It’s day two at the Sunset Strip Music Festival in the blistering heat of late September West Hollywood and the festivities are already in full swing. Four blocks of the infamous strip have been cordoned off and filled with stages, stands, beer gardens and food trucks – a cross-section of the LA lifestyle in a walkabout. The businesses that line the street are still open and flaunting festival discounts as well as water bottles at lower-than-festival prices (imagine that!). And if you’ve had too much of the merciless California sun, you could always slip into one of the bars for a liquored refreshment or two and see any number of bands on the private stages within.
It’s at one of these bars – The Viper Room just outside the festival gates – that I find myself. I’m surrounded by media hounds like myself, some carrying cameras, others with bottles of beer and some with both. Across the booth from me sits the reason for my press pass. He’s been doing the interview circuit for a while now, moving from table to table at his manager’s behest and I’m just one of many stops on this journey. Despite that, we hit it off famously. I’m face to face with Alan Wilkis, frontman of paranoid electronic group Big Data, about which I’ve written several times. Needless to say it’s a bit of a dream come true.
“This is all pretty surreal,” he laughs. “I never expected things to move this quickly.” It’s been a fast, steep climb for the man behind the #1 Alternative hit “Dangerous.” While he’s produced music for years, Big Data as an entity is still in its infancy, relatively speaking. “Only about 3 years ago, I got connected with Daniel Armbruster from the band Joywave and was originally just going to make a song with him. You know, Alan Wilkis featuring Joywave or something like that. But the collaboration moved a lot faster and flowed easier than it had in the past. That’s when a light bulb went off that this project could be long term.” Before he knew it, the duo had written several songs and had started sketching out what would later become Big Data’s 1.0 EP.
But the project still needed a name, and Wilkis found one in an unexpected place. “I went to a friend’s wedding in 2012 who coincidentally was a big data guy. We talked about his career for a while and the more we got into it, the more the name stuck. It sounded cool, was interesting to think about and was obviously relevant to the shit that happens nowadays.”
One listen through 1.0 is all it takes to see what he means. Big Data is a project obsessed with the trappings of our interconnected age. We use social media to spy on each other, while the platforms we use simultaneously spy on us for the benefit of advertisers. And don’t get him started on the NSA. “It’s all really fucked up,” laughs Wilkis. “But we let it happen. And we want to let it happen.”
It’s a very pertinent philosophy for how we live our lives, but that isn’t all Wilkis has to offer. Big Data’s music is a must for all fans of dark, electronic music that spans the genre spectrum in a deft chameleonic fashion. “Dangerous” is a slice of grooving, minimalist dance rock, while “Big Dater” (also from 1.0) flirts with the edge of dubstep. And Wilkis slides through these transitions with relative ease, proving why his star is on the rise
Luckily for me, I got to peek into his mind before he took the stage, discussing everything from his songwriting process to why Aldous Huxley was right.
Anthony: I’ve noticed in a bunch of interviews that you’ve described Big Data as being a band “from the internet.” What do you mean by that?
Alan: It’s kind of a cheeky, winky thing. Most people nowadays – or at least young people – find out about bands on the internet. A lot of the times you don’t wind up seeing those bands perform so in a lot of ways bands exist exclusively on the internet for those people. So I sort of like owning that – going out and saying I’m from the internet.
Anthony: In addition to the official music video for “Dangerous,” you also released the interactive video Facehawk. How did the idea for this first come about?
Alan: So once all the songs were written, I spent the next year or so plotting out how I was going to market and release everything because at the time I was doing everything myself. I met this guy around then named Rajeev “Jeeves” Basu who is an interactive artist. He makes all this really weird, yet awesome and subversive art on the internet. He made this one video game called Waiting in Line 3D, which basically has the graphics of Wolfenstein 3D or one of those other classic first person shooter games, but all it is is you waiting in line. If you move left you kind of peak a little to the left, if you jump you can barely see over the next guy’s head, and if you press back you just look behind you and there’s a really long line. And that’s the whole game.
Anthony: Can I get that on Steam?
Alan: I don’t think so. I think the point is that you wouldn’t want to play it.
But anyway, he puts a lot of work into something really ridiculous and it kind of makes you call into question whatever he’s highlighting in the piece. And when I met him and looked through the kind of work that he made, it was a no-brainer to collaborate on something. I mean, my music is all about technology and the internet and his art is based on the internet and we had a similar sense of humor and stuff. I asked if he wanted to do something together and he was totally down. I told him what “Dangerous” was about – you know, voyeurism on the internet and the idea of spying on people, while being spied on by the companies that you use to spy on people. I explained that to him and he ran with it. Two or three days later he sends me a PDF with the whole story and concept laid out. Almost immediately I was like “Yeah, that’s it!” Building it was the long part.
