Photo: Courtesy of artist
Kaskade Talks New 'Reset' EP, Executing Epic Fortnite Show, NFTs & More
It's hard to imagine dance music and festivals without Kaskade. The beloved GRAMMY-nominated DJ/producer has been putting out melodic dancefloor bangers since 2001 and seems to have headlined almost every major music festival across the globe. Yet, somehow, none of it has gone to his head as he remains at the top 20 years into the game.
"The fact that other people wanted to hear my music, outside of that little, tiny world that I was in, just blew me away," he recently told GRAMMY.com over Zoom, from his studio in Santa Monica, California. "To this day, I am still so grateful for everything that transpired."
GRAMMY.com caught up with Kaskade in celebration of his latest project, the Reset EP, featuring four tracks that soundtrack the Rocket League video game, dropped on Monstercat on March 5. He also dived deep into the EP, the epic production that went into creating his March 26 Fortnite concert, and planning his foray into NFTs (non-fungible tokens). The "Atmosphere" producer also reflected on his journey to super stardom and said he looks forward to returning to the dancefloor.
Let's start with the new music. Your latest project, Reset, recently dropped on Monstercat. I'm curious what your vision for this EP was.
Vision. Wow, that's a big word. [Laughs.] I've known the Monstercat guys for—it seems like a really long time—probably three or four years. I was really intrigued with how, I don't know, progressive-minded the label was. So, I reached out and became friends with them. And then, maybe two years ago, they came to me and were like, "We want to do something [with you] in the gaming space. Are you interested in that?" And I'm like, "Absolutely." Oh, hey. [Motions behind at arcade games.] My studio's named Arkade and I have video games here. I'm like, "I love video games! Yeah, that would be super fun, and different." A different software company hired me about 20 years ago to remix some game stuff, but that was so long ago.
And so, the EP was a pretty collaborative effort in the fact that they were like, "Hey, we want it to fit in the game, and these are some of the different vibes." And so, I sat down and played Rocket League for the first time about eight months ago. I'll paint it as one of those silver linings of the pandemic. Typically, I'm doing 120, 150 shows a year, flipping out, and completely over-scheduled, and trying to find some kind of balance.
With more free time and more studio time, I've just been open to do things like this. Which I would have been, prior to this—I just think it would have been a lot harder to have that collaborative "What are you looking for?" element. And it would be harder to sit down and really sink my teeth into it and wrap my head around the game and give my take on what I think would work when you're playing the game.
It was like, "Okay, what's cool and energetic, fun and light? How can that fit with my sound? How can I cater my style to that?" Really, I just approached it that way. But certainly, the Monstercat people were all, "We love your classic sounding stuff." And "Miles To Go," to me, is quintessential me. This is about as me as I can sound, but with a fresh take on it, a 2021 vibe to it.
I want to talk a bit more about "Miles To Go," which I love. I feel like Ella Vos' voice sounds euphoric but also urgent. What was it like working with her?
Working with Ella was a dream. She's equally as cool and amazing as her voice sounds. I didn't know her before this project. And honestly, we met on the back side of it. It all kind of happened in the cloud, out in space.
True to the current state of affairs, it was a song that was sent to my manager. "Hey, this is something that Kaskade might be interested in. He likes this style of vocal." And when I heard it, I was like, "Holy cow! She killed the performance! I wish I wrote this song." It was just kind of a piano demo. And instantly, when I heard it, I had some ideas on how I wanted to produce it. But yeah, her voice was already recorded—beautiful, pristine.
I'd only heard her one time before that, on a song ["Exhale"] with R3HAB. And I loved her voice then, I was like, "Wow! Who is this?" So, it was a cool moment [when I got the demo]. And actually, I sat on the track for quite a bit, because I was like, "There's a message here." I was holding it for maybe a future album, or something that was part of a bigger picture.
And one of the life lessons I've taken away from this whole thing is, maybe I don't need to be holding on to those things. I produced it up, sent it over to Monstercat. I was like, "Is this right [for Rocket League]?" If we look at the tracks together, this is on one side and "Flip Reset" is on the other side. "Flip Reset" is more like banging, peak, kind of like you scored a goal in the game! "Miles To Go" is the most emotive out of the bunch. But that works. They didn't want one flavor.
And what are some of the sonic elements that you brought in to "Miles To Go" to give it that classic Kaskade sound?
