As of right now, Crywolf’s new EP “Angels” isn’t popular among mainstream EDM blogs and websites – at all. The same EDM blogs that were fawning praise all over his older songs and remixes aren’t there right now – that’s why I felt compelled to write about this, and talk to him. It’s not uncommon for a Crywolf remix to get a quarter million plays on Soundcloud and top every measurable EDM chart. I mean, really – Angels is intelligent, beautiful, nuanced, and thoughtful. It's one of the few EDM albums I have actually enjoyed this year. It hovers over drops, instead of crashing into them. The vocals wander gracefully over the beat, rather than droning on, repeating the same dance-floor-friendly beat. So why is EDM ignoring Crywolf?
Bloggers, media types, agents and managers all tend to get singularly focused on dacen song playcounts and metrics – and by those standards, Angels has failed. The dance tracks that get the most attention on blogs are the big, expansive, heavy, dance floor bangers. Add an attractive female vocalist or mid-tier rapper to any electronic beat you whipped together in 15 minutes, and boom – you have an EDM hit. Instead of going with the accepted formula, Crywolf took a left turn at EDM, and headed towards Bjork, with a hint of Moby, an a sprinkle of Clint Mansell. I can even hear some Prodigy influences in there.
Crywolf added substance to a diluted market, and rather than mixing in, he’s standing apart. This is an oil-and-water scenario. Most producers would look at this and see a negative, but it’s right where Crywolf wants to be.
EDM is getting diluted. Crywolf knows it. “I think that many EDM artists do safe albums because it’s easier to look at someone else’s success, and replicate it yourself. It’s also very industry based. In the EDM industry, certain paths are forged for you. Certain sounds, like heavy dubstep, four on the floor house, lyric-friendly trap and others – they’re slipstreams, you can put yourself into that stream, and shoot to the top, really fast.”
With his newest EP, titled “Angels”, out now on Always Never Records, Crywolf walked away from EDM – and I knew it immediately when I heard it. If I had to guess, this is the last time we hear something remotely close to “mainstream” EDM from Crywolf. It’s not that he’s not great at making catchy electronic music – because he is. He just thinks he can do more, and I’d tend to agree
“Angels is a lot more of a concept EP than anything else I’ve put out. My last EP, ‘Ghosts’, had a lot of the melodic, lyrically based electronic music, but I was still beefing it up for EDM, really ‘adding’ to make it more EDM based.”
The funny thing is, I know what Crywolf means, because I don’t really know him as Crywolf. I know him as Justin – an introspective, semi-introverted, thoughtful young man. In order to really understand what he’s talking about, you have to understand Justin, not Crywolf, as a person. Crywolf is an entertainer, for sure – but Justin Phillips tends to watch and observe a room.
One late night here in Nashville, Ian (Justin’s manager) was baking something in his kitchen (I still can’t remember what it was) before his roommate (Jordan, from the band Cherub) popped it out of the oven and added a bag of Skittles to it. He then put maple syrup on top of it. I don’t remember what food item it was, but I vaguely remember spinach being involved. Skittles and spinach don’t mix well.
Ian walked back into the room to discover his cooking creation was ruined. He was furious. Ian yelled a string of profanity at Jordan that no blog dare repeat. Jordan responded by chugging an entire bottle of ghost pepper chili sauce. Jordan then felt the error of his ways, because chugging ghost pepper chili sauce is a completely stupid idea. Vomiting commenced, in the middle of the living room – congratulations, Jordan.
Ian walked outside and screamed in frustration. Everything was completely insane in the world. Meanwhile, I sat in a chair next to Justin. He put on his headphones, ignored everything around him, and kept doing exactly what he was doing – no comment needed.
Crywolf doesn’t really care what everyone is doing around him. He doesn’t care to bend around a genre. He doesn’t care… at all. He exists in his own bubble, and I think that’s where his subtle brilliance comes from. If he was more outspoken, and knew how to promote himself, he’d likely be a lot more famous than he is now – but that’s just part of his charm. He’s indifferent, and more interested in witnessing action, than creating it.
What’s really odd, is when an artist has the recognizance to explain why their marketability has suffered for not being more popular, by intention.
“Shane, you know what I mean when I say this: There are agents that represent tons of heavy dubstep acts, or heavy trap acts. If you also make heavy dubstep, or heavy trap, or heavy Swedish house, or whatever – it’s really easy for that agent to grab you and put you on those tours. An agent is at lower risk, because they know where to place it. Labels and managers will do the same thing. As much as industry people talk about wanting different music, they really don’t want it. Agents and labels will say to me, ‘I love your stuff, but it’s not heavy enough for EDM, and it’s too hard for indie.’ It’s a hype-based sort of industry. So if you like Flosstradamus, and you like Bauuer, then maybe you’ll like other heavy trap. It’s not all benefit in that sense. There are huge downsides to doing what other people do.”
