Photograph courtesy of Ross Lai
Andrew Swanson grabs us from the lobby of his hotel. He's puffy-eyed, a little delirious and tired. He greets us warmly and we immediately head upstairs. If he wasn't wearing his flashy, member's only-looking Mad Decent varsity, you'd have no idea that this unassuming 26-year-old has, alongside Diplo, helped construct beats for acts like Beyoncé, 2 Chainz and Miley Cyrus.
Swanson, aka Mad Decent signee and Team Supreme member, Djemba Djemba, says he's getting over a bad stomach virus from the previous night. His demeanor heavily contrasts the colorful, larger-than-life, UK bass inspired sound he parades on SoundCloud, BBC Radio and Boiler Room.
Before the interview, he offers to make some herbal tea and apologizes for being a little out of it. Djemba Djemba's honest about his perspective on music. He's unconcerned with giving off any artistic allure whatsoever, and yet, he completely controls the conversation, and later, the dance floor. We sit down and chat hours before him and Team Supreme teammate Mr. Carmack, play to a sold out crowd at The Hoxton in Toronto as part of their Memory Loss Tour, alongside Huh What & Where producer, Sweater Beats.
THUMP: What are you thinking about when you make new music?
Andrew: I've always been this person who was afraid to become successful. I wanted that freedom to change my music up no matter what. If you listen to my SoundCloud, every song is usually completely different. I don't have a specific set of rules. A lot of my songs come randomly. I still spend hours writing crap. When I finally hit something really tight, I keep it for myself and release it.
And on the contrary to popular belief, I don't smoke weed when I make music. A lot of producers will be like, "You know, you have to smoke a lot of weed." [Laughs] I can't be on drugs when I do music. I actually meditate twice a day so I get my creativity from there. I don't even know if I'd write good music, so it's funny you're asking me what I'm thinking about when I write. Sometimes I just write it and think, "This shit's terrible." [Laughs]
How long have you been meditating?
Since I was twelve, I'm twenty-six now. I went to a school where you meditated twice a day in the middle of Iowa. The Beatles did it, it's called transcendental meditation. It's good to go inwards. I fall asleep usually when I do it.
Do you hear music when you meditate?
I feel like I hear music in my head all the time. A lot of people do, but it's the artist's ability to tap into whatever source of music they're hearing and translate it to their fingers. To get it into the software or the synthesizer, or whatever they use to make good music. To be honest, I think that's the only thing that separates people from doing anything artistically great. Having that connection from your brain to your fingers to be on point, so you don't lose anything between the time your brain hears it to when your fingers are creating it in your software.
Everyone can make a song. But you can't translate what you hear in your head to your software without tons of practice. Just like anything, painting, or doing business—if you have a great idea, to really manifest it, you just have to practice. When you see me live, I'm not trying to entertain people as a DJ. I'm trying to entertain them as a track selector and a producer.
Is it hard to articulate that to the crowd?
Not when the song starts playing. I can DJ a lot better than I used to. But Diplo, he's like one of those prolific producer DJs. He DJs 100 tracks in an hour, and they're incredible, energy building sets. I'm trying to build my way up to controlling the pace of a crowd. But to me, it's more important to write music.
Recently I had a song on my SoundCloud that I took down that was like a twelve-minute ambient thing, with a lot of hard beats in the background. That's something I wouldn't play in the club.
What motivates you to go in that direction?
I get so sick of fads and styles sounding the same between each producer. What I'm writing is from my heart. I try to write things that are meaningful. I listen to a lot of music that's not necessarily beat driven, so on one hand I want to maintain certain relevance with fans, but I also want to blow their minds in ways not built for a club setting.
Do you have to hand-hold them in that direction?
Oh yeah. Last night I did a set and halfway through I went into this dark, experimental mode and I think people were feeling it. Definitely in Canada, kids know what good music is. A lot of kids want to hear, like, bangers, but there's a certain group of individuals that really feel the same energy from a darker track as they would from a trap banger.
I'm trying to help people experience new sounds. When I'm at the club, I can't get too deep on people, or else it's not fun for anybody.
But do you want to?
I mean sometimes I end up doing that. Sometimes I troll people, for example, that Boiler Room set. I wasn't really playing to anyone in the room; I was playing to the chat room online, because that seems to be where Boiler Room happens the most. So I'll do things like challenge people in that way, as opposed to playing for people in the room.
In a Reddit thread you said, "Mad Decent is pioneering the touring artist and producer model." Can you explain that?
There are a lot of dope producers, and a lot of them don't get heard. Great ones might get approached by a major record label and get signed to some crazy deal where they basically hand over publishing and have to produce on a quota. But then they start writing music they don't know or haven't met artistically. You can be a dope producer, but if you sign a deal, they get to take your music and do whatever they want with it. And if you're not hot anymore or they don't feel your music's going anywhere, they can just drop you form the label.
Mad Decent has a producer first mindset. DJ second. But those are not exclusive from each other. On one hand we want to connect with other artists and write for anyone, pop, underground, whoever. But at the same time, we don't get stuck under a publishing deal that wouldn't let us release music we'd want to release.
I've worked with a lot of artists who are really good singers and rappers, who just don't have the confidence or ability to put out music. They're so entrenched in the industry model; it's hard for them to get outside of that. Mad Decent basically blows up as artists and work with singers, pop artists, and tie together the two worlds. Coincidentally, the more popular you are as a producer, the more people want to work with you.
That model must be hard to articulate to A&R and the old guard in the music industry.
It's more like they're realizing a lot of their producers aren't as good as the producers putting out their own music that's blowing up independently. A perfect example of someone who put her own music out first and got approached after it blew up is Lorde. Flume too. They've already produced the whole record; they just sell it to the major labels.
It's like the rules are getting rewritten bi-monthly in electronic beat music these days.
Yeah. I feel like music has become more accessible and more open. Genre's happen super fast, they grow and die instantly. That's a good thing, though. It's not the labels or major industry dictating where music goes. It's just kids on the Internet. I think that's the best development. And living in Los Angeles is like a double-whammy of being in the right place at the right time. As these kids are dictating shit on the Internet, we're able to interpret that and be part of it.
Is it more in the favor of young kids?
Definitely. For example, this girl Doja Cat, who I've been reblogging on my SoundCloud, just from being on the Internet, gets hit up by one of the biggest pop producers in the world, Dr. Luke, and she's able to do her own project with his money.
That's the future of where these labels are going. They don't want to encroach on these kids' creativity. They realize these creators have the brand, or sound they're going for. It's not selling out, it's more getting a benefactor to help you realize your dreams.
There are no rules anymore. The only time people say something's cool or not cool is when they're trying to feel good about themselves for listening to something. It's the ultimate hipster way. [Laughs]
So we're in a world where music is either classic or it's garbage?
I don't know. I guess time is the only thing that determines if something's a classic. Something that came out that sucks now might be classic later on.
What's your favourite album of the year so far?
I really liked Lone's Airglow Fires from last year. To be honest, I just love James Blake. I listen to him over and over every day. For our people, he's captured the sound that I want to hear every day. When somebody's a true master, they do something that sounds completely new but completely expected. You hear it, and then it's just natural. I haven't heard anything that's really blown my mind like James Blake.
Who do you want to work with?
I got to work with The Clash over the summer with Diplo, and they're one of my favourite bands of all time. I've been really fortunate to be working with really cool people. Having aspirations to work with someone famous is great, but to me, I'd rather blow someone up that's completely unknown, than work with someone who's already on top.