Early on in my career, somewhere along the line, I decided that to set myself apart I wanted the electronic music I was making to be more about lyrics and melody. Even on my first album It's You, It's Me, it's almost 20 years old now, it's all about the songwriting. And that was my deal. I sat down and got in the studio with people who I thought were great songwriters and said, "I've been really testing my writing skills. I want to continue to push this boundary."
I feel like dance music shouldn't be only just sound design. I've always felt that something that resonates and goes beyond, and something you can leave a mark with, is where you take a cool message, these lyrics, and a strong melody, and marry that with something sonically interesting. It can be a global impact moment.
Dance music is always just where my head's at. Dance music's always been about sonics. That's where we came from. Drum machines, synthesis, "I'm going to put this in a box, and stretch it, tweak it and freak it out, and make it sound like nothing you've ever heard before." And you hear it, and you're like, "What is this? I want more."
A lot has changed over the years, because 20, 25 years ago when I got into it, nobody was really writing songs and pitching them to dance music producers, because we were such a tiny little niche. I think the biggest thing for me that's changed in the last five to seven years, with guys like David Guetta and Calvin Harris that were able to really crossover and conquer the pop charts, people were like, "Oh, that guy, Kaskade's called me before, maybe I should call him back?" Even though we were filling nightclubs and large venues, and playing massive festivals before that, I think it took a few guys from our world to clip through to let other songwriters and artists know our world was credible.
I grew up listening to disco because of my dad—he loves Diana Ross and all the iconic female vocalists. And you were the first dance music I got into, back in college. Now, I definitely see the connection in your music to disco, especially as disco is the root of dance music.
100 percent. Let me take that one step further. When I really got into this initially, I grew up in suburban Chicago and most of those early house records were so—I mean, disco [had] just ended. In Chicago they're like, "No, we're still doing it. We're going to call it something different though, because people are burning disco records at Comiskey Park. Okay cool, we're doing this in a warehouse, let's call it house music." A lot of people argue how that happened, but I'm not here to be that guy. Those guys were so influenced by disco.
And when I came up, all of those first wave of producers, they were borrowing [disco] as inspiration, and sampling, all of that stuff. Now, we don't do that so much because it's illegal. But back then, there was a lot of stuff that wasn't figured out yet. There's so many of those early records that I look back to, I was a huge DJ Sneak fan growing up, and I am still. [Points to huge vinyl.] I've got probably 150 DJ Sneak records. He was cutting a lot of those old disco records up and making them sonically new.
When I first got into it, I was imitating that. When I moved to San Francisco is kind of when I had that mindset of, "Oh, I can write my own songs." By then, the power of the computer had got so great—first we had 10 seconds, then 12 seconds, then you could record lyrics inside your computer. That led to a creative boom in electronic music.
What else did I want to talk about? Let's keep talking about disco.
Disco's good. You're lucky you grew up in a house with it. I got a little bit of disco. I got some Bee Gees, of course, but I got a lot of ABBA in my house, man. They're amazing. The first time I went to Stockholm, all I could think was like, "ABBA. Where did they live? Can I go to a bar where ABBA hung out?" My tour manager was like, "Just leave it already." And I'm like, "No, no, I'm not trying to be funny. I grew up listening to this stuff, it's a big deal for me."
I want to talk more about how you approached sound-tracking Rocket League. How was it different than when you're creating a song that will sound great at a festival or on the dancefloor?
Well, when I go into the studio—it's a pretty selfish thing—I write songs for me, mainly. I like writing, and creating, and sitting down and messing around with sounds. With the first remix I got hired to do ages ago, the A&R person was very particular like, "Hey, I really like this one song that you did, and I think it could fit stylistically with something like that because I want this to be played in nightclubs at one in the morning. How can you approach this?" I was like, "Oh, yeah. I can totally see that working."
It's that same mentality when I sat down to [work on Rocket League.] "What would I want to hear? What's going to work? How can I put my spin on this?" "Flip Reset," the song I did with WILL K, was the most obvious thing to me. It's something that's super energetic, fun, light, banging. So now, when you're in the lobby of the game and you're waiting to choose your car, it's banging and kind of hypes you up. "Closer" was more about just the vibe. It's the music in the background while you're playing, you want it vibey, cool, but still energetic. Honestly, I think that's why the gamers in general listen to so much dance music. I get messages all the time on Twitter and Instagram, usually people who ask me to post more sets because they've listened to them at least 20 times each and have them totally memorized.
