Sonny Moore is one of the most hardworking, prolific musicians in the world – he reflects on how he made it through the decade without losing his mind
Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.
Skrillex started the decade making tear-out dubstep bangers, and ended it producing beautifully subtle songs with Kelsey Lu and FKA twigs. It’s certainly not the career trajectory I’d have expected when I first heard the face-melting “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” back in 2010, but as the years went on, I realised that my first impressions of Sonny Moore were all wrong. While other artists in the EDM scene were pushing their music to increasingly brash, loud, and OTT extremes, Skrillex was at the Grammys showing his deep appreciation for the original Croydon dubstep scene, soundtracking Harmony Korine films, and using his OWSLA record label to spotlight ambitious young artists like Porter Robinson.
The 2010s wouldn’t sound the same without him. He was one of the most prominent faces of EDM and festival culture. He shaped the sound of popular music, not just by working with everyone from Korn to Justin Bieber, Lil Pump to Mariah Carey, Burna Boy to Boys Noize, but also in the impossible-to-quantify influence he had on other musicians. He DJed to tens of thousands of people at a time at festivals around the world, although he seemed as comfortable playing to one hundred people in a basement in east London. If anyone sums up the spirit of the 2010s, where the old barriers between genres were smudged beyond recognition, where the most established stars would work with the most emerging artists, where the music industry underwent dramatic changes every other year, it’s him. We spoke to Skrillex about how he coped with such a turbulent decade without losing his mind.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2010, you’d just come out of the hardcore/screamo scene and were gearing up to release your first electronic music EP. Can you describe an average day in your life back then?
Skrillex: In 2010, I was living in a warehouse space in Downtown LA that was really cheap, 50 cents a square-foot. It’s an area now where it’s almost Beverly Hills prices – like Hackney, Shoreditch, or Dalston, way before it got crazy in London. I found this warehouse and built it out with a bunch of buddies, other artists and musicians, and lived out of that warehouse making music and skateboarding around. Downtown LA was a bit more barren at that point. So basically that: drinking iced coffees, making crazy electronic music, and discovering the first waves of bass music online.
I got really obsessed with all the French music in 2007, and a lot of alternative music too: M.I.A., Peaches, stuff like that. 2010 rolls by, and I start discovering more dubstep. In LA, guys like 12th Planet were bringing the old-school sound and mixing it with some of the newer kids from the UK. They were bringing back Doctor P records and playing them in LA before they were out, like “Sweet Shop”, and “Gold Dust” by Flux Pavilion when that was brand new. I was also hearing what guys like Excision were doing, and Boregore. Dubstep parties were few and far between. I went to Amoeba Records after seeing a dubstep show for the first time and I found Untrue by Burial in the dubstep section, so I digested that at the same time. So I was just in my warehouse with some blown KRK speakers trying to make music that Flux Pavilion, 12th Planet, Bare Noize, Noisia would hopefully play in a set.
What was the response like to your first releases?
Skrillex: Deadmau5 had heard bits of the EP Scary Monsters before it had been released, and wanted to put it out. When it came out, it was crazy. From my point of view, I was just experimenting and doing my thing, but then from the outside, people were like, “What is this crazy commercial thing?” I was like, “Whoa, what? This is commercial?” There was this big perception that I had this major machine behind me, pushing it to the masses. It was a major shock to me, seeing the response.
Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites, your second EP, really exploded. Suddenly, you weren’t just somebody participating in a scene – you were being pushed as the figurehead of it. What did that feel like?
Skrillex: It was strange. A lot of that ‘figurehead’ stuff came with controversy. In hindsight, it feels silly that I would be sensitive to it, but I was back then. A lot of the ways journalists framed it was, like I said, that I was coming in and taking something and mainstreaming it – like it was this plan, this conspiracy, or something like that. For me, it was only about the underground. There wasn’t mainstream dubstep, there wasn’t mainstream bass music. And I’m not saying that globally there hasn’t been stuff like Mr. Oizo “Flat Beat”, which was a mainstream record, and I know that Chase & Status at that time was putting out mainstream music in the UK...
