Chainsmokers: How Hitmaking EDM Dudes Are Conquering the Mainstream

Chainsmokers: How Hitmaking EDM Dudes Are Conquering the Mainstream


Chainsmokers: How Hitmaking EDM Dudes Are Conquering the Mainstream news

Read how EDM duo the Chainsmokers went from novelty act to heavy-duty pop hitmakers. Credit: Jason Nocito

Alex Pall had a date planned with his girlfriend the other night, but he got stuck in the studio jamming with Chris Martin, so he had to stand her up. It's not the kind of thing Pall does often, he says, because he likes to make music in the daylight hours, clocking out before sundown. "I treat it like a job," he says. "I've had rappers be like, 'Let's meet up at 10 p.m.' And I'm like, 'Uh, no!' I can't understand that way of working." But on this one night, hunkered down with Martin in Malibu, "like, a $300 UberX ride from my place in Hollywood," Pall made an exception, because the Coldplay frontman "wanted to start after he put his kids to bed" – and, well, because it was Martin and Coldplay are "the fucking greatest, dude."

So the Chainsmokers cooked up what Pall says was "one of the dopest songs we've ever written" – and he even managed to smooth things over with his girlfriend, thanks to Martin, who serenaded her on Pall's smartphone, blaming himself for the scheduling mishap. "When Alex and I got into the car afterward," says Pall's partner, Drew Taggart, "we were freaking out, like, 'Whaaaa?!'"

The Chainsmokers have had lots of "Whaaaa?!" moments recently. They are the country's hottest pop duo, scoring three singles in the Top 10 this year; their biggest hit – currently perched at Number One for six weeks and counting – is the lovelorn "Closer," a duet between Taggart and Halsey. This summer, performing with Halsey at the MTV Video Music Awards, they looked out and "there was Kanye, right there watching," says Taggart. Not only have they beaten Calvin Harris' record for the most Number Ones notched on Billboard's Hot Dance/Electronic songs chart, they also hung out with Harris "and basically brain-raped him," as Pall puts it, "asking him all these questions." Perhaps craziest of all: Not long before the Martin session, they got word from Ryan Tedder that Bono liked their stuff too. And so it happened that Bono "rolled up to our studio, all by himself," Taggart says, "and played us some new U2 music. We played him some of our new stuff, and with this one song, he was like, 'That's great – will you send that to me?' Which was so sick."

Right now, they're backstage at a cinder-block events center in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, about to headline an outdoor concert for "basically no money," says Pall, as a favor to a local radio station. It's a fun vibe, but a long way from chilling with Bono: One of the main sponsors is a personal-injury legal service with an 800 number in its name. The act currently onstage is a DJ spinning EDM alongside a live drummer in a gorilla mask. ("This is a tribute to Harambe," the DJ cries out. "Dicks out for Harambe, everybody!") In their dressing room, Pall, 31, trades his shorts for a pair of dirty Ksubi jeans – his onstage look; Taggart, 26, drinks coconut water. "Sorry it's  . . .  this," Pall says, indicating the less-than-baller environs. "Would you like some room-temperature lunch meat?"

Workaday promo shows like this one are all over the Chainsmokers' calendar, wedged among Vegas club gigs, major festivals and corporate events. Small fee or no, the Chainsmokers aren't exactly hurting for money. They even get paid for shows they don't play: Adobe, the software giant, booked them for a party, canceled and had to fork over their $80,000 fee anyway. "That's the wildest shit to me," Pall says. "I used to work in an art gallery, eating shit and getting paid $500 a week – and, for doing nothing, Adobe paid me what it took two years to make back then."

It's showtime. The Chainsmokers' stage setup is stripped down today – there are a few LED screens and a picnic table laid across some road cases – which bummed them out at first. But they make the most of it, mixing from their own songs into Skrillex, A$AP Ferg and Eurythmics, and mouthing along goofily with the music, fixing their hair constantly. Their best originals are understated compared with a lot of mainstream EDM, and tinged with melancholy. On "Closer," Taggart steps out from the table with a mic, singing about a booty call that begins in "the backseat of your Rover that I know you can't afford" – the last five words draining the glitz from the line – and continues onto "the mattress that you stole from your roommate back in Boulder." Taggart tells the crowd that when he was writing it, "we were on our tour bus, thinking about Blink-182 and Dashboard Confessional – how their music was so personal. We said, 'Let's write a song like that.'"

Taggart says he wanted to sing lyrics like the ones he adored as a self-described emo kid growing up in Maine, but it's also part of the Chainsmokers' bigger plan. "We hope this moment lasts," Taggart says, "but if it's short, we want to have a connection with our fans that will outlive it." To that end, they cultivate unabashedly good-timey personas and don't mind if you call them "bros." "Honestly, we're two white guys that like to be friendly, we make stupid jokes and like funny movies, and we like to party – but so does everybody," says Taggart. 

In the crowd, shirtless dudes are flailing in what Pall later laughingly calls "frat-boy ballet." Confetti cannons rain down pastel hellfire. In less than an hour, the show is over. Pall and Taggart clear out. Previous anxiety about their bare-bones production has dissipated, and Pall, feeling good, has just the dick joke for the moment: "I guess it's true," he says. "Size doesn't matter!"

Taggart and Pall hop into a chauffeured SUV bound for a Salt Lake steakhouse where the radio station is footing the bill. Pall orders a bottle of pinot noir, to be followed rapidly by a second, then scans the menu. "Oh, shit – they have a seafood tower!" he says.

Pall spent his early childhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where his dad was a fine-art dealer. "We had Picassos and Lichtensteins on our walls," Pall recalls. In middle school, he was classmates with Alex Soros, son of billionaire philanthropist George. Later, he attended a private school "for fuck-ups" in Westchester, where he enjoyed fuck-uppish pursuits like "smoking weed and eating shrooms with friends." When he got to NYU, studying art history and business, he decided to "game college. I'd learn the professor – like, what do they want you to say?" The first couple of months of every semester, Pall scanned course syllabi and got as much work done as possible ahead of time – freeing up hours to "put on shows and parties with my friends."

Pall has a New Yorker's wryness, whereas Taggart, who fell in love with EDM during a high-school-exchange stint in Argentina, is more earnest. He uses tech-world buzzwords like "disrupt" and "iterate" frequently, asking how Rolling Stone's "reach" compares to that of the Chainsmokers, wondering aloud about the return-on-investment for participating in this article. He loves to cook, bragging, "I can make any vegetable – Brussels sprouts, asparagus – taste dank." He's wearing a Rolex but says that he comes "from a really frugal family" and inherited that disposition: He just bought an ultramodern five-bedroom West Hollywood home for $3.3 million, but hastens to point out that it came with a "two-year warranty in case anything needs to be fixed."

The pair met in New York around 2012. Pall was trying to establish himself on the local DJ circuit, and Taggart was an aspiring producer, making EDM with the software program Ableton on his MacBook Pro. Partnering up, they settled on a division of labor that persists today: Pall is something like the A&R man, he says, finding guest singers for their tracks and helping to steer Taggart's aesthetic. "Alex listens to so much music, so when I play stuff, he'll be like, 'That's fresh,' or 'That's not fresh,'" Taggart says. Pall says he hears about 300 new songs a day. He'll fire up a SoundCloud track, listen to a few seconds, skip ahead 30 seconds, then move on. "I can tell really quickly if it's any good," he says. He keeps running lists on his computer – influential bloggers and their tastes; fledgling singers. He says that the latter list, which he's been compiling for several years, "had people like Halsey and Tove Lo on it way before anyone really knew who they were." The duo like collaborating with undervalued talent, which jibes with their "disruption" ethos. When Rihanna rejected their demo for the song "Don't Let Me Down," it was OK, Pall says, "because young unknown artists have this hunger – they're willing to work really hard." They put out the track with up-and-comer Daya, and it went to Number Three.

The Chainsmokers are more ambivalent about their breakthrough 2014 hit, "#Selfie," a deeply goofy house track that heavy-handedly pokes fun at social-media-era self-obsession. It earned them a major-label deal and introduced them to the world as a novelty act. Today, they leave the song out of their sets. "No one is like, '"#Selfie" is my favorite song,'" Pall says. "But it taught us so much about the music business and ourselves – what type of artists we wanted to be." He acknowledges early "missteps," such as an appearance on American Idol, playing the track while snapping pics with Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. – a stunt Pall concedes was "just lame," and which inspired resentment from other dance acts. Most prominent was Deadmau5, who tweeted, "The only thing @TheChainsmokers and pop EDM have in common is probably cancer." Taggart, who says Deadmau5 was one of his heroes, was hurt. "It was the first time anyone cared enough to shit on us," he says. "At that point, I fell out of love with his music. Now his brand is less about his music and more about his personality, which is being a dick."

For all their success, the duo still talk about fellow musicians with the ardor – and candor – of fans. They envy acts with fully realized aesthetics: Twenty One Pilots, Stromae, Die Antwoord. At the steakhouse, a label rep asks what they think about Lady Gaga's single "Perfect Illusion." "It sucks," Pall says. Taggart, more diplomatic, says, "She's a great artist – like, Jeff Koons made a sculpture of her.  . . ."

"I agree," Pall says. "And a lot of talented people worked on that song. But  . . ." he trails off, scrunching up his nose like something's gone rancid on the seafood tower.

They're booked on a 9:57 p.m. Delta flight back to L.A., so we head to the airport. The Chainsmokers fly private extremely sparingly, they say – this connects to their awareness that pop dominance isn't guaranteed to last. "I was once in the last row of a flight and Dame Dash came and sat in the middle seat!" Pall says. "I was like, 'Dude, last time I saw you, you were throwing money in a girl's face in a video. What happened?'"

They take their coach seats and withdraw. It's important to give each other space. "We met in order to work together, but we've gotten close," Pall says. "We've fought like, one time, in Mexico, about I don't remember what. We'd just been at a strip club and we beat each other up in the back of a cab. We have a photo we took of ourselves all bloody afterward! It was just a moment of tequila-driven madness." He adds, "When we both moved to L.A., we were like, 'Should we get a sick house together?' And it was like, 'Let's each have this one place apart from each other.'"

The next morning, they're at their Hollywood studio, futzing with a simple marimba riff that Taggart tapped out on a MIDI keyboard, adding reverb and distortion so that it takes on a somber grandeur. "This was me basically trying to do something like 'The Scientist' by Coldplay," he says. He writes a lot on piano, and their plan for the future is to incorporate that musicianship more legibly into live shows. "We can do so much more than just DJ," Taggart says. "We look at Beyoncé and we're like, 'I want to build a live show that's talked about and respected as much as hers, or Kanye's.' We want to add performance elements."

"Like, if Drew wants to do an a cappella version of  'Closer,' he could," Pall says.

"And we want to add, like, musical-theater elements," Taggart notes.

"We definitely have a plan," Pall says.

They know it'll take a lot of work, and a lot of luck – but, dude, if they can pull it off? It'll be so sick!