Jai Wolf Breaks Down Past, Present, Future and ‘The Cure to Loneliness’
Throughout the last decade and change, the electronic dance music scene has been something of a circus. On one hand, a form of music that was always immediately invigorating and viscerally engaging finally received the attention it long deserved. Simultaneously, the boom inevitably came along with many short-lived trends and plenty elaborate farce. Among the innumerable characters that have risen to prominence in the scene, there are plenty interesting sounds, styles, and stories, and a slew of artists that have found their own unique ways of setting themselves apart, and forging sounds simultaneously in tune with the zeitgeist and inseparable from their individually realized aesthetics. A case in point is producer Jai Wolf, who has just released his album “The Cure to Loneliness.”
If there’s anyone to epitomize the EDM frenzy of recent years, it would be Skrillex, and it was Skrillex himself who helped bring Jai Wolf to serious public attention, after coming across his 2014 remix of “Ease My Mind.” Having properly honed his production craft, Wolf kept turning out bangers of remixes, but suddenly took leaps and bounds with his breakthrough single “Indian Summer.” Drawing from his Eastern heritage, the song threw an exciting, exotic touch into the burgeoning sound in a way that resonated with the world manifold. Since then, Wolf has built on the momentum, and soared to new heights, but opted not to limit himself to the lame rehashing of a hit formula that so many artist sadly resort to. Instead, he’s released music that undeniably evokes the same sensations as “Indian Summer,” but by means of a much wider, greater sound palette.
“The Cure to Loneliness” is Jai Wolf’s most thoroughly realized work yet. It’s a festive, effervescent affair at large, sure to mobilize dance floors and soundtrack many a festival. At the same time, it reflects a definite evolution in style, and showcases a long-emerging aesthetic at its most pronounced yet. For the album, Wolf recruited disparate singers, tapping into a wide range of sounds and sensibilities in a sphere at the juncture of indie and electronic sensibilities, while still painstakingly making sure that the songs fit into a collective, conceptual whole, in tune with both his evolving artistic proclivities and his general world view. If this might seem a bit abstract, you needn’t worry, as Jai Wolf himself met with Entertainment Voice to offer an inside look into his ideas, his craft and the new record.
What are the inspiration and meaning behind both your chosen moniker Jai Wolf and your new album title, “The Cure to Loneliness?”
I’ve been making music for a long time, and when I wanted to really get serious about it, I wanted a name that could stand the test of time. Initially, I wanted to be “direwolf,” which is an animal from “Game of Thrones,” but my managers thought it sounded too much like a metal band, so I thought what if I did something like “John Legend,” “Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys?” But I wanted to pick a name that reflected my heritage. Jai is an Indian name, and easy to say, phonetically similar to “direwolf,” and easy to find on Google. I wanted to make sure it was a very unique name, and reflected my own culture.
As for the album title, I think there’s a common struggle, or something that all humans can relate to, in feeling lonely, and I think we live in a time when people are struggling to constantly escape it, and the title alludes to that search. It’s really up to the listener’s interpretation.
The sound of your music on all the new songs is very bright and buoyant. Explain this. Are you always as happy as one might imagine from a listen to the new album? Do you deliberately set out to create celebratory sounds?
I would say that half the songs feel buoyant, and the other half are a little more sad and reflective, but I think it’s supposed to really reflect how complex existence can be. There are always highs and lows, and I think the album is a journey through those, all tied together using similar sonics and a unifying theme of loneliness.
Electronic music has been around for ages, but in many ways became a bigger mainstream force during the 2010s than ever before. For instance, it wasn’t until a few years ago that we started hearing the term “EDM” absolutely everywhere. With all the obsession about bass drops and what not, do you feel the craze has somewhat run its course? And does this have anything to do with your gradual shift in style, more apparent than ever before on the new album?
If you’re paying attention to the scene, I think it’s alive and well — the whole bass drops and all that stuff. For what I did, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily reactionary to how extreme and maximalist EDM had gotten, but more so, I wanted to make a debut record that reflects my personal taste and what I like in music — something that could stand the test of time and wasn’t really focused on anything that was super trendy. I think the problem with some electronic records, and even music in general, is that things are consumed super quickly and forgotten. Things that are immensely popular become unpopular a year or two later, so I wanted to make sure I was really careful with the sound selection and that I could be proud of it if I listened to it five or ten years later.
Your “Kindred Spirits” EP has been described as more indie-tronic, and the new album is being described as having a “dream pop” sound. What do you think of these terms? And even though genre labels are reductive, how might you best describe your current sound?
