Sonny Moore climbs into a bloody great spaceship in the California desert, salutes his friends, lights a fag, and proceeds to reduce 20,000 party kids to jelly for 90 minutes. His set at Coachella is a fast-cut barrage of hip-hop, house, 90s rave, Jamaican dancehall, grotesquely gurgling dubstep bass, fizzy trance rushes, high-sugar 80s soft-rock choruses and sudden bursts of abstract noise. The vast tent is slathered in a never-ending spew of lasers and strobing projections of alien faces, acid smileys, explosions, emojis and internet icons such as Nyan Cat and Flappy Bird.
There’s a bravura turn from New Yorker A$AP Rocky and his crew, who surge on to the stage for a few rap verses, and a wonderfully odd finale involving a hooded steel pan player and Moore himself bounding down from his vehicle to the front of the stage, where he wrings out a high-drama punk-metal guitar solo. It’s quite a ride.
The last time Moore, AKA Skrillex, spoke to the Guardian, three years ago, there was some confusion about his place in the world. He was a former teenage rocker who had walked away from a $3m deal with his band From First to Last, turned to making dance music, citing Aphex Twin as his primary influence but happy to remix Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga. He frequently used the sounds and rhythms of dubstep – which by 2011 was nearing the peak of its explosive global rise – royally enraging the scene’s purists, who were already struggling to cope with “their” sound spilling into the mainstream and picked him as scapegoat. Referencing this, the piece ran with the headline “Is Skrillex the most hated man in dubstep?” and Moore, stung by this, promptly cut off almost all media contact.
Some might see that as petulant. But in person, the wiry 26-year-old is almost unnervingly kind and enthusiastic. Even Gia Trimble, a former dance music manager who has seen the worst excesses of American DJ culture and isn’t afraid to spill beans, tells me: “Sorry, I got nothing on Sonny – nothing – he truly is that nice.”
Moore sidesteps all questions about negative portrayals, saying the media blackout was “because I didn’t have time for it. I preferred to let the music reach the people directly.” If that was the plan, it worked: the dubstep bubble may have burst, but it ushered in the era of American “EDM”, which is seemingly now as entrenched in the entertainment industry as rock, rap or country (it’s perhaps significant that one theory advanced for the perceived failure of Outkast’s comeback performance at Coachella is that an audience conditioned for the crowd-pleasing rush of EDM simply does not have the patience for a set designed to please hardcore fans). While Skrillex may not have the chart clout of, say, Calvin Harris – his debut studio album, Recess, was slipped out last month without ceremony or advance notice, and he has previously given away his music – he is one of the figureheads of EDM, sending stadium-sized crowds wild.
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He lives in a mezzanine apartment full of technology and toys in a 101-year-old warehouse – his studio is an identical one next door – in the endless light-industrial sprawl of downtown Los Angeles, now in the first throes of gentrification. The offices of his own labels, Owsla and Nest, are a couple of blocks away. He and the close friends who do his lights and visuals walk or skateboard between them and the various juice bars and artisan sausage-and-beer joints that are filling the neighbourhood alongside the Mexican and Korean businesses.
As we walk near his home – Moore greeting local business owners and passersby like old friends, or posing for pictures with strangers who accost him, street art by Shepard Fairey and D*Face on every other wall – it feels like hipster heaven: the wide streets and unbroken blue sky a Californian antidote to the claustrophobic and hypercompetitive buzz-chasing of east London or Brooklyn.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moore is an optimist about both his position and the music scene. “This dance music thing is not a bubble,” he says, sitting in his apartment chain-smoking menthol cigarettes. “Because it’s not about dubstep, or techno, or house, or any other sound: those things coexist and support each other. It’s not like when grunge or nu-metal or whatever became the new trend and everyone was chasing one sound and that scene turned in on itself and lost what it had to begin with. There’s room for everything.”
It’s easy to scoff at that, especially when Britain witnessed the last-days-of-Rome horrors of superstar DJ culture and the bursting of its bubble. But Moore is insistent, and pretty convincing, as he says that Miami’s Ultra Music Festival – which this year has been held up as the epitome of rave Babylon, with pictures of wasted ravers and exhibitionist industry executives going viral – was safer and better-organised than most music or sporting events of comparable size. “A lot of these pictures are from previous years anyway,” he says. “We were there this year and seriously the crowd were better and safer than I’ve ever seen there. It was awesome.”
