[Q&A] Diplo on Major Lazer, staying punk and playing Luke Skywalker to EDM's Death Star // 10/26 @ House of Blues

Some musicians perfect their art by taking time off from their schedule to really sit and craft their tunes. Others, like Thomas Wesley Pentz aka DIPLO, are constantly hitting the ground running, perfecting their musical attack incrementally with each new track or song or record or collaboration. Over the past decade, Diplo has blown up from a little-known Philly party dude to a dance music institution, fearlessly merging the aesthetics of hip hop and punk rock with anything that crosses his path, whether it's cutting edge EDM or sounds from the most remote corners of the globe. Part hype man and part modern-day Alan Lomax, Diplo has perhaps done more to globalize the sound of modern popular music than any producer currently working-- not only with the tracks he makes with superstars like Usher, M.I.A., Chris Brown, and a litany of others, but with his signature project, Major Lazer, a travelling carnival of outrageous sensory overload centered in reggae's unhinged trounce.  Major Lazer's 2009 breakthrough debut Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do was a minor success, and for the follow-up, due out in early 2013, Diplo and Co. are pulling out all the stops, from drastic stylistic dynamics to a staggering list of album collaborators. For Diplo, it's all par for the course, as his relentless need to move forward and keep it interesting makes every new thing just a step in his path to whatever is a project or two after that.

We ran a feature on Major Lazer in this week's Phoenix, but so much of the best elements of my conversation with Diplo had to be jettisoned-- so here, in preparation for next Friday's Major Lazer show at House of Blues, is the full text of my talk with one of the most sought-after beat-makers and producers around.

So where are you at right now?

I'm in LA. I'm finishing up some production work right now.

Are you done with the new Major Lazer album?

I'm not working on it, but there’s so many artists on it that there’s a lot of sampling and licensing issues that we’re dealing with. It’s like a gigantic album, everyone from Bruno Mars to Wyclef is on it and it’s taking a long time. I just sent a single out to radio today, it’s called “Jah No Partial.” So it’s coming along, I'm so happy with how it happened, it’s bigger than I ever thought it’d be. It’s the first album we’ve put out in a real strong way, not just throwing it out like we usually do.

Was there anything different about the way this album was made?

If you listen to “Get Free”, you can tell that we’re actually making songs this time -- I mean we’ll still have party songs, it’s still Major Lazer, we’re still bringing the carnival to the show, but there are songs that I'm proud of. We took it a lot more seriously. The last time it was a hobby for me and switch, something for fun -- but now people seem to actually like it, there’s an actual market share, so we’re going for it. It’s like we’re starting over on this one.

It’s weird, the first Major Lazer album was basically the first full album you’ve done, everything else is production work, single, mixtapes. What is it about Major Lazer that encapsulates what you do enough to make an album of it?

Well, I think reggae music is a vehicle to do whatever you want -- it’s always exciting for me because it encompasses everything. In Jamaica it’s the melting pot of music, way more intense than what we have in America, from the doo-wop ear to rock steady to dancehall to what we have now. It’s been an intellectual and spiritual sponge for musical styles and I like using it as a centerpiece because I can jump off from their to jungle or folk or whatever. I can do whatever I want, I can do “Break Free” or something that sounds like a Prodigy record for our next single to something folky. It’s just good music, but the essence is reggae music. The first record I ever did was a reggae record, the single “Diplo Rhythm.” I've always been a reggae fan.

It seems like, after years of working somewhat behind the scenes in other people’s music, you’re working on defining what it is you do, and defining who you are, with Major Lazer and this album.

It’s definitely my focus right now, I'm so proud of it. I’d never had a team, management, until the last couple of years. A record this huge, for me, which isn’t big by any means, like a Katy Perry record, really changes everything for me. The angles, the aspects, it’s so intense and I need help and it’s overwhelming to have people helping me. I'm always making music, and you look at stuff I produce like “Look At Me Now,” or Marina and the Diamonds -- I make stuff for other people all the time, but doing this has a definite vision behind it. It’s all about my childhood with the cartoons and the silliness of the whole record, to political music like Bob Marley, there’s a social background to it. I think I'm just trying to cover everything: have a powerful message, have a powerful image, and push the boundaries of what this music sounds like. That’s what I got into this music for, to push things as far as you can, and have an image that’s just strong. I studied and calculated how music hits me and that’s where it’s at, that’s what I found.

It must be weird to do that sort of thing but then switch back to doing stuff for other people, to be hired to do beats or that sort of thing. It must be weird working with huge artists who are all about the big spotlight.

