Dance Revolution

Skrillex Invades L.A. to Headline HARD Summer Festival

HARD Summer headliner Skrillex opens up about his label OWSLA, the Kanye West track, and the Deadmau5 controversy. By Marlow Stern.

Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images

It’s been one hell of a year for Skrillex.

The 24-year-old electronic music producer (real name: Sonny Moore)—with the distinctive lopsided coiffure and wobble wobble dubstep drops—has become the face of the dance music craze that’s taken over America. He’s won three Grammy Awards, was named MTV’s Electronic Dance Music Artist of the Year, and Forbes recently named him the second highest-paid DJ, earning an estimated $15 million in the past year.

“He has brought a new fresh energy to dance music—inspiring up-and-coming producers as well as bringing a new audience to the scene,” Tiësto, a world-renowned Dutch DJ—and No. 1 earner on Forbes’ list—told The Daily Beast.

Indeed, the thing Skrillex seems the most proud of is his impressive roster of talent. On Aug. 17, 2011, Skrillex announced the launch of his music label, OWSLA, along with business partners Tim Smith, who’s Skrillex’s manager, as well as Kathryn Frazier, owner of the publicity firm Biz 3, and Biz 3 publicist Clayton Blaha. The music venture’s first release came courtesy of electro-neophyte Porter Robinson, who has since become a household name in dance music.

“It’s a tribe, man, and at the center of the wheel is Skrills,” says Alvin Risk, a singer-songwriter-turned-DJ who Skrillex discovered at the 2011 SXSW music festival. “He’s super loyal and he’s stuck by anybody that he’s brought in or supported from day one.”

Less than a year after forming OWSLA, named after the rabbit military in the classic British fantasy novel Watership Down, the label’s army of DJs took over HARD Summer—a two-day festival that ran Aug. 3-4 in Los Angeles’s Historic State Park. The event attracted some 50,000 fans in 2012, many of which were half-naked girls sporting what appeared to be just bras and panties.

“The American dance scene is like Spring Break with muscles and tits,” said Little Mike of Birdy Nam Nam, a recent OWSLA-approved act specializing in Trap Music. The French quartet has been DJing in Europe for over a decade but HARD is their first major festival stateside. “Skrillex was a total game-changer,” says Little Mike. “It was like, ‘I’ll give you the keys to the U.S. and just have fun.’”

The OWSLA crew was given its own dance tent at HARD to showcase its diverse array of talent and boasted some of the most spirited crowds at the fest. And Skrillex, a native Angeleno, served as the festival’s headlining act, replete with a laser light show and a DJ booth resembling a spaceship on acid.

“I’m playing tour manager right now ’cause I have so many friends here!” says a jubilant Skrillex just one hour before he’s set to hit the stage. “I never thought I’d have a label tent at a festival like HARD, being able to showcase shit that I fuckin’ love.”

Since winning three Grammy Awards back in February—he was nominated for five, including Best New Artist—Skrillex has been touring non-stop all around the world, including primetime slots at the popular summer music festivals Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.

“I’m technically still homeless so all my stuff is in my manager’s house in Gainesville, Florida, including my Grammys,” says Skrillex, with a chuckle. “I’ve just been living in hotels for almost two years now and I just got my own place in Los Angeles.”

Even though he’s been living out of a suitcase, Skrillex has been dating the British pop singer Ellie Goulding, whose song “Lights” is currently in the top-10 on the Billboard Hot 100. One of the highlights of HARD was a cameo by Goulding during Nero’s set, with the chanteuse belting out the chorus to “Promises”—the Skrillex remix version, that is. Goulding’s catchy pop anthems provide fantastic remix material for OWSLA’s band of DJs, and this symbiotic relationship is, according to Skrillex, one of the many reasons why they make such a dynamic duo.

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“She’s my girlfriend and my lover but also my best friend and if I’m working on something I’ll immediately send her a rough cut, and if she’s working on something she’ll send me a rough, so we’re constantly listening to each other’s shit back-and-forth,” he says with a smile. “I couldn’t imagine not being with someone like Ellie that can share the same lifestyle as me.”

