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Ex-Thunderheist Producer Stalks Away From Booty Bubblegum Past


I had expected Graham Zilla to be gruffer, more taciturn, more intimidating — more in keeping, in other words, with the vibe of αlpha, his new EP (as Nautiluss) for Montreal’s Turbo Recordings. It’s stern stuff, after all, especially the A-side, with its bruising bass lines and muddied sonics, stumbling like a boxer who’s beginning to tire and all the madder for it. Lurking darkly in the margins between bunker techno and bass music, it’s a far cry from the ebullient EDM that Turbo has been known for. More like MDM — misanthropic dance music.

But over the phone, the Toronto musician comes off as chipper, eager, a little self-deprecating; an all-around nice guy, in other words, which isn’t exactly in keeping with his last project, either. Thunderheist, a duo with the Toronto singer Isis (Omalola Isis Salami), turned out raucous, occasionally ribald music in the spirit of booty house and Baltimore club from 2006 to 2010. Signed to Ninja Tune subsidiary Big Dada, they charmed the blogosphere (including Perez Hilton), landed a track in a strip-club scene in The Wrestler, and established a rep for excess. Zilla describes it now as a “four-year drunken mess,” with Nautiluss as the hangover cure.

It’s not just Zilla who is out to reinvent himself; Turbo’s release of the Nautiluss EP coincides with a shift in direction for the label. While their catalog has ranged from deep house to minimalist techno, the imprint has been known for the cheeky, over-the-top sounds of artists like Chromeo, Boys Noize, and Mr. “Sunglasses at Night” himself, label owner Tiga. But with recent signings like the industrial-tinged Gesaffelstein, techno brooder Locked Groove, and acid revivalists Gingy & Bordello, Turbo is expanding its remit, pushing back against North American EDM’s increasingly populist tendencies.

I talked to Zilla about crossing over, starting over, and learning from your mistakes.

Hi, Graham, how are you?
I have some sort of death flu going, it’s pretty awesome.

Maybe you can make some dark, twisted, death-flu music out of it.
I’m definitely working on it.

You live in Toronto now, but you’re from Montreal; is that where you discovered electronic dance music?
Yeah, totally. Most of my formative years were in Montreal, and then I moved to Toronto about five years ago. [I discovered electronic dance music] my last year of high school. There was a rave in my school’s auditorium, like in the hockey arena. I had no idea how this happened, how they got permission, and it just really intrigued me. This was right around when Tiga was helping start the whole warehouse rave scene in Montreal. So that was my start; it’s funny that I ended up on his label.

How does Toronto’s dance music scene compare to Montreal’s?
Toronto’s a huge city, so every music scene is fairly big, but there’s so much going on that people get spread out. It can get hard to have a proper vibe at parties here. I actually haven’t been playing all that much; I just stay home and make music instead. Montreal is definitely more laid-back. Berlin’s similar in this way. Because of the lower cost of living, a lot of artists end up there, so people will make do with a lot less money. They party more, but the problem is that nobody has money, so nobody wants to pay to go anywhere. You can’t really make money DJing in Montreal, but it’s always been more fun to play there. It’s kind of a Catch-22. Also, the one hour extra that you’re allowed to drink [till 3 a.m.] makes a huge difference. By the time people actually go out here, it’s 12:30, and then last call’s at 1:30, so people start getting loose and then they have to leave.

That doesn’t give you time, as a DJ, to do much.
Especially if you’re local and you’re opening for somebody. You’re pretty much playing for no people a lot of the time. It makes you a much better opener. You have to learn how to pace. It’s not very ideal, and it comes back to why I haven’t had a chance to play my own music. [Rueful chuckle.]

You’ve been doing music for a while now. In addition to Nautiluss, you also have the solo project Grahmzilla, and before that, Thunderheist got a lot of attention.
We definitely got caught up in touring constantly [with Thunderheist], and it made it really hard to actually get any music done. We were constantly on the road or decompressing. But it was great. It sort of set me up to be able to just stay home. We broke up, and I had saved up money and was able to actually learn how to properly produce music. It was sort of a necessary step.

So you didn’t really know what you were doing when you were with Thunderheist?
I would say that I was a part-time producer before we started, so I didn’t really have a good grasp of any sort of production techniques. I just did what worked, and we had so much hype that it carried it. But going back and listening, it’s kind of hard. [Another chuckle.] You know? It really comes down to the fact that, with any kind of art, you have to put in thousands of hours. That’s pretty much what I did in 2010 — make music, almost every day. And none of it is coming out; it was just learning.

How did Nautiluss evolve as a project separate from Grahmzilla?
I feel like I saw the pop side of the industry with Thunderheist — we were on our way to breaking through to a much more mainstream audience, and it kind of freaked me out. I don’t know that I was comfortable on that kind of scale. I just wanted to make a project that was more no-compromise, whatever I wanted to do, that’s not about having some crazy, glamour-photo press shot that sells the music, because that’s not me anyway. It’s an art project. It took me a while to figure out what it consisted of, and eventually I realized that it’s not a genre-based thing, it’s just that I’m trying to get sonic consistency.

I’m really enjoying the record, by the way. I played “Sabbath” at Berlin’s Horst club recently, and it sounded amazing on a big system.
Oh, sick. That’s great. Being where I live, I rarely get to actually play my own music. It’s nice to hear other people having results. [Laughs]

But that said, Nautliuss definitely sounds like the opposite of something seeking the spotlight — the new EP is all dark, claustrophobic, basement-techno vibes.
When I made the Hemlock single [2011’s “Bleu Monday” and “Ultraviolet,” a collaboration with Lord Skywave, a.k.a. Simian’s Simon Lord], I was having a phase of anti-club music, and I really tried to make that record as un-DJ-friendly as possible, you know? It kind of worked. And by that I mean that I didn’t really get any sort of bookings out of it. I think promoters need to imagine your song playing at peak time, and that was definitely not a peak-time record. But it was great, because I put out such a weird, somber thing that it didn’t really tell people what I was going to do next. Then I realized that I want to be able to play, like, warehouse parties and awesome techno clubs, so I probably should be making some music that I can play in these environments. So that was kind of the intent for this record, just to make stuff that I could play when people are super high, but without being annoying or clichéd.

How did you get hooked up with Turbo?
It was actually through Gingy and Bordello, who also live in Toronto. “Mixed Numbers” was the song that initiated all this. Kevin McPhee was the first person I sent it to, and he told me, “I want to press this into a dubplate.” Because he does that — if he really likes something, he’ll get dubs made. Which is amazing. Then I sent it over to Gingy, and Bordello was an intern at Turbo, so Gingy sent it to Bordello, and Bordello sent it to Thomas, Tiga’s little brother, who runs Turbo. Within half an hour, they were like, “Can you hold this for us? We want to put it out.” So I made “Sabbath,” and then I went into self-doubt mode, and tried to outdo those songs, for, like, the next three months. I’m not very good at repeating myself, so the more I do it, the more I hate myself.

When you remixed The-Dream’s “Walking on the Moon,” you talked about your pop inclinations. Do you want to eventually take your music more in that direction?
Some days I’m just not able to make something really off the wall, so I’ll do something like that The-Dream remix. That’s a whole other part of my brain. I grew up with pop music, but this electronic influence is really strong too. I think I need to satisfy both sides of that, especially because the state of pop is so bad. Actually, that remix was kind of an experiment, and the reaction was really good, and it inspired me to keep doing that. So I sort of divide my time between this more Eurocentric stuff and just trying to write more pop music.

It’s interesting that you describe your club music as “Eurocentric.” Electronic music, “EDM,” is going through so much hype in North America right now, but it sounds like you’re more oriented toward overseas styles.
The kind of electronic music that I like isn’t really what’s popping off. Dubstep doesn’t do anything for me, or at least not the aggressive, fratty stuff that’s popular. Big-room, Avicii-style house does nothing for me. I feel so far removed from any of it. So really, Europe is my salvation for what I do. But I think that there is potential. With the kind of youth movement that’s happening right now, hopefully there will be some spillover for more interesting electronic music. I don’t know what’s going to happen. None of us do. But I try to stay positive that there will be some awareness of deeper electronic stuff.

If underground dance music is going to cross over into pop, it seems like Toronto is a good place for it to happen. Just look at Drake picking upon SBTRKT.
I was pretty excited about Jamie xx and SBTRKT coming to Drake’s awareness. I think that helped open the door for a lot of other people. I think the potential is there, but I also don’t think Drake is really trying to mine Toronto electronic artists. It was probably more like his boys telling him who’s the hot shit. But any foray of deeper music into the pop world is a good thing. I like a lot of Drake’s stuff, to be honest. Like that “Take Care” song. It was funny, because it was pretty much a reissue of that Gil Scott-Heron thing (Jamie xx’s remix of Scott-Heron’s “I’ll Take Care of You”). Still, it was amazing that was a single, you know? Didn’t see that one coming.

So what is the extra “s” in Nautiluss for?
Well, you know. In this day and age, you need to spell things differently. I’ve been burned with having names that are proper words, where somebody else has it, or it’s impossible to look up on the Internet. My first name like that was Metrix; that word’s so common. I just wanted something that wasn’t very obvious, that doesn’t really tell you what I’m doing. I actually was told that it was the worst name I could come up with, that it was so not catchy that it was a bad idea.

It’s ambiguous, which I quite like.
Exactly, that was my feeling. You can’t get emotional about it. Grahmzilla is such a stupid name. It’s like, “Oh, he’s crazy! He parties!” I didn’t think about that name too much, obviously. I think when we did our first Thunderheist interview, they asked what my alias was, and I was like, “Erm, Grahmzilla?” So after that one, I was like, “Okay, no stupid names.” But the whole Nautiluss thing makes sense for me. You know what a nautilus is, right? The way they build their shell is sort of incremental. As they get bigger, they make a new chamber, and they’ll seal the chamber behind them. So they always sort of cut off their past. Every three or four years I make these huge, life-changing decisions. I worked at the game company Ubisoft before Thunderheist; I was a programmer. And I walked away from a 60K software job. Then I quit Thunderheist at the height of our popularity — basically, I was like, “I’m out.” So I kind of like these major life shifts. The name just made a lot of sense. I can relate.

Seal off the chamber and move on.