...but in America, dubstep was more of an unknown quantity.
Skrillex: And the internet wasn’t even as big, so you still weren’t quite so connected. So I was just surprised. I tried to just keep my head down and be myself as much as possible. It was definitely a whirlwind.
In hindsight, it really doesn’t matter, but the biggest thing that I feel like I never really got to convey was that people thought I popped up overnight – but I’d been making music all my life. I’d been playing shows and selling tickets to shows since I was 12 years old, and even before I was 12, I was playing in a backyard band! I’ve been producing music on my laptop since I was 16. So that was the main thing – that people acted like it just happened overnight. My whole life up to that moment was working towards this, but it just happened to be the thing that caught people’s attention.
I remember having this really bad Guardian interview. They called me “the most hated man in electronic music”. I don’t think anybody would take it that far! And even if they would, that was my biggest piece of press, and there was nothing positive to say about... anything! I actually stopped doing interviews for a long time, like, “Nope, I’m not talking to anybody. I’ll just let my music speak for itself.” I just wanted to do my own thing, put my head down, and just do what I had been doing since I was a little kid playing guitar.
In 2012, you won a bunch of Grammys, and in one of your acceptance speeches you shouted out Croydon, the original birthplace of dubstep in the UK. I always thought that was nice, and not something a lot of artists would have done in that position.
Skrillex: That was just off the top of my head. I remember I got called up three times, because I won three awards that year. I was like, “Fuck, I don’t have anything to say.” I was typing down everything that came to my head.
Before that, I’d spent a good amount of time in the UK, living there for almost three months – a lot of it in Rob Swire from Pendulum’s vocal booth in the studio. I remember going there for my first show and meeting up with Skream, and him sort of taking me under his wing, and meeting guys like Caspa and Plastician. Hatcha, who I think coined the word ‘dubstep’, was a super awesome guy. Through meeting those guys, I was going out with them and listening to records, checking out events all over south London, and just getting a taste of the underground scene. Those guys started playing parties in Croydon, so that just popped into my head naturally. Like, what else am I gonna say? Then I shouted out Never Say Die, so SKisM – he was in the UK holding down the more aggressive sound for a long time, and putting me on as well, and connecting me with people who were superstars to me back then, like Foreign Beggars.
So you’re in this position where your music has blown up, you’re touring the world, you’re winning Grammys, and not only that, you’re also meeting all of the people who inspired you to do this in the first place. What was it like being in the middle of that whirlwind?
Skrillex: Man, it was very strange. I was just fired up, to be honest. I couldn’t smell the roses, I was ready to fucking go. Everything else was fun – I’m at the Grammys, I’m at the afterparties, I’m rubbing elbows with the craziest people, how am I here? – but really, deep down, I was like, “I really need to prove myself.” That was the first time I felt that responsibility. It was kind of strange. It wasn’t like, “Woo, Grammys, I did it!” It was like, “I’m just starting.”
Where do you get that kind of drive from?
Skrillex: I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was in a band when I was a teenager and we signed a massive fucking record deal – and I walked away. There was a lot of money there. I started from zero. I tried so many different things: producing for other people, producing weird solo projects for myself, producing remixes, and then this (Skrillex) resonated.
I had that little voice in my head saying, “It’s just a fad, your career’s only going to be a flash in the pan when dubstep is gone.” ‘Dubstep’ was one of the most Googled words that year. It was having a moment, the sort of dubstep we were thinking about back then. Not to say that dubstep itself was just a moment – dubstep is forever, bass music is forever, you can still go to see new kids making dope records, you can still go see The Bug play his shows, you can still see Never Say Die and Excision doing their version of it, you can still go to Lost Lands – but back then, it was this amazing thing that people also had a timer on.
“In 2011, I did, what, three-hundred-and-forty-something shows? Just crazy, insane. I was going, going, going, going” – Skrillex
You established your own label, OWSLA, just a couple of years after you blew up. How did you have the time to run a label, given everything that was happening with your own DJing and production career?
