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Alan Wilkis Interview: Big Data's "2.0" Offers a Satirical Look at Internet-Age Anxieties

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Alan Wilkis

Alan Wilkis is the music producer and composer behind the electronic music project called Big Data. They are best known for their single “Dangerous” featuring Joywave, which reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in August 2014. Big Data’s first EP, 1.0, was released October 1, 2013, on Wilkis’ own label, in December of that same year, a remix EP, 1.5, came out which included eight remixes of the song “Dangerous,” and another remix EP, 1.6, was released in September 2014.

Big Data’s songs reflect how society’s dependence on social media and technology has changed every part of a human’s existence, and different vocalists sing the satirical lyrics to catchy, electronic dance beats on the records. The band’s first studio album, 2.0, was released March 20, 2015, on Warner Bros. Records and peaked at 75 on the Billboard 200 chart.

“‘The Business of Emotion’ is about the Facebook mood experiments where Facebook, for a week in 2013, did a big wide scale mood experience on 300,000 people. Technically they had everybody’s consent to do these experiments on them just because when you sign up for Facebook and you agree to the Terms of Service, which means they can pretty much do whatever they want with you (laughs). That’s pretty messed up.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Alan, the music is infectious! I catch myself in the supermarket saying “Doctor impostor” aloud from the song, “Sick For Me.” (laughs)

Alan Wilkis: (laughs) That’s one of my favorites. I say it too (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a secret to electronically creating such great sounds that develop into earworms?

Alan Wilkis: I don’t know. The instrumental stuff is all me. Then I always write the lyrics and melodies together with the vocalist, so I don’t know whether there’s a secret sauce, but it’s really a collaboration. We just always try to use our gut. We follow our instincts when we’re writing together. If it passes both of our prospective “I like this” tests, that’s usually how we know if we like something.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your background. Did you study music at Harvard?

Alan Wilkis: No. I was an English major. I did take a few music courses, and I played music, but I was actually an English major. I did a lot of reading and a lot of writing (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you always interested in performing music?

Alan Wilkis: Definitely, yes. I started playing piano when I was five. My first musical memory was when my parents bought Thriller, and I remember freaking out about it. Music has always been the thing that spoke to me more than anything else.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What genre?

Alan Wilkis: Not one in particular. Definitely a lot of soul music and Motown. When I started playing guitar, I was about twelve. Guitar is my main instrument, so the music that got me into guitar was the popular guitar music at the time like Grunge, Weezer, Pearl Jam and stuff like that.

That was one of the many reasons I freaked out about getting to work with Rivers Cuomo on the song “Snowed In.” That was huge for me when I was growing up. That got me started on guitar. Then the more I practiced at it and got better, the more I got into classic rock and jazz. I really like all sorts of music.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rivers sounds so “unweezerlike” on “Snowed In.”

Alan Wilkis: I know (laughs). I had this instrumental piece somewhat fleshed out, and then we got together at the studio. We listened to the instrumental over and over and over again, and we kept throwing ideas in the air, and that’s what it turned into.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you and Rivers get together?

Alan Wilkis: He was on my wish list from day one. My management knows him, and they originally planted the seed a long time ago, but I didn’t really hold my breath. I had no expectation of it ever coming through. But that established contact maybe put me on his radar, then we wound up being in some festivals together, so I got to meet him, and we talked a bit.

Rivers came back to Harvard when I was there for the first time, so we were able to bond about Harvard and being English majors. I got an email that gave me some days Rivers would be available, and we were able to make the schedule work out. It was pretty much the coolest experience of my life (laughs). I had to pinch myself a little bit.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who else is on your wish list?

Alan Wilkis: Prince is definitely number one.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool, maybe that’ll happen. Are you all alone in the studio creating, mixing and producing?

Alan Wilkis: Yeah. I do everything. I do all the mixing, performing and playing the instruments. I did work with another engineer on “The Business of Emotion” and “Clean,” but in general, I mix all my stuff by myself.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Long hours in the studio! You must have a very understanding wife.

Alan Wilkis: Yeah (laughs). She’s definitely a trooper.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any kids?

Alan Wilkis: No kids, no.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have band members when out on tour?