Well, I think at the beginning when people worked with me they weren’t looking for some chart-topping hit. I mean, I've never had a number one record. I've had some top-five records, some records that I never thought would be as big as they became. But people don’t come to me for a guaranteed number one, they come to me when they want to challenge themselves. Like with Usher, he came to me and was like “I wanna trust you." Cuz a lot of people don’t always know what I do. They treat me like I'm a producer, like I'm a vending machine. When it comes to someone who really wants to challenge themselves, I try to give them a song that can reach people but that is also something I’m proud of. Having a hit has never been a goal for me. I spent more time on “Express Yourself,” the song, the video, than I did on anything else this year. And that’s just a song to DJ -- but I just wanted that thing to exist, that’s what I care about.

It must be weird having your job to be providing someone with a beat.

I still make beats and give beats to people, I still make hip hop records -- but my records are when I’m there, writing with the artist, for sure. You have to have some control of the record and provide some direction. That’s what producers do is they bring the best out of people. But I’m still of the Internet generation where you just send beats out and people get beats from here and there. When I do stuff like that, I don’t know what it sounds like until it’s on the Internet. I mean, if someone writes a song on one of my beats, that song’s gonna be so different, 100%, by the time it’s finished. I learned this from my engineer: records never get finished in this world, they just kind of escape. I’d work on a record forever, if I could!

Were you a perfectionist at the start, have you had to learn to let go of your work?

Naw, I never ever cared about that stuff from the beginning, man -- my first records, things weren’t even in tune. Even until about three years ago I didn’t really mix records very well, I just made so many records. It wasn’t until I came out to LA and met a bunch of these young dance producers -- they’re so nerdy and so fucking high definition and creative and I really had to fucking up my game! Working with Switch too, he always thinks outside the box in such a strange way. So I guess I got my game up and -- I mean, you can have the best song ever, but if it’s not mixed and knocking like the fucking hottest Skrillex record, people are gonna ignore it because those records sound so good now. Even if they’re not the most beautiful records, the way kids make them now, the ingenuity of the songs, it’s a new level, and I need to take that into perspective. The best thing about the whole dubstep scene is it upped the whole production game up so hard. Even if the sound came and went, those kids changed the way people hear music. And you have to be good at your sonics to stand up to music nowadays.

You’ve always been pretty good at keeping a few steps ahead, and you’ve always been so open-minded in order to stay ahead. Does that get harder as you keep doing it.

Definitely gets harder, man. Even with Mad Decent, I see the people I work with, they’re so good and so ahead of the game, that I come up with something and they’re already bored of it. They’re bored of trap music now and I’m just getting into the stuff that made that scene exist, Flosstradamus and all that stuff. But that said, saying that, watch while someone goes and takes a corny trap record and it’s gonna go number one! That’s always the problem -- being a step ahead isn’t always the place to be. But you know, kids are getting smarter and music’s going so much faster now, and all we want to do is make good records. Make something good and maybe it’ll stand up. I mean, “Climax” came out of nowhere, it doesn’t sound like anything else-- I think that records gonna last alot longer than other R&B records that come and go because it has a certain quality and feeling that I try to bring to records.

Where did “Climax” come from?

That song, I was just lucky. I had the concept for a record like that for a long time.

What kind of concept?

Well, it was called “Climax” when it was just an idea, something that I had and broke it down. I was way into minimal techno a few years ago, I love all those records and the crowds would go so crazy with those records, so I just felt like “How can I bring this to a real record with vocals?” So I had the idea, I told Usher the story of a girlfriend I had when I was younger, and he took that concept and went with it. It was something I worked on and got the beat and it inspired us to make the song really quickly. Sometimes two artists just meet in the right time. So many times I’m doing stuff when I just don’t want to be here; sometimes I just want to sit around watch fucking “Sons of Anarchy” and eat a grilled cheese sandwich.

The crazy thing, though, is that you keep doing it; there’s this image of you as the guy who just airdrops into exotic locales all over the world and just *boom*, parties erupt. It must be nuts having that kind of exhausting schedule.

I used to just travel for remote shows, now I do so many shows it’s crazy, I don’t have any time to spend in those places. I’m just working; when I’m home I’m always busy with sessions and my family and Mad Decent. When I’m on the road I work a lot more, I get things done-- I don’t drink, I don’t sleep. I'm kind of a machine-- you need to be built for this lifestyle for sure. People are like “How do you do it?” And I'm like I'm not sure, I guess my body was built for this kind of life. I dunno how to explain it. But it’s the kind of thing you do with your life and you get used to it.

You make a lot of records, but you also make quite a bit of your living as a live DJ.  Are the two occupations ever at odds, especially sonically, in terms of the music you make?

They’re not really at odds, really. I made so much headphone music, I’ve always done that even when I started out. And making club music, that was when I realized that I could get fucking paid, get money. With Major Lazer, when I made “Get Free,” I was like “This is so beautiful, there’s no way I can play it live,” so I got a classic jungle remix made, I want to be able to play this song with the same impact of how I hear it on my headphones, but with 5,000 people that isn’t gonna work.

