Well, he's back. Perhaps hoping to have more time to build buzz for his new single before the Grammy nominating process starts — last year's "I Can't Live Without You," which was nominated for a Best Dance Recording despite the fact that only a few thousand people had even heard the song, was released on September 21, just nine days before the cutoff, helping to fuel speculation that he gamed (or at least schmoozed) his way into the nomination — Walser has released a new video. And like all things Al Walser, this one is an event.
"The long version of the video is my response to the mainstream 'palaver' resulting from my nomination," Walser tells SPIN, "but also my thoughts on the current status quo within the industry. I refer to it as 'the emperor that has no clothes on.'"
The song is called "I Want My Money Now," and there's nothing subtle about it. There are elements of the video, in fact, that are outright disturbing. We won't give anything away, because you really need to see it to believe it. (Full disclosure: SPIN gets a shout-out in the introduction, and no, we didn't see that coming.)
Walser, who once wrote a book called Musicians Make It Big: An Insider Reveals the Secret Path to Break in Today's Music Industry, is clearly gunning for publicity. And, sure, we're playing right into his hands. But it's hard to escape the suspicion that something else is going on. You could almost believe that he was like Andrew W.K., if Andrew W.K. played keytar and swore by The Secret: A post-ironic, self-actualizing, dream-making machine. Maybe Al Walser's shtick is some kind of elaborate performance-art piece, like Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here, or Riff Raff, or the Riff Raff-riffing James Franco's whole polymath persona.
Spend 15 minutes on the phone with Walser, and all certainties go out the window. You know you're being buttered up — Walser certainly doesn't lack for charisma — but, despite your most cynical instincts, you find yourself sympathizing and even agreeing with him on certain points. As he works his underdog magic on you, you start to think, what if Al Walser was right, and we were wrong? What if the emperor really had no clothes (on)?
It's heavy, man.
Check out the video above, and read on for a candid interview with the L.A.-based musician, mogul, and mouse that roared. (Plus, some footage of Walser in his astronaut suit, rocking out to a club full of amped-up German tourists on Mallorca.)
Hi Al, how have you been? You say you have a new song coming out.
How do you like it?
It's very Al Walser. Everything you do is an event, you know?
[Pause] Yeah. I don't know. But how do you like the music?
The music's not exactly my style, but it's catchy, I'll give you that.
I took a step back after the Grammys in terms of producing and songwriting and really looking at what is it that I really, really want to do. Before it was more like, I want to do music. You know, I want to showcase my music, I want to make sure that people hear it. But now it's really about, what is the signature? To me it was all about signature after the Grammys. Maybe it was a coincidence. It wasn't just because of the Grammys, but that's where I was. I did a little tour of Europe with some other stuff, so that signature sound was very important to me. I produced everything myself. And I just came to realize, the way I grew up, I listened to a lot of '50s rock'n'roll music. That's really who I am. I really love the spirit of the '50s, and I want to reconnect that with today's sounds. Just kind of drift away from the whole laptop thing, and be more rock. I would call it modern day rock'n'roll.
And then there's a drum'n'bass rhythm underneath, sort of keeping one foot in the electronic world.
I didn't do that to keep a foot in the electronic world. It was just when I discovered drum'n'bass — and not jungle, it was really more the 175-BPM drum'n'bass type of thing — when I heard that, I was like, to me, that's really rock'n'roll. And when you look at the crowds that go to these concerts, it's not your electronic crowds. I'm talking about Netsky, for example. I was at their concert here in L.A., and it's a more rock'n'roll audience. I really studied the audience, and it's a different kind of audience. That was interesting for me. That's not where I discovered drum'n'bass, with Netsky, but I saw it there again. When I heard it, I was like, to me, that's rock'n'roll.
Are you often studying the audience when you go out to hear music?
No. I mean, I'm not going out there to study the audience. But I always think, where is music going? What's next? It was so fascinating — I was at Netsky's concert, and was like, "Holy shit. For mainstream people, this is still underground." I'm telling you, the crowd went bananas. There were maybe 1000 people, and it was crazy. But you go out, and nobody had probably even heard of him, like a mainstream crowd. I was like, there's something bubbling here. I definitely want to tap into that as well. So that's where that drum'n'bass connection comes from. But it's interesting: You talk to rock people, and they don't hear the drum'n'bass in there. But you talk to dance/electronic people, and they do hear that in my stuff. But for me, the most important thing is that it's very organic. I didn't really think. It's just organic.
In the video, it's pretty clear how you feel about laptop DJs and the music industry.
