From chance encounters to collaborations: How Aussie DJ What So Not approaches making music
Daniel Johns, Skrillex, Toto (yes, you read that correctly)… the tracklist for the debut album from Sydney-born act What So Not reads more like a drunkenly curated playlist rather than a cohesive list of collaborators. Yet somehow the man behind it all, Chris “Emoh” Emerson makes it work.
Speaking with him, it becomes clear that the secret behind such a dynamic and expansive project is Emerson’s laser focus to the task at hand. He doesn’t stumble over his words when answering questions, and moves with ease from chatting about his new role as a creative director to the life lessons surfing has taught him.
A debut album is a daunting thought for any artist, but Not All The Beautiful Things arrives with higher expectation than usual. Having released three EPs since 2011 (interspersed with a number of one-off single releases), What So Not made a name for himself by employing the likes of Dillon Francis, Kimbra, RL Grime and Skrillex on his tracks.
The full-length LP also comes at a time when the electronic music scene – a genre that Emerson played a hand in shaping, thanks to his work with former collaborator Flume – is less linear than ever before, so it ultimately takes more to stand out.
Yet it was taking a little extra time to put out his first album that also gave What So Not the opportunity to take some risks, write more songs and produce a body of work that is both unexpected and forward-thinking.
Below he tells TMN all about the process of making Not All The Beautiful Things, how he came to work with Toto and what he thinks the music trend for this year will be.
Obviously collaboration formed a huge part of how your music is created. How do you go about approaching others when you want to work with them this time around?
Honestly, with my work, usually it’s just a chance encounter, or it’s a reference from a friend. I just like jumping in the studio with interesting people, and seeing what happens. And that’s how pretty much every single record happened for this album.
I don’t really like to send out beats and instrumentals, and just get a top line back. I really like to dive into someone, I like to get right into the narrative and the concept, what I had in mind, and trying to find some sort of cohesive pattern between a songwriter or another producer. A lot of this album, I actually wrote the vocals myself, or wrote a good portion of them, and then brought someone in, who shared a cohesive vision with it, to finish them off.
How did you that songwriting process this time around?
It was really powerful, it gave me a lot of room to move. It made this story a lot broader, it made the creative spaces that I can venture into so much wider as well, you know, in terms of designing aesthetics, the stage design in terms of show visuals, in terms of the artwork, in term of visualises, writing video treatments for the songs, and all of that.
What prompted the decision to step up into this creative director role?
I was lucky to work with some really amazing people at this incredible company that work on all the show visuals with us. I had a few really interesting people around me that just pushed me to do things that I wasn’t doing or that I wasn’t thinking about, and eventually I got to a point I just had enough confidence to be like, “I really want to give this a crack, even if I’ve never done this before, I’m just gonna get out there and I’m just gonna do it and I’m just diving head first and see what happens”.
I worked on a lot of the development of the music videos from this album with my filmmaker buddy Luke Eblen, who’s been a great friend to me and a great mentor. He’s really pushing me in that realm, maybe one day I’ll be doing my own films and things… who knows. But for now, I’m very, very passionate about music and this project, and all the different avenues that are enabling me to venture into.
What’s the biggest risk you think you’ve taken creatively?
Biggest risk creatively? I’d have to say on this album, singing on the record was pretty nerve-wracking for me, and I’ve done that on the very first single, and it was actually a duet with of all people, Daniel Johns.
It was nerve wrecking even just showing him tracks behind the scenes, and the fact that he loved it and was happy to re-sing the parts that I’ve written and then add few of his own and encourage me to keep my voice on it, it was really amazing. That was one of the most scary things.
I think the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in my career was actually deciding to quit a nine-to-five job and go for music. I went overseas for a few months after leaving my day job, and came back and I just had this feeling… I was like, “I think I can do this, I think I can abandon everything I’ve been taught my whole life about get good grades, go to university, and get a good job, buy a house, blah blah blah”. And I just scrapped all of that and decided to pursue this absurd idea of being a musician.
The decision I made in that moment is something I’ve always carried – it’s kinda the core of my decisions for everything. I’m really into surfing and I find myself in the ocean tackling things head on that have been extremely dangerous and a little above my skill level, but as I approach, I just need to have faith in whatever I’m doing. And I think that really helps sometimes – you have failures, and then things don’t work out. But, there’s always very valuable lessons, and I think it’s more important to make as many mistakes as you can earlier on, so that you have this advance of knowledge and ability to not make those same errors later down the track when the stakes are much higher.
