Producer and super-collaborator Alan Wilkis helms the self-proclaimed “paranoid electronic music project from the Internet,” Big Data. The Harvard-educated musician caught the attention of music lovers last summer when “Dangerous,” his song with electro-indie group Joywave reached No. 1 on the U.S. alternative music charts. The debut album, “2.0,” was released in late March and features a guest vocalist on nine out of 10 tracks, including indie favorite Twin Shadow, creative powerhouse Kimbra and M83’s White Sea.
“With each song on '2.0,' I set out to explore a specific issue or moment in technology,” Wilkis told Wired. “And lyrically they are often voiced from the perspective of the ‘bad guy’ in the narrative.” Before heading onstage to play Philadelphia’s Underground Arts venue, Wilkis gave us a call to detail his collaboration experiences and chat about his involved songwriting process. He’ll play Fine Line Music Café Tuesday night.
Q: First off, I wanted to ask you if you’ve ever read any Karl Marx.
A: I actually haven’t read a lot of Karl Marx.
Q: I’m studying him right now. We’re reading about how in the mid 1800s he essentially predicted data analytics in marketing. He was writing a lot about capitalism and how once it saturated the globe it would start taking over our time and now with big data and our constant fixation with our phones and social media we’re doing all this free labor. Your music is totally playing with that so I thought that you’re kind of ahead of the rest of our cultural landscape by grappling with that.
A: Haha, yeah! I haven’t read it but that sounds pretty much right on. And way ahead of me!
Q: So you’re dealing with all these technological issues and a lot of it is in relation to interpersonal communication, is there one particular song whose thematic content has the most gravity to you personally?
A: Thematically or overall? Because there is one song, this song called “Automatic” that kind of feels the most emotional to me but the subject matter isn’t as heavy. Something about the structure of the song and the way that the song cuts in and out and feels like a ballad and then sort of explodes a little bit…In a funny way “The Business of Emotion” is sort of the heaviest subject matter even though it sounds like the most happy, upbeat song. The subject matter is about the Facebook mood experiments. I don’t know how familiar you are with it but they basically did this sort of wide scale mood manipulation experiment to 7,000 people without them knowing about it. That was pretty heavy.
Q: I actually discovered Big Data because Kimbra posted a link to the Wired article when you streamed your record. I’m a huge fan of hers – can you tell me about working with her?
A: Oh my god, it was absolutely incredible. She’s probably the most talented person I’ve ever met before. Her brain works at such a faster pace than anyone else I know. Ideas just firing off just constantly. There were so many different cool things about working with her…we were together for two days, basically, and the way I work with everybody is I sort of come into the studio with the track written and then we work together on the melodies and the lyrics. She came in and she had already come up with tons of ideas on her own time. So that was just cool to begin with, and then after we had written all the parts on the first day, we came in on the second day and she just kind of ran the show! She was equally comfortable behind the board on ProTools and making her own edits.
The coolest thing was, she just sang the whole thing in one take! Usually when I’m writing a song with somebody we’ll go, “Let’s do the first verse! OK, that was cool, let’s try it again. OK, now let’s do the chorus, okay, cool! Let’s try that again.” With her it was like, “How do you want to do it, Kimbra?” And she was like, “Oh, I’m just going to sing the entire song.” And then she just did a flawless performance on that first time I ever really heard her sing the song. That alone was a pretty magical experience. She’s just a really inspiring person – just all around.
Q: Is the process going differently with every artist you’re working with?
A: We both throw ideas into the air until we find the ones we like the most. It’s very diplomatic and I like it to feel like a safe place to try ideas. I try to sort of not have any ego and I try to make them feel comfortable. The process is always pretty similar in that way.
Q: You’re doing all of the mixing, all of the producing, most of the playing on the record, and like you said you typically co-write the melodies with the vocalists that you’re working with. Is there a part of that process that you really love the most?
A: It’s hard to say. I really do enjoy all the parts equally. I think I like the editing stuff the least. I really like mixing, I really love writing with people, I really love trying out ideas. The whole thing is really fun for me, honestly. I’m kind of a control freak, I just like being on top of everything. I like to direct it but I like them to feel confident to do their thing. I like to give them an opportunity to really be themselves in a context that they maybe aren’t normally in. You know, like, Rivers doesn’t sing over electronic music very often. I like to put them in a context that they’re not typically known for but that they’re totally comfortable to do and I just want them to shine because they can and they’re all so frickin’ talented. I really like it to feel like collaboration, a real one.
Q: So, “Dangerous,” the song that jump-started the success of Big Data by topping the alt charts, has a really cool tight-groove sound. And then the following single with White Sea, one of my favorites, “The Business of Emotion,” that one has a pretty massive pop chorus with huge hooks. Where is this array of stylistic influences coming from?
A: All over the place. I listen to a really absurdly large amount of music all the time so I definitely get inspired by tons of stuff all the time. The way that I write songs is pretty consistent. And I think I have a style of how I produce now, even when it’s more poppy versus more dark or electronic. It hopefully doesn’t feel totally all over the place.
Q: Who right now are you really into?
A: I’ve been really liking Jack Derek a lot. And Christine and the Queens, she’s a French artist, she’s really good. I like the Mark Ronson album, the D’Angelo album. I heard a guy named Nick Hakim recently that I thought was really cool.
Q: How did you come up with that Siri-like voice embedded in your shows? I think that’s really clever.
A: I really wanted the show to be sort of theatrical and weird. I wanted it to feel like a parallel universe imagination land. Any sort of moments that make you think you recognize something and then twist it – that’s like my favorite thing in the world. I tried to make the voice like Siri, like a sort of personal assistant, except she’s commanding you to give her your data and like, take selfies. It makes it this sort of meta performance.
Q: Now that you’ve completed and released your full-length album do you have an idea for what future work under Big Data will look like?
A: I think about that a lot. I have some ideas but I don’t know yet! I have some touring and I’ve got to promote this record first before I really start making the next one but I am starting to think about it. Part of me has thought about making something like a story, like a concept album. Part of me thought of killing off Big Data, like the death of Big Data. I really don’t know yet. The thing that’s so important to me is that I want the songs to still be able to stand on their own and I don’t want you to have to have your “nerd ears” on to enjoy the songs. I want them to stand up as pop songs. That’s where the concept album stuff might not work because if there’s a character or if there’s something specific to a story I don’t know how well that will play out in individual songs. It’s not fully cooked, it’s not even like a quarter cooked!
Where: Fine Line Music Café
When: Tue. March 31, 8 p.m.