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Skrillex: L.A. DJ, Producer Is Boy King of Electronic Dance Music

Skrillex
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAR FOREMAN

In between puffs on a Newport at Petco Park in San Diego, Sonny Moore contemplates one of the biggest moments of his career. The Padres' baseball stadium serves as the first stop of his first headlining tour, whose start is a day away. Not bad, considering the L.A.-based DJ and producer known as Skrillex is only 23 years old. In fact, he's already become a dance-floor god, regularly performing at festivals and nightclubs across North America and Europe to hordes of fans. In 24 hours, 3,000 kids will be losing their minds over his cutting-edge show.

That is, if it happens.

Right now a pair of men are strapping him into a black outfit that looks something like a wet suit — except that it's fitted with sensors. A critical part of his stage show, it will turn him into a wireless human joystick by connecting him to a complex motion-capture system. On a screen behind him will appear an animated android he calls Illgamesh, twice his size. When Moore raises his arms, Illgamesh will raise his arms; when Moore drops his hands out of sight to fiddle with his computer, Illgamesh's hands will reveal Moore's techniques. "It's never been done live before the way we're doing this," he boasts.

But something is amiss. Moore's insane schedule has given his crew almost no time to rehearse, and a series of technical difficulties related to the motion capture begins to surface. His managers and production team are running around inside a stadium lounge that serves as a backstage area, pounding out messages on tables lined with MacBooks. The pressure is becoming intense, and PR people are starting to freak out.

Moore lights another cigarette.

Long gone are the days when all a DJ had to worry about was his record collection. Moore's show relies on complicated technology to create a massive visual production. At the center of it is a sci-fi-looking structure called the Skrillex Cell, some 20 feet high, composed of bright white cubes. They frame Moore as he performs, and the Cell's walls light up with 3-D images: bright green grids, spaceships, trippy spinning columns, the android on the back wall. The music is so closely tied to the spectacle that tech problems could practically sink the show.

With round cheeks and big eyes peering through oversize Sabre glasses, Moore looks way too young for all this. He's short and prone to slouching, his long, dark hair oddly shaved on one side and hanging over his right eye.

Yet somehow, this digital wunderkind has moved to the forefront of the electronic dance music movement, the new rave scene that's sweeping the country. After kicking off his DJ career only three years ago at tiny Hollywood venues like Cinespace and Boardner's, he's played a gig practically every day this year, including such massive shows as Coachella and Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival. (Moore performs at Hard Haunted in L.A. on Sat., Oct. 29.) He was just on the cover of Spin magazine and he's cute enough to be plastered on bedroom walls, but his specialty is new media. He's not yet a household name, but he's done something better: He's gone viral.

In fact, the Internet is brimming with fans paying him homage, from those replicating his songs' beats on violin or piano, to the photos of comic book convention attendees dressed like him. There's tons of fan fiction in his honor, as well as out-and-out Skrillex-inspired porn, some of which imaginatively pairs him with his mentor, the electronic music star known as Deadmau5.

But Moore's popularity is in contrast to his shyness, which seems at times to border on social anxiety. He rarely gives interviews, and here in San Diego makes little eye contact, his high-top sneakers pressed tightly against the stadium seat in front of him. Text messages and phone calls concerning his vast commitments batter his (already cracked) BlackBerry, until its vibrations knock it onto the concrete. "I overcommit myself," he imparts.

It's understandable if he feels overwhelmed. After all, not long ago he was anonymously lugging his gear into ratty Los Angeles DJ booths. Now Moore's millions of social media followers obsess over his every move, and he has a team of tech geniuses scrambling to make sure his custom-built show functions.

And, at the eleventh hour, it finally comes together. When he takes the stage the following night, Illgamesh — glowing in shades of white and red — is an immediate hit. The music, meanwhile, carries the crowd to another plane. Revelers gyrate next to the baseball diamond, the girls largely underage and dressed in bikinis, furry boots, neon tutus and even cat ears. Lanky, zit-faced guys in loose-hanging jeans and T-shirts bob their heads. (A section serving drinks for those of age, meanwhile, is nearly empty, which gives a sense of the demographic at play here.)

 

Unlike a typical by-the-hour DJ, Moore combines live performance with his prerecorded tracks. He mixes cuts like Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize" into his own songs, which he reproduces live by taking their components and reconstructing them, using popular DJ software Ableton Live. He dips into genres like progressive house and even a little soul, but the crowd goes crazy for dubstep, a recent dance-floor phenomenon known for its gratuitous bass lines and, oddly, its almost undanceable beat.