You are renowned to dropping a little ‘Africa’ in your DJ sets. How did the collaboration with Toto come about?
That’s actually how it came about! I was dropping Africa a bunch, I think it’s such a beautiful song. It fit really well in line with this other track – sort of a similar tone and chord progression. So, I used to mix those together all the time and then Skrillex became quite a good friend of mine and signing me to his label for quite some time. And then he started playing ‘Africa’ as well, right at the peak of his career and then suddenly, Toto’s record ended up in the charts in America.
A wild suggestion was talking to Skrillex and Chris Morris of A&R about getting some top lines for our songs, and they’re like “Why don’t we hit up Toto?”. So I’m like, “You can do that?”, and they’re like, “Yeah, it’s LA, man. You can do whatever you want and things just happen”, and sure enough, a week later, I’m in the studio with the four remaining band members, Steve, Dave, Joe, and Steve Lukather.
Was that the most surreal moment, or was that when you realised literally anything is possible?
Yeah, it as a bit of both. I found myself there, just feeling very out of my depth, but I often feel like that. I sort of dive in on things and see what happens. I was in there, and I was like, “I don’t know if I have the musical ability to match these guys that have written performed on Michael Jackson records, and are in Ringo Starr‘s band, but I’m gonna give it my best shot right now”, and we kind of came up with this new way of jamming where I would plug in my Ableton session into the Protools session run by the engineer.
The engineer would then be tracking guitars and two sets of vocals and synthesis, while I’m playing different loops, and the guys record over these different loops. And then, by the end, I had like 130 stems of all these different ideas that they’ve tracked. We had to Frankenstein it all together, and honestly, this song took me about three years to put together. I had so many versions, probably a hundred different versions.
One of them was this 11-minute long ballad that I should have structured around the concept of [Stevie Wright’s] Evie Part One, Two and Three. Eventually I came and settled on this one. I took such a long time, but I’m so glad I waited because I think in certain periods of my career, my understanding of songwriting and of what elements are most important in this song has very much changed and evolved. I think I wouldn’t have done it a justice in part, and I’m so glad that I waited. This song is quite different for what I usually make, and it’s not as predictable and it doesn’t really follow a lot of the same formulas that a lot of big, heavy dance music songs might follow.
What is it about electronic music that can level the playing field like that?
I think because of the advances in technology and how simply things that were once quite complex are not, you have this freedom to spontaneously totally flip somethings on it’s head in a moment like, I can take a guitar riff from Steve Lukather and I can within a couple of minutes, flip and change, and push, and cut, and edit into a totally new solo, run through a bunch of interesting processing with delays, and amplifies, and compression. I can start reversing things, I can start chopping up little pieces of vocals, and incorporating that into like a rhythmic section behind that piece of guitar, and suddenly you have this insane lead riff that you would never would have been able to do with just the guitar, or it would have taken, you know, a very long time and a whole lot of processing. And, the twisting and turning you can do on these programmes now with such ease and speed, it stops the creative flow from falling out whilst someone’s trying to plug away at this.
Did you feel the pressure to release a full length album this time round?
I didn’t actually feel any pressure to do that. It was something that I wanted to do, I put out a more extensive body of work than I’ve done before, the Divide & Conquer EP, in 2016, and that was more opening my eyes to the potential of what I could do with a full album, and the freedom it gave you is what really drew me to it, and you can create this all encompassing narrative and creative sort of world to place everything in, and that’s really what I wanted to do and what I set out to do in terms of all the stage design, in terms of the show visuals, in terms of the artworks, in terms of music videos, and all of that. And, of course, the music itself, and for me, the album is like one piece of music, it moves from start to finish and it can even be looped on repeat as one kind of story.
Any trend predictions for the music industry for 2018?
Guitars. Guitars are back.
The Beautiful Things World Tour’ is presented by BBE, Maker and triple j. Tickets available here.
SATURDAY JUNE 16 | METRO CITY, PERTH | 18+
FRIDAY JUNE 22 | HQ, ADELAIDE | AA
SATURDAY JUNE 23 | THE FORUM, MELBOURNE | 18+
FRIDAY JUNE 29 | HORDERN PAVILION, SYDNEY | 18+
SATURDAY JUNE 30 | BRISBANE SHOWGROUNDS, BRISBANE | AA