Electronic dance music—or EDM, as it’s called—has infiltrated the mainstream. This year, MTV has even introduced a new category at its Video Music Awards: Best Electronic Dance Music Video. Skrillex and others will compete for the prize at the Sept. 6 show. In addition to Goulding, other pop acts have migrated towards DJs to help them produce tracks, including none other than Justin Bieber.

“I didn’t know that much about Bieber and didn’t expect him to be that good, to be honest, but he was great,” says Zedd (real name: Anton Zaslavski), a 22-year-old German-born EDM producer who released his early music through OWSLA and has since signed to Interscope. “I’ve never worked with a big artist on schedule and he was there like thirty minutes early.”

For his part, Skrillex has been working with mega-rapper Kanye West on some very exciting material.

“I did some music with Kanye and from what I know, it’s actually going to be the first song on his new album,” he says.

Despite the massive EDM explosion in America, there have been some naysayers—including the acclaimed DJ-producer Deadmau5, a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman. Initially one of Skrillex’s friends who helped shepherd his early material, the DJ blasted live dance shows under a controversial blog post titled “we all hit play,” claiming all DJs just ‘press play’ on a laptop and collect six-figure checks. And later, in a Rolling Stone cover story, Deadmau5 targeted Skrillex, accusing him of not “doing anything too technical… he has a laptop and MIDI recorder, and he’s just playing his shit.”

“Listen, I’m proud of what I do and this is not directed towards Deadmau5 personally, but if you’re going to denounce something you’re a part of… the thing about DJing is it’s a platform to create a vibe,” says Skrillex. “It’s all about creating an effect. The Ramones played fuckin’ four chords. It’s about the emotion, the movement, the music you create. The ‘pushing buttons’ criticism is just missing the point. You could invalidate anything if you wanted to.”

One of the big reasons EDM seems to be thriving is it’s reliance on social media, and Skrillex is, once again, the poster child for this, having recently been named No. 1 on the Billboard Social 50, which tracks an artist’s influence over social media sites like YouTube, Vimeo, etc. His label, OWSLA, sells most of their releases online through Beatport and iTunes, and it’s first physical release—by the act Hundred Waters—will come out in October.

“EDM is the most like country and bluegrass because we’re all really good friends with each other, cover each other’s songs, and play with each other,” he says. “It’s such a family and we all jam together.”

That’s how Dillon Francis, 25, one of OWSLA’s premier artists, found himself on the label. Francis met Skrillex at a party at L.A.’s Standard Downtown hotel in 2010, and they soon began a relationship over Twitter, sending each other music.

“I worked with Calvin Harris and Tiësto, too, by just Direct Messaging with them over Twitter,” says Francis.

EDM has also crossed over into Hollywood. The recent TV spots for the Ben Stiller comedy film The Watch were set to Skrillex’s infectious track, “Bangarang,” and Skrillex will also be providing the score to the upcoming animated Disney film Wreck-It Ralph, as well as Harmony Korine’s gonzo satire Spring Breakers, which boasts the ubiquitous James Franco as a white rapper in cornrows.

“This movie is fucking awesome,” says Skrillex. “Most of the music is a bit more atmospheric, like a movie score, but still my sound. I’ve tweaked original songs for the movie and the last piece is an orchestral version of ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ that plays during this massacre scene at the very end of the film.”

Despite releasing a trio of EPs, Skrillex still hasn’t released a full-length album, which he says is his “next goal.” He’ll finally be taking time off from touring for three-to-four months this Fall to settle into his new L.A. home and work on his debut LP. He’s not sure, however, if it will be a full-length or “at least three or four EP’s.”

Forbes, meanwhile, claimed Skrillex raked in an estimated $15 million in the past calendar year—making him the second highest-grossing DJ in the world. Even though he earns up to six figures for certain shows, Skrillex remains one of the more humble, down-to-earth artists in music.

“The thing is, I don’t really spend money,” he says, pointing at a gaping hole in his pants. “These jeans were free, this is an H&M shirt, and these shoes are old and dirty. I’m the same person and I’m not trying to buy yachts or anything. I have my own place now to just keep making music, which is exciting for me, and I’m just the same punk kid.”

And, as far as the EDM scene is concerned, Skrillex believes it’s here to stay.

“Some people talk about how EDM is a fad but it will die when the community dies,” he says. “As long as the community’s there, it’s invincible.”