[For Rocket League,] I wanted it to range from banging, super energetic stuff, to vibey, and then some of my kind of classic, emotive stuff that will be memorable. The hope for me was, and it's cool it's working this way, is that people turn off the game and they're like, "Man, I love that one track. What was the name of it? Oh, 'Miles To Go,' let me put that on."Discovery now, it's happening through TikTok, these games and all these different platforms. The industry can barely keep up. It's cool to see the young upstarts and the real savvy people out there figuring out that they can connect to people in different ways and different platforms.
What's your relationship to video games? Obviously, I see the old-school arcade games behind you, but did you grow up playing them? Do you still play them?
I'm usually too busy, I don't get much gaming stuff in. But yes, I've got a PS4 and an Xbox at my house and every once in a while, I jump on there. But really, I still love the classics. I have some pinball machines in the other room. So, I love it all, I love gaming. But people are always like, "Dude, let me play you on Fortnite." I'm like, "You don't understand. I suck. I'm like 20 hours into that."
And speaking of Fortnite, your Fortnite concert happened on March 26. How did you prepare for that? And what do you see as a positive of being able to do a show in a virtual space?
That's a good question. I think the challenge for me [is doing shorter sets]. Even festivals are hard for me. You have 67 minutes of performance time. I came from the club world, and I'm used to playing two, three, four or five hours, and I feel really comfortable in that space.
What's cool about the whole virtual thing, especially when it's such a whole production like this, is that it can be quite planned. I'm totally winging it a lot of my concerts. That's one of the things that's cool about electronic music, because you can go one night and listen to me and feel, "My gosh! We were on the same wavelength." I mean, obviously, I strive for that every single night. But some nights go better than others. But the virtual space was cool because it was so thought out. It's like, "Here's your time allotment. This is what we need to deliver."
For the production of my shows, I'm very much a part of that process. And not that we get it right every time, we try to. For this, we're doing something much more rehearsed. We filmed the set, my goodness, over four days ... I'm going to say, conservatively, I did the set at least 30 times. And that is no exaggeration. I was so sore at the end of it because I was jumping around. On the second day, they were like, "Bro, are you all right on energy? You need a Red Bull or something?" I was so sore, because they kept being, "You got to bring the energy man, we're doing some close-up shots now." I can only spaz out so much. It's like I did two months' worth of touring in four days.
That's crazy. Did you work with a VR team? Or how did you collaborate on the visuals and all that stuff?
It's insane. Listen, we sent all my visuals in advance, and then I sent them a wish list of songs I wanted to play. We paired it down, got the visuals to sync up. And they started programming, a team of 50 people, when I showed up to film. This is massive undertaking. Honestly, I felt like I was preparing to go on the road for a year-and-a-half on a global tour. It was huge. And they had prepped for six or eight weeks before I showed up to perform.
The guys that produced it and put it together are incredibly talented. It's wild. It was way beyond the scope of what I understood until I showed up there. During the streams that I've been doing during quarantine, I'm in my kitchen like, "Hey, I'm baking banana bread and playing some records. Tune in." That was the extent of my streaming. I did one at the Grand Canyon, that was awesome, and obviously, that took a small staff of people to execute that. But we were using the beauty of the surroundings to drop people's jaw.
This thing is very much a tech miracle. It feels like a festival. They had the camera on a boom, going over my shoulder, and then out into this virtual audience. Everything else [was] animated, except for me. It's like I [was] actually inside the game.
Speaking of crazy things slightly beyond my imagination, you've Tweeted about working on putting out some NFTs [non-fungible tokens]. I'm curious what you see as the future for artists putting out NFTs and using that as a way to connect with their fans, and also as another revenue source.
I think it's exciting. [I'm always excited about] any kind of new platform or technology. Honestly, over the last 12 weeks, me and pretty much, I don't know, the rest of the art world, is reading, having discussions, watching YouTube videos, just trying to understand the space more.
For me, it's an opportunity for people to get my art in a different format, or see it in a different way, and potentially bring it to a new audience. I see it as a new opportunity to connect with my fans that have been around for so long, or even people that are just meeting me for the first time. I think on the music side, it's so new, we're kind of discovering the problems as we go along. I'm collaborating with a [visual] artist—and I'm not going to give any more than that away in this interview—because, to me, to be really effective, there needs to be a visual element to the music.
