can be popular without being commercial.
So how do you think your music cut through all the noise and became popular?
I have no idea [laughs]. I don't even want to think about it, because the minute you start to do that, you're starting to plan, and that's never what I wanted to do. I don't want to plan anything, you know? There's this illusion that I'm riding this wave, but when I made Scary Monsters, there was no wave. There was Dubstep Patio once a month at Cinespace [in Hollywood] on Sundays, and we played the smoking patio, you know? To me, I wasn't doing anything that was gonna blow up. I was just making music that sounded like—whatever. So for me, I don't like to think about any of that, except for making good music that I'm happy with.
Getting to your music and how you make it, we've heard that you're a fan of iZotope Ozone. What are some of your favorite features, and how do use them when you're mastering?
Ozone is just super-versatile. The Multiband Stereo Imaging is really nice, and you can bus a ton of things to it for different reasons. I'm actually next to [dubstep producer and DJ] Flux Pavilion right now, and he says it's fucking wicked for everything, really. Everybody uses it. I use it as a multi-band compressor on individual channels—I'll bus out multiple channels if I just want some stereo imaging, and the EQ in there is very nice too. I use the Multiband Dynamics and the Harmonic Exciter on a lot of shit, and the Maximizer too. I really use it all. It's just cool to have so many choices in one.
I think where it's really helped me is to create the illusion of a lot of stereo stuff going on, without getting the phase problems. You can use Ozone's stereo imaging and take frequencies above seven thousand [7 kHz], or even a little bit lower, and you can widen everything up there, so that the mix starts to sound a lot wider. In an environment where you're performing live, where a lot of times you have distortion and different high frequencies bouncing around the room, you don't necessarily need those to be as present, but when the higher end stuff starts phasing, because you've widened everything, it almost tightens up your mix. For how bright and how chaotic my mixes are, I think they work really well in the club because I've widened the stereo image. If you do that at a lower frequency band, you get phasing and lose the notation, or lose the actual definition of the synth line. But if you brighten things up at the very top of everything, it gives the illusion of a big wide mix.
"Ozone is just super-versatile. Everybody uses it. It's just cool to have so many choices in one."
We found quite a few videos online with people trying to emulate your drum sounds and figure out your production process. Is there anything you'd like to tell them now to make the job a little easier?
Well, I don't want to be mysterious about it or anything. Of course I'm not giving away anything either—part of the fun of being a producer is having your own sound. But for me, the drums are simple. It's all about the three pieces that make a really nice drum sound. You need a nice transient in the beginning, and then the note around the 200-hertz frequency that gives it thatboof, and then a tail, which can be anything. I usually start with a 909 and compress it to get the harmonics of that 200-hertz note, and then take maybe one or two really good-sounding locked drum samples that don't conflict with any of the harmonics in the 909. You want to tune it at about 200, and shelve off a lot of that stuff above 200, and then you have this live-sounding hybrid 909. Then you take a clap or a china [sound] and shelve it off super high, and add some reverb to it and then print it as one. Balance it while you print it, and then you re-compress it from there and you have a snare drum.
There's one thing about audio too. I think the biggest piece of advice I can give anybody about audio is don't pretend to be a snob. Know what you know, and be ready to admit that there are things you don't know. It's okay to know that something sounds good, but don't convince yourself that things are good when they're not.
"I think the biggest piece of advice I can give anybody about audio is don't pretend to be a snob. Know what you know, and be ready to admit that there are things you don't know."
What's been the hardest sound for you to get?
For me, it was the whole Monsters sound. I was just copying Noisia's sound at first, their synthesis. I would hear their sounds and go "fuck, how the fuck do they do that?" I would try to make their sounds, and then it turned into its own sound itself, within [Native Instruments] FM8, which is what I was using for my best growly sounds. It turned into its own thing because I was trying to do something else, but that's all part of the fun, accidental, experimental thing with music, where you A-B something to death and suddenly it becomes your own thing.
Who are some of the other artists who have influenced you?
