Chris Emerson, better known as What So Not, isn’t just another twerk-inducing, bass-dropping, face-melting DJ. After all, the Aussie artist hasn’t traveled an easy road: following a split with former collaborator FLUME, What So Not expanded his vision of what electronic music can be. These days, his shows are narrative multimedia experiences that burn the fucking house down.
CONVICTS caught up with What So Not the week before his show at Terminal 5 for a little impromptu surf trip at Rockaway Beach. In between catching waves, What’s So Not gave us the lowdown on his creative process, self-discipline on tour, collaborating with American rock band ‘Toto,’ and the mystery of his ever-evolving hairstyles.
Hey, mate. How was the ocean today?
It was pretty amazing. At first, I think I was one of the only people out there to start — which is very unusual coming from very crowded beaches, and surfing in brown water full of garbage and seaweed with all sorts of gooey things running through my fingers at home. I got one barrel as well which I don’t think is common in these kinds of conditions, so I was very happy.
A pleasant surprise I’m sure. Tell us what a day out in the water does for your headspace.
I find it resets the way I approach everything. Even musically-I’ll come back from a surf and look at a project completely differently. I see flaws, I see mistakes, I can hear things a lot better and I can apply it all. I am sure it’s the same for a lot of people after they reset their mind.
That has to be crucial out on the road. Tell us about What’s So Not’s current tour?
On this tour, everything mattered. I had to go into each venue every single day, have a look at how everything was, chat to everyone, see if we needed to shift something to utilize the rooms and the spaces and the theaters that we were in.
Any crazy stories on this-or other-tours?
There’s a lot of them that I would never talk about on camera. I probably can’t give you any of the ones that are interesting enough to be spoken of. Generally we’re pretty well behaved. Sometimes we’re not.
Can you write on tour?
You can either sit there and watch TV and nap all day, or you can get up and exercise and drink coffee and write music all day, so I choose to do that. – See more at: http://convicts.nyc/convicts/what-so-not/#sthash.zuvsYZbZ.dpuf
Have you always kept it so low key on the road?
I used to be a bit of a larrikin when I was younger. Like most people. When I did my first couple of shows in America, they were crazy. I was so zonked and I’d flown from Australia to New York to LA to Las Vegas. I didn’t have enough money at the time for a tour manager and I fell asleep. It’s the only time I have been late to a set in my entire life. It was my own fault.
How did the crowd take it?
They were pretty mad, I played for an extra hour for them. It was a real turning point in my life. I have a really big opportunity to do some great thing and I’m not going to fuck it up by going out and partying. I just needed to not take this for granted and put the the work in. A lot of Australian acts would kill it for one year, then they would get caught up and everyone would forget about them. Looking at people that had the opportunities I was about to get, then seeing them blow it and saying ‘I’m not gonna let that happen’ was vital for steamrolling forward with everything.
Did that moment lead to any lifestyle changes?
I pretty much stopped drinking from that point. I’ll do a show and have one beer or have a glass of wine or something.
How was touring without a tour manager?
I used to do a lot of the management for What’s So Not, as well as produce, perform and tour. I had to deal with all this monotonous admin bullshit all the time just to keep everything moving and everything going, so I had to kind of trick my mind — I’d have my turntable playing all this music I had collected. It would sink in subconsciously.
Why was that trick necessary, though?
Creative artistry is so different from working hard. You have to understand the way your own mind works and understand how to draw out the different components in order to achieve what you want.
So how do you balance your own vision against input from others? Or even the crowd’s response?
To some degree, you have to care about what people think. Certain people have very good opinions on things and may be a bit wiser than you. But at the same time you have to believe in yourself. You gotta have faith in your own vision and your own perception and understanding of the world and sort of just follow through with it. Too many people get caught up in limbo because they aren’t making decisions. Sometimes you’re going to fuck up and do dumb shit and that’s the best thing that can happen to you, because you’re either not going to do it again, or take a different direction in life.
Words of wisdom. What’s on the horizon for What’s So Not?
This year I started actually writing my own video clips, and then co-producing them. I started creating my own apparel, which we just launched. The concept is to write more than a song, more than an album: it needs to be an entire experience, an entire world. The fun comes when you break that mold or change the patterns that people react to. Now every time I write a song I write a short story that the song is about, even if it’s just an instrumental or a beat. There’s always quite an expansive underlying message that maybe not even clear at all — but I know what it is, and I’ll find some way of representing that in some other art form.
How is it collaborating with other artists since splitting with your old co-producer Flume?
One group that I had a chance to work with recently that really blew my mind was Toto. I was lucky enough that it all came together — Joe, Steve, Luke, and David came into the studio and were like, ‘My son said you were cool’. First off these guys were session musicians for the stars — for Michael Jackson, [Steve] Lukather is now in Ringo Starr’s band. They came in and I played some demos, some bits and pieces, some chords. I played them this one chord progression that I’d written and recorded and they were like ‘that’s the one!’. Lukather grabbed his guitar and starts riffing over the top. Steve and Joe start humming these melodies, then David starts hounding me to use the synthesizer and put some wild arpeggiations over the top — it was this crazy, new age way of jamming. It was almost like we were playing as a band. It was very cool. I’ve been slacking on finishing it. It sort of fell back in the order of things that I’ve worked very hard to polish off, but it’s high on the agenda now that I’ve put my ‘Divide and Concquer EP’ out there.
Lastly, we’ve got to ask about the hair.
It’s been through some waves: I had bleach down the middle; a bright pink mohawk. Then I had blue then I had yellow. I’m keeping it a little chicer now.
Thanks, mate. Be good out there.