If there was a soundtrack for all of our Internet-related anxieties, Big Data's 2.0 would be it.
Through synth-heavy cautionary tales disguised as love songs, the new album from the paranoid electropop music outfit led by producer and composer Alan Wilkis explores the role of algorithms, the cloud and constant connectivity in our lives.
Although 2.0 is Big Data's debut album, you've probably heard of the project before. Big Data grabbed headlines in 2013 with its Facehawk project, which uses your Facebook photos and status updates (with permission, of course) to create a personalized music video of the ultra-cool, bass-tastic single "Dangerous" featuring the indie rock band Joywave. "Dangerous" also shot to No.1 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart in August 2014. If you've seen the official music video for this single, you probably still haven't been able to get it out of your mind either.
Big Data is currently on its Gimme Data tour in North America promoting 2.0, but Wilkis took some time out to speak with T-Lounge about straddling the line between fearing and embracing technology, the Internet's democratization of the music industry and who he wants to collaborate with next.
You’ve taken more of a behind-the-scenes, producer role in the past. Now that you're currently on tour, how has it been for you to perform in front of a live audience?
I love performing. I’ve been in bands more than not been in bands. So I love being on stage. I love flailing around like a weirdo. [Laughs] It’s super fun. And I love singing. I’ve really come to love singing, which I didn’t used to love doing. The shows are really nothing but fun for me.
How did you come up with the name Big Data, and what inspired you to use the name for this project?
In the summer of 2012, that’s when I had started kind of recording what would become the first Big Data songs. I didn’t have a name yet, and I went to my friend’s [Jeff Hammerbacher's] wedding. I went to Harvard, and my friend went to Harvard. We were there when Facebook started, and he basically sort of built the data team at Facebook and has since gone on to become kind of like a pre-eminent data scientist guy. But he’s a close friend of mine, and I was at his wedding, and he kept talking about big data. It was way before it was such a ubiquitous term. It was really kind of limited to, you know, people in the industry, I guess. He kept talking about big data, and I was looking for a name, and it just kind of clicked. I liked it aesthetically as a name, but also the more I thought about it, the more it was sort of interesting to think about. So the concept kind of grew from there once I had the name.
What were you hoping to get across with your new album 2.0?
I think the overall takeaway is I’m not saying technology is bad. In fact, I love technology. I overuse it. I’m in love with it. It’s something that’s going to change. If anything, it’s going to get more and more integrated into our lives, you know, more second nature. All I’m sort of trying to say is just think a little bit about it next time you click "Yes" on the Terms of Service for something. Just be aware that there is a trade-off with this embracing of technology. Again, I’m not saying don’t use it. I’m saying you should know what you’re giving up by embracing it. In some cases, there are ways to sort of prevent the more awful stuff that happens. I’m trying to sort of raise a little bit of awareness without being too preachy about it.
So you don’t really think our Internet dependence has a positive or negative impact on us?
Yeah, I think much like everything in life, it’s complicated. It’s not black and white. You know, it’s just important to educate yourself on what you’re doing, what you’re using, what’s happening to our privacy, our freedoms in some ways.
What are your thoughts on how the Internet has affected the music industry? Obviously, the Internet has had a huge impact on that.
The Internet definitely impacted the music industry quite a bit. Everything is complicated, man. Also, the easier access to recording software has made creating music so much easier over the years, in combination with the Internet. It’s leveled the playing field in a million different ways. It’s easier to make music. It’s easier to promote music. It’s easier to collaborate. It’s easier to distribute. You make a song, it’s available the next day in every single digital retailer worldwide. You pay like 10 bucks and then you’re in every store. So it’s really easy to get your stuff out there. I certainly would not be here today were it not for that. I put “Dangerous” out in August of 2013. I was doing it all myself. I was my own record label. I recorded everything. I produced the music video. I did everything myself. About eight months after that was when I signed to a record label [Warner Bros. Records], and by that point, things were already kind of cooking. None of this would have been possible were it not for the Internet. So it’s pretty freaking cool that it’s possible for someone, if you’re determined and you work hard and make good songs, it’s totally possible to get your stuff in front of a lot of people without playing by the traditional rules. So that kind of Wild West atmosphere is really exciting.
There’s of course a ton of pitfalls about it. More of a big data pitfall in general is that it makes people a lot more risk averse just in whatever it is that they do. When you see things with the word data-driven on them, that can often mean that people’s opinions were taken out of the equation. "Oh, I don’t actually have to decide if this was good or not. The data says that a lot of people use it." You know, that certainly can apply to how a record label might sign a band or, I don’t know, the next steps that a company takes in its marketing or new products it's developing. That to me is scary because it kind of takes the human element a lot out of our world, and I think the most exciting stuff comes from those gut feelings and those weird strokes of inspiration and whatever. A lot of the best ideas are the really crazy ones that have absolutely no data to support them. So that’s probably a much bigger pitfall.
Yeah, totally. As you said, it's very complicated.
Totally. I think the best-case scenario is if you're using your gut, but you’re also using the data to inform your decisions. But you’ve still gotta go with your gut, and you still gotta have a vision and good taste and all of that.
Do you think we’ll get to a point when we can have that perfect marriage of both big data and human instinct?
Uh, no. I don’t think so. I think it’ll only get increasingly harder for the good stuff to make it through.
I know you’re busy on tour right now, but have you thought about what new music you're going to create in the future?
Only a little bit. I’m still sort of in the craziness. When you’re on tour, it kind of wipes your brain. Not a lot of bandwidth or sleep, for that matter, left. So I think I wanna focus on promoting this stuff as much as possible and getting the word out. And then when I finally have some time to breathe, then I’ll start planning the next steps.
You collaborated with a lot of amazing artists for 2.0, from Weezer's Rivers Cuomo to Kimbra to Dragonette. Who's on your dream list of people you'd like to work with next?
I mean, Prince is definitely like No.1. And Stevie Wonder’s probably on there. And D’Angelo. I want to work with Sia. I’d love to work with Sia. There’s a lot. It’s a pretty infinite list.