Early on in his career, Crywolf was a remix machine, channeling his best maximal impressions of other acts. While perusing his Soundcloud, I found a variable mix of odd vocal/acoustic guitar covers, along with tracks that sounded like they belonged to Adventure Club. I love singing and guitar. I hate Adventure Club. Like a hasidic Jew at a Tennessee pork BBQ party, I was torn. I wanted to love it, but everything in my soul told me it was wrong.
What made Crywolf change his tune, and start producing his own kind of music? When you’re an up and coming EDM artist, with hundreds of thousands of Soundcloud hits, and electronic blogs at your fingertips with every release – why change?
Crywolf explained. “At that point in my career, I was at the point where other people had been before me. That’s where you see producers say ‘fuck genre constraints’, and then start mimicking other sounds. When I was starting out, I sort of did that too. I had a similar fanbase early on. I wanted fans to be fans of my music, and not just the genre. Initially, I blamed the fans when I started taking risks, but in reality I had cultivated that fanbase. When you see these producers complaining on their Facebook accounts about how fans don’t appreciate their ‘art’, it’s all wrong. They’re trying to blame their fanbase for not appreciating their art, but they’re cultivating a fanbase of popularity, and slipstreaming into other established channels. The downside is if you try to break outside of the genre-based fans, you lose those fans. If that’s the case, they weren’t really fans of what you do. They were just fans of the genre – so they were never really your fans to begin with.”
From my perspective, as a blogger, Crywolf has an intellectual view of what’s really going on in EDM. It’s a toxic environment for any artist trying to step outside the establishment. Artists are penalized and scrutinized for side-stepping what they’re “supposed” to do. That’s why Deadmau5 witnessed such a backlash for playing a very anti-ULTRA set, at Ultra. He thumbed his nose at the powers that be, and EDM writers and members of the media lambasted him for it.
“It’s hard to be on the right direct support slots, as Crywolf. It’s obvious that as a support slot, for heavy dubstep or heavy house – I’m not the best fit. That’s because my act is different. I’m being groomed as a headline act, so I know a lot of these guys will blow me out of the water right now. My beginnings will be more humble.”
EDM doesn’t want to evolve. EDM isn’t like other genres, because it’s based in clubs, nightlife, and “letting loose”. That’s precisely why acts like “Late Night Alumni” haven’t been embraced, despite coming from the hands of Kaskade. Putting a band on stage, with instruments, flies in the face of what EDM promoters, agents, managers, and labels want in an EDM act. Crywolf knows he’s not going to be embraced by anyone in EDM with the trajectory he’s looking for.
“I want to get to a point where I have a full band, a strings section on stage. I want that sort of live set, at the end of the road for Crywolf. Not this ‘club based live for the night YOLO’ thing. Crywolf isn’t going to be club bangers, because it was never supposed to be that. That other stuff will come and go, because that’s how genre-based DJ’s work.”
At this point, I felt that Justin was really getting into something. He wasn’t judging EDM, or trying to be above it. He was just analyzing the landscape of what he’d been through, and trying to relate what it was like to make art, in a landscape that doesn’t really revolve around art.
“I think the root of the problem is the characteristics of EDM. EDM is not something… well, people don’t go to EDM shows to hear art. They go for the energy. They go for losing themselves in the dance. It’s a completely different underlying goal for people going to the EDM shows – obviously there are shows for the art in other places. I mean, people don’t go to Flying Lotus shows for the hype and pure energy. They go for the art. I guarantee people didn’t get it when he was just starting out, too. He was never trying to make party music. He was just making his own music.”
I interjected again. “So then Justin, why do people even go to EDM shows? I mean, the fans say they love the music and the art, but that doesn’t really seem to be the case, does it?”
He laughed as he replied. “C’mon Shane. That’s such a huge question. Well, I do know this – people don’t go to EDM clubs to hear concept art. They go to drink, dance and party.”
In one fell swoop, Crywolf had cut into something that I have maintained as a personal opinion for a long time: EDM isn’t about the art. When musicians attempt to create their own expressions of electronic music, things get in the way. So if the fans are really just there for the party, can EDM survive the “party era” that much of their younger demographic falls into?
“I think people within EDM are going to get tired of hearing the same music, every weekend, and that’s when they will go explore other stuff like Flume and Ta-Ku, and the interesting sounds we’re importing from Australia. Even though it’s a small change, I think it’s more of a move to more unique and artistic producers. It’s easy for a producer to take someone else’s style and copy it, but it’s hard to make something that will sound cool, have energy, be unique, and…" Crywolf paused, searching for the right words. "If you challenge the conventional wisdom, understand that there will be a time where you’re bound to fail for a while. You’ll make shit that’s not good. People might not like it immediately, and I think that’s why more artists don’t take that leap.”
