At 24 years old, the electronic artist Vaski—born Alex Brouwer in Savage, Minn.—has already been around the world and back, touring on the strength of his accessible, frenetic, and bass-heavy dance music. Brouwer first caught the attention of the writhing masses when he was just 19, and quickly rose to the top of the heap of dubstep artists who were dominating the dance scene.
In recent years, Brouwer has moved out to Los Angeles and started collaborating with other like-minded artists, and in the process he’s started to refine his sound into something more complex, and even more intriguing. His new EP, Weightless, showcases a more pensive, sophisticated side of Brouwer’s songwriting, with shimmering backdrops showcasing twinkling melodies and a nostalgic sense of yearning.
With a big holiday blowout show coming up this Saturday—Vaski’s first hometown show in First Avenue’s Mainroom—I phoned up Brouwer to talk about his background in music, his evolving aesthetic, and his thoughts on the EDM scenes here in the Twin Cities and out in L.A.
Andrea Swensson: Growing up, do you recall any specific artists or specific songs that you were exposed to that made you really interested in making music?
Alex Brouwer: Yeah: The Prodigy, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned was the first album that I heard that was completely electronic, and it kind of blew my mind. I was on iTunes one day—I don’t remember how old I was, maybe 14—I clicked on ‘electronic,’ and I saw this crazy album art of the Prodigy, and I listened to the songs and I was like, what is this? I completely had never heard anything like it before. And ever since then I’ve kind of been obsessed with it. I did a lot of research on the internet, at first, trying to figure out where I could find more music like that. And I was part of some internet forums where I would discover different subgenres of electronic music, like drum and bass and electro-house, and all this random stuff that’s not very well known, you know, very underground stuff. And this guy reached out to me on there, he was like, “Hey, I see you’re from Minneapolis, and that’s where I live, you should come out to one of our events sometime.” Because he knew I wrote music. And I was like, oh, this is crazy. I think I was 16 at the time.
Yeah, they were throwing underground raves in these places in downtown. I don’t know if “rave” is really the right way to put it, but it was kind of like house parties, but taken to the next level. They would rent out a space, and they would bring in talent from somewhere in Europe or something, and throw these parties and we’d go and see music. It wasn’t something that happened at regular clubs at that point, at least not in Minneapolis, so they just did it in underground places. And so that was kind of how I discovered all the DJ culture. Because I was always writing music. I wrote music from a very young age. And I knew I had to perform at some point. So the people that reached out to me and that became my friends later taught me how to DJ, too.
That’s so interesting to me, because if you talk to a rock person they’ll tell you that they discovered a lot of music and like-minded people at record stores. But you were really having that experience on the internet, and meeting fans that way.
Yeah, it’s crazy that it happened that way. With electronic music, it really is the internet that drives it. Because there’s so many obscure genres and subgenres, and that type of music—it wouldn’t really have a place in the world 50 years ago. There would be one or two people in a city that liked it, and they would probably never meet each other. But because of the internet, if you like weird Russian hip-hop, there’s a scene for you.
So you were already making music the first time that you got to go to one of these events. What kind of music were you making at that time?
It’s hard to say really. I was pretty much just messing around on my computer and just making whatever I thought sounded cool. It probably was just electronic music; it wasn’t even really dance music. For a while I was trying to make rock music on my computer, too, with guitar emulators. It sounded really weird, and it was really dark, because I didn’t understand melody at the time.
Did you ever study any instruments?
Yeah, I was in high school marching band. I was in choir for a year. I took a few years of piano lessons. I took a year of music theory, at Prior Lake.
Do you feel like you could apply the things you learned through that to what you were doing on the computer?
Oh yes, very much so. And I think that’s a big reason why I’ve had some of the success that I have, is because a lot of people who learn the technical stuff of producing music kind of skip over the musical part. So for me, coming from that side, the classically trained part—I can’t sit down and read sheet music anymore, but I know where all the notes are and I can count up and everything. I can hear chords; I’ll listen to a song on the radio and I’m like, oh, that’s this chord progression. It’s subconscious for me. It’s in me, you know.
