TRENDLAND got a chance to catch up with mastermind producer behind electro pop outfit Big Data. The Harvard graduated music man who just recently has taken the courageous leap into being a full-time musician, shared with us his insight on the music making process, the importance of collaboration, what it takes to make a successful record, and reveals the thought process behind Big Data’s interesting branding schemes, specifically, on the recent release of his bloody & brilliant new video for Big Data’s smash “Dangerous” feat Joywave.
Let’s jump into it…
Where does Big Data’s musical influence come from? Who were your favorite artists coming up?
My influences come from all over the place. I’m a guitar-player at heart, been playing for 20+ years at this point. I was raised on a steady diet of classic rock – Hendrix, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Beach Boys, Beatles, etc… Obsessed with Prince and Michael Jackson. I got into more and more electronic music as I got older – from classic stuff and early sound experimenters – Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, André Popp, Jean Jacques Perrey – to more contemporary stuff when I was in college – Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares…
Nowadays I listen to new (either “new” to me or “new” as in “just released”) music, pretty constantly. I try to be disciplined about how I listen to music – I only listen to albums 3 times apiece, and I try to pick my favorite song from each album as I go after the three listens, and then I drop my top picks every Friday into a playlist on Spotify every Friday.
As far as more recent standouts and up-and-comers, I think S O H N is incredible. Hozier, Starkey, Julia Holter, Gessaffelstein… My favorite record of 2013 was Son Lux’s “Lanterns.”
Can you give us a little piece of mind into what inspired your alias ‘Big Data’ and how that has come into effect in your last two promotional collaborations, Facehawk and now the video for “Dangerous”?
I went to Harvard for undergrad, and I was there at the time when Facebook was started. I was an early adopter, and a lot of my friends from back then have since gone into big careers in tech. The name for the band was actually inspired by my friend, Jeff Hammerbacher – one of the architects of Facebook’s data team. I was at his wedding in the summer of 2012, and he was talking about his career path and mentioned “big data,” and it just kinda resonated with me – it was interesting to think about, and also sounded cool.
Once I secured the name for the project, the song’s that I was writing with Dan from the band Joywave (and my collaborator on the 1.0 EP), started taking on a life of their own. They were already headed in a dark direction, but the name suddenly gave us this central theme to tackle, lyrically. And as I’ve started to collaborate with more vocalists along the way, it’s been really fun and exciting to present them with that theme – it’s like I’m asking for each collaborator’s take on the internet and technology, and how they affect our lives. It’s really fun to work with the thematic limitation – forces us to be creative.
It’s been a very similar process with Facehawk – I explained to Jeeves what the song was about after we met (Rajeev Basu, Facehawk’s creator), and Facehawk was his way of expressing a similar idea – reminding us of just how much our information is out there, and how terrifying it can be when you really think about it.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Facehawk, this brilliant application pulls all of the content on your facebook page and transforms it into a massive hawk. Definitely take a minute to check it out when you have a chance, it’s quite impressive.
With the new music video, I collaborated with the directing team GHOST+COW. They both do a fair amount of work in advertising, and so as we developed the storyline together, we wanted to tackle advertising from an insider’s perspective. We wanted to try to poke at what is perhaps so dangerous about the way we’re marketed to, as consumers. And we just loved this idea of how would a company actually market a product that they know to be evil…
Check out the video for “Dangerous” below
Alan, you are obviously also a participant in the making of other artists in your day to day job…the video is somewhat making a joke of the process of branding it seems, what’s your take on branding and how important it is to an artists success? Daft punk would be a great example of the ultimate branding success.
I should firstly qualify that, by it’s not my day job anymore – I’m officially a full-time music-maker, now!
I think branding is extremely important to an artist’s success, as is the use of social media and new technologies. To be blunt, the music business is an awful one, the landscape is so immensely competitive and crowded, and an artist’s chances of success are so miniscule, that if you’re not thinking entrepreneurially and about how to build your business by presenting a clear identity and brand, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish yourself.
So, to put it differently, yes branding is SUPER important! I honestly wish it weren’t, but everybody’s always looking for a “story.”
Describe your work flow. From start to finish…how do you usually begin working on a track, when and where do your vocalists come in, do you collaborate on all things, all the way through?…This is interesting because making music and collaborting nowadays has been made a lot easier because of the interenet and technological advances, it has changed the way music and collaborations happen.
I generally start every track with just a kickdrum and a snare. I like to build a beat first, and then start layering things – ideas just start popping out over time. I rarely sit down to write with a completely finished song in my head.
I also rarely, if ever, like to start working with a vocalist until the track is almost completely finished – as in, with a defined verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge section. Everything in the instrumental of “The Stroke of Return,” for example, was finished months and months before I started working with Dan on it.
And once I start to collaborate with a vocalist, the internet definitely comes into play and makes the process easier. I like to sketch vocal melodies with collaborators over email, back and forth, and then when it’s time to actually write lyrics and record vocals, I prefer to do that in person.
With the first Big Data EP, Dan and I typically traded vocal-melodies over email, and then we would plan proper writing and recording sessions around Joywave tour dates in New York. Dan generally would come to those session with at least some kind of lyric concept in mind, and then we would spend hours fleshing out melodies and lyrics together, and hopefully by the end of the day we’d have a song in our hands. Or at least most of one!
What would you say are the two most important musical elements in any successful record are? And why?
That’s a tough question! Let’s see… I think the two things I look for most… or at least the two gut-checks for me are 1) does this make me FEEL something? 2) is there something NEW about this? Is it pushing the envelope in any way at all?
If it doesn’t pass those two tests… it won’t pass any of my tests! Another important question for me is “is this piece of music successful at what it’s trying to do?”
What DAW(digital audio workstation) do you use to make your music, and what are the most important plug-ins, instruments, etc to your process?
I record and mix everything in Ableton Live 8, although I’m due for an upgrade to 9, soon. Ironically, I’ve never used Ableton in a live context, which is what it’s really geared towards. I love it because it makes experimentation really easy when I’m writing.
My go-to live instruments are guitar, bass, baritone guitar, and all sorts of percussion. Everything else, I usually use virtual instruments – I love all the synths & samplers in Native Instruments’ Komplete, and I love a lot of the Arturia soft synths, even though they’re unstable as hell – I have to “save” constantly when I use them.
And as for plugins, I can’t get enough of Universal Audio. I recently bought an Apollo Quad, and have been loving pretty much all of their plugins – the 1176’s, LA2A, LA3A, the Studer & Ampex tape emulators, the MXR flanger, Space Echo, Tape Delay… tons of stuff!
How important is it to collaborate and work with other artists along the way?
I think collaboration is extremely important in whatever you do. I spent the early parts of my career being a total megalomaniac, and it really wasn’t until I started to collaborate with others that I started to really grow as an artist.
If you could collaborate with anyone at this point in time who would it be?
Prince… then D’Angelo.
Can you leave us with a quote that inspired you in your musical career?
I played a lot of jazz guitar when I was in college, and I always loved the Charlie Parker quote: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
I’m a big believer in hard work and discipline, even when it feels like you’re banging your head against the wall. I think the best art comes from the creators that understand the history and tradition and are first able to nail their craft… and once they reach a high level of proficiency and start to bend the rules (“…forget all that…”), then the really exciting stuff starts to happen.
some of the below may be hard to give exact numbers but give us a ballpark.