I first met Drew Taggart and Alex Pall at the back end of 2015 at Sony HQ in London. The Chainsmokers were making waves in the EDM scene, already had a number one in the US with Roses, and had started to raise an eyebrow or two in the UK and across Europe. They were severely jet lagged when I arrived, yet had no problem dedicating the best part of an hour of their time to me, talking passionately about their production roots, their influences (which are wide and eclectic), and their musical journey thus far. I walked out buzzing – and not just because Sony gave me my very own private car parking space for the afternoon. What struck me was the focus and obvious drive that these two guys had, and how engaged they seemed to be in our conversation – and this is them just off a 12-hour flight. So I guess you could say the writing was on the wall.
Skip forward 18 months, and their world has blown up. The Chainsmokers are the hottest act in America right now: this year, they’ve already won their first Grammy for Best Dance Recording, they debuted their latest single with Coldplay at the BRITs with an epic live performance, and became only the third act in history to achieve three simultaneous top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. And there’s more... This month, they will release their debut album, which they will then take out on the road to 38 US arenas... And it’s definitely not just about EDM. I sat down with them again to discuss this whirlwind twist of fate.
“We’re very lucky – and to be honest, we can’t really explain why this has happened; we’re just writing songs about ourselves, for our friends, like we always have,” opens Alex. “But I think personally, we have always liked to challenge ourselves and push ourselves. It’s important for us to keep doing the unexpected, and to work with artists that inspire us, which we’ve been really lucky to do. Who really knows what’s happening!”
I offer the boys a big congratulations on the Grammy – both of them are thankful, yet humble about it all – but there is a twist... “That was a very special moment, but, actually, we haven’t gotten it yet, so it doesn’t feel real,” Alex adds, with a smile. “Maybe it’s got lost in the mail or something?”
When we last spoke, we talked about how meticulous both guys are in the studio. Although collaboration is still a big thing, when it comes to production, they are very much in their own zones.
“We came from the production background, so that’s still the background of what we do,” confirms Drew. “We really push ourselves to create sounds that are ours, so when you hear it, it’s a Chainsmokers record - and that’s our main focus. But it’s the songwriting that has really taken our career to the next level.”
It has indeed. Anyone who thinks these guys are just two playback DJs couldn’t be farther from the truth: Drew is a more than competent guitarist, and both guys have serious keyboard chops. What also sets them aside from the pack, so to speak, is their ability to pen their own material both musically and lyrically. Paris, which ironically was written in Sweden, was quite a breakthrough in terms of songwriting, Drew explains:
“That was one of the most recent songs that we finished, and we wrote it in Stockholm last fall. The main concept of it was done in the studio with a bunch of friends after our show in Stockholm, and it was just a little idea. After Closer, we have always played all of our potential next singles to our friends, and Paris was the one they really connected with, and really wanted us to finish. And we really liked it, too; we thought it was super-vibey, and that it was the perfect follow up to Closer.”
And those instincts were correct: Paris hit the number one spot in February; it seems every Chainsmokers single gets a little more popular than the last. The boys recently took over all top three positions on the Billboard Hot 100, making them only the third band in history to achieve such a feat. The other two? The Beatles and the Bee Gees... That’s not bad company, is it? “[laughs] Yeah, that was pretty wild, especially when you look at the other artists that have achieved that,” Alex admits, “but it doesn’t really change anything, and we’re still thinking about the next step. We always feel that we have more to show the world, and more to prove, you know? Show people what we’re capable of. A lot of these accolades we’re really humbled by, but at the same time, we’re anxious to show people more.”
The boys will drop their first album, Memories... Do Not Open, on April 7 th . I ask them what we can expect from it – a lot, by all accounts.
“Well, as Drew says, the songwriting has taken everything to the next level. And you know, the album was something we weren’t sure we would ever do, if you had asked us six months ago, as it doesn’t feel like that’s what people are buying or listening to nowadays with streaming and everything,” Alex reflects. “But we are always in the studio if we’re not playing shows, and it felt like the music we were making started to have this recurring theme, and this red line through it, like it was all coming from the same place and telling this consistent story about us. It felt like if there was ever a time to do it, it was now. We had that voice, and message of cohesiveness. Most dance albums are compilations of sorts, but that’s not really what we wanted to do.
“On top of that, we were listening to our fans, and they were keen to hear more from us, and it was getting to the point where Closer was so big and we were still making music all the time, but it was like, ‘when is this stuff gonna come out?’ [smiles] But really, the album is a collection of memories and moments in our lives and our relationships – moments of tension, things we have experienced growing as artists, great moments and low moments, as well; and the cover art really tells that story. When you’re a kid, you have a childhood room and you grow up and leave that room, and your mum comes in and kind of boxes up all your belongings that have memories and stories attached to them – this album is representative of us coming home to that room that is now a home office or a gym, pulling that box out and opening it up to the world.
“We’re talking about things that are definitely controversial in some cases, but it’s all very, very honest and real – and it’s exciting, because although our songs to date have been amazing and truly represent our evolution as artists, the songwriting on the album is a whole other level of storytelling, and opening up about ourselves, so that’s what this album deals with.” And it’s not just a dance album – far from it. Expect musicality, dynamics, colours, band members, even. The Chainsmokers have most certainly grown as producers during this experience, and have somehow managed to convey the energy and edge within their live performances to the record. Where do you begin with something like that, then?
“It’s a good question! [laughs] When we were making Roses, there was a moment when we said we were going to stop making music that we think other people want to play - stop making 128bpm 4/4 stuff, and just make music we think is cool,” Alex explains. “If people don’t play it, that’s fine, but we love it, and we’re happy with it. And that was a big turning point. But it turned out you could dance to Roses, so that gave us a lot of confidence!”
