Nero's eclectic, electronic sound has always been a bit obsessed with sci-fi and spaceships. So it seems fitting that their profile has blasted off in the last year following the release of their 2011 debut, Welcome Reality. Their ability to build on the ferocity of dubstep for the last several years has turned producers Daniel Stephens and Joseph Ray into full blown rock stars in the EDM world.
Together with vocalist Alana Watson, their melodic club anthems like “Guilt” and “Crush on You” are about as ubiquitous as cage dancers and bottle service. Ahead of their dual weekend performance slot at Coachella on April 15 and April 22 and a performance at Club Nokia on April 19, we talked with Ray about how he and Stephens went from quiet, classical musicians to bass-rattling gods of the dance floor.
How does your approach to producing and beat making keep Nero from sticking to one genre in the electronic music scene?
Joseph Ray: We love dance music, but we love other kinds of music and we try to incorporate different kinds of vocals and various kinds of feelings in our songs that can take the music out of the drum and bass or dubstep categories and just takes people somewhere else for a moment. In our DJ sets we mix up the tempos a bit. Although we've been most closely associated with dubstep and a lot of our tunes are in that tempo, we don't really see ourselves as solely dubstep artists. We want people to come see us for what we are, not because we're tied to a specific genre. I'd say song structure and melody have always been essential to our music.
How would you describe your mentality when you first began making electronic music?
When we first started, [Dan Stephens and I] were both about to go off to university and this was just something we did for fun to start off. We'd be in our bedrooms with our little set-ups; we were still living with our parents. It was a pretty low key thing, just messing around. Then we had a couple of tunes that got passed off to the right people and they were interested. It was a gradual process. We're both 28 and that was about 10 years ago. So it was around 2008 when things got a bit more serious for us.
Has your songwriting process changed much with the success of Welcome Reality?
We haven't really written too much since then because we've just been touring it so much. After Coachella, we've got a few more shows and then we've got a month and a half off where we're going to start writing new material. I'm not sure how that's going to pan out.
Is there anything you still struggle with as producers in this genre?
One of the things we find hardest is writing lyrics because it's not something that comes very naturally to us.
You grew up as a classically trained guitarist and Dan is a classically trained cellist. Does that experience inform any of the electronic music you do now?
JR: We both had that kind of music training. We can both read music and understand theory. We were also in bands growing up. I was in a punk band; Dan was in a more post-rock thing. And when we came together, we had all these different influences. Then we ended up discovering drum and bass and jungle and techno music but we'd already loved all these other genres as well. Then last year, we had an orchestral piece that we wrote for the BBC Philharmonic, “Symphony 2808.” When that option came along, we thought it was great. I guess compared to most musicians in the genre, we're a little more used to classical music. So I guess we went back to our days as musicians in that world.
Was it difficult getting your dubstep compositions and the orchestra to mesh well?
It was quite hard to get the balance right between the instruments and the electronic stuff. It was difficult to record and difficult to broadcast it on the radio as well. We had to get in the studio a bit afterwards and rework some things. Some bits were drowned out, some things were too loud. The instrumentation is just totally different. But we use a lot of classical samples in our music, in the studio, we could almost score for an orchestra. But when we got into the concert hall and there were 17 musicians sitting there waiting for us to give them sheet music, that was kind of daunting.
Describe your earlier electronic music before Nero became well known.
Before the group, I was into Warp Records stuff, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and stuff that the label Ninja Tune was putting out. Dan was more into drum and bass, but he also liked Prodigy. Then we decided to write songs together to see what we could do.
Most of Nero's music seems very influences by Sci-Fi flicks. What kinds of movies go through your head when you're making beats?
There's a tune we have called “New Life” that's been around a while. Between the beat and vocal on it, it sounded like it was taken from Total Recall or something. Terminator 2 and Blade Runner are also huge influences on our music. The score for those movies are quite inspiring.
What is your opinion on the popularity of dubstep in the U.S.? Is it for the better or for the worse?
I never think it's really for worse. I just don't get people who moan about it. Just listen to what you like. I think people get hung up on the word. Well then, just forget the word dubstep then and call it something different. We didn't go out there saying we are dubstep. Skrillex would never have done that either. We just write the music we write. Sure, it's different from the U.K. stuff from 2005 that sounds way less commercial or whatever. If that's the only difference, then why don't we just call it something else then? Just listen to what you're into. There's always going to be different scenes branching off in different directions.