You mentioned that you struggled at first to understand melody. How did you learn how to add that component to your music?
A lot of trial and error. I would just say if you do something enough, you eventually get good at it. I still feel like I’m still learning how to write melodies, and I’m trying to make the best chord progressions and melodies that I can. And with my new music, it’s way way more musical that it’s ever been before, simply because I’m a lot better at that—which is the more complex side of music, in my opinion.
In past articles I’ve read about you, you’re definitely described as a dubstep artist, but recently it seems like you’re influenced by a much wider variety of genres and sounds. How do you feel your sound has evolved over the past few years?
Basically, when I was 19 is when I got my first break—that’s when MySpace was really big, and I was putting music out on MySpace, and I got signed to a record label because of MySpace. And I started touring with my dubstep music. I had written a lot of different types of stuff before, and right when I switched to making dubstep it was like the perfect timing, and everything lined up, and I started touring—I got on a booking agency and started playing internationally, all over the place. And then when I got to be about 21 or 22, I started to feel that I wasn’t inspired by the dubstep music like I was before. So it was a gradual shift. I used to like to make the craziest music possible, and go out in the club and just go really crazy and have a lot of fun. And I still want to have a lot of fun, but just in a more refined and musical way, I guess.
When you’re creating music, are you thinking about having it played in a club in front of a lot of people and having them move around, or do you picture your listeners in other settings as well?
Definitely both. It depends on which song I’m working on. But I think every song that I do, I think of both things. I try to picture, where is this song going to fit? Where do I want to listen to this song, or these sounds? That’s one thing that I’m trying to figure out how to navigate, too.A lot of the people still think of me as a dubstep artist, and when they see me they’re like, oh yeah, I’ve heard your stuff, you do dubstep, right? And I’m like, well, a few years ago, yes. So it’s not a cut-and-dry transition. It’s going to take some time of me exposing this new style of music to everybody, and showing them that I’m evolved, and that I’m making a different style of stuff.
Tell me about your new Weightless EP. Did you have a specific vibe or sound in mind when you sat down to make those tracks?
I was just making what I wanted to hear. I wrote a lot of other songs that I didn’t put out, but with that one, the songs that I chose to actually release, it was just different emotions that I felt in summer. “Last Night” is like when you go out with your friends one night, and the feeling that you have the next day, like, “that was really fun, I was really happy to see everybody and had a good time.” And then “Weightless” is like floating or just being in a pool, hakuna matata, no worries.
Can you describe the EDM scene specifically in the Twin Cities? You mentioned the early days when it was still very underground, but now it seems like there’s something at the Skyway Theater almost every weekend and you’re going to be playing in the Mainroom. How has it changed, and how does it fit in with everything else that’s going on in the local scene?
Well, first of all I think it’s interesting that as soon as the term EDM came around, everybody started to take notice of dance music. And it’s very popular now. And it’s always kind of been almost this popular, but now that there’s this big business and big festivals, it’s coming up in journalism way more than it ever was before. So that’s just one thing that I’ve noticed—it’s kind of always been there, but now that there’s these giant festivals, all these people are talking about this new buzzword, EDM. What is this? Has this always been here? It has, and it’s now at the forefront.
There have been large shows in the dance music scene in Minneapolis for many, many years, and now they are a little bit bigger than they were before, but there’s a lot of cool stuff that’s been happening for a long time. It’s just a different vibe, you know. Sometimes there’s people that go and they just want to party and go crazy, and that’s part of it, but there’s a lot of people who just really appreciate the DJ culture of the performance, in the same way that there’s a lot of people who really appreciate seeing live instruments, there’s people who appreciate the sounds of electronic music. So it’s just interesting to me to see that there’s different splits of culture, with live acts vs. electronic acts, and I feel like that’s kind of going to fade away in the future, because a lot of the newer acts are combining electronic and live instruments. Artists like Big Gigantic, and Griz, they’re DJing but they also play live instruments, and I think that’s like a really cool way to do it, because it’s combining the modern technology that we have and real musicianship, and it’s doing it in a super cool way that pretty much everybody can get down with. So I’m really looking forward to seeing more of that happen in Minneapolis, specifically. Because I have scene the split of, like, a lot of people only go to First Avenue, or only go to Skyway, or whatever, and it’s just funny to watch the subculture of that. We’re all music fans, at the end of the day. We’re all just there to appreciate the art.
