The Chainsmokers: DJs with a Twist
Meet Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart, two American DJs and general music nuts that met fortuitously through a mutual friend, and went on to form what is fast becoming one of the most talked about acts in the EDM sector, The Chainsmokers.
We say EDM, but actually, there is much more to these guys than that: the pair have such an eclectic mix of music influences, which means they approach their original material with the most open of mindsets. For example, the backbone of their latest track, Don't Let Me Down (which features talented young pop star, Daya) is basically Taggart playing his Fender Telecaster: it's simple, it's effective, it's melodic. And talking of great melodies, it was their 2015 mega-hit, Roses, that sent The Chainsmokers' popularity skyrocketing last year; it's about to pass the 60 million mark on YouTube, and is only now really being pushed out to the UK and Europe.
We sit down at Sony HQ, off Knightsbridge, London, and the guys are pretty jet-lagged to say the least – but they're in very good spirits. So how did this all happen then?
“Well, I'm five years older than Andrew, and we grew up in different States, but we've had varying stages of different obsessions in music,” Pall says, with a smile. “Metal, punk rock, gangsta rap – we've run the gamut, and we listen to everything. We go through these weird cycles...”
The two met when Taggart was graduating college, and had the chance of being managed by someone at Interscope Records, while Pall was DJ-ing and 'working a shitty day job'.
“We didn't know each other, but both of our positions in life were kind of crossing over: I wanted to take something more seriously, and he felt the same way,” Pall explains. “We met through a mutual friend, we were huge fans of the dance music genre, and it was really a now or never thing that just kind of worked out.”
It certainly did, when you look at the success the duo have achieved in the three or so years they've been together. Roses was the real game-changer, of course, but Don't Let Me Down has just been picked up by New York's number one radio station, Z100, which has taken the guys both by surprise (have a listen below).
"That's just insane," laughs Taggart. "The fact they added our song without us knowing, and that they're already moving on it. So now we're kind of riding the wave as well as pushing; we're like a brand that people are looking for more content on, which is an interesting development.”
Collaboration seems to be the constant buzz word in the industry at this time – particularly in EDM. I ask the guys to tell us about their working relationship with Daya on Don't Let Me Down, and how the track was put together.
“She's a great singer, and it was perfect timing, basically,” admits Taggart. “We had a number one with Roses, and when we did it, her song Hide Away was even bigger than Roses; we had Don't Let Me Down all produced with a great writer, Emily Warren, who sang on it, but Daya seemed interested, so we got her in to do it, and she smashed the vocal; it just kind of happened like that. She is going to be an awesome artist for years to come, no question.”
“Yeah, she is,” concurs Pall. “Her manager said we gave her the opportunity to grow up, because she is a 17-year-old pop star right now. Not that her song is adolescent, but her look and her song both appeal to more of a teen demographic, whereas Don't Let Me Down is more of a mature, harder, darker sound. So it was a cool opportunity for her, and great for us too to get an up-and-coming pop star on a track.”
I'm intrigued to see what the guys think about the pop/EDM crossover, and whether they feel their genre should be officially represented at major international shows such as The Brits and The Grammys.
“It does seem that they just steal our concepts and put it into pop music, and then those songs get noticed,” says Taggart, with a shrug of the shoulders. “I guess with The Grammys, it is just a show at the end of the day, and they just want people to watch it. Pop stars are more famous than DJs – but DJs are getting up there.”
“Someone was telling us recently that the same person has been running The Grammys forever, so it's not the most cutting edge showcase of music anymore,” adds Pall. “I don't want to criticise it at all, but if that is the case, it does make sense. Dance music is a young thing. Yes, all ages enjoy it, but the youth is the core of it, so it should be represented.”
The Chainsmokers produce all their music themselves, be it in the studio, at home, on a plane, wherever; and a lot of it is done in the box.
“I don't let anybody work on any of the music,” smiles Taggart. “Jordan [Young, AKA 'DJ Swivel'] helps us with all of the vocals, and I did let him mix one of our songs once, but I am just too particular about it, and I want it my way. He is a particularly talented guy, but I am just too anal about production! But he does an incredible job with our vocals. He does stuff I have no idea how to do, and that Daya vocal [on Don't Let Me Down] is probably the best produced vocal we have.
“Whenever we can, we incorporate live instruments into our music; and whenever I am at home, I'll use my [Moog] Sub Phatty. I'd like to get a real piano and be able to record that, but there are some great piano plugins out there, too.”
And what about the songwriting process?
“Since Roses went so big, we got the opportunity to write with lots of really great people, and have also gained the confidence in writing ourselves; it's really beneficial when working with other writers,” explains Taggart. “I can write a song, and they can help me shape my thoughts, pour words out of me, and vice versa. They can take concepts, the tone of a song, and work it that way. We start with a guitar or a piano with a vocal, and honestly wait for a moment of inspiration for the production – always trying to use a sound that hasn't been heard before. We are ultimately about writing great songs using our favourite elements from the EDM world.”
“The songwriting process is brand new to us, and our songs are getting better as they're becoming more personal,” adds Pall. “Obviously we want to get an album together, where we could go in so many directions. There are artists that we admire hitting us up about working together, and it's cool that most of the success we've had is just us. A lot of people team up with people already killing it.”
“Yeah, most of the massive stars in the world are at the mercy of getting a good song, and have to wait for someone to write them the perfect thing, and we're not really into that kind of variable; we're all about proving ourselves as much as possible,” confirms Taggart.
So what are the main differences between the US and European scenes?
“Music is digested a lot quicker here, but for us, England is really a tastemaker as far as dance music is concerned, and for a lot of the rest of Europe,” Pall insists. “My sister went to Bristol University, and the underground electronic scene there was crazy! In America, it's way more hip hop bass, and heading towards trap again, and all that stuff; but it's cool for us, as Roses doesn't even fit anywhere. We hope people really get into it here. We're calling it future pop.”
The Chainsmokers are adamant that they want their live sets to be memorable, and as a result, refuse to play any show safe.
“I remember when I went to Webster Hall [in NYC] for the first time, and I heard Major Laser's Pon De Floor, and thinking, what is this sound?,” says Taggart. “I was in such awe of it, and there is so much great music out there that I don't hear other DJs playing in Europe. And I want to be one of those guys: 'I'm gonna show you a good time. but also some new shit,' you know?”
It's Good To Talk (and Vlog)
The guys are big on social media, accumulating some 215k fans on Twitter, and over 2.3 million on Facebook already. How important is keeping the fans up to speed with their musical goings on?
“We're actually working on more ways of showcasing the music and our personalities; we're blogging also, to let people know what it's like to be us, and what we're doing. Now we want to go that extra step,” explains Taggart. “It's weird for us doing confessional type 'vlogging'; look at Kanye, he throws a fit now and again because he feels people don't know where his head's at, and we still feel there is more opportunity to show people who we are, and give them a better understanding of where the art comes from.”
Pall says despite forking out tens of thousands on creating slick, manicured videos that make their shows look amazing, sometimes an up close and personal message recorded on an iPhone blows everything out of the water:
“You can't beat the whole, 'I'm in a room filming myself talk' video,” he smiles. “It's so rare, and I realise that with Facebook now, the stuff that does the best is just opening up your phone and recording uncut, shitty quality content; people go nuts for it, as they want the unfiltered stuff. So we make sure we give them that.”
To find out more about The Chainsmokers' current run of shows, check out their website here: www.thechainsmokers.com