I’m always thinking about the live show because I’m a DJ, but as much as I love that stuff, you’ve got to chill with a ballad sometimes. I mean, ballads are easy to write, and as a producer they’re fun to write. You get into them. I think a lot of dubstep is borderline ballad stuff, like Nero, and some Skrillex, and Ellie Goulding-- some kids have found ways to make ballads hard. So I had to take that into perspective, and keep records relaxed. With “Climax”, I wanted it to be relaxed, and keep it electronic and spooky.

Even if you see yourself as a fringe operator, not a producer shooting for number ones, you still seem to have an audience in mind when you do your music, whichever form it takes.

Well, as always, the last four years I've been thinking about my original music, Major Lazer and Diplo stuff, how I'm gonna do it. I need songs that are gonna bring energy to my shows, so if people come see me play I want it to be hype and I want people to go fucking crazy. And there’s so much generic dance music right now, it’s like I'm Luke Skywalker and there’s the Death Star of fucking EDM that I’m fighting against when I’m playing “Express Yourself,” Like fuck it, I’m gonna do my own shit, because the attitude in EDM is super-white, super-safe, it’s all about what’s safe for the promoters. I think about it with a punk rock sound when I make records like “Set It Off” or “Express Yourself” or even Major Lazer. But then I do make a song like “About That Life” recently, it’s kind of a trippy record that I did with a guy named Jahan Lennon, and I want to make a whole record, because I have neough of the hype shit going on so that next summer I can do a more mellow headphone record like that. I want to do both; I know it will confuse my audience. A lot of kids only know me because of a Tiesto record I did, or whatever it is, or some kids still hit me up on Twitter all day going “Your dance music sucks!” and “Florida is the only good record you ever made!” There’s so many opinionated kids who know who I am, but I don’t really give a fuck -- I just am always trying to make shit that I think should exist. The genre might not exist but that doesn’t stop me from making it!

So many superstar DJ producers come up with a branded sound -- you see the logo and you know what you’re gonna hear. It seems like you’ve tried hard to not really do that; onc eyou come up with an identifiable sound, you don’t necessarily repeat it again.

My first big hit was “Paper Planes,” and everyone wanted another “Paper Planes” -- and I didn’t have that, I didn’t know what that was! “Paper Planes” was an accident. I was frustrated for like a year, I didn’t know what to do. People were like “Gimme that,” they wanted to be cutting edge and still be on the radio. And then eventually I gave up, and now when I meet someone I’ll hang out with them for a while before I do a record, and hopefully it will give them the confidence to trust me. I think all a producer really wants is for people to trust them, you know? But it’s hard, there’s so many levers and labels, they need to pump out the perfect hit. Like Rihanna: no matter how much that “Diamonds” record is doing, I think that they’re going to keep going until it’s Number One, there gonna pump money into it until they can’t because they have to reach number one. That’s the machine, it’s this fear that keeps people pushing things.

But then again, at the same time, and this may sound like a crazy idea, I think the next Major Lazer record may be executive produced by Dr. Luke. I worked for him a couple of times on some of his records, and with this next record I want to make a crossover thing, like a pop record that’s still fucking crazy. What I think people loved about M.I.A. was that she flirted with popularity but she was still a punk rock person. Or the Clash; on “Should I Stay Or Should I Go," “Rock The Casbah,” they had fucking hip hop reggae punk rock records. That’s the kind of shit I want to make, music with a message that reaches millions of people that’s fucking crazy. Hopefully with the new Major Lazer it’ll come out of nowhere and open a lot of people’s eyes, you don’t have to do the same thing over and over. You listen to some of the albums of these EDM dudes, it’s just the same song over and over. Which works, because we’re in the phase right now where dance music is working, but all those guys, people are gonna look back and not notice them anymore. These kids should not be controlled by their audience -- they should be the ones who are influencing their audience.

Sometimes artists are frustrated because if they do their job really well, no one notices, and that’s doubly true for production. You can produce a great record, five or 10 years later no one knows who is actually responsible for that innovation.

Producing a record, the names are lost. Everyone has their own press fucking agents now in this day and age so that people know who did what. It’s like that movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; it’s a lame movie but with a great message, which was in the end where Lincoln was like “Our message lives on” -- even though he’s murdering vampires and jumping off trains and ending the Civil War himself with an axe! And no one remembers that, all anyone remembers is him signing the Proclamation of Whatever the Fuck It Was. And it’s like what if Abraham Lincoln really was a vampire hunter, and nobody noticed?