And moving further down the rabbit hole, as Alex affectionately puts it, a lot of the songs on this album aren’t dance tracks at all:
“We realised when doing this that we’re not leaving the DJ world by any means, as that’s our roots, but we needed to involve some more elements. So for the tour, we have put together a band, like we did at he BRITs. Drew will be the frontman on guitar and keys, I’ll be playing keys and some pads, and we have a drummer, too. So many of these songs deserve more than just hitting the play button and sitting back, you know?
“We want to perform them, and that’s what we’re really looking forward to. And doing that kind of songwriting and music production definitely impacts at our live show a lot. Even going back to the Closer days when Drew started to perform that track at our shows, it changed the way our shows worked, and the way we interacted with people, and made the whole experience a lot better in our opinion.” Although The Chainsmokers cite DJs as some of their biggest inspirations and indeed idols, they feel there is something about a band that’s just very eternal, so for the album and tour, it’s been a case of striking a balance of sorts.
“Fusing that energy and production of the DJ set, which we always have, and doing something deeper and more profound and entertaining with a band element, we think will be the best of both worlds,” Drew adds. “We came up through dance music, but we are so influenced by many different genres. Roses was a real turning point, but we didn’t want to format stuff for the whole EDM scene – we wanted to let indie, rock, punk, hardcore, and hip hop seep into our music - and it’s created an interesting collage of different influences, and created a sound which says, ‘that’s definitely a Chainsmokers record.’”
It certainly seems The Chainsmokers have gone the extra mile this time – that determination and focus I saw in 2015, if anything, has gone deeper still, hasn’t it? “We hope so! We’re definitely delving deeper with the album, too - it’ll be interesting to see how that affects people. Every time we put something out, there are people that think this song sounds too much like that song, or this doesn’t have a hard enough drop, or whatever; the point being, so many people have so many opinions on what our sound should be. And being in the middle of that discussion has been very important. We want to keep evolving, keep doing things people disagree with - which also changes their opinion - and in the long term, I think that builds a really interesting opinion on who we are, and makes the possibilities of where we take our sound limitless. Because people do learn to expect the unexpected, after all...”
Conversation turns to working in the studio. The album has been mixed and part produced by Headliner’s very own Grammy-winning columnist, DJ Swivel – the boys have a very solid working relationship with him, and I’m interested to see how that process worked out, considering The Chainsmokers’ insane schedule. to.
“ I t ’s “It’s been hard actually,” admits Drew. “I think what we learned is that the last five to 10 percent of finishing an album is super-hard, way more time consuming than creating the rest of the songs; and we did have to bounce around, back and forth. Finishing 12 songs is very different than finishing one or two, as you use up all your tricks really quickly, and have to push yourself to create some new production identities for these songs. So we definitely became much better producers. Trying to make all these songs different but cohesive at the same time was a very gratifying experience.”
And credit to the boys for making an actual album rather than dropping a mix tape or a track here and there, which seems to be quite a trend of late. It’s mad to think an album is kind of considered ‘old school’ in today’s world, isn’t it?
“Yeah, from a consumption standpoint, singles make a lot more sense; it’s a lot less risk, work, and investment in time, promotion, and money; but when you have a comprehensive collection of music that’s really revealing about you as an artist, then it’s important to put that out.”
Nicely said, Drew. So tell me about that BRITs performance with Coldplay, and what we can expect from the tour... “I think people knew we had worked with Coldplay, but not that we had finished a song together, and they definitely didn’t know that it was going to be debuted at the BRITs! So that was pretty nerve wracking,” Drew admits. “You can’t believe it’s happening, and being able to debut something in such a cool and surprising way - you just don’t get to do that very often, especially with a guy like Chris [Martin]. “Coldplay are a band that has influenced us for so long, so that was pretty wild. The whole TV performance thing is such a crazy thing, especially for us, as we don’t come from that world and our team don’t come from that world. We kind of had growing pains figuring out how to get our ears dialled in perfectly and working with the right equipment - getting someone you trust to mix the record that’s going to sound good on TV and in the room, but we figured it out.”
And production rehearsals are well underway for the tour, which is being catered for by leading UK rental house, Brit Row. It sounds pretty epic.
“It’s definitely intense! [smiles] Like the album, we had a very ambitious idea of how we wanted the tour to be. As Alex was saying, some of these songs won’t be articulated in the best way if they’re thrown into a DJ set, so we’re bringing a drummer, and an amazing piano player - both of whom we found online that were doing covers of our songs, and both incredibly talented - and then we basically made them our band,” Drew explains. How cool is that? “So for the songs that lend themselves to a band, we will bring them out, but we still want to create the energy of a rave, and tell a narrative, so we’re building that narrative with this group called The Production Club, who do amazing work. They’ve done all Skrillex’ stuff, deadmau5’ stuff; it’s cool to work with them on less of an EDM type act – which is us – and build something that tells a story that’s less like an aesthetic and more of a narrative. But it’s also a lot to undertake in a very short period of time, and it’s arenas for the first time ever, so...” So there’s a lot of big moves being made here? “Yeah, and we’re just trying our best to put it all together and make it work and be awesome,” concludes Drew, with a laugh. “And to cater to our new fans, and to our old fans, and just put on an amazing show. That’s what we’re here for, bro...”
The Chainsmokers’ album drops on April 7 th , and they embark on their US arena tour the following week. Thanks for your time, guys, and we wish you the best of luck with everything (not that you’ll need it...)