The crowd in Palm Springs for Coachella bears this out. The wrecked “candy ravers” and rampaging fratboys of EDM cliche are barely present – aside from more visible breasts and muscles, it is close to any European festival audience out for a good time, perhaps even a bit savvier. Despite it being the second day of 30C-plus daytime heat and desert dust whipped up by the wind, accompanied by the omnipresent reek of strong weed, there are no sparked-out casualties to be seen. And plenty of the electronic music may be facile, but no more so than that played by some of the biggest British names in the 90s. Much as Britons might have willed the Americans to have glommed on to a nastier, trashier version of the dance culture we have long dominated, it’s clear that, for the most part, they really get it.
Likewise, it doesn’t come over as flannel when Moore eulogises the hyper-networked LA scene. “There’s not really been a scene,” he says, “in terms of original music coming out of here – maybe for like the last 10 years or more – but now you have guys such as [Diplo's] Mad Decent, Wedidit, Fool’s Gold, Trouble & Bass [the latter two originally from NYC, now with offices in LA], Body High [key dubstep label], Smog Records, Owsla and Nest, Low End Theory and [Flying Lotus's] Brainfeeder. All these people are connected – we’re all doing things together, so it’s creating this really powerful energy, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie in LA.”
Again, at Coachella, a lot of the influential people he mentions are present backstage for his set, and the atmosphere is a million miles from the sniffy jostling that can occur when the music industry comes together: these people drink, smoke and dance together and, more or less, really are friends.
If there is a conceptual framework behind all this, it is as much of a hodgepodge as Skrillex’s music. Moore was brought up in LA as a Scientologist: though he is not a member of the church now, he is broadly supportive of it, and it’s quite easy to see hints of Tom Cruise’s starry-eyed motivational rants in his schtick. But, equally, he believes intensely in grassroots subculture,”whether it’s doing some religious Bikram rave yoga for 10 hours a day, or punk bands with no social media”.
He was a child skatepunk, and retains the sense that hanging with friends “IRL” matters above all – plus there’s a dash of rave idealism, and an obsession with the Grateful Dead’s hippie capitalism that manifests itself in his vision for his tours where “every detail is taken care of, every single thing contributes to you having a good time”. His music is released through the mainstream label Warner, but his professed highest ambition is “to show the world the DIY approach on a very high platform”. The collision of laid-back Californian hey-wow and insatiable drive can perhaps best be summed up when, regarding another successful DJ, he says with Bill-and-Ted breeziness: “It’s an OK thing, ruthlessness.”
Culture is a seething collage for him. His favourite books (Jonathan Safran Foer, Henry Miller and Richard Adams’ Watership Down) are mentioned in the same tones as his favourite music technology, animes or dubstep tunes: they’re all there for him to absorb and use. Above all, he is a rampant techno-utopian – a sci-fi dreamer. “I think there’s a whole new voice and a whole new energy,” he says, “aesthetically and culturally, coming from the internet, but you can feel it all around. The internet is weird, and people use it in freaky ways – we’re going to have to go through this learning curve as a civilisation about what it is to have these things. But now you have kids growing up with things like homophobia just seeming ridiculous, or with this willingness to think about space exploration and aliens, these are just part of the youth culture, younger kids are being educated in this whole different way, like ideas spreading through Tumblr – do you know Tumblr?” I suddenly feel old. “I guess I echo that in a sense, that’s my culture, I’m still that kid.”
He’s more than just that kid, though: he’s the embodiment of that whole culture. His stage show represents the sights and sounds of a generation for whom global networking is like breathing, and Moore is living the teenage dreams of that generation – skateboards, aliens, cracked contradictions and all. At one point, by the side of the Coachella stage, one of Moore’s friends shows me a photo Moore has just Bluetoothed them of his view from 20 feet above the crowd. The lightshow from this perspective makes it look as if he is entering hyperspace and it becomes clear: this spectacle is not just for the crowd, it’s for Moore’s benefit, too. He was born into this information overload, and now he’s not just navigating it, he’s piloting a bloody great spaceship right through the middle of it.
• Recess is out now on Atlantic.
Joe Muggs’s trip to California was paid for by Atlantic.