ATTLAS came onto the scene in 2015 and has recently released his newest EP, Bloom. Straight off the release, he took the time to speak with Magnetic Magazine about his rise to success, his inspirations, and the importance of being truly passionate about what you do - focusing on making music that resonates with yourself (or himself, as it were).
How did you get into music production?
I was always an "instruments first" guy for most of my life. Playing piano, trumpet, guitar, bass, banjos etc., music was always this inextricable part of my DNA. However, my family moved around a lot. Switching schools so frequently gave me a terrific perspective on many aspects of life, but what it didn't provide was a static social group. It wasn't going to be easy to find a band and build the chemistry needed to really gel musically.
To counter this while still maintaining an ambition towards writing music for more than one person, I had to get into recording. My production background started as simple multi-track guitar recordings, just to hear the ideas in my head fleshed out. That being said, I quickly realized the quality that I heard in the music I was listening to wasn't near what my simple mic and guitar setup were giving me.
I learned about EQ, compression, reverb etc. as a necessity to get my music sounding closer to the records I was into. That quickly snowballed, as the questions "Can I add strings", and "What if I don't have a drummer" all had answers in the world of production and composition. That side really took over, and production became not just a means of hearing my singer/songwriter tracks fleshed out, but as a creative tool itself.
What are some of your inspirations?
I'm fortunate enough that I grew up in a household filled with music from many eras and genres, all given (for the most part) equal respect and listening time. Additionally, fantastic music teachers in grade and high school instilled within me the belief that the exploration of idea is as fruitful as honing expertise in a narrow range.
Tom Waits and Aphex Twin, Leonard Cohen and Clint Mansell - I was fascinated by so much, and fascinated further by the fact that so many different sounds and iterations of expression could find audiences. These days, I'm seeking out sounds and experiments from more fringe ideas of music and finding ways to marinate those ideas with my own style of writing, playing, and performing. Sleep Research Facility, djrum, Solar Bears and Bibio make up the largest section of my "electronic" listening these days, and I'm falling further down the rabbit hole of free jazz as I get back into music lessons and a more academic approach to theory, composition, and arrangement.
What’s the story behind you getting involved with Mau5trap?
It's kind of a funny story! Before Mau5trap, I was living in Santa Monica and had finished an internship and assistant position under a composer. The experience, at the time, was incredibly educational - I was on the front lines of composing for Hollywood blockbusters, AAA video game titles, and award winning period dramas. I learned an incredible amount in a very short time span, and was obviously enthused when the contract for a bigger role came.
As it happens, as a Canadian with a new work contract in the States, I was tasked with returning to Canada, settling the legal on the new visa, and re-entering according to U.S. law. During that downtime between receiving the offer and the visa process being completed, I had written a few electronic/dance demos to try and get a richer understanding of a genre that had become a huge passion of mine of the preceding five years.
As fortune would have it, the only label I sent my music to was Mau5trap - that was my quality threshold. If they weren't interested, then I still had work to do. When a life changing email of good news came from Mau5trap, I wrestled for a quick fraction of second about whether or not I should embark upon a new life story under deadmau5' wing, or continue on the composing path in L.A..
How do you approach writing music? What is your process?
I'm pretty traditional in my approach to music in that everything starts, and often finishes, on an instrument. I'm most comfortable on a piano, as nothing else gives me access to that many octaves that quickly. I like to give myself some quiet space to jam for a bit, and more often than not I'll unearth a chord progression or melody that hits something inside of me. From then on, it's a matter of re-listening carefully, making adjustments, and eventually landing on what I understand to be the heart or the thesis of the track. I'll move to a DAW where I'll record that main idea in, though many times I end up muting or deleting the piano/guitar line altogether. Just because the idea first came to me on a piano, that doesn't mean it wouldn't sound better with kicks and synths.
I'm a big fan of printing tracks to audio as soon as you can in the process, as it forces you to think more compositionally about the track. There are a great many fantastic artists and musicians who have a more technical approach at the beginning of their workflow, and that excites me as well. However, my background has given me a comfort zone musically wherein I'm thinking less about the tools during the creative process, and more about the ideas and sense of connection with the music itself.