I think people do work hard. I feel really bad for a lot of indie bands now who are doing a lot of amazing music but it’s just not their time. You know? No one gives a fuck, because a band will perform and some EDM guy will come through and sell out the same venue four nights in a row. Time changes for people, and trends change, and that’s who we are, we’re super-defined by the media buzz and internet photos and all that. It’s all about the hype, but at the same time I think people do know when good music hits. And the best people make the balance, like Skrillex, people love him and he’s all buzzed out but his music’s fucking crazy and his music is influencing everybody. And he has an image and it’s strong. If you don’t have an image -- I always tell DJs if you don’t have an image, do something different. Like all these fucking Dutch dudes, the fucking white dudes with fucking bleach blonde hair, I can’t tell them apart. I can’t tell that shit apart, you know? But whatever, I’m not one to judge. I’m on a fucking rant right now, but I don’t want to diss any fucking DJs!

Why is dance music so ascendant right now? Why now, why are there superstar DJs?

I don’t think it’s about the DJs or the personalities, I think that’s just the world that we’re in, like Tiesto has an awesome personality and people like him. He’s funny on Twitter and he talks to people and he still does shows where 25,000 kids show up. And I don’t think they know the songs or anything, it’s just the experience, this kind of like never-ending loop of people digging into it. I think also, though, for a lot of young kids, starting a band is a lot of fucking hard work. Rehearsing, it takes five kids that know how to play music to get into it. Now, you need one kid with a laptop, it cuts the time down immensely. You might spend two weeks with your friends, writing a decent song, just writing and vibing, but now you can write and record a song in an hour if you know what you’re doing. I think that there were so many kids who were musical but never really had a chance to prove it because they had to get a band and a producer. The accessibility means that all these kids have a place where they can make stuff out of their ideas. So many young kids have so many great ideas, and before they couldn’t show people their music -- now they can. They can just put it on Youtube and get 30 million people to check it out when they’re 16. Before, they’d have to shop it around and find some person on the radio that would maybe pay for a studio and maybe find a producer and maybe by the time he’s 25 they’ll put out that song he wrote when he was 16!

Did you try band stuff at all before?

Nah! I wanted to be a turntable guy, I wanted to be A-Trak. I just wanted to scratch records and I thought hip hop was the best thing in the world. I was into punk rock and heavy metal but I just couldn’t play anything, I couldn’t hold a guitar right. I was into punk and hip hop and I thought “Yo, rock music is over, these DJs are changing it. They’re taking your scratchy music and they’re fucking it up, reorganizing the music in your hands.” I was just into opening my mind, understanding everything that goes into making music.

Do you think more people have a punk rock attitude now? Because it used to be such a guarded minority thing.

I don’t think there’s any punk rock attitude left, man. There’s nobody out there actually, aside from Death Grips, with that attitude. Dance music is so contrived. I mean there are some kids doing great shit out there, on their own, but just to join a group you have to descend somehow into this pot of despair. It’s this really crazy web woven around everyone and everything. To be honest, if I was just starting out now, I wouldn’t be able to do this, man. I couldn’t imagine. The amount of work you have to do is crazy. I’ve been doing this a long time and I have a certain amount of leverage, but now, man, it’s rough.

If you’ve got a good song, it’s definitely gonna reach people. That’s the cool thing happening now, sometimes a record comes out and you don’t know the producer. It’s like when I started in Baltimore club stuff with Mad Decent, or Baile Funk -- nobody cared who the artists were, they just wanted the energy and the music and feeling. So I produced Blaqstarr and that was my first foray into marketing music. And with Baile Funk it was just world music to people, even if it came from Baltimore! So I had to learn about marketing records, for sure. And that’s something that kids don’t know at all, they just think they go to a party and give the record to people. There’s these access points now, though, that weren’t there when I was coming up. Because making music is so much easier now. Like you know, in one more month it’s probably gonna be the fucking Apple iFace where the music just comes out of your brain. I mean, it’s just gonna come easier and easier!

Maybe in the future, music won’t be made by people, it’s just be this music/computer interface.

I think that’s happening with dance music, because it’s so disposable. But at the end of the day, people love Chris Brown. People live and die by Drake. People live and die by, I don’t know, fucking Bonnie Prince Billy. If you have an artist that you love, you LOVE them. I don’t think dance music gives people anything to love like that. I mean, you look at the Beatles, the songs were so well-written, and the production level is so high, especially for the time. And we’re missing out on that. Or maybe not, I mean people love stuff now. I’ve done records with guys that people just really love and it’s insane. There’s so many levels of that shit. I mean, I can say “Dance music is everything”, but then you miss something and ignore something else happening somewhere else. You have to stay adaptable, because one minute you’re here and one minute you’re not, you know?

MAJOR LAZER:: House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St, Boston :: October 26 @ 7 pm :: 18+ :: $25 to $35 :: 617.693.2583 or

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