As far as the revenue, I mean, I am super fortunate to be in a position where, I'm in this part of my career, and I didn't spend all of my money. Although the pandemic sucked for many reasons, and I'm sure we all have our list of reasons why it sucked, for me, the short list of reasons why it was kind of cool is I got to slow down. I'm not looking to NFTs as part of some new gold rush. I think a lot of people are just head-over-heels like, "Oh, my gosh, money! I've got to get some of this money."
I'm buddies with deadmau5, I follow him on his platforms, and chat from time to time, and he's up to his chin in this stuff. He put something [about NFTs] up, I think it was November of last year, and that was really when I was like, "Oh, wow!" Joel [Zimmerman, a.k.a deadmau5] is really ahead of the curve, and I really like what he does in the tech space. That's when I started getting into it. And I was already starting my run into this space, when boom, it happened.
It will be interesting to see how it evolves. I've been curious to see how blockchain can serve people and gets outside of its sort of techie, privileged bubble. NFTs are definitely a cool opportunity. And you know, people love merch, and I sort of see it as a new age of that even.
Yeah, for sure. I think it's going to get there. Right now, NFTs seem super high-end—and that's one of the things I'm trying to achieve with my drop, is make sure I have a number of items that are actually entry level. People that might be curious of NFT, and have a little bit of Bitcoin, or want to dip their toe into it, that there'll be something accessible for them.
I'm thinking more like, what's this next wave? Looking at it like merch, or something. Somebody can own my piece of art that's authenticated. I have fans I've met that are like, "I've been to 100 shows," so for somebody like that. And in my merch store, occasionally I would do prints from the photographer that's followed me around for a long time, Mark Owens, and offer something like that. It's interesting to stretch out that space. And I see this as a similar way, just in a digital medium.
That’s the spirit...until then we will have to start training for this - can you imagine how epic it’s going to feel to finally get these shows?!? https://t.co/6FgEtfPY7s
— Kaskade (@kaskade) March 10, 2021
You recently scheduled your Redux shows to 2022, which is crazy. What are you most looking forward to, about returning to shows IRL?
Oh man. Human connection. I miss it. It's been a challenge to make music in this black hole. I've been very spoiled in my career, even at the very beginning. I'd make something and then I could go test it out at the club that night or the next night. To have that instant feedback is very inspiring creatively. It helped shape a lot of my early records.
Independent artists, and people in my space, we're not testing our music out out by pitching it to radio. I'm not writing radio records. Our space is in the nightclubs and at the festivals. And to just take that completely out of the equation, it's like, "Hold up. Does this even work anymore?" Fortunately, I get messages from fans like, "Oh, my gosh! I love this mix." And there's still some of that there, but nothing beats the real deal, in person, at a show.
Going back to the beginning, back in 2003, when you put out It's You It's Me, did you have any idea that you'd be where you are now?
[I had] Absolutely no inclination at all, no plan. I never had a clue. I was completely naïve, kind of dumb, young. If I would have tried to have planned any of this, I'm sure I would have screwed it up. There's no method to the madness.
I speak to youth groups from time to time, and they're always like, "Well, how'd you blow up?" And I'm like, "I have no idea. I can sit here and give you my two cents, but it's pointless because whatever I did is going to be completely different for you, if you're trying to go into this space." What I always tell them is I had zero expectations. I mean really, for me, it was like, if I could pay my rent in San Francisco, or even come really close and I'm buying Top Ramen, honestly, the world is my oyster. I am living.
To this day, I am still so grateful for everything that transpired. And not to say that I didn't work for it, I toured endlessly for the last 20 years, and just about killed myself out there on the road. Because I believed in the music and believed that somebody might be out there that likes it. I was always making an effort to connect with and build an audience. My endgame was just to be able to live, pay my rent, and take care of my family.
And here you are now.
Now I'm sitting in this freaking ridiculous studio in Santa Monica, California. I went surfing this morning, and I have a pretty incredible life, all off of doing what I love. Honestly, as crappy as COVID-19 is, I'm not a guy that should be complaining. I don't have a complaint in the world. If you hear me complaining one day, just come up and whack me across the head or something.