Skrillex: I have no fucking idea. In 2011, I did, what, three-hundred-and-forty-something shows? Just crazy, insane. I was going, going, going, going. The thing in my head I kept telling myself was like, I never went to college, I came from a band where we were driving across the United States making no money, and now I get a couple thousand dollars and a plane flight to go DJ music that I love and that I made – I’m gonna take every opportunity, and I’m not gonna bat an eye.
By 2013, EDM had blown up. Billboard introduced the Dance/Electronic chart, SFX bought Beatport, and there was all this corporate interest there. I’ve seen what happens when big money enters into a scene and some artists suddenly make a lot of money very quickly, and it’s often not pretty. Were you feeling the pressure of the EDM industry around you? How do you think you managed to maintain a level head throughout it all?
Skrillex: I didn’t really try to think too much. Maybe it’s because I saw money before – this shit wasn’t new to me, you know? The whirlwind was crazy, looking back on it, but at the time it wasn’t that crazy. I wasn’t worried about it.
Here’s the funniest thing. In 2011, I knew this was gonna be this hype moment. It wasn’t gonna be forever. When something shifts, everyone becomes super frazzled. The whole world doesn’t know what to do – including the financial stuff, including the money, including the radio stations. I knew it was going to be a tornado, and the dust was gonna settle.
For me, I was just like, I’m gonna keep going out there. I’m gonna make a project with Boys Noize that has nothing to do with mainstream EDM at all. I’m gonna go produce pop records. I’m gonna go make a record with Korn. I was just trying not to get caught up in it, because I’ve seen money come and go – and when money comes and goes, you realise that your happiness comes from the people you’re surrounded with and your daily productivity and your morale. So it didn’t freak me out because I knew my biggest asset was my mind and my creativity. If that means spending four months scoring a movie called Spring Breakers, an indie film that maybe my main fanbase doesn’t care about, it’s still my journey. And it might plant seeds for ten years from now – I got GarageBand one day and started fucking with it, and that turned into Skrillex. You do that one thing, and years later that can open these doors.
How did you deal with becoming a celebrity?
Skrillex: I tried to make myself not a celebrity as much as possible. That was the one thing I didn’t want. I made myself so available. I never got security guards. There were DJs in my scene during that time that had security around them. Look, I get it – a lot of rappers need security, especially if they come from areas where there’s people that don’t want them to live – but there are some people where it’s like, come on, you’re a DJ of your size, and you’re bringing your own security? I never wanted that. I made sure that the relationships that I created were not this pompous, over-the-top thing, because I was already being painted like that anyway.
One big turning point in your career, at least for me, was “Where Are Ü Now” in 2015, which you made with Justin Bieber and Diplo. When you were in the studio, did you have any idea of how special it was, or how much it might resonate with people?
Skrillex: Well, here’s the funny thing. I had played that record for A&R people, and they would just stare at their phones. The response that I’d get was “Justin Bieber hasn’t had a hit in however many years!” I was like, “But just listen to it!” Like, the song is just so good!
During the making of it, we did so many versions of the drop. There was a house-ier drop, then finally it was like, “This is the perfect way for it to be.” It’s explosive, but still restrained. There’s energy. I wanted something that complemented the sweetness and melancholy of the vocal, but wasn’t safe, that still went somewhere. I thought it was amazing. I was playing it to different producers and people in the scene, and they were going, “Holy fuck, this is insane.” I was in Paris, hanging out with Brodinski, when I was working on it. Brodinski, he’s the coolest of cool dudes, and he was like, “That’s gonna fuck shit up. That is so dope.” I was getting amazing responses from people who don’t need to gas me up.
But then all the record labels and radio people are like, “Oh, Justin Bieber?” I guess he was toxic to people back then, but to me, he was just a kid who was going through a lot of shit. I didn’t think anything of it, I just thought, “OK, you guys are just super judgemental. You kind of created that (toxicity) yourself.” I really love this word ‘occhiolism’. It’s a weird old word you don’t hear that much, but it means the awareness of the smallness of your own perspective. Everyone has their own journey. Don’t judge someone on a moral level, try to understand why they are that way.
