it’s warm… but getting less so at 6pm at the Iroquois Amphitheatre, an airy, covered, outdoor space in Iroquois Park, in Louisville, Kentucky. The road through the nearby woods is packed with cars carrying crowds for a sell-out show.
There are 3,000 people on their way. About one in 50 of them has perfected the look of tonight’s main attraction: flopped-over hair with one side shaved, dark-framed glasses, and those O-shaped, lobe-hole earrings that comedian Louis CK described as not knowing how to describe. Some wear DayGlo beads, headbands and bodystockings reminiscent of ’90s raves. It’s not hard to pick out patterns of planets and stars, and the smiling Martian head from the album cover of the man they’re all waiting for: Skrillex.
Terri Macskimming, a mother in her everyday clothes, standing giddily with her son, Andre, cheers in excitement. “My son told me, ‘There’s this music called dubstep,’ and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ and I love it now,” she says. “You can dance to it and yet it’s mellow,” she adds. “I don’t know how he pulls that off.” The musical style she’s describing, electronic dance music, EDM, is the USA’s fastest growing music genre and a worldwide smash.
A turning point came five years ago, when producers such as David Guetta started to work with mainstream pop artists, making massively popular records that incorporated elements of trance, house and dubstep. Today, young EDM artists play stadium shows and main slots at huge rock festivals. According to Forbes magazine, in 2013 the world’s 10 highest-paid DJ acts (nine men and the trio of Swedish House Mafia) pulled in $241 million more than the payroll that year of the New York Yankees, or Real Madrid, and about two-and-a-half times that of the Dallas Cowboys (read the article here).
On the list, with $16m of annual income, which has no doubt increased since, is Sonny John Moore, also known as Skrillex. In only four years, the 26-year-old high school dropout has won six Grammys, gained 16 million Facebook followers, and earns all that money despite giving away much of his music for free.
Backstage a few hours before his show, Skrillex is a short blur in all black with damp hair, sprinting from his dressing room, down a hall with several signs pointing the direction of the stage, past catering, past buses, past people displaying passes with various levels of backstage access, to the stage entrance. Milo & Otis, the LA-based duo who are opening tonight are indeed starting the show. Sonny – everyone on tour calls him Sonny – stands there, bobs his head and hums along for a few seconds, looks at his cracked phone, then runs back to his room, allotting a glimpse of smoke, a laptop and a bottle-strewn table, and shuts the door.
“He’s frazzled right now,” says a guy named Skrause, Sonny’s road manager on tour, who says that his boss is putting the finishing touches on a track that he wrote earlier today. Though seemingly always bobbing, making music or going “WHOOOOOOO” when he runs by or meets fans, in person Skrillex is polite and focused, though no less enthusiastic about basically everything.
Two nights later, he’s seated, after a dinner mainly of salad at a big round table in the mostly empty Crystal Ballroom, deep inside Detroit’s Masonic Temple, the biggest of its kind in the world (the venue was his idea). He’s in a chair yet still seems to move, speaking in a fast, happy manner accompanied by hair-flopping nods. This constant energy has kept him really, really busy in the last couple of years. He played 322 shows in 2011, spinning as many as three gigs a night, usually two sets, and the afterparty. In late 2013, he was finishing Recess, his first full-length album (after seven EPs, the first of which, Gypsyhook, in 2009, was released under the name Sonny). Recess is dense but playful and it begins with a found clip from an old science lecture, accompanied by the rising sound of a take-off: “To get 1,000 miles from Earth, a rocket would need this much power, this much power, this much power…”
Tonight is the fifth show on the new edition of his Mothership Tour, with 20 stops in the US as the first leg of the global tour. “To me it’s all about making experiences,” he says. The tour, which he first performed in 2011, in the US, Canada and Europe, has been redesigned by Skrillex, to include a state-of-the-art light show and a custom-built spaceship from which he DJs in the cockpit. Hydraulic lifts raise the ship up and out over the crowd, pouring mist, while the large screen behind him displays everything from mesmerising Art Deco patterns to a looped clip from the 25-year-old sitcom Full House.
In 2011, the show and the music attracted a lot of attention. A young DJ with a strange haircut introduced many Americans to a genre called dubstep, and blew away his audience with a pyrotechnic show that was just as powerful as the music. It was a success, but on a somewhat smaller scale. For the 2014 version, Skrillex and his creative team worked for five months in a giant warehouse in downtown LA, brainstorming, experimenting, building, rebuilding and rehearsing. The spaceship is the size of a helicopter, the screen is huge and stands like a wall of glowing liquid. Spotlights swivel and change location on mechanical arms, shoot light beams as dense as orange juice in every shade of the rainbow. Six cannons placed at the front of the stage alternately shoot fog and fire. After it’s dismantled, the stage equipment fills eight truck trailers.
Skrillex’s dressing room is marked by a sign taped to the door that reads SKRILL-VILLE. Outside it, with the crowd noise building, Skrause and a few of the touring crew are wearing coveted ALL ACCESS passes around their necks: black tickets with the three trademark slashes Skrillex puts on all his records and merchandise. The sound of a husky laser beam comes from the dressing room and down the hallway. No one’s allowed in right now. “He’s in creative mode,” says Skrause. He and the crew make a post-show plan. There is a curfew tonight because the plan is to pack up, hit the road as soon as Skrillex is done at almost 11pm, sleep on the bus, like they do most nights when there’s a show the next day, and get into Cleveland at about 4am.
In another room, technicians are eating with stagehands, assistants and others. The hierarchy is complicated, but there are touring crew, assistants, tour security, local security, police, medics, caterers and the people whose only job is to print out and tape up the signs around the venue pointing to the stage or catering or each dressing room. The bigger the place, the more signs. Tonight there are about 20.
Everyone who works around the stage wears boots and jeans hooked with carabiners that hold preposterous numbers of keys. Each of them has a radio clipped on their belt or back pocket. It looks like this cast of characters knows how to party, and while a good time is certainly being had, it’s worth noting that wild Skrillex-on-tour tales are not in evidence on this flight of the Mothership. There was group jogging before the show, and a high-powered juicer is spotted on the natural foods bar. The one night out involved a few drinks and a sad bar in downtown Cleveland, with a lone dancer and topless waitress. The crew stay in whatever nice big hotel is available and no one seems to be waiting around lobbies or in hallways for a glimpse of the talent. He’s probably somewhere on his cracked iPhone.