It's a song of rebellion, for sure. First of all, I think there's room for everything. I'm never rebelling against a genre. At the end of the day, it's a democracy, and whatever is successful is successful for a reason. So what I'm trying to illustrate in the piece is that I'm not a big fan of the laptop replacing the entire performance. I have nothing against using the laptop to create music. But onstage, the laptop should not replace the entire performance. I never felt comfortable being a DJ doing that. Even though I was really DJing, to be honest with you, the crowd couldn't have cared less whether I was DJing or not. That was just me actually DJing because I would have been bored to death if I was just pushing a button. Seriously. And I DJed a lot, in a lot of clubs, in the last two years. But what it did the most for me was to get more familiar with sounds. I was listening to a lot of remixes and a lot of sounds, and it was great — my ear really got trained for what is hip and what is not hip. I do want to believe I've created a great production ear through my whole DJ thing.
In terms of, "the emperor has no clothes on," I do believe that some of the DJs, without naming any names — the ones that are cashing in for 200 grand an hour, and basically the crowd wouldn't care whether they're just pushing that play button or not — that to me resembles the emperor that has no clothes on. Everybody agrees because the other agrees. But whatever. I'm here to stimulate. My most important thing is to stimulate and inspire.
In the video, you shoot a music executive with a gun. Do you feel like you haven't been treated well by the music industry?
No, no, no. I'm never trying to drown myself in self-pity. Never. I don't think I should have been treated better or worse; that's not the point. I heard a lot of things. I know a lot of people in the industry, and they tell me things. And there are high music executives, and they're like, "Who is this guy?" They were very interested in learning about me and who I am. I'm actually flattered about it. But at the same time, I'm surprised. I don't know. It's just interesting. I think the one guy really puts it well — if people change rules because of you, and everyone is asking about you, obviously you're doing something right. Because there's a lot of people doing stuff where nobody cares. They're doing great stuff, and nobody really cares. If people start to care and ask questions and change rules and stuff, you are doing something right.
When you became famous last year, it had more to do with the controversy around your nomination than your music itself. Do you feel pressure now to come back with a song that shows people who you really are?
Yes. And actually, I'm happy that happened, because it accelerated the movement of who I am and what I want my signature to be. But it was really the pressure for myself. I'm not doing stuff to please people. Absolutely not.
You said you toured in Europe. What was that like?
It was great. I was in Mallorca, and I did a lot of German TV stuff — ZDF, RTF, ProSieben. But the project had nothing really to do with who Al Walser is. It was more a baby project I've been doing for quite some time. It was a lot of fun reconnecting with friends, and obviously meeting family. I did a couple of DJ gigs there; these were my last DJ gigs. I don't see myself really DJing more. I have nothing against DJs, really. They're very important. And to be honest with you, the best DJs that I've seen are the ones who are making less than $2000. Not always, but most of the time.
Are you continuing to manage other artists or to counsel people who want to break into the business?
I don't know about that. I'll take it as it goes. But it's not really a business anymore. It's more an organic thing. If people already have a connection to me in some way, then maybe I'll do some consulting. But it's not a real focus point.
Did the Grammy thing help sales of your book?
Oh, it helped in every way. It helped from my psychology to sales of the book, absolutely. It helped everywhere, it really did. But not in the way you would think it would. It wasn't like, "Oh, okay, and now he's just going to fill stadiums, or now he's going to sell thousands of this and that." No. It was more… It just helped the bigger picture, made me stronger. It accelerated a lot of things.
Is the new song getting a commercial release?
Yes, absolutely. Actually, I think it came out yesterday. We're starting pushing it within the next couple weeks. But it is absolutely a commercial release.
Will you be putting out more music after this?
Yes, in that style, too. I have a lot of songs. And again, I produce everything myself. I'm producing every day. I'm producing some other artists as well, but I'm not really developing these artists, it's more like they hired me for production. But yes, there's going to be many more songs coming in that genre.
Last year's song was released September 21, and the Grammys cutoff was September 30. Once again, we're here in September. Did you have that deadline in mind again?
No. No. No. No. No. I mean, look. I don't live for the Grammys, you know? I'm a musician first, and I do that first, and whatever happens, happens. I really put it in God's hands. God is really my manager and my guidance. And I have a very strong connection with God, and speak a lot with God, and he seems to guide me through a lot of things. I think the whole Grammy thing was the preparation for something else for me, because it was a very unique preparation, and for some reason, in my life, normal things never worked out for me. If I look back, it was just never normal for me. The normal way was never the way to go for me. That's just a fact.