Jackson Stell did what every twenty-something dreams of when they get frustrated with their creatively stifling job: he moved to California and learned to surf. Which turned out well for all of us, because now we have Big Wild and all his sunny, freedom-steeped, big-bass dance tracks—including “La Brisa” (nice use of pan flutes), and the meandering, marijuana-laced “To the Left”—which have drawn comparisons to Flume and Odesza.
Working as a composer for ad agencies was a good gig, but it was holding Stell back from what he really wanted to do. So the Massachusetts native left the East Coast to make it as a producer in Los Angeles. There, he’d work shifts at Whole Foods and go home to his studio set-up—two monitors, a keyboard, and a computer—remixing other people’s tracks, along with busting out his originals. His lengthy Soundcloud CV boasts remixes of Sylvan Esso’s “Hey Mami,” Ludacris’ “Stand Up,” the ever-so-buzzy “Champagne Drip,” and, most recently, Chvrches’ “Empty Threat.” Each tune touched with a dose of sand and waves. It was his Soundcloud that caught the attention of Odesza, who invited Stell on tour, remixing their “Say My Name” featuring Zyra. In April, he put out his first release with Odesza’s Foreign Family Collective. But was “Aftergold” that really shot Stell into the sonic stratosphere.
Stell is the embodiment of the word ~*vibes*~ (tildes and asterisks necessary). I invite him to eat gourmet ice cream at Morgenstern’s on the Lower East Side, hoping his presence would invoke a little bit of summer. Unfortunately, it’s gray and dreary, nevertheless the producer is high on the fact that he’s playing to a sold-out crowd at Mercury Lounge later that night—one of 13 sold-out shows of his first headlining tour. Wearing a simple gray T and thick, rectangular-framed glasses, his locks as luscious as Harry Styles (pre-chop, of course), he looks at the menu and ordered an “ash & coconut” ice cream. We settle on two stools facing a giant mirrored wall. Naturally, we take a selfie.
Stell is 25, but he’s been messing with electronic music for years. In eighth grade he started producing hip-hop beats, which he’d give to rapper friends or sell online. But before that, he took piano lessons, like any other kid. “At the time, I really hated it,” he admits. Switching to trumpet when he saw his older brother at it, he still wasn’t finding his funk with music. “It wasn’t a huge addiction to it like I have now.”
These days, his stimulation comes from sitting in front of a MIDI-programmed keyboard, with a whole orchestra of instruments within a five-foot radius. “I like being the composer and having control of every sound, whereas with the trumpet and piano I could only make those sounds and I got tired of doing it all the time when I want to do something else.”
At this point, our ice cream is scooped and Stell heads to the counter, returning with a curious smirk, the ice cream he’s bearing is pitch black. “I think this really has ash in it,” he says, surprised. Nevertheless he digs in, a black ring of ice cream residue forming at the edges of his mouth. I should’ve said something, but I ask him about the success of “Aftergold” instead.
Originally just an instrumental before he added Tove Styke’s vocals, “Aftergold” sounds like a stroll through a jungle: there’s far-off echoes that you can’t quite place, subtle hums of happiness, dream-like harps, a melange of marimba and a complexity that leaves you wondering what’s around the corner of every beat. It has nearly four million plays on Soundcloud alone and nearly 10 million on Spotify. Ironically, even after leaving the advertising biz, the advertising biz sought him out: “Aftergold” was chosen as the coveted soundtrack for an Apple Watch commercial. He added Tove Styrke to the rerelease in April.
With the original “Aftergold” almost a year old, though, Stell says he’s really trying to focus on new stuff. Later that evening, he plays new track with iDA HAWK (who also collaborates with Stell’s friend Griz). The song still has his trademark love of big bass, but it’s more about the vocals, with all their yearning and sometimes menacing harmonies.
Working with vocals makes his songs feel more “complete” because “you can’t really replace it with any instrument.” He has his eye on more singers, including UK artist Rationale, whom he’s been listening to a lot (along with Tame Impala and Rufus Du Sol). But for the most part he’s been working with women and admits that he has a thing for the female voice.
“Sometimes I feel like female vocals are a little easier to integrate in electronic music,” he explains. “It’s also what you’re used to hearing. I also just love the sound of it.”
We polish off our ice cream, and sugar high, Stell heads back to the venue to finish soundcheck before the show. “It’s a dance party. You’ll burn it off. You’ll be fine,” he says as we part ways.
That night the Mercury Lounge is packed with couples holding PBRs. Big Wild takes the stage launch straight into his Ludacris remix, which makes the Lower East Side dive sound a tropical rainforest party. Flanked by a keyboard, drum pad, cajon, and of course, a trusty laptop, live Stell tinkers with all that surrounds him. Occasionally, he’ll whistle a melody into the mic while line drawings of California landscapes flicker as a backdrop. Which ties in with Big Wild’s logo of evergreens and the undulating Cali coastline. I think about Stell taking his surfboard to the beach and hear the Pacific Ocean in his song “Venice Ventures,” a sensual, spacey joint with wah-wahed guitars and rubberband bloops—not to mention a sample of the Pacific Ocean. It’s like hearing The Surfaris in 2016. But with a MC in the mix.
Around me, people are dancing enough to burn off all the ice cream cones in the store, especially when they hear the opening notes of “Aftergold.” But for the most part, the audience are chill, likely dreaming of the West Coast. I’m a little envious of his laidback ~*vibes*~, but at least Stell could bring New York into his big, wild world for a night, giving us a taste of sunshine before tomorrow, when he drives off to the next city, and we head back to our 9 to 5s.
Big Wild Tour Dates
Sat. May 14 – Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge (SOLD OUT)
Sun. May 15 – Albuquerque, NM @ Stereo Bar at El Rey (buy tix) ^
Wed. May 18 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar (buy tix) ^
Thurs. May 19 – San Diego, CA @ Bang Bang (buy tix) ^
Fri. May 20 – Los Angeles, CA @ Echo (SOLD OUT) ^
Sat. May 21 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent (SOLD OUT) ^
Sun. May 22 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent (SOLD OUT)
Fri. July 1 – Mon. July 4 – Fauquier, BC @ Kamp Festival (buy tix)
Thu. July 14 – Sat. July 16 – Scranton, PA @ Camp Bisco (buy tix)
Fri. Aug – Sun Aug 7 – Buena Vista, CO @ Vertex Festival (buy tix)
* w/ Chet Porter
^ w/ Electric Mantis