Dubstep informs Skrillex's 2010 major-label debut, Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, which has become a runaway hit in clubs and online. Since the EP's release a year ago, he's been living in hotels and airports. And though that hasn't stopped him from becoming a first-time homeowner in downtown L.A., Moore is everywhere at once. Dance music made a resurgence around the same time the music industry all but collapsed, and he has found effective ways to engage his fans outside traditional realms. Moore's influence on our remixed, mashed-up cultural landscape is only beginning to be felt.

In 2007, French house duo Daft Punk sold out Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Buoyed by their Coachella performance the year before and dressed as robots, the group performed while perched atop a pyramid, as Tron-inspired images flashed across the stage. The tour made the group legends and forever altered electronic dance music. Videos from the L.A. show spread quickly on YouTube, and the run itself was memorialized on a Grammy-winning live album.

At the time, electronic music was just regaining popularity in L.A., after a few years' absence following the rave heyday a decade earlier. In the 1980s a pair of new electronic styles permeated the country: house, a soulful disco offshoot with origins in Chicago, and techno, derived from the synthesizer styles of acts like Kraftwerk and centered in Detroit.

By the end of the decade underground rave parties emerged, and the phenomenon exploded in L.A. during the '90s, popping up everywhere from downtown warehouses to the desert. Today's oversize dance events such as Hard and Electric Daisy Carnival can trace their roots to this scene. While electronic dance music — then often called electronica — flirted briefly with mainstream popularity, it quickly faded. But with Daft Punk as its new robot overlords, the genre blew up bigger than ever.

A 19-year-old Sonny Moore was at the Sports Arena that night, having just recently left his gig as lead singer of From First to Last, a popular band that rode the emo wave of the mid-'00s. He'd launched a solo career and scored a deal with Atlantic but was, he says, in limbo with the label, sitting on a growing pile of songs with no release date in sight. Daft Punk inspired him to take his music to the next level. "I thought, 'God, I wish I could do that,' " he says.

Meanwhile, other dance artists also were plotting their ascents. Toronto-based DJ and producer Deadmau5 — who wears a cartoon mouse mask during his shows, and whose name is pronounced "dead mouse" — played a blockbuster four-night stand at the Hollywood Palladium in August. Veteran DJ Tiësto, meanwhile, recently headlined the 27,000-capacity Home Depot Center, which, his publicist says, was the largest single-headliner DJ show ever in the United States.

Electronic music parties still have a reputation as havens for drug use and chaos, however. A 15-year-old girl died of Ecstasy-related causes at the Los Angeles stop of the Electric Daisy Carnival traveling festival last year, and in July a performance by DJ Kaskade on Hollywood Boulevard turned into a mob scene, with crowd members jumping on a police car.

But fans shrug off the bad press. In fact, Moore relishes the fact that his scene has gained momentum outside of traditional channels. "Ninety-nine percent of these artists aren't a part of MTV and radio," he notes proudly of a group that includes him. "It's so big, but it's so organic."

Indeed, with few exceptions, these artists sell out huge venues and headline major festivals without help from old media. They're blowing up because of digital download sites like Beatport, as well as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Many outsiders don't understand the music's nuances, and electronic music hasn't entirely eclipsed stereotypes of "untz untz" clubs populated by sleazy Euro guys with too much hair gel. In reality, the scene's most popular strain right now is dubstep, which blasts at both giant stadium shows and niche parties like SMOG. Having first emerged a decade ago in the United Kingdom, dubstep creates a sort of aural illusion. It has a fast tempo — typically around 140 beats per minute — but because of the way the beats are programmed, it feels like the song is playing much more slowly. The tracks are peppered by distorted bass lines that sound like lasers, while minor keys and repeated, effect-laden vocals often add a creepy, hypnotic quality. While samples are common, live-in-the-studio vocals are becoming more prevalent, and dubstep even showed up this summer on a pop radio hit, Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me."

 

Though Moore doesn't perform dubstep exclusively, his popular track "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" and many of his remixes — like Benny Benassi favorite "Cinema" — incorporate the sound. He also has worked in subgenres like electrohouse and progressive house, and will include reggae-influenced sounds in his next release.

Make no mistake: His influence extends far beyond nightclubs and raves. In fact, his and his biggest colleagues' music often is used to soundtrack conventions geared toward fans of science fiction, comic books and anime, a scene that's also exploding.

