This DJing Duo Are Igniting the Music Scene The Chainsmokers
Written By: Heather Seidler Get Closer With DJs Drew Taggart and Alex Pall of the Chainsmokers
Photographed By: Taso Papadakis
Styled By: Manuel Parra
Styling Assistant: Joshua Matthews
Hair & Makeup By: Nicole Del Rio
With singles “Roses” and “Don’t Let Me Down” the world made The Chainsmokers a multi-platinum success story, now the duo are embarking on a new mission: to show the world that the line between dance music and pop music has disappeared.
From an early age, DJ duo Drew Taggart and Alex Pall, aka The Chainsmokers, strived to distance themselves from musical normalcy. The artists navigated outside of the NYC club scene at first, but in 2012, they came together thanks to music manager Adam Alpert. What began as a series of electro-pop infused remixes soon blossomed into producing their own original pop-coated EDM-style material. With the mainstream’s appropriation of dance culture, they exploded onto that scene with their first hit “#SELFIE” which put them on the global EDM map. They rapidly went from making beats in their house to playing the world’s biggest festivals. They followed up with a streak of double-platinum hit songs like “Roses” and “Don’t Let Me Down” whose genre-bending combo of indie loneliness and head-dropping trap breakdown became one of the most streamed songs of 2016. With expansive guitar lines, the song opens with vocal talents of teenage singer Daya, then when the trap beat climax drops, it’s clear to see why it became the new EDM feel-good anthem.
“We started making music together as a duo and our ambition was to break into the dance music scene as that’s what we were both infatuated with at the time. That is kind of how it kind of all started, ” Taggart explains. “We just started making music and didn’t really have a direction of what we were trying to do initially, but after that initial trial and error phase, about four months in, we started getting momentum. We were both determined to treat it like a job and get together every day and just focus on creating music and building the brand as The Chainsmokers into something bigger.”
Pall added that the significant part for him was “making good music and really pushing ourselves to create a brand that was inherent of who we are, by being super interactive with our fans while developing that relationship in a real, genuine way. But honestly making good records that people love—that inspire them, is what’s important to us. There’s no way to hack it. There’s a lot of gimmicky stuff out there but you can’t hack success in the music business.”
After their early success, the duo’s latest music is a calculated departure from their past catalog, circumventing the trap that a lot of artists repeatedly fall into. For an act fairly new to the EDM scene, they’ve made a point of never making the same song twice. “After the whole ‘Selfie’ thing, we just said fuck it. We weren’t having as much fun making it anymore so we took a step back and started again, went back to all the stuff we used to listen to. We let the indie music we’ve always loved, and the hip-hop and a bunch of other genres start influencing the stuff we were creating and started making stuff that wasn’t for the club or for the radio, ” Taggart says that they started making stuff that they’d actually listen to.
“After [playing] the major-label record label business game we were like, let’s just do our own thing and hope it works. With that mentality we created ‘Roses’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down.’ I think that’s when we really discovered our sound and decided what to say, ” Taggart adds. “We’re really lucky that the songs have had success. One of the most valuable things you can achieve as an artist is success doing things your way and it’s really empowering when it works. We want to keep doing things that are unexpected and fun, music we really enjoyed making.”
They explain that they work entirely hand-in-hand with each other when making music. “We work together in the studio all the time, we do everything together. We produce everything together so we’re very much on the same page. I don’t think I could ever make this stuff at the caliber that we’re making it right now by myself and I don’t think Alex could either because we need each other to balance each other out. Everyone needs someone to bounce ideas off of, even if you’re super prolific and on your own, you need someone who will keep you out of your own head and keep you on the channel to greatness. If I was on my own, I would never finish anything, so we balance each other and I think we rely on each other for that.”
The duo have never been shy about their influences. For inspiration on their latest crop of songs, the team took to rediscovering their musical past. Shuttling between hip-hop, moody indie rock, emo mall punk, hardcore metal, and even minimalist trap music. To The Chainsmokers, their new material is something of an amalgamation of all the stuff they grew up loving.
“It’s different for every song. We love all of types of music, Alex and I, which is why I think we became such good friends, ” Taggart says. “We both had the extreme phases where we would be so into hip-hop and knew everything about hip-hop. Then I was really into screamo and hard-core stuff and then I was into all of the emo punk stuff. Later it was Bon Iver, Passion Pit and Grizzly Bear, all these indie bands that were killing it around 2009, 2010. If you listen to ‘Roses’ that was influenced by Flume, Taylor Swift and Grouplove. Those were the three main influences for that song. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was influenced by Explosions in the Sky and The XX.”
In “Don’t Let Me Down” that dance-inducing trap drop, all started with the desire to impress a girl. “I had started dating this girl who loved trap music and I’ve never made a trap song and to be quite honest with you, I wanted to impress her, ” Drew admits. “She’s my current girlfriend and I was trying to make a trap beat and the first thing I made was the drop for ‘Don’t Let Me Down.’ Then we combined that with the lonely guitar rift. It’s become pretty iconic, which is kind of crazy.”
Pall adds: “We always tried to combine two contrasting genres because that’s what makes truly interesting pop music.”
As far as lyrics go, “Pretty much everything we make is pulled from either my life or Alex’s life. We’re going through a lot of the same things and our vibe and mood is very much on point, ” Taggart points out. “When we write music we try to get it as specifically personal as possible so you know when you’re hearing a Chainsmokers song, [you] really know what we’re going through right now.”
