A Talk About Expanding Creative Control and Growing Perspective with What So Not
We talked to Chris Emerson of What So Not before his show at We The Fest 2018 about seeing ideas come to life, being in the moment, and the joy of collaboration.
Words by Ghina Sabrina
Chris Emerson, or better known under his music project What So Not, is an Australian electronic music producer who is set to play at We The Fest 2018. After Flume’s departure in 2015, he’s been producing and touring around the world solo, and had finally released his debut album “Not All the Beautiful Things” following years of releasing singles and EPs. We caught up with him before his show to talk about expanding his work outside of just music, isolation as part of the creative process, and creating a cohesive yet emotive electronic music.
Before becoming a solo project, What So Not was a collaboration between you and Flume, how was your collaborative process then and now different?
For the last 5-6 years I was doing a lot of the project myself anyway, so it didn’t really change much as it was just kind of the same. Now I’m able to put a lot more records out, do things like put on my ideas into the stage design, the visuals, and sort of expand outside of just doing music. So now is just a really exciting period because it was suddenly putting all of these ideas into action and seeing dormant ideas become real life and become what a project should appear to be.
What So Not has been a solo project for 3 years now, what perspective have you gained from the project’s evolution?
I think my perspective as an individual has really grown a lot just as we get older and understand things more, and as we spend more time on different aspects of creative arts. So, as that sort of naturally progressed and grew, it just enhanced the ability to put time into different aspects of the project. Such as this peacock horse monster truck that we built for Coachella a couple years ago and had brought to tours in Australia and America. It’s been so cool to be able to execute those ideas and seeing the reactions of everyone, even Gary Richards who runs Hard Festival and all these events. One of the first shows we’ve ever brought it out was to play the sunset slot at Hard Summer in Los Angeles and when we brought down the stage and he saw it the first time, he was like “that really looks like how your music sounds” and it was the best compliment I could’ve got. It was really cool. This team, Raven from New Orleans, had built it for us but I came up with the initial sketch and the ideas. It’s been so cool to do that, and do things like writing, co-directing music videos, and work with numerous amazing friends on those collaborations. It’s also really nice to have this really cohesive vision for the project from start to finish, starting from the songwriting, the producing, and the sound of the music, all the way to how that looks and feels, and how it is put out to the world.
In your album, some songs sounded more stripped back and reserved when compared to the others. Could you tell us the process you went through when producing them?
It was all part of the same process, so it was quite a tense process where I isolated myself for about a year and a half. I went travelling just for fun, I did a lot of writing and a lot of the year was spent locked in this basement in Los Angeles and only going outside to exercise in the morning, get coffee, and then it was just 18 hours of work. I think the isolation definitely came through in a lot of the sound and some of the songwriting, but that was the moment I was in quite literally, a moment in my life where I was in the end of a lot of things and at the start of a lot of new things, and they’re all really exciting and very different, and I try to really encapsulate that in the narrative of the album. And I think the softer songs are just me taking a lot more prominent role in the songwriting rather than producing, and I wanted the song to lead rather than just cramming it full of sound and sonics. That’s again the evolution I’m experiencing as we move through different fields of creativity and different things that we’re focusing on and drawn to.
With the song “Some Mistakes”, it seems like you were trying to play with the listeners’ expectations to how a song would usually go. Was this your intention in the first place?
Yeah it was, with that one. That one was really fun. That was a song I wrote originally maybe around 3 years ago, like the initial demo and it was just kind of this thing I have that I really like. And then one random day, Daniel Johns calls me up on the phone from a blocked number and was just like “Man, are you in LA right now?” and this is funny because I’ve been up since 4 AM that day in the studio and he called me at 10 PM and he was like “I just got off a flight here, kind of bored, do you want to make some music?” I was like, “Alright, I’m here, come by”. He then came around, and he was on one that night. He was doing 45 minute takes and coming up with very strange melodies and ideas, and the way I sort of ran that session was I just let him go because he was really on one. I had a pen and paper and every time he did something interesting I write down the time code and at the end of the take, when he went to have a cigarette, I quickly grabbed all these little pieces and be like “I love this little movement he did here, I love how he started this melody here and if I change a few things around I can turn it into this melody”. I started grabbing his voice and using it kind of as a synth and like making all of these padded layers. You can really hear that as it sort of builds to that climax that drops to nothing, just to a sort of haunting vocal, and you can even hear him tapping his foot as he was singing like a marching kind of sound. It was really amazing working on that record with him and I think he was in such a moment in his own life at that time and we just had so much fun together just capturing everything where we were both feeling certain things.
How did the audience react to that song?
Well I’ve been opening the whole show with it. Until I probably do it with Daniel, I haven’t been playing the moment with Daniel’s vocals as a prominent feature, so it does take the more predictable route, which I think is important for the start of the set. I’m going to introduce that song to everyone around the world as I go around the world touring this album and then at a later stage, I think when people are more familiar with it you could then take it to a more challenging way of playing it.
“Not All the Beautiful Things” is a cohesive yet emotive album, which proved that electronic music could be emotional. How was the creative process when making this album, and what kind of headspace were you in?
I was in a new chapter of my life. I’ve been touring for 6 years straight and it was hard to finish records, very hard to really have enough time to refine anything to a level that I wanted to. So after that 6 years of touring, I finally took 3-4 months off and that was when I started intensely putting this whole thing together. And it was a big moment of reflecting on my life, reflecting on things that I’ve been experiencing, and just trying to encapsulate that in a record.
Before the album, I did the Divide and Conquer EP, but even for that it was so hard to put together because I was touring. I would’ve just done it so much better if I had the time to really get in the studio and polish it all up nicely, but I was so happy with how that turned out. What’s funny is that “Adieu” which is the last song on that EP ended up being the most streamed out of the whole, and it’s this a minute and a half thing that I made on the day the record was due.