Anime Expo at the L.A. Convention Center pulls in 40,000 people every Fourth of July weekend, while Comic-Con in San Diego draws attendance in the six figures. In addition to their superfan obsessiveness, these kids can party hard, and Moore fits right in. Don't even get him started on anime; Neon Genesis Evangelion, Blood: The Last Vampire and Final Fantasy: Advent Children are just a few of the Japanese animated films and programs he loves.

With his unkempt style, he even looks like these self-proclaimed geeks. Or perhaps they look like him. In fact, with the rise of cosplay — the art of dressing as pop culture figures — admirers have begun to imitate Moore and send him their photos through Facebook. There's even a Tumblr site, "Girls Who Look Like Skrillex," and many of them are dead ringers. ("A guy really thought I was him for a minute," brags the caption from an unnamed woman, clad in Moore's trademark black-and-gray plaid shirt.)

It gets weirder. Somehow, Moore and Deadmau5 have become the Spock and Kirk of electronic music fan fiction. Like the Star Trek heroes, they're frequent subjects of "slash fiction," where straight characters, and sometimes celebrities, are depicted in homosexual relationships. (The authors are frequently female.) Tumblr site Skrillmau5 — an aggregator of Skrillex and Deadmau5 stories and art — frequently shows the two hooking up. Illustrating one of the more explicit stories, a pencil drawing shows a full-frontal glimpse of Moore as the two coil together, a sex toy off to one side.

None of this bothers Moore. In fact, he sounds oddly awed by much of it. "It's very flattering because they have these really in-depth stories," he insists.

He understands well the connection between the music and comics scenes, and hopes to play both Anime Expo and Comic-Con next year. "He doesn't separate himself from his audience," says L.A. club promoter Keith Wilson, a longtime friend of Moore's who booked his earliest DJ gigs. "He is his audience."

Moore grew up primarily in Highland Park and Mount Washington, though his family spent several years in San Francisco when he was a child. At 6, his parents enrolled him in piano lessons, where his teacher discovered he could play by ear. When Moore's father gave him a guitar for Christmas three years later, he had a new obsession. This was a bit unexpected, since music didn't really run in the family.

"I'm in insurance claims," his father, Dave Moore, a good-humored man who is clearly very proud of his son, says with a laugh. "What's the opposite of a rock musician?"

His parents nonetheless delighted in bringing him to a Guitar Center in San Francisco, where impressed employees permitted the tween to jam on high-end instruments. By his teenage years he was playing in bands with names like At Risk, and soon ventured into experimental music. "He had a big board of pedals, so the music came out sounding really electronic, even though it was guitars," Dave Moore says.

Influenced by boundary-pushing techno artists like Aphex Twin, at 14 Moore was producing his own tracks on basic digital editing software. Because of his obsession, his schoolwork suffered, and on his 16th birthday he left high school to join From First to Last on the touring circuit. Somehow, his parents took it all in stride. "I had a lot of education — it just leads you to insurance claims," quips Moore's pops.

Moore was the band's vocalist for two albums on Epitaph Records, the label responsible for some of the biggest punk bands in recent decades. From First to Last gigged with giant acts like Fall Out Boy and played Warped Tour, and their second album, Heroine, hit the Billboard charts. Their sound? Lightning-fast guitars, bombastic drums and Moore's powerful, soaring screams.

He doesn't like to talk about his time with the group; in fact, his publicist advises reporters not to ask about them. The reason for this isn't entirely clear; perhaps it owes to the fact that, in the DJ world, connections to the rock scene aren't always looked upon favorably. After all, electronic music's refined skill set isn't thought of as one interlopers can pick up quickly. (Moore has been accused in online forums of using "ghost producers," which he denies.) If he wants to avoid snap judgments from dance-music fans, perhaps distancing himself from his previous endeavor makes sense.

 

Not that he's a Johnny-come-lately. By age 15 he was already mesmerized by Los Angeles parties like one called 82, at the Echo. "Everyone would be on the stage dancing," Moore recalls. "There was nothing like that for me back then."

"He was a club kid," says promoter and friend Wilson, who also goes by DJ Keith2.0 and ran the party. "He went almost every week."

When Wilson says "club kid," he's not referring to the ketamine-addled, '90s-era New Yorkers made famous in movies like Party Monster. Rather, he means hip youth who hopped from Britpop parties and '80s nights to goth/industrial events, the face of young L.A. nightlife from the mid-'90s until recently. By the early aughts the various scenes were overlapping, featuring cold-sounding synths, robotic vocals and denizens dressed in garish thrift-store clothing — or in all black. Out of this particular nightlife moment came a new generation of clubgoers, and Moore was its poster boy.