Do you think it’s an age thing? That maybe slightly older people don’t know what to do at a show with a lot of young kids that are freaking out?
Haha. Yeah. Some of it. Definitely some of it. And I feel like places like Myth are able to bring both sides to the table. When the place is large enough that there can be both age groups there, and everyone can still have a good time, that’s when it’s really done right. If you’re older and you don’t want to go crazy, you don’t have to be right in the front. And even at some of these rock shows, when it’s a sold-out show or when it’s packed, if you’re over 30 you usually don’t want to be right in the front row bumping elbows with everybody.
Now that you live in L.A., what is the scene there like, compared to how it is here?
I mean, the scene in the Twin Cities is magical. And when I tell people in California that I’m from Minneapolis, I get one of two reactions:First of all, like a lot of people just don’t know where that is. Or they’re like, “Oh wow! You must be really warm right now!” And they always talk about the weather. And I feel like Minneapolis is like a gem—like a hidden gem that a lot of people in the country don’t know about, and there’s some really amazing things happening there. And I don’t really feel like we need to tell everyone—it’s kind of like a great kept secret. Like there’s an Atmosphere song where they’re talking about how it’s not overpopulated and saturated, like L.A. and New York, and that’s part of what makes it so great. The roads aren’t crazy, and there’s not people everywhere where you’re trying to go. So that changes the culture of a place.
One thing I’ve noticed in L.A., you know it’s like 3.5 million people that live in this greater area, and there’s so many different groups of people. It’s such a big place and there’s so many different niches and subcultures that you can just go and make it whatever you want. And there’s just so many shows happening all the time. Sometimes in Minneapolis there’s one show that everyone is going to, like we’re super excited for this, and in Los Angeles that doesn’t really happen. Because there’s a show almost every night of the week, and there’s like five shows on the same day that you might want to check out. So it’s like overwhelming amounts of entertainment and music.
Is it harder to stand out amid all of that?
I don’t really care about standing out in Los Angeles. I’m not trying to be like a super famous person that walks around and gets noticed or anything like that. I’m just trying to do what I want to do and make music that I want to make, and the main reason that I’m out here is to collaborate with people and to learn.
You’ve done this Record Room residency and now you’re going to move into the Mainroom. What does it mean for you as a Minnesota native to play the Mainroom of First Ave?
It’s kind of my dream. It’s pretty amazing. The first club show that I ever went to was in the Record Room. I went to Honeymoon, an electro dance party. And I’ve been to so many shows at First Ave, and it’s a great venue, and the more that I travel and the more that I play other places, the more I realize how awesome it is there. It’s something that I can’t really put my finger on or describe exactly what makes it so great, but it’s just fun there. I never go there and feel like I’m annoyed to be there. There’s a lot of other clubs where I’m like, “I’ve gotta get out of here.” But I never feel like that at First Avenue.
And what can we expect at this big show on Saturday?
Well one thing that I wanted to do, since I am performing and it’s a coming-home type thing, is I put a lot of my friends who are also in the electronic scene on it. So there’s a bunch of other acts that are really cool, and I wanted to support the electronic scene and bring it into the First Avenue scene, too. I wanted to take my platform and opportunity that I had here and just kind of showcase that. So it’s going to be a really good time, and a lot of people who have contributed to the scene in Minneapolis and just kind of a celebration of all the things that are going on there.
VASKI headlines the Mainroom Holiday Blowout this Saturday, December 20, at First Avenue with TWRK (Mad Decent), BOOMBOX CARTEL, WORLD CLASS ART THIEVES, CFANS, TRUANCY, CENTRIFIC, MICDADDY, HAARLEM, and QUADRILLION JACKSON.