Sensing as much, I felt compelled to ask why Crywolf wasn’t doing more live sets anymore, when his last assertion was that creative art, and live sets were the future.
“I had to drop my drummer, because setting up the drums, and the complications of added transportation, might not mesh well with every club. Many stages just don’t have enough room. Plus, if you’re in a club-type venue, chances are the drums won’t sound great, and it’ll make everything else sound like shit. We had times where the sound guys weren’t ready for the drums, and the live element ruined the set – just because we couldn’t get it mic’d up correctly. It’s a business case, really. I need to grow more. Then I can move into more of the bigger venues. That’s when we’ll be able to have a dedicated sound guy. That’s when we’ll be able to break out all the live elements I want.”
During the course of my interview with Crywolf, it occurred to me that he was smarter than your average DJ. He understood the business case behind where he needed to be. Nine times out of 10, if I’m talking to a DJ, they focus on all the technology around them, how they make their music, and why their studio setup is superior to other producers. It makes for a really boring interview – to hear someone get so singularly focused on one thing. Justin seemed more interested in answering my questions about what was happening around him, as a whole.
So I continued, “Why was creating ‘Angels’ so different than creating ‘Ghosts’?”
Crywolf paused for a moment. Then he began in. “The first release (Ghosts) took a lot longer, and less work was put into it. After the Ghosts release, I was happy with it, and I made the music I wanted to put out. Then I had this period where I was really hard on myself, and trying to get to the point where I could develop myself as an artist. I was working on hard on music, and I didn’t think I was working hard enough. I didn’t think my mixing, production, lyrics, etc, were up to par. So I just went through this period where I would sit in the studio, 10 to 12 hours a day, working on lyrics, sound design and all that. I’d say I made 15-18 tracks before zeroing in on six that became Angels. Angels was much more refined, and much more of the sound I was going for. Angels was made as one unit. Ghost was just five singles I had around.”
See what I meant earlier? Crywolf is incredibly emo. The inner torment, and personal struggles are very “guys wearing eyeliner and skinny jeans”, am I right? But wait, as they say on late night TV infomercials, there’s more.
“It’s terrifying to think about going from where I was, just making dubstep, and what has been the transition sense then. I feel so much fear about where I am now. Not only just making music that you don’t know if it’s going to be successful, but also making something that’s deep, and personal, inside me. I mean, if a remix doesn’t do well, it doesn’t hurt me. But with the deeper things, and the songs I have written, it’s more exposed and vulnerable feeling.
“When you have this music out there, they’re not just about fans accepting or rejecting your music. They’re accepting or rejecting your lyrics. That’s who you are as a person. I wrote some of those lyrics as a cathartic experience for myself, and never knew other people would ever see or hear them. So now that things have turned out well, it’s not as terrifying – but it could have been bad.”
Only really emo guys in eyeliner say songwriting is a cathartic experience, and then follow that up with how fearful they are of being judged. At that point, I dragged Crywolf out of the dark room he was cutting himself in, gave him some makeup wipes, and told him the eyeliner had to go. No one wants to hear you whine, emo boy. There is dance music to make.
With all his newfound emo insight, I wanted to know what the future was for Crywolf. Not just in making music and cutting himself to shitty pop-punk bands, but where he wanted to see himself, in an ideal world. The strange part is, his answer doesn’t really involve music.
Justin laughed as he tried to answer my question(s). “Me doing music, was a complete accident. I never really grew up wanting to be a musician. I was interested in film, and I got accept to film school, before deciding to go to school for economics. If I die, and I have never gotten into any sort of business, or science, or marketing, that would just suck. There are so many different things I want to do. I hear a lot of artists say, ‘If I didn’t do music, I don’t know what I’d do…’ But, I mean, for me – I can’t wait to go back to school. I can’t wait to get into other aspects of life. Music is a sliver of all the interests I have. I can’t wait until I’m financially able, as an artist, to branch off into all my other interests, where I can use my money to go off and do other things with my life.
“Crywolf just happened as an accident. It happened to get so big that I could afford to drop out of college, but I can’t wait to get back to my other goals.”
In Crywolf’s voice, there isn’t an ounce of desperation. He hasn’t concerned himself with “making it”, or “blowing up”. In Crywolf, we’re witnessing an artist who is truly content to make his own path, even if it means leaving behind a few of the fans he made early on. His beginnings in (cheesy, melodic, glitchy) dubstep remixes have given way to a new artist. He’s writing songs, and playing guitar, using the electronic elements he started with in order to supplement his songwriting.
It’s just too bad EDM doesn’t like when people make art, instead of bangers.