In fact, even while performing with From First to Last he was making digital music on the side, and after leaving the group in 2007 he signed to Atlantic, intending to meld electronic music with rock. But things didn't go as planned. Two years passed before the label released — under his given name — his Gypsyhook EP, a collection of pop-rock songs with a new wave bent. But to Moore's frustration, full albums' worth of material sat in the vaults, spurring him to deepen his flirtation with dance music.

Despite his relative fame with his band, reinventing himself as a DJ required starting from scratch. In his first gigs with Wilson about three years ago, he spun dubstep and other genres at a Sunday night party called Camerata, at Cinespace. Back then, since dubstep didn't have much of a following, Moore was relegated to the club's patio. "But more and more people started showing up," he recalls, "so we started playing dubstep in the main room."

Moore's big break came in August last year, when he landed a slot on the bill at Control, a Friday night bash focused on up-and-coming talent at Hollywood megaclub Avalon. Ryan Jaso, the event's promoter, says that since popular headlining DJ Wolfgang Gartner ensured a decent crowd, he decided to give Moore a shot. (It also helped that the young artist had long been pestering him for an opportunity.)

"It was just fucking packed," Moore remembers, with awe in his voice. "You could tell that everyone wanted to be inside this club."

That night, according to Jaso, they hit an attendance record that remains unbroken.

"It's one of the craziest parties I've been to," Jaso adds, saying that the lineup likely will never be repeated, with both performers having since vaulted into the stratosphere. (Gartner just released a single with Black Eyed Peas star will.i.am.)

Shortly after the Avalon gig, Moore's Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP won release, but it wasn't an immediate hit. Though the title song — his first stab at a melodic dubstep track — eventually would rack up more than 34 million YouTube plays, Atlantic didn't want it as a single. In his recollection, label executives preferred a track called "All I Ask of You," which they thought had greater radio appeal. "They didn't get it," Moore says.

Fortunately, he received a new push from Deadmau5, then already a superstar producer in his own right. The two met at Miami's Ultra Music Festival in March 2010, after Deadmau5 took a liking to a track called "My Name Is Skrillex," which Moore had distributed for free. With permission, Deadmau5 later released Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites on Beatport through his mau5trap imprint.

Whereas the traditional music industry had been unable to break him, the endorsement of a new media–savvy tastemaker was all Moore needed to push him over the top. "What Deadmau5 did for me was say 'Yo, check this out' to his million-plus Facebook friends," Moore says.

Since then, his tracks have consistently appeared in Beatport's Top 10 charts and he's scored gigs at major music festivals like Coachella and Austin City Limits. It's been off to the races for the Skrillex brand.

At an age when most people are still figuring out their professional aspirations, Moore has become someone who can make things happen for emerging artists. He recently launched his own label, OWSLA, named for a group of rabbits that appear in the fantasy novel Watership Down. Focused on up-and-comers, he's found success with such genre-bending young artists as 19-year-old Porter Robinson and 22-year-old Zedd. Hard at work on his as-yet-untitled debut full-length — which should be released by the end of this year — he's also put out numerous singles and remixes in the meantime, as well as collaborated with folks like electronic artist SebastiAn and soul sensation Mayer Hawthorne.

 

But Moore's biggest project lies ahead of him. He's been invited to write and record with the surviving members of the Doors, as part of a documentary called Re:Generation, which puts top DJs in the studio with bands. Due out early next year, their collaborative song will merge rock and electronic styles, and will be a rare chance to hear new work from the L.A. legends. The track — tentatively titled "Breakin' a Sweat" — will include samples of Jim Morrison praising electronic music as the future of the art form.

It's yet another big moment for Moore, and speaks to his transcendent star power, which is timeless in its own way. Sure, he can draw thousands of kids to a baseball stadium with his up-to-the-moment sounds. But he also realizes there's more to making a connection with fans than understanding a Twitter feed. Like Morrison, he relates to his followers because he understands them.

Perhaps most importantly, he knows that a catchy beat is a catchy beat, in any genre.

Skrillex at Hard Haunted 2011, Sat., Oct. 29, Hard Haunted Mansion at Shrine Expo Center, 649 W. Jefferson Blvd., dwntwn.

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Shrine Auditorium & Expo Center

665 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90007

213-748-5116

www.shrineauditorium.com

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