Alan Wilkis: I do, yeah. When it became clear that I was going to take the show on the road, I had to figure out how I was going to turn this very much studio project into a show. I’m a guitar player first and foremost. I come from being in a lot of rock bands and performing, so I knew I didn’t want the Big Data show to feel like just a guy with a computer because that’s really boring (laughs). I really like musicians. I like people that are really good at their instruments, and I like when they can tastefully demonstrate that, so I wanted real musicians to be a part of the show.

I also knew that because I’m working with so many different vocalists, there was no chance that say, Rivers Cuomo was going to come on tour with Big Data (laughs). I just had to be realistic about how I was going to turn it into a show, so the game plan was to get a rock band that had some “computery” elements. Then I do a whole lot of singing on the male parts, and I have a female vocalist that does all the female parts and the higher male parts. I have a guitar player, a drummer and a bass player, so it’s a five-man band.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about some of the inspirations for the songs on this album.

Alan Wilkis: As I was putting the album together, I kept a running list of articles I’d found or just stuff that was happening in technology or about digital privacy and the Internet. I’d just keep a list of potential subjects to write about, and then every time I’d get together with a new singer, once we’d get our melodies in shape, we would just basically go through the list and see if anything spoke to us in particular. Each song has it’s own little topic.

“Clean” is sort of a Jekyll and Hyde meets Catfish type of thing. “The Business of Emotion” is about the Facebook mood experiments where Facebook, for a week in 2013, did a big wide scale mood experience on 300,000 people. Technically they had everybody’s consent to do these experiments on them just because when you sign up for Facebook and you agree to the Terms of Service, which means they can pretty much do whatever they want with you (laughs). That’s pretty messed up.

“Snowed In” is sort of about Edward Snowden, but it’s from the perspective of the NSA being angry about Edward Snowden. “Automatic” is about the interconnected devices, basically the technology we use that is automated and runs on its own. That could be a pacemaker or a self-driving car or one of those bracelets that keep track of how many steps you take every day, tracking devices that augment our daily routine and can be a part of our daily lives without thinking about it. Each song has its own story.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you jot down ideas every day?

Alan Wilkis: Not every day. When you’re on tour, it’s very hard to do anything other than be on tour. The other day I did have an idea, so next time I’m home and back in the studio, I’ll probably turn it into something. I work best when I’m home and focused in the studio. It’s hard for me to be productive when I’m out on the road. 

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your lyrics are so satirical. Is that your particular brand of humor coming out in song?

Alan Wilkis: Totally. Absolutely. I don’t like the idea of being preachy about these things largely because I use a lot of technology. I love technology even as I’m aware of some of the awful, evil stuff that is happening. I’m not going to stop using the iPhone, and I’m not going to disconnect from Gmail. I think one of the best ways to shine a light on these things is by doing it with a laugh or smile.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re warning everyone of the “Big Brother” Internet?

Alan Wilkis: Yeah. It’s like a warning without being too heavy handed about it. I don’t want to say, “You shouldn’t use the Internet.” I think I’m just saying, “The next time you agree to somebody’s Terms of Service, you should just be aware that you are going to be giving up a lot of your life, and they are going to use your information, sell it to other people and give it to the government.” You should at least know that before you sign and agree to it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will there be a time where people totally escape to virtual reality and in essence be online 24/7?

Alan Wilkis: (laughs) It’s hard to say exactly how it will play out, but yes, everybody will be really ridiculously connected all the time. My own generation and myself included … people are just on their phones all the time. As technology keeps improving, our phones are going to get smaller and smaller, and maybe someday they’ll be implanted in our brains, or they’ll be in our glasses.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ouch (laughs).

Alan Wilkis: It will be so second nature to always be connected that it will be a part of us (laughs). It’s so crazy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you be interested in film scoring? Some of those electronic sounds remind me of sci-fi movies.

Alan Wilkis: Oh definitely. Oh man, absolutely. I would love to do scoring. Hopefully someday.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Maybe a Grammy or two next year, Alan?

Alan Wilkis: Oh man, who knows? I don’t know. That would definitely be cool, but I won’t hold my breath for that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is your goal to be recognized by your peers?

Alan Wilkis: Not really (laughs). My goal is to make music I’m excited about and have fun with it, to reach people and hopefully make their lives better, to entertain them and make them happy. That’s what I really care about. If my peers are into it, fantastic! But I don’t really care about that at all.

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