Paranoid electronic artist. That’s how Big Data -- who hacked the airwaves with “Dangerous” in collaboration with Joywave in 2013 -- are billed. It’s essentially a character description for this nefarious electronic enemy, this monster, that Alan Wilkis created to feed us peppy pop songs that we don’t realize are pills of anxiety until we’ve already swallowed, until they’ve already captured us in their infectious web of beats. Which makes me think: Maybe Big Data isn’t the monster at all. Maybe it’s Wilkis. He’s a savage.
It’s a hypothesis difficult to maintain, however, when speaking with Wilkis; good-natured, bright, generous with laughter and time in equal measure, the Big Data mastermind charms with every thought and deep, genuine guffaw (oh yeah, he guffaws like whoa). He makes you want to listen to his words and his message and his crunchy pop collaborations, which he started putting out on his own independent label, Wilcassettes, in 2013. The first EP, “1.0,” and the success of “Dangerous” changed that for him almost overnight. Big Data had to grow in order to take the show -- and the debut LP, "2.0," which dropped in March on Wilkis's label -- on the road.
Here, Wilkis talks paranoia, humble beginnings, “embarrassing” baby stories, and growing a one-man operation into a touring, full-band spectacle (after we argue the merits of Mexican food in Austin, where I reach him by phone).
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: You’re billed as a “paranoid electronic artist.” How much of that is gimmick or satire, and how much is real?
Alan Wilkis: Ummm, I wouldn’t say that I’m paranoid to the extent that I'm scared. It’s paranoid more in the sense of suspicion --
HLS: Like how I don’t trust your Austin taco recommendations?
AW: Yes! Exactly the same as the taco recommendations. I definitely don’t wear tinfoil hats or anything like that. But I think the message at the heart at pretty much everything of Big Data is there’s more going on than you think, and you should be aware of what that is. To think that something is free and fun to use, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something nefarious happening below the surface, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use it -- you should just be aware.
HLS: Where did it all start?
AW: I’ve been playing music since I was very small. It was always really the thing for me. My parents have embarrassing stories of me as a baby running to the jukebox. There’s a restaurant we used to go to when I was probably like 3, and I would run over and just dance in front of it. Music was always definitely my thing [laughs]. My parents had me start taking piano lessons when I was 5, and that continued through high school. I started playing guitar when I was 12, and guitar was like, that was the instrument for me. That’s the one I connected with. I didn’t play in any bands in high school, but I did in college. There was a point in college when I started developing nerve problems in my right hand. So that was a moment in my musical development I had to rethink things a fair amount. Up until then I thought I was going to be a guitar man. And I’m actually kind of weirdly grateful to in the long run because it led me to the more big-picture kind of thinking than just playing.
Fast forward a few years, and I was making a few singles. I would produce the music and work with different singers and rappers on the songs. In the summer of 2012, I started to work on a song with Dan [Armbruster] of Joywave, and it was going to just be a song like I’d been releasing up until then -- but something clicked in my head, and it felt different from when I worked with people in the past [laughs]. That’s when the lightbulb went off, and thought, “I should start a project here.” The second lightbulb was when I went to a wedding, one of my friends from college. He built the data team at Facebook when it started, and he keeps talking about big data and all the work that he’s doing. And this was wayyy before big data was this ubiquitous term. Part of it was timing -- I was starting a project anyway -- and part of it was like, I liked the way big data sounded, and I liked what it made me think about, and I just had this feeling that it was going to matter more and more and more.
So once I picked the name for the project, all the conceptual stuff started growing from there. And then a few months after that, that’s when the Edward Snowden story came out. I was like, “Whoa. I think this is bigger than I realized” [laughs]. Three years later now, I think of Big Data as this sort of evil character or company. Big Data the band represents all the evil things that happen in technology. [The songs are] all sort of sung from the perspective of the evil but sung in the context of pop song or love song. I always try to make the lyrics obscure juuust enough so that you don’t have to read it about technology, but I try to throw in breadcrumbs.
HLS: Part of what’s so great is that these songs masquerade as pop songs, like “Dangerous,” for instance. The first time I heard that, I thought my ex had somehow started a music career.
AW: [Laughs] Dan and I wrote that one together, and we had all these moments where we were like, “Man, I feel like a badass when I sing this.” But the lyrics are about this creepy dude in a basement somewhere hiding from the NSA, and “I’ve got a plan for us” is a creepy thing to say in that context. So I really love having as many different meanings like that as possible. Goal number one is I want the song to be good, and I want people to enjoy it. I just want it to be catchy and fun to listen to. But for people who want to get more invested in what i’m doing, I try to have deeper layers to kind of dig into.
HLS: Who are Big Data on the road?
AW: They’ve evolved quite a bit. When I started Big Data, it was just me. I didn’t have a label or management or anything; I was just doing everything myself. And then in a very short span of time, after I put out “Dangerous,” it started to take on more and more momentum on the Internet and then that translated to the radio, and then suddenly my life changed really dramatically. And I very shortly thereafter could not handle all the volume of stuff happening on my own, and it was immediately clear I needed to start playing shows [laughs]. Up ’til then, it was just songs I’d made in my basement or studio; it was never, “How will this translate?” So I had a very short time to figure out how to make a show out of all this. Having played in bands and been a guitar player at heart, I wanted it to feel like a band, not me on a stage with a laptop, because that’s boring. We’re a five piece. There may or may be some choreography. I think of the show as a simulation of a show. A computer program is telling audiences when to do this. It’s very bizarre, but it’s very fun.
Big Data play Music Box on Sunday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m., $27.50, 18+. R.A.C. headline; Karl Kling, Filous open. Tickets are available here.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz, a San Diego native, moved back to the area after working the magazine-publishing scene in Boston. Now she’s straight trolling SD for all the music she missed while away. Want to help? Hit her up with just about anything at all over on Twitter, where -- though not always work-appropriate -- she means well.