Big Data

By Poppy Tohill

I was all ready to chime "Good Morning" to Mr Alan Wilkis, the man behind the American electronic music project Big Data, as he picked up the phone for a chat earlier this week. But just as he answered, I realised he was on the complete opposite side of the world to me where it was about 8pm at night.

So moving on I congratulated him on his new single, ‘Dangerous' reaching number four on the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart. "Oh man, thank you so much. I can't believe it," he truthfully replied. "I absolutely wasn't expecting it to be so successful," he continued. "I've had a full time job actually up until March this past year, so I never thought that in my wildest dreams things would go as far as they did. I'm a full time musician and this is my job now and I'm so grateful, blown away and surprised everyday," he chuckled.

Flashing back to the past, Wilkis filled me in on some of his earliest memories of falling in love with music. "I wouldn't say it's the only thing I gravitated to, because I had a lot of interests growing up, but music was always my thing. My earliest memory is when I was around five years old and my parents put on Michael Jackson's, ‘Thriller,' and I just remember freaking out," he laughed. "Like running around the apartment and just being so into it. I've been working incredibly hard for really all my life on music,' Wilkis admit. "I started learning piano when I was about 5 years old, guitar when I was 12 and then I started getting more into production and recording in my early twenties. I've been making and releasing recordings on my own for almost a decade now and Big Data was really the first time that a project I was doing was really starting to get more love basically."

When asked when the love for electronic music began, Wilkis shared a bit of his musical background and how the idea for Big Data originally came about. "I'd say I started going in that direction in 2008, which is when I really started getting more into electronic production," he began. "I started doing a lot of remixing actually. Prior to Big Data I did a project that I called PRINTS and that was basically featuring different singers and that was really the first time I was making proper pop stuff," he exclaimed. "PRINTS is what ultimately led to Big Data because the singer I was working with at the time, a guy named Dan Armbruster from a band called Joywave, was originally going to be another singer on one of my PRINTS songs, but I really liked how the song we were making came together. It was really fast, and it just kind of clicked and that's what inspired me to start an actual project that's a band idea."

Then of course I couldn't let our whole conversation go by without asking about the name, ‘Big Data,' so Wilkis went on to explain how its existence became about. "It was the summer of 2012 and I had already been writing a lot of the instrumental parts of the songs that would become Big Data songs, but I didn't have a name for the project yet," Wilkis explained. "I went to a friend of mine's wedding, and he's like an actual big data person," he chuckled. "Like his career is in technology and information architecture. So he was telling me all about his line of work and he kept saying ‘big data' and that was a phrase that I had started to notice in the news, but it was 2012, so it wasn't everywhere yet, it was just in technology kind of places. Anyway, I just liked the sound of it, I liked thinking about it and I'm interested in technology in general so that's when the idea kind of clicked that it'd be a cool name," he laughed again. "The music I had been writing was already kind of going into the electronic direction, and then once I had the name that sort of brought the whole concept about." 

Remaining on the topic of electronic music and the concept of Big Data, Wilkis then explained what role electronic music plays in delivering the messages that are apparent throughout his songs. "Everything I make is on a computer," he remarked. "Like literally everything. Even when I play guitar and instruments, it goes straight into the computer and so much of the sounds that I use I've made out of nothing, on my computer," he stated once more. "I like to think that in the same way ‘big data' as a term is really the idea of trying to take massive quantities of information and pull bits out of it. Like what does all this data tell us about human behaviour. I think of it musically as the guitar and actual singing are the human element and parts of the song in this otherwise technological piece of music."

"I think it's definitely made it better in that it's easier to make music, its easier to connect with musicians, its easier to connect with your fans, it's easier to distribute your music and easier to find music," Wilkis replied when asked if he thinks the change and advance of technology over the past few years has positively or negatively affected the music industry. "There's a million ways that it improves the process for everyone, but at the same time all of these tools are available to everyone, which means that a whole lot more people are putting stuff up everyday. I don't actually know the figures but I can't even imagine how many new pieces of music are uploaded to Soundcloud everyday," he laughed. "So while making our lives easier, it is also increasing competition and the volume of stuff that's being put out at the same time. So in a much shorter and concise way it helps and it hurts," he chuckled again.

