"We're not assholes": Chainsmokers interview
The Chainsmokers came here to do three things: drink beer, make massive crossover EDM pop hits and collaborate with the likes of Coldplay and Halsey. Looks like they’re all out of beer. “I promise you,” they tell Jonny Ensall, “We’re not a**holes”
It would be good to be a Chainsmoker, I think, while watching one of the duo’s YouTube travelogues. The lives of Alex Pall, 31, and Drew Taggart, 27, look to be exceptionally fun. They seem to spend their time playing beer pong, stealing golf carts, signing women’s breasts, applying hair products, flying to Las Vegas, playing one more tune, leaping off stage while expensive pyrotechnics erupt around them, drinking beer, drinking tequila, ordering McDonald’s late at night, hanging out with Bono, drinking more beer… and so on.
In fact, pretty much the only thing The Chainsmokers don’t do throughout the 32 available episodes of their online tour diaries is smoke. Neither of them likes cigarettes. They prefer to damage their health in other ways. “Did you see the thing about ‘motherbirding’?” Drew asks me. ‘Motherbirding’ is the name of episode 23 in the series. It means taking a big swig of liquor and spitting it into someone else’s gaping mouth. “It’s the most disgusting thing,” Drew points out. “But our fans were all about it for a while.”
The Chainsmokers have millions upon millions of fans. Their success over the past 12 months has been phenomenal. The single ‘Closer’ – featuring Drew and guest vocalist Halsey duetting about doing it in a Range Rover – spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Had you spent 2016 living under a rock you’d likely still have heard it. “It’s crazy because things feel like they’re moving at the speed of light,” says Alex. “We won a Grammy [Best Dance Recording for ‘Don’t Let Me Down’]; our lyric video for ‘Something Just Like This’ [their new song with Chris Martin] just broke the YouTube record for most views in a day. We don’t get time to absorb these things anymore.”
This isn’t the worst problem to have, perhaps. As one YouTube commenter puts it: “I’m over here sweating my nuts trying to make an honest buck and these guys are living the f**king life.” Despite appearances, however, The Chainsmokers work hard for their success. When I phone Alex and Drew in LA they’re busy reviewing the final cuts for their upcoming album ‘Memories… Do Not Open’, out in April. “Now’s the part where I just argue with the mastering engineer for 72 hours about multiband compression and other nerdy stuff that no one else gives a f**k about,” groans Drew.
But appearances matter, especially in the world of pop, and there are plenty who’ve dismissed The Chainsmokers as snowboarding, beer-guzzling, EDM-peddling frat boys. For example, they were nominated by you, the readers of NME, for the Worst Band gong at last month’s VO5 NME Awards 2017. “People are like, ‘Oh my God, they’re such bros,’” says Drew. “And we’re like, ‘No! We’re making fun of bros!’”Alex, in particular, is determined to set the record straight. “I hope people can walk away from this article with a deeper sense of our purpose as artists and our true characters,” he says, quite earnestly. “We’re in this grey area where people are like, ‘I don’t get it, are these guys a**holes or not?’ I promise you, we’re not a**holes.”
Alex Pall grew up in New York. After graduating from college he found himself drifting around the city, making music and only just managing to pay his way thanks to a job as an art gallery receptionist. Drew Taggart was finishing up college and interning at Interscope Records. They met when a mutual acquaintance eased them into what Alex describes as a “man date”. “We bonded over our love of Avicii, deadmau5, David Guetta and Calvin Harris,” he explains. “We just wanted to be part of the scene so badly. I said, ‘Look, I’ll quit my job tomorrow and we’ll get together every day and work on music.’ It was sloppy at the beginning and we had no idea what we were doing. Then, slowly but surely, we started to have these little victories.”
Little victories soon led to big wins. In 2014 they scored a viral hit with the song ‘#SELFIE’. “We wrote that as a joke,” admits Alex. The tune is a kind of EDM satire – a pumping dance track overlaid with the vacuous monologue of a club-loving Valley girl. “We blew up before we were ready to have any sort of success,” he reflects. “Before we had anything else to show people.” The one-hit-wonder dustbin lay in wait. However, Alex and Drew managed to reinvent themselves, quite brilliantly, as new-school pop svengalis. They came back in 2015 with ‘Roses’, a sensitively arranged minor-key pop song featuring rising female vocalist Elizabeth Mencel, AKA Rozes.
Add in some irrepressible hooks and the catchiest elements of dubstep, trap, EDM and R&B production, and that’s The Chainsmokers’ formula for success – a formula that’s earned them more than three billion views for their music videos. They’ve had two singles go quadruple platinum in the States. They have a lucrative three-year DJ residency at the Wynn Social casino in Las Vegas, playing alongside their idol David Guetta. They’ve earned enough to each afford multi-million-dollar homes in LA, where they live with their girlfriends.
In September last year the American magazine Billboard put The Chainsmokers on their cover – another career milestone. But when the article appeared, it wasn’t the playful portrait they’d expected and their jokes don’t look so good written down. Alex is quoted as saying, “Even before success, p***y was number one.” They came out of it looking like chauvinistic chancers obsessed with alcohol, models and penis size.
“It affects you, because you don’t know how people are going to see that – [whether they’ll] take it at face value and walk away feeling you are that person,” says Alex. “It’s not about apologising and back-pedalling. It’s about… I don’t want to say becoming better people, because that sounds cheesy. Just keeping it real, and understanding that not everyone’s on your team. Move forward. Make responsible decisions. Think about what it might look like to a kid who’s 10 years old, seeing what we do – how that might impact on the way they listen to our music and enjoy our antics.”
Alex is articulate, with an easy manner and a keen sense of what he wants out of our chat. Drew is more the thoughtful one, however. He often leaves big pauses in the conversation while he’s bringing something to mind. “We’ve been through a lot this past year,” he reflects. “Dealing with becoming famous and having people look at your life in ways that no one gave a s**t about before. How that affects your relationships with people that you’re close to. And people that you’re not close to but who want to be close to you.” Drew is also the one who writes most of The Chainsmokers’ songs.
And, increasingly, sings them. He draws on his own experiences and those of his friends to pinpoint what he calls “really small, specific moments”. Listen again to ‘Closer’ and you realise that it’s about the sense of regret felt after hooking up with an ex. Drew promises that the lyrics on the new album tracks will be even more true-to-life. “There are songs about great moments and ugly moments and tempting moments,” he says. “There are people who’ll hear a song and have an idea it’s about them.”
“It’s Drew writing Drew,” he continues. “Talking about those times when you’re not your best self and owning it. No one should feel that they have to be perfect. And we can be role models if we own our mistakes.” Therein lies the secret of The Chainsmokers’ massive appeal. It’s pop music that doesn’t require you to think about becoming a better person. It’s bound up with a lifestyle that makes it fine to have outrageous levels of fun. And the songs are catchier than chlamydia at spring break.The Chainsmokers have their own role models, of course.
They’ve got Jared Leto, Bono and Chris Martin’s numbers in their phones, in case they need the counsel of any been-there-done-that rock stars. “We’re writing songs about ourselves that feel raw… and those guys all did that at one point,” says Alex. “But their music’s become global. Chris would be like, ‘This is a great song. But does the world need this song?’ And I’d be like, ‘I guess not. But it’s important to us.’”
Drew and Alex do have aspirations to write songs that make a difference worldwide. For now, they’re willing to take flak for being immensely popular buffoons. But, to their 1.1 million followers on Twitter, they’re also a source of heartwarming stories, motivational quotes and everyday inspiration. “I’m a very light-hearted guy and I prefer to be a goofball than put on a suit on and be serious,” says Alex.
“With that said, I think it’s important that we use our platform to do good and our music to connect with people on a real level. “For example, yesterday, we got this email about a nine-year-old kid who was diagnosed with… I don’t want to say a terminal disease, but he was going to be incredibly ill for the rest of his life. His brain was unresponsive and the parents were devastated. But they played a video of us performing ‘Closer’ and it was the first time that he responded to anything. He was dancing around in his wheelchair. And the parents were crying. I can’t believe our music made this moment. The song means something so different to that family than it does to the frat kid in Delaware.”
If anyone’s going to believe in the miraculous power of The Chainsmokers’ music, it’s The Chainsmokers themselves. Given how the past few years of their lives have panned out, I can understand why they think anything’s possible.