Taggart elaborates: “Now we have the confidence to make stuff that’s about us. We wrote ‘Closer’ about those shallow club girls that you meet, or girls that I used to date who I was so enamored with for the wrong reasons—girls that you hook up with for a certain reason and then you see them in a club and they look really good and you want to hook up with them again, then you do and you remember all the reasons why you hated them, ” Taggart says. “So I wanted to make an unsexy sex song. The lyrics are very specific, very vivid, and it’s about something that’s super real to us.”
The chart-topping “Closer” was their opportunity to create something on a personal level, while also collaborating with artists such as edgy indie-pop princess Halsey. “Closer” also marks Taggart’s first time singing lead vocals. “I’ve never sung before except some backing vocals on ‘Roses, ’ I’ve never been straight up the main voice in a song. However, when our very good friend and up and coming producer, Shaun Frank, was on tour with us and we were writing some of the lyrics together he said ‘You can sing this, ’ and I was like, I don’t know about that. But he got me to trust him and basically showed me how to make my voice sound good without being super processed on the song.”
Pall and Taggart are working to personalize a genre that is oft void of emotional substance.
The band aims to add more of a human element to their brand of dance music and part of that means being more than just knob pushers behind a booth. “Our set has changed dramatically over the course of two years, in addition to our own music, and that gets us thinking more about how we can play up the energy in each of our shows. Including integrating singing. We have a great team of production people that help us create a dynamic show. We worked six months putting together a stage concept and we want people to come to the show and see something that they’ve never seen before from us, ” Pall explains.
The Chainsmokers aim to thrill those EDM fans looking for more substance, as well as feel their teeth shake. “It’s about easing people into new ideas. For the last year, we’ve been putting more effort into the performance instead of on strictly a DJ set, while giving people the visual aids and moments that you want in the show, ” Taggart responds. “Both Alex and I are really pushing each other to do more work. We wanted to show people that we’re more than just DJs. But still, we are not a band, so we’re just going to ease people into the idea that we do a lot more than just dance DJ’s. We want that balance of getting people that come to party and jump around for two hours and also people who want to sit down and enjoy the singles without feeling like they’re going to get stepped on by kids doing ecstasy.”
They aimed to separate themselves from other DJs with their approach to their performances. “Why can’t we just stop and show a movie trailer in the middle of our set? Why can’t we stop the DJ set and perform a song with the piano? Why can’t I make it not like a whole rave? I think Alex is definitely pioneering that for us, ” Drew adds. I think once it works, if it’s successful, which I think it’s going to be, it’s going to change the way everyone goes about DJing for a show and what do DJing can be and what a live performance can be for all genres. That’s a really exciting place that we’re headed right now.” The Chainsmokers
As Pall and Taggart talk about their upcoming live show there’s a palpable sense of pride and excitation in their voices. “You have to continue to give the people something you are excited for, otherwise they’ll see the same thing twice and then lose interest, it’s just simple human nature. And it’s the same thing for us, ” Pall continues. “If we don’t look like we’re enjoying ourselves then that transfers to the crowd. We can create a show that keeps us challenged and excited when we pull it off and that translates for a great show for fans. The last tour that we did was about having crazy energy as DJs, but now we want to give people more than just a DJ set, something that everyone could hold onto. So it’s about creating a show that allows the music to perform the way it’s supposed to be performed, but also give people—give everybody—a little bit of what they want. Let’s do a show that is a DJ show but unlike anyone has ever seen before.” The Chainsmokers
With all the moving parts of their pending tour and the pressure to advance their music and keep the bar set high, I ask if they ever feel pressure to keep churning out singles that become huge hits. “I think both of us are really genuinely making music that we both want to listen to, so that’s always the impetus over success. We are huge music fans and we listen to everything that’s out there, so I think that’s given us a pretty fresh radar since we don’t like making stuff that sounds like anything we’ve done before or anything that someone else has done. I don’t think we could finish a song that we didn’t personally feel pushed the envelope in that direction, ” Pall answers. “But yeah, there’s pressure to make it and we’d love to have hits consistently forever, like some other people from my genre like David Guetta and Calvin Harris, but I don’t think we really have a plan to do anything other than make stuff that we want to listen to. Having hits is important but having fans that know you and love you for the music that you make is way more important. That’s more of what we are after.” The Chainsmokers
That’s evidenced in their modest lifestyle, too. They aren’t collecting Lamborghinis, bottle popping or vetting an agenda to own the most collectible sneakers. Instead of buying supercars and Rolexes with their first big paycheck, they bought pets. “Neither of us have cars. When everything started going double platinum instead of buying gold chains and cars, we bought dogs, ” Pall chuckles. “We still fly coach everywhere and we don’t give a shit.” The Chainsmokers
EDM is Experiencing a Chain Reaction The Chainsmokers
Taso Papadakis is a professional commercial art and editorial photographer, whose images are known for their strong narrative and light. Originally from Los Angeles, he studied religion on scholarship at the University of Southern California. He came to photography via Polaroid portraiture and 35mm film in the year 2000. In addition, Taso has also worked abroad on longterm photo documentary projects benefiting the remote pueblos of El Salvador. www.tasophoto.com