Anthony: When I used Facehawk for the first time it was kind of a revelatory experience where I realized how much of my life is tied into the social networks that I use. Is that what you intended?
Alan: That was the hope. The way that it ducktails with how I like to make stuff is that it’s fun to watch and it’s entertaining and playful. It’s a pleasing experience to watch, but after a certain point it clicks in your head that something is wrong with this or that there’s something dark happening here. So that’s what I liked about it – entertainment that gets really heavy if you take the time to think about it. That’s how I try to write songs and it’s very much the aesthetic of the project.
Anthony: Where do you think we’re going in terms of privacy and voyeurism on the internet?
Alan: This is hardly as bad as it’s going to get. I think our lives are going to get more and more integrated with technology. It’s not that far off that we’re going to have computer chips in our brains. There’ll probably be a time where that’s normal and I think it’s going to be even more transparent how much our lives get recorded in the Cloud. I mean it already is. Everything we do basically gets recorded some way or other.
Anthony: I know I couldn’t live without the Cloud.
Alan: Absolutely. I need it and I love it. Everybody feels that way even though we know it’s so fucked up. And it’s only going to get worse and worse.
Alan: I know that’s pretty bleak.
Anthony: Do you think it’s possible (or even reasonable) for people to maintain their privacy in the Internet age?
Alan: On a basic level, absolutely not because just by using it, you’re creating data that is collected. Just by clicking and typing things in, that’s being recorded somewhere. So there’s kind of no privacy in some regard.
That said, there are measures that you can take to be a little more private. You know, ad blockers and you can put a sticker over your front-facing camera and I don’t think that you’re really gonna have that much more privacy by doing it but there are things you can do to protect yourself.
Anthony: I know that a lot of my friends now have personal versus public-facing Facebooks.
Alan: That’s one way to do it, but you’re still not preventing the government or advertisers from knowing what you do. There’s no way around it anymore really. I mean the way to be private is to not use the internet or your phone, but there’s no way to do that because that would suck.
Anthony: Conversely, how much has social media integration (Spotify, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) helped you as an emerging artist?
Alan: Immensely. I wouldn’t be where I am without it. The first five months or so of launching the band when I was doing it myself was entirely on the internet. So if I couldn’t share things or if people couldn’t find them on the internet, Big Data would have gone nowhere. So, you know, I’m grateful for the internet.
Anthony: Who was more right, George Orwell or Aldous Huxley?
Alan: That’s a tough question. I guess Orwell. Huxley is pretty scary too though.
Anthony: I just read Brave New World a couple months ago and I think the scariest thing for me was that the world he described didn’t seem that bad to me.
Alan: That’s downright terrifying. You know something’s wrong when a dystopian future seems good in comparison to what we have now.
Anthony: What comes first when you write your music? Do you start with a concept and write the music around it or vice versa?
Alan: The track always comes first. I’ll usually start with a bass track and then lay down like a snare drum. I spend a lot of time playing around until I find a sound that I like and I have a moment like “Yeah, alright!” And then once I have drum sounds I build the rhythms around it and then build the track around that. I usually like to kind of write a whole song instrumentally first. I need to have verses, bridge, chorus etc. laid down before I work with a singer. So once that’s sort of done, I team up with someone different each time and we’ll usually spend a day or two writing and then recording their parts. That’s one of the fun things about the project. I’ve gotten to collaborate with a lot of people – many of whom I look up to. And I think it’s different for them. A lot of them aren’t used to doing a featured artist bit that has a very specific concept to it and I like getting their unique takes on all of my themes.
Anthony: How is the creative process for Big Data different from that of your previous projects?
Alan: It’s mainly different in that there’s a very specific concept. PRINTS kind of came about in the same way. I’d work with a singer or a rapper, but I rarely if ever gave them direction up front. We would just write about whatever we felt like writing or they would just write their own stuff.
I also think that Big Data has more of a specific sound than what I used to make. I would just kind of throw a bunch of sounds together and Big Data has more of a cohesive feel to it.
Anthony: What’s on the horizon for Big Data?
Alan: We just released a new set of remixes called 1.6. Sebu from Capital Cities did one and so did this group Oliver (that are un-fucking believable, basically my favorite DJ-producer guys out there). There are a couple more collaborations in there if you want to check it out.
Then of course I’m working on the full-length. I think I’m about 70 percent done, so hopefully it’ll be out by the end of the year. Hopefully sooner. I’m going as fast as humanly possible, but it takes time.
Anthony: One drink. One album. One movie.
Alan: Good one! Seltzer with a drop of fruit juice (I’m a heavy seltzer enthusiast and I don’t really drink), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.