“Want to go to a party at the drummer from Muse’s house?” Skrillex turns and asks.
“Sure, why not.”
Fifteen minutes later, the car is full and navigating through the Hollywood Hills. Skrillex is in the back seat with his girlfriend, U.K. singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding, and the bartender from the hotel we just left. In the front seat is his tour manager, Road Hog, who’s never been in the hills before.
Ratatat’s “Loud Pipes” is blasting through the car. Goulding and Road Hog are celebrating the moment, singing “the Hog is in the hills” to the instrumental track. Skrillex – nee Sonny Moore, known to close friends as Skrilly and drunk friends as the Skrill– is recording the jam on his iPhone. “This is going to be a track,” he says excitedly as we park. Behind us, another carload of Skrillex’s friends and crew unloads, and they all climb the hill, a mobile party. “Every night is like this,” Skrillex says, bounding up to the house. “It’s just totally random.”
To spend a week with Skrillex is to learn to operate with no sleep, no silence and no pause. Even sitting still, he’s moving – bouncing a leg up and down, tapping his fingers, looking around the room to take in everything going on. “He’s inhuman,” says his European booking agent, Simon Clarkson. “We gave him only one night off in Europe, and he calls and tells me he’s putting together a party that night so he can DJ. He doesn’t stop.”
“I book myself tight,” Skrillex confirms. “If I have any time off, I get antsy. I haven’t taken a vacation in, like, eight years.”
It is this tireless, jittery energy that’s propelled Skrillex through an accelerated music career: He joined his first indie and punk bands when he was 12, toured the world fronting the Top 40 screamo band From First to Last at 16, and signed a solo deal with Atlantic Records the year he turned old enough to legally go to the clubs he’d been performing at. Now, at 24, he’s performing 300 shows a year playing the most noncommercial music of his career – his tonally dirty, dynamically aggressive brand of bass-rattling dubstep – and to everyone’s surprise, most of all his own, he has become the most exciting thing happening in popular music this moment. He won three Grammys in February. His Facebook page has been growing by 300,000 new fans a week. And everyone is blowing up his phone, from Dr. Dre to Kanye West, who took Skrillex to Vegas in his private jet, watched him DJ and then invited him to his hotel room to cut some tracks.
“I’m aware of what’s going on, but at the same time there are parts I can’t see with any perspective and don’t know if I should,” he says as we stand in a bedroom with Muse drummer Dominic Howard and four girls who are cavorting around the room, hungry for the pair’s attention. “I mean, it’s surreal when you step back and see everything going on. But when I’m in the moment, I don’t realize it.”
If Skrillex continues to have his way, he will never realize it. “I don’t like being overexposed,” he says. “I don’t like being on covers. And I don’t like people talking about me.”
So in order to get a better understanding of who he is, here are a few scenes culled from eight days spent in a nonstop maelstrom of vodka, bass and late nights with pop’s reluctant phenomenon.
Interior, car, Arts District, downtown Los Angeles – afternoon
“I gotta ask management to take down that sign,” Skrillex says as we pull into a parking lot. The sign reads lofts starting in the high 300′s. He straps on a black backpack, which contains his entire studio (a MacBook and Dre Beats Pro headphones), and walks through the courtyard to the last unit. “I prefer the gloominess to the sun,” he says as he opens the door. “I don’t know why.”
He walks inside and marvels at the bare loft. It is almost his – just as soon as he closes – along with the adjacent apartment. He then points out where he’s going to build a studio, bar and lounge for his crew and friends to hang out in. “I haven’t met any of my neighbors yet,” he says. “But the walls are thick – and we’ve done screaming tests.”
Standing on the edge of his metal stairwell, Skrillex looks like a skate-kid-turned-goth-turned-computer-hacker. He’s a diminutive five feet five in all black – from the long, greasy undercut and thick-framed glasses to the G-Star pants and Converse trainers.
Four days earlier, he turned 24. These lofts are his birthday present to himself – and a surprising purchase, because he rarely spends any of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earns from his shows on anything but creating new shows. He rarely even stays in the luxury hotel rooms promoters buy for him on the road, preferring instead to crash on the couches of friends.
Just 21 months ago, Skrillex was at an all-time low. A solo rock release on Atlantic Records had been delayed for months because of an obscure legal dispute; he had spent the entirety of his advance, was living off his credit card, and touring expenses and medical bills had left him about $60,000 in debt. (When he was fronting From First to Last, he had an operation to remove nodes that had formed on his vocal cords.) Collection agents were calling his friends trying to track him down, unaware that he was basically homeless. Evicted from the warehouse he was squatting in, Skrillex was sleeping on his fellow DJ 12th Planet’s couch in a downtown apartment, management office and studio known as the Compound.
While stuck in limbo, he decided to put out My Name Is Skrillex, an EP of electro-industrial-dubstep songs he’d been working on. But his label, which wasn’t enthusiastic about the project to begin with, held it up for nine months trying to clear the samples. So Skrillex released it himself as a free download on his manager’s website, promoting it on his MySpace page. The downloads came – hundreds of thousands of them, crashing the website countless times. Soon Deadmau5 was calling to put him on tour as an opening act and sign him to his label.
Skrillex remembers the moment when he realized that everything had changed: a year ago at a 3,600-ticket show in Austin. “At that time, it was the biggest show I’d ever sold out by myself,” he recalls. “And I felt this new responsibility, like, ‘Fuck, it’s real now. I’m not just playing raves and clubs, but they’re here to watch me.’”
The other vindicating moment came shortly afterward, when he paid off his debt in one day. Now, just a year later, Skrillex is turning money away, including $200,000 to put his song “Kyoto” in a G.I. Joe movie and $300,000 to do a promotion with a mobile-phone company. “The minute I start to overthink something, I know I shouldn’t do it.”
After Skrillex leaves his apartment, he heads to the hipster sausage restaurant Wurstküche for lunch. However, before he can get through the door, he is waylaid.
“Aren’t you the guy who was looking at apartments?” a man in his thirties asks.
“I actually bought the one in the corner,” Skrillex tells him.
“Then I’m your neighbor,” the man says. “But don’t worry: I’m quiet. I can’t stand noisy neighbors.”
Skrillex shifts his feet, and looks around uncomfortably.
“So,” the man continues, “what do you do for work?”