Moving on to chat about Big Data's latest single ‘Dangerous', which depicts a marketing team using big data to create a more effective advertisingcampaign, Wilkis filled me in on his interest behind this idea. "The idea came about one day, I don't know how it hit me, but I had this idea of making a music video that was a sneaker commercial," he began. "After about a minute or so of seeing all the cliché's in a sneaker commercial, like all the ‘You can do it,' or ‘Just be yourself,' ‘Independence,' ‘freedom,' and all that kind of crap, it would become apparent that after about a minute or so that this shoe makes you do something evil and then that was really all I had. It wasn't a story and it wasn't really a fully thought out idea, it was just that. Then I met these two video directors, they go by the name of Ghost+Cow Films and I told them about the idea and then they really ran with. Turning it into an actual storyline which became the complete launch of this sneaker from the scientists testing it out in the laboratory, to the ad agency thinking about what the commercial is going to look like and pitching it to the client and then the actual commercial itself with the girls running. Then we eventually decided that we needed to pick a specific thing that the shoe made you do and that's when we came up with the head butt, which is the idea that it makes people's head's explode when you head but them," he burst into laughter, before continuing on explaining, "so that's kind of how the video came together. I wouldn't say that it's a direct line to Big Data, in the concept, but I think we're more just trying to poke at how marketing works and big data certainly plays a huge role in marketing. Like all of our information that is gathered from our Facebook page is given to advertisers to then sell us stuff, based on what we like, so there is a direct connection, but I don't know if it's that correct in the video," Wilkis concluded.

Leading on from this, Wilkis went on to fill me in on how the interactive video for the single in collaboration with Facehawk came about. (No that is not a typo, I do not mean Facebook). "That was around February this year. I'd already made all the songs and I was just sort of plotting out how I was going to release them and get the word out," Wilkis began explaining. "I knew I wanted to make something interactive but I didn't necessarily have a plan. But when I was on a trip to Denver I met a gentleman named Rajeev Basu and he is an interactive artist who makes all this weird stuff on the internet," Wilkis began laughing before continuing, "it's all weird but it's also very playful and it was kind of scary because his aesthetic was very in line with my aesthetic, so as soon as I saw stuff he'd made in the past, I told him what ‘Dangerous' was about and what the concept of the song was. Then he came back with this fully fleshed out idea of Facehawk. Like he just kind of took the idea and ran with it. So that's how it started, and once we knew what it was going to look like, it took Rajeev about six-seven months to build it," Wilkis chuckled again. "So we had to be very patient and there was a lot of late nights."


Before the level of technology talk became too complicated for me, I changed the subject asking if an album is possibly on the cards for Big Data in the near future. "Yeah! I'm working on it," Wilkis cheerfully replied. "The plan is to finish it by September. It feels a little ambitious at the moment, but I'm trying," he admit before breaking out into laughter. "But I do really hope to have it out in the fall," he added.

Then for the tricky question of where he sees Big Data in three years, Wilkis humbly replied with great enthusiasm, "In three years... oh man! I hope that I will have toured all over the world, already put out a second album and that people are still listening to my songs."

As the interview drew to an end, I cheekily asked what the first thing that pops into his head when someone says New Zealand is. Awaiting an assumed response of ‘The All Blacks' or ‘The Lord Of The Rings,' I was pleasantly surprised when Wilkis replied with none of those answers, taking his time to think and honestly responding, "Oh man... Well I know I've absolutely loved everyone I've ever met from New Zealand," he gleefully chuckled, before going on to explain that he actually used to work for The Naked & Famous. (Meaning he used to work for some of the people I now work for!) After buzzing out about how small the world really is, the interview drew to an end as Wilkis concluded, "I really hope I can come to New Zealand some day. I would really like to, so lets go ahead and say yes," he chuckled before admitting that "I hope it happens sooner rather than later," and with that positive final note, the interview concluded with a great deal of smiles and laughter, from both ends of the phone line.

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