Oh man—in electronic music? Noisia are huge for me, but it's hard to say, because I get so much music, and I hear so much music, so it's all this big whirlwind. It could be a nightclub I go to on an off-day or something, and I get a vibe, and I hear a track, and I just get inspired. Then I have this thing in my head, and I don't have to necessarily remember what the track is, but I just feel like making a song. But I think one of the greatest albums that came out recently was Nero's albumWelcome Reality. It's fuckin' awesome—really incredible production. J.Rabbit has some great drums too, speaking of drums.
You've said that because you're on the road so much, you're often making music on headphones. Do you ever run into issues with composing and mixing that way, where you play a mix on a sound system and it's just completely not what you expected?
I think there are just as many issues when you take the song out of a studio environment that you're used to, you know? It's another set of issues, but it's all trial and error. It's like the [Yamaha] NS10. That's such an inaccurate sound. Not only is it more than flat, it's like a mid-rangey bump. Back when everybody was using those, you'd go into any studio and your mix would sound the same because everybody had them. So it's all relative, and it's about what you like to work on.
Obviously you get extremes. You wouldn't necessarily want to work with bad speakers, but I have mixed stuff on computer monitors in the past. All of My Name Is Skrillex is mixed on computer monitors coming out of a headphone jack [laughs], and I got by. So it's all about what you're comfortable with.
If you could only take one piece of gear on the road with you besides your laptop, what would it be?
It's all in the box, but these days I really like iZotope's Trash, actually. It's pretty cool. I've been using it on random things. It's like, here's a sound and I don't really know what to do with it, and I throw it on and start fucking with it, and it becomes something else. It's one of those plug-ins that I'm not totally familiar with yet, but I like messing around with it because it can change an interesting sound into something more random. The most common plug-ins I'm always using are FM8 and Massive, I think, as far as where my sound design comes from, which is pretty standard I guess. But Trash is something I'd like to explore some more.
Looking back, what have been the highlights of the last couple of years for you?
Well, besides the five GRAMMY nominations, which blew my mind, I'd say finishing this Mothership Tour has been pretty exciting. We've just finished the Europe leg of it, but the leg that we did in the US was for two months straight. We had the main show with a ton of artists on two buses, so we'd do the main show, which could be anything from three- to eight-thousand capacity rooms, and then we'd do an after-party, which could be anywhere from five to even fifteen-hundred cap rooms with a whole separate lineup. That's two shows a night, which was pretty fucking crazy. They said it was the biggest independent tour in 2011, aside from Identity [Music Festival]. I think it was the most successful and the craziest electronic music tour maybe even in the US.
As far as the festivals go, whether it's Lollapalooza or whatever, they're all consistent in the sense that they're all great crowds. But I think the jam festivals really stand out—like Camp Bisco and Wakarusa and Summer Camp and those types of places. They're really hippie, with lots of dreadlocks and lots of naked people, so they're a lot of fun [laughs]. I prefer the dancer shows or the mosher shows personally, but really I like them all. That's why I like to do the big, banging-out theaters or arenas, but I like to do the nightclubs too. I mean, I'm doing one tonight!
While you're playing all these gigs, how do you find yourself in a creative and writing phase immediately afterwards?
There's really no way around it. I'm always making stuff. I mean, I'm making stuff right now[laughs]. I'm always working, just because I like to work on music. There's not really a thought process that goes behind it—just for different reasons on different days. I might fucking hate a mixdown really bad after I play it live, and I just want to fix it right away because my mind is on it, or maybe I'm feeling happy about it. It just really depends.
Sometimes a lot of it is just a feeling. I guess I just have a lot of shit to do, and I'm always working. Whether they're commitments or deadlines I need to meet, or whether it's me just wanting to work…I'm just always working.
And with that, the busiest dance producer on the planet returns to what he does best. Keep up with Skrillex (if anyone can) at www.skrillex.com.
—Bill Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City, and has contributed to Time Out New York, Guitar World, Bass Player, The Wire, Remix and Electronic Musician. From 1996 to 2003, he ran producer Bill Laswell's Axiom label, distributed through Island Def Jam and Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures.