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When it comes to performing at Coachella, The Gaslamp Killer is a veteran, but nobody could’ve prepared him for the unexpected vitriol he’d receive from disgruntled Drake fans who were tuning into the festival’s YouTube live-stream to see performances of songs like “0 to 100” and “Know Yourself.”
“It was 50/50, really. Fifty percent of people were telling me to kill myself and then the other 50 percent were telling me how happy they were for me trending for pissing off Drake fans,” laughs the Killer.
Those logging on to catch the Canadian rapper’s set instead found a wild-haired man wearing a rainbow tie-dyed tank top with 14 musicians, two costumed dancers, and psychedelic visuals. Naturally, many of the chatroom viewers reacted to this minor scheduling hiccup with the cool, collected demeanor usually reserved for monkeys at a zoo throwing their own feces at each other.
Not that the Los Angeles-based DJ and producer—whose real name is William Bensussen—was fazed in the slightest. Ever since his early days playing records in San Diego’s Gaslamp District, where he regularly cleared the dance floor for refusing to play Top 40, he’s no stranger to combative audiences. Speaking to him on the phone a few days following his second week’s set, where he’s enjoying his first day off at home in a month, there’s no trace of the aggressive artist whose live shows typically feature him thrashing his hair or maniacally cackling into the mic, and who titled a song on his 2012 debut album Breakthrough (released on Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder Records), “Fuck.” Instead, he’s in an ebullient mood, eager to talk about his new band, their one-take live album The Gaslamp Killer Experience: Live In Los Angeles (recorded in November 2013 and now available on iTunes), and his forthcoming “60 percent done” sophomore LP. Is it possible Bensussen’s found peace with himself and transformed into a gentler, warmer Killer?
“You got me in a good mood,” he admits. “That was my biggest Coachella to date and it was the most fulfilled that I’ve felt in a long time.”
He sounds triumphant, and when you consider his journey to get there, it’s easy to understand why. In July 2013, the producer was involved in a near-fatal scooter crash, which lead to him being hospitalized and his spleen being removed. Left with a twelve-inch scar, he was forced to permanently give up drinking and drugs, and faced a long recovery. Fast-forward to a few months later, when he decided to mount a concert at the Mayan Theatre recreating songs from his first album with some of his favorite musicians, despite protests that he wasn’t healthy enough yet. “I had a lot of professionals around me—doctors, acupuncturists, healers,” he says. “I was getting so many mixed messages that I decided to go with my gut and my gut told me that I could handle it.”
After a handful of rehearsals, he decided to go ahead with the show, with one significant change. “I just had to have a more sophisticated, cerebral performance. It was high energy from the band, it wasn’t just a GLK performance, we distributed my energy amongst the band and they shared their energy with me.”
Artists talking about drawing strength from their backing musicians or their audience is not a new phenomenon, but to hear The Gaslamp Killer discuss his approach, his outlook feels more spiritual. If you’ve ever seen him live, besides playing everything from records he grew up on (DJ Shadow, J Dilla, Pete Rock, etc.) to the music of his multicultural parents and ancestors, he often dedicates songs to and talks about his relatives, like his older brother Jake who passed away suddenly in 2010. It’s through these moments where we get a glimpse of the person behind the bass-heavy, high BPM compositions that have made him a linchpin in LA’s experimental electronic scene, a man who’s fiercely loyal to his family and friends.
An avid record collector, who mentions that his follow-up to Breakthrough draws on disparate genres including East African music and proto-metal (“Metallica, but with Gaslamp Killer drums, I’m not doing any double drum shit,” he says with a laugh), he’s not shy to embrace new recording technologies. He was one of the first DJs to incorporate the use of an iPad in his set after buying one in 2009. You might have seen him in a recent Apple commercial, an opportunity which came about after the company emailed him out of the blue.
“They called me and said they’ve been watching my YouTube videos and asked if I wanted to be featured in their spot. They said ‘We’re going to have a big party, you’re going to turn everybody the fuck up, and we’ll film it.’ I said ‘Sounds perfect, that’s exactly what I do,’” he explains. “The only difference is that it was at 12 in the afternoon and there was no alcohol. I got the entire club moshing without drugs or alcohol so it felt pretty good.”
One of the tracks in consideration to make the cut, the Turkish rock-influenced “Haleva”,” features longtime collaborator Amir Yaghmai and premiered on fellow LA beatmaker FlyLo’s BBC Radio 1 show. Like Kanye West’s “Through The Wire,” which the rapper famously originally recorded with his mouth wired shut following his 2002 car crash, it serves as a signpost of sorts to his career. “It was a rough sketch that we finished after the accident,” says Bensussen. “That’s the one song between two eras of GLK.”
As our conversation winds to a close—there’s members of The Gaslamp Killer Experience coming over to return gear and discuss their upcoming European tour—we return to the topic of Coachella. While it’s easy to get caught up in the cynicism of the public’s perception to large festivals, watching the performance again, seeing him give props to his band (he estimates 10,000 people were in attendance), he exudes gratefulness about being given a second chance to do what he loves. A recent L.A. Weekly story entitled “How the L.A. Beat Scene Conquered Coachella” mentions the inclusion and prominent billing of acts including FlyLo, bassist Thundercat, producer Shlohmo, and Bensussen’s fellow Low End Theory resident DJs Daddy Kev, DJ Nobody, and D-Styles. When asked about his peers, he can’t help but revert to a fanboy, expressing how honored he feels when he gets to hear new material and praises them for pushing boundaries.
“I’m such a big fan, I love getting snippets of the new shit,” he says. ‘There’s so many inspirational cats out here.”
Max Mertens is a writer living in Toronto. He’s on Twitter - @Max_Mertens