Is there a theme or overarching story behind the new Bloom EP? If so what is it?
The Bloom EP is definitely a result of the circumstances. I was lucky enough to be on the road playing music with, beside, and ahead of some of my favorite artists between December and April, and I learned so so much about which tracks worked, why certain sets went better than others, and the big differences in tracks that sound amazing in your living room but don't work as well on the dance floor.
I was excited and exhausted when I returned home mid April to put that knowledge and experience into an EP that would resonate, but also mark where I thought I'd learned lessons as a producer and a person. On the road, though, I didn't have access to my piano and guitars, and that absence definitely informed my writing upon my return. I had missed these elements in my day-to-day life to a point where my writing didn't just include them, but revolved around the hooks and melodies they were expressing. Metaphorically and literally, Bloom represented a musical and personal thawing, a chance for the planted seeds and roots to grow into something new, and to open up into what I hope is a sound that I can call my own.
Why did you initially decide to keep your identity a secret when releasing music, and what changed that?
There was nothing on my part that was intended to deliberately mislead, conceal, or confuse - I'm just generally a guy with a low profile! A lot of it was playing catch up, actually. I didn't even have a personal Facebook page before the "Aural Psynapse" remix was played out, and I only got my first smart phone this last April. The music, the writing, the production - that always was my draw and my motivation. I wasn't interested in self-promotion before I had met my own threshold of quality I wanted to achieve.
As the music started reaching new ears and new places, so too did I have to learn about putting "Jeff" out there as well as "Jeff's Music". I'm slowly gaining more comfort with it, though - nothing beats the feeling of having your personal emotions expressed in a piece of music that resonates with someone you've never met, and for them to share that story with you. That's the side of exposure and 'social media presence' that truly makes it a joy to be able to write and share these ideas.
How has your life changed since you began to release music?
In the obvious ways, it's changed a lot. I'm seeing cities I've never seen, meeting people that I would never meet without ATTLAS. It's humbling and it makes the planet feel smaller, and bigger at the same time. It's shown me that every single day can hold surprise, and that's always a reason to get up in the morning. On the flip side, I've tried to avoid major changes in every other area of life. Maybe it's superstitious, but I'm a bit worried that if I change the habits and environment that produced that music in the first place, I'll lose the music itself. No big purchases, same wardrobe, same computer, same neighborhood. It makes the adventures fun when you know you're coming back to that same familiar pillow, albeit with stories and scenarios ready to put into another track.
What’s the future look like for ATTLAS?
Well, I'm always writing and trying new things musically. As soon as there are enough good ideas, I start assembling and planning and trying to see which tracks belong in which world (club edits, fill an arc for an EP, special versions for mixes, special versions for Storyline etc). Being on the road interrupts this process, but also enriches it with knowledge of the way certain sounds make different cities, populations feel. I'm obviously still growing, and my main goal is to entrench an idea of what ATTLAS is and can be musically and personally. I want to share more positivity with my music, but also push myself. I want to be smarter with my writing, more sincere with my arrangements, and bring an experience of community, passion, and energy to the live side of ATTLAS.
If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing with your life?
Tough question! It's been such a singular focus since as long as I can remember. I taught myself piano before my first piano lesson, played in bands throughout grade-school, my first "paid gig" was playing trumpet at a jazz club... it's been so much a part of me for so long that it's hard to hypothesize a scenario where I'd let myself give up on the dream. That being said, my other 'passion' is cooking, and I find it's the perfect outlet that lets me take a break from music while still pushing hard in the same creative and disciplined way that I do in music. It's led me into the world of gardening, and there's nothing better than serving a plate with ingredients that were still on the branch/vine mere minutes ago. But let's be realistic, if I weren't making music I'd be trying to be the first Canadian to win the Masters in back to back years.
Do you have any advice for young producers that are just starting things out?
Don't fuss over the details! Write something that means something to you. Don't write a track to get played out, or a track that'll get you booked. People listen to music that connects with them, that says something they've felt or that responds to an aspect of their life they want to share, indulge in, or explore. Find those emotions inside yourself and articulate them musically - that's what will connect with people.