I think “indie electronic” is probably the safest way to describe it, just because it’s a large umbrella term. Obviously, there’s a lot of subgenre names that bloggers come up with. It’s always funny to see. I entertain it. I don’t mind using terms like that. I think, sometimes, yes, it can feel like you’re being pigeonholed, but if you ever look into the comments section of YouTube or something like that, the average listener is always asking like, “What do you call this?” I think that’s just this weird, innate human desire to categorize music. I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing
Could you think of a particular new song that particularly represents the evolution of your style?
Probably “Lose My Mind” because I was demoing the album for almost an entire year before I landed the title, the concept, and the sound. And that was just me and Gabe (Mr. Gabriel,) who sings, just noodling around in the studio. I went to Nashville for a couple weeks, and we were supposed to work together because we had collaborated on “Starlight” previously. He’s such a great instrumentalist, and I was like, “Hey, let’s do a fun, guitar-driven track,” and I was like, “This is great. This feels fun and honest, and what I’d like my world to, sort of, build off of.” That was one of the first songs on the album that came together pretty quickly, and was a little bit different from what I was doing before. That was definitely the first step in the direction of where the album ended up going.
The latest record features a colorful range of singers, each of whom seem carefully selected to complement and bring out the sound of a particular track. Shed some light on the process by which you picked your featured vocalists, and the dynamic of working with them.
They were definitely carefully selected. I’m definitely particular about who I want to work with. Usually I just have to be very inspired by their work or how their voice sounds, or something where I could foresee how their voice would sound on something I’d work on. For example, Robokid, a friend of mine who I’ve known for a very long time, didn’t start singing until recently. He’s a producer. I just really like his tone of voice and his style, and I thought it was unique, so I was like, “Hey, we should write something together.” And then, something like Now, Now — I was a fan of them while I was in college, and I always wanted to work with them, and that one came about super last-minute in the process, but we share the same publisher, and just through a couple of emails and phone calls, they were down to work on the track together. And so, everyone that ended up on the album, I have immense respect for, and I thought would fit perfectly on the album. For me, it’s not about big names or anything like that. I would literally work with the most unknown person as long as I thought they were a fit for the project, and obviously a nice human being to interact and create with. I’m really stoked about the lineup.
Were you involved in writing lyrics at all?
That’s actually something that was a big part of the record. Singers aren’t producing their records, so conversely producers normally don’t write lyrics or sing on their records But for this album, I really wanted to make sure that every song had a hand in the songwriting process, so for every song, I either sat in the room and gave direction or actually wrote a lot of the lyrics myself. It’s very song-to song. Something like “Better Apart,” I contributed a lot of the lyrics. Something like “Your Way”, I gave direction. I at the very least made sure I was in the room and wasn’t just handed songs, because usually, in the producer world, you get a Dropbox of acapellas or songs that you just build around, and you’re not connect to the lyrics. To me that’s like — what’s the point of making art?
“Lose My Mind” was a fun one. In Nashville, Gabe took all of our conversations — in Uber rides, from lunch to dinner and all that stuff — and just turned my ranting, my therapy sessions, into songs, which I thought was like, “Holy shit, I’m feeling every line you just wrote!” That was an interesting process. It was conversational, almost.
How do you come up with some of the vivid names to instrumental songs, such as “Manic Pixie Dream?”
That’s funny because my manager always said I was good at song titles. (Laughs) Sometimes I come up with song titles before the song itself. It’s kind of a weird, creative thing I have, I don’t know. And then the song comes later, and I’ll be like, “Oh I think this one will fit with that.” With “Telepathy,” I was like, “I need a name for this project file,” so I picked “Telepathy,” and then I wrote the song, and was like, “I think this fits,” and then it worked. And then, other times I will change the name later. “Indian Summer” had a different name at first. But “Manic Pixie Dream” was cool because it’s from the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” movie trope, kind of a play on that.
You grew up in the USA, but you were born in Bangladesh, and your major breakthrough “Indian Summer” samples what sounds like Hindi vocals. How have your roots in that area of the world influenced you, if at all? What aspects of the culture, if any, have made their way into your music and life?
I grew up listening to a lot of Bengali music, and for a long time that was almost the only music I listened to. My household was pretty traditional for a lot of my childhood, and I had a friend who was like, “Oh, you should, like, sample traditional music in, like, a beat or something.” That’s kind of how that one came about. I think a lot of people assumed I would do more of that, but I think it’s more interesting and mythical as a one-off. And that was part of the whole self discovery process. My gut told me that I wanted to make music that was more leaning toward the sound of the album, and I also didn’t want to be like, “Oh yeah, that’s the Indian or Bengali artist who makes ethnic-sounding beats” — not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a fine line. It could work, but you’d have to be so good at it — not to say that I wasn’t good at it, but I didn’t think that was my calling. I trusted myself, and here we are now.