“You saw Avicii doing a record that’s country. You saw rappers mimicking screamo artists. You heard electronic music and rap music. I don’t think we’ve ever been in a decade that takes other elements like we have” – Skrillex
I don’t really want to gloss over the next few years, but it would take me too long to count up the number of credits you racked up as a producer since then. On top of your solo stuff, you’ve worked with Burna Boy, FKA twigs, Kelsey Lu, and more. In 2010, did you think you were capable of working with these artists in all these different genres at the top of their game, or do you think you’d have still been content working in a smaller electronic scene?
Skrillex: I always thought that the sky was the limit with my potential. I’d be too humble to say I couldn’t do it. I always knew if I kept going and if I connected with people, I could work with anybody. There’s something really similar about all creative people, whether it’s Mariah Carey or a young person who has no hits but they’re on fire with the creative language that we’re all speaking. When I first walked into the studio with Mariah Carey – and she’s an incredible songwriter, a lot of people don’t realise she wrote most of her hits by herself – I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been in the studio with her from nine at night to nine in the morning, she’s going harder than I am, because she loves to create. It’s like, “You’re just like me!” You get into it.
What’s been the highlight of your career in the past ten years? One moment that’s really special to you?
Skrillex: There are a few special ones. Doing music for Disney and being animated in the movie Wreck-It Ralph was really major. That was an exact dream of mine, to do something for Disney – I was the first ever artist that was animated for a Disney film.
One more thing that was an exact manifestation was doing the theme for Kingdom Hearts III with Hikaru Utada. Grammys are fucking awesome, but that hit a different chord for me. Playing that song in front of 30,000 people and having them sing this record mean so much. When I was 16 years old, I was like, “I’m gonna work with her (Utada) one day. If I could ever do a theme song for Kingdom Hearts, that would be beautiful.”
What’s the best trend of the 2010s?
Skrillex: The crossover of culture. You saw Avicii doing a record that’s country. You saw rappers mimicking screamo artists. You heard electronic music and rap music. I don’t think we’ve ever been in a decade that takes other elements like we have.
What surprised you most over the past decade?
Skrillex: It’s not surprising, but it’s still something I don’t understand a lot. It’s how deep the internet is. You see things like Minecraft and Fortnite and Twitch, these whole communities. Where are we gonna be in ten years? It’s caught on so quickly, this internet reality. It’s starting to become tangible, like a physical thing: there’s the Instagram world, there’s the Twitch world. Even when I was first making stuff in 2010, which doesn’t seem that long ago, it was like, “Damn, we’re so connected.” But it’s not even connected compared to where it is now.
Do you have a favourite album of the 2010s?
Skrillex: That’s tough. This feels like a cop-out, but I will say, honestly, my two favourite records of the decade are Astroworld and Purpose. I know I did a lot of songs on Purpose, but I still put that album on and think, “Holy shit, what a world.” The whole album is so cohesive with its sound. Astroworld did that for me too, it just feels like an important record. Yeezus was also so shifting. It broke every single rule. It was such an underdog too, it didn’t even go gold for those first two years.
Who are you excited to see do things in the 2020s?
Skrillex: I’m excited for Dominic Fike. He’s just starting to put records out. I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with him, he’s so talented. He can sing, he can pick up an instrument and write a song in two minutes, he can rap his ass off, he can spit bars like a machine gun – but he comes from this folky sound, this new Americana. The influence he’s gonna have in music is gonna be very important and very profound, I believe.
Lastly, one thing that’s been consistent this whole decade is your look. Did you ever envisage yourself becoming a style icon?
Skrillex: (laughs) I don’t think I’ve ever been called that before! I still have my head shaved on the side, and I’m not gonna cut my hair any time soon – I like having long hair – so I guess I have been pretty consistent with it. Sometimes with my fashion, I’ll wear other shit, but then I’ll go back to black everything – it feels comfortable and not too thought out. But fuck man, I don’t think I’m that special when it comes to how I’m dressed! I had long hair since I was a teenager, the only difference is I shaved my head and got prescription glasses, although now I wear contacts. It was just me being an emo kid. I still am, in lots of ways.
Lead photo by Marilyn Hue