Big Data is the brainchild of the inventive, quick-witted and extremely pleasant music producer Alan Wilkis. The music project stems from a satirical fear of the Internet and technology, despite the newfound extreme human dependence on both. We caught their first ever sold out LA show at the Viper Room, and if you haven’t heard their infectious single Dangerous featuring Joywave yet, go listen. Now.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Wilkis currently resides in Brooklyn, where up until recently, making music had only been his side job. He’s had careers in music supervision, branding and advertising. Although exceptionally musically talented, he’s always been career oriented, choosing to spend just nights and weekends on his personal music projects.
“The only reason I had a job was because I didn’t want to depend on my music commercially. I only wanted to make stuff that was fun for me. I try to make music that I wish existed. And having a job allowed for that to stay pure. I didn’t have to write an ‘Oh-weh-oh’ dumb pop song. I’d rather not make music if that’s what I have to do in order to make a living.”
Wilkis’ musical work primarily consists of producer and remix projects, featuring various singers and rappers. His songwriting and creative process is premeditative and meticulous, and it’s evident in his end product. He knows how to write a great pop song. He produces, writes, and plays all of the instrumental parts in his songs, paying close attention to the individual sounds of each instrument. When everything feels complete, he hands it off to the singer to contribute lyrical and melodic ideas.
“I usually try to make it clear where the intro is, clear where the verse would go, the chorus, etc. I definitely go by pop song structure. I give it to a singer and we go into the studio - it’s clear what the agenda is so that we don’t have to fuck around.”
After working with a handful of talents, including Childish Gambino, Yeasayer and Chester French, he met and started working with the Rochester-based Daniel Armbruster, singer of the band Joywave. Instant musical chemistry ensued and Dan wound up playing a large co-writing role in Big Data's debut 1.0 EP release.
What began as Wilkis’ night and weekend hobby has become his first project to catch on, enough so that he could quit his day job and fully focus on music. As Wilkis and Armbruster's collaboration grew, they decided their project needed a name.
In 2012, around the time Wilkis was naming his band, ‘big data’ wasn’t as germane of a term as it is today. It was starting to pop up in extra nerdy places, but this was before of the NSA / Edward Snowden debacle. Wilkis was ahead of the curve in knowing that it was going to be a term everyone was eventually going to see everywhere.
“It was interesting to think about, most importantly. The kind of music I was making was already starting to get a little dark, so it all just fit. It wasn’t necessarily a thing like, ‘everyday I think about technology, so I have to start a band about technology…’ but I do think a lot about technology and I certainly use it a lot. So that was how it started.”
Big Data’s branding tagline says they are “paranoid of social media voyeurism,” although the mandatory social networking for musicians in today’s digital world creates a satirical conflict of interest for Wilkis. Social media engagement helps us stay connected to one another, and is particularly important for artists, who rely on a digital presence to promote their work. Big Data explores society's struggle between our fear of Big Brother’s constant web monitoring and how the tech-evolution is changing human interaction, but how we still don’t want to give it up.
“The NSA and the way society is being monitored is a necessary evil. We need it for terrorist attacks and those kinds of things, as fucked up as it is. But that doesn’t mean that the lack of privacy is not totally fucked up, and that’s what I find interesting.”
His first interactive music video for his single Dangerous, released in September of last year, pertains exactly to these ideas. Wilkis collaborated with interactive artist Rajeev Basu on the Facehawk experience: set to the song, the program rhythmically pulls data from your Facebook to create a unique music video for each individual user. While you watch, your photos and statuses come together in the form of a hawk. The hawk serves to remind us of how much data we reveal online, and how it will outlive us all.
“The dude had an awesome idea and the timing was right. He’s like my hacker. My goal is that everytime I put music out, he’ll make something. I’m going to be putting an album out sometime in the fall, and I want him to do something fucking weird with it.”
A second music video for the same song, directed by John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke of Ghost+Cow Films, was released in March this year. The video centers around a faux commercial for Big Data shoes, parodying today's advertising industry and consumer culture. Wilkis and Ghost+Cow took the opportunity to make fun of their corporate backgrounds in a comically jarring way that is seared into our memory [slow clap].
As annoying as advertising can be, it is another necessary evil in today’s culture. Particularly for musicians, who nowadays rely on commercial song placements for compensation. Music consumers don’t require physical product anymore, they can listen digitally in a variety of places. Wilkis is aware of the shift in the business and consciously acknowledges the new model as he writes.
“Content today is consumed in tiny little bites; people’s attention spans are so short. We have infinite access to everything all the time. If something isn’t immediately available - for example if you have your music on Soundcloud but not on Spotify - a person might not even listen to your band. It’s making people lazy. Your strategy to release a record has to reflect that. It affects my process a lot. I try to make the songs that have a concept that appeals beyond just the music. Some people connect to the songs in the most basic way, and others connect in a, ‘I love all the crazy stupid shit you’re talking about and my head's exploding’ way. It polarizes people, but as long as the song is what brought you there in the first place, that’s the most important.”
Big Data is busy on their first US tour. Wilkis didn’t realize he’d actually be performing these songs, so for him, putting together a live show has been a process. He had been content with his music persona only existing on the Internet, and suddenly he was being asked to perform shows. The challenge of going on tour in less than a month without his frontman or band was expectedly anxiety inducing, but Wilkis has pulled together a fantastic show.
“I always wanted it to be as live and rock band-y as possible, while still being technologically driven. Hopefully as production budgets get bigger, I want to have a huge-ass band with a ton of shit going on - like a choir, I definitely want to get more interactive video stuff too. But that’s step 3 or 4 and I’m barely getting through step 1, haha.”
Well if your “step-one” is headlining a bi-coastal tour, having one of the fastest rising songs on the alternative radio charts with heavy rotation on KCRW and KROQ, and being featured in several TV shows and commercials, we’re really looking forward to step-two.
Current projects you are working on?
I’m working on my record. Just recording and touring at the moment. I just finished up 2 new songs, one of them is with Dragonette and the other is with MNDR. The goal is to have an album done by September, and then put it out in the fall sometime.
What do you like to do outside of music?
A: I listen to a lot of music... haha and I really like riding my bike. I have bad knees so biking is my happy place. I watch a lot of TV and movies. Right now, Fargo is the best show I've seen. The whole cast is great. I was saying True Detective was the best show until Fargo came along. I needed another show to become obsessed with.
So what did you grow up listening to, and what are you listening to right now?
A: I grew up with pretty diverse taste. My earliest musical memory was Michael Jackson when I was about 5. My parents put on Thriller and I freaked out. We used to go on family road trips during the summer and my parents always had Sgt. Pepper's and the Stand By Me soundtrack in the car. Then I started getting into guitar in middle school. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, Green Day and shit like that. Then I got bored, haha. Then one day my guitar teacher was like, "Oooh, Jimi Hendrix~" and then I got into my classic rock kick. Nowadays, I kind of listen to everything.
We love your weekly Friday mixtapes on Spotify.
A: Oh sweet, thanks. I need to explain my craziness with that… I listen to albums 3 times, I star the ones that are my favorites, then I pick my absolute favorites to put on the playlist. I listen to each album only 3 times, and then I kind of never listen to that album again. So I listen to a lot of shit. [Subscribe to them here]
Favorite brunch spot in LA?
A: Well I’m New York based, but I may wind up moving to LA for a while, so we’ll see.