The new album in very grounded in the zeitgeist, sonically, but there’s quite a bit of ‘80s influence audible too. Expand on the eras in music that had the most impact on shaping your sound.
It’s so funny because I didn’t grow up in the ‘80s. I was born in ‘91, but every time I heard synthesized music, it would just catch my ear. I knew what Auto-Tune was before a child, but this was before there was a word for Auto-Tune, and anytime I heard it in early music, like before T Pain, I would want to know what that was, and I would Google it, but there were no words to describe it — like “robot voice” or whatever, which is a little different from Vocoder. Eventually, T Pain came about, and the word Auto-Tune was part of the mainstream, zeitgeist vocabulary. I always had this weird tendency to lean into anything electronic-sounding in any genre of music. I’d listen to a lot of pop punk bands, but my favorite pop punk bands use a lot of synthesizers in their music. I think Blink 182’s self-titled album had a lot of ‘80s, Cure-sounding synth work going on. Very specific stuff like that — Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreak.” I was a singles fan, but I wasn’t a big Kanye fan until he dropped that, and I was like, “Woah, what’s this? Everyone’s rejecting it, but I think it’s fucking dope.” And that was during the formative years of high school for me. For me, it was just being really interested in synth work in any genre of music and almost any period of time.
Any favorite gear or music software that you’ve been using at the moment?
I guess the Juno. We use it a lot on the album. I worked with our mixer Tony, who’s worked with M83, Beck, and Phoenix, and he had this Juno synth, so anytime we wanted to add anything, we’d, kind of, refer to that because to me, that’s the basis of so much ‘80s music, so for consistency and for timelessness, we’d use the Juno.
You’ve said before that you’d consider being remembered for speaking up about what you believe even more important than being remembered for your music. So, share your thoughts for a few moments on any issue that you feel deserves attention.
I think the biggest one, at least for me because I’m an immigrant, is the whole immigration issue in the US. Obviously there’s a lot of complex takes on it. I just think there’s this weird layer of Xenophobia happening at the highest levels of our government that I think is unacceptable. America was founded on the backs of immigrants, and it’s really insane that we have leadership that is, sort of, condemning that, and having this weird white nationalist thing going on. Yes, I understand the whole “illegal vs. legal” thing, but there’s a way to do that without supporting Xenophobic structures like a wall. So I wanted to make sure as much as I can to highlight that issue on my socials. I try not to go overboard with it, but when I think something is worth checking out, it’s the least I can do. At the end of my life, that’s the sort of thing I would be proud of. Humans, in general, have that responsibility. I don’t expect everyone to rise up and meet this weird, high standard of being caring, but for me, in my world, for what I do — I make music, I tour, I can’t go to marches or become a politician — it works for me.
What’s the story behind the new album’s wild, striking, psychedelic cover art?
So funny because it was going to be something else, and almost last minute, we flipped it to that. Initially it was going to be a text-based artwork with this glitchy thing going on. But then we did a photo shoot, and I was like, “Oh hey, could you do your signature effect, but do it on my head?” His name is Nevin Doyle, amazing, amazing artist. He did a lot of the stuff for this album. I thought it was cool having this little colorful thing coming from my head. It’s just this complex range of emotions, and it’s not supposed to be as on-the-nose as it sounds when you say it in words, but I thought it was beautiful. I try not to put my face on things, but the way it turned out, I was like, “I think this would need to be that.”
You’ve spoken before about your admiration for artists like Kanye West who have an aesthetic that extends beyond their music to include things like set design and the whole live experience. You have an upcoming tour beginning April 10. What can fans expect from the live show?
(Laughs) I don’t want to give too much away, but I wanted to make sure that the show was a world that I built, and that when you walk into the venue and see the show, you’re shutting out the entire outside world, and you’re living in my world for the entirety of the show. And I’m just so excited because, for me, it’s one of the most fleshed-out shows we’ve ever worked on, extremely detailed. It’s not just some music show, it’s this entire experience, and I’m really, really excited for people to see it. It’s something we’ve been cooking up for a very, very long time, and the entire crew has put a lot of work into it, and I’m very proud of it.
“The